The Spartacus Youth League and the Student Upsurge of the 1930’s

Lessons from History

From Young Spartacus No. 22, March-April 1974

The Lessons from History series has in the past included articles on the early years of the Communist Youth International and the development of a "Resolution on the Youth" at the founding Conference of the Fourth International. This article on the Spartacus Youth League, the first Trotskyist youth organization in the U.S., focuses on the SYL’s internal debates over a correct orientation to students and on the main aspect of its student work, namely, its intervention in the anti-war student movement, counterposing the Leninist slogans against imperialist war to the predominating petty-bourgeois pacifism and social patriotism.

Today, student groups like the Maoist Revolutionary Union-dominated Attica Brigade and Progressive Labor’s SDS are organized along the same reformist, student-parochialist conceptions as the Stalinist National Student League of the 1930’s. So-called "socialist youth organizations" like the Socialist Workers Party’s Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) made themselves infamous by their consistent petty-bourgeois, single-issue reformism on the Vietnam War. Such anti-Leninist youth work is nothing new; rather, it is the heritage of the Stalinist degeneration of the Third International.

The new recruits to the Attica Brigade, YSA and SDS may not be familiar with the historical traditions of these aspects of youth work and are not aware that old mistakes are being repeated and old betrayals consciously rerun. An examination of these issues in the crisis years of the 1930’s sheds light on current differences between left-wing youth and student organizations.

The development of the Spartacus Youth League (SYL) took place in the context of a growing radical student movement, dominated politically by the National Student League (NSL), which was led by the Stalinist Young Communist League (YCL).

The YCL was changing rapidly in response to events in American society (the Depression, New Deal, renewed militancy in the working class and preparations for imperialist war) and internationally (the further political degeneration of the Soviet Union and the rise of fascism in Germany). The YCL, under the control of the Communist Party, subservient to the dictates of the Soviet bureaucracy, entered a period of crisis in the mid-thirties, losing members and influence, as the line of the sectarian "third period" was abruptly changed to the policy of the People’s Front.

The Stalinist youth liquidated all remnants of independent working-class politics in their program and gave uncritical support to the multi-class American Student Union and American Youth Congress (with the emphasis on the American!), leading them on to the football field to wave pompons and cheer for Roosevelt as he prepared another slaughter for the American workers.

The radical student movement of the early 1930’s, with an even greater percentage of students involved than the protest movements of the 1960’s, was the main battlefield in the political war between the left-wing youth organizations. The sporadic anti-ROTC campaigns and expressions of discontent in 1931 soon developed into a wave of militancy which expressed itself in numerous anti-ROTC and anti-war rallies, conferences on unemployment, fascism and the crisis in education caused by the Depression, and widespread support for striking workers.

In the period since WWI, the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), a bloc of the social-democratic Young People’s Socialist League (who formed its leadership) with liberal Christian "socialists," had been the dominant leftist group on the campuses, while the Young Workers League (previous name of the YCL) had concentrated on work among the young proletariat. The SLID in 1931 was an exhausted and demoralized organization with no enthusiasm to greet the outburst of campus radicalism.

National Student League

The SLID never gained the influence or numbers of the early-thirties National Student League (NSL), the dominant left-wing campus organization throughout this period. The NSL began as a YCL-led split from the SLID in September 1931, a split based on the "third period" line that social democrats were social fascists and on the Stalinists’ organizational appetite for a youth group of their own.

Centered in New York City, the group at first called itself the New York Student League, but the rapid gain in national membership soon justified a name change to National Student League. Publication of a monthly magazine, the Student Review, was begun in December 1931.

At that time the Trotskyist movement held that the Communist Parties were susceptible to reform from within. Consistent with this political orientation, the young Trotskyists considered themselves to be part of the YCL. At first organized into Spartacus Youth Clubs (SYC), sympathizing circles of the Communist League of America (CLA), the young Trotskyists concentrated on education of their membership and periphery in the historical lessons of Marxism and on intervention into YCL activities.

The SYC attempted to introduce resolutions in defense of a revolutionary perspective at YCL meetings and conferences, called on young militants to join the YCL, encouraged Trotskyist sympathizers to remain within the YCL to seek to win over the organization as a whole to Trotskyism, and themselves sought readmission to the organization, from which Trotskyists had been expelled in 1928. The Young Spartacans defended the YCL politically against the YPSL which at that time criticized the Soviet Union from the right and had not even partially broken with the betrayals of the Second International.

Young Spartacus and the Student Movement

The first volume of the paper circulated by the SYC, Young Spartacus, published by the National Youth Committee of the Communist League of America, reflected this strong orientation to the YCL, correct for that period. A real weakness, however, of the early Young Spartacus was a failure to recognize the political importance of certain student protest actions, which it either ignored or gave brief and routine press coverage.

