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Leon Trotsky 19381118 Toward a Revolutionary Youth Organization

Leon Trotsky: Toward a Revolutionary Youth Organization

November 18, 1938

[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 119-128]

Trotsky: I believe nobody can propose a concrete program and method in order to conquer the youth in this critical situation in the world and the United States. We don't have precedents. We don't have experience of this kind and we must experiment in this field. The fact that during the last year the youth organization lost almost more than a third is not a terrible catastrophe but it shows that the organization has not as yet found the necessary methods and that it must be very inventive in the future and not accuse the center every time for not giving directives. I believe this mentality is dangerous. It can be said that every people has the government which it deserves. It can be repeated about the party or the youth organization. The National Committee can only summarize the experience of the local groups. I believe it very important that the local committees of the party at least in the first period do more for the local organization of youth than the center in New York because the local conditions are the same and the adult comrades can observe the youth and without pretending to dictate to them can give good advice. I repeat, we do not have a definite program, a definite method. We must not close the doors to different propositions and in this respect we must be open.

But from a general point of view we can trace some general lines. We have proposed and now accepted at the International Congress a Transitional Program, which replaces the old minimal program of the Social Democracy and the empiricism of our national sections which from time to time invented a slogan without having a general perspective and general combination of slogans conducting to the socialist revolution. The difference between the minimal program and the Transitional Program is that the Transitional Program is an introduction to the socialist revolution. Such an introduction is necessary everywhere, especially in the United States; because the workers are charged with very bad conservative traditions, etc., and we must begin where these traditions finish and indicate the road for the socialist revolution.

But the situation with the youth is different in that the youth from one side doesn't have such heavy traditions, from the other side their situation is more terrible, more acute. I speak of the proletarian youth but the bourgeois youth also is in a terrible situation. This critical situation of the young generation and the absence of tradition, of trade union education, of democratic elections, adherence to one party or another party –these factors transformed the youth as we saw in the European experience into cannon fodder for the fascists. What does this fact show? That the youth asks for a radical solution. I believe that is a very important fact–the most important fact, that youth which is socially transformed into pariahs, which cannot have any attachment to the regime either socially or politically, which is more audacious by the very nature of youth, and which has no conservative traditions, this youth waits for a radical leadership. Who will give this leadership to the youth? We or the fascists? Yesterday I proposed semihypothetically, semiseriously, to give to the organization the name "Legion of the Socialist Revolution." I believe I did not find the necessary support. Now I repeat with more insistence. "Legion of the Socialist Revolution." It is a program. We say to the youth, "We will overthrow the existing society. We will create a new society. That is our aim." That doesn't mean we will exclude a transitional program. Youth is in a different strata, different situations. The mood of the same young worker changes. One time he is very radical, another time a bit opportunistic. In some way we must approach him, even the approach of giving a dance. But I believe that the Stalinists and fascists will dance better than we. They are richer than we and have more advantages. Our advantages are not in the field of the dance. It is in the field of socialist revolution. Better, we are the "Legion of the Socialist Revolution." Nobody can imitate us. No other party can proclaim it.

The question of legality arises. Many will say, yes, such a party can immediately fall under the law which persecutes under the guise of non-American activity. Yes, we must take this into consideration and combine legal and illegal work in this field and give to the revolutionary perspective and even to the revolutionary party a very adroit explanation in this sense: that democracy is very good; but Hague, German Nazism, Italian fascism. We must defend ourselves. We saw in Europe that as soon as the workers approached the goal, immediately big business armed the fascists. We must be ready to launch a struggle against the reaction. We must prepare ourselves for a revolution. Juridically we must prepare it not as a direct revolution against democracy but as a fight against the bad people who make it impossible for us to use the democracy for our liberation. But I repeat that is only a secondary point of view. The most important is that we are the "Legion of the Socialist Revolution."

This is not a definite proposition but I believe in this respect that we might call it also the "Legion of Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg," the three "L's." That would not be too bad for our emblem. It can form three "L's." Perhaps it is too personal. It would be necessary to explain to everybody. The "Legion of the Socialist Revolution"–I find it better. I am sure also that Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Lenin would also find it better. Of course, such an organization should have auxiliary organizations of different kinds.

