American youth occupy a singular position at this juncture of history, a position different from that of European youth and from the depression-matured generation of the Thirties. Most of them were depression babies and it is, of course, impossible to measure the unconscious effects that this crisis-filled and insecure era had on them. Their conscious social and political experience, however, crystallized during the Forties, during World War II and its aftermath.
Despite this they have for the most part little experience with war and fascism. The lack of roots and tradition makes them by and large ill-prepared to cope effectively with these problems which are today fast becoming part of social reality.
The issues which face the young person of today are less sharply posed than those of the depression period. The terrible individual reality of joblessness brought forth a fighting spirit which pervaded the consciousness of a locked out generation and enabled it, equally cut off from an awareness of a past, to create movements and a tradition which formed the spirit of that period.
The relations between abstract political truth and personal existence are today - May Day 1950 - just beginning to emerge. For this reason those youth movements which have developed or which continue to exist in the post-war period have remained, except in rare instances, isolated from the main stream of youth and student life. They have appealed mainly to those who come to politics for primarily intellectual reasons. Politics has yet to reach out and tap the vast reservoirs of energy residing in the multi-millioned mass of students and young working people.
The youth movement traditionally struggled around two focal points: militarism and joblessness. It is in precisely these two areas that young people are beginning to be affected. For the first few years after the war campus life was relatively immune from the pressures of American imperialism. But now the direct influence of the cold war is being felt in many schools.
ROTC and Jobs
The recent attempts of the army and navy to establish ROTC units at Brooklyn College and Harvard have been met with student resistance. The full momentum of the war drive has yet to be felt on the American campus. When this point is reached, it is to be expected that the resistance will take on a more organized and politically oriented character. The establishment of ROTC courses as part of the curriculum will be resented by all progressive students for exactly what it is - the invasion by the military of educational institutions, a province to which they have no conceivable relationship, either in aims or in atmosphere, except an antithetical one.
The easing off of the post-war boom has hit young people more sharply than other sections of the population. Graduates report increasing difficulty in finding jobs. The closing up of many fields even to graduates with college training has created a situation which has become particularly tense in the past year. Although employment has risen, the real prospects for young people are mirrored in the current unemployment statistics which have reached a little less than five million. Coupled with growing economic insecurity is a sense of psychological insecurity which is a constant in the consciousness of the Forties. And it is now increasing in pervasiveness as the tensions of the A-and-H-bombs multiply.
These two central problems, militarism and unemployment, which shaped the youth movements of the Thirties are beginning to take on concrete significance today. Yet important as they are they do not constitute the political problems on campus. The struggle between capitalism and Stalinism reflects itself very vividly in college life today in attacks against academic freedom. If is around this issue that political energy finds its point of expression.
The attacks upon academic freedom are part of the more general attacks on civil liberties in the United States today. They represent part of the larger tendency to force conformity on all sections of American life. Corresponding to the loyalty oaths in the government have been the loyalty oaths on several campuses, and the extension of the Feinberg Law mentality to faculty members themselves.
The development of an anti-war student movement has as a corollary the existence of a socialist youth organization. Many students will not be satisfied with a struggle which is merely anti-war and is not more clearly formulated in terms of a permanent solution to war. In this sense the political isolation of the contemporary student generation has a hopeful aspect. Its lack of connection with other political movements and traditions signifies also a freedom from the corruption and prejudices of Stalinist and social-democratic influence.
American youth are truly youth in this respect - uncorroded and untainted by the past. They are free to follow independent roads and it is to these youth that Independent Socialism, the program of the Socialist Youth League, offers the dynamism of its ideas.
Stalinism for years channelized the militant anti-war spirit of thousands of students. The full measure of cynicism and apathy which enveloped an entire generation of ex-Stalinists has yet to be taken. It must be remembered also that during the Thirties the whole socialist movement was in one way or another sympathetic to Russia. Today, however, the facts about Russia are so obvious to all but the totalitarian-minded that a recurrence of this development is not likely.
