Volume 47, Issue 1: January/February 2013

Revolting Youth

Marching to the Music of Youth

Radicals, unlike reactionaries, value youth. An American revolutionary who came out of the tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World, James P. Cannon, noted in 1950 that “The mark of a man’s life is his capacity to march to the music of his youth.”

“Bliss was it in that dawn”: Youth and Revolution’s Origins

In the history of revolutions and the movements that brought them into being, the idealism and activist energy of youth loom large. As the English romantic poet William Wordsworth looked back on the French Revolution of 1789, remembering how the tumultuous events of that era of enlightenment and social transformation appeared to enthusiasts of the time, he wrote:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

Throwing off the shackles of feudal constraint, defiant in the face of power’s recourse to religious superstition to shore up the divine right of kings and other age-old, other-worldly authorities, the youthful embrace of “reason” fed the torrential waves of change. This proved nothing less than “A prime Enchantress … [a] budding rose above the rose full bloom.” The ancien régime was brought to its knees.

This demography of democracy is not often noted in discussions of revolutionary histories dominated by accounts of sans culottes and figures such as Robespierre and Danton. But it was decisive. In 1789 the old order was assailed by the explosive presence of the young. Those under the age of 20 made up no less than 36 percent of the population; those over 40 had dwindled to barely one quarter of the society. Yet for the young, avenues of opportunity seemed closed. Crane Brinton’s classic study The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1952) long ago pointed out the importance of the increasing numbers of unemployed young intellectuals who, by the 1780s, were flocking to Paris to “write and talk their way” to fortunes that seemed, year by year, to be more and more illusive.

What Is to Be Done’s Appeal to the Young

Something similar was happening in Russia in the late 19th century. Successive waves of “angry young men” emerged out of the privileged classes, complementing the seething discontent of the landed and increasingly oppressed peasantry. The “Young Russia” movement of the 1860s called for a relentless war to be waged against czarism. One of its leaders, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, was arrested, imprisoned and condemned to forced labour in Siberia, but he managed to write a revolutionary novel, What Is to Be Done?, while incarcerated. More than any other single text, including Marx’s Capital, Chernyshevsky’s book galvanized youthful Russian revolutionaries, some of whom mobilized as the People’s Will. Lenin read What is to be Done? repeatedly in 1887 as his older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was executed by the state for his part in a plot to kill Czar Alexander III. The brothers were 17 and 21 years of age at the time. Six years later Lenin was a committed revolutionary, spearheading the formation of the Union of Struggle and the Emancipation of the Working Class. Most of the leading figures in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Leon Trotsky included, had become committed revolutionaries before they reached the age of 20.

The situation was remarkably similar among the growing ranks of Japanese, Chinese and Korean anarchists in a slightly later period, where leading activists in the movement had almost always served time in prison well before they reached the age of 30. In such circles Peter Kropotkin’s Appeal to the Young, first published in Le Révolté in 1880 and widely translated into many languages, was influential. Among many East Asian student radicals, anarchism, socialism and anti-colonial nationalism fused in the 1920s and 1930s, this mixture always percolating through the political sieve of internationalism. A youthful Ho Chi Minh, the future liberator of Vietnam, traversed the globe before settling into the Comintern, where his nom-de-plume was “Nguyen the Patriot.”

Depression Decade

In the English-speaking 20th-century world it was no different, although the causes to which youth attached themselves changed over time. The Depression decade saw youth gravitate to the Communist Party. “I became a Communist in 1932,” recalled the recently deceased Eric Hobsbawm in his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002). Hobsbawm was 15 when he made the decision to join the revolutionary left.