Now the resolution speaks about idealism and enthusiasm against cynicism. I am not sure if it is genuine cynicism. It is often the imitated cynicism of a young man who fights for independence, who fights against the tutelage of the apparatus, etc. Possibly there are genuine cynics but if you would provoke these idealistic tendencies you must begin with these and give it in the name of the organization itself. To a young worker, to the unemployed, to a Negro, to the persecuted Jew, give him the feeling that as the persecuted, he is a member of the "Legion of the Socialist Revolution." I believe it is a very good feeling. You should express it. Why not? The first thing is a clear opinion, a very sharp expression of revolutionary aim.

The second thing is democracy. I believe democracy is very important in the organization. Why? Because democracy is perishing everywhere in the States, in the trade unions, in the old revolutionary parties. Only we can permit genuine honest democracy so that a young worker, a young student can feel he has the possibility of expressing his opinion openly without being immediately subjected to persecution. Ironical statements from someone in authority is also persecution. We can attract new members to the youth as to the party only by genuine intelligent democracy. Everybody is tired of the lack of democracy. This question is tied with the relationship between the party and the youth. It is clear that the youth cannot replace the party or duplicate the party. But that does not mean that we have the technical possibility of prohibiting the youth from trying to replace the party in every case where the youth think they find the party following a bad line. We cannot establish with one blow or with one resolution the authority of the party. We cannot create the authority for the party with one resolution. If the young comrades have two, three, five, or ten experiences proving to them that the party is more wise, more experienced, then they will become more cautious in their opposition to the party and more moderate in the forms of this opposition. Anyone who speaks in a tone of contempt to the party will immediately feel around himself a vacuum and irony of contempt and it will educate the people. But if we approach the young comrades with a general conception such as this: "Boys and girls, you acted very well against the Socialist Party because it was a bad party; but we are a good party. Don't forget it. You must not oppose us." How can you convince them with such a general conception? It is very dangerous. "You believe it is a good party, but we don't believe it!"

"Yes, we are against vanguardism insofar as it is directed against us."

Then they will answer, "You are bureaucrats, no more, no less." It is very dangerous. Theoretically it is correct like the question of discipline. Iron discipline, steel discipline, is absolutely necessary, but if the apparatus of the young party begins by demanding such iron discipline on the first day it can lose the party. It is necessary to educate confidence in the leadership of the party and the party in general because the leadership is only an expression of the party.

We can fail now in two directions. One in the direction of centralization; the other in the direction of democracy. I believe now we should exaggerate the democracy and be very, very patient with centralism in this transitional time. We must educate these people to understand the necessity of centralism. I am not sure that these losses were not to a certain degree due to the centralist impatience or lack of indulgence toward elements who had had no experience at all, who have had only the bad experience of the Socialist Party, who would breathe freely and who don't know themselves what they wish. They answer, "Now you say you will strangle us by genuine revolutionary Bolshevik methods." He is afraid and he says, "No, I will get out of the party." No, I am for democracy which can form the base for centralism, but centralism in a vacuum cannot create a democracy, it can only destroy what exists.

I believe a census of the party and youth is absolutely necessary to know what we have because the term "workers" is also very elastic; especially we must know how they are divided, by jobs, by unions, by localities, by districts, etc., and if we have a diagram before us the National Committee can act with more clarity and more feeling for opportunity.

If you have such a tendency as that of students believing they are more proper for the revolution, I am in favor of proposing every such member as a candidate. It is possible also that it would be good to introduce candidacy as a probationary period, also demotion from full membership to candidacy, especially for lack of courage, for lack of devotion. If it is clear to everybody that a member did not accomplish his obligation, especially if it is not for the first time but for the second or third time then say to this member, "You must choose, my friend, between abandoning the organization or becoming a candidate." I believe that such a candidacy can last for six months; but he can win membership again if he gains for the organization at least two young workers during the period.

I believe we should give to all students this task and this obligation that during six months they must find their place in the workers' movement; if not, they will be transformed one after the other into candidates in order to let them understand that it is a proletarian party of class struggle and not of intellectual discussions. Here we can be less indulgent in this respect.

Concerning the relations between the party and the youth. I do not know your plans about the new National Committee as you discussed it, but in order to make clear my opinion, I propose that if you have to choose a new National Committee of nineteen members do not introduce more than seven party members, less than one-half. The party members are party members. If they work in the youth we cannot give them the right to vote in the youth against the decisions of the National Committee. Of course the National Committee of the party should not commit the mistake of adopting obligatory resolutions too early, especially concerning the youth, but if such a resolution is adopted with the full understanding of the party they must vote in the sense of the party. It is absolutely clear that it is their duty to convince the other twelve and to win them for this decision. If they are defeated, the decision remains. The party cannot simply change a decision.

