The ‘Young Communist International’

“A true and solid foundation for the new International can only be formed by the socialist youth. The youth, the bearers of the future; the youth, who are not dependent on the past, who expect everything from the future … the youth, whose hearts are not corrupted with petit-bourgeois feelings and whose thoughts cannot be led astray with the ideology of a past age … the fresh, brave, revolutionary, self-sacrificing working-class youth, who push forward, always forward!”

– Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai (from Jugend-Internationale #1)

The basis of every movement that wants to create a new society must be the youth. The pioneer role of the youth in the history of resistance and revolutions is huge and we in the Internationalist Commune are working on this heritage. A common starting-point for debates on the importance of youth movements are the ‘68s, but the history of youth organization from the beginning of the 20th century isn’t as well-known. For this reason we consider it our duty to highlight the history of revolutionary youth movements and won’t let these significant experiences become forgotten. This is why we want to talk about the Young Communist International (YCI), the biggest political youth organization in history.

History of the Young Communist International (YCI)

The Young Communist International was officially founded in Berlin on the 20th of November 1919, with the participation of delegates from 14 countries and the formation of an executive committee, under the auspices of the Communist International (Comintern). The goal of those young revolutionaries was to spread and continue the Russian Revolution of 1917, after Petrograd and towards Berlin.

However, the YCI’s origins preceded the establishment of the Comintern. A congress of the Socialist International in Stuttgart in 1907 led to the foundation of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY). During the First World War, many of the IUSY’s member organizations became radicalized and in 1915 organized a conference of socialist youth organizations in Bern (Switzerland) against the nationalist “Burgfrieden” politics of European social democrats. Broader political campaigns and organized opposition to the First World War followed this gathering.

For these reasons, members of the YCI already had experience in independent works and decision-taking by the time it was founded. The YCI defined itself as a vanguard of the workers’ movement and saw a necessity for autonomy in order to play a determined pioneer role in any situation. A few years would pass before the Comintern was able to bring its youth organization under control.

The difference between the Young Communist International and the Communist International was the greater revolutionary determination and belief of the youth. This was also the main reason why it wished to protect its autonomy from the ComIntern. But the YCI lost its autonomy in 1921 and became simply another section of the Comintern under Leninist central authority, with its centre in Moscow. The YCI’s leader Willi Münzenberg subsequently resigned in protest.

Between its first and second congresses (1919 and 1921), the YCI spread worldwide. This period was dominated by conflicts concerning the relationship between the youth organizations that made up the YCI and their associated parties, which was known as the “youth question”. Today, this is still a cause of conflict in many socialist organizations.

Beginnings of socialist youth movements

The first socialist youth organization, named “La Jeune Garde/De Jonge Wacht”, was founded in 1896 in Belgium. The socialist youth movement of that time was primarily anti-militarist. In 1904 the first Young Workers Association was founded in Germany, where young workers attempted to organize themselves against the state repression they were facing.

After the 1907 congress of the Socialist International in Stuttgart, a conference with 20 delegates from 14 different countries took place to found the IUSY. Karl Liebknecht, a leftist social democrat, was elected as its chairman. Conflicts between the youth organizations and the leaderships of the parties and workers’ unions soon developed. The youth considered themselves as political organizations, but their general organizations tried to restrict them to being apolitical cultural or educational associations, and rejected their claims to autonomy. On the other hand, there was also a lot of support for the autonomy of the youth. Karl Liebknecht in particular struggled for the self-determination of youth organizations:

There are two points which guarantee the success of the organizational attempts of the youth: autonomy of the youth and the protection of minors. Only free youth organizations, arising from the youth itself, have responded to these needs of the youth. These needs evolve from the present position of the youth in the economy…Because of the constraints of circumstances, today, more than ever, young people seek autonomy and self-reliance. This urge of young people cannot be violently suppressed.”

