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YCL Member Describes Internal Life
of Stalinist Youth Group

Political Level Low; Ranks Terrorized by Bureaucracy,
Discussion Is Taboo, Leaders Haunted by Fear of Trotskyism

(May 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 22, 31 May 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From a once militant revolutionary youth organization, the Young Communist League has degenerated into a politically ignorant body dominated by a clique of careerists zealously imitating all the bureaucratic vices of their elders of the Communist Party.

All freedom of expression has long since been smothered. The members are kept in ignorance of even the simplest Marxist concepts. They arc held in line by a system of terrorism which has all the aspects of GPU methods.

The YCL leadership is hag-ridden with fear of Trotskyism, against which they warn night and day. They find Trotskyism in the slightest inflection of the voice, the most innocent question. They hunt for it in a word, a gesture. Each member is encouraged to spy on the others, to find in the most far-fetched symptoms the signs of the Trotskyist. “disease.”

Such is the picture of the YCL given to me this week by a YCL member who has become a Trotskyist. Although still in his early twenties, this YCL’er is a veteran of the Stalinist movement, having laterally “grown up” in it, starting his activity at the age of 9 as a Young Pioneer.

Tells Story of the YCL’s Degeneration

“Back in the early Thirties the YCL was a really militant organization. We were in the thick of the class struggle, in hunger demonstrations, leading rent strikes, halting evictions. “Looking back on it now, I realize that even then we had no basic freedom of discussion on political questions, but at least within the framework of the political line handed down to us we were permitted a certain latitude to elaborate ideas and enlarge on policies.

“Then came the period of the ‘People’s Front.’ It was slipped over on us little by little, starting with the Franco-Soviet pact in 1934. The change of line to collaboration with the bourgeois democrats was presented first as a ‘struggle against sectarianism.’

“We were then told that we had to adopt a ‘new approach to the social-fascists.’ We were to become more friendly to the Socialists and trade unionists. Then we were told that we had to press for the United Front with the ‘social fascists.’ And finally, they sprang the People’s Front, unity with the bourgeois democrats against the fascists.

“There was no discussion or vote over this change of line. By this time the YCL had learned to accept whatever the leaders said. Not all of us accepted the new line without misgivings. That’s when I got my first suspicions, back in ’36 and ’37, that something was wrong.

Woe to Those Who Asked Questions!

“But whenever any attempt at arguing or questioning the line was made, YCL big-shots were sent to the meetings. Those who questioned the line were expelled as Trotskyists. The rest went along.

“During this period, the entire composition of the YCL changed. Many of the militants and older members dropped out or were expelled. The YCL was flooded with raw elements who had no political knowledge and no conception of the class struggle. In fact anyone could join, regardless of what position he held, so long as he was opposed to Trotskyism. That became the one position you were held down to.

“All the old militant, revolutionary attitudes were wiped out. We became ‘20th Century Americans.’ We were restricted; to the most namby-pamby type of activities, being constantly impressed with the idea that we had to be ‘respectable’ so as not to lose our middle-class friends and sympathizers.”

Why did you stay on in the Stalinist movement so long, when you were becoming aware of its political degeneration? I asked the ex-YCL’er.

He Hoped the YCL Would Straighten Out

“My whole life was in the movement. It was the only life I knew. I lived in hopes that this was only a temporary thing. I deluded myself, like many others, that we would soon go back to a revolutionary line, that this was just a temporary maneuver.

“It was during this period that the struggle against Trotskyism rose to a very high pitch. There were constant expulsions. Trotskyism was presented as any number of things; ‘associating with the wrong people,’ was Trotskyism, etc., etc..

“The greatest opposition arose in this period – not much of an opposition, I’ll admit – but the most there ever was, over the clause which was put in the YCL constitution in 1937 forbidding YCL members to have any relations of any kind with ‘Trotskyites and other counter-revolutionaries.’

“I learned that one-third of the delegates at the YCL convention had voted against this.

“But it was put over anyhow with the assurance that it would be applied in only a very broad sense. There was a. lot of resentment among the rank-and-file about this clause. But it was not openly expressed.

“The greatest shock came to some of us when an official declaration came out informing, us that we were no longer carrying on an immediate fight for socialism. By this time, however, the old comrades had largely disappeared. Activity in the YCL became little more than dances and good-times. We older comrades were swallowed up by the new elements brought in on the basis of a program calling on the democratic capitalist nations to fight the fascist nations.”

When Stalin Signed the Pact with Hitler

What was the reaction, when the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed? I asked.

“No one conceived the possibility of such a pact. Despite the fact that by this time the organization was composed 99 per cent of politically ignorant elements, still there was quite a stew about the pact.

“County officials and functionaries began to flood the branches and desperately explained away the pact. They told us that the pact showed Hitler’s fear of the tremendous military power of the Soviet Union. That the Soviet Union wasn’t conceding an inch to Hitler. I recall one functionary assuring us that if Hitler invaded Poland, that the Soviet Union would consider the non-aggression pact broken. We were especially assured that the pact contained an escape clause. How we waited and watched for the announcement of that escape clause! But it never came.”

Didn’t this finally make the YCL members see the true political character of Stalinism? I asked him.

