The Idealist in the Young Communist League
JANUARY 01, 1991 by ARNOLD BERWICK
Mr. Berwick is a retired attorney living in Santa Cruz, California.
“The Yanks are not coming . . . The Yanks are not coming?”
In 1941, as I approached Sather Gate on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley, I once again heard a voice cry out this slogan. But never before had I heard it expressed with so much vigor. That’s when I met Steve, a member of the Young Communist League and an ardent pacifist.
I had already learned that a Communist was not what I had previously been led to believe him to be: a man with a black beard, dressed in a long black overcoat hanging to the ground, and holding a bomb that looked like a black bowling ball. I had already learned that Communists looked pretty much like the rest of us.
But on this particular day I was more interested in the young fellow handing out the leaflets than in his message. His eyes were alive, sparkling; the tone and vitality of his voice evidenced a profound enthusiasm that you seldom heard. I felt an affinity with him, as though he was someone I’d like as a friend.
“The Yanks are not coming,” he cried out as he handed me a leaflet. I accepted it, but then stopped. He turned and looked at me. We made eye contact.
I wasn’t sure how one went about talking to a Communist. I had heard about the Spanish Civil War and the part the Abraham Lincoln Battalion had played in it. So I asked Steve (I don’t remember his real name) what it was about. His face brightened and he said, “Come with me.”
We left Sather Gate and walked down Telegraph Avenue. (At that time, Sather Gate was at the southern edge of the campus. Since then, the University has expanded and taken over the whole adjoining block.) Steve led me to the Twentieth Century Book Store, the “Store with a Social Conscience,” around the corner on Bancroft Way. As I waited by the counter, he opened the door to a rear room. A fellow came out and told me he had been in the Lincoln Battalion in Spain, and told me about the evils of fascism and the horrors of war.
I saw Steve a couple of times again at Sather Gate. We chatted for a few moments, he occasionally calling out, “Keep America out of the war . . . The Yanks are not coming.”
The semester ended and most of us students left the campus for summer vacation. One day, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that Hitler had invaded Russia. He and Stalin had had a nonaggression pact, and now Hitler had attacked. What effect would this have on the YCL? . . . on Steve?
As I approached Sather Gate at the beginning of the fall semester, someone else had taken Steve’s place. The new guy was waving a handful of leaflets and calling out a slogan—familiar and yet different. At first, I thought I had misunderstood him, but when I reached out for a leaflet and read it, I knew I had heard correctly. And yet, at first I couldn’t fully comprehend. The leaflet said, “The Yanks are not coming too late.”
“Too late.” The Yanks are not coming . . . too late!” Why this was a complete switch, a 180 degree turn-around. Now the YCL wanted us in the war. How could that be?
Steve was not at Sather Gate the next day, or the next. I never saw him again.
I liked Steve. Naive as I was at that time, I might even have wanted to join him, might even have become a member of the YCL. Who knows what might have happened? As it was, I later registered as a Republican and have pretty much followed that line all my life.
After 50 years, I still occasionally think of Steve, and wonder what happened to him. And what was the Young Communist League? How did it operate? Why the big switch? What was going on behind the scenes?
Now retired and with some free time of my own, I’ve been to the Bancroft Library at UC and found folders containing the old leaflets handed out at Sather Gate during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. I’ve scanned issues of the Daily Californian newspaper, read many books, examined transcripts of the Un-American Activities Committees, and have even managed to locate a copy of a handbook entitled,”Young Communists in Action,” published in 1935 by the Educational Department of the Young Communist League (District 13). The handbook was compiled by a Lewis Miller. (I was surprised to learn later who Lewis Miller really was.)
The handbook opens on a high note: “GREETINGS, COMRADE! We welcome you into the YCL. You are joining the fight against capitalism, and the hunger, privation and oppression it breeds. Together, we form the revolutionary advance guard of youth—marching towards the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a new, a workers’ society.” It asks, “How does it happen that there are millions of people out of work? . . . How come the Depression takes place, and a fellow who wants to work can’t get a job?”
To anyone living in those Depression days, it didn’t take much argument to be convinced that, as an economic system, capitalism was a failure. Almost everyone was suffering in one way or another. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
After expounding on all the evils of capitalism, the handbook asks, “Can these conditions be wiped out, and a decent society established? Yes! . . . Through Communism.” A Communist society will end wars, abolish unemployment, promote racial equality, provide food for all, preserve health, and so on. And what proof is there that the Communists will and can do this? “The proof exists—it is the living example of the Soviet Union.”
How attractive this utopian world appeared to those who were living under the burdens of the Depression and the ominous threats of Hitler and Mussolini. There was hope for a better life because “. . . the Soviet Union stands out like a beacon light in a world of chaos and crisis.”
The handbook explains that the YCL, open to all workers and students between the ages of 16 and 25, is the preparatory school for the Communist Party. In great detail, It describes the organizational structure of the League, starting with Squads of only 4 or 5 members—several of which comprise a Unit, leading to a District, a National, and ultimately the International. Each Unit has an Organizer, a Dues Secretary, an Education Director (in charge of agitation and propaganda), and a Literature Agent. The handbook instructs how the League can achieve its goals by infiltrating unions, promoting strikes, agitating for reforms, conducting demonstrations and street meetings, recruiting new members, publishing and distributing leaflets, and so on.
The 39-page handbook begins and ends on the upbeat: “We have a hard fight ahead of us—it is no simple job to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, a new life. We are glad to have you with us. From all over the world, from the mines of South Africa, from the fatherland of the workers—the Soviet Union—from the factories of Tokyo, from the Red Army of China, millions of young Communists extend their hands to you and say: ‘GREETINGS, COMRADE!’”
One way the Party was able to lure young people in and exercise control over them was through its ability to manipulate the meaning of words. Even the term “communism” is deceptive. The terms “communism” and “socialism” are used interchangeably, but the true Marxists make a distinction between the two. Socialism, they say, is a transitional stage between capitalism and Marxist Communism. Under socialism, the “proletariat” has complete ownership of the means of production, money continues in use, and goods are distributed according to one’s “contribution” to society. But once a communist man is created (selfless, hardworking, and devoid of greed, aggression, envy, ill-health, etc.), the socialist state will wither away, and the people will live in a classless, perfect Communist society.
But Lenin altered Marxism. He called for a party of professional revolutionaries, highly disciplined, whose aim should be to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. (In practice, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union is the “vanguard of the proletariat.” In 1988, only 6 percent of Soviet citizens were members of the Party.) Lenin urged open and persistent warfare against the socialists, and a long-term program of worldwide revolution to spread his concept of “communism.”
When Stalin took over in 1924, he decided to establish his own form of “communism” in the Soviet Union, without waiting for revolutions to occur in the main capitalist countries. This required intensification of the class struggle, liquidation of his “enemies,” and a policy of internal repression and terror. His policies shifted, depending upon what he felt at any particular time to be in the best interests of the Soviet Union—and of his own personal power. He demanded, and got, complete control over the Party.
So, the young idealists in the ‘30s and ‘40s were lured in by visions of the perfect world of “communism,” while they were innocently and unknow-ingly caught in the web of Stalinism, a totalitarian dictatorship.
The name of the youth organization has been changed off and on to suit the circumstances. The All-Russian YCL was formed in 1918, and the Young Communist International in 1919. Because of the attempts to crush all left-wing movements in the United States during the period, the revolutionary youth in this country operated under the name of the Young Workers League of America. But in 1924 (with the advent of Stalin), it changed its name to the Young Communist League. During World War II, in a gesture to make the entire Communist organization less offensive to the U.S., the name became American Youth for Democracy. Later, it was changed to Labor Youth League, then Young Workers’ Liberation League, and so on.
Also Known As . . .
Some of the professional leaders used aliases. In a 1953 hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mr. Rosser, an ex-Communist, was questioned about the “Young Communists in Action” handbook (quoted above). He tesfified that it was written by Lewis Miller, but then added that “Lewis Miller . . . was his party and Young Communist League name. His real name is Louis Goldblatt. He is now the secretary-treasurer of the International Longshoremen’s and Ware-housemen’s Union. . . . Harry Bridges is the head of it.” (It is interesting to note that in a 1943 hearing, it was learned that the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, which Bridges headed, coined the slogan, “The Yanks are not coming.”)
Another creative interpretation of words by the Party was the meaning they ascribed to “democracy” and “democratic.” Page 21 of the handbook explains the concept of “democratic centralism,” which allows the members “complete freedom” in the choice of officers and the discussion “of all issues.” Surely, this is true democracy. But, the decisions are to be made on the top of the organizational pyramid and transmitted down to the membership. And once a decision has been made by a higher body, “the discussion must be ended and the decision carried out, even if the membership of the local organization” does not agree. To question was heresy; to disagree, a mortal sin—sufficient to cause expulsion from the League. “Democratic centralism” is a euphemism for authoritarian control.
Many young people joined the YCL in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, the League’s “Golden Age.” Why?
According to Morris L. Ernst and David Loth in their Report on the American Communist, some who were lonely, or who lacked love from their own family, found that the YCL gave them a sense of belonging, an illusion of popularity that marked the high point in their lives. Others, following a young person’s natural inclination to attempt some sort of adolescent defiance, joined as a form of rebellion against authority. Apparently, most of these young people were sincere idealists, searching for better economic conditions, free speech, racial equality, health care, avoidance of war, and all the other goals any decent person would strive for and which only the Communists seemed prepared to do something about.
Of the many young people who joined the YCL, however, the majority became disillusioned and dropped out after two or three years. As one ex-Communist said, he fought hard from within the Party for better working conditions, race equality, and free speech, but left “because the commies don’t really want these reforms. They want to use the lack of them to win their own game.” And what was their game? The problem was that the leaders continually switched goals, made abrupt about-faces. It was often difficult to determine what the game was at any particular time.
Between 1928 and 1938, many members quit when Stalin had Trotsky exiled, old Bolsheviks slaughtered, and comrades of Lenin purged. At that time, Stalin’s policy was not so much against capitalism as it was against the socialists.
From 1935 to 1939, the fear of a German invasion of Soviet Russia gave rise to a “collective security” policy. Stalin decided to appear “democratic” and “antifascist,” a real friend to democracy and the guardian of every tradition of freedom and civil liberty. He ordered that the YCL and the Communist Party penetrate the unions and all types of organizations, and build a “united front” against fascism. The Civil War was being fought in Spain. Franco was a fascist, and this was the beginning of the war against fascism. With the European democracies insistently neutral and the United States aloof, it seemed to many young people that only the Communists and the Soviet Union were seriously engaged in combating fascism. Some 2,800 Americans, 60 percent of them said to be members of the YCL, fought in Spain as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigade. Of these, it is estimated that over half lost their lives.
Hitler and Stalin
And then came August 3, 1939, and another turnabout in policy. Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, the most fearsome fascist of all. This was followed by two secret protocols which provided that Russia and Germany would partition Poland between them, and that Russia would absorb Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of Finland and Romania. Although Stalin was certain that war between England and France on one side, and Germany on the other, would continue, he feared an extension of the war to new participants, particularly the United States. American participation could cause the defeat of Hitler and thus endanger Stalin’s ability to acquire part of Poland and the new areas agreed to in the secret protocols, an eventuality that might involve Russia in a war it desperately wanted to avoid. On the other hand, if the war could be confined to England, France, and Germany, capitalism might destroy itself, leaving the United States as the only obstacle to domination by the Soviet Union. So, the policy was changed from the fight against fascism to the fight against imperialism. The slogans became “Keep America out of the war” and “The Yanks are not coming.”
This was the situation when Steve handed out leaflets at Sather Gate. The YCL increased its efforts, held protest meetings, and fomented strikes in war industries. Roosevelt was declared a warmonger.
On June 22,1941, Hitler invaded Soviet Russia. Strikes that had been initiated by Communist-dominated unions were quickly settled, some within a week after the attack. Roosevelt became an overnight hero. The American Peace Mobilization was quickly changed to American People’s Mobilization; they switched from antiwar to all-out aid to Britain—without even changing their initials. “The Yanks are not coming” became “The Yanks are not coming too late.”
Evidently, this was too much for Steve. He no longer handed out leaflets at Sather Gate.
Members of the YCL were kept in the dark as to Stalin’s motives. So, each time there was a sudden and radical change in policy, when many realized they had been lied to and deceived, there were massive resignations.
Also, those who deviated even slightly from the current party line were expelled. Those who didn’t conform to the concept of “democratic central-ism” were driven from the ranks.
In Russia, by Khrushchev’s own testimony, resignation or expulsion often resulted in prison, torture, or death. In our country, the penalty was nonviolent but often distressful. According to Howard Fast in The Naked God, “When a Communist walks out of the Communist Party, he must travel through a special purgatory that no one other than he who has come through before can possibly understand.” Ostracized and cut off from the Party, some missed the companionship, the sense ofbelonging, the excitement, and the work the Party gave them. They became outcasts, shunned both by their former comrades and by the non-Communist world. The Party itself didn’t hesitate to resort to blackmail and persecution, writing anonymous letters to employers, slandering them, or in other ways making life miserable.
An ex-Communist was also often harassed by those outside the Party. He had difficulty getting a job, and often lost it if his employer found out about his youthful errors. Even a brief flirtation with a leftist group often tagged a person as a potentially dangerous individual, subject to scrutiny by Federal and state legislative committees. Many suffered during the witch hunts of the 1950s. Some went to jail.
According to Ernst and Loth in Report on the American Communist, most of the young Communists were “earnest, hardworking, studious youths, generally passionate for justice.” They joined in their teens, lured by the utopian idealism of Marxism, and betrayed by the evils of Stalinism. Most of them left after a short time when they saw they had become dupes of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
I don’t know what happened to Steve. But, wherever he is, I wish him well.
Postscript: After I wrote this article, I went to Berkeley for one last search. As a result of a series of fortunate events, I learned the name and present address of the person who was the president of the YCL in 1941.
When I went to see him, I was stunned by two revelations: First, he turned out to be a person I’ve known and seen off and on for almost 35 years! (He used a different name while a student in the YCL.) He read the article and said it accurately reflects the facts as he knows them. Second, he said that, although he is not sure, he believes it quite possible that he was “Steve.” He handed out leaflets at Sather Gate in May 1941; under the cir cumstances he would have led me to the bookstore; and he no longer appeared at Sather Gate after June 1941.
Although I prefer not to reveal his name, I can report that he appears happy and well. He had a business of his own before partial retirement, and lives in an affluent neighborhood. He’s even a registered Republican.