Anatomy of decline - the Young Communist League 1967-86 PDF Print E-mail
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ANATOMY OF DECLINE

The Young Communist League of Great Britain 1967-86          

by                     

GRAHAM  STEVENSON

Right: The 1965 Midlands district congress of the YCL held at Well Lane, Birmingham. Harry Bourne, Midlands Party secretary speaks; the rest of the platform is Danny Bryan (YCL district chair) and Jim Hunt  (YCL district secretary)

 

PREFACE

 

"The tasks ... of the Young Communist Leagues ... might be summed up in a single word: learn ... the youth in general, who want to advance to Communism, should learn Communism."

 

"It is the task of the Youth League to organise its practical activities in such a way that, by learning, organising, uniting and fighting, its members shall train both themselves and all those who look to it for leadership; it should train Communists."

 

V I Lenin "The Tasks of the Youth Leagues". Speech delivered at the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League on October 2nd 1920.

 

 

"It is a quality of youth to be receptive, to be warm-hearted, to glow with enthusiasm. It is a characteristic of age to become opinionated, dictatorial...”

 

Tom Mann 1921

 

 

 

"Young people who come into contact with us, and they are many, choose not to join us partly because we don't have our house in order yet and partly because of the minority of "revolutionary Marxists" who rant on endlessly about the glories of the Soviet Union or the Bulgarian wheat harvest at YCL meetings, rather than grapple with the dilemma that feminism, lesbian and gay liberation and the black community pose to the established structures, theories and practices of the YCL. The YCL must change if it is to continue in existence."

 

Mark Ashton General Secretary of the YCL in a letter to the Morning Star published 21st March 1986.

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

 1         Bursting the Bubble

 2         Turning Rebels into Revolutionaries

 3         World Youth Festivals

 4         The Ideological Base of Inner-League Differences

 5         The 1970 Leadership Contest

 6         Retribution Against Opposition

 7         Three Cardinal Questions

                        a) Young Workers

                        b) School Students

c) Challenge

 8         Age and the YCL

 9         Division and Decline

10         Euro-Communism as a Distortion of Gramsci?

 

 

Appendices

 

1          Officers of the YCL

2          YCL Membership by Districts and National totals 1967-86

3          Graph of National Membership of the YCL 1967-86

4          YCL membership as a percentage of the CPGB membership

5          A personal note

6.         Initials used in the text

7          List of World Festivals of Youth and Students

 

 

 

1       BURSTING THE BUBBLE

 

From a strength of 6,031 members in 200 branches at its modern peak in September 1967, the Young Communist League ended the Eighties as an extinct force, long before the end of Eastern European Communist governments. The confusion, disappointment and despair arising from all this enabled the Communist Party of Great Britain, by a majority vote in its final Congress to vote itself out of existence. But it had been bereft of a YCL for the best part of a decade earlier. How had such a situation arisen? Why a study of the YCL?

 

The YCL largely mirrored - sometimes in advance - the decline of the Communist Party. The "adult" body had 30,000 members in 1,200 branches in the mid-Sixties, yet entered the Nineties with less than four thousand members. The problems faced by the YCL had been the same as those faced by the Party, yet interestingly the youth organisation anticipated its "parent" body by several years in parallel circumstances. There is a sense in which the CPGB leadership "experimented" with the YCL before trying out ideas inside the Party itself. Therefore, in this case, to understand the child is to understand the parent. Not the least since many key figures in the leadership who presided over the YCL's demise, were later to become part of the Party's leadership at its very core.  This section of the CP's leadership provided much of the leadership of Democratic Left, the rump, revisionist organisation which the CPGB transformed itself into during the 1990s. This body has now voted itself out of existence, after an inglorious period of continuing to disseminate confusion. Whilst the considerable assets of the CPGB remain in the hands of a tiny element constituted as a “network” in support of “pluralist politics”! The very name of the CPGB has become purloined by a handful of strange ultra-leftist, unconnected with its illustrious namesake’s past. The historic CPGB (but not its youth wing) has now become the preserve of writers, in search of new territory for PhD’s and their by-products, who rarely acknowledge the re-establishment of its finest traditions as the Communist Party of Britain. This was itself the product of attempts to prevent the Party from going the way of the YCLGB. In recent years, a renewed YCL has once again been established as the parallel youth organisation of the CPB. A study of the YCL in its final years thus repays itself for those who are interested, in a deeper understanding of the suicidal and homicidal tendencies displayed within the CPGB in its own last years.

Pic: 1964 YCL badge

 

The beginnings of the end are to be clearly identified in the 1960s. Yet this decade was a period of growth for the YCL. It would be followed by a period of intense decline in the 1970s. As a result, its 1960 membership of 1,796 was roughly equalled in 1976. The 1960s boom followed a difficult period. Membership had fallen dramatically from the 1957 figure of 3,000, reflecting the problems after the Khrushchev revelations over Stalin and the events in Hungary. A clear period of growth took place as the Communist movement began a process of recovery. By 1962 the YCL was a third larger than it had been a mere five years before and it more or less held on to the gains for a short period. But, during the course of 1965 the YCL grew by around a quarter-fold and the trend to expansion seemed to be holding steady.

 

Right: YCL national membership 1957-67

1957

3,000

1959

1,700

1960

1,796

1961

2,702

1962

4,019

1963

3,989

1965

4,276

1966

5,420

1967

6,031

 

Figures are for November of each year, except for October 1967

 

The growing popularity of CND and the struggles of engineering apprentices contributed much to this. In retrospect 1967 was the beginning of a terminal slide to self-induced oblivion. 1966-7 was ostensibly a good period for recruitment, membership lifting by 611 from 5,420. Yet there are reasons to seriously query the accuracy of the 1967 peak, actual membership was probably just below 5,000. The issue of membership cards for that year (membership cards lasted for a calendar year and the renewal of cards was called a "card exchange" or "card issue") had been largely postal and the normal 20% turnover rate was not realistically faced up to until 1968. In this period, the CPGB tended to have a turnover rate of half that of the YCL, remarkably stable in terms of leftist political groups. (Significantly the turnover rate of the CPGB in the 1980s became very high indeed.) Paradoxically, whilst it was at its most vigorous for years that summer of 1967, the League was already in decline, but did not know it.

 

There are other considerations as to the accuracy of membership figures. A considerable overlap always existed between the Party and the League. Although some YCLers over the minimum age of 18 years did not always also join the Party, while those that did could get counted twice in any attempt to assess the overall strength of British Communism. More relevant to the League as an organisation was that its greatest difficulty was the 'shooting star' syndrome. That is to say frequent, wild and sudden upsurges of activity as a new and enthusiastic recruit directed the pace of events at a local level. Posed against this positive, if typically youthful feature, were the big drops associated with the loss of a particularly valued cadre.

 

Unlike the Party, the YCL never had the luxury of a stable leadership at any level of its organisation. Perhaps this was partly due to the very nature of young people. Intensely mobile in social, geographical, occupational and personal terms as they are. Such phenomena gave rise to an uneven pace of development and/or decline in particular sectors of the organisation, accentuated most sharply in times of decline.

Manchester YCLers in 1966

 

However, the absence of a clear policy of cadre development by both the League and the Party, coupled with an often puzzling and arbitrary - certainly inconsistent leadership policy with regard to the League by the Party contributed to instability. The CPGB often neglected the League, but it never let it range free. The Party's leadership seemed often more concerned to weed out 'oppositionalists' from the YCL, especially was this so in 'purges' of Party members from leading positions in the League in 1973 and 1975. Individuals in a number of districts were pressured to a greater or lesser degree by Party functionaries to leave the YCL, either simply in spirit or by actually leaving their League membership to lapse, in favour of predominantly or completely working inside the Party. In this sense the League was always subject to arbitrary and artificial assaults on its ability to thrive, very rarely compensated for at all, but sometimes insufficiently compensated for by the periodic thrusting of young Party members into key roles in the League, without having 'grown up' within the organisation.

 

 

2      TURNING REBELS INTO REVOLUTIONARIES

 

The key notion of the League in the mid-Sixties was to translate the self-evident mass rebelliousness of the generation of young people then receiving a high profile in society at large, into Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Seizing on the mood of the times, the YCL launched its "The Trend is Communism" campaign in 1966. For which the leadership grouping became abused as being "Trendies" by the more traditional elements inside the League.

 

400,000 gaily-coloured folders were produced and a full-time field worker sent out into the country, to tour the coffee bars. The League planned a novel approach for its 26th National Congress due in 1967 at Skegness, in keeping with this carefully cultivated image of modernity. One thousand delegates and visitors attended what was in fact an international youth festival, grafted onto the usual Congress. There were competitions in the arts - painting, poetry, short story writing, plays, photography, cartooning, song competition, even a beat group contest. Amongst the judges were the journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, Arnold Wesker the playwright and Adrian Mitchell, the poet. Positive though all this undoubtedly seemed, a debt of £1,097 was left owing to the Derbyshire Miners Holiday Camp after the event, a very large sum indeed at the time. This debt was not cleared by the YCL for four years and remained a source of embarrassment for Communists active in the NUM. (To gauge the seriousness of the debt, the figure should be multiplied by at least ten times to account for inflation.)

This lively, enjoyable style began to be presented as an essential component of the League's policies. Even to the extent of YCLs in Bristol, London and Surrey organising coach trips to the seaside! The YCL in Manchester was able to get a team on 'Juke Box Jury' - a sort of forerunner of the 'Top of the Pops' - on BBC TV. Christian-Communist dialogues, debates with the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and Young Liberals, letters to the local press became a feature of YCL work. More solidly, the League also began to be deeply involved in solidarity work with other youth groups, around the issue of peace in Vietnam. The YCL launched the Medical Aid for Vietnam appeal in 1965 and was the first organisation to donate £1,000 in medical aid. Subsequently a national charity with very broad support was set up.

 

A Youth for Peace in Vietnam Committee, uniting 14 national youth organisations was set up, although it did not have stable, parallel organisations at regional level. Against a background of rising concern at the appalling levels of death and injury to civilians in Vietnam as the US became more actively involved in bolstering up its puppet government, the League had little difficulty in mobilising interest in its independent activities on Vietnam. The YCL organised a 'US Out Of Vietnam' petition with a target of 100,000 signatures, and planned a culmination of the campaign with a demonstration to Downing Street to present the petition to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Over the same weekend another jamboree was set up in the same vein as the Skegness congress. The Round House at Chalk Farm in London was taken over for an event encompassing poetry, films, arts exhibitions, theatre, dancing, jazz, folk music and so on.

 

Left 1966 Vietnam demo, full of YCLers

 

As the war progressed and the liberation forces made headway, for all the sophisticated military hardware of the USA, a wave of international resentment at the carnage emerged. Amongst young people in particular, interest in radical and revolutionary ideas grew apace. 1968 became a year famed for left-wing youthful protest. The flavour of YCL publications now took on a decidedly revolutionary, even military, character. The armed struggle as practised by Vietnam and Cuba were popular amongst many young people. Poster portraits of Che Guevara were all the rage.

 

The Vietnamese had always insisted that the best form of solidarity would be for Communists in the advanced capitalist nations to press for their country's disassociation from the actions of the US in Vietnam, to breach the solidarity of capitalism. Only revolutionaries would be in favour of full-bloodied victory for the liberation forces and this line - of pressing for the British (Labour!) Government's disassociation from the US - proved popular. Opinion polls by 1968 were showing two-thirds support for such a proposal. In such a climate, and with a new phase of the war entered by a general offensive of the liberation forces in 43 urban centres in Vietnam, the YCL began to feel that it was "not sufficient to ask only for disassociation".

 

Right: a design aspect from a Midlands YCL silk screened poster

 

Groups that saw themselves as to the left of the CPGB/YCL did not accept this subtle approach. This saw the Medical Aid campaign as appealing to the widest sections, the disassociation campaign as building on this and the most advanced sections only being won on a position which accepted the military victory of the National Liberation Front (NLF) as the solution.

 

This line led to severe tensions between Communists and leftist groups. Strongly influenced by the International Marxist Group (IMG) - notable personage, Tariq Ali - and the International Socialists (IS - later Socialist Workers Party or SWP) - notable personage, Paul Foot - was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. This body however contained a range of radical groups, including the YCL and the CPGB National Student Committee (CPNSC). It was symptomatic of the period that the Scottish YCL congress in 1968 invited a fraternal delegate from the VSC. Even so, he was strongly criticised for over-estimating the mobilising powers of his organisation and for "an under-estimation of the importance of other sections of the peace movement and the need to unite them in action". [YCL Internal Bulletin, hereafter YCLIB, September 1968]

 

An international campaign for practical and material aid to Vietnam was launched by the World Federation of Democratic Youth set up in 1945 by delegates from 63 countries in London - a sort of latter-day Comintern, without the power, of YCLs and Marxist-Leninist youth organisations throughout the world. Ultra-leftists pondered upon the possibility of a reply of the kind of international solidarity shown in Spain in the Thirties, in the form of the International Brigades. Communists were more realistic and asked the Vietnamese what they needed. Foreign volunteers, untrained in jungle warfare and unfamiliar with the territory, the people and their language and culture, was the last thing required.

 

                        Right a challenge poster from the late 1960s

 

Material aid in the struggle was however crucial. The WFDY campaign - entitled "Victory to the Vietnamese People for their Freedom, Independence and Peace" - was geared to raising money for the purchase of particular, militarily useful commodities, difficult to get hold of in war-torn Vietnam. Bicycles were a popular item to purchase, being easy to acquire in the west, yet possessing an unimaginable strategic value on the jungle trails. Supply lines from the more conventional warfare zones were very extended. To get medicines, food, ammunition and so on to the underground in US dominated areas was a very difficult task. Everything had to go by foot, so the bicycles, stripped down, were very useful as transporters of goods. But there was also a need for cameras, radios, typewriters and even motorcycles.

 

The YCL entered this campaign with considerable gusto at all levels, and often brought considerable imagination to fund-raising as well as vigour. Leeds YCL bought rolls of cloth which would make uniforms for the NLF, Bristol and SE London aimed for a £250 motorbike each. Bletchley aimed for two transistor radios, Hatfield and Luton for a walkie-talkie set each, Stevenage for a field operation kit. There were scores and scores of bicycles - Dundee YCL for example bought 5, Coventry 3.

 

Newcastle, which had been dormant for six months, collected £90, Bristol £80, Coventry £26, Manchester £30, Dundee £81, Croydon £30 - each of them in less than the first eight weeks. Eventually over £6,500 was raised and perhaps as a measure of the relative worth of this amount it would be well to bear in mind that a wage of £15 to £20 a week would considered very acceptable to most people at this time.

 

A lorry (left) was bought with which to collect all these items in a round-Britain celebratory tour. Over June 14th to July 19th 1968 a couple of dozen locations were visited. These were: Newcastle, Stockton, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Birmingham, Scotland, Luton, Wales, Bristol, Oxford, Southampton, Brighton, Chatham, London.

 

The campaign partially climaxed in a 15,000 strong demonstration on July 21 supported by 17 national organisations. While the material was transported by bus across Europe to Bulgaria, the YCL’s lorry having now become a write-off as a result of a road traffic accident. A second hand bus was secured as a replacement and, once safely there, the goods were presented, along with the aid from other WFDY affiliates, in symbolic ceremonies at the World Youth Festival then underway in the capital, Sofia. It was reported at the 27th Congress that a shipment of over £4,000 of goods had gone to Vietnam.

 

However, without doubt, the culmination of the victory for Vietnam campaign was the October 27th 1968 demonstration. The YCL and the CPNSC participated with the VSC, IS, the Young Liberals and the British Peace Committee (a body strongly influenced by the Party which campaigned on questions of international security) in the October 27th Ad Hoc Committee - the only degree of unity feasible. Despite the provocative and irrational actions of a tiny number of Maoist-led demonstrators, which received significant press and media attention, some 250,000 marched peacefully in London. Rather stupid suggestions that this was the signal for a leftist putsch emanated from the gutter press, yet this was the biggest protest since the war probably, certainly since Suez.

 

The atmosphere generated by all this, particularly the YCL's own solidarity campaign, laid the basis for much potential growth. 150 of the YCL's 200 branches took part in the campaign and no less than 323 applications for membership were received nationally during this period. This was very important for the YCL, which had begun to appreciate severe membership problems.

 

The YCL saw the 1967-68 card exchange, as Colin Yardley reported to the YCL National Committee (NC) in March 1968, as "a serious set-back for us”. The League's 200 branches were in 19 Districts, all but three of which had functioning District Committees. Comparing these to the last non-postal card issue, nine districts were up in membership, three were about the same and seven had suffered a loss. The two biggest districts, London and Scotland, had experienced severe losses.

 

Nationally, the drop in 1966 was 16%, by 1968 it was 29%. Two year's losses almost had been collected in one year. Moreover, this was part of a long-term trend. There had not been a 100% result in the card issue for nine years, while the Average Dues Paying Membership (ADPM) - the value of membership stamps bought by districts from centre divided by official membership figures - was only 24% in 1967. The YCL congress felt obliged to note that "the decision to post cards to members has created more problems than it has solved".

 

At the start of the card issue, the League noted in December 1967 that "many districts have reported losses through people going into the Party, through people moving and leaving no forwarding address. So far only a tiny amount of direct political losses have been reported. It was thought that recruits could replace every loss. "If members are lost, then they must be replaced by new members." Every branch was very strongly urged to achieve 100% membership. "Anything less", wrote Barney Davis, the National Secretary of the YCL, "is not just a loss to the branch but a loss to the whole communist movement". [YCLIB No3 December 1967]

 

There was thus a contradictory, confused yet still largely positive position. New branches were being formed all the time. Ebbw Vale, Bristol (Lawrence Weston), Balham, Barnsley, Dover, Hemel Hempstead, Wigan, Sale and several in Scotland were all reported as being set up by January 1968. While there were a number of branches making large numbers of recruits: - Mansfield 13, Bristol 22, Catford 15, St Pancras 13, Newham 12, Hampstead 12 and Edinburgh 60.

 

Birmingham YCL had an explosion of branches, 6 or 7 being set up out of one in no time at all, although it turned out that there was not a sufficiently strong basis for these. They were not maintained long and soon disintegrated back into the one. The YCL in Birmingham finished the card issue with 109 members, having made 20 recruits during the campaign. The district - the Midlands YCL - achieved 330 members by April 1st and was "recruiting 20 new members per month". A district target of 600 members in 30 branches might have been ambitious, but it did not seem unnecessarily unrealistic, even if later such targets became mechanical ambitions, from sheer enthusiasm. After all branches were springing up all over the place in the Midlands, as elsewhere.

 

In January a Mid-Warwickshire branch was formed, based on Leamington and Rugby. In June, two branches of 10 members each were set up in Wolverhampton. A branch of 10 was established in Lichfield, which began working in Tamworth, Burton -on-Trent and Walsall, where there was a small group of five members needing encouragement. The aim of setting up a South Staffordshire organisation was decided upon.

 

Groups emerged in the smallest of towns - Stourbridge (8 members), Worcester (8), Hereford (14). Political activity naturally reflected this mathematical increase. A Midlands YCL district school in the spring of 1968 on the Party's programme, the British Road to Socialism (BRS), was organised with the expectation of getting some 45 in attendance, in the event 65 turned up! Three members of Birmingham YCL were involved in the Youth Parliament, an establishment body which involved a very wide range of youth organisations. Wolverhampton YCL was selling 50 copies of the YCL's paper, "Challenge", in the first half of 1968, but 400 in July.

 

In the East Midlands, 25 delegates to the YCL's 4th District Congress in 1967 heard how membership had rocketed from 127 in 1965 to 230 in 1967 in 7 new branches. Though how much of this reflected the postal card issue is naturally a factor to be born in mind.

 

At the 26th National Congress there had been much concern at the position in Wales, traditionally a strong area for Communism - in the mining valleys at least. In the Sixties it had become a "very weak area and on the verge of collapse" for the YCL. More positive was the fact that the Welsh YCL had been able to organise a weekend school with 12 present from 4 branches, the average age of those attending being 19 years 2 months. [YCLIB September 1967]

 

A little late in the day, the North East YCL was reformed in 1970, but rapidly doubled membership and tripled Challenge sales, with new branches at Darlington and Sunderland. The West of England District Congress held in September 1968 was the first for 12 years. During the course of that year the district had achieved the fastest rate of growth of any. There were now 93 members, 60 of whom were recent recruits. Bristol Central YCL was selling 600 Challenge - enormous for a branch of about 20 members. The 20 delegates at the congress came from 5 branches in this widely scattered, largely rural district.

 

Yorkshire YCL was 267 strong in 1966, but mushroomed to 422 in the following year, with three branches alone in Leeds. South East Midlands doubled in size in one year, reaching nine branches. The Scottish YCL Congress in May 1968 was attended by 76 delegates from 24 branches, together with some 30 odd consultative and fraternal delegates, yet this represented a weaker position than the previous congress two and a half years before. Then there had been 100 delegates. This reflected a severe organisation weakness, akin to that experienced by Wales. 500 members had been lost and the full-time YCL District Secretary's position was reduced to that of a part-timer. (Doug Bain had been the full-timer from 1963 to 1968, Andy Sweeney was the part-time replacement.)