The most significant development on the campus recently was the organization of the New York Student Federation Against War. The federation, which is celebrating its first birthday this May Day, is composed of nine socialist and anti-war clubs on the campuses of New York City. The primary activity of the federation to date has been the publication of Anvil. The first issue was a 2,000-edition mimeograph job which the federation published with hesitancy. The response of the student body was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. This resulted in the printing of the second issue and in two runs of three thousand and two thousand copies respectively. The response was again gratifyingly favorable, and the issue was a sellout.
Anvil has just been merged with Student Partisan, published by the Politics Club of the University of Chicago. The result of the merger, Anvil and Student Partisan, has just put its first issue off the press. For the first time since the Thirties there is a national anti-war student publication in existence. This publication is receiving a respectful and attentive hearing from a large body of students. As the objective situation ripens—or rather decays further its audience will grow. And with it will develop a meaningful student anti-war movement.
The sad truth, of course, is that by and large the federation is isolated from the masses of students. The increasing violations of academic freedom and the attacks against civil liberties generally will provide the handle which the militant students can use to spread anti-war sentiment.
The primary target of the attacks on academic freedom and civil liberties today are the Stalinists. This has two results. On the one hand it enables the Stalinists to pose as being the champions of democracy; and thus here and there they undoubtedly attract supporters on this basis, although with decreasing effectiveness. On the other hand the bulk of the campus correctly recognizes the Stalinists to be what they are - reactionaries and totalitarians. It furthermore knows that the Stalinists try to use all broad united-front organizations as instruments for the transmission of pro-Kremlin propaganda no matter what the ostensible and often legitimate purpose of the organization is.
This, however, often has a reactionary result. Many progressive students have the attitude that the consequent thing to do is to stay out of all struggles. The job which the more militant students must do - and which the Student Federation against War did with no small success at the recently held New York Conference for Democracy in Education - is to convince the liberal and progressive students that their attitude is wrong.
If the anti-Stalinist and progressive students do not struggle for civil liberties, capitalist reaction and Stalinist reaction are aided at one and the same time. The witch-hunters and loyalty-oathers have a clear field in which to transform America into a police state and the Stalinists have a clear field in which to pretend to be democrats.
The drive to destroy bourgeois political democracy in America is intimately connected with the cold war and with the preparations for the hot one. This will become increasingly clear in the period that lies ahead. It will be the task of the anti-war forces to point out this connection, to link up the struggle for academic rights with the struggle against the military preparations of Russian and American imperialism - with the struggle for the Third Camp!
Join the SYL!
There are many students and young workers who have already been able to generalize beyond this. These youths recognize that the fight to prevent war must lead to a fight against the two exploitive systems—capitalism and Stalinism - of whose very fabric war is an inherent and inevitable part. These young people, organized in the SOCIALIST YOUTH LEAGUE, know that only a socialist world of "plenty for all" and freedom can be the answer to wars and depressions.
Marxists today pose the slogan "Socialism or Barbarism" before the masses of the world.This slogan can be stated in another way. Either the workers of the world will convert the means of production from their present status of being privately owned and used for the production of profit to a status of democratic, collective ownership and used to create a world of plenty and freedom or the powers that be, in a dying effort to hold on to their profits and privileges, will turn them into the means of destruction and will put an end to civilization. These and only these are the alternatives for mankind. All young people who wish to take their stand on the side of those who are struggling to prevent catastrophe should take their place in the ranks of the SYL.
On this May Day, 1950, conditions may look pessimistic. The two monster imperialisms are carrying on their cold war over the backs of and against the masses of the world, primarily the international working class. Nowhere has a real and effective challenge to the powers of darkness yet appeared. Yet the pressures are increasing and the chips are falling - with growing rapidity. The masses everywhere - on the campus as well as in the factory - are again and again entering the road of struggle. It is our task to be with them, to connect up all the experiences. We can link up the struggles for academic freedom and civil liberties, the right for an Independent Labor Party, and the struggle against war, into the all-embracing fight for socialism. It is to help accomplish this task that the Socialist Youth League rededicates itself this May Day.