Youth-Party Relations in the Communist Youth International

Lessons from History

From Young Spartacist, No. 21, January-February 1974

The question of youth-party relations is an important aspect of Leninist organizational traditions. Many of those socialist youth sections that operated autonomously from the Social-Democratic Parties became pro-Bolshevik in WWI and the nuclei for the European Communist Parties. The heated discussion that took place later in the Communist Youth International over youth-party relations brought into question the basic Leninist conception of the vanguard party. Most of this history is today ignored by ostensibly revolutionary youth organizations like the Workers League’s Young Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party’s Young Socialist Alliance because they stand in the tradition of Stalinist or social-democratic conceptions of youth work, unlike the RCY, which stands in the Leninist tradition.

In August 1914 the majorities of the major Western European Social Democratic Parties capitulated to pro-war sentiment, national chauvinism, and the pressures of their respective bourgeoisies. They pledged themselves to national defense, support of the imperialist war—and ultimately joined bourgeois governments. The statements of internationalism and commitments to the struggle against war— from the Amsterdam Conference of 1904 to the Basle Conference of 1912—became a dead letter. However, despite the capitulation of the party leaderships, a significant section of the loosely organized socialist youth retained an internationalist position. Threatened most directly by the imperialist war—for which they were the intended cannon fodder—and maintaining a revolutionary élan foreign to the bureaucracies in countries like Germany, France and Belgium, many sections of the youth refused to accept the Burgfrieden (social peace in a "beleaguered fortress") of the Eberts, Vanderveldes and Guesdes, as well as rejecting the ineffectual petty-bourgeois pacifism of Kautsky, who complained that "the International is founded for the purpose of peace and not for wartime."

This anti-war stance was not universal among the socialist youth. Major sections remained loyal to their reformist organizations—and thus tied themselves to their own imperialist bourgeoisies. Ludwig Frank of the South German Youth Guard became a model and martyr for the German social-patriotic youth by volunteering for the Kaiser’s army, and falling promptly on a French battlefield. The Austrian youth under Dannenberg accepted the Kautskyist stance of passive opposition to the war—and the suspension of internationalism for the duration. (Dannenberg hung a black-bordered sign on the door of the Youth Bureau in Vienna which read, "Temporarily closed on account of war.") But significant sections of the youth did not capitulate.

The political differentiation among the European youth groups can at least partially be laid to differences in historical development. The first socialist youth organization, the Belgian Young Guards (formed in 1886) was formed independently of the Social Democrats, for basically political motives, i.e., the desire to engage in anti-militarist agitation and propaganda.

The socialist youth groups formed in Sweden (1895), Switzerland (1900), Italy (1901), Norway (1902), Spain (1903) and southern Germany (1904) were based on the Belgian model—they were highly political and independent from the adult parties. The youth groups formed in Austria (1894) and northern Germany (1904-05) were concerned, primarily with improving the economic position of young workers and with raising their living standards. The youth organizations formed after 1907, as in Holland, France and the united youth organization in Germany (following Liebknecht’s arrest and removal from the southern German youth leadership by the Social-Democratic Party leadership) were based more on the less political Austrian model than on the Belgian one. The youth groups formed for economic reasons were usually formed and controlled by the socialist parties. During WWI, the youth organizations based on the Belgian model in general upheld their opposition to imperialist war and commitment to internationalism while the German and Austrian youth caved in to social chauvinism along with their parent parties.

The Berne Conference, 1915

After a process of regroupment, led initially by the Swiss, Italian, Swedish and Norwegian youth organizations, the oppositional youth called the first international conference since the outbreak of the war—at Berne, Switzerland from 4-6 April 1915.

The Berne conference represented a confusion of centrist and revolutionary political tendencies, and like the Zimmerwald conference which followed it, its resolution was tainted by social pacifism, i.e., the dominance of pacifist anti-war perspectives over a class-struggle approach. The cutting edge of the difference between the centrists and the left (the Bolsheviks) at the Zimmerwald conference was Lenin’s slogan, "Turn the Imperialist War into a Civil War," whose concrete and immediate agitational demands were for the anti-war general strike and socialist propaganda in the army.

The Berne conference was a step forward of considerable significance. It represented a reaffirmation of internationalism in the face of nationalist war sentiment. It rejected the class collaboration of the social-democratic majorities; and, most significantly, it broke relations with the Bureau of the Second International, which, as Rosa Luxemburg was to remark, had become a "rotting corpse." Further, it established a new bureau of the Youth International, under the leadership of the left-wing German-Swiss, Willi Munzenberg. The Bolshevik organization, intervening in the conference, argued for the position of revolutionary defeatism. (Early on, the Bolshevik delegation had walked out over a dispute on the allotment of votes, but returned on the insistence of Lenin, who wanted to lose no chance of influencing the left-wing socialist youth towards a consistently revolutionary position.) Although the Bolshevik position was not accepted by the conference, it had considerable impact on the young militants.