Student radicalism in the United States in the 1930s was profoundly anti-war. The American Student Union (ASU) rallied upwards of 500,000 youth, about half of all college students, in a series of annual one-hour strikes against the war in the years 1936–1939. Influenced less by the Communist Party than by the more moderate politics of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy, the ASU promoted government aid to education, state-sponsored youth job programs, abolition of compulsory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), freedom of speech, racial equality, trade union entitlements, various supports for lowincome and unemployed youth, and the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

The Striking ’60s

Youth radicalism exploded in the 1960s. May 1968 remains as arguably the most visible signpost of youthful rebellion in the modern world. The generation of ’68 rocked the structures of power globally, in Paris and Prague, Mexico City and Manhattan. In France student protests and boycotts of classes involved tens of thousands. Soon this escalated into wildcat fervour. Workers, at first distanced from the fray, linked arms with young rebels. Defiant of their often Old Left leaders, workers’ resentments boiled over, and a General Strike movement erupted. Eleven million workers marched out of their factories and department stores and warehouses; 20 percent of the entire population of the country joined the festival of rebellion. The regime of President General De Gaulle seemed poised to fall. From the barricades young dissidents launched missiles, rhetorical as well as real, at the symbols and substance of entrenched authority. Under the banner “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” student leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit cultivated stands of defiance, painting the walls of Paris with the graffiti of youthful bravado, pillorying antiquated politics of obsolescence, be they of the right or the left: “Worker: You are 25, but your union is from another century”; “Run comrade, the old world is behind you”; “Stalinists, your children are with us!”; and, under the image of a brick, “Under 21. Here is your ballot!”

De Gaulle survived the deluge. Pakistan’s Field Marshall Ayub Khan, a military dictator in power since 1958 and widely perceived to rely on rigged elections to secure his government, was less fortunate. Students and workers, professionals and prostitutes, surged into the thoroughfares and alleyways of Karachi and Lahore throughout 1968 and into 1969. Hundreds were killed before Ayub Khan was forced to resign.

Vietnam: The Arc of Dissent

Born of a crescendo of activism associated with the long-standing civil rights movement and the more decade-specific protests against the Vietnam War, in the United States this revolt of the students crystallized in the formation of the New Left. Its manifesto, the Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) Port Huron Statement (1962) railed against bureaucracy, technocracy, racial discrimination, the nuclear arms race, poverty, economic inequality, colonial domination of the developing world by the industrialized west, and much more. Rebellious SDS youth like Tom Hayden saw little to champion in actually existing Cold War communism, but neither did they regard complacent, consumer capitalism as having much in the way of attractions. The Port Huron Statement concluded: “If we appear to seek the unattainable… we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

By 1968 the challenge of youth radicalism seemed everywhere, most emphatically in the street demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of now visibly differentiated (by their hair, their clothes, their language and their relentlessly confrontational demeanour) hippies and political heavies into the arena of public refusal. Particularly in anti-war mobilizations aimed at weakening United States imperialism’s aggressive and increasingly deadly military occupation of Vietnam, youth radicals registered decisive impacts. They lent material support to the National Liberation Front’s attempt to defeat the armed forces of colonization. But in a host of other realms, as well, the youthful New Left left its mark.

Campuses were transformed and long-entrenched practices of treating students as dependent children were either jettisoned or softened considerably. The arts, especially the dynamic music scene, was forever changed, infused with new rhythms of pulsating drive and notes of previously unanticipated heights. Magazines, news services, journals, pamphlet-producing projects, and a host of other outlets popularized new ideas and challenged conventional wisdoms, not only with their substantive content but also with their form, which flew in the face of everything staid and settled. Black power, Red power, and Women’s power emerged in ways previously unanticipated. All were paced by young advocates defiant in their cries for Liberation Now!

Feminism’s Force

As the tone of youth revolt stiffened, the pace of escalating insistence quickened. Anti-war rallies grew in size, but also fractured into often antagonistic factional streams. Many continued to march under the banner “Bring the boys home,” but there were those in a now irrevocably divided SDS (the organization split into three competing bodies in 1969) who opted to “Bring the war home!” Weatherman and Red Brigades turned to the politics of terror in the United States and Italy, for instance; their retreat from mass mobilizations and their strategic embrace of “exemplary deeds” were a measure of frustrations too often associated with despair and even death.

