Trotsky – the Revolution Betrayed Chapter 7 – Family, Youth and Culture – Part 2 – The Struggle Against the Youth

This part follows on from the previous section, on the bureaucracy and women’s oppression, and criticises the same, moralistic and paternalistic attitude that the Thermidorian regime displayed towards women, this time towards the youth.

There is perhaps a warning for us in this analysis, though we are in a completely different situation to that narrated here. Trotsky writes:

“Every revolutionary party finds its chief support in the younger generation of the rising class. Political decay expresses itself in a loss of ability to attract the youth under one’s banner. The parties of bourgeois democracy, in withdrawing one after another from the scene, are compelled to turn over the young either to revolution or fascism. Bolshevism when underground was always a party of young workers. The Mensheviks relied upon the more respectable skilled upper stratum of the working class, always prided themselves on it, and looked down upon the Bolsheviks. Subsequent events harshly showed them their mistake. At the decisive moment the youth carried with them the more mature stratum and even the old folks.”

This is cautionary for us. It should be said and noted that this was written in a period shortly after, in comparative terms, the greatest revolution in history.

We are a small, aging trend, as indeed is the Marxist left in the imperialist countries (and not necessarily just there), and we are the product of a missing generation on the left.

That generation is missing above all because of the huge defeats of the proletariat that have happened in our lifetimes. Defeats of the working class in Britain and the US, and the defeat represented above all by the destruction of the USSR.

We are now in a period where a new generation of youth are being radicalised, not least by the impact of this genocide and the huge exposure of imperialism by it, and by the huge damage being done to the biosphere by decaying capitalism.

We have to find a road to win over a younger cadre to the kind of Marxist politics we espouse. There is no alternative to doing that for our movement to go forward.

However, this is about the historical question of the development of the Stalinist regime in the USSR and its relationship with the younger generation of a Russian and other Soviet population that had either been radicalised by, or born in the aftermath of, the first successful proletarian revolution in history.

As Trotsky pointed out:

“The revolution gave a mighty historical impulse to the new Soviet generation. It cut them free at one blow from conservative forms of life, and exposed to them the great secret – the first secret of the dialectic – that there is nothing unchanging on this earth, and that society is made out of plastic materials. How stupid is the theory of unchanging racial types in the light of the events of our epoch ! The Soviet Union is an immense melting pot in which the characters of dozens of nationalities are being mixed. The mysticism of the ‘Slavic soul’ is coming off like scum.”

Yet the essence of the issue was that the Thermidorian regime instinctively feared the youth.

There were several millions of young workers who should have been replenishing the mass base of the Communist Party. And hundreds of thousands of Communist youth, who the regime mobilised for constructive work, often in the most difficult and inhospitable places, such as “the Arctic, Sakhalin or in Amur [near the Chinese border] where the new town of Komsomolsk is in the process of construction”.

Trotsky points out the role of young workers in the regime’s campaigns, in shock brigades, Stakhanovism etc, and their studious and self-sacrificing exploits.

And he cites Engels and Lenin on how it ought to be:

“Not conceiving of the development of a socialist society without the dying away of the state that is, without the replacement of all kinds of police oppression by the self-administration of educated producers and consumers – Engels laid tile accomplishment of this task upon the younger generation, ‘who will grow up in new, free social conditions, and will be in a position to cast away all this rubbish of state-ism.’ Lenin adds on his part: ‘… every kind of state-ism, the democratic-republican included.’ The prospect of the construction of a socialist society stood, then, in the mind of Engels and Lenin approximately thus: The generation which conquered the power, the ‘Old Guard’, will begin the work of liquidating the state; the next generation will complete it.”

But that appears to have been precisely what the Thermidorian regime feared. He points out that nearly half (46%) of the population of the USSR, by 1936, when he was writing, was born after the October revolution. More than half of the population can only remember the Soviet regime.

Yet this population, far from being encouraged, was being repressed:

“But it is just this new generation which is forming itself, not in “free social conditions,” as Engels conceived it, but under intolerable and constantly increasing oppression from the ruling stratum composed of those same ones who – according to the official fiction – achieved the great revolution…. the chief glory of man is declared to be: personal loyalty to the leader and unconditional obedience. … [..]

“The school and the social life of the student are saturated with formalism and hypocrisy. The children have learned to sit through innumerable deadly dull meetings, with their inevitable honorary presidium, their chants in honour of the dear leaders, their predigested righteous debates in which, quite in the manner of their elders, they say one thing and think another.”

He complains about repression of any youth who express their own ideas:

“The most innocent groups of school children who try to create oases in this desert of officiousness are met with fierce measures of repression. Through its agentry the GPU introduces the sickening corruption of treachery and tale-bearing into the so-called ‘socialist schools.’ The more thoughtful teachers and children’s writers, in spite of the enforced optimism, cannot always conceal their horror in the presence of this spirit of repression, falsity and boredom which is killing school life.”

“To every word of criticism, the bureaucracy answers with a twist of the neck. All who are outstanding and unsubmissive in the ranks of the young are systematically destroyed, suppressed or physically exterminated. This explains the fact that out of the millions upon millions of Communist youth there has not emerged a single big figure.”

The youth are “throwing themselves” into engineering, science, literature, sport etc. with great enthusiasm.

“But at every contact with politics they burn their fingers.”

They have three choices: to become careerists in the bureaucracy, to submit and confine themselves to personal and professional life, or to ‘go underground’ and ‘learn to struggle’ for the future.

