The Unexpected Vanguard - The Role of Youth Behind the Iron Curtain

Submitted by AWL on 17 September, 2013 - 4:23

In a message to a Paris rally last November, Albert Camus said:

"I admit that I was tempted in recent years to despair of the fate of freedom ... I feared that it was really dead, and that was why it sometimes seemed to me that all things were being covered over by the dishonor of our time. But the young people of Hungary, of Spain, of France, of all countries, proved to us that this is not so and that nothing has destroyed or ever will destroy that pure and violent force that impels men and nations to demand the honor of living with integrity."

In saying this, Camus was acknowledging a tremendous political fact of the past year, one that was especially apparent in the struggle against Stalinism in Eastern Europe: that youth was playing an extremely important role, that youth was in the leadership of the revolution.

The facts are well known.

In Poland, one of the main centers of the upheaval that broke out after Poznan and culminated in the events of October was a youth paper, Po Prostu. In the elections early in 1957, the youth continued to maintain their position of aggressive political leadership by opposing Gomulka's line and calling for the defeat of the old-line Stalinists on the Communist Party list. And now, at the official May Day parade in Warsaw it is reported that the police had to forcibly subdue students who were preparing to march with signs proclaiming "Down with Censorship" and "We Do Not Want To Be Unemployed Graduates" (a reference to the growth of unemployment in Poland).

In Hungary, the youth played the same kind of role.

The political center of the pre-revolutionary ferment there was the Petofi Circle, an organization of students and intellectuals. The revolution itself broke out after the police attempted to suppress a demonstration called by the youth. And months after the brutal and murderous suppression of the revolution, the students of Budapest continued to fight on together with the workers, and Kadar had to fight them with violence and police measures.


In Russia itself, reports emerged during the year describing a vast youth ferment. At a university in Moscow, one hundred and forty students were expelled for supporting the Hungarian Revolution. And there were other instances, cases in which party speakers were howled down, instances in which the youth rebelled against the totalitarian dictation.

In Russia, of course, the developments did not proceed as far as they did in Poland and in Hungary – to independent student organizations working out their own revolutionary programs – yet the ferment was undeniably there. And, at year's end, the reports continued to come in from all over the Stalinist empire, from China and from East Germany (where Wolfgang Harich, the intellectual leader of the student discontent, was sentenced to prison).

The leading role of youth In Poland and Hungary, the reports from Russia, China and East Germany, these instances add up to an important generalization: that youth is one of the most important revolutionary elements in the entire Stalinist world.

What is the basis of this development?

There is no social class of "youth" comparable to a working class, a bourgeoisie or a Stalinist bureaucracy. More: in the Stalinist empire, the students occupy a privileged position. They are given the opportunity to attend school at state expense and are clearly marked for favored positions in the bureaucracy of the future. How, then, can we explain the role which they played? What is its significance for the future?


To understand the role of the youth in the East European anti-Stalinist revolution, one must begin outside the university, among the people.

A Po Prostu, a Petofi Circle, these are only possible because of a general development in the society. They are the first dramatic, visible sign of a crisis which is their precondition. For it was precisely the disaffection of the masses, and particularly of the working class, which was at the bottom of the general phenomenon of the "thaw" in Stalinist society.

In response to these pressures, the ruling class attempts to head off an explosion by offering sops. The party itself is torn by debate. And as a consequence. It becomes possible for the youth to speak, to take the first tentative steps toward organisation.

But if a ferment in the society as a whole is a precondition of the emergence of political movement among the students and intellectuals, this still doesn't explain the revolutionary form which this movement takes almost from the start. To understand this, a whole series of factors have to be taken into account.

In Eastern Europe, where the Stalinist bureaucracy is a relatively new phenomenon imposed from the outside by force of Russian arms, the educational stratification which has now developed in Russia has not yet taken place. There is not an entire generation of children of the bureaucracy to fill the schools, to become the juvenile delinquents and the "golden youth." At the same time, the regime cannot attempt to recruit its future cadres from the remnants of the bourgeoisie. Consequently, it turns to the children of the working class and the peasantry.

And this means that the formative social influence of these students lies in the conditions of life of the exploited and the oppressed. It sets up a natural link, for instance, between the students and the working class, one which certainly does not exist in many American colleges and is probably not at all as important in Russia itself.