Other young radicals, male and female, gravitated to different political tendencies, joining nascent vanguards in the increasingly important Maoist and Trotskyist revolutionary left. Feminism’s impact registered in a variety of ways, including the establishment of separatist women’s organizations, but more common were demonstrations that called attention to women’s oppression. The Vancouver Women’s Caucus’s April 1970 call for an Abortion Caravan to make its way across the country to Ottawa, demanding “Free Abortion on Demand” and “Every Child a Wanted Child,” led by example.

Indeed, Canada had been an early site of imaginative New Left feminist theorizing, all of it undertaken by young women animated by the upheavals of the 1960s. In Vancouver, Maggie Benston, a 28-year old chemist, penned a highly influential and widely circulated article, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” published in the influential New York-based Monthly Review. Four women (Judy Bernstein, Peggy Morton, Linda Seese and Myrna Wood) associated with an SDS-type organization, the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA), wrote “Sisters, Brothers, Lovers … Listen,” which became the founding document of the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement.

These women, who produced statements that were often in advance of thinking in the United States or Europe, were barely out of their teens.

Canada/Québec in the 1960s

By this time, Canada’s particular New Left had generated a number of important developments, sustaining publications like Our Generation Against Nuclear War, Canadian Dimension, and This Magazine Is About Schools, as well as organizations like SUPA. Student radicals affiliated with the latter worked on inner-city anti-poverty campaigns, lived on aboriginal reserves in order to build relations and contribute to the capacities of native peoples to resist colonization and its oppressions, camped out at nuclear arms sites to advocate disarmament, aided draft resisters coming to Canada from the United States, and organized teach-ins about imperialism and other controversial subjects. Many SUPA members had close connections with American civil rights movements. They experienced firsthand the violence directed at freedom riders in the deep South, whose attempts to register black voters resulted in Ku Klux Klan-type terror that, on occasion, left young white and black radicals maimed or murdered.

As the Canadian state responded to this youth radicalization with its own programs directed at urban poverty and native reserves, some in SUPA jumped ship to the state-sponsored Company of Young Canadians (CYC). It seemed to offer opportunities and resources harder to come by in the more autonomous spheres of student radicalism. But this largesse came with the sickly sweet aftertaste of co-optation.

In Québec, where the 1960s saw a proliferation of movements and organizations dedicated to radical understandings of independence and resistance to Anglo-American colonization, the state turned less towards co-optation and more towards infiltration and repression. This was because among francophone youth, the rebellions of the 1960s tended to fuse class and national grievance in a “patriot movement” that, at its more extreme margins, advocated a violent assault on the visible presence of those forces “occupying” Québec: primarily money, language, and the institutions and armed might of federal authority. The Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) was the sometimes less than visible tip of a virtual iceberg of discontent in the anything but “belle province” of Canadian confederation.

By the end of 1970, the FLQ and its young leaders and recruits were largely in prison or on the run, overpowered by a state that often knew, through informants, of the every move of its clandestine cells.

Tanks toured Montréal; police rounded up radicals and kept them jailed under the elastic coercive powers of the War Measures Act.

After the kidnapping and killing of Pierre Laporte, a Québec cabinet minister, in October 1970, the youthful New Left-like exuberance of those who had once rallied to the broad cause of independence and its related commitment to a democratic ethos that refused all manner of inequalities, especially those bred in the bone of class exploitation, melted away. Its remains flowed hurriedly into languid rivulets of oppositional electoral politics like René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois. Pierre Vallières, whose trajectory moved from 20-yearold aspiring philosopher to 30-year-old advocate of revolutionary terror (1958–1968), had once declared to throngs of cheering allies, “The FLQ is each of you. It is every Québécois who stands up.” Such words, as the 1960s came to a coerced close in French Canada, registered with decidedly less approval in the 1970s.