The first two issues contained nothing about the vital and expanding student movement but a one-column editorial which gave a formally correct but abstract analysis of the student’s role in the revolutionary movement. The initial events surrounding the rise of the NSL to popularity such as the student delegation to Harlan County, Kentucky, to demonstrate support for the striking miners and the Columbia University strike in support of expelled liberal student editor Reed Harris, merited only short articles in back pages of Young Spartacus.

With the turning of the YCL more and more to the student arena, however, and the growth of a tremendous anti-war movement within that arena, the Young Spartacus began to devote more space to the student movement, and soon began to publish a monthly column called "Student Notes." The last issue of the paper (December 1935) was devoted exclusively to discussion of the issues surrounding the reunification of the NSL and SLID to form the American Student Union.

The orientation to the student movement necessitated more than just an abstract, formally correct understanding of the student question. Several debates on this question took place in the SYL, reflecting problems experienced in the arena.

Development of Leninist Position on Student Work

While favoring work among students, the SYL held the correct position that separate student self-interest organizations were necessarily reformist dead-ends and that it was not the task of communists to organize front groups for student "economism." Students are a socially heterogeneous group lacking the concentrated social power of the proletariat, which can stop capitalist production by withholding its labor. Therefore students are incapable of playing an independent or consistent political role or of posing a serious threat to the power of the capitalists.

While subordinate to the party’s main work in the class, an orientation by the youth group to students is, however, important in the construction of a vanguard party as—and this was the case in the 1930’s—the student movement, is frequently the arena, for ideological debates within the left. Student work can thus be an important component of the splits, fusions and regroupments that lead to the crystallization of a vanguard nucleus. In the longer view, it will be important in defeating the forces of capitalist reaction to win as large a section of the politically volatile student population as possible, as well as other non-working-class layers, to identify their interests with those of the proletariat.

The SYL sought to build a Leninist youth group which included both students and young workers and to focus its intervention in the student movement on the need to link up with working-class struggles through the class’s political leadership, namely, a Leninist vanguard party. This did not preclude entry or intervention into existing student organizations when principled and tactically advisable. In fact, such work was vital to the growth of the SYL.

Leftism and Rightism on the Student Question

Having overcome its early tendency to abstain from student work, the SYL initially adopted a correct tactical orientation of entry into the NSL with the goal of winning its majority to revolutionary politics. This tactic was arrived at after an internal debate in which sectarian workerist elements advocating a principle of non-entry were defeated.

Nevertheless, a tendency toward sectarianism continued to manifest itself in certain areas of student work, for example, in the SYL’s orientation to the Oxford Pledge movement. This movement originated at Oxford University when the student union voted that "This House will not fight for King and Country in any war." The pledge was picked up by students in other countries, including the U.S., where it was generalized to declarations of refusal to fight for "our government" in any war.

The SYL, correctly noting the pacifist content of the Pledge and narrow, student character of the movement, concluded that a posture of hostility and organizational abstention was therefore appropriate. They thereby cut themselves off from a layer of potential recruits who, while entertaining pacifist illusions, were also motivated by anti-patriotic, implicitly internationalist sentiments (and the movement did take on an international character, at least organizationally). This anti-patriotic sentiment was evident in the declarations’ insistent opposition to participation by "our government" (or "our King and Country") in any war, rather than a general statement of opposition to war.

The retention of the Oxford Pledge became a polarizing issue in the antiwar student movement of the late 1930’s when the social pressures to be patriotic were increasingly felt. The Stalinists opposed the Pledge while the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League-Fourth Internationalist (SYL’s successor) argued for its retention, capitalizing on its anti-patriotic, internationalist implications, opposing pacifist interpretations of it, and fighting to link it to anti-imperialist, revolutionary class-struggle demands.

Following the debate in the SYL over a general orientation to students, a rightist minority emerged, advocating abstractly the formation of a national "militant mass student movement" that would be anti-fascist, anti-militarist and anti-imperialist and would "take up the struggles of the students around student issues" (Young Spartacus supplement, October 1934). This centrist formulation failed to put forward a positive socialist program, and instead defined the organization through negatives and as narrowly studentist. It was strikingly similar to Progressive Labor’s 1969 program for SDS (which has since moved from centrism to reformism pure and simple) and the Revolutionary Union’s current program for the Attica Brigade.

The SYL majority counterposed to this the Leninist conception:

"An organization which aims to educate the students in the character of the class struggle, and the duties which result from it can only do so on the basis of a clear program, a communist program. Clarity, which is always essential, is doubly so where different class elements are involved…. organizations, which, like the NSL, move in the direction of organizing the students solely on the problems of the student issues, are…. intolerable. A left-wing group must take sides for and against each of the classes that comprise society. A union, and the NSL contemplates a union, is predicated upon a unity of interests. That unity does not exist among the students; for, they contain representatives of all classes."
—Young Spartacus supplement, October 1934

NSL’s Turn to Popular Frontism

While the rightist minority position was rejected at the SYL Founding Conference, a certain tendency to tail-end the NSL had developed. By 1935, the yearly NSL-led anti-war student strikes had become formations identical to the Socialist Workers Party’s National Peace Action Coalition of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s: subordination of revolutionary politics for the sake of the "movement."

This development coincided with the Stalinists’ turn away from "third period" sectarianism towards the class collaboration of the popular front. The seeds for the capitulation to social patriotism were planted in the "third period," when the Stalinist parties, while following in the main a sectarian policy, zigzagged off into classless "anti-war" actions under the pressure of their role as defenders of the Soviet bureaucracy abroad.

Thus the Stalinists endorsed the infamous 1932 Amsterdam Conference dominated by the wretched politics of the pacifist literary figure Henri Barbusse. Barbusse’s document, which was passed at the Conference, failed to distinguish between reactionary wars of imperialism and revolutionary wars of the proletariat against capitalism. Trotsky denounced the Communist International’s (CI) behavior at the Conference as "monstrous, capitulatory, and criminal crawling of official communism before petty-bourgeois pacifism" ("Declaration to the Antiwar Congress at Amsterdam," Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1932). The Trotskyists’ resolution calling on the Communist International to organize an international anti-war congress of all labor organizations to plan a united front action on a concrete program against war could not even obtain a vote and they were heckled and prevented from getting the floor.

The Stalinists’ pacifism blossomed into open social patriotism in the popular-front period. In the NSL the formerly sectarian and crude but pro-working-class line was totally abandoned in favor of pacifism and social patriotism; the SYL should have recognized this as a qualitative degeneration into a hardened reformism and left the NSL, attempting to take with it any remaining subjectively revolutionary elements.

Instead, the SYL continued to conceive of itself as a left pressure group within the NSL, making formally correct political statements about the NSL’s pacifist anti-war activities, but characterizing such activities as "errors made by the National Student Strike Committee [of the NSL]… [For example,] the failure to include working class youth organizations in the strike committee…. The second error was to allow for unclarity [by omitting] the slogan ‘against imperialist war’…. In certain instances, notably CCNY and New York University, the SYL forced the use of the word ‘imperialist’" (Young Spartacus, May 1935).

The SYL should have denounced the conscious capitulation to the bourgeoisie that these politics represented, rather than creating the illusion of good-willed, but incompetent, opponents of imperialist war. Thus, while the SYL organized support for the anti-war strikes around Leninist slogans, its failure to counterpose itself clearly to the Stalinist NSL undercut its work.

Nevertheless, the SYL continued to recruit from the YCL and its periphery. In Chicago particularly, where several vigorous and active SYL chapters existed, a small but steady trickle sided with the Young Spartacans. The NSL grew so desperate that it attempted to pass a motion barring "Trotskyites" from membership. YCL members attacked SYLers at an NSL meeting against war; Spartacus leader Nathan Gould was attacked by YCLers when attempting to distribute a leaflet, and YCLers issued threats of violence if the Trotskyists did not cease to speak to their members. Such thuggery was the Stalinists’ only "defense" against the SYL’s revolutionary criticism of YCL capitulation. This desperation grew so intense that the Chicago NSL dissolved the organization rather than allow two SYLers to join!

American Youth Congress

This motion from crude pro-working-class radicalism to alliance with the bourgeoisie was repeated in the American Youth Congress (AYC). In August 1934 a Roosevelt supporter by the name of Viola Ilma called upon all youth organizations to "convene and discuss the problems confronting the young people of this country." At the first convention, there was a split between the Ilmaites and the left (predominantly the YCL and YPSL); Ilma withdrew from the Congress, leaving the YCL, YPSL, YMCA-YWCA, the Boy Scouts and a few church organizations.

Despite the protests of the YCL, the SYL was present, although it correctly refused to endorse or join this wretched front for American bourgeois interests in the growing imperialist antagonisms. At the same time, the SYL maintained an active intervention into AYC meetings, sharply counterposing revolutionary class-struggle dethands to the AYC’s class collaborationism.

The AYC adopted a vague program of protest, pointing out the social problems of unemployment, transiency and militarization suffered by American youth. The second Congress, held in January 1935, had no agenda point for discussion. More vague resolutions were adopted—to be brought to Roosevelt and members of the U.S. Congress. Young Spartacus printed a scathing attack on this Congress, which was a pompous facade of fake radical-sounding speeches by Norman Thomas and various liberal Congressmen about the plight of American youth. Since the Congress was a bloc of tendencies representing different classes in society, no concrete program of action that would serve all interests could be adopted; in fact, the program of the bourgeoisie predominated.