Many sought personal advancement, but the possibilities were only open to a limited layer because of the material deprivation we have talked about previously. Yet opportunities did exist:

“The restoration of market relations opens an indubitable opportunity for a considerable rise of personal prosperity. The broad trend of the Soviet youth toward the engineering profession is explained, not so much by the allurements of socialist construction, as by the fact that engineers earn incomparably more than physicians or teachers. When such tendencies arise in circumstances of intellectual oppression and ideological reaction, and with a conscious unleashing from above of careerist instincts, then the propagation of what is called ‘socialist culture’ often turns out to be education in the spirit of the most extreme antisocial egotism.”

Yet, this should not be seen in a one-sided manner:

“…it would be a crude slander against the youth to portray them as controlled exclusively, or even predominantly, by personal interests. No, in the general mass they are magnanimous, responsive, enterprising. Careerism colours them only from above. In their depths are various unformulated tendencies grounded in heroism and still only awaiting application. It is upon these moods in particular that the newest kind of Soviet patriotism is nourishing itself. It is undoubtedly very deep, sincere and dynamic. But in this patriotism, too, there is a rift which separates the young from the old.”

On the contrary

“The expulsion from the Communist Youth and the party, the arrest and exile, of hundreds of thousands of young ‘white guards’ and ‘opportunists’, on the one hand, and ‘Bolshevik-Leninists’ on the other, proves that the wellsprings of conscious political opposition, both right and left, are not exhausted…. the more impatient, hot-blooded, unbalanced, injured in their interests and feelings, are turning their thoughts in the direction of terrorist revenge. Such, approximately, is the spectrum of the political moods of the Soviet youth.”

And Trotsky talks about the various episodes of the involvement of elements of the youth in terrorism, as a symptom the discontent of the youth:

“The terrorists of the latest draft are recruited exclusively from among the young, from the ranks of the Communist Youth and the party – not infrequently from the offspring of the ruling stratum. Although completely impotent to solve the problems which it sets itself, this individual terror has nevertheless an extremely important symptomatic significance. It characterizes the sharp contradiction between the bureaucracy and the broad masses of the people, especially the young.”

The bureaucracy understands this, and is fearful of the youth:

“…from whatever side the attack came against the position of the ruling stratum, from left or right, the attackers would recruit their chief forces among the oppressed and discontented youth deprived of political rights. The bureaucracy admirably understands this. It is in general exquisitely sensitive to everything which threatens its dominant position. Naturally, in trying to consolidate its position in advance, it erects the chief trenches and concrete fortifications against the younger generation.”

Thus, we see the attack on the rights of the Communist Youth in particular. What Trotsky called the ‘political expropriation’ of the youth mirrored the political expropriation of the working class itself:

“The General Secretary of the Communist Youth, under orders from above, declared in his speech: ‘We must … end the chatter about industrial and financial planning, about the lowering, of production costs, economic accounting, crop sowing, and other important state problems as though we were going to decide them.’ The whole country might well repeat those last words: ‘as though we were going to decide them!’”

The age limit for the Communist youth was raised from 23, as the transfer of the youth into the adult party had been made much more difficult. The reasons…

“Both measures, obviously contradicting each other, derive nevertheless from the same source: the bureaucracy’s fear of the younger generation.”

And the fear that lay at the heart of this practice was laid bare also:

“The speakers at the congress, who according to their own statements were carrying out the express instructions of Stalin – they gave these warnings in order to forestall in advance the very possibility of a debate explained the aim of the reform with astonishing frankness: ‘We have no need of any second party.’ This argument reveals the fact that in the opinion of the ruling circles the Communist Youth League, if it is not decisively strangled, threatens to become a second party.”

Of course, the Thermidorians had already strangled the adult party, The apparatus worried aloud:

“’In his time, no other than Trotsky himself attempted to make a demagogic play for the youth, to inspire it with the anti-Leninist, anti-Bolshevik idea of creating a second party, etc.’.  …. “

He comments on this:

“In reality, Trotsky ‘in his time’ only gave warning that a further bureaucratization of the regime would inevitably lead to a break with the youth, and produce the danger of a second party.”

“… it is no longer a question of the “danger” …  but of its historic necessity as the sole power capable of further advancing the cause of the October revolution. The change in the constitution of the Communist Youth League, although reinforced with fresh police threats, will not, of course, halt the political maturing of the youth, and will not prevent their hostile clash with the bureaucracy.”

Of course, this was by way of a general analysis of the tendency, not a detailed prediction, which is a matter of a struggle of forces:

“Which way will the youth turn in case of a great political disturbance? Under what banner will they assemble their ranks? Nobody can give a sure answer to that question now, least of all the youth themselves. Contradictory tendencies are furrowing their minds. In the last analysis, the alignment of the principal mass will be determined by historic events of world significance, by a war, by new successes of fascism, or, on the contrary, by the victory of the proletarian revolution in the West. In any case the bureaucracy will find out that these youth deprived of rights represent a historic charge with mighty explosive power.”

But as he pointed out, the Thermidorian regime’s arrogance spoke against it:

“In 1894 the Russian autocracy, through the lips of the young tzar Nicholas II, answered the Zemstvos, which were timidly dreaming of participating in political life, with the famous words: ‘Meaningless fancies!’ In 1936 the Soviet bureaucracy answered the as yet vague claims of the younger generation with the still ruder cry: ‘Stop your chatter!’ Those words, too, will become historic. The regime of Stalin may pay no less dear for them than the regime headed by Nicholas II.”