Secondly, the youth under Stalinism are constantly exposed to the classics of Marxism. Daily they read that the exploited must organise, that the workers must take their own destiny into their hands. And at the same time, they are told that they live in a "workers' state" - yet they have eyes.

That this education had its effect is apparent in the youth manifestos of both Hungary and Poland. They are phrased in the language of the revolutionary Marxian movement; they are committed to socialism. Thus, even deformed and Stalinized, the great tradition of the working-class movement takes root among the students.

Thirdly, the youth come into a peculiarly immediate contact with the totalitarian apparatus: they are confronted in everything they do by censorship. Thus, the slogans of the right to read, of freedom of books, have been evident in youth demonstrations in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and East Germany. If one can speak of a student "condition of life," one of its natural necessities is academic freedom.

Significantly, the pre-revolutionary discussion in Hungary began around a discussion of aesthetics, of "socialist realism," and freedom for the artist. Yet, as the regime realized too late, the demand for any single freedom under Stalinism leads, by an almost inevitable chain reaction, to a revolutionary demand for full and complete freedom. In mid-October, the Hungarian Stalinists sought to ban the debates over "art" which were drawing five thousand students and intellectuals. But the revolution had already begun its course.


Those are same of the crucial elements that influenced the form which the youth ferment took once it became possible. The children of exploited workers and peasants, trained in a perverted and deformed Marxism yet in Marxism, and confronting the repressive state in their own immediate experience through the continuing denial of all academic freedom, began to move. Their direction was pro-working class, socialist, toward freedom for all.

In the second stage of the pre-revolutionary period, the students continue to play a crucial role. In their meetings, they begin to formulate a political program for the revolution – a program which is later adopted, in large measure, by the masses.

At this point, the youth are no longer acting as an effect, a consequence, of a revolutionary ferment outside of the university. They now, in turn, influence those mass pressures and, with the intellectuals and writers, begin to articulate the political demands of the people.

On October 21 in Budapest, for example, it was the student body of the Polytechnic University which made the following demands: withdraw Russian troops; revise economic treaties with Russia; secret general elections with more than one party; recognition of the right to strike; solidarity with the revolutionary movement in Poland – these points were later to be inscribed upon the banners of the workers' councils.

In one sense, they welled naturally out of all the Hungarian people after the nightmare of a decade of Stalinism. But their first articulation, their first publication, came, in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, from the students and the intellectuals.

But once the revolution itself breaks out, the students recede somewhat into the background. They fight and die, to be sure. But the center of the revolution now becomes the masses in the street, and particularly the working class in arms. This is the decisive force from which all manifestos derive their authority and their meaning. And the students are not a social class; they are not organised, like the workers, into large, cohesive groups accustomed to common action by the very conditions of their existence. The role of the students now becomes auxiliary.

And yet, not one student group in Poland or Hungary maintained the contrary; there was no tendency, as far as we can tell from the reports, of youth "vanguard ism" in the sense of substituting themselves for the working class.

The students understood, as did everyone else in the society, that the revolution would have to be made, in the main, by the working class. And for this reason they addressed their appeals to the workers, they solidarized themselves with them – they projected an image of the revolution in the socialist tradition. And they were, of course, right.


Thus, the further course of the revolution. Once the ferment has begun, the students participate in the very important task of articulating a political program. But once the revolution itself is in motion in the streets, the youth become auxiliary, they fight and die bravely, but their importance as a group recedes in the face of the immediate armed struggle.

But what is the next stage?

In Poland, the youth, even now, continue their role of articulating the political demands of the must advanced sections of the people. There, the peculiar outcome of the revolution - suspended between victory and defeat, moving backward slowly – has kept them in the forefront of events. In Hungary, where the revolution was murdered in cold blood by the Russians, the youth fought on into 1957, but eventually they were terrorized into silence by the Kadar regime.

And yet it is clear that the whole outcome of the East European revolution is temporary, that the Stalinists have not "returned" to their old regime, but found an uneasy stabilization. And in this situation, the students pose a continuing danger to the regime.

The conditions which led to the role which they played in Poland and Hungary still exist. They may be driven underground but, as the German socialists pointed out last month, they will continue their resistance, their meetings, their exchange of ideas.

In the anti-Stalinist revolution of tomorrow, one can be sure: youth will be there, playing an important role, for under Stalinism youth is in motion, and their direction is freedom.

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