I also have something to say on semimilitary organization. It is good on paper but to organize it is not so easy. It is connected with the question of discipline, devotion, and so on, and so forth. The principle is correct but possibly you should proceed gradually here in the sense that you create a genuine military group through a youth militia and that nobody is obliged immediately to adhere to the youth militia and uniform and discipline. I am sure it is absolutely clear, they will be the best in learning because they have the spirit of fighters. They will become the model members of the organization and through them you can educate the others.

The uniform –it is also a question of money. Now the students are reluctant, but if it is accepted it is more easy for the students to have a uniform than for the workers. I don't know the American mores but a young unemployed worker can say, "That is not for me." If he sees the magnificent young boys well dressed and singing, etc., he can consider himself apart as a poor boy considers the cadet. It is a very important question. If it would be possible to give such a uniform to every boy who wishes to belong it might be different, but it can very well be that some workers can say, "If I enter, I will be in an inferior position." It must be considered from every point of view. An insignia is very good, a tie, an arm band, etc. It is not expensive. But a uniform, I find nothing about the material question, the money; that is a question I would like to have answered.

I would correct what I said yesterday about conspirative methods. It is not quite correct about the youth. I was told [said] yesterday that I could be understood to oppose conspirative methods in regard to correspondence, danger from the GPU, etc. I underlined one sphere, that is, our activity inside the Communist Party, inside the Communist youth, with the fascists. It is very important but not exclusive. We cannot invite our small youth to enter immediately into a fight with the joint forces of the state, fascists, GPU, etc. Nobody proposes it. But what is very necessary for a future fight is to know our enemies very well. And know them not only theoretically–that is necessary it seems to me – but also concretely. This study in your resolution is mentioned only in passing. The uniform occupies too large a place. We must underline the necessity of this–to fight such powerful forces it is necessary to know them from the point of view of scientific socialism. We must know them practically, where they are located, where are the headquarters of the Stalinists, of the Nazis, and so on. If you came into a new city, one question should be, "Show me your map, please, your general staff, with circles and pins of your town, city, of your county, of your state, of your friends and forces. For the military education it is very important. You should penetrate into every organization of the enemy and obtain exact numbers as far as possible, clippings from their papers which give an understanding of the character of their forces, aims, etc. It is the work of the general staff of the army. It should be accomplished by every local committee of the youth organization.

I would also change–Challenge is not bad, but possibly Revolution is better. But it is a secondary question. All our European sections, Belgian, France, etc., use Revolution.

Question: On the question of having the word "Revolution" as part of the name of the organization, don't you think that might serve as one excuse for deporting foreign-born members?

Gould: I don't know the legal aspect, but every organization with foreign connections must give the government its fdes, names, and is subject to thorough investigation.

I am happy that the question of the new youth organization was discussed from the point of view that we have no fixed views on the basis of past traditions, that our whole problem now is one of experimentation, of learning from the relatively modest experiences we have had in the past. But I don't think that I can agree that there is too much of a tendency to direct criticism at the center in the youth organization. That, comrades, is precisely the criticism of all of our locals and rank-and-file comrades. It is a fault that we all bear together, but it is a fact. The experience with this resolution testifies to the validity of that fact. Our whole point of view must be to give encouragement to the initiative of the locals; and the resolution stresses that at length; initiative, more autonomy to the local units. But without initiative from the center, the locals found it impossible to effect the change they all felt was needed and it was only with the directives from the center that they began to "function. If one could have witnessed the functioning of the center for the past year one would not hesitate in criticizing it sharply.

Unless they criticize, we are going to witness a repetition of the experience of the past.

On the name of the organization, again, I do not think that I can agree with it. I don't have a definitive opinion on it, but I will certainly give it much more consideration. But I don't think that the name "Legion of the Socialist Revolution" would be attractive to the American youth. I don't think it will convey to them what we want to convey. It will convey a program, but it will immediately be colored with qualities which American youth will consider foreign. That is my impression; that is my opinion. I think we must find a name which also represents a program, which characterizes the revolutionary character of our movement, the boldness, the determination of that movement; but it must be a name which will be acceptable to the youth. However, I will propose this name at the convention and we will let the delegates decide on it. We will let the delegates discuss it and decide upon it, not as my own, but as one of the names suggested, unless, of course, I agree with it. It is best to let the delegates discuss and decide the question. Also, I agree with Comrade Trotsky that the Stalinists and fascists can dance better than us and outdo us in the wearing apparel, because they have much greater resources and the resolution makes that point well. What they can not give to the youth, what only we can give to the youth is the revolutionary program and the struggle for the revolutionary program which will win the youth. Other aspects are external expressions of the fighting character of the organization.

Now on the question of the National Committee composed of not more than seven comrades who are members of the party. As Comrade Crux says himself, again theoretically that is as it should be; but institute that method today, that procedure tomorrow, and you will have no leadership, because all the advanced cadres are members of the party. You ask any comrade here from any section who the leaders of the youth are; they are members of the party. That is because the youth organization is not ideal, but the most advanced members are members of the party. Likewise there is a provision in the resolution that all members of the youth organization past the age of twenty-one shall be sent out of the youth organization into the party. Ideologically that is correct and eventually it will be carried out. Put it into practice tomorrow and I don't think that it will be fruitful to the organization. It must be done gradually, and the same is true about the National Committee.

The question of the money for the uniform is a very important point. Incidentally, the resolution does not call for a complete uniform with breeches, boots, etc., but a very simple uniform: shirt, tie, cap, etc., which is not only accessible, but is accepted very enthusiastically by the youth and is within the reach financially of the average youth, blue shirt, red tie – the tie, 10$; the shirt between 50$ and $1.00; the hat, 15$ or 20$. But we have always had the custom insofar as our experience is concerned that where a comrade is incapable of purchasing them himself, the organization collectively purchases them. From a monetary point of view it is entirely realistic.

And finally the question of education. True, the resolution glances right over it. Not only on this but on all questions. You have the program of action, which goes into great detail on the ways in which this resolution will be carried into effect, suggesting concrete ways and means of carrying it into effect. Our youth organization needs education very badly. And one of the most important sections of the program of action is the section on education as I indicated. And the future organization proposes to give it to them.

Trotsky: "We are not a youth organization; we are a party organization." Then I propose that we remove the party bureaucrats from the National Committee and call fresh elements of youth to the National Committee. "No! No! No! That is dangerous. The possibility of the youth's directing themselves, that is dangerous." That is bureaucratism. Bureaucratism is lack of confidence in the limited understanding of the masses. I assure you that the National Committee is the highest university of the organization. It is very important. If seven are good teachers and from the party, then the seven will be the best and the twelve will be good people. They will be accessible to good arguments and by the next convention you will eliminate half of them. It will become clear that they are not apt. But the other six members will develop very well and will replace the eliminated party members. I believe in general that with the education and development of the organization in this respect we must make a very brutal turn at the next convention. I would propose only five party members and fourteen rank and file of the youth organization, and I assure you it would be excellent. But I can make a concession and repeat my proposition, seven and twelve.

What is the present relationship between these party members and the youth? In this relationship there is no elasticity, none at all. The National Committee decides what the youth shall do. In this connection the National Committee of the youth is also a link between the National Committee of the party and the rank and file of the youth. There you have the second party. A young edition of the party in an independent organization of the youth. If there are twelve, the majority, you are sure that they represent better the spirit of youth than the principles of Marxism; but if you are not capable of winning them for your decision, then the decision is bad, or the decision comes too early for this organization and then you must postpone it. It is better to postpone than to rule by bureaucratic decision. It is a very, very important proposition, more important than all the others. In discussion once with other comrades, I mentioned the fact that in our fight under illegality against czarism, every time after the arrest of the leadership, every one of them in prison was absolutely sure every time that everything was lost. But every time the organization was better than before, because the young were good and capable, but oppressed a bit by the authority of the illegal committee because nobody can control it. I am sure that our most important problem is the renewal of the organization from the sources of the youth.

Yes, the proposition of the name. If you have a better name, a proletarian name, a revolutionary name, it can provoke enthusiasm –but not the socialist revolution. I believe the revolution is attractive to the youth. "Legion of the Socialist Revolution" makes a good name. Comrade Gould promises to propose it at the convention, but not as someone who proposes a good name. But I want you to propose it not as a bad one but as a good one.

On conspirative work, I believe even in the trade unions, even in Minneapolis, a turn can come where the reformists are in the majority and expel our comrades from the trade unions. We must have comrades who don't act openly, but act secretly and will remain in case of expulsion. It is absolutely necessary.

On education, one important phase is to habituate the comrades to be exact in everything. To come on time to meetings, to give exact numbers about the composition, etc., and without exaggeration, because very often where enthusiasm and activity are lacking, they find expression of the enthusiasm in the exaggeration of numbers, activities, etc. It is also a part of Marxist and Bolshevik education.