The conference also established the publication of Die Jugendinternationale (The Youth International), which was to appear for the next three years and carry many articles by the representatives of the revolutionary left. The early issues of The Youth International showed the same political confusion as had characterized the Berne conference, carrying articles by pacifist reformists like Bernstein, as well as articles representing the centrists and the revolutionary left. Setting the tone, however, was the major article by Karl Liebknecht in the first two issues. Liebknecht’s article, "Antimilitarismus," was an impassioned indictment of the war: the militarization of state and factory as well as barracks and trenches; the lies of the imperialists, pandering Illusions of self-determination and self-defense. It was also a call for bitter and decisive opposition on all levels, for the class unity of the proletariat against the war—and for a new, revolutionary international. Although not the only voice raised in the early Youth International, it was the clearest, and soon dominated the rest.

Writing of The Youth International in December 1916, Lenin heralded its struggle for proletarian internationalism:

"With this state of affairs in Europe [the betrayal of the major social democracies], there falls on the League of Socialist Youth Organizations the tremendous, grateful but difficult task of fighting for revolutionary internationalism, for true socialism and against the prevailing opportunism which has deserted to the side of the imperialist bourgeoisie. The Youth International has published a number of good articles in defense of revolutionary internationalism, and the magazine as a whole is permeated with a fine spirit of intense hatred for the betrayers of socialism, the ‘defenders of the fatherland’ in the present war, and with an earnest desire to wipe out the corroding influence of chauvinism and opportunism in the international labor movement."
—Lenin, Works, Vol. 23, p. 163-64.

Lenin did not minimize the political differences lying between the Bolsheviks and the youth leagues and noted their lack of theoretical clarity, but he stressed the difference between this political unclarity and the betrayal of the hardened opportunists:

"Adults who lay claim to lead and teach the proletariat, but actually mislead it, are one thing: against such people a ruthless struggle must be waged. Organizations of youth, however, which openly declare that they are still learning, that their main task is to train party workers for the socialist parties, are quite another thing. We must be patient with their faults and strive to correct them gradually, mainly by persuasion, and not by fighting them."
Works, Vol. 23, p. 164

Lenin strongly recommended the publication to the attention of Bolshevik cadre.

Lenin Calls for Independence of European Youth Groups

During this period, Lenin called for the "complete independence" of the European youth leagues, while reserving the right of "complete freedom of comradely criticism of their errors" (Works, Vol. 23, p. 64). This position must be viewed in its historical context. Because of the egregious betrayal of the Social Democracy, the first duty of revolutionaries had to be the separation of the proletarian internationalist elements from the "rotting corpse" of the Second International. It was impermissible to accept responsibility for the social chauvinists through the disciplined acceptance of their policies. In the major combatant countries of Western Europe there existed no revolutionary parties (with the exception of revolutionary propaganda groups like the Spartacus League and the Bremen Left in Germany). The discipline of a revolutionary is to the revolutionary movement, its principles and program—and to organizations which embody that program and continuity.

Subordination of the youth leagues to the social chauvinist leaders of the major European parties (with the exception of the Bolsheviks) meant their subjugation to the barracks discipline of their respective imperialist bourgeoisies. Thus Lenin hailed Liebknecht's vote against war credits in the German Reichstag as an act of discipline towards the revolution, although it represented a breach of the formal discipline of the German Social-Democratic Party.

The position of the revolutionary youth was a difficult one. They were forced to substitute themselves to a considerable degree for ‘revolutionary’ parties which did not exist. Substitute, because they generally lacked the experience and political clarity to become such parties themselves, although they helped to provide the nuclei of such parties in the period after 1917. Their "complete independence" was not a virtue in itself—quite the reverse—it was a byproduct of the Second International's betrayal of its leading role in the proletariat. Thus Liebknecht participated in the illegal conference of the oppositional German socialist youth in Jena, on 23-24 April 1916, and wrote the major political document of the conference, "The Tasks of the Proletarian Youth Movement." The document itself was a model of revolutionary fervor and called for "the proletarian youth movement to struggle against the war with all forces and all means, and to utilize the conditions created [by the war] to accelerate the collapse of capitalist class rule" (Liebknecht, Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, VIII, p. 609).

