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.
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.
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.
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.
Chan, Anita. 1985. Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Fisher, Ralph Talcott, Jr. 1959. Pattern for Soviet Youth: A Study of the Congresses of the Komsomol, 1918–1954. New York: Columbia University 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.
Whitney, Susan B. 1996. "Embracing the Status Quo: French Communists, Young Women and the Popular Front." Journal of Social History 30, no. 1: 29–53.
SUSAN B. WHITNEY