 

The Scottish YCL spent the next couple of years grappling with what was essentially a financial problem. The League, perhaps like the Party, in Scotland had real and popular support in some areas, but translating what was often a family, almost tribal, commitment into organised activity was another matter. Both the Midlands and the Yorkshire YCLs planned full-timers, but only the latter was able to achieve this by creating a full-time post which was in fact jointly part-time with the Yorkshire Communist Party. Generally it was only through such mechanisms that the YCL could fund district full-timers. Whilst the CPGB part-funded the YCL nationally by means of a "grant", the districts were obliged to raise their own finances and usually were only treated to implicit subsidy by the Party, perhaps for example by writing off literature debts to CP owned bookshops.

 

Like the Party, the League saw left unity as being built to the extent to which the CPGB and the YCL grew in size and influence. "The paramount task is to lay the basis for the immediate and rapid growth of the Young Communist League ... The revolutionary character of every young communist must now be tested by his or her part in achieving the 4,000 membership in this 1970 card exchange." This was how the YCL national leadership put it, just as it became clear that the 1968 bubble had burst. [YCLIB January 1970] Motivating much of the YCL's work was a belief in the special revolutionary character of youth. As George Bridges put it: "Youth are free from reformist illusions. They develop new uninhibited forms of activity immediately corresponding with their mood".  [George Bridges August 1969 Marxism Today] This concept underlay a blind faith that mass membership was there to be won and it would only take hard work to achieve it.

 

Size became an all-important feature of the League's work and as the organisation did not gear itself to consistent long-term work, immediate startling publicity became the most sought-after objective. That is to say, imaginative events that attracted national, establishment media attention. Bob Allen, London YCL District Secretary, and Tony McNally, YCL National Organiser, late in 1969 protested outside a seminar of British generals against their suggestion to re-introduce conscription, in such a way that Fleet Street took notice. With membership at 3,686 in November 1969 - 2,300 down on the 1967 position, a thousand down on 1968 - the League began to become more than a little concerned. The number of branches was down to 181 in April 1969.

 

The aim of 4,000 members was established as a supposedly realistic benchmark and 100,000 recruitment leaflets produced, as the organisation set itself to remedying the problem. But there were serious internal difficulties that were in part a product of long-term decline, but were also largely the cause of fundamental damage to the organisation in the 1970s. These arose out of the sharpening political differences which were to, as Doug Chalmers, the then YCL General Secretary put it at the 1983 CPGB Congress, "to paralyse the work of League". [Author's personal contemporary notes]  These differences were eventually treated in so fractious a manner as to cause outright personal hostility between individuals of such a character that the work of the organisation was de-stabilised. But it was not always so.

 

Amongst the tutors at a YCL national school in October 1967 were Sid French and Eric Trevett, the Surrey full-timers for the Party, long-time critics of the BRS's programme of parliamentary transition without civil war and eventual first and second leaders of the breakaway New Communist Party. Their presence at the school ensured that "the discussion thrived and even became heated. In fact ... it was generally felt that some of the tutors were more "off the line" than the students", commented the YCL's internal bulletin rather mildly. Such a possibility - of major dissidents lecturing a national cadre school - would later become unthinkable. [YCLIB December 1967]

 

Dissent was tolerated sufficiently for one participant on a 40 strong YCL organised holiday trip to the Soviet Union to comment in the bulletin in the following terms. "There were no holds barred in our talks and our Russian hosts spoke freely about issues on which their country has been heavily criticised in the West...on the question of the treatment of the Jews in the Soviet Union, which was raised in a British Communist Party statement, they (i.e. the Soviets) were all agreed that our party had been duped by capitalist press reports." [YCLIB December 1967 - article by Mike Ambrose]

 

There would be little of such comment - other than in a letter printed to reveal the quirkiness of the dissidents - in YCL publications in the 1970s and beyond. Articles sympathetic to the Soviet Union would be excluded as 'not being of interest to young people' and individuals who differed with the League leadership on these questions would find themselves excluded from leadership roles. Some YCLers adopted pro-soviet views that conflicted with reality as even seen by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but the process of squeezing fundamentalist assessments out of the League even inhibited balanced - and accurate - analyses and reinforced a cynical but vigorous anti-Sovietism in the leadership.

 

The Party and the League had of course been no strangers to political dissent, particularly arising from the need to protect the organisation from outside interference and policies. There had been a brief period of Trotskyist involvement in some YCL branches when the Socialist Labour League (later Gerry Healey's Workers' Revolutionary Party - WRP) had infiltrated cadres. Then the split between China and the Soviet Union had resulted in the whole new tendency of Maoism, which actively sought to split and infiltrate Communist movements. The YCL had its share of trouble from these quarters. There had been plenty of tensions and differences before, over major policy questions, but minority opinions had usually been minuscule. Most of those who had left over Hungary had done simply that, resigned or lapsed from membership. Factionalism, whether informal or semi-organised, had not been strongly evident in British Communism for the bulk of its existence. (Early Trotskyite internal dissent had been marginal.) So the ruthless crushing of different views inside the organisation, by ostracising large numbers of branches or even whole Districts, had not been an obvious feature of Party life. The much publicised prohibition, a decade before, of Party members such as Edward Thompson from publishing a non-Party journal, the New Reasoner, had led to a small number leaving to involve themselves in the New Left. No leadership led wholesale purge of dissent had ever occurred and there had been little need for administrative action to silence critics. There had been differences of course, largely at leadership level and consequently much internalised, and these had often been debated with sharpness, but personal vindictiveness was not a hallmark of the CPGB/YCL at that stage.

 

As J R Campbell had told the Comintern functionary, Manuilsky, "it is not the tradition of the British Communist Party to divide the Party into goats and sheep". Manuilsky replied by comparing unfavourably the British Communists with the Germans who allowed "no deviation from the line, they attack the least deviation, respect no persons... Yet in the British Communist Party there is a sort of special system which may be characterised thus: the Party is a society of great friends..." [Noreen Branson "History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941" pp45-6 (1985).] What went for the Party in a traditional sense also went for the YCL of course.

 

However, questions of democracy in socialist countries, attitudes to errors and distortions, controversies, differences in social, historical or political traditions between the western liberal-democratic style and the rather more basic aspirations of second and third world peoples, all became highly significant debating points in the YCL. Indeed in the Party also, even if the latter took a more restrained view of things.

 

Without doubt, the single most significant happening in this period, which forced along the pace of division inside the YCL, was the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The YCL immediately distinguished itself as having a sharper line than the Party did. The CPGB characterised the affair as an "intervention"; the YCL preferred the more emotive "invasion". The Party sedately called for district aggregates to debate the matter behind closed doors in sombre, thoughtful discussions. The Midlands aggregate was enlivened by a call from one of the leading YCLers of the time, later a pillar of the Birmingham Labour Party, for the CP's resignation from the Comintern, which had of course been dissolved in 1943!

 

The YCL leadership saw their position as more clear-cut, less a case of debating the matter in the branches as "Fighting For The Line", as a series of articles in the Internal Bulletin put it. Moreover, for the League it was less a case of making careful condemnatory press statements concentrating on matters of high diplomatic and international legal principles and tenets, and much more a case of campaigning to distance the organisation from the Soviet Union. An Emergency National Committee of the YCL decided to organise a series of public meetings in solidarity with Czechoslovakia - or at any rate Dubcek's Czechoslovakia. "Challenge" came out with a front cover irreverently and irrelevantly decorated by a psychedelically dressed young woman who informed the reader that: "If you think Communism means that tanks can roll in at anytime, you're bloody wrong." [Magazine Series: Issue No 9]

 

Nonetheless more weighty matters had to be borne in mind at the 27th National Congress of the YCL in Scarborough in April 1969, when the policy of the League had to be put to the test. Despite the distortions of popular myth in the YCL in the 1970s, the conflicting positions actually voted on at the Congress were not baldly for or against the actions of the USSR and its allies. The National Committee's sharp characterisation of the affair as an invasion was actually faced with an alternative position of opposition to the events on the basis of international communist principles. An alternative motion from Harrow supported the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the other Warsaw Pact powers, on the basis of their statement after the events of the summer of 1968. This jointly agreed Czech-Soviet position largely affirmed much of the demands in the NC resolution for a spirit of harmony. There was no simple choice - oppose the `intervention/invasion’ or support it, for the congress reflected the more complex realities of Communist life. Many, on all sides, later reflecting on that Congress simply forgot that.

 

The policy of the League on Czechoslovakia was increasingly seen as a totem, perhaps even to the extent that the actual nature of the policy was less relevant than its observance. For the CPGB, the whole issue was a question of a fundamental and principled difference over the nature of territorial integrity between socialist states. This was a difficult question for believers in world socialism. Strictly speaking, differences over the question need not necessarily colour other areas of work. Yet, for the YCL, attitudes to Czechoslovakia became a substitute for support or otherwise of the concept of a mass League; i.e. a YCL of size and influence working for socialism within the BRS's tactics and strategy.

 

Differences in the League over the mass YCL concept actually became confused as positions polarised. London full-timer for the YCL, Laureen Mason (later Hickey) put it well. While complaining about the "eternal labelling of individuals in one camp or another" (a case of goats and sheep?), she argued that "it is possible for instance for a member to believe the Soviet Union were correct about Czechoslovakia but still play a positive role in the league". [YCL Pre-Congress Discussion Document 1971] Others in the YCL's leadership thought differently.

 

Indeed, there is a sense in which Czechoslovakia became a matter almost of obsession to the leadership of the YCL, exceeding the relevance of the issue to young people in a continuing way far into the 1970's. At its crudest, the obsession was based on a simple belief that the events of 1968 had cost the League its popularity. That the membership problems which soon emerged in a most obvious way were inter-linked somehow with a juxtaposition of the '68 spirit. YCL national leader for nearly all of the next decade, Tom Bell, made his view clear as early as 1970. "The invasion of Czechoslovakia set us back more than we realise. Thousands of young rebels who could have been won to the YCL were turned to Ultra-Leftism and cynicism, they less than ever looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration." [Cogito No1 1970 "Time for Change"] Bell made a similar point in the YCLIB in January 1971 concerning death sentences, albeit subsequently withdrawn, of would-be Jewish plane hijackers. The affair had received hysterical press condemnation and the whole was assessed by Bell thus: "our struggle has been made harder".

 

Left: An example of the YCL’s theoretical journal

 

The League issued statement after statement on Czechoslovakia, following events there with dogged persistence. After the congress had endorsed the NC's position, the leadership issued a statement in September 1969. There was another in April 1970, expressing concern at the Czech Party disciplining Dubcek and his associates. (This statement was endorsed by the NC on a vote of 15 to 5, with one abstention.) There was another in March 1971, another in August 1972, and another in October 1976. The latter statement was in protest at trials of rock musicians in Prague. In a calculated rebuff to the Czech YCL (the SSM, or Czechoslovak Socialist Youth Movement), it was decided not to actually go so far as to sever normal relations with that organisation but to refuse the offer of exchange delegations. Another statement came out in February 1977, when the YCL decided to look into the possibility of affiliating to Amnesty International. The tenth anniversary of the 1968 events was marked by the YCL by a special statement and an article in "Challenge" - most YCL members by that stage would have been in primary school when the Dubcek government was in power.

 

Differences of the kind experienced by the YCL occurred in other countries, although these, where they were exaggerated by special conditions, could explode into splits which in turn posed problems for fraternal organisations. For example, which grouping to support?

 

In common with the vast majority of Communist Parties and Youth Leagues in the world, the British Party and YCL were estranged from the Chinese during the Sixties. The Chinese YCL representative at Budapest to the World Federation of Democratic Youth was "withdrawn" as the YCL Internal Bulletin put it, rather ominously perhaps. Like most YCLs, the British organisation had "some difficulty" in locating the Chinese YCL, refusing to recognise the Red Guards as a formal organisation, so the YCLGB simply lost touch. Concern over maintaining relations noticeably rose in the early 1970s, as the tensions over Czechoslovakia mounted, the leadership grew more anxious to prove that it was not coat-tailing Moscow by appearing open-minded over China. In 1970 the YCL felt impelled to specifically state that for its forthcoming Congress "fraternal delegates from overseas be invited, including Chinese". [YCLIB 18th November 1970] Although this was later qualified to make it clear that such a Chinese organisation be the "Communist youth organisation if it existed". [YCL 28th Congress documents 1971]

 

In Australia, the Communist Party and YCL moved rapidly through Maoist and Trotskyist influences, only to find much of the trade union base of the movement splitting off after major expulsions into the Socialist Party of Australia and the Young Socialist League of Australia - seen as new replacement Marxist-Leninist organisations. The YCL in Britain had no difficulty in refusing to recognise the YSL in August 1974, despite the appearance of representatives of that body at WFDY meetings. Interestingly, the Australian Communist Party, at this stage certainly, preferred an analysis of the socialist states as being "post capitalist societies" or "socialist based".

 

In Greece, differences over the conduct of the anti-fascist struggle against the army junta then in control, merged with international controversies inside the Communist movement. Two Communist parties and youth organisations emerged, but here - partially because of certain strong links with the British Party on the part of both groups - the CPGB decided to maintain relations with both. The YCL was loath to follow such a course, having strong political allegiances to the revisionist student movement, Rigeos Ferros - which was what later would be called the Euro-Communist tendency. The Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) had many contacts in London, not the least through the strong Cypriot presence there - a presence which had always been dominated by Communists. The YCLGB decided in June 1975 to keep contacts with both groups in line with the CPGB's position, but the League was cool with the KNE at national level, while the 'opposition' in the YCL was very much taken with it.

 

Increasingly, the YCL found itself isolated along with a group, mainly west European, at WFDY meetings which was distant and cool with the majority. Questions of Soviet policy were seen by this minority group as prime matters of concern. In consequence of the minority with which the Italians, Spanish, British, Japanese and others found themselves they began to query the role of WFDY.

 

The periodic world gatherings of WFDY were every five years, with a general council meeting yearly in between. Mike Power, the British delegate to the 8th world assembly in 1971, reported to the YCL that WFDY "had never really become a broad all embracing youth movement" and that there seemed "very little likelihood of it doing so". He felt WFDY to be "following a tired pattern". WFDY's recognition of both Greek youth movements was seen by him as "support to splitting activities". Moreover, the insistence of the majority of organisations in WFDY that the notion of peaceful "co-operation" between states be included in a statement on European security irked Power. Because of this he complained that it was "hard to decide whether the Assembly is a gathering of international youth against imperialism, or a meeting of young diplomats". Power saw the fight for European security as "a class battle and part of the struggle for socialism". [YCL NC Minutes January 2/3 1971] Rather ironically, the early 1980s debate about the direction the Party should take was initially and partially symbolically centred on whether peace is a class issue or a democratic issue. (Mike Power subsequently became the editor of the short-lived Democratic Left's even shorter-lived journal "New Times".)

 

3       World Youth Festivals

 

The most significant role of WFDY was to organise the massive cultural and political festivals held periodically in differing parts of the world. There have been 12 Festivals: Prague (1947), Budapest (1949), Berlin (1951), Bucharest (1953), Warsaw (1955), Moscow (1957), Vienna (1959), Helsinki (1962), Sofia (1968), Berlin (1973), Cuba (1978), and Moscow (1983) A festival usually had around sixteen thousand participants at it, although the 1973 Berlin Festival touched 26,000. From the original 63 founding countries of WFDY, it had affiliates from 72 countries at its first festival and 112 by the 1959 Vienna event. These festivals aimed to involve youth organisations other than of the Communists and were moreover always spectacular in character - a memorable event in each generation's experience.

 

Some 14 organisations were involved in the Sofia 1968 British Preparatory Committee, the link up with the Vietnam campaign making this possible. Organisations like the Young Liberals, Young Oxfam and the Student Christian Movement joined up with the YCL in sending some 300 delegates to Bulgaria. The League saw this as an especially important development for its work in Britain. So much so that it approached the 1973 Berlin Festival with great plans for massive broad youth unity in the British Preparatory Committee, one thousand delegates were aimed for. Already, the previous year, a Vietnam Youth Committee had been set up under the auspices of the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam. This brought together the National Union of Students (NUS), the Young Liberals, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (Technical and Supervisory Staffs) (AUEW/TASS), the United Nations Youth and Students Association and of course the YCL. All of these organisations and others were easily won to involvement in the World Youth Festival, the NUS being a particularly important body. The NUS had supported the 1947 Youth Festival, but had not done so since due to governmental and other pressures associated with the cold war.

 

Apart from some tensions within the British delegation arising out of the presence of a Gay Liberation banner, the whole event did much to break down barriers artificially erected by the cold war. (The banner had been rather frowned upon by the East Germans, but supported vigorously on a point of principle by both the Young Liberals and the YCL national leadership, perhaps with tactical considerations back home being very much in the collective mind of the latter.) Major changes in the official youth movement in Britain were on their way. Together with the positive gains of the Berlin Festival, these laid the basis for even more significant unity. The main resolution at the YCL's 29th Congress in 1973 saw "the preparations (as) an example of the broad youth unity, albeit embryonic" that it sought generally in Britain.

 

Of tremendous significance for the next World Youth Festival after Berlin was the disaffiliation of the British Youth Council (BYC) from WFDY's cold war rival, the World Assembly of Youth (WAY). This was to open up the possibility of much wider involvement in youth unity activities. It had become public knowledge that WAY had been at least partially funded by the CIA for much of its life and the BYC's links with that body grew more and more tenuous. The BYC itself had been set up in 1949 and it was funded by various British government departments, as well as by the subscriptions of the affiliated organisations. These included such groups as the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Boys’ Brigades, Young Farmers, Young Conservatives and a variety of Christian youth organisations, as well as the Labour Party Young Socialists and the Young Liberals. In 1976, with the link with WAY now dissolved, the YCL and other progressive organisations like the Co-operative movement's Woodcraft Folk, the NUSS and the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) all decided to affiliate to the BYC. At his first attempt, Tom Bell narrowly failed to obtain election to the executive committee of the BYC.

 

Preparations for the 11th World Youth Festival, to be held from Friday 28th July to Saturday 5th August, were already underway and it was clear that, especially with it being held in Cuba, that there would have to be a tremendous effort to avoid the massive organisational and travelling difficulties. Indeed the Festival was put back a year to allow for all of this. 23,000 delegates - 18,500 from outside Cuba - from 145 countries were expected, along with 1,000 journalists. There were 3,200 from West Europe, 800 from Africa, 3,800 from the Americas, 1,600 from Asia, 800 from the Middle East, 1,000 from the USSR, 750 from the GDR (East Germany) and 3,050 from East Europe. After an initial expectation of a higher number, it eventually became clear that the British delegation would only number 180 and it would cost £310 to send each one.

 

The BYC agreed to participate in the Festival on the understanding that the British Preparatory Committee would support the right of its individual member groups to raise whatever issues they wished and that the BPC itself raise certain issues of controversy with respect to democracy in socialist states. The BYC was under great pressure before the event from the Federation of Conservative Students and the Young Conservatives to withdraw its support, indeed these groups themselves refused to participate. Even so, several Tories remained on the delegation as representatives of the Churches, in particular in the Methodist camp. While the Foreign Office refused to give a £5,000 grant for a cultural delegation from Britain.

 

The NUS was to play a particularly important part in this BPC. Charles Clarke, who had recently been the National President of the NUS, landed the job of permanent British representative in Havana for a year before the Festival. While the leader of the delegation was Trevor Phillips, 24 year old NUS President. His deputy was Peter Mandelson, noted then only for being personally related to the former Labour Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison and tipped, like Phillips, to go on to greater things. (Mandelson had been a member of the London YCL for about nine months in the early 1970s.) 

 

For both of these the whole affair was an important test. As the Sunday Telegraph, rather bluntly put it, "both plan careers in mainstream politics, and Mr Mandelson felt that a heavily Stalinist British contribution in Havana could have serious career repercussions for him. Messrs Phillips and Mandelson, therefore, were determined that Britain would raise the issue of human rights." [Sunday Telegraph August 6th 1978] In particular, they planned that leaflets on the status of Soviet dissidents, Shcharansky and Orlov, should be distributed at the Festival. Mandelson, of course, notoriously became Labour's key media man under the Kinnock leadership; Clarke was the key figure in Kinnock's personal political advisory team. Phillips went on to become a TV producer and occasional presenter. All three ended up as key figures in the Blair project.

 

In a heavy-handed move of supremely unconscious irony, the BPC leadership decided to rid itself of any delegates who would be too obviously opposed to the plan to seek publicity for an anti-Soviet position. What involvement there was on the part of the YCL in the original calculations remains undefined, but how else could the non-communist leadership of the BPC be aware of identity of the most outspoken Communists hoping to be part of the delegation? Who told Phillips and Mandelson which were the key people to exclude? Whatever the position, seven CPGB and NCP members were literally banned from going to Cuba. Trevor Phillips, as Chair of the BPC, and Tom Bell, as its Secretary, wrote to at least three of these who then made the whole affair public. They were Dave Smith (ASTMS), Will Gee (FBU) and Lysandras Lysandrou (United Cypriot Youth Organisation - EKON).

 

They were told that there were travel difficulties and that as they were nominated by organisations not in membership of the BPC and that the "trade union section of the delegation is already fairly heavily subscribed to" it was not possible to accept their nomination. More decisively, and the strongest clue to where the objections were coming from, "it has been questioned by a member organisation of the BPC whether your approach to the Festival, given the basis of your past political record and activity would be entirely in line with the tenets and spirit of British participation in the Festival, as agreed and delineated by the British Preparatory Committee". [Letter dated 14th July 1978] Which "member organisation" was not publicly revealed, but clearly non-communists could only be aware of what was essentially a criticism of their differences with the YCL's line on socialist democracy from the YCL leadership.