But such cadre were in desperately short supply, and Liebknecht himself was arrested barely a week after the conference (for his call for revolutionary defeatism during the May 1st workers demonstration in Berlin). He remained imprisoned until the November revolution in 1918, and his guiding influence was thus lost to the German—and international—socialist youth for most of the duration of the war.

In the uprisings and revolutions following the October Revolution—in Berlin, Munich, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere—the socialist youth, like the proletariat as a whole, paid a bitter price for the non-existence of experienced and hardened revolutionary parties. But the lack of revolutionary leadership was least of all attributable to the oppositional youth leagues, of whom Liebknecht wrote:

"Its ranks were decimated, its leaders sent to the trenches, imprisoned in ‘protective custody,’ jail and prison. Class justice raged more mercilessly over them than upon the adults, and swept away many a warm young life to the hecatombs of slaughter. The free [oppositional socialist] youth, however, remained undaunted, and defied their enemies."
Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, VIII, p. 609

Formation of the Communist Youth International

This bitter experience and the Socialist youth’s increasing understanding of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary program and analysis of the Second International’s collapse led to a coming together, of the European youth and the Russian Communist youth. On 20 November 1919, in the back room of a beer hall In Berlin, guarded by sentinels and pickets of the Berlin youth, the first Congress of the Communist Youth International (CYI) was held. There were present delegates from 12 countries, representing 200,000-300,000 members when the congress was called to order by Willi Munzenberg—recently released from prison. (By 1921, according to Munzenberg’s estimate, the number of affiliated sections rose to 15, with a membership of approximately 800,000.)

However, for some time the nature of the relationship of the CYI to the Communist International (CI) remained undefined. On 20 November 1920, the Russian Young Communist League proposed to the Executive Committee of the CYI the codification of youth-party relations as "political subordination and organizational independence." The majorities of other youth leagues, however, mindful of their recent experience with the betrayal of the Second International, were at first unwilling to accept such a relationship. They had generalized the conjunctural historical role they had played into a conception of an inherently vanguard role for the youth, or, at least, a political watchdog role for the youth in relation to the party.

It was not until the Second Congress of the CYI that the formula supported by the Russian League was adopted. The Congress began on 6 April in Jena (where the conference of the German oppositional youth had taken place in 1916), but was moved on 10 April for security reasons to Berlin. Finally, on the instruction of the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI), the CYI Congress "continued" in Moscow from 9-23 June, immediately preceding the Third Congress of the CI.

The political struggle was sharp, both over youth-party relations and the "theory of the revolutionary offensive," the position of the left in the CI itself (grouped around Bela Kun, Maslow and Fischer), which was initially supported by the majority of the youth. This conception failed to recognize the relative capitalist restabilization which had ensued after the defeats of the 1918-20 period, and contended that continued frontal assault of the proletarian forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of world capitalism.

CI Resolution on Youth-Party Relations

The questions of "political subordination" and "the revolutionary offensive" were linked, since acceptance of the political supremacy of the CI meant disciplined acceptance of the tactics of regroupment and the united front, the laborious "winning of the masses" demanded by the CI leadership around Lenin and Trotsky. The political debate over the question in the CI itself was to prove very heated, with a large minority supporting the "lefts," and Lenin and Trotsky winning a majority only after a long struggle. The position of the Bolshevik majority and the Russian youth league, however, finally carried the conference. At the Third Congress of the CI, from 22 June to 12 July 1921, the following resolution on youth-party relations was accepted:

"The relation of Communist Youth Organizations to the Communist Parties is fundamentally different from that of the revolutionary youth organizations to the social democratic parties. In the common struggle for the quick accomplishment of the proletarian revolution the greatest unity and strictest centralization is necessary. The political direction and leadership can lie internationally only with the CI, and in the individual countries only with the national sections. It is the duty of the CYO’s to subordinate themselves to this political direction (program, tactics and political directives), and to integrate themselves into the common revolutionary front… The CYO’s, which have begun to organize their own ranks on the principles of the strictest centralization, will exercise iron discipline towards the CI as bearer and leader of the proletarian revolution. The CYO’s shall occupy themselves within its organizations with all political and tactical questions, will take a position, and work for these resolutions within, but never against, the CP of their country. In cases of serious differences of opinion between the CP’s and CYO’s the right of appeal to the ECCI (Executive Committee of the Communist International) shall be utilized. The surrender of their political independence means under no circumstances the renunciation of their organizational independence, which is indispensable on educational grounds."
Resolution on the Communist International and the Communist Youth Movement

