Communism was one of the most important political movements of the twentieth century and communist leaders across the globe made young people central to their plans to create communist parties, states, and societies.
Communism as a Political Movement
The history of twentieth-century communism began in Russia. In November 1917, the Bolshevik Party overthrew the Provisional Government, which had been established after the collapse of the Russian autocracy in March 1917. The Bolsheviks, who emerged out of the Russian social democratic movement and based their revolutionary strategy on the writings of Karl Marx and their leader Vladimir I. Lenin, soon renamed themselves the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and set out to create a new communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR.
As it developed, the Bolshevik approach to communism was based on state ownership of property and authoritarian political rule exercised by the party in the name of the proletariat, or working class. The Bolsheviks also worked to create an international communist movement. After the revolution, they sought to split socialist parties elsewhere in Europe to form communist parties in these countries, as well as in North America and Asia. Through membership in the Communist, or Third, International (Comintern), these parties were brought under Soviet leadership and were often compelled to follow Soviet instructions in the planning of their own revolutionary activities. After World War II, communist influence increased considerably. Communist regimes were installed in the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948, while communists took power in China in 1949. Communist parties also played key roles in liberation and revolutionary struggles in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America during the postwar period. The importance of communism as an international political movement declined markedly after the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Communism and Youth
Youth support was crucial to both the preparation of revolution and the establishment of lasting communist regimes and societies. In Russia, young urban male workers provided key support for the Bolsheviks and their armed forces during the summer and fall of 1917. When civil war broke out in 1918, members of the newly established Communist Youth League (or Komsomol) defended the revolution in various capacities within the Red Army, and they were lauded by Bolshevik leaders for their courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Elsewhere in Europe, young people–especially young working men–promoted revolution within both Communist Youth organizations (which belonged to a Soviet-controlled Communist Youth International) and the new communist parties. These young men's enthusiastic embrace of the Bolshevik model of revolution was sometimes used by Russian Bolsheviks as they attempted to marginalize older and less pliant prewar revolutionary activists and shape European communist parties in the image of the Russian Bolshevik Party. For example, in 1920s France, Comintern leaders promoted Young Communist militants to leading positions within the party, especially at moments of adult resistance to the implementation of Soviet strategies. Young people later played important roles in communist resistance movements during World War II.
Once in power, communist leaders made the transformation of the younger generation central to the attempt to create new communist societies. Because young people lacked prior political experience and were considered more malleable than adults, communist leaders believed they could be transformed into ardent supporters of communism and builders of new socialist societies. As Lenin declared in 1920, it was the youth of the world that were faced with the actual task of creating communist societies. To prepare the younger generation, communist regimes dismantled or undermined existing youth organizations and established party-controlled Communist Youth Leagues for young men and women and Young Pioneer sections for children. These organizations worked to educate young people in communist values and to aid the party as it worked to build communism. Thus, they provided political education for young people, sponsored communist cultural events and literacy campaigns, oversaw a range of activities in the schools, and served as a training ground for future membership in adult parties. Members of these youth groups, who often received privileged access to educational, professional, or political opportunities, were expected to devote themselves to the communist cause and participate actively in special campaigns.
During the first Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union (1928–1932), young people were at the forefront; they were sent into the countryside to confiscate grain and force peasants onto collective farms, and they were deployed in factories and on construction sites as members of shock brigades who led the struggle to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial power. Many young people embraced these revolutionary tasks with great enthusiasm and spoke of the excitement they felt being on the front lines of the struggle to build socialism. In China, Mao used the revolutionary enthusiasm of Chinese youth to reinvigorate communism during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Communists also restructured education as they sought to mold successive generations of young supporters. Schools at all levels included political education in communist theory and values, and their curricula combined manual labor on behalf of socialism with more strictly intellectual labor.
Recent Trends in Scholarship
Scholars have recently begun to approach the relationship between youth and communism in new ways. For a long time, scholars focused largely on communist efforts vis-à-vis youth. They emphasized the ways communists abolished independent youth organizations, created party-controlled youth organizations that were firmly subordinate to adult parties, and used these organizations to shape and control young people. Recently, however, scholars have altered this picture, arguing that communist youth organizations were less monolithic than earlier scholarship described and, more importantly, that youth responses to communism were more complicated than they first appeared. Scholars now argue that even at moments of great revolutionary enthusiasm, young people responded in a variety of ways to communist messages: some were ardent believers, some learned what they needed to know to survive or advance within the system, while some believed very little (or not at all).
In fact, if young people were often builders of socialism, they were also among those willing to dissent from communist ideology. Critiques could come either through the adoption of new cultural styles and practices–indeed Eastern European and Soviet communists became concerned about the impact that Western cultural imports like jazz and rock and roll had on youth during the 1950s and 1960s–or through outright political protest, as was the case in Czechoslovakia in 1967–1968 and 1989, and in China in 1989. Finally, scholarship has begun to explore how young men and women often had quite different experiences within communist youth organizations that professed gender equality, as well as the ways masculine ideals often predominated within these organizations.