 

After receiving the Phillips-Bell letter, two of the excluded met with the BPC's organising committee and offered to travel by other means, if travelling was the problem. The committee voted by 3 to 1 not to reverse their exclusion - leaving the matter of their political suitability as the key objection. A simple reference to the balance of the delegation reveals a high proportion of students and a rather small trade union delegation.

 

 

Student Bodies

 

National Union of Students                                            38

National Union of School Students                                   1

Communist Party National Students Committee                3

National Organisation of Labour Students                         3

Student Christian Movement                                            4

 

Trade Unions

 

AUEW/TASS (engineering workers and staff)                     4

ACTT  (cinema technicians)                                              1

EEPTU (electricians)                                                        1 

ASTMS (managers/technicians)                                        2

NUT (teachers)                                                                4

NUPE (public employees)                                                2

NUM (miners)                                                                  5

AUEW (engineers)                                                           1

AUT (university lecturers)                                                 1   

TGWU (transport & general)                                             5

NATFHE (college lecturers)                                              1

NALGO (local government)                                              1

APEX (clerical workers)                                                               1  

Greater London Association of Trades Councils                1

Haringey Trades Council                                                  1

 

 

 

Community and Miscellaneous Bodies

 

Returned Volunteer Action                                 1

Melting Pot Foundation                                                 1

British Council of Churches - Youth Unit                         4

CBSLC (identity unknown to author)                   1

British Preparatory Committee                            10

Young Farmers                                                             1

BLF (identity unknown to author)                        1

Legal Staffs Association                                   1

National Assembly of Women                            1

National Film School                                         1

Afro-Caribbean Education Resource Project       1

Community Service Volunteers                           1

Jubilee Hall Recreation Centre                            1

National Association of Indian Youth                  1

Southall Youth Movement                                  2

Indian Youth Association                                   2

EKON (Cypriot Youth)                                       2

RCA Film School                                               1

Woodcraft FoIk (Co-op)                                     1    

Cultural Delegation                                           8

Young Friends (Quakers)                                   1

Women in Manual Trades Group                         1

National Association of Youth Clubs                  1

British Youth Council (BYC)                               5

 

 

Campaigning and Political Bodies

 

YCL                                                                                          16

Labour Party                                                                 2

LPYS                                                                            4

Young Liberals                                                              4

Campaign Against Youth Unemployment (CAYU)            1

Anti-Apartheid Movement                                               1

Chile Solidarity Campaign                                              1

Young European Left                                                    1

Namibia Support Committee                                         1

Namibia International Peace Centre                                 1

African National Congress                                             1

 

SUMMARY

 

Category                                               No.                   %   

 

Student Bodies                         49                     30

Trade Unions                             31                     19   

Political/Campaigning                34                     21

Community/Miscellaneous         49                     30 

Total                                        163                   100

Given that travelling was not really the problem, although there were difficulties these were not insurmountable, and that if any group needed thinning down it was the student element of the delegation, how could the BPC's banning of the dissident element be justified? The community sector could not lend itself to reduction, as there were generally only one or two delegates per group. If the TGWU with two million members could be easily represented by 5 delegates, how could it be that the NUS with perhaps half or a third of that number needed 38 delegates? In truth, delegates were often simply people who had both the interest and the money to pay. Their sponsoring organisation had simply endorsed them as delegates, at no cost to the organisation. Apart from measures to ensure that each single organisation was at least once represented, very little tinkering with the overall delegation was really necessary. Therefore, there could only seriously remain the matter of the political objection. Two of the excluded delegates produced statements, revealing the full details of the affair, including copies of the correspondence. They declared that the BYC had given an ultimatum to the BPC to veto the likes of them and that they had been removed for political reasons "without any opportunity to reply to the allegations." In the Morning Star, Reuben Falber for the CPGB was pressed by their statement to publicly respond for the Party that it understood travel problems. But that it was regrettable that, in making the difficult decisions to thin down the delegation, it was implied that some were excluded because of their politics.

 

Bob Lentell, speaking for the YCL as its National Organiser, made a similar point as Falber over the travel arrangements question. But the YCL had disagreements on some parts of the festival preparations and felt that the BPC, having laid down its political principles at an early stage, had the right to ensure "that the British delegation adhered to these principles". Implicit in this was some degree of sympathy for the exclusions.

 

Tom Bell, in a subsequent article on the Festival in Challenge, conceded that the BPC "didn't handle every question as well as it might have done", but thought on balance the Festival overall was a positive development. While the exclusion of some people was not "handled in the best way" and some should have gone, Bell supported the right of the BPC to make the decision. [Challenge No 55 1978]

 

For the vast majority of delegates the first they knew of the controversy was when they arrived in Cuba. The statements of the excluded two, together with the copies of correspondence were distributed in large numbers by their sympathisers amongst the delegation. After protracted arguments a delegation meeting at the large, modern teacher training college six kilometres from Havana, which the British shared with the Irish, Scandinavian and Low Countries delegations, passed a decisive resolution to bring over three individuals excluded from the delegation. Clive Haswell of the Welsh Preparatory Committee - two of the excluded were Welsh - moved that the steering committee running affairs in Cuba amongst the delegation be instructed to reverse the ban and make arrangements to get the three to the Festival.

 

It had been necessary to propose a procedural motion to discuss the matter, despite an attempt by the steering committee to avoid this. Then the motion was narrowly passed.  Once the issues were debated the delegation voted 84 for the critical motion 50 against. It should be noted that 73 of the delegation were either absent or abstained. The decision was of course largely symbolic, the meeting being held on the first day of the Festival at 1pm on Friday 28th August, but it was symptomatic of a large gap between the steering committee and the delegation majority. The three never got to the Festival of course.

 

This affair rather conditioned the atmosphere on the delegation and attitudes to the leadership of the steering committee, in particular the determination of Mandelson and Phillips to issue a delegation statement on human rights. A document, which bore all the hallmarks of a rushed and thoughtless composition, especially in the circumstances that the delegation now found itself, suddenly appeared. Very little consultation with very few people had prefaced its appearance, which drew much criticism. It was ill conceived and almost calculated to annoy most Communists.

 

Bell, in his subsequent Challenge article, conceded that "while some delegates wanted more time to discuss the contents of the statement, a minority were determined to prevent it being issued at all … given the sectarian, Stalinist positions they held they were not prepared to accept any criticisms of the Soviet Union or other socialist countries.”

 

The Sunday Telegraph reckoned that about half of the delegation – something like 80 odd people – were Communists, and their views varied. Many supported the CPGB’s position on socialist democracy, but were unhappy with the ease with which some allowed unbalanced positions to be postulated by the delegation leadership. Many, perhaps 30 to 40, were committed to one or another of the tendencies inside the British Communist movement, which repudiated the official position on these matters. An alliance between the two elements, winning support amongst the trade union and some Labour and progressive groupings, ensured that the delegation was deeply split.

 

Some, especially those associated with anti-imperialist causes like Ireland, were strongly opposed even to the notion of carrying the Union Flag ahead of the British delegation's representatives on the opening ceremony's 'walk past'. While the discovery that the official, identifying T-shirts bore the Festival logo coloured in with the Union Flag created some controversy. Those who objected argued that the flag was associated in half of the world with bloody imperialism, a force which the Festival was specifically in opposition to. Those who favoured the Union Flag simply viewed it as the nation's official emblem, which was known to all.

 

With all this, it is not surprising perhaps that the draft statement on human rights was greeted with hostility. Moreover, there was a time constraint that led to a feeling that the steering committee was trying to rush things. The BPC wanted the statement ready for a particular commission on the first Monday of the Festival. Despite an attempt to block the statement completely, the delegation voted to discuss the draft and to amend it by a vote of 64 to 60. (Noticeably, as the controversy raged, fewer and fewer people participated in the delegation meetings.) 30 to 40 delegates then walked out to draft an alternative statement. The remainder, including many who differed with much of the intent, tone and content of the originating statement determined to change it.

 

From 6.00 p.m. on Sunday 30th to 4.00 am on Monday 31st, during successive, strained and marathon sessions at the delegation’s lodgings, the statement was hotly debated and amended. The initial session by 6.30 p.m. had agreed on the go-ahead. Then the YCL EC members met with the CPNSC members - as no doubt did other caucuses - drafting amendments which were in the main agreed to by the delegation leadership and, subsequently, the majority of the delegation as a whole, in a midnight to four am meeting.

 

The original statement linked the Helsinki Declaration on Human Rights to détente, arguing that concern over human rights did not sabotage the fight for peace. Central to all this was the freedom of speech and assembly. Concern was expressed about the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia and the more recent experience of the Charter 77 group there. The case of Yuri Orlov in the USSR was raised and it was made clear that the British delegation would continue to campaign on these matters most firmly. All in all it was calculated and blunt - the intent being to clearly distance the British delegation from the socialist countries on issues of controversy in Western media. These participating nations would most certainly view the highly specific and selective statement as an intended insult in what was intended to be a Festival of friendship.

 

The eventual amended version put these points a little more in context. A firm distinction between those who are "genuinely committed to both détente and human rights, and those who are exploiting the issue of human rights for their own political advantage" was made. Moreover, the absence of some fundamental human rights in Britain was noted, especially with regard to Northern Ireland. It was recognised that human rights also involved some fairly fundamental economic rights and the exploitation of developing countries by the advanced capitalist nations (not specified as such however) was a pre-requisite to human rights in that part of the world.

 

The hypocrisy of the Western nations was thus signified in the revised statement. In particular, specific instances of abuses of human rights in the USA were mentioned, especially of black and indigenous American peoples. The original draft had called for the ending of racist political systems just in South Africa. This was implicitly widened to allow for the interpretation that this could apply to Britain also. The original had said that the delegation was opposed to particular imperialist interference from whatever quarter and this was softened to make it less an obviously contrived comment on the socialist as well as capitalist world. A positive note was also injected, linking anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world to the concrete solidarity organisations and actions traditionally associated with the British people. Criticisms of the USSR and South Africa had been made in the same breath, but were now separated and some positive features of Soviet life were incorporated, albeit that these were rather lamely highlighted. The previous condemnation of the Warsaw Pact intervention in 1968 in Czechoslovakia was turned into a statement of the fact that the intervention had been widely condemned in Britain. As was the criticism of the trial of Yuri Orlov, again, instead of the delegation being committed to condemn the USSR, it was observed that such criticisms had been made by some. While, finally, the previous commitment to campaigning on differences with the socialist world was eliminated.

 

The minority produced their own statement, on behalf of "a large percentage of the British delegation" they dissociated themselves from the majority statement, which they identified as being issued by the BPC - which it had not been, even in the first instance, let alone after amendment by the delegation. The minority statement complained that the majority statement did not "represent the views of the youth and students of Great Britain". Moreover that the BPC since its inception had not taken the "wide ranging opinions of the British youth into account". The exclusions were referred to and it was stated that the BPC had not "taken actions based on majority decisions either here (in Havana) or in Great Britain". The spirit of the Festival was endorsed by the statement, with the implication that a minority of the delegation, especially in leadership positions, had other axes to grind.

 

Not that this was the end of such controversies. Phillips, of course, made speeches and distributed leaflets of the statement. But the British delegation officially used its veto during one of the main debates against a Festival communiqué, stating that the capitalist countries were locked in a deepening economic crisis, from which the only escape could be profound political and social change. While women's liberationists distributed leaflets in Spanish, outlining their demands, which put attitudes to homosexuality that clashed sharply with the Cuban view then prevailing. (A more relaxed attitude now exists.) However, at no stage did the Cuban authorities or the World Preparatory Committee interfere with any of this. Other than a mild expression of displeasure by one of the Soviet representatives to Phillips at the discourtesy of the British delegation statement, there appears to have been only a feeling of bewilderment at the antics of the British by a number of delegations at the most and, at the least, a general lack of interest in what was largely an issue only for some on the British delegation.

 

In Britain however there was some interest. The Times, in an editorial, generally welcomed the British delegation's official position - arguing that even the split within the delegation must have been a lesson, though a puzzling one, on the freedom to disagree. While the East Midlands District Committee of the CPGB was more worried about the affair and wrote as much to the YCL EC. The latter however was not impressed by the lesson on the right to disagree. Two of its delegates to Havana, one of who was from the East Midlands, were "no longer to be allowed to represent the YCL at any outside event, due to events that took place in Havana". [YCL EC Minutes 14th/15th October 1978]  They had of course been associated with the minority statement.

 

Despite the trauma of these differences, the British involvement in the Festival had been positive and a wide degree of youth unity had been achieved around the ideas of world peace and friendship. Many cold war barriers had been broken down, but for some the question would naturally be posed - at what price for the YCL's own internal unity?

 

Organisations as disparate as the BYC, the NUS, NOLS, the British Council of Churches, the Student Christian Movement, the National Association of Youth Clubs, the Young Liberals, Quakers, the school students union (NUSS), AUEW-TASS, Young European Left and the YCL had agreed to the statement on Détente, Peace and Human Rights. It had been issued in their names, not the BPC, however. Even though the BPC continued its work for a short while after the Festival, the YCL was edgy about its continued existence and ensured that its influence was brought to bear in winding up the organisation.

 

4 THE IDEOLOGICAL BASE OF INNER-LEAGUE DIFFERENCES

 

 

How had the League arrived at such a position, whereby the views of non-Communists on the problems of socialist construction - even Tories - were considered by the YCL leadership as of more consequence than the minority within their own organisation? Contrary to the simplistic impressions of media commentators it was not just the differing attitudes to socialist states, but also the matter of the analysis of the role of the working class and their organisations vis-à-vis young people, that the YCL found to be a source of inner-League tension.

 

The main arguments in the YCL before 1968 had centred on what kind of League there should be. Whether it should gear itself to the most advanced, most committed youth; whether it should be a mass league or a cadre league. The latter view saw the high turnover of membership as reflective of the poor quality of recruit and of the dearth of Marxist education in the organisation. It was argued that considerations of membership size should not be paramount, that "deadwood" membership - inactive cardholders - should be cut out.

 

The 1969 Congress of the League issued a call for a mass YCL, but saw this in terms of how the YCL branch worked rather than a demand for abstract increases in size. A mass league worked in a mass way. Three distinct approaches could easily be discerned in the motions from branches and districts to this congress. There was the tendency to oversimplify the problems of achieving a large YCL, but which nonetheless saw size and working in a mass way as crucial. This line tended to stress the value of local branch work in the community and the independent work of the YCL as a communist organisation in public as crucial. Such a tendency might be dubbed `the propagandist’ approach. Then there was the position that it was important to win a larger YCL, but that in any case the way the League worked with other movements was paramount. This position was trade union and mass movement orientated. The third position stressed the importance of having a correct Marxist-Leninist line, the size of the organisation and its relationships with other youth movements being entirely secondary. While there was a sense in which regional rivalries played a part in creating allegiances around these positions there was also an important, but underlying, theoretical clash.

 

The 1969 Congress called on the League in its main resolution to "Win Youth into Class Struggle". Yet the experience of the YCL's work revealed a gap between the desire to do so and the style of the YCL's campaigning activity, set by the over-conscious rejection of what was seen as old-style Marxism. The League leadership was obsessed with presentation, with creating a 'modern', untarnished image. Most symptomatic of this trend was the transformation of Challenge from a political campaigning monthly newspaper into a colourful, but rather frivolous poor copy of `youth life-style’ magazines.

 

For some, the experience of this trendy Challenge indicated a real need for a change to a more class-conscious, fighting journal. The National Organiser, Tony McNally, produced a short discussion paper - "Forms of Work Amongst Young People" - in September 1970. Unofficially it was by way of a manifesto, for the National Secretary, Barney Davis, was soon to retire and make way for a successor. In his analysis, McNally argued for Challenge to "go over to a more campaigning style ... that retains a popular appeal combined with articles of a deeper political, social and cultural nature".

 

The return of the Tories to government, after the 1970 general election, demanded a sharper struggle and clearer arguments for socialism. But any change, McNally thought "should be subject to a majority decision of our branches where they could have one or more clearly defined alternatives". The journal, like the League, should gear itself to three sections of youth - school students, young workers and youth in the communities. The outgoing Yorkshire District Secretary of the YCL, Dave Cook, argued for this concept in pre-congress discussion prior to the 1971 Congress. The notion of recognising the "complex and diverse structure of working class youth" meant the way was "theoretically clear to ... more clearly identify the basic class issues, which can unite the youth of the class in mass struggle". [Cogito No1 of the 1971 Congress - pre-congress discussion document]

 

Or, as Tom Bell (pictured left) declaimed, "our generation is not a homogenous mass. It is more diverse than ever before." [Cogito No.1 (1970) “Time for Change"]  Apart from those sections of the League identified with the Surrey District, there was amongst the other trends a general acceptance of this analysis in the League. However, a divergence of opinion developed about the third sector in McNally's paper - youth in the community. McNally and Cook had talked in terms of identifying with youth culture groupings like mods and rockers, as well as school students and young workers. There was obviously a dichotomy here - for mods were students and workers as well as an identifiable social grouping, and the same applied to any other section. As one YCLer with differences with the leadership defined it in pre-congress discussion in 1973, the YCL had to "aim at those in struggle and not at a block of young people i.e. the young generation".  [Pre-Congress discussion document No.1 for the 29th Congress (1973)]  The question began to be posed, therefore, as to whether the League was aiming at young people per se. This being on the basis that youth constituted a new, additional force in society, which could challenge right-wing ideas. Alternatively, was the YCL seeking to win those young people who could be defined as being part of the overall struggle of the working class against capitalism? Was the younger generation a revolutionary force in itself, or was the working class the revolutionary force and those young people who were a part of this the YCL's target constituency?

 

 

5                 THE 1970 LEADERSHIP CONTEST

 

It was against the background of this debate, every bit as profound in terms of Marxist theory as the differences over the socialist states, that the 1970 leadership contest to succeed Barney Davis took place. Davis, by now 30 years of age, had raised the need for a replacement, so that he or she could prepare themselves for the forthcoming congress, at the National Committee’s inner body, the Executive Committee, on Tuesday 8th September 1970. He had course discussed this with close colleagues, including McNally, who obviously stood in a very favourable position to move one rung upwards. (Subsequently, the National Committee was renamed the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee became the Political Committee to come into line with Communist Party practice on nomenclature. The old EC and the new PC were in theory subordinate to the larger NC/EC.)

 

Four days later, the EC looked a variety of names: Dave Cook (Yorkshire), Bob Allen (London) and Laureen Mason (London) were considered. But the committee eventually arrived at a decision for McNally - but it was close. Tom Bell, the National Treasurer (not a full-time post) emerged with 5 votes to his credit and 2 against as second runner. McNally had 6 votes for himself and only 1 against. But this was only by way of a recommendation to the full National Committee.

 

Things moved very rapidly thereafter. A scheduled NC school was changed to the weekend of 3/4 October at Coppice Camp. This was an area of wooded land, which could house around forty people in some fairly basic wooden structures. There were communal kitchen facilities and a toilet block. In the Essex countryside it had been left by a CPGB member in his will as a bequest to the YCL - more formally it was the Harry Pollitt Memorial Youth Centre. (Years later, Democratic Left was to sell the site for a considerable sum.) It was decided to elect the new Secretary at this Coppice Camp event, to which a number of NC members were unable to get to. Significantly, during the business part of the weekend, when other NC matters than the election were attended to, McNally came in for some fairly heavy - and perhaps a little contrived - criticism for producing an EC statement concerning the campaign to win a Youth TUC. No less than 17 out of the 18 NC members present came into what was a controversial debate. In the end, the EC statement was endorsed by the NC except for a suggestion that "youth delegates" - i.e. not from a bona fide trade union, but from a campaign committee - attend a planned conference on the Youth TUC campaign. But McNally was criticised for the statement, the NC taking the position that YCL branches should campaign in varying ways, according to local circumstances, on this particular point.

 

The outcome was that McNally lost the election to Bell on two counts - there were more that voted against him than for, and Bell had two votes more than McNally positively for him. Thus:

Ø  Tony McNally         for 7         against 9        abstentions 1

Ø  Tom Bell                for 9         against 6       abstentions 2

 

There was widespread surprise at this. Bell was a 21 year old electrician from South East London and while he was a national officer, this was the Treasurer's position, usually seen as being a bit of a drudge and hardly the key political position from which to spring to the National Secretaryship. For those who were behind him there was his youth, which potentially gave for the possibility of many years' stability and also a fresh, modern approach. Probably more decisively was his more combative approach to the dissenting membership on international matters and his suspicions of McNally's talk of class battles. For some, this counted against him, as did his unrelenting advocacy of the propagandist approach and a certain flippancy of approach. There was also much talk of a stitch-up, orchestrated by the Party leadership.

 

While it was obviously in the interests of many to cast doubt about the validity of Bell's election, there were also real and quite genuine worries amongst a wider section in the League that all was not well with the election. At the normal NC meeting on October 31st Davies felt obliged to stop further rumours in the League, by insisting that the decision to leave had been his own. He also strongly rebutted the widespread hints of intervention by the CPGB leadership, motivated to support a more combative candidate by an anxiety to ensure the YCL would not become a preserve of the oppositionalists. Yet, in a paradoxical way, this is almost very nearly what did occur in the next four to five years. If there had been - and it is inconceivable that there was not - Party intervention then it would have come from the leadership in King Street, the central headquarters. The Party's Organisation Department was the section concerned with liaison with the YCL and the responsible official would have been the then National Organiser, Gordon McLennan. (McLennan would succeed Gollan to the General Secretaryship of the CPGB and see out its remaining years as leader, retiring in 1989 in favour of Nina Temple.)