The political subordination of the youth to the party flows from the principle of discipline towards the revolutionary movement, and in the concrete instance the recognition that the CI was the bearer of revolutionary continuity and the revolutionary program. The CI Resolution placed the relationship of youth and party clearly in historical and political context:

"In some countries where the building of the communist parties is still in progress and the youth have just split from the Social Patriot and Centrist parties the slogan of absolute political and organizational independence of the youth movement dominates, and in this situation this slogan is objectively revolutionary. The slogan of absolute independence is wrong in those countries where strong Communist parties already exist and where the slogan of absolute independence is used by the Social Patriots and Centrists for misleading the youth against the communist youth organization. In these cases, the communist youth organization follows the program of the communist party."
—quoted in Richard Cornell, The Origins and Development of the Communist Youth International, 1914-1924 (PhD thesis), p. 316

The Danger of Dual Vanguardism

Whereas it was indispensable for the revolutionary youth organizations in WWI to separate themselves politically from the treacherous and class collaborationist leadership of the Second International, and struggle to develop and implement a revolutionary program, so conversely it was necessary for the youth to subordinate itself to a truly revolutionary international—which genuinely embodied the program of proletarian revolution. To do otherwise would be to engage in dual vanguardism—in the last analysis to challenge the International for the leadership of the class. The CI resolution is quite explicit:

"With the formation of the CI and the CP’s in the individual countries, the role of the proletarian youth organizations changes within the common proletarian movement. The continued existence of the CYO’s as politically independent and leading organizations would lead to the formation of two competing communist parties, differentiated merely by the age of their members."

The recognition of the necessity of one vanguard, as the consistent revolutionary leadership of the proletariat, and the necessity of this role lying with the most tested, experienced and capable proletarian revolutionaries—i.e., with the CI and the communist parties, also implies the imperative of political differences being fought out internally, should they arise between party and youth. The youth must enjoy full rights of political discussion within its own ranks, and the possibility of influencing the party through its representatives. Conversely, the party must have the opportunity of exercising its guidance at all times upon the youth, of aiding the political maturation of the youth cadre, and maintaining its revolutionary orientation. Should a serious political difference develop, it is imperative that there be channels for its internal political resolution (thus, the right of appeal first to the Executive Committee of the CYI, then to the ECCI and finally to the World Congresses as the highest bodies of the common movement). The party is the concentrated subjective element of the proletarian revolution, and where principled agreement exists no breach is legitimate unless all avenues of internal discussion have been exhausted. Ultimately, of course, the final arbiter of any deep-going dispute is history—and its motor force, the class struggle—thus no organizational mechanism can guarantee that schisms will not develop. However, a split within the revolutionary vanguard—especially between party and youth, where it implies a terrible break in continuity—can only be justified by a deep-going principled counterposition. This was precisely the case with the Second International after 1914, but such an eventuality can only be considered as a last resort.

In order to provide for the requisite reciprocal political influence, the CI resolved:

"The close political co-operation of the CYO’s with the CP’s must also be expressed in a firm organizational connection between the organizations. A constant reciprocal representation of the organization and party leaderships, from the regional, district and local organizations down to the cells of the communist groups in industry and in the unions, as well as a strong reciprocal representation at all conferences and congresses is unconditionally required. In this way it will be possible for the CP’s to continually influence the political line and activity of the youth, and, on the other hand, for the youth to exercise an effective influence on the party."

Importance of Organizational Independence for the Youth

The political subordination of the youth to the party—the proletarian vanguard—does not, however, invalidate the need for organizational independence for the youth. Lenin had outlined the reasons for this organizational independence long before the Third Comintern Congress, in his review of The Youth International:

"…the youth must of necessity advance to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, in other circumstances than their fathers. Incidentally, that is why we must decidedly favor organizational independence of the Youth League, not only because the opportunists fear such independence, but because of the very nature of the case. For unless they have complete independence, the youth will be unable either to train good socialists from their midst or prepare themselves to lead socialism forward."
Works, Vol. 23, p. 164

Each generation faces a unique conjuncture of problems and tasks, which lead by different routes to the development of communist consciousness. While the fundamental causes are essentially identical (the contradictions of a capitalism which has outlived its progressiveness) the unique character of the process for each generation must be recognized and an organizationally flexible context provided for the development of creative revolutionary response. Although the youth needs the guidance of the party, it also needs to develop the initiative, judgment and political experience of its own leadership and cadre, and to do so vis-à-vis the specific problems facing the youth as a specially oppressed group within capitalist society. The primary educative mechanism of the youth is in its own experience of the class struggle.

Posted: 18 June 2005