The third meeting, in Detroit in July 1935, represented an apt culmination of this motion toward impotent liberalism and moral outrage. The SYL described the meeting in the August 1935 Young Spartacus:

"The congress opened with the singing at an outdoor mass meeting, attended by 2,000, of ‘America.’ In consideration of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, ten o’clock mass was arranged at which Reverend Ward preached a delightful and most interesting sermon.

"Having completed its graduation to pacifism, the congress was no longer dignified by a reluctant opposition to IMPERIALIST war. Resolutions congruous with revolutionary spirit were supplanted entirely by the slogans of the pacifists. Thus, at last, the congress reeked from beginning to end with ‘peace.’

"The Stalinists, chief sponsors of the congress, blocked every formulation, resolution or amendment that stood to the left of the proposed program. Every resolution introduced to the right of the program was carried with passionate enthusiasm and exhilaration…. Every left or semi-left proposal was combatted by a classically opportunist argument: ‘Everybody knows that my organization is heartily in favor of that resolution. However, it must be defeated because its acceptance will narrow the congress to purely labor organizations.’"

The Stalinists thus consciously tried to prevent the drawing of the class line in the Congress.

NSL Rises to FDR’s "Challenge"

The main documents of the Congress, the American Youth Act and the Declaration of Rights of American Youth, were enthusiastically supported by the NSL. The Student Review quoted President Roosevelt’s words—"Therefore to the American youth of all Parties I Submit a Message of Confidence: Unite and Challenge!"—and reprinted the two documents in their entirety. The American Youth Act was the AYC’s version of the New Deal National Youth Administration, and demanded simply a little more money and representatives of "youth" and "education" on the administrative board of the NYA. A campaign was initiated for the passage of this act by the Congress. The Declaration of Rights of American Youth was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and was identical to it in political content. Later in the 1930’s the AYC became the ersatz New Deal youth organization.

The NSL pursued a parallel course. The 7th Congress of the CI adopted the Dimitrov Popular-Front line and extended it to the youth organizations by liquidating the Communist Youth International into the World Federation of Democratic Youth—a fusion of Stalinist and right-wing social-democratic youth groups based on a bourgeois program.

American Student Union Jamborees for ‘Democracy’

In the U.S., after four years of separation, the NSL and SLID were reunited in December 1935 to form the American Student Union (ASU). This unity was initiated by the NSL itself, in accordance with instructions from the CI that "unity at all costs of the young generation against war and fascism" was to be effected immediately. In 1938 the ASU gave up opposition to compulsory ROTC. Roosevelt’s "collective security" was adopted as the ASU line on the war question, with the feeble left cover that support for American imperialism against German fascism was necessary for defense of the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of the YCL, the ASU became a totally social-patriotic organization.

A reporter from the New Republic described a 1939 ASU convention in these words:

"… enthusiasm reached its peak at the jamboree in the huge jumbo jaialai auditorium of the Hippodrome (seating capacity 4,500) which was filled to its loftiest tier. There were a quintet of white flannelled cheerleaders, a swing band and shaggers doing the Campus Stomp (‘everybody’s doing it, ASUing it!’)—confetti. There were ASU feathers and buttons, a brief musical comedy by the Mob Theatre and pretty ushers in academic caps and gowns. All the trappings of a big game rally were present and the difference was that they were cheering, not the Crimson to beat the Blue, but Democracy to beat Reaction."

During the same period, the YCL itself liquidated its 16-year-old paper Young Worker in favor of Champion which featured articles by liberal senators, Farmer-Labor Governor Olson from Minnesota, famous for his savage attempts to crush the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and a regular "Miss America" column which gave advice to young female revolutionaries on what kinds of make-up and bathing suits to buy.

The SYL remained intransigent against the growing social chauvinism of the period, directing Leninist antiwar propaganda at students, unemployed youth and young workers:

"How do wars come about? Are they due to ‘bad politicians’?

"We International Communists do not think so. We understand that wars are the logical development of class politics. Capitalist politics have various forms the essence of which is the same: the continuation and development of the system of wage slavery, of exploitation of the many by the few….

"In such a war the working class can gain nothing by the victory of either power. They must fight to defeat their own government so that working class victory can really be the outcome of the war….

"By strikes and demonstrations, fraternization with the ‘enemy’ on the war front, the militant workers’ movement can grow until it is in a position, with the majority of toilers behind it, to turn the imperialist war into a civil war and establish a workers’ dictatorship which will suppress the former master’s class and lead the way for a classless society."
—Young Spartacus, March 1934

While remaining critical of certain tactical mistakes made by the SYL, the Revolutionary Communist Youth, youth section of the Spartacist League, holds up as a model the SYL’s conception of a correct orientation to students and its history of Leninist intervention into the student anti-war movement. An assimilation of this history is important in politically defeating reformist organizations like the Attica Brigade, the Young Socialist Alliance and SDS and winning over their serious militants to Marxism.

Posted: 18 June 2005