 

The October 31st NC was the first with Bell as leader and the minutes record his first opening on the political situation. This "covered S African Dam, United Front in Chile, Bolivia Left, Angela Davis and Black Panthers (sounds like a pop group), linking growth of liberation movements with present situation in Britain". The sudden, unexpected and unprecedented frivolity - making a mild joke out of what was then a relatively unfamiliar and perhaps rather exotic name for the British left - in a set of official minutes was in a sense revealing. For some it marked the entrance of a modern easy-going, youthful image; others were disparaging about the stature and personality of the new National Secretary. Out with stuffiness certainly, but out with seriousness of purpose? And what purpose? That would be the test.

 

For the leadership were already showing signs of weakness. Only 16 full members attended that meeting - an additional four members of the leadership were co-opted onto the NC in a non-voting capacity as well. Significantly, one of McNally's proteges Peter Kavanagh, was the only one not to be co-opted unopposed. The rationale for his co-option was "the role he is playing in the young workers movement", but a vote had to be taken because of opposition of some from London and he was brought on by a vote of 11 to 4.

 

6       RETRIBUTION AGAINST OPPOSITION

 

From here on there emerged a campaign of unremitting retribution against any opposition within the organisation to the Czechoslovakia policy or for that matter, ultimately, almost any policy. George Bridges, former editor of Challenge and London District Secretary, and Tom Bell, for example, both complained to the NC that one Pete Ackerman had breached democratic centralism at a YCL school for the Camberwell branch, at which he was the tutor. Ackerman had been a key organiser in the youth section of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (later Liberation) for a couple of years and was also deeply involved in matters concerning European Security. Facing discipline, Ackerman agreed that he had breached the rules of handling dissent and was censured for this under Rule 4 of the YCL constitution, which covered democratic centralism.  The formal minute of censure was rather ominously misspelt, thus: - "It was agreed: - 1 To censor (sic) P Ackerman unanimous 2 To ask him to resign from the NC - 2 against 1 abstention."  [YCL NC document November 10th 1970] The essence of the complaint against him had been that he had taken his differences with policy downwards to a subordinate body within the organisation, an action incompatible with leadership."

 

The following March, another NC member felt constrained to resign from the leadership. John Page, from the East Anglian district, had found himself occupied with many duties associated with his responsibilities in the NUS, which made it difficult for him to continue on the NC. Although why, so close to a congress when an entirely new leadership would be elected anyway, he needed to resign may perhaps be partially explained by his second reason, that "political differences (existed) which made it increasingly difficult to continue as a NC member".       

 

As the 1971 congress approached, more and more signs of tension were exposed. The pre-congress discussion night for the Southampton branch was deemed null and void by the NC, "due to irregularities". Tom Bell reported that "a number of CP/YCL dual members who had not previously been involved in the YCL and whose main field of activity was the CP had attended YCL branch congress nights and voted on a number of issues, against the views of comrades who had played a role in the YCL and people had been elected delegates in place of these comrades". It seems that the District Party's van had been used to facilitate the dual members attending the meetings.

 

Elsewhere, some like Mike Ambrose of the West Middlesex District, who had been the District Secretary but had indicated intent to move out of YCL work in favour of Party work entirely, had changed their minds. Pete Hall had taken on the Kent District Secretaryship without consultation with the national office. Les Howie, the Hants and Dorset District Secretary of the CPGB with Sid French, the Surrey District Secretary, had assisted with all of this "interference" as Bell termed it. Moreover, they had supposedly made remarks to Tony McNally and Dennis Walshe, the key YCLer in Hants and Dorset at that time, of an "insulting nature". Howie and French were barred from the forthcoming congress and the CPGB executive decided to advise all Party members in the YCL that they must “fight for Party policy, including in the YCL Congress".

 

The YCL leadership felt now able to act upon their complaints. Mike Laws, a long standing critic of the YCL's leadership and a Party member who had been seconded by the Surrey district to help in the YCL, was tersely told that his invitation to work in the YCL was terminated, he "being now 32 years of age". Pete Hall was interviewed by the NC "on the question of his suitability as Kent YCL district secretary".  After this the NC, rather predictably, instructed the Kent YCL DC to elect another district secretary, due to Hall's "role in the League, in terms of both personal instability and ability to fight for Congress decisions". Hall said he would accept the decision of the NC, but would fight it at congress in a constitutional appeal. Significantly, almost in defiance of the opposition in the League, that NC issued a statement on the trials of 19 young political subversives in Czechoslovakia at the same time as dealing with these matters.

 

The pre-congress discussion documents for this period show the strident tone of the debate. Some saw mass work as activity in the youth clubs or in local football teams, almost and in some cases actually posing this arena against trade union or other mass struggles. The practical experience of some was almost calculatedly ranged against the theoretical criticisms of those who complained of an absence of Marxist study in the organisation.

 

One contributor queried the "limited democracy that has plagued the YCL lately because of the threat of the 'hard-liners' ", and pointed out that the only concrete example of mass work that the YCL could cite in its credit, in the most recent period up to Congress, had been the TUC Youth Conference campaign. Was selling Challenge on the local High Street, an activity much demanded by those in favour of community-style YCL work, directly mass youth work? Some in the YCL were so disgruntled at the style of the new Challenge that they had begun to boycott it in one way or another. The Camberwell branch of the League for example found its branch committee suspended from office for one month for returning the October 1969 issue of the magazine to the district office on account of the "pornography" contained within. (Photographs of `artistically’ posed female nudes were seen by the leadership as 'trendy'!) But, to return to the notion of selling Challenge as a means of locality work, one YCLer pointedly commented that London was probably the only city where 'locality' had any real meaning. In Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds and elsewhere, if you wanted to sell Challenge successfully you went to the city centre.

 

Of considerable significance was the contribution to discussion from the London District Organiser, Laureen Mason. Although at the time, for reasons that we shall see next, Mason's views were rather overshadowed by a more stunning and sensational article from McNally. Mason called for unity in diversity: "the last congress saw somewhat of a polarisation of opinion ... since then to some extent the polemic has developed and within basic viewpoints many shades and shapes of opinion are coming forth". For her, a Marxist synthesis - not compromise - of clashing views should be possible. Yet rival cults and personality differences prevented this. Inflexibility could be our downfall, she argued, some have ceased to struggle in the battle of ideas and play "on the emotional feelings" of members. Implicitly, she complained that those who had differences on Czechoslovakia were not being treated fairly, "an over-reaction has arisen". Her contribution was immediately followed in the discussion document by a case in point.

 

It was a revelatory article by Tony McNally, a contribution to discussion which was spirited, to say the least, which became the talk of the League in the run up to congress. He argued that those who disagreed with the last congress decision on Czechoslovakia had "embarked on a course of organisation, and plain mudslinging to disrupt the 28th Congress." He believed that the NC had "bent over backwards" to avoid disciplinary action, even though a leading member of the Party had referred to the disunity as "close to Civil War".

 

He claimed as evidence of unconstitutional factionalism the booking by Surrey YCL of 60 beds at a hotel in Scarborough for the congress, when the district had only 24 delegates - the excess beds presumably being taken up by delegates from other districts of a like mind. Home Counties and London branches of similar views were travelling in the same coaches to Scarborough. Every Sunday night these people congregated in the Metropolitan pub near the Morning Star for a "drink" as McNally contemptuously put it. The machinations in Southampton - on one side - and the measures taken against Hall and Ackerman were additionally cited as evidence of a conspiracy. It all added up to "bordering on 'organised opposition'". Sid French, McNally complained, had called him a liar and now denied saying so. French had also supposedly said that there was a need to "clear the mafia out of the YCL", referring to the leadership, presumably as a cabal, although the implication was left that it was a bizarre reference to infiltration of the YCL by the criminal society. McNally asked French to "name those comrades in the YCL who are in the Mafia". Linked to this charge was the complaint that a Hants and Dorset CP DC member, a "Mrs Moody", referred to Tom Bell as a "CIA agent". While she had denied saying this, McNally demanded the evidence or withdrawal.

 

Largely ignoring the fact that much of the litany of complaint had occurred in the pre-congress discussion period, when democratic centralism was supposed to be largely waived in the interests of debate, McNally charged the so-called "hard-line Marxist Leninists" with behaving like liberals and anarchists by not adhering to policy. "If we allow these activities to carry on, the end result will be the slow but sure destruction of our communist youth organisation. THIS IS WHAT IS AT STAKE." McNally took personal responsibility for his statement. But he had "found support from comrades such as Barney Davis, Pete Kavanagh, Tom Bell, Jon Dyson" … (Dyson was in his last year as Midlands District YCL Secretary. His name was followed by another name, which was deleted from the original cyclo-styled stencil leaving a blank in the duplicated text. This was presumably because the individual withdrew expected support. Another blank followed this blank in the text. These two presumed refusals to be identified with McNally's onslaught are indicative of just how controversial the attack was viewed. The original text then continues.) " … Dave Cook and many others." (Then there was a further lengthy blank in the text, which was probably some vituperative point that those who allowed their names to be used could not sign up to.) The position is now before you." It was as if McNally was speaking directly to the congress - which indeed he was! Delegates were, he told them in advance: " mature enough to discriminate between genuine criticism and proposals for concrete work ahead from any mudslinging that may unfortunately occur. " There was no irony intended. [Cogito No 3 pre-congress discussion document] Significantly, McNally later had a statement, that he considered he was "wrong to issue his contribution" to the pre-congress discussion document minuted by the NC. [11/12 September 1971 NC Minutes]  But by then the purpose of its production had been achieved - the opposition had been marginalised, just when they were presenting a problem.

 

The congress had unanimously adopted a resolution on unity and democracy within the League, but there had been no real debate about how to achieve either. McNally presented a report to the NC of 15/16 May, in which he observed that it was "quite clear that a growing political difference within the YCL over the past five of six years has grown deeper and in this period leading up to and during the 28th Congress began to express itself in an organised form which in part was referred to in my article in No3 Pre-Congress discussion." Ending this required an identification of the objective political base that gave rise to the opposition, thought McNally. The leadership had to win those against congress decisions, overcoming its own weaknesses, but not tolerating "any activity at variance with the Congress decisions and democratic centralism."  To this end the NC in July, after a further discussion on YCL unity, decided on a school on Socialist Democracy and a Cogito on the same subject - the aim being an ideological offensive in the League of official policy on these matters.

 

The National Committee issued a statement on YCL Unity on 26th August 1971. In dealing with the problem of the Surrey-ite faction, the NC went back to the 28th Congress. The alternative list or slate for the NC elections, for which George Reader was supposed to have prime responsibility, had " come to light " when Dave Cook discovered it circulating. The NC described this list as "a violation of rule", despite the fact that the constitution did not specifically prohibit such a list, nor did the Congress Standing Orders deal with the possibility.

 

Notwithstanding all this, the next step was the expulsion of Pete Hall by a vote of 25 to 8 with two abstentions. [NC minutes July 3/4 1971] Hall was accused of breaching democratic centralism on four counts: a) at a Willesden YCL branch social on 19th December 1970, "Bob Allen had to object to an attack (by Hall) on our position on Czechoslovakia"; b) Hall had attacked the YCL and Party leaderships when talking to a Komsomol delegation at a social on 21st November 1970; c) He had attacked the congress position at a Marxist study school; d) He had distributed a statement of the Austrian Communist Party (which had just had a major reversal in policy on Czechoslovakia after key leadership changes) "without consultation with the NC".

 

Hall was also accused of breaching 'procedure' on four counts: a) a series of "incidents" at socials; b) having opposed aspects of the YCL's work in his branch; c) being elected Kent YCL secretary without consultation with the NC, or the London YCL DC, when still a member of the Islington branch; and d) having been removed from the EPC at congress because "he refused to carry out majority decisions". (The EPC, or Election Preparations Committee, was the enabling committee responsible for preparatory work on the elections of the executive at congress.)

 

Further disciplinary measures were also adopted, this time more firmly perhaps, against Phil Cutler and Dick Dixon both of Surrey, who each received three months suspension from membership from the NC on a vote of 31 to 1 with 2 abstentions. [NC minutes September 11th/12th 1971] Less certain were the actions on London, West Middlesex and Yorkshire YCLers. Val Dixon, Gordon White and Sarah White were proposed for 3 months suspension from membership (Gordon White had originally been recommended for expulsion). At the July 1971 NC five names from West Middlesex had been considered - two were suspended for 3 months, and these three were to be looked at again as they had failed to attend. In the end, however, they too were faced with discipline, but a new situation had arisen. There had been a district congress and there was now a new leadership. An agreement with the District Party over these three was reached whereby no further action would be taken in these circumstances.

 

Bert and Margaret Strange of Yorkshire faced action. Although at first the NC, with some members being rather concerned at the apparent flimsiness of the case and others aware that the procedures had not been strictly kept to, had advised the Yorkshire DC to either take the action as far as they could themselves under rule, or come back to another NC meeting better prepared. In the end Margaret Strange was suspended from membership by 19 votes to 8 with one abstention.

a Party

Left: a section of Margaret Strange’s formal complaint to the CPGB EC, about a Party full-timer, which was not shown to the YCL NC.

 

More embarrassing for the YCL leadership was the appeal of Perry Miles and Pete Ackerman against the London DC’s removing them from office as a disciplinary measure under rule. It was their right to go to the NC on this and the committee backed them after a lengthy argument - some 13 NC members came into the discussion. Their appeal was upheld by 12 votes to 11 with 4 abstentions. The London District Secretary, Bob Allen, came in for some stern criticism from some and it was clear that there was an element which was loosing the taste for discipline as a means of resolving the fundamental differences that beset the League.

 

The group around the Surrey district began to demand a recall Congress under rule as the pace of discipline stepped up. By September, five districts had formally done so (Surrey, Kent, North East, West of England, South East Midlands District Committees). But the rules required a third of the districts to make such a call. At that stage, six were needed to force the EC to call an emergency congress. Some 50 branches nationally had joined the call by the spring of 1972, but again this was insufficient, half of the total branches were needed and at least on paper there were sufficient branches not joining the call to inhibit such a development.

 

Going beyond all this formal disciplinary action, the leadership found other less obvious ways of curtailing the opposition. Ways which were sometimes not even immediately obvious to EC members, who voted on the seemingly abstract merits of the case; an example being the question of foreign citizens holding YCL membership. The PC recommended to the EC in September 1971 that only British and Commonwealth citizens be eligible for membership. But the EC overturned this, reasoning that this was a matter that really needed the attention of the next YCL congress, being a question of a fundamental, rather than an interpretative, nature. Only the Congress could change rules in this way, it being the EC's job to interpret them in practice, not make up new rules as it went along. This was very much against the wishes of the London YCL leadership, for they had found the activities of a number of foreigners (Germans and various Middle Eastern nationals in particular) in the YCL especially irritating and had in consequence produced the proposal to clear these out of membership. Significantly, no amendment to rule was produced banning membership on nationality grounds at any subsequent congress.

 

Clearly, there was a serious situation developing for the group around Bell, which had its power-base in the leadership of the London YCL, for it could no longer be certain of getting through its every whim at the EC. In fact a spirit of open scepticism had developed on the EC, almost as a reaction to the use of administrative power to control the dissidents. Almost certainly, this had some basis in the rapid changes and uncertain character of the leadership of the EC as a whole. Only 12 of the 1969 NC were elected onto the 1971 NC and only two of these were on the 1967 NC (i.e. Tony McNally and Bob Allen). There was in fact an almost unbelievable lack of experience of the national leadership at large, although after the 1971 congress the PC was strengthened by a better balance of full-timers and non-full-timers, London and provincial members. Moreover, the practice of the national full-timers and the London full-timers meeting as a sub-committee of the PC was stopped after the Scottish Committee complained that the practice was unconstitutional and accorded undue influence to a small bureaucratic elite. In truth, the London based leadership was now beginning to find itself under fire from an alliance of forces. Differences on the role of Challenge and the question of the independent role of the YCL, vis-à-vis the mass movement, began to surface inside the majority grouping which had previously been more or less united, at least so far as the Czechoslovakia question was concerned. A debate developed over how to mesh the independent YCL role with that of the wider progressive movement.

 

McNally had been National Organiser for three years and after the tussle with Bell it is probably not surprising that he felt the need to move on. The EC revealed, in a letter dated 8th June 1972, that "Comrade McNally has been released from the position of National Organiser of the League". Unlike Barney Davis' successor, the appointment of McNally's successor was treated with great care. No less than 21 names were considered, these being supplied by DC nomination. A short-list of six emerged with Dennis Walshe, Barrie Van Den Berg and Phil Green favoured by Bob Allen and Tom Bell. Also in the running were Brian Filling, Bill Hickey and Dave Carson, the successful candidate, favoured by McNally. Carson was a 23 year old former motor mechanic, who had been the Scottish YCL full-time secretary from late 1970. He had been a Party member since 1968 and had joined the YCL the following year.

 

An example of the healthy suspicion the EC had of its PC was revealed in 1973, when it had been proposed that non-contentious, but important PC items be reported generally to the League in the internal newsletter and that the subsequent EC raise any queries or concerns. Other matters not reported in the newsletter, but for the attention of the EC would be raised under the item 'YCL Newsletters' at the subsequent EC. A vote of 16 to 13 defeated the proposal, insisting that the matters for political rather than administrative decision be reported in full PC minutes to the EC as a proper item for debate.

 

According to rule of course, the PC was subordinate to the EC, being a sub-committee designed to administrate the business of the latter. In practice it accorded to itself substantial prestige - especially after the Scottish DC forced the demise of the semi-official London based full-timers elite - and influence over the EC simply by virtue of recommendation and the doctrine of collective responsibility of the PC. While this could never be taken for granted, especially in the 1971-5 period, careful handling of sensitive issues could and did easily deteriorate into manipulation of the less experienced and less well-informed EC.

 

The League faced a severe test of self-contradiction when it assumed the mantle of conscience of the socialist states. In January 1971 McNally had introduced an item at the executive on internal democracy. He expressed a desire to "avoid the grave defamations" made by some communists especially in the socialist world. Ideas on how to maximise inner-League democracy were invited from the whole of the organisation and the NC decided there and then to institute a practice of sending it minutes to all branches as well as the existing circularisation to district secretaries and of course NC members.

 

Yet the biggest weakness was in the sudden and dramatic decline of the organisation brought in by the 1970s. Apart from a slight stabilisation of the membership decline in the first few years of the decade, the trend was very decidedly not communism - membership plummeted. The NC, in talking about the need for strengthening the organisation, should have been acutely aware of its own limitations. Of the 40 elected at the April 1969 Congress to the NC only 15 were actually functioning, according to McNally. Of the 10 EC members only 5 or 6 regularly participated, the EC sub-committee of London and National full-timers had an indeterminate status and too much power. [NC Minutes 2nd/3rd January 1971]

 

While in the League at large there was a serious sense of demoralisation. Bell, in the January 1971 Internal Bulletin talked of the need to "restore the dynamic that led to NLF flags flying from such notable flagpoles as the one on Nottingham Castle during our Vietnam Campaign of 1968 ... more than ever we see that we are rapidly approaching a watershed between imperialism and socialism. Not only in Britain but internationally." A new spirit certainly emerged - one of industrial militancy in the face of Heath's Tory government. 600,000 had engaged in an unofficial political strike against the Tories' anti-union Bill, with thousands lobbying Parliament that day. In Birmingham, a local day of action was called, with 45,000 out on strike and a large demonstration of some 5,000 in protest at the Bill. The TUC was forced to take a strong line on the Bill even to the length of a special recall congress at Croydon. While the government's economic policies introduced wage restraint, public expenditure cuts and other moves which struck at ordinary people.

 

This militancy obscured the realities of certain differences in the League. While there was still a debate about the balance of the activities of the organisation that was desirable, there was formal unanimity about the importance and value of industrial work. As Bell put it to the 29th Congress that year in his opening speech, "it would be wrong to overestimate the possibilities opening up or overstate the degree to which young people are becoming involved. But the fact is that sections of young people who hitherto have not been involved in the present level of struggle are associating with the labour movement in growing numbers. This is the definite and welcome trend among working class youth." Even more decisive was the declaration that youth and student unity, "with labour movement youth at its core", could be more and more "linked with the whole labour movement and the struggle to kick out the Tories".

 

7       THREE CARDINAL QUESTIONS-

YOUNG WORKERS, SCHOOL STUDENTS, CHALLENGE

 

These factional differences in the League were in fact rooted in deep divisions that existed inside the Party. To understand how the tensions expressed themselves in the YCL, it will be useful at this stage to look at the broader picture of what would only in retrospect be easily seen as a fundamental, even terminal, crisis for the CPGB.

 

There had been crises in the Party before of course. The 1929 `Bolshevisation’ of the Party saw the ending of the leadership of an older breed of socialist who had been associated with the old SDF/BSP propagandist style of work - those who were less attuned to the new internationalism and discipline of a Comintern `world party’. 1939 had seen the largely leadership orientated controversy over whether the war was imperialist in character or objectively anti-fascist. 1947-8 saw doubts about whether the wave of repression in Eastern Europe and the ejection of Yugoslavia from the socialist bloc. But this had been largely internalised, people kept their doubts to themselves. 1956 had seen the dispute over Hungary and the Krushchev revelations. These political crises and others were effectively contained and did not wreck the very fabric of British Communism. Although in the case of 1956 a third of the party membership had left, the Party had weathered the storm. Even then, after a few years, membership actually rose in the early Sixties. These earlier, seemingly larger crises, were arguably more about the way the CPGB perceived the international communist movement and the centrality of the need for the defence of the USSR than about how it saw itself as the vanguard of a British revolution. The oddity about the much deeper divisions which arose from 1968 was that, whilst ostensibly about the USSR and the socialist camp, underpinning the controversy was a deep crisis of confidence in whether or not there was a role at all for a distinctive Marxist voice within the progressive movement in Britain. Added to this was doubt about whether that progressive movement was best orientated around the labour movement or not.