[Karl Liebknecht, co-founder of Spartacist League, 01/08/1908]

Especially in Italy, German-speaking Switzerland and Scandinavia, youth organizations openly organized themselves as autonomous political organizations. But in Germany and France, youth associations were more under the control of the central parties.

Youth movements during the First World War

With the outbreak of the First World War on the 4th August 1914, both the Socialist International and the IUSY fell apart, due to the participation of the social democratic parties in the war politics of their governments. Only a small number resisted the “Burgfrieden” politics. But the IUSY was re-established on the 4th of April 1915 at the Bern conference, with delegates from nine countries. The general Socialist International took five more months to organize, at the Zimmerwald conference. This shows the pioneer role of the youth in the re-establishment of the International.

The new Secretariat of the IUSY in Zürich, under the leadership of Willi Münzenberg, was elected. It started to coordinate the relations between youth organizations in the countries at war and to publish the magazine “Jugend-Internationale” (International Youth). The aim of this publication was to organize socialists on the basis of class and anti-war struggle. Pacifist opinions usually dominated, but V.I. Lenin, leader of the left wing of the movement, made clear that only by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and by turning the imperialist war into a people’s (civil) war, could the war be stopped.

Because of its stance against the imperialist war in particular, the youth movement developed its vanguard role within the general workers’ movement. The youth wanted to become the torch-bearer for the spirit of scientific socialism and refused the mentality of social imperialism. In 1916, V.I. Lenin once again defended the autonomy of the youth, saying:

It often happens that representatives of the generation of adults and the elderly do not understand how to properly approach the youth who are inevitably approaching socialism in other ways, not in the way, not in the form, not in the situation, like their fathers. That’s one of the reasons why we are absolutely in favour of organizational autonomy for the youth association, not only because the opportunists fear this autonomy, but also because its the very nature of the matter.” [Lenin in “Jugend-Internationale”]

When a few years later leftist social democrats founded the Communist International, they found their ground for their revolutionary program in the youth movement, which was the most serious and revolutionary wing in the workers’ movement and for this and other reasons needed to protect its autonomy.

Foundation of the new Youth International

After the war, in March 1919 a new Third International, called the Communist International (CI; Comintern), was founded in Moscow. Within this framework, two months later the executive committee of the Comintern called all the proletarian youth to form a Young Communist International. A preparatory conference took place in August in Vienna, which led finally to the founding congress of the Young Communist International on the 20th of November 1919 in Berlin. Youth organizations from Russia (including the German-speaking Volga region), Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Switzerland represented a total membership of 250,000. The founding member organizations were:

  • Communist Youth Association of Russia
  • Communist Youth Association of the German Volga Region
  • Communist Youth of Poland
  • Free Socialist Youth of Germany
  • Socialist Youth of Italy
  • Socialist Youth Association of Madrid
  • Social Democratic Youth Association of Sweden
  • Social Democratic Youth Association of Norway
  • Social Democratic Youth Association of Denmark
  • Proletarian Communist Youth Association of German-Austria
  • Social Democratic Youth Organization of Czechoslovakia (Kladno Province)
  • Communist Worker’s Youth of Hungary
  • Worker’s Youth of Romania
  • Socialist Youth Organization of Switzerland

For security reasons the congress had to take place secretly, every day in another place. At this time, government minister Gustav Noske sent armored vehicles and tanks against people celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in the streets of Berlin. After six days of congress, the foundation of the Young Communist International was declared. But its relationship with the Comintern became an issue for much discussion for a long time.