“You don’t understand what we had become. We had grown used to accepting every new line without discussion or debate.

“Besides, we were left with the impression that collective security wasn’t really abandoned, etc. We were kept in a confused state of mind.

How the Stalinist Bureaucrats Operate

“You’ve got to get an idea of what the nature of the bureaucracy is inside the Stalinist organizations.

“Right above the rank and file members in the YCL there is a whole strata of petty officials, branch presidents, organizers, functionaries, etc. There is an abyss between them and the members. The petty officials are careerists of one sort or another, who have adopted the attitude of the top bureaucracy of the Communist Party. They all have ambitions to become Little Stalins. “The average member lives in real fear of the officials, who treat the ranks with suspicion. The members are always afraid of making a misstep. Whenever a member does say nything, he is always mindful that he must speak carefully lest he say something which the bureaucrats can use against him.

“If a member does get up enough courage to ask a question he asks it in a way which would show the officials that he is just a dumb, stupid guy who should really apologize for his ignorance. To ask a question in any other fashion would be to indicate a doubt as to the correctness of any policy. I have helped to vote expulsions for just such a question.

“In one YCL branch a county official was sent to give an ‘educational’ talk on Trotskyism. Someone asked a question: ‘How can we detect a Trotskyite at a YCL meeting?’ The reply was: ‘Nine out of ten times anyone who asks a question is probably a Trotskyite’. This was so raw, that it brought quite a surprising reaction from the members. Another county official had to be sent out to the next meeting to cool off the branch with a lot of elaborate explanations.

Ersatz Discussion, Stalinist Style

“I’ll give you an illustration of how ‘discussion’ is carried on in the YCL. Shortly before the war and just before the Stalin-Hitler pact changed the line, we were suddenly confronted with an extension of the People’s Front line. We were now to unite with anyone – even the vilest capitalist reactionary – who was ‘against fascism,’ even with J.P. Morgan.

“We had never heard of this new twist until a county leader came down to our branch to deliver an ‘educational’ lecture. We Were told: ‘We must develop something new, something that goes even beyond the People’s Front, a Democratic Front that will take in everybody.’

“There was no discussion, no convention. We were handed the new line out of a clear sky, off-hand, in a branch ‘educational’ talk. That’s how the political line was changed.

“To understand the atmosphere, you would have to attend a regular meeting of a YCL branch. There is no political discussion of any description. Even on questions of purely organizational character, the members are so scared to take an independent position or show any initiative, that any question of consequence is immediately referred to the officials. The whole meeting will be taken up with such safe matters as selling tickets for some social affair or function, etc.

“The educational life of the YCL is a joke. During the most recent period, when the bureaucracy is attempting to create the illusion that Stalinism is now revolutionary, an occasional suggestion is given that the YCL members should read some of Lenin or a pamphlet of Marx. But this is just lip-service. By and large, most of the members are so conditioned not to do any independent reading and thinking, that they don’t bother to read any Marxist literature at all.

“One of the last ‘educational’ lectures I hear was a discussion on the ‘correctness’ of the Communist Party’s positions in the various periods, including its support of Roosevelt in 1936. This was pointed out as a very brilliant maneuver, particularly the fact that it wasn’t ‘support’ – just non-opposition. After this discussion there was a heated controversy among the members as to whether this was ‘support’ or simply non-opposition.

“Of course, the leaders will say the party is not infallible. But if you should try to get them to give an example of one specific mistake which the party has made, they cannot state any. The party makes mistakes in the abstract, never in the concrete.”

Tell me more about the question of Trotskyism in the YCL, I urged.

The Trotskyites Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out!

“Trotskyism! It’s like a nightmare in the YCL. The leaders raise it constantly as the main spectre. It’s like a hysteria. Everything that’s in opposition to Stalinism they identify with Trotskyism. They harp on it all the time.

“Trotskyism isn’t presented as a political program or an ideology but like a physical disease.

“It’s represented like, something you can catch out of the air. Members are forbidden not merely to read Trotskyite literature, but even to touch it. It’s pictured as such a contagious disease that even to associate in the most innocent fashion with anyone who in turn is suspected of associating with a suspected Trotskyite means to run the danger of catching the disease.

“Members are told that if anyone in their immediate family is suspected of having Trotskyite leanings, the members must leave home. I have heard organizers tell of having persons kicked out of boarding houses for being ‘Trotskyites.’

“You.simply can’t imagine the holy terror the leaders have of Trotskyism and their attempts to communicate this fear to the membership. The members are incited to spy on each other. If a YCL’er is suspected of merely having a lenient attitude toward the question of associating with any form of radical dissidents from the Stalinist line, even if he has no such actual association, he is immediately placed under the closest scrutiny. His closest comrades are quizzed about him. Does he meet any strange people? Does he go to any strange study circles? Does he read any strange literature?

“All this has had a peculiar effect. The rank and file tends to band together against the bureaucratic hierarchy. They avoid snitching on each other. Members do meet with dissidents, but they literally meet in dark alleys.

“Formerly, we were told that we were politically isolating the Trotskyists. Now the Stalinist leadership is trying to do just one thing: to physically isolate the YCL rank-and-file from the Trotskyists.”

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