 

Perhaps not knowing it at the time, those who were later to abolish the CPGB already doubted the validity of the concept of a revolutionary party. The present writer has it on good authority that Gordon McLennan was privately voicing to a Party school for advanced and senior cadres as early as 1972, whether there was a basis for an existence of a Communist Party in this country. Arguably, the inner-party turmoil of the next twenty years were simply about keeping hold of the assets and good name of the Party, whilst expunging the organisation of any element which would not go along with this process.

 

It is in this sense that the divisions were potentially, as it turned out actually, terminal. Whilst the actual experience of those divisions in the YCL display for posterity the larger and later experience of the Party. Since 1929, the Communist movement in Britain had rarely had such fundamental differences emerge so openly, and so deeply across the Party and YCL, in such a way as to raise a doubt about what constituted failure to fight for decisions. In practice it was but a thin line between excluding candidates on the basis of failing to fight for majority decisions and excluding those who had minority opinions. For it would increasingly become a severe impediment to leadership hopes in the YCL (and later in the Party) to have strong dissenting views. Moreover, the leadership itself began to operate in a factional way - opposition versus executive (or to be more precise Political Committee) - excluding those from amongst its number who could not be relied upon, in an increasingly wider frame of definition.

 

The entire spirit behind the notion of democratic centralism abhorred the creation of factions. Whilst the notion of the recommended list, in theory, worked on the basis of consensus on what kind of leadership was required. Even so, there was no bar as such to any delegate proposing an alternative list of one, two, three or thirty candidates. Indeed, at the 1979 CPGB Congress Dave Cook spoke for a long list of alternative names by the simple expedient of naming them in his speech during the closed session debate on the EC elections. The recommended list system however presumes, as the NC statement on YCL Unity put it that "having a minority viewpoint is not in itself a basis to be excluded from positions of leadership, but failure to fight for majority decisions ... is such a basis".

 

The process of election was wide open to PC fractional influence - despite the theory that the congress was supreme in its choice. Initial ideas on a recommended list would be put by the General Secretary to the PC, which in turn put its view to the EC, which in turn produced a list for the Election Preparations Committee, which in turn produced such a list for the Congress. While there would inevitably be alterations - and that was the point of the system - between each of these stages, individual candidates could emerge as the process unfolded; a leadership bent on exclusion of a given trend could easily do so. The EC was thus increasingly more unrepresentative of the whole YCL, albeit representative of the majority of the congress, and the complaint of the opposition increasingly centred on such a suggestion. The repudiation of the leadership of this accusation was simply that a minority view was not a condition for membership of leading committees.

 

Differences did exist however over the question of industrial activity, especially on the degree of its importance - some saw it as central, others as important to a lesser or greater degree. If activity amongst young workers was relevant then of course so was the other key area of YCL membership - school students. Inevitably, the character of Challenge then current raised much concern especially in the context of what the journal of the YCL was for. A groundswell of opinion in the League was to build up around the simple notion that Challenge ought to reflect the work of the League in these spheres, both as an independent organisation and as part of movements specific to these spheres. These three cardinal areas of difference were set to provide the League with an explosive situation. Differences around the League's position on international matters, a serious test of the leadership' ability to maintain unity in diversity and to translate that into a healthy, positive and expansive atmosphere all came together in a critical moment of doubt. In particular, Tom Bell, as national leader, faced the most taxing assessment of his own role in the organisation he ostensibly led. How then did these three factors contribute to this situation?

 

a) Young Workers

 

The British Labour Movement had long displayed a history of a contempt for youth, assigning militancy to the follies of immaturity, and assuming a studied disregard for the particular problems of young people which face them by virtue of their age as well as class. Unlike many working class movements in other countries, British counterparts have rarely considered the need to establish special bodies, sub-committees, conferences and the like, for youth. More especially is this so for trade union organisations.

 

One of the first real attempts to reverse this contempt was put to the TUC in 1928 by the AEU, which has always displayed an interest in youth matters, by virtue of an endemic concern for apprenticeships of a craft nature. Indeed the AEU, later the AEF and then the AUEW (Engineering Section), long maintained a youth structure of its own, part and parcel of the "adult" machinery of the union. However, that early attempt came to naught, but the Scottish TUC decided to hold an annual youth conference from 1937 and this has been so for all but the war years ever since. In 1947 the British TUC General Council discussed the experiences of these Scottish TUC Youth Conferences, but went no further. The following year a motion was put to set up some form of a youth structure, but this was defeated. The issue would not go away though - in 1954 the General Council was forced to prove its interest by making a statement urging more participation of younger union members.

 

Under pressure from the AEU in 1955, the General Council told the union that it considered that there was enough being done in respect of youth. The next year, the clerical workers union, CAWU, and the AEU presented a motion favouring the establishment of a youth conference and committee of the TUC. The advisory body would be comprised of young workers elected at an annual youth conference and some General Council members, but the notion was just too much for the TUC and it failed to win sufficient support.

 

Throughout the 1950s there were sporadic and significant apprentices strikes in engineering and shipbuilding, testament both to the organising influence of the Communist Party in these industries and to the growing awareness of strength and the contradictory lack of say on their lot amongst young workers. Attempts to channel this discontent into more long-term organised forms took off only in a few areas. Engineering youth committees in Sheffield and the Clydeside, trades council advisories in Coventry and Birmingham and youth unemployed committees in the North East were amongst some of the products of this period. But the official trade union youth structure was largely limited to the AEU and to the draughtsmen's and technicians union (AESD, then DATA, later TASS), which were briefly in the AUEW/TASS federation, which was later to split. This loose and short-lived alliance contained the anomalous position of the AUEW having a national youth conference but no national committee, while TASS had a national youth committee, but no national youth conference.

 

The YCL had been fairly well involved in the engineering struggles of youth in the North, the Midlands and Scotland in the Fifties and early Sixties, while it had engaged in campaigns around youth unemployment in the 1962-3 period, especially on the Tyneside. By the late Sixties, the League had begun to once again centre its attentions on these matters. Challenge sponsored a largely London based conference on automation and youth in 1967, while towards the end of the year a one day YCL national industrial conference was called with 39 attending - it had been hoped that some 60 would attend. The Party had a clear presence, Julie Jacobs from the National Industrial Department was there with a colleague, to hear the conference assessment that the YCL had "not worked amongst young workers for a long time" and its determination to change that. [YCLIB December 1967]

 

There were exceptions, which highlighted some very interesting possibilities for the YCL. It was able to boast that Mick Shepherd, convenor of stewards at the Sheffield factory of Shardlows, was a member. Despite being unusually young for such a position, he was substantially assisted in obtaining the convenorship by being a Communist. There were then 73 Communists out of a workforce of 1,300. 100 copies of the Morning Star were sold every day inside the factory, apart from the many Party members who had it ordered at their local newsagent, and there was even a Party factory newspaper called Crankshaft.

 

In Dundee, a Junior Workers Committee of the AEU had been set up with YCLers playing a leading part. There were YCLers active in a variety of such committees throughout the country in both the AEU and DATA. The League very soon found itself with a small industrial group on the largest building site in Europe - Thamesmead. While Sheffield Trades Council, in October 1969, led by Communists, sponsored a city-wide youth conference, which subsequently resulted in a re-vamped youth committee. Similar conferences were set up elsewhere, at Ealing for example.

 

There was a very real, rising tide of protest amongst young people at work at the effects of the Wilson Labour government's policies on the economy. For the first time, young people felt they had a voice and used it in the face of attacks on their precious and newly acquired standard of living. Young women in particular established a reputation for 'having a go'. At Fords in Dagenham, BSR in East Kilbride and the nurses’ 'Raise the Roof' campaign (both young women’s struggles), all contributed to this trend. The League produced a Young Workers' broadsheet and quickly sold 2,000 copies.

 

When in February 1970, the vote at 18 years of age was eventually conceded, more as a piece of Wilsonian trickery than any genuine response to a much needed democratic reform, the young worker in particular became significant political potential in the eyes of society at large. There were no less than 5 million young workers less than 25 years of age in the early 1970s.

 

Against this entire background, the AEF (as the AEU was now called by virtue of an amalgamation with the foundry workers) Junior Workers' National Conference in March 1970 called for the TUC to set up a national youth conference for the whole of the movement. YCLers were predominantly involved in the work to win this call and the League did not waste much time advancing the case further. The 7th September Lobby Committee was formed to co-ordinate youth to demonstrate outside the Brighton TUC that year in support of the AEF's call.

 

Some 350 people, representing one million trades unionists were elected to lobby and about a quarter of the delegates to the TUC - 250 - signed a petition of support. Vic Feather, the TUC General Secretary was obliged to sympathetically listen to the lobbyers. Arising out of this campaign, 16 local `Youth Conference Committees’ were set up, mainly in the industrial provinces, to campaign for a Youth TUC. Following the TUC Lobby, a national conference was called to campaign for such an end. This was held in Manchester on February 7th 1971. The 7th September Committee was renamed the Trade Union Youth Conference Committee and its national secretary was London YCLer Pete Kavanagh, a 24 year old Dublin-born steel fixer. The national chair was Ian Reekie, a YCLer and firefighter from Edinburgh. (Kavanagh was later, for a period, to become a prominent regional full-time official for the TGWU, concentrating on the London building industry.)

 

There were no less than 450 delegates and 80 observers in attendance at the conference. An unqualified success by any standards, there were 15 trades councils and 32 trade unions represented, the latter of course at a variety of levels. No doubt as a partial response to the pressure, the TUC General Council decided to introduce a special Congress Award for Youth in 1971, still a permanent feature of the trade union movement. Interestingly, throughout the early 1970s, the Award was dominated by YCLers in general and by TASS in particular. The year of the introduction of the Award was also the year of the second lobby of the TUC on the question of a Youth TUC, held this time on September 6th 1971. Trades Council youth committees in Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle, Coventry and many other towns and cities geared themselves up for the campaign.

 

Coventry's committee was typical of many, in that it had been initiated by the YCL, utilising the good offices of the TASS Youth Committee. A 7th September (1970) committee had followed on from the League's activities, which in turn had been bodily transformed into the Trades Council Youth Committee. Coventry sent 15 to the first TUC Lobby, 8 to the second, 10 to the first TUYCC Conference in Manchester and 17 to the second conference in Sheffield. The whole experience was thus a tremendous stimulation towards the establishment of official, yet rank-and-file, trades council youth committees.

 

Over the next couple of years, these bodies were to play a useful part in the overall anti-Tory struggle. Birmingham Trades Council Youth Section organised a march and a meeting on youth unemployment in 1972, while the Midlands Federation of Trades Councils (this was in the days before Regional TUCs, so the body had some importance) organised a one-day conference in September 1972 on the problems of youth. No less than 11 YCLers out of the total of 50 delegates attended. Even more decisive was the fact that the conference had only been organised by virtue of a motion put by Tom Finnemore of the Coventry YCL on behalf of the council's youth committee at the Coventry Trades Council, which had in turn won support at the Midlands Federation. Similar events were called by the London Trades Council, which was able to attract 82 delegates, and the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Counties Trades Council Federation.

 

The YCL was most at the centre of these activities in Scotland, which had a long and strong Communist tradition, as well as a trade union and for that matter youth trade union tradition. Of the 100 delegates to the Scottish TUC Youth Conference in January 1972, as many as 29 were YCL members and the chairman, Ian Reekie, was a prominent YCLer. Another significant voice was John Lyons, secretary of the Glasgow AUEW (as the engineering union was now called following its loose, federative amalgamation with TASS) Junior Workers Committee. Of the committee of seven that was elected, three were in the YCL and "another joined after to make it a majority". [YCLIB January 26th 1972 - the YCLers elected on were Andy Mattson (TASS), John Lyons (AUEW Engineering) and Jim Doolan (ASTMS).] Scotland was to produce in this decade, as in many others, quite a crop of militants. Indeed, by this stage, the YCL was especially well endowed with industrial activists of some note. There was Alan Ritchie, in 1971 a 19 year old shop steward at the Clydeside shipyard of UCS, Tom Brotherstone, another UCS shop steward and also secretary of the Glasgow Trades Council youth section. The League even set up branch of nine at the Robb Caledonian shipyards in Dundee, so successful was its industrial work. Similarly, the YCL was able to establish the Monktonhall pit branch in East Lothian. A colliery branch was even more rare than any kind of industrial branch in the YCL at this time, so this was some achievement even if the membership of 7 was rather small. The YCL in Scotland was especially active in the campaign to save the UCS shipyards. The Scottish Committee of the YCL produced and sold 6,000 of a Special Challenge on the UCS. Many areas of course produced their own leaflets and posters, e.g. London, Bristol and Birmingham. In the North East, there was the example of YCLers like Stuart Hill, the Secretary of Teeside Trades Council in 1972. Generally, the situation elsewhere in the League was very similar, if not so relatively impressive. YCLers were active in a very wide range of trade unions and held many important and not so important posts in the movement. Set against the background of considerable industrial militancy and a great deal of political activity by the trade union movement, it was not to be surprising that the TUC Youth Conference Campaign was successful - as far as it went.

 

The first TUC Youth Conference was held in 1974 after an USDAW motion was passed at the previous year's TUC. Even so, the platform had strongly opposed the USDAW motion until the very last moment. Then, sensing defeat, the General Council switched to supporting it, reversing its previous 18 to 13 vote of opposition in a complete and rather inexplicable somersault. The conference, held on February 22nd, attracted 90 delegates from 35 national unions. Although most of the speakers expressed a desire for a formal committee as well as a conference, and thought it better to be able to debate resolutions at the conference and elect their own chair from the floor, the TUC leadership showed little sympathy. Indeed, Congress House - TUC headquarters - staff ensured that the conference had fewer rights than the TUC Women's Conference and that both were rigidly controlled. The chair was appointed, not elected, no motions were allowed, the agenda organised without reference to anyone outside Congress House, let alone affiliated unions. Finally, the conference came to no decisions at all, for it was not allowed to. Despite a brief attempt to campaign for a democratisation of the TUC Youth Conference, from hereon, despite the conference's continuation, the League did not truly take up the full possibilities of the TUC Youth Conference and it remains a stagnant force.

 

The third conference in 1976 had 81 delegates present and there were strong tensions between the platform and the floor of conference. 77 delegates signed a petition protesting at the actions of the chair in cutting short the debate on the need to democratise conference. Unemployment - rapidly soaring under a Labour government was a big issue, but not with the TUC which was tied to support for the Social Contract. The Congress House arranged agenda hardly featured the question. Of course it became increasingly difficult for the leadership of the trade union movement to control their rank-and-file membership on the issue of the Government’s Social Contract. The AUEW Youth Conference in 1977 voted 25 to 9 with 3 abstentions to oppose the Social Contract and youth were never shy in advancing their needs when challenged by the monetarist policies Labour was now following.

 

The YCL now began to show greater interest in the arena of youth unemployment. In early 1976, the League initiated the formation of CAYU, the Campaign Against Youth Unemployment, the honorary Vice-Presidents of which were Joan Lestor MP and John Forrester, National official of AUEW/TASS. Bob Boyton was the National Secretary and Ian Ritchie the National Chairman. In the summer of 1976, Liverpool Trades Council Youth Committee proposed a lobby of Parliament for November 3rd. Some five hundred turned out on the lobby, which was somewhat overshadowed by a campaign against public expenditure cuts, held on the same day.

 

Steve Munby, editor of Challenge, in the June 1978 issue of Marxism Today saw the way forward for CAYU as needing to develop an image that will capture "popular imagination" whilst such an image would only be drawn from "within the arena of contemporary youth culture." CAYU had the support of the National League of Young Liberals, whose national conference in April 1978 resolved as such. The Labour Party Young Socialists seemed initially to support CAYU, but abhorring the heavy YCL domination of the group, now that the LPYS was Militant dominated, it split off to form its own supposedly broad based campaign. Called the Youth Campaign Against Unemployment, this never really broke free of the LPYS at all. While the YCL's initiative was similarly organisationally hide-bound, it did reach out to ordinary youth in many areas. CAYU and YCAU engaged in an unproductive war of paper for a short while. The essence of the LPYS's position was that unemployment was a class issue, that youth could not be separated off from adults. Youth needed to campaign against unemployment, but it was considered by LPYS to be sectarian and un-Marxist to campaign just against youth unemployment.

 

CAYU eventually found a niche in its campaign for drop-in centres for the rapidly rising level of young unemployed. In the course of the late 1970s, drop-in centres were set up in Leicester, Peckham and Brent. CAYU's campaign saw local groups organise all-night vigils - in the case of Coventry, outside the old Fire Station, which had become a Job Creation Scheme. Coventry CAYU’s main thrust was the need for real jobs, not schemes. Nationally, CAYU organised an event outside the 1978 TUC, which it styled the "Other TUC", to draw attention to the rising tide of unemployment. Meanwhile cities like Birmingham, which had wound up its Trades Council Youth Committee when the Youth TUC was set up, re-formed youth committees as it became clear that it could not do the job. Birmingham's committee soon organised a 200 strong youth demonstration in February 1976 against unemployment.

 

100 delegates attended the Ninth TUC Youth Conference in February 1982 from 40 unions. The traditional tensions were evident as ever, but the YCL's influence was now minimal. Militant/LPYS was much more to the fore. Moreover, it was the Baker's, Food and Allied Workers Union whose general secretary was a Militant supporter, which put forward a motion dealing with youth at the TUC in September of that year. The motion rather stupidly left itself wide open for criticism as failing to appreciate the realities of the jealously guarded individual independence of member unions within the TUC. Such independence is safeguarded only by the knowledge that TUC policy can only be determined at the annual congress itself, that congress from which the very organisation gets its name. The Bakers’ motion demanded a two day youth conference and a youth committee that could initiate campaigns. But it also spoke of the need for the Youth Conference to “receive motions from constituent unions (to) be debated and policy on young workers be adopted by the youth conference". Moreover, the fact that the Youth Committee, under this motion, could campaign on these policies independent of the TUC was almost calculated to raise the maximum opposition.

 

A delegate from the Institute of Professional and Civil Servants spoke against the motion, arguing that there was a "danger that policies (thus) adopted would be unrepresentative and, because of this, could clash with Congress or individual union policies". As if that was not enough to once again make the issue of democratising the Youth Conference a non-starter, Bill Keys of the printworkers union, SOGAT, opposed the motion for the General Council. In so doing, he made a similar point - that the motion could create a youth movement which was not "accountable to the General Council or indeed, for that matter, to the national executive councils of the various unions. It is power without responsibility, and we do not even give that power, may I say, to the Women's TUC".  [TUC Report 1982]

 

b) School Students

 

The right-wing pressure group inside the Tory Party, the Monday Club, ascribed to the YCL a decisive role in the organisation of the school students movement in the 1970s. To the extent that the role of the Communist Party students active in the NUS is also recognised, then this estimate was largely true. The Monday Club noted that the League was "instrumental in setting up the Islington Schools Committee ... which led to militancy among pupils in the area" and that "many YCLers have been active in setting up schools councils. Magazines are devoted to these themes, KRAKEN in N London; RED HERRING in Hemel Hempstead; and the voice of W Midlands school students under close YCL direction, has been heard in their magazine CHANGE ... the YCL announced plans to build and develop a schools section within the NUS ... which is firmly established as an infant conceived by the YCL, and nurtured by the NUS." [Sam Swerling "Who's Getting at Our Kids?" Monday Club Home Affairs Committee]

 

YCL districts like the Midlands were thinking of forming 6th Formers' Committees as early as May 1968. An assessment had been made that the spirit of rebellion amongst university and college students was likely to overspill into schools. Towards the end of the year, the League was gearing itself up to a nationally co-ordinated campaign in schools. Political activity was reported in Belle View Grammar School in Bradford and in Hemsworth Grammar School, near Pontefract. Similar such experiences were quite common in most parts of the YCL, whilst mass spontaneous action also occurred.

 

In Cardiff that year, a magazine called "Ashes and Grapes" was produced by school students and a two hundred strong conference was organised in the city, which resulted in the establishment of the Cardiff Union of School Students, which formed links with similar groups in Bristol and Swansea. In Manchester, some two hundred school students went on strike against conditions at their school, the Miles Platting. Of particular concern was the use of the `tawse', a fringed leather strap used to beat students as a form of punishment.

 

Similar pressures built up in London and, as a response to the need for co-ordination, the Schools Action Union (SAU) was formed in January 1969. As part of its campaign for genuinely comprehensive education, the SAU organised a demonstration in June 1969 to Dulwich College, a selective school in South London, to test the openness of its `Open Day'! Whilst a strike was also called for the last day of the Christmas term in 1969, admittedly a very likely day for unrehearsed absenteeism, but reflective of the confidence and boldness of the organisation. The SAU also produced a newspaper, the `Vanguard', the very title of which betrays a certain ultra-leftism which always tended to dog the union. At times, there were Maoist or anarchist tendencies in the leadership. Typical of the rhetoric of Vanguard was the oft-used slogan "Smash the Dictatorship of the Head". Even so, many YCLers in London were very active in the SAU. Julius Robinson, the London YCL Schools Organiser, was the London Chair of the SAU in 1970, for example. The SAU claimed 500 members in late 1970, but most of these were in London.