See also: Fascist Youth; Hitler Youth; Youth Activism .
Chan, Anita. 1985. Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Gorsuch, Anne E. 2000. Youth in Revolutionary Russia: Enthusiasts, Bohemians, Delinquents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Konecny, Peter. 1999. Builders and Deserters: Students, State, and Community in Leningrad, 1917–1941. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Pilkington, Hilary. 1994. Russia's Youth and its Culture: A Nation's Constructors and Constructed. London: Routledge.
Tirado, Isabel A. 1988. Young Guard! The Communist Youth League, Petrograd 1917–1920. New York: Greenwood Press.
Susan B. Whitney
Communist Youth Organizations
COMMUNIST YOUTH ORGANIZATIONS
The Communist Youth Organization (Komsomol) was the major vehicle of political education and mobilization for Soviet youth. Founded in November 1918, and disbanded in 1991, the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth was one of a series of Soviet institutions dedicated to educating and regulating Soviet citizens at every life stage—the Little Octobrists, the Young Pioneers (ten to fourteen), the Komsomol (fourteen to mid-twenties), and the Communist Party.
The Komsomol was founded as an elite and "self-standing" organization of communist youth. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s the Komsomol was gradually transformed from a select organization of activist proletarian youth into a mass organization subservient to Party policy. By March 1926, there were approximately 1.75 million young people in the Komsomol; more than half of the working-class youth in Leningrad and Moscow were members. A few years later, the Komsomol was almost twice the size of the Party. Nonetheless, as of 1936, still only about 10 percent of eligible youth belonged to the Communist Youth League. In response, and at Josef Stalin's direction, the Komsomol was formally relegated this same year to the role of a propaganda and education organization open to almost all youth regardless of class background. By 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev acceded to general secretary, the Komsomol reported that it had 42 million members between the ages of fourteen and twenty-seven.
Young people joined the Komsomol for many different reasons. In the first decades of Soviet power, the Komsomol provided a community of peers for urban youth, especially as all other youth groups—the Boy Scouts, religious youth organizations—were suppressed. Komsomol clubs in factories, schools, and institutes of higher education organized sports activities, drama groups, and concerts, as well as literacy and antidrinking campaigns. The Komsomol offered a new identity as well as new opportunities; some young people experienced the exhilaration of the Revolution, the struggle of Civil War, and the rapid industrialization of the Stalin era, with a sense of great personal involvement. Like joining the Party, becoming a member of the Komsomol could also confer economic and political benefits. It helped pave the way to eventual Party membership, and Komsomol members were often awarded important political and agitational positions. The Komsomol was not equally relevant or available to everybody, however. Proletariat males were at the top of the ladder of Bolshevik virtue, while peasants, students, and women of all classes were on lower rungs. Women of all classes made up just 20 percent of the Komsomol in 1926. Although their numbers increased throughout the Soviet period, they remained underrepresented in leadership positions.
The energetic participation of some Komsomol members in the dramatic industrialization and collectivization campaigns of the early 1930s did not protect either the rank-and-file or the Komsomol elite from the purges. In 1937 and 1938, the entire Komsomol bureau was purged and the first secretary, Alexander Kosarev, was executed along with several others. During World War II, the Komsomol was deeply involved in patriotic campaigns and was effective in this period of national defense at attracting members and encouraging enthusiastic response to patriotic propaganda. The war was the final high point of the Komsomol, however. After the war, the Komsomol was increasingly trapped between the Party's demands for political conformism and young people's increasingly diverse
and internationally informed desires for relevance and for entertainment. The conservatism of the Komsomol was reflected in the aging of its leadership. In 1920, the median age of a delegate to a Komsomol Congress was twenty. In 1954, it was twenty-seven. By the years of stagnation (the period of Leonid Brezhnev's leadership) the Communist Youth League was mired in bureaucracy and corruption, and unable to remake itself; it had become a mass membership organization to which few truly wanted to belong, but many felt they needed to join in order to advance professionally and politically. The Komsomol's irrelevance to a changing Soviet Union was even more evident during the transition to Mikhail Gorbachev's presidency. The Communist Youth League lost millions of members per year (1.5 million in 1986, 2.5 million in 1987) and disbanded itself at a final Komsomol Congress in September 1991.
See also: communist party of the soviet union; education
Gorsuch, Anne E. (2000). Youth in Revolutionary Russia: Enthusiasts, Bohemians, Delinquents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Pilkington, Hilary. (1994). Russia's Youth and Its Culture: A Nation's Constructors and Constructed. New York and London: Routledge.
Tirado, Isabel. (1988). Young Guard! The Communist Youth League, Petrograd, 1917–1920. New York: Greenwood.
Anne E. Gorsuch