The program said:

14. The Communist Youth International stands on the ground of the resolutions of the first Congress of the Third International and forms a part of this Communist International. The headquarters of the Communist Youth International is organizationally connected with the Third International and works with her in the closest combat community.” [YCI: manifesto, program, statute p.12]

In this way they accepted all the resolutions of the Comintern until that day, but left open whether or not it would also support its resolutions and actions in the future, as from the viewpoint of these young communists it wasn’t guaranteed that the Comintern would stay on the path of revolution. Concerning the organizational relations between youth organizations and parties, the program clarified two principles:

   1. Autonomy of the youth

   2. Close relationship and mutual aid.

This insistence on autonomy came up especially because of the experiences of the First World War, when the leaderships of the “social-patriotic” parties supported the war policies of their governments and only the youth organizations insisted on the anti-war tradition. Münzenberg gave a speech at the congress in Berlin and said: “The youth in its very nature is revolutionary.” After the war it also became clear that the youth was much more impressed by communist ideas.

Beginnings of the YCI

In the first years the YCI’s headquarters wasn’t in Moscow, but worked (illegally) from Berlin. In the first year alone, 30 cadres were sent to other countries and 100 were taken in by this office, until it was raided by the police. Cadres of the executive committee were arrested many times when they crossed borders illegally. Because of its Berlin base, relations between the sections of Western European countries were better than those with the Comintern center in Moscow, and this encouraged the development of some autonomy.

In the time after the its founding congress the YCI saw an explosion of members: from 14 sections with 219,000 members at the end of 1919, until the beginning of 1921 when it reached 49 sections with 800,000 members (in comparison, the Young Socialist International had 250,000 in 33 associations in 1924). The reasons for this growth were on the one hand the foundation of new associations, and on the other the splits of the centralist youth associations within the social democrats to the right and the Comintern on the left side.

At this time, the debate about the relationship of the YCI and Comintern came up again, most importantly at a headquarters meeting in July 1920. After the YCI officially joined the Comintern there was a need to specify their organizational relationship, which would guarantee mutual aid and an exchange of delegates between the executive committees of the YCI and Comintern.

In August 1920, a meeting of young delegates, who had participated in the second congress of the Comintern, took place in Moscow. During that meeting two members of the executive committee of the YCI (Luigi Polano from Italy and Lazar Schatzkin from Russia) presented a proposal to bind the YCI to both the resolutions of the Comintern’s congress and the political orders of its executive committee. This plan offered a flexible model which defined the relations between youth organizations and their parties according to their countries’ political situation and the strength of their communist movement. But they made also clear that:

only from the autonomous (which means self-organized) youth organizations will grow brave and determined revolutionary fighters and professional cadres of the proletarian revolution and the Soviet power.”

For that reason the YCI’s autonomy was given a lot of importance and the proposal got accepted by the executive committee of the Comintern. It was a model that defined the autonomy of the youth and the voluntary political subordination for the communist youth movements, with the exception of countries with no strong communist party, where the political and organizational autonomy of the youth associations remained.

Before the second congress

In 1920, the number of the YCI’s sections had tripled. For this reason a congress to organize the larger organization was planned. During the preparation congress, the relationship between the YCI and Comintern again became an issue for debate. With the end of the Russian Civil War, the Communist Youth Association of Russia (“Kommunistichesky Soyuz Molodyozhi” or Komsomol) gained a lot of influence due to its number of delegates (66% of YCI’s total membership). With the support of the Comintern’s leadership it demanded a centralist leadership for the workers’ movement (including the youth), a position which was more or less accepted as common sense by Comintern members. Komsomol said that the communist youth organizations should accept the program and tactics of their communist parties and obey their political leadership.

Münzenberg, the most popular personality within the YCI, supported the centralization policy on one hand but on the other he defended the organizational autonomy of the youth. For this reason conflicts between Berlin and Moscow came up, more specifically between the YCI’s leadership in Berlin and youth organizations in Western Europe on one side and Komsomol and the Comintern leadership on the other side.

Three lines of thought dominated. The centralist line of Komsomol, the leftist line of autonomy for youth organization (especially followers of Amadeo Bordiga from the Italian youth organization) and in the middle the line of the YCI leadership. Besides this, a lot of Western European sections had the standpoint that the duties of a communist youth organization in a capitalist society were different to those of one in a society after a socialist revolution (as in Russia). For this reason the relationship between Komsomol and the Russian Communist Party would have to be different to all the other YCI sections and their parties. Komsomol was founded after the revolution, which meant that it had no experience as an autonomous youth association. Münzenberg and Luigi Polano defended flexible relations according to local situations and organizational autonomy for communist youth associations in all countries. As well as this, they demanded that youth organization from countries with strong communist parties should voluntarily accept the political decisions of their parties.

Beside these ideological debates, the hosting place for the next YCI congress also became a subject for discussion. Komsomol wanted it to happen in Moscow, but this was rejected repeatedly by the YCI leadership, its headquarters meeting, and the meeting of the delegates from the Comintern Congress. Italy had been chosen as the host country for the congress, but it couldn’t take place there because of the threat of a fascist coup. In the end the congress was prepared for April 1921 in Germany, but because of the increasing repression and danger in Berlin, the provincial town Jena was chosen instead.

At that time the struggle in Germany reached a newer and more serious level. The so-called march-actions of the KDP (Communist Party of Germany), which tried to develop a general strike into an armed uprising, were defeated, and many communist organizations were banned. These actions took their base from the “theory of the revolutionary offensive” of the leftist wing of the Comintern leadership, and deepened the conflicts between the left-wing and right-wing line. But the leadership of the Communist Party of Russia around Lenin and Trotsky defended the theory of the revolutionary offensive and the united front policy, and in this manner they put their trust in gaining the people both with patience and participation in their daily struggles.

YCI congress in Jena

The second YCI congress began on the 6th of April 1921 in Jena. 26 YCI sections and some other organizations were represented by almost 100 delegates. But the representatives of the largest sections, the Komsomol delegates from Russia, weren’t present. Because of police repression, the congress had to move to Berlin and started there again on the 11th of April. Unfortunately, just after the meeting began a note from the executive committee of the Comintern arrived, instructing that the YCI congress should take place after the third congress of the Comintern, and that the congress that had started should be only be considered a private meeting. This was a serious problem for the YCI. Would it be an autonomous organization or would it be directly subordinated to the executive committee?

The majority of the YCI congress delegates protested with a declaration against the executive committee’s decision, but accepted its authority and stopped their congress. This so-called “Jena resolution” was full of ultra-leftist slogans and stated that it was the main duty of all communist parties to start a chain of permanent actions and that it was especially the duty of the youth to gather the masses to organize the revolutionary struggle. For that reason, offensive and violent tactics were needed to be able to turn the situation of societies dominated by capitalism into a global revolution.

The resolution didn’t reject the centralization policy of the Comintern; on the contrary, it was a clear statement against opportunism. It agreed with the Comintern leadership specifically because it was developing the ultra-leftist strategy and associated march-actions. In particular, some of the delegates who went to Russia in spring 1921 were defending the theory of the revolutionary offensive in order to decrease the imperialist pressure on Russia through developing revolutionary situations in other countries. Münzenberg wasn’t against the theory of revolutionary offensive but believed it wasn’t yet the right time for it. But Valeriu Marcu from Romania and Paul Levi from Germany left Comintern because of their opposition to this strategy.

YCI Congress in Moscow

When the second congress took place later in Moscow on the 9th of July 1921, it was finally decided that the YCI would be subordinated to the Comintern and that it would lose its autonomy. At this time, Münzenberg began thinking about resigning. Many socialist youth organizations had split from their social democratic parties and joined the YCI in order to get rid of party bureaucracy and to attain organizational and political autonomy, but now the YCI was being forced to give up its autonomy in the name of revolutionary discipline.

The second congress also decided that the executive committee should move to Moscow. Münzenberg was elected once more to the executive committee but lost his position as chairman and for this reason resigned from the YCI. Because of these events, the Young Communist International lost its leader; only Münzenberg had been able to stand up to the leadership of the Comintern.

The decisions which had been taken in Moscow didn’t totally suspend the autonomy of communist youth associations, but stated that the main duty of youth organizations should be the revolutionary education of the people, not tactical and political questions. This was a hard blow for many young communists, especially because the social democratic parties had enforced the same policy on the youth before. From then on the “Russian model”, which didn’t give importance to the political work of the youth, dominated.

During the second YCI congress, there was intense discussion about the youth issue, but in the end the argument of Komsomol was accepted by the majority of delegates. The resolution of the third Comintern congress had more bad news for the youth movement; it decided that the YCI should not just be subordinate to the decisions and orders of the Comintern congress but that it should be a representative of the Comintern’s will. There was to be no autonomy for the YCI and, because the Comintern congress was held before the one of the youth, the YCI had no influence on its decisions anymore; on the contrary, it was expected simply to accept them.

Münzenberg later stated in the newspaper “Jugend-Internationale”, that the suspension of the organizational autonomy of the communist youth organizations by the Comintern was a big mistake and that it would bring a lot of damage to the communist youth movement and also the Comintern itself. But step-by-step, political and organizational control fell increasingly into the hands of Moscow.

Decay of the YCI and conclusions

From there on the history of Comintern and the YCI became less interesting. Through the Bolshevik campaign in 1924 and Stalin’s politics in the Comintern, the YCI became a satellite of Comintern’s politics and thus of the foreign affairs policy of the Soviet Union. There were only a few other congresses, which stayed under central control. The YCI was dissolved together with the Comintern in 1943.

If one investigates these conflicts about the autonomy of youth organizations in the YCI’s first two years, the main question is which role this conflict played for the further development of the Youth International and communist movements in general. The intention of the voluntary subordination of the YCI to the Comintern was essentially to defend the revolutionary line of the youth, but it opened the door for the Soviet bureaucracy to push the Youth International away from the line of revolution and leave the whole communist movement without a vanguard.

An autonomous Young Communist International could have been a bulwark against Stalinism and could have helped to break this bureaucracy. But the weakened ineffective YCI became an actionist and bureaucratic association, which the central party also used against internal critics. In the history of many leftist organizations, it can be seen that the party leadership used the youth as a tool against the actual values and principles of the party.

The beginnings of the Young Communist International’s history shows that young revolutionaries need to organize themselves as a part of the general revolutionary movement, but that there is also a necessity for an autonomous organization which allows them both to take part in the larger movement and to play their own role. The thoughts of Lenin concerning this subject from 1915 are relevant today; that communists have to respect the desire of the youth associations for autonomy, and when dealing with conflicts, to trust only in the patient work of convincing.

From 1921 on the leadership of the Comintern gave up these principles in order to be able to enforce political changes urgently (and undemocratically). For this reason it dissolved the YCI leadership, which was experienced in its struggle and had an autonomous authority, and replaced it with passive bureaucrats. All told, this led to the decay of both the YCI and the Comintern, instead of allowing them to play their role against dissolution and degeneration.

But the hope of and the search for freedom and the right socialism didn’t end. The uprisings of the last years from Greece to Tunis, from Egypt to Oakland, from Brasil to Gezî and from Spain to Kurdistan proofed exactly that and shows also that this search for freedom and solutions for the chaos of capitalist modernity has an internationalist dimension. In our opinion there is especially a lack of thinking alternatives to capitalist ideology, no organizational framework to express the common struggle and the question of a revolutionary vanguard.

Abdullah Öcalan’s reflections and analyzes (also on real-socialism) and the new paradigm of democratic modernity gives us a new international socialist perspective. Expressed especially by more than 40 years experiences and practice of the PKK youth movement. Crystallizing in the ongoing Rovaja revolution, which is based on democratic self-organization, ecology, women’s liberation and the dynamic of the youth and the creation of the Federation of Northern Syria, that shows us another world is possible.

Main source:

Internationalist Commune

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