 

YCLers and schools activists of all kinds came under considerable establishment pressure. One YCLer at a prestigious Midlands school found his father under irresistible pressure to remove him from the school, after the boy had refused to name the `cell' of a dozen fellow pupils he had recruited to the League. The head had been a key officer in military intelligence in post-war Germany. His initial brief to de-Nazify youth organisations in the British sector had rapidly changed to an anti-Communist role.  Such a man was able and anxious to tackle what he saw as subversion. Then there was the case of the five 14 year old school students at Kingsdale School in London, who were expelled after the 1969 SAU Christmas strike, their futures potentially ruined by this. Given that taking a day off school in Christmas week was not unknown, simply peacefully picketing the school against corporal punishment and for some sort of say in what went on at school seems little justification for such harassment. Even the normally demure Guardian newspaper commented that “unfortunately for the them they did not sit at home reading comics, got to the pictures or hang about amusement arcades”. [Guardian February 9 1970]

 

More obviously outrageous was the scandal unearthed by students at Warwick University during a sit in. Many documents linking big business to the University were revealed and an unhealthy interest in quite normal political activities was disclosed. The legal director of a Coventry car company spied on a Labour Party meeting to see if anything said could be used against the speaker at law. A letter from the headmaster of the William Ellis School in London to the Tutor for Admissions at Warwick University was found during the sit in. This identified an applicant for entry to the University and added to the usual comments on the UCCA form certain confidential points. The head drew attention to the school student who had applied being pre-occupied "with student politics". He was a committee member of the London SAU. Needless to say, the youth did not become a student at Warwick!

 

The League had faced the upsurge of schools radicalism early and was much clearer about the long-term possibilities for schools activism than the bulk of SAU members. The "Youth Rights" resolution at the 26th Congress had argued for the "setting up of school councils with effective participation by students in school decisions". Moreover, popular matters of discontent were addressed in the call for "the right of senior school students to dress as they wish at school". But, aside from the London SAU work and one issue of a national YCL schools magazine called `Format' in January 1969, little concrete work had been initiated by the national leadership by the time of the 1971 Scarborough National Congress. It was then that the League decided to work for an autonomous section of the NUS for school students.

 

Key to the YCL's strategy was the scheme set up by the NUS in 1968, whereby all full-time scholars over 15 years of age were enabled to join the union under the NUS Scholar Associate Scheme (SAS). The YCL planned to encourage a special union for school students, allied to the NUS, out of this scheme. The potential was enormous. While there were `only' some 12,000 NUS/SAS members in 1971, there were three million schools students aged between 13 and 18 years of age. The NUS executive member responsible for the SAS was a Communist, Jeff Staniforth. He had been President of the NUS at Trent Polytechnic in 1971 and had now become NUS National Treasurer. Clearly, this presented the YCL with something of an opportunity.

 

A composite motion was put forward at the NUS Conference on the 20th and 21st November 1971. Supported by Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol Polytechnic, Garnet College, the Colleges of Education Conference and the NUS Executive itself, it proposed that the NUS would convene Area Conferences at which the setting up of a national union of school students would be debated. The NUS being a federal body, it was not obligatory on NUS Areas to convene such conferences. YCLers were instrumental in many areas in tipping their local NUS into holding conferences and thinking seriously about the matter. The conferences were an unqualified success and a consensus emerged in the NUS that the time was ripe for such a move. Attendance at these conferences was good, varying from 85 in Oxford, to 82 in Islington and 25 in Leicester.

 

After all, this period revealed much evidence of the burgeoning consciousness of young people at school. There was the 1971 trial of the publishers of the celebrated `alternative' hippie magazine `Oz', which produced a special school kids' issue and landed themselves in trouble with the archaic obscenity laws. The contents of Oz and similar publications, such as Frendz and IT, actually paled into insignificance when compared with the hard porn freely available In Soho. It was the focus on young people that had stirred the attention of authority. The longest obscenity trial in British legal history resulted in savage sentences of 15 months imprisonment only quashed on appeal after a wave of public protest. There was also the `Little Red School Book', the title of which recalled the radicalism of Mao's `little red book'. The schools version would have horrified the puritanical Red Guards, with its attempts to inform school students on all the mysteries of life - drugs, sex and adults! For his pains, Richard Handyside - the proprietor of Stage 1, the publisher, was convicted of `possession of an obscene article for gain' and the book had to appear heavily censored thereafter.

 

The YCL not only co-operated with Communist students who were active in the NUS in building support for a NUSS, it also geared up its own membership. Two issues of the League's new school's journal, "Tolpuddle" came out after the 1971 Congress, the second in a print of 1,500. An effective Schools' Organiser was found - Nic Mitchell, an 18 year old school student who was editor of "Cherry Red", a broad schools magazine circulating in London with a print run of several hundreds. A national conference of YCL school students was held with an attendance of 35 from 7 districts. No less than 16 of these were from the Midlands, reflecting the strength of that YCL District’s work in schools, and which justified the holding of the conference in Birmingham. Of other YCL Districts, London sent 6, East Midlands 4, South East Midlands 3, North West 3, Surrey 2 and Wales 1.  

 

The founding conference of the NUSS was held on May 20th 1972, attended by one hundred delegates from the thirty Area Conferences of the NUS/SAS. A twelve-strong National Executive was elected, no less than half of which were YCLers.

 

The first President of the union and chair of the conference was Walsall YCLer, Mary Attenborough (left), who had joined the YCL around the age of 16 in 1970 in Walsall in the West Midlands. She came from a Communist family, her uncle, Bill Evans, being a stalwart in Leeds for many years, latterly in the CPB; and her parents were Morning Star readers until their deaths. She became especially active in YCL schools work and was a member of the YCL (West) Midlands District Committee. On one occasion, when YCL publicity materials (probably the Midlands YCL school students’ bulletin, `Change’) were being distributed outside the school, there was quite a public commotion involving her.

 

A Superintendent of the local police revealed to the Walsall Observer, the local paper, that he had taken Special Branch advice on the matter. As far as he could tell, no offence was committed! With sinister implications meant, the unidentified Attenborough (a pupil at the school!) was referred to in the article as "the woman in grey", a reference to the colour of her coat. (Attenborough was later also elected President of her Students’ Union at university, and continued in CPGB membership to 1991.)

 

Alongside work such as this, a twenty-five point charter of campaign points was adopted, alongside a constitution that provided for four members of the NUSS before a branch could be started. There was now a very solid base of schools groups up and down the country from which the NUSS could grow.

 

In London, there were publications like Cherry Red, which could be used to promote the NUSS. But there were also existing groups such as the Enfield Forum, the Elliott School Council, the Prendergast Political Society and the Islington School Students Committee. The latter was based on six local comprehensive schools. The YCL had distributed three sets of leaflets at each school before the group took off. At its peak, the committee involved some forty activists and produced a magazine called "Kraken".      

 

The school students' movement now clearly became significant, even in the eyes of its detractors, especially in London. In schools in Westminster and Forest Hill, mass petitions supporting potential victimisation pre-empted such intentions. Whilst a largely spontaneous reaction to authoritarianism resulted in the May 1972 strike of some eight thousand schools students against the use of the cane. The SAU sought to claim credit for these events, but many schools were unorganised and even where there were members of either the NUSS or the SAU, there was rarely a coherent leadership. The SAU's increasingly sectarian approach inevitably divorced it from the bulk of school students and led many activists into the blind alley of challenging authority per se, rather than building on genuine mass issues of concern. The YCL took the view that "strikes should only be called if they are well organised and if other methods have failed to realise just demands". [YCLIB June 9th 1972] None the less, many YCLers had played a significant role in the SAU and were able to bring many into activity within the NUSS.

 

Elsewhere in the country, there had been similar activity that provided a sound base for the NUSS. In Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, the schools magazine "Red Herring" began selling three hundred copies, rising to seven hundred.  This was formally a SAU journal, but was in fact produced by the local YCL branch, with LPYS and IS support. YCLer, John Chamberlain, was its editor. No less than one hundred copies of the Little Red School Book were sold in Hemel by the Red Herring group. However, the inevitable tension between the left groups resulted in a spilt and the YCL then produced its own "Red Lines" as a local paper for schools, which ran to a dozen issues or so.

 

The tendency for schools magazines providing the basis for local activity, leading to groups, continued into the NUSS's existence. "School Students Voice" was the organ of Leicester Area NUSS and this played some part in stimulating schools strikes against heating cuts. In Glasgow, the NUSS produced "Task".

 

There had been some 1,500 NUS/SAS members in the Birmingham area, a very large proportion of the overall total. Not surprisingly, therefore, the NUSS took off quite well there and generally in the Midlands. Ann Davies, the External Affairs Officer of the NUS at Birmingham University called the first public meeting to set up an embryo NUSS in March, even before the formal founding of the organisation at national level. The Midlands YCL was strongly committed to the notion of the NUSS, witnessed by its production of the first NUSS President. The District YCL published a schools journal called "Change" and this was printed every school term from 1971 to 1973, three hundred copies of the last issue being produced. The first NUSS conference for the Midlands was held in Birmingham in 1972 and there were eight YCLers in attendance out of the total of sixty present. These eight played a key role in the meeting and, of the four delegates elected to represent the Midlands at the national conference, two were YCLers. Testament to the quality of the Midlands delegate conference was the fact that 22 schools were represented. Mary Attenborough's leadership role was perhaps the key to the successful work in the Midlands. She attended the elite Queen Mary School in Walsall. On one occasion, when publicity materials (probably Change) were being distributed outside the school, there was quite a public commotion. A Superintendent of the local police revealed to the Walsall Observer that he had taken Special Branch advice on the matter and that, as far as he could tell, no offence was committed! With sinister implications meant, the unidentified Attenborough was referred to in the article as "the woman in grey", a reference to the colour of her coat.

    

On March 1973, sixth formers at a similar establishment, King Edward's High School for Girls in Birmingham, boycotted lessons and picketed outside their school in support of a campaign for higher student grants, thus backing the NUS on the occasion of its one day strike on the issue.

 

The Manchester Union of School Students pre-dated the NUSS and now formed its local organisation. Like other areas after the national union was formed, the schools magazine "School Oddity" continued as an official publication. In one Manchester school in 1972, four hundred school students massed in the playground to protest against the Head's action in suspending a pupil for NUSS activities. A delegation was sent to the Head but this was threatened with expulsion. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the Local Education Authority and the victimised NUSS member was re-instated.

 

Seventy delegated attended the annual NUSS conference in October 1972, designated as the first proper conference. Attenborough retired as President, the position being an annual one given the age of the incumbents. Another Communist, Bob Leeson, was elected as the second President, now a full time post paying £18 a week. This was not a particularly high wage for full time employment, reasonable perhaps for an 18 year old, but to most school students it must have seemed a fortune, hence there was a certain amount of controversy over this. The union now had four thousand members and ambitiously, but seriously, aimed for forty thousand as a short-term goal. The second conference elected Simon Keys as the third President in May 1973 and a National Organiser to accompany him. A YCLer, Simon Emerson, took this post. The NUSS had now expanded to around 10,000 members in May and 12,000 in August of 1973. There was a twenty strong national executive with six national officers. But there were political problems.

 

In his retiring speech, Leeson said that the union would "find strength not only in its size and ability to move and lead the majority of school students but also by being united within itself. Decisions should be fought out within conferences of the union, but after that the need was to fight for these policies in a united way." This was a classic Communist view of how mass organisations should ideally work, but the NUSS was in fact becoming a minor battleground of struggle between every conceivable left group. This greatly contributed to firstly divorcing the union by gradual degrees from the YCL and then to weakening the organisation.

 

Even more decisive in undermining the vigour of the NUSS was the hostility of the teachers' unions to its very existence. Whilst the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teachers’ union in Scotland, supported NUSS both the NUT and the Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses were strongly opposed. Most embarrassing for the YCL (for the Communist Party officially supported the NUSS), one of the Party's most well known teachers' activists, Max Morris, was violently and publicly hostile to the new union. Morris had been President of the NUT for a period and was generally a respected headmaster in the education world. But he vigorously suppressed the NUSS in his own school. (Subsequently, he became a less than left wing Labour councillor in Haringey.) The YCL EC was driven to formally writing to the CPGB EC, asking it to "advise Comrade Morris to reverse the position at his school in relation to the NUSS". [YCL EC minutes 12th/13th October 1974]               

 

Aside from such embarrassments, the NUSS was able to mount several significant campaigns in this period. In the autumn of 1973, the union launched a high profile campaign against corporal punishment, with the support of some thirty MPs. Although a vote in Parliament on the issue went against the NUSS, the initiative went with the grain of history and the union continued to press the issue, eventually helping this much needed reform to reach fruition. Another highly publicised campaign was that to win the re-instatement of an Edgware activist. This was successful only after he had been suspended for 15 weeks for superficial and probably spurious reasons. The real, underlying cause was a dislike of the student's questioning of petty rules and the misuse of authority by prefects to harass NUSS members. In a bizarre last minute twist, the suspended pupil received a copy of a letter actually intended for a school governor from the LEA. This strongly recommended his re-instatement, but urged this be done in such a way as not to give the NUSS any credence.

 

A distinct lack of momentum emerged in NUSS activities in 1974. The YCL noted that schools work was at low ebb, only five districts even had YCL Schools Organisers. Simon Emerson reported on that year's NUSS conference to the June EC of the YCL. Only fifty delegates had attended, of these there were 12 YCL members and 8-10 were "dodgy or don't know". The `dodgy ' category was probably the ultra-leftists in the "School Students Alliance", a loose amalgam of Trotskyist groups. 26 were independent of such clear political allegiances, but were "more or less broad left". Of the 20 NUSS national committee members elected that year an extraordinary 11 were YCL members! [Personal notes of the author of the YCL EC June 22/23 1974]

 

Things picked up a little in 1975, with 90 in attendance at the July annual NUSS conference, where "for the first time delegates belonging to youth political groups were in a minority". The National Organiser's position was made full time, though most NUSS branches were still very weak and membership was nominally around 10-15,000. The organisation was so shaky that no one really knew actual membership and financial viability really depended upon the NUS's hidden subsidies. President for 1975-6 was Dave Patterson. The number of delegates to national conference was down again in 1976, when Dan Hopewell and Toby Brown were President and Vice-President respectively, both being Islington YCLers.    

 

That year, the NUSS organised a lobby of Parliament on caning, which was backed up by local boys at Alleyn's School in South London staged a sit-down protest for one hour in opposition to compulsory Army Cadet membership. Such events were, however, becoming sporadic. In 1977, pupils at East London's Wanstead High, encouraged by a students occupation at Loughton College, voted in a mass meeting by 190 to 70 votes to occupy part of the school in protest at education cuts.  There being only some 50 NUSS members at the school at the time, the event is of some interest in highlighting the possibility for mass involvement led by a few. A one-day's occupation of the 6th Form common room saw speeches from Dan Hopewell, NUSS President, and the school's NUSS branch chair. The staff were largely supportive, whilst the head remained diplomatically neutral.

 

During this period, both the YCL and the NUSS prepared and presented evidence to the Taylor Committee, which had been set up by the Government to look into the management and government of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. This finally reported in September 1977, backing the notion of pupil representation on schools boards. But no clear view was put on the mechanism for lowering the minimum age requirement for membership of boards, with Taylor vaguely commenting that 16 years would be appropriate.

 

By 1978, when the NUSS conference elected John Mumford, a 16 year old Labour Party member from Harlech, as President, the union had failed to seriously advance. The writing was on the wall. Mumford's view was that the organisation had been too "bureaucratic in many ways. We've been sticking to procedure, being extremely constitutional, rather than discussing what needs to be done and getting on and doing it. People have finally begun to realise that we're not the Transport and General Workers Union."  Such an analysis, whether correct or not, did not address the fundamental crisis affecting both the wider progressive movement and broader democratic and demographic changes. An end to deference as a social obligation was widespread. In a sense, the NUSS was a victim of its own successes and the YCL suffered too. That year's YCL school students' conference held in November had only 20 delegates at it. The rapid decline of independent school students' organisation took place amidst many factors. Changes in the NUS leadership, in how young people, especially students, perceived themselves and a radical shift in the philosophy of the educational establishment all conspired to undermine the NUSS. The tensions between left groups that sought to capture the NUSS and the wider crisis in the YCL contributed to the effective collapse of the union.

 

 

c) Challenge

 

Challenge had been the paper of the YCL since 1938 but it had been in many different formats. In November 1967, after the 26th Congress at Skegness authorised a change in style, it became a magazine. The editorial style of George Bridges was largely influenced by the then youth cult journals such as Private Eye, Oz and others. The new Challenge tended towards a heavy concentration on pop music and, after about a dozen or so issues, gravitated towards a rather commercial form of `sexploitation' by the gratuitous use of female nudes to `brighten up' the magazine. As it got into its stride, the coverage of pop and sport shot up. Most of this was quite unrelated to any form of political analysis. Supporters of the new image argued that the magazine tried to relate to youth `where they were at', in the jargon of the time. Critics in the League called it a political Private Eye, meaning this as an insult.

 

In September 1969, Surrey YCL proposed that the district produce its own paper, a notion understandably rejected outright by the NC which voted overwhelmingly to prohibit such a move. But the concern about the new style magazine was by no means restricted to the Surrey-ites. The delight in trivialisation, which rather marked the magazine, was well illustrated when a Tory minded young woman wrote a serious, if somewhat insulting letter to Challenge which was published. Her letter queried whether the Tories ever did anything good at all. The editor's riposte was that Iain McLeod, a senior Conservative, had done a good turn by recently dying.

 

Blatant sexism crept into the magazine, at first in the form of a regular series of small advertisements for Challenge subscriptions which, against the background of scantily clad, bikini wearing models, asked the question: "Are you getting it regularly?" Barbara Castle's controversial trade union legislation, hastily withdrawn after concerted union opposition, provided an opportunity for further ribaldry. A front-page poster of a young woman's legs, her knickers around her ankles, was graced with the motto: "Down with Barbara's laws - up with Trade Union rights".

 

Issue 16 of Challenge saw a full-page article entitled "Who says no nudes is good nudes?" Four letters of protest and the Editorial Board's reply were printed. The latter essentially argued that the disputed pictures illustrated the articles and in any case "women's bodies are attractive, interesting and visually exciting. How bad." The National Gallery was cited in defence of this position. The criticisms continued however, so Issue No 18 in February 1970 again took up the argument. This time there was a double spread letters page, featuring a remarkably provocative photograph of a de-personalised female torso.

 

It was clear by now to most YCLers that the magazine had gone just too far in attempting to popularise Communism as part of young people's lives by linking it to popular images and ideas, without distinction or selection. During 1970 nudes were phased out of the magazine, the occasional swim suited figure adorning holiday advertisements in socialist countries remaining as a tongue in cheek swipe at those who had protested against the leadership.

 

Issues such as this aside, there was a real crisis of confidence developing in the League over the direction Challenge was taking. The magazine did not appear for seven months in 1969. The next year, the editor reported that sales were "at a low ebb". He admitted that the standard of the magazine was "in some way `out of step' with the League". The YCL's Internal Bulletin mused that Challenge ought to "reflect the Anger and Militancy developing in our class". [YCL IB 18th November 1970] The editorship of George Bridges ended in 1969 when he left to go into full time study. His replacement was Pete Frost, who stayed as a full time editor until January 1971, continuing part time until March 1971. The election of a Tory Government and the subsequent reaction against its policies by the Labour Movement radically changed the political mood of the country. This mood had its effect on the YCL and Challenge in particular. At the April 1971 Congress, a resolution from the `centrist' Midlands and Scottish Districts was carried overwhelmingly, against the recommendation of the NC. This sought to change Challenge completely from the pop style magazine to a campaigning newspaper, with a special emphasis on young workers and school students. That the composite was carried by 230 votes to 38 is in itself indicative of not only the dissatisfaction in the League with their journal but also the poor quality of Challenge as part of the proud and competent heritage of Communist journalism.

 

Nic Benson of Bristol moved the composite, which was critical of some academic articles and the lack of relevant campaigning material in Challenge. (Benson resigned from the NC early in 1970, disagreeing with the YCL's "attitude to the Labour party, or concept of Left Unity, and our conditions of membership". [NC Minutes 25th/26th April 1970]  The "failure of the old National Committee" was highlighted in the resolution and it was argued that Challenge needed to be more popular in that it not only relate to youth, but also move them "to thought and political action of a progressive nature". This Congress also passed motions on young workers’ and school students' policy, which provided for very ambitious and far-reaching campaigns by the League. The whole tenor of the Congress was one of militant class struggle.

 

Following this Congress, a new editor was appointed. This was Brian Filling, a 24 year old computer operator for IBM, who took over in July 1971. Filling had been chair of the National Student Committee of the CPGB and was now YCL Scottish Education Organiser. To give Filling a chance to move to London and acclimatise himself, a Summer Special edition of Challenge in broadsheet format was produced and a launch date for a new series of Challenge was set for October 1971.