**The Return of the Repressed*8

As the tumult of 1968 faded into memory, many proclaimed the death of youth radicalism. Capitalism’s long boom of seeming affluence, commencing in the immediate aftermath of World War II , and lasting for approximately three decades, came to a grinding halt in the mid-1970s. With the consequent dismantling of a short-lived liberal order’s programmatic commitment to the “just society,” youth, like the unions, the women’s movement, militant “Indians,” and the revolutionary left in general, seemed in retreat. Economic restraint straightjacketed those given to confrontation and challenge. A politics of quietude appeared, superficially, to be hegemonic.

When specific groups did manage to rise up angry in resistance, the result was often debilitating defeat, as in British Columbia’s Solidarity uprising of 1983. Social democratic governments in Québec and elsewhere made their peace with power, and ruled as guardians of the interests of capital. Bob Rae’s New Democrats managed to electorally win governing office for the first time in an historic 1990s Ontario breakthrough, only to have the faltering economy constrain reform to the point that it soured in the mouths of supporters. They choked on a “Social Contract” that attacked longstanding rights of trade unions and made the turn to austerity that has dominated the politics of the last decades. Liberals turned Tory, and Tories went ballistic in a rampage of reaction that put the iron heel against the throat of many. Youth looked into this crushing “common sense” revolution from above, in which “cutting back” and “downsizing” figured so prominently, and saw “boot camps” championed as an answer to their dilemmas: a horizon of increasingly costly higher education looming, with prospects of employment slim or none. Small wonder that, in the context of such debilitating limitation, revolting youth seemed few and far between, the rebellious upheavals of the 1960s the stuff of nostalgic narrative.

History takes these unfortunate and difficult detours. But they are never permanent. Marx once noted that revolution was like an old mole, capable of burrowing deep underground in unpropitious times. Youth is like that as well. It can retreat in the face of repression, and appear silenced and staid. But this is not likely to remain its nature for long.

As the Québec students have recently shown, not only to Canadians but to the world, youth can not be suppressed indefinitely. For the young are the hope of the future, a barometer that measures not only the health of the left and its possibilities, but the character and direction of civil society. Like the students of May 1968 in France, whose rebellion was stirred by parental-like monitoring of their dormitories, but who lived out their dissent in ways that threw a challenging scare into the structures of capitalist power, the youth of Québec protested a rise in tuition only to find themselves questioning the nature of their social order. In their innovative and festive nightly parades, rough musicking cabinet ministers and mocking the pretensions of the state, Québec’s students illuminated the darkness of our times with ringing declarations of dissent. 300,000 participated in these spectacles of social protest. They demanded nothing less than a halt to attacks on the many in the interests of the few. A recalcitrant premier was humbled. The governing Liberal Party was knocked out of the electoral ring. If the students failed to win the entirety of their expansive demands, they secured impressive material concessions. Ruling authority was embarrassed, which is a decisive beginning in any breach of the social relations of subordination. This did not happen without these students paying a significant price. They lost their time, which in good bourgeois morality is money. And some will pay a higher price. The Québec state enacted repressive ‘gag’ legislation, known as Bill 78/Law 12, and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of the Coalition large de l’Association de solidarité des étudiants (CLASSE), has been convicted of violating court injunctions, condemned by a proselytizing judge for fomenting “anarchy” and “civil disobedience.” Nadeau-Dubois faces a large fine and time in jail. [Editor’s Note: Nadeau-Dubois was sentenced to 120 hours of community service on December 5, 2012.] But as youthful movements of protest have always maintained, ideas, principles and commitments can not be silenced by the containments of the courts.

Around the globe, an uprising of youth seems again very much on the agenda, a cause for hope and celebration. Rebellious youth paced the drive to the Arab Spring; they are the street soldiers in ongoing battles that reflect the crippling of Euro-economies like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where unemployment of the young has surged to 50 percent. And they appear, in spite of all that stands against them, as powerful voices of demanded change in China, where acts of dissidence place people in great danger.

We face a new dawn. Youth will have to be on the side of radical change. But the young will need more than themselves. Those who march to the music of youths’ past must be with them, for victories against powerful forces of retrenchment and reaction will only truly be won when young and old, energy, enthusiasm, and experience stand together. As one banner from 1968 proclaimed, “This concerns everyone.”