 

The new Challenge had a markedly different flavour to its predecessor. Class conflict, especially economic struggles, came much more to the fore. The following summary of the front pages of the first fourteen issues gives a feel of this:

 

 

  • 1 Tories Out - Make Socialism Our Future
  • 2 The Tories think of us a just a row of figures on a balance sheet - Fight Unemployment
  • 3 1,000,000 reasons to make the Tory Govt REDUNDANT! (This was a reference to the official level of unemployment, which had hit the politically sensitive figure of one million for the first time since the war.)
  • 4 Tories Out!
  • 5 Follow Our Lead - Smash the incomes policy! (This was accompanied by a graphic of a miner's face.)
  • 6 All Out May 1st (There were unofficial stoppages against the Industrial Relations Act, the Tory anti-union legislation.)
  • 7 Into Battle (There was also a half page newspaper style editorial on the front page.)
  • 8 Arise Ye Workers - kick out the Tories (This was a reference to the dockers imprisoned by anti-union laws, the Pentonville 5, and the slogan on a dockers' shop stewards’ banner.)
  • 9 Tories Out (There was a graphic of a clenched fist hitting out.) Smash the Act now (The Industrial Relation Act.) 
  • 10 New Fair Rent (This referred to Tory legislation attacking council house tenants. The page had a Daz style graphic of an exploding star effect, possibly reflecting the severe arguments which went on amongst the leadership over a need for Challenge to appear `youthful’.) - increases you can really feel
  • 11 USSR 1922-1972 Workers of all countries unite (The coat of arms of the USSR accompanied this front cover which celebrated the relatively unknown anniversary of the formal founding of the federated constitution of the national republics which constituted the Soviet Union. This edition was subject to furious hostility from the bulk of the leadership.)
  • 12 Unite! Act! Defeat the Tories!
  • 13 build a Hospital in North Vietnam (The YCL had a fund raising campaign going on in connection with this.)
  • 14 Use Industrial Action to Smash the Tories.

 

As part of the new policy, regional editorial boards were set up to feed stories, photographs and articles through and provide a basis for campaigning for the paper. Six were established in 1971 but, in truth, they were not very successful as they cut across established district structures and were very difficult to maintain. Indeed, in August 1973, these were altered to district boards. Even then some were not established for quite a while, others never.

 

At the time Filling was editor, Jeff Sawtell found himself asked to become involved in designing Challenge, having been at the Royal College of Art and a member of Fulham and Hammersmith branch, which had formulated the successful Challenge resolution at the 1973 congress, which he had personally moved.  Sawtell was placed onto the editorial board as a designer, having previously produced Artery, covers for Marxism Today and other designs for the Communist movement.

 

Sawtell’s memory of the change of policy and editorship to Brian Filling was that Challenge was suddenly very successful, transforming what had been a moribund paper, owing £500 (a very big sum then) to Farleigh Press, the Party printers in Watford.  These earlier debts were the reason why it was always claimed that Filling could not be paid as a full-time worker. So, he merely worked as editor for nothing, and the paper paid off its debt with massively increased sales of 13,000 of Issue 11, which had celebrated the foundation of the USSR. But this edition sent the revisionist elements wild with anger.

 

Especially following this celebrated edition, Sawtell found himself obliged to frequently personally travel to Farleigh Press, to ensure that Tom Bell hadn¹t changed the content behind their backs. Before that, he and Filling had early on felt themselves forced in the first place to take the paste-ups to Watford personally so as to ensure they got their safely and without silent yet malevolent interference. Indeed, a farcical game ensured whereby they were having to reinsert material after the Farleigh staff, many of whom were Party members sympathetic to what they were doing, told them that Bell and his coterie were turning up unannounced to excise material and replace it with that more to his liking. “It was quite ludicrous,” Sawtell recalls, “a bit like some slapstick film. Us arriving with paste-up, then hiding in an office; they coming in and changing it; we emerging to change it back after they had gone…”

 

Sawtell, amusingly, also recounts that a particular reason for the success of the foundation of the USSR issue was that the design reflected the dichotomy within the YCL. He had designed two covers and these were used with one constituting the front and the other the back. One the front was sported the hammer and sickle, the back featured campaigning on Vietnam. One section of the YCL had no problem with showing the front cover when engaged in street sales; the other felt happier with selling the paper by showing the back cover to the public!

 

Jeff Sawtell was then suddenly administratively removed from working on Challenge. A bizarre and otherwise meaningless explanation was put forward by Phil Greene (perversely, who had been the one who had nominated him in the first place), that the reason was that he was “too influential”. Of course, Sawtell recounts, the real reason was that Greene had now been persuaded by Gordon McLennan to come out in support of Tom Bell in the battle with Brian Filling over Challenge content. Since Jeff Sawtell was solidly allied to Filling, the administrative officials of the Party and YCL were seeking to isolate him and, eventually, he had to go.

 

Even so, Sawtell continued to design and produce Challenge along with Brian Filling. Since the latter was working unpaid as editor full-time, he and his family were subsequently forced to live with Sawtell until they managed to find a one bedroom flat on the border of Shepherds Bush and Kensington. They were there for about six months before Filling was formally removed as editor and returned to Glasgow.

 

Jeff Sawtell even tried repeating his front page/back page formula, but there was now a new editor, unsympathetic to his design style and Challenge didn’t even come out for many months. Interestingly, although sales were now less than impressive, money was immediately found to pay the new editor with.

 

From Issue No 20 a new editor was in the chair. Filling moved back to Scotland in the autumn of 1974 and came off the editorial board. Ian Findlay was made editor, although not on a full time basis, he being employed as a teacher, and Alan Speck was made Assistant Editor. Significantly, the editorial board was expanded to include Tom Bell and others. Furious controversy had previously visited every issue of Challenge, with Bell seeking to lighten the flavour and Filling reacting by stiffening every issue with hard politics. Filling's departure marked the end of a long period of internal strife in the national office, which had seeped onto the executive. Filling may have lacked `youthfulness’, whatever that was, but he had a political gravitas that reflected badly on his General Secretary. Thankful though Bell was to see Filling depart, the loss of the full-time position was unarguably a big set back and the paper was in serious debt. Farleigh Press, the Party owned printers, was owed £667 and a bank overdraft of £70 existed, both very considerable sums at the time.

 

There were significant changes at the 1973 Congress, with Bell having it much more his own way. Policy on Challenge was varied to actually match the style of the paper as it had now become under Findlay's editorship, who was very close politically to Bell. The 29th Congress determined that Challenge should "reflect the lives and struggles of young people and YCL members. It should take measures to cater for their wider interests in life, with articles from a communist viewpoint, featuring the social and cultural interests of young people's lives."  

 

Left: 1975 YCL poster

 

Very soon, Challenge began to show signs of harkening back to the old magazine. In 1974, Issue 22 headed its article about pen friends in the socialist states: "Hey: what's it like down in the salt mines?” While Private Eye style speech balloons appeared on photographs bearing poor jokes. More positively, questions concerning gay politics began to be treated seriously for the first time. Articles about the politics of leisure emerged and, with 1975 being International Women's Year, the politics of feminism began to be covered. For the 1975 Congress decided that Challenge should "give a Communist view to a variety of themes young people can relate to". A full time editor was to be appointed for a trial nine months. In October of that year, Paul Bradshaw became editor from Issue 27. Questions of black politics, reggae music and anti-racism became a marked feature of Challenge's style. In 1976, the full time editorship was restored and the quality and frequency of the paper was much improved. To ensure that the full time position was maintained, the CPGB launched a £3,500 appeal for the ten week period from September 11th.

 

From Issue No 50 another editor took over, this was Steve Munby. Then aged 23 years, he had been the Leeds branch secretary. After graduating from university he became the Yorkshire District Secretary. In the latter stages of Bradshaw's editorship the journal adopted the League's new policy of seeing life styles as central. In a conscious way, Challenge now took on the new youth cult of punk music and culture. Punk's "non-passive and participatory nature" was particularly valued, as one letter writer and future editor, Chris Ramsey, wrote in Issue 48 (November/December 1977). Early in 1978, punk featured in no less than five full pages over three issues.

 

After Munby became the National Organiser, there was a need to find a replacement. Two nominations for editor emerged. Sean Feeney, a 26 year old post-graduate at Essex University was one, and Chris Horrie, a 21 year old former social science student at Warwick University, the other. Both had been active in the YCL in their hometowns and were now each available part-time. In consequence, a co-editorship was arrived at. However, within a very short space of time, change was once again upon Challenge. Another editor, Ted Wassell, brought another style to what was now, after a decade, once again a magazine.  The fortunes of Challenge had closely followed those of the YCL itself. Its content and style, the `market’ it aimed at, had varied according to the changes in the nature and politics of the leadership. A key argument had been over the quality of `youthfulness’. Before exploring the factional end facing the League, it may be useful to now consider just how young the YCL had been at different stages and whether this had a material effect or not. 

 

A note on Challenge circulation

 

(See chart which follows)

 

Challenge circulation steadily dropped from nine thousand in 1971 to just a little over four thousand nearer the end of the decade. The summer 1971 broadsheet, produced to fill the gap between editors and allow Brian Filling time to settle in, received orders of around 17,000. Although this publication was intended to last the League for several months’ street-selling. Ian Findlay became editor from Issue 20 when circulation dropped from over eight thousand before he took over, to five thousand when he left. Shortly after Findlay took over, Issue 22 benefited from a sale of 672 copies at a pop concert. A special, unnumbered issue was also produced at this time, with orders of 2,478.  Figures for Issues 31 to 45 had not been attainable, but an election special was produced as issue 43 selling 3,206 copies. Paul Bradshaw was editor from Issue 27, towards the end of his editorship circulation was moving below five thousand. Steve Munby took over from Issue 50 as circulation was moving down below five thousand. All figures quoted are the record of total orders received from districts. For a few issues records of different figures exist and these are for the known sales. Whilst districts were usually invoiced for an amount relating to their actual orders, there were also attempts to establish the true position of total actual sales.

 

 

8) Age and the YCL

 

There were many frequent debates in the YCL about the need to be `youthful'. The concern ostensibly being to avoid getting out of step with the current generation of potential recruits. In the late 1970s, the term age-ism began to be exploited by the YCL's leadership. This was meant in the sense of the sort of chauvinism that women experience from men and blacks receive from whites. It was argued, then certainly with some justification, that older people, particularly middle-aged, white men held patronising views on the young. Yet the attachment to youthfulness, increasingly adopted by the YCL, was rather over-played. A myth emerged that the YCL had not in the past been very youthful and the revisionist leadership were now engaged on a project to rectify that error. Increasingly, trade union activity and a strong adherence to Marxist theory was interpreted as being, per se, non-youthful. Outside of a belief that individuals needed to be culturally, in terms of sport and music, close to the mass of youth a definition of `youthfulness’ seems to have eschewed seriousness of purpose with regard to politics, which any neutral observer would believe was the very point of the YCL. On the other hand, the organisation was created to be a training ground for future activists of the Party. Surely, a lightness of touch, a certain frivolity and fun was an essential requirement for any youth organisation, if it were to attract youth? Was then the nature and age of its leadership critical in this regard? Not if the facts of the League’s age profile in this and earlier periods are to be believed.

 

For the truth is that the YCL has had a remarkably consistent quality of leadership, measured in terms of the length of membership and age of the leadership at all levels. Hence, what became an almost obsessive regard for creating a younger and younger YCL would seem, in retrospect, to have been rooted in a largely sterile debate, irrespective of the apparent merits of the notion. The truth is that `un-youthfulness’ was a term of derision for opponents who used Marxism – whether creatively or dogmatically seemed not to matter much – to argue against the core of revisionist leadership.

 

Some self-regulating mechanism seems to have been at play, which kept the league always roughly in the same state of youthfulness. Perhaps this was connected to the way succeeding school generations relate to each other in tight bands of age span. This phenomenon can also readily be observed in the way such age bands relate to each other as they mature into middle age and beyond. The average age at a few random congresses over the years appears to confirm that there was almost a permanent self-selecting tendency in the age-range of YCLers. Either that or the CPGB held an unbelievably rigid control over the relative youthfulness – in terms of actual age - of the League over many decades. Any informed view from inside suggests that this does not seem feasible. From Lenin to Tom Mann (see preface), seasoned Communists had argued for tolerance of the waywardness of youth. In the conditions of the `friendly society’ of British Communism, this was arguably even more pronounced. Perhaps, rather than there being `Stalinist’ control over the age range, it may be that a socially based consensus existed on the age that it was considered to be appropriate to be in the YCL and that was relatively invariable down the decades.

 

One informed veteran, writing on the YCL during the 1920s, testifies to the "youthful independence of the YCL of those days". [Mick Jenkins February 1972 Marxism Today] At the 4th Congress in the 1920s, the average age of the 120 delegates was 20 years and eight months. Whilst the 300 attending the 12th Congress in 1943 had an average age of 171/2 years, this was an aberration. It is obvious that very large number of young people in their late teens and early twenties serving in the armed forces, who were YCL activists, were unable to be delegates and this doubtless contributed to a distortion of the figures, producing an unusually low average age. Once things were back to normal, as with the 318 delegates attending the 19th Congress in 1952, the average age went back. The 166 males and 75 females representing 151 branches had an average age of 21 years. The 21st Congress in 1956 had 175 full delegates and 36 consultative delegates, 122 males and 53 females, having an average age of 221/2 years. This is perhaps a little higher than the historical trend but may well reflect the difficulties of the Cold War, resulting in cadres staying on in the League longer before moving completely into Party work.

 

Even with these wartime and post-war variations, there does seem to be a consistent average hovering around 20 to 21 years. At the 1963 London District Congress, the average age was 20 years, while the 27th National Congress in 1969 revealed precisely the same average. In the Midlands, the average age of the 25 delegates to the 1967 District Congress was 20 years, the 19 delegates to the 1974 Congress 203/4 years and the 18 delegates to the 1976 Congress, 19 years. These facts drive to a conclusion that, over much of its existence, the YCL was remarkably consistent in producing an average age of activist which coincided with the run up to the then age of majority. [Various YCL Congress documents for the relevant years cited]

 

In the 1970s an abiding myth was generated that the YCL had been a relatively old organisation a decade before. Yet, a study of Birmingham YCL membership in July 1961 shows that, of 106 members, 32 were students or school students. This proportion of 30.2% compares with the 1975 figure of 20%, at the height of the branch's successful involvement in the NUSS. The discrepancy is possibly accounted for by a greater involvement of university students in the YCL in the early 1960s, a tendency that the Party began to deprecate - all the better to isolate the YCL from controversy. In the 1961 Birmingham YCL, a further 18 had been in engineering and the rest were in work but in highly disparate industries. 80 were under 20 years of age, while the actual average age in the branch was 22 years for males and 19 years for females. In Coventry, at the same time, there were 29 members, 14 of who were students of one kind or another. Even so, the average age there was fairly young at 17 years for females and 16 years for males.

 

Looking at the middle level leadership, the Midlands YCL District Committee reveals an extraordinary degree of commonality. It is also worth making a few points about turnover on the Midlands DC at this point, since it is not unrelated to age profile and the Midlands was always a good barometer for the YCL as a whole.  The following figures show remarkable consistency both in age and in length of membership across two quite different decades, the 1950s and the 1970s: 

 

Year DC            Young women   Average age        Average years                      Males    

elected                                            of DC              in membership

 

1955                             9                      22                     4                                  16                                

1957                             6                      ?                      ?                                  6                    

 

1974                             5                      21                     4                                  10                    

 

1976                             6                      20                     4                                  11                    

 

Of the retiring DC at the 1976 Congress, only two remained of the 1972 committee. The turnover of most YCL DCs was similarly high. The following details of the Midlands DC gives an indication of the reasons for this.

 

Year DC            DC                   left                                           into             resigned

elected             size                  area                  lapsed              CP              from YCL

 

1965                 16                     4                      none                 none                 4

1972                 19                     5                      7                      3                      2

1969                 23                     see below for details, which are not readily comparable

1972                 19                     "                       "                       "                       "     

1974                 15                     3                      2                      2                      none

 

Whilst none of the DC members elected in 1965 were lapsed off the committee there were several who had very bad attendance who would normally have been removed. Comparable figures for the DCs elected in 1969 and 1972 are harder to relate, since the precise reasons for coming off the committee are not recorded and also the turnover was staggering. Indeed, it might be concluded that the era of `youthfulness', which was rigorously applied in the Midlands, contributed enormously to the instability of the YCL in this period. Of the 23 elected in 1969, 15 had lapsed, transferred or resigned by the next congress in 1972. Of the 13 co-opted during the period 1969-72, six had lapsed or resigned. There were 15 members left in theory but only seven were truly functioning. A DC of 19 elected in 1972 was whittled down, despite co-options, to a 12-person committee. Only two of those elected in 1972 were left on the DC two years later. Similarly, of the 15 elected in 1974 only seven were left by 1976. Four people had been co-opted but only one of these remained, leaving a committee of eight.  

 

The tenure of office of a cadre such as the Midlands YCL District Secretary over a thirty year period tended to be quite limited, two or three years being the norm. Three held the office for two years and four served for three years.

 

Colin Williams               1954-57

Ron Dorman                 1957-60

A McCulloch                 1960-62

Pete Carter                    1962-64

Jim Hunt                       1964-67

Tony McNally                1967-69

Jon Dyson                    1969-72

Graham Stevenson        1972-77 and 1978    

 

What kind of League had the 1950s seen, then? Had it been sectarian, isolated, age-ist, Stalinist, as often implied by the 1970s leadership? Had it ignored the broad mass of youth? The evidence of the Midlands YCL suggests not. Its District Congresses down the year reveal an ever-present understanding of the need for a relevant youth dimension in the YCL's work. For example, a Coventry branch resolution was passed at the 1955 District Congress that the YCL should "carry on an intensive fight for the issues arising from the immediate local demands of the youth". Yet there was no dubiety about the need to link "the struggle on immediate questions with the struggle to develop consciousness and understanding of the basic need for ending the capitalist system and replacing it with Socialism". [Midlands YCL Congress papers 1955]

 

Nationally, the League organised a "Festival of Socialism" in 1957 in London. A leaflet advertising the event offered little other than the fashions of the day. These may have well been out of place in the Festival of Socialism in 1974 (left) or the Red Festival in 1976. But the spirit was not so far out of kilter. 1957 offered a "skiffle concert, Dance, Competitions, Exhibitions, and Fun". The YCL and CPGB faced serious problems in this period as a result of the Khrushchev revelations over Stalin and the controversy over Hungary. As the Midlands YCL put it: "the outstanding fact about the League is that it has survived the worst difficulties the Communist Movement had faced for many years". [Midlands YCL Congress papers 1957] But it viewed "our main trouble" as the fact that "the League is too small in size, and not in touch with other youth clubs - young workers in the Factories do not see our socialist propaganda". The enthusiasm of the League for the breadth and scope of the World Youth Festivals in the 1970s has to be measured against the fact that, for instance, some 1,600 from Britain, from all walks of life and organisations, attended the 1956 Moscow Festival. There were no Tories, however. Of the next festival in Vienna in 1959, the Midlands YCL was sufficiently proud to make a special point in the report of work at the 1960 District Congress, which spoke of the League's work for the CND Peace Trains to Aldermaston and other broad initiatives.

 

Another Festival of Socialism was held in June 1959. No less than 40 young people went from the Midlands. Whilst the League was also involved in "student demonstrations against Apartheid and made a vocal protest at Birmingham Town Hall when Mosley tried to hold fascist revival meetings". The YCL also spoke at "Labour youth sections, youth and church clubs on communism".     

 

The League of the 1970s never really engaged in a serious analysis of membership structure by age, gender and occupation. Only when the YCL began to decline significantly in numbers and some districts became defunct was there even such a thing as one single national membership list. Therefore, whatever may be deduced from the only definite statistics available, albeit that they concern the cadreship rather than the actual full membership, must be of considerable interest. What can be deduced then?

 

The average age of delegates remained remarkably consistent in this decade through three successive National Congresses in 1973, 1975 and 1977 and true to the historical trend. The age range in spans of two years shows marginal changes. The youngest age range of 13-15 actually dropped, although the lowest three age groups show broadly the same proportions as one block over the whole period, with a slight re-emphasis on the 16 -18 group being apparent. At the other end of the scale, the number of mature delegates actually increased, although the upper range from 25 - 30 shows the earlier two congresses having around 25% of the delegates in this span. By 1977, due to the `youthfulness’ policy, this had dipped somewhat to around 20%. The 25-27 years age range progressively declined at each congress. The age range 22-24 dropped and the surged again over the three congresses, perhaps due to the tendency for cadres to spend around four or five years in the League, a remarkably consistent trend. Here we see a process of continuity in action. The proportion of young women noticeably improved from 1975 to 1977. The urgent and over-conscious attempt to feminise and rejuvenate the YCL did show concrete results, albeit in a minuscule way. From 1973 to 1975 to 1977, the 16-21 age range rose from 42.6% to 52.12% and then down slightly to 51.83%. By contrast, over 28 year olds actually rose in the entire period, as `stabilising' cadres were consciously retained.

 

The continuity aspect is very apparent when looking at the length of YCL membership. Delegates with more than seven years membership increased over the whole period, dropping in 1975, as one generation of YCLers departed, and increasing in 1977 as their successors assert themselves. At the other end of the scale, those with minimal membership length actually diminished very considerably. So, does the YCL Congress in the 1970s increasingly become the preserve of young, inexperienced YCLers? The figures say not. Each span of YCL membership length remains broadly the same across these six years, other than the most experienced and the least experienced.

 

Below right: length of YCL membership of Congress delegates 1973-7 in figures

 

 

1973

1975

1977

Less than 1 year

8.03%

6.95%

4.19%

1 to 2 years

38.55%

34.36%

37.69%

3 to 4 years

21.29%

28.57%

23.56%

5 to 6 years

14.46%

14.29%

12.04%

7 years plus

17.67%

15.83%

22.51%

 

The figures on YCL education are too generalised to make any real sense of, beyond that a big drop in district run education in the latter period is evident. This seems to have been met by the introduction of a national education programme. The effect of this must have been to provide the same, perhaps more competently delivered, degree of education. There was however a definite downgrading of Marxist theory, which had been used by many Districts, even `loyalist' ones, even as the national leadership was decrying this as outdated. The other main drawback to the shift to national provision was that this could not by definition be as frequent or as son after joining as when Districts had fuller programmes of their own. It would take a potential cadre much longer to get the benefit.

The proportion of activists in mass organisations, trades unionists and NUS and NUSS members, remained around the same over the period at some four-fifths of the total number of delegates. The increasing de-politicisation and commercialisation of the Co-operative movement is perhaps reflected in the alarming drop in the proportion of delegates who were members of co-operative societies. There was however also a current of thinking that believed that the co-ops were of little relevance to young people, although this was never clearly argued out and the YCL made little of the Woodcraft Folk, the `scouting’ arm of the co-ops. Even though, for a while, a National Secretary of that organisation was a YCL member.

 

Percentage of Congress delegates in particular trade unions 1973-1977

 

 

Of particular note is the fact that those delegates who were members of the engineering union, then called the AUEW, actually increased both arithmetically and proportionally between the 29th and 30th Congresses. This may have been due to the trend in industrial militancy in engineering in particular and manufacturing in general. Delegates who were in the TGWU actually doubled in numbers and proportion between these two congresses. The categories become too small in number in many cases to make genuine comparison. But it is noteworthy that, where it is possible to break down mass organisations broadly into the rather unsatisfactory definition of white collar or manual, the proportion of the latter increased whilst the former decreased. The YCL did not by any means become a middle class, student organisation.

 

Congress          % of delegates classified                      % of delegates classified

as `white collar'                         as manual workers     

 

1973                             62.50                                                    37.50

1975                             56.67                                                    43.33

1977                             57.90                                                    42.10

 

But what effect had all this on the decline of the YCL? While there was some continuity in the middle ranks between the 30th and 31st Congresses, there was actually a serious problem of leadership continuity at EC level. Eighteen of the EC members elected at the 29th Congress went onto the EC again at the 30th Congress. Yet only three of these EC members were left by the 31st Congress and only two went onto the new EC elected at that Congress. Co-incidentally, both of these had been first elected as far back as the 28th Congress. One of these was Tom Bell, who as General Secretary would of course be expected to provide continuity. (The other was the author.) Bell's role was key. Within the space of two congresses, major changes in the leadership could be expected at any one time as a matter of course. Against this background of relatively little experience in a leadership which was increasingly handpicked for its political reliability rather than anything else (other than a marked predilection for `youthfulness') the period 1975-77 would be critical to the YCL's long term future, or more precisely lack of it.

 

 

9 Division and Decline

 

The League found itself in a disastrous financial and organisational position at the beginning of the 1970s. The membership level in early 1970 was described as "pathetically low". [NC Minutes 3rd/4th July 1971] Dues were 2/- (10p) a month, 50% of which went to the national organisation with 25% each going to the district and the branch organisations to which the member belonged. By the first half of 1971 the level of actual dues paying membership (ADPM) was only 18.9% compared to a budgeted target figure of 60%! By June 1972, ADPM was still only 27%. Perhaps the loss of many inactive members actually improved the figure as much as organisational effort. The other key component of finance was district quota, being a levy on membership levels which local organisations raised money for by a variety of means. But in 1972 this target was only 65% fulfilled. The YCL had been just about solvent, in the financial year of 1971-2. Moreover, a bank overdraft of £200 and the Skegness Congress debt were cleared as well. But a very different story existed for 1973-4.

 

1971-2                                      1973-4 

 

Income                         £6,701                                      £8,312.39

 

Surplus/Deficit after

All Expenditure             +£1,421                                    -£253.29p          

 

Whilst, as far as membership was concerned, the aim of issuing 100% of cards by Christmas 1970 failed. Only 55% were issued. Membership in June 1972 was 2,785 compared with 3,276 the previous year. But the decrease was not uniform. Scotland, Wales, Midlands, North East and North West were all either near to, on, or over the 100% target. London and Yorkshire "faced serious problems". [YCLIB June 9th 1972]

 

The Party was of course facing some loss of momentum also, even if there was more stability in its internal life. Nonetheless, the Party felt constrained to bolster morale and public presence by organising the first national Party demonstration since 1964 and this was held on June 13th 1971. The League mobilised around a thousand of its members to attend and the concept of mass public events attracted its leadership, wedded as it was to the concept of mass public events and posing this against agitational styles of work. There developed a cult of the imaginative out of a political battle with some who repudiated often stimulating forms of presenting ideas. The leadership, reacting against such opposition, began to elevate the form as being more significant than the content itself. The YCL's Internal Bulletin was beside itself with enthusiasm at the notion: "YCL branches should organise imaginative and extroverted public meetings (perhaps using street theatre, costume vigils)". [YCLIB May 21st 1971]

 

This concerted effort, by sheer dint of will, to raise membership actually worked for a limited period, even if the tactic began to become ossified into a mechanistic exhortation of Communists to work harder. Failure to grow the movement was increasingly attributed to the inertia of activists, with the CPGB and YCL leaderships increasingly unwilling to accept responsibility or to see that the political situation would determine failure or success. What limited growth there was may have been more due to the tremendously heightened sense of confidence amongst the working class. 1972 saw the victory of mass picketing and solidarity at Saltley Gate in Birmingham during the course of the miners' strike. There was also the highly political trade union struggle against the anti-union laws, culminating in unofficial general strikes and a planned strike called by the TUC, only called off when legal manoeuvres freed five dockers imprisoned in Pentonville. There was also a mood of confidant industrial militancy on the wages front.

 

The League saw membership increase to 2,931 by August 1973 and that year's national congress had felt confident enough to set out an organisational aim of achieving 100 self-reliant branches. This was an obvious but new concept in the YCL. Bell had defined a self-reliant branch as one that could "act as a political force among young people in its locality, taking the general programme and campaigning of the League and applying it to the local situation. It maintains its own organisation, developing its members and supporting the District and National organisation". A target of 3,000 YCL members had been set, but by the August meeting this was so near that a revised target of an additional 200 recruits was set for the CPGB congress in November.

 

There was a distinct increase in activity in the YCL during 1973. Merseyside held a rally with 70 at it, gaining 15 recruits. Battersea YCL leapt dramatically from 29 to 50 members by October, compared to its congress membership position. In 1971, Birmingham had plaintively wailed in its internal bulletin: "Your Active Cadres Need You!" Against a background of rising working class militancy and a savage Tory Government, it was thought "atrocious that a branch of 100 members in a city like ours can produce only 10 (!!!) active comrades". [Birmingham YCL Bulletin November 1971] There had been a branch committee of ten - all the activists. Yet by July 1973, 53 attended a YCL public meeting in the city as activity heightened and the branch reached its 100% card figure the same month. 18 new recruits to membership were made in that year's card issue, allowing the branch to go over the top by four.       

 

During this period, the YCL was engaged in another Vietnam campaign that rather harked back to the heady days of 1968. A campaign to raise funds for the Nguyen Van Troi hospital provided the organisation with practical and positive inspiration. Some £2,000 had been raised by February 1973 and a further £700 came in over the next three months. Glasgow had a Flag Day, collecting £274. Southampton organised a rally of 150 people at which £137 was collected. London YCL had a series of meetings culminating in a Christmas torchlight march of 300 people.  Two more flag days were held in Scotland, one in Paisley raised £120 and another in Aberdeen took £75.

 

The 29th Congress of the YCL, held in 1973, saw a consolidation of the leadership in the face of the orthodox opposition. Whilst there were also some subtle but important policy decisions which took the League away from the more decisive, class consciousness of the 1971 Congress. A five-branch composite on Challenge, for example, was referred to the EC and later formed the basis of a distinct line about the paper which sought to move away from the militant, struggle orientated version then current. The composite thought it essential that Challenge "seek to fire the imagination of young people not yet organised in the main stream of struggle". The socialist alternative had to be put to the "great majority of young people who are not organised in any way and (Challenge) should therefore include items relevant to this section of young people".

The leadership was careful to avoid a confrontation with a Fulham and Kensington motion, which put the issue of cultural coverage in Challenge into context. However, there were several key votes at the Congress, which revealed strong support for some of the central concepts put forward by the opposition even if there was some reserve about the less delicately phrased aspects. Nonetheless, the platform won every count where it was needed.

 

Key Votes at the 1973 29th Congress of the YCL

 

 

Branch/District & Motion No

.                       Subject

              Result of the Vote

Harrow    43                                                     

Labour Party

lost:100 for 139 against            

Surrey   239

YCL

membership                                         

lost by show of hands

Islington 257, 260  

 

 

deleted references to all round styles of work  

lost by show of hands     

Mansfield 244 

qualified target of 4,000 members to "as far as possible"

 

lost by show of hands

 

Mansfield 255(b)

a call for card issue to be completed in six months was opposed by the Standing Orders Committee

 

lost: 107 for 149 against                       

 

Fulham & Kensington 415                                                                                               

 

Challenge should reflect the cultural interests of youth, but it should mainly be concerned to win them for socialism

carried overwhelmingly

 

 

 

Nonetheless, the EC amendment to rule, which sought to lower the age limit for YCL membership to 28 years of age, was not successful, loosing by 93 votes to 115 votes. It was an issue that the leadership would come back to.

 

One positive feature of the YCL's work in this period was the campaign against the imprisonment of one of its members in South Africa. Sean Hosey, a YCLer who had been active in Coventry, Birmingham and London, was arrested in October 1972, on arriving in South Africa on an undercover mission for the African National Congress. His crime was the possession of two false passbooks (the documents which all blacks were required to carry at all times as a form of identity), tax receipts and £300 all destined for the ANC.

 

Left: Hosey after his release speaking in Cuba in 1978

 

For this illicit activity as a courier, Hosey was sentenced to five years imprisonment on top of the year he had been held in detention before sentencing. Others were involved in the trial, which clearly was the result of a security force set-up, and the defendants became known as the Pretoria Six. Even more savage sentences were handed out. An Australian was given 12 years and four blacks got 15 years apiece. Despite appeals from MPs, the Labour Party, the US Ambassador to the UN and the Irish Government (Hosey was born in Ireland), the racist regime lessened his sentence by not a single day. The YCL waged determined campaigns in London and in the Midlands, especially Coventry where Hosey's family still lived. Since the whole family was rooted in the Communist movement, they were particularly staunch in their commitment to the campaign to free Sean.

 

1974 saw a weakening of the League's organisation. In October, Bell reported to the EC that the YCL had dropped to 2,572 members with 11 Districts functioning as such. West Middlesex had no DC but was active to some degree. Wales had "one or two pockets of activity, as do East Anglia and Sussex, while Hants and Dorset and Kent have very little activity in them as far as the League goes". [October 12th/13th 1974 EC materials]  The YCL's National Organiser, Dave Carson, pointed to the discrepancy between the political situation and the high turnover in membership and the poor level of recruitment. There had been two General Elections that year, resulting in Labour wins. The normal position was that when the trade union movement was active, and when Labour was popular, so also did the Communists see increasing membership. Why then the apparent contradiction? Carson's view was that "inadequate consistent supply of relevant recruitment materials" was to blame. But this was not, it seemed, the entire story. The February General Election period had been a "very active time for us", Carson thought. "Communists were always in the news", arising from their role in the vigorous trade union activity which in part led to the demise of the Tory Government led by Ted Heath in the first 1974 election. But far from there being a boom in membership, "February ... killed the Card Issue stone dead". There was a lack of conscious determined attitude on recruitment, the momentum had been lost, but we "must regain the commitment to YCL growth", said Carson.

 

There was a serious downturn in the League's industrial work in these few years. Almost as if having made headway on the Youth TUC and now being conscious of a crisis in YCL membership, the only way to resolve this was to meet it head on by making every issue a recruitment issue. Additionally, there was a serious deepening of the divisions on the EC in the face of all this. As previously mentioned, a significant group of EC members - about a dozen or so, centred around Brian Filling in particular - were still hostile to Bell's leadership. This group tended to be from Scotland, the North and the Midlands and held a concern for maintaining industrial work. For much of the period 1973-5 there was in practice no National Young Workers Organiser and the work of the League, under Bell's influence, seemed more and more geared away from the mass labour movement and more towards local YCL public work. Debates on the EC reached high degrees of sharpness and the EC opposition, while not possessing an actual majority, formed a formidable and influential tendency. At one EC, in April 1974, of the 14 who participated in the discussion on the political situation, no less than eight were of the critical group. In the debate on the YCL's Summer Campaign, out of the nine who spoke, only two were clearly with Bell's leadership.

 

The Party, conscious of the tensions on the YCL EC, began to show formal signs of concern. It had had before its 33rd National Congress in November 1973 a main resolution that, for the first time for decades dealt exclusively with the question of the YCL and youth. This spoke in bold terms of providing maximum assistance to the League. But much of the aid was geared to helping the YCL in its campaign of `bold and open' styles of work. 

 

The CPGB Youth Affairs Committee went beyond its traditional remit, of analysing trends in public youth service policy, towards practical activity to get the YCL moving into action on a variety of themes. The League, in emulation of the earlier initiatives, which the Party had toyed with, such as the national demonstration, organised a Festival of Socialism over the weekend of June 8th and 9th 1974. A cultural extravaganza on the Saturday was followed by a demonstration on the Sunday with some 600 on it. The whole concept had been mooted at the February EC meeting as "something which can give a tremendous boost of morale to our new members who are active in the branches and districts". [YCLIB 2nd/3rd February 1974]  Despite much hard work and an enjoyable experience for the many youngsters who participated, it was nowhere near enough to effect a turn-around in the membership position. Even the EC had deemed the event only a qualified success.

 

The YCL launched its "Youth Charter for Democracy" in December 1974. This aimed to attract 20,000 signatures by the next National Congress in Easter 1975. The Charter was really a public petition around the question of democratic rights, harassment of black youth, anti-fascism, the unionisation of the armed forces and police and opposition to the Common Market. A notion existed that the League possessed a boredom threshold in its style of work, which needed to be broken; that, to stimulate the rank-and-file, the organisation had to romanticise and electrify every issue. There was much internal criticism of this Charter campaign, which in fact never really took off. One middle-of-the road DC viewed "with concern the announcement of yet another YCL National Campaign without any serious analysis of the success or otherwise of current campaigns (Vietnam, Chile). While racism is a very important issue in this country at the moment, and in the future, we feel that issues concerning democracy, whilst relevant, are not the main issues under a new Labour government. The main struggle will be around the implementation of Left policies by the Labour Government." [Minutes in the possession of the author] Such considerations were brushed aside as being too rooted in concerns for economic struggle. But, by April 1975, the YCL had only 72 branches meeting regularly out of 92 and by June had only 2,265 members.

 

There was an attempt to make the 1975 30th Congress a big public event, as well as a gathering of elected delegates. This was another attempt to copy a precedent in the 1960s but it was by no means as effective as the earlier jamboree, beset with problems though that had been. The 28th and 29th Congresses had specifically analysed young people at work and at school, along with having a main political resolution. The 1975 Congress differed, for the main resolution took in all three of these aspects, while the other two resolutions were on racialism and on Challenge. This Congress was notable for substantive pressure on certain areas of the YCL to conform to the League leadership's political position. Gordon McLennan, as CPGB National Organiser had already intervened in a sharp way to clear the YCL leadership of elements dissatisfied with Bell and his political tendency. 1975 saw McLennan's elevation to General Secretary of the Party. Dave Cook, who had been part of the 1960s YCL leadership and who had succeeded the anti-revisionist Fergus Nicolson as Student Organiser in 1973, was elected National Organiser to replace McLennan. As the YCL’s 30th Congress approached, the highest echelons in the Party had determined that political dissent in the League would not mar its success.

 

The Midlands District of the YCL was practically obliged by their District Party to withdraw its amendments and motions proposed for the Congress. Tony McNally, now a leading figure in the Midlands Party, was sent to a specially convened YCL DC, which had only the one item on the agenda. The offending propositions were actually rather innocuous, but they challenged the shift away from young workers and school students and considerably annoyed Bell. It was thus a very simple matter for the national leadership of the League to call on the national leadership of the Party to utilise its district machinery to pressurise district YCL leaderships. Not the least since the latter were usually Party members themselves and participated in the leading committees of District Parties and were subject to the discipline of those bodies. But recourse to formal discipline was rarely required, since such YCLers could be encouraged by appeals to greater loyalty to the Party itself.

 

As one writer on youth political groups has commented, "there is a pattern common to the history of Labour and Communist youth movements, despite (or rather because of) their intense rivalry. Whenever trusteeship of the party's ideological inheritance is under threat, its elder statesmen move to tighten up the system of political apprenticeship to ensure that youth toes the correct line". [Philip Cohen in "Loosing the Generation Game" New Socialist Nov/Dec 1983 pp28-36. Cohen, wildly and rather erroneously, goes on to blame the CPGB's supposed obsession for the working class as the reason for its supposed definition of new forms of struggle as adventurist.] It may be arguable, at the very least, with hindsight that the `ideological inheritance’ was more under attack from the inner core of the leadership of the CPGB/YCL rather than some of its dissidents. Even so, Cohen’s phrase about tightening up the system of political apprenticeship rings very true to this writer who personally experienced this pressure!     

 

The 1975 Congress was faced with a proposition that the new EC be 35 in size, a reduction of five. A 40 strong EC had been elected at the preceding three congresses. The apparent rationale for this move was the reduction in membership. Clearly, this reduction squeezed the chances of anyone not on the almost unbeatable recommended list. The leadership found itself accused of sharp practice and was forced to stress the financial side of the case. Payment of fares to and from the EC was a significant element in the overall costs of the League at a national level. It was suggested that, if an EC of 40 were kept, a pooled fare system would need to be introduced. The total cost of all EC members' fares would be averaged out and those who had fares in excess of the average figure (or a minimum sum which the YCL decided it was prepared to give everyone) would receive the difference between this figure and the actual cost of travelling. The effect would be that everyone paid a few pounds out of their own pocket even if they came from just around the corner. Such a system would obviously be unpopular with those members resident in the South East, who currently had little costs associated with attending the EC. Whilst those living north of Watford, who presently faced regular expensive weekends in the capital, hardly wanted a system which gave anything less than full reimbursement. In short, a pooled fare system was unpopular, if fairer. In such circumstances it proved easy to win the Congress for a reduction in the size of the EC. What of the accusations of cynical manipulation to affect the chances of unfavoured candidates for the EC? A conclusion may be drawn from the fact that at the subsequent 31st Congress in 1977 the figure of 40 was reverted to, once the troublesome elements had been largely removed. This, despite the fact that between 1975 and 1977 membership dropped by 29%! Expediency, rather than finance, would seem to have been the key concern.

 

The 1975 Congress experienced the bitterest controversy so far on the matter of the composition of the newly reduced EC. The closed session that heard the final report of the Congress Election Preparations Committee (EPC) was long and rancorous. A marathon session saw no less than 51 speakers from the floor, 13 for the EPC's recommended list and 36 against, with only one or two who had local axes to grind. As many as 10 of the 13 who spoke for the list were amongst the last 12 who spoke, suggesting manipulation by the platform over the order of speakers. Self-evidently, wavering delegates would be influenced by whom they last heard speak. The positioning of calm, reasoned performers near the end of a chaotic debate were clearly beneficial to the leadership.

 

There was an absolute surfeit of pettiness and personal attacks from all sides. Despite the appeal of an early contributor to the debate for delegates to be political and not to resort to personalities, this was largely a forlorn hope. This speaker argued that it was divisive for the recommended list to exclude eight former EC members who were standing for re-election. Their political position `happened' to be different to Bell's. Whatever the merits for their exclusion - and little of a case was put - the very fact that they were not on the recommended list was unarguably divisive. Opponents of their exclusion increasingly responded to this action with verbal ferocity, fuelling the atmosphere of divisiveness.

 

Referring to various people included on the recommended list, contributors to what can only be called a discussion by stretching the meaning of the word used a variety of offensive tags. One candidate was responsible for "political inertia", another had "done nothing" in YCL work, a third had made "nil contribution". Others had "done little work" and were "guilty of gerrymandering". More mildly, one was criticised for being "inexperienced". Another was "incapable of comradeship, (being) disruptive and full of sneers, slanders and innuendoes", yet another did not "understand the BRS". [These and subsequent quotes from the closed session from the author's own contemporary notes.] Whatever the accuracy or otherwise of these assaults on individuals, the comments reveal just how sharp the divisions were in many branches and districts.

 

But those who supported the recommended list opposed those who were not recommended in a similar vein. One EC member claimed that another (one of the eight who were to be dropped), who was especially active in school students' work, had no contact with his appropriate local branch for six months after moving to a new area. Another defended the exclusion of the eight, arguing that some were guilty of failing to report current card issue figures and that their contributions to political discussion at the EC were "weak". Another EC member thought the eight were "lacking in political clarity and they have a bad record of work". A fourth EC member thought the "biggest favour" one of the eight could do was "to leave the YCL".

 

Against this background of mutual mudslinging, the recommended list went through but not smoothly. The successful candidates received votes mostly in a band from 138 to 162 votes out 253 out of possible votes. There was clearly an unofficial, alternative slate and four candidates from the Midlands and Yorkshire were obviously on both lists. For they were elected with a range of votes from 215 to 235, well ahead of every other elected candidate, out on their own and having the support of the vast majority of Congress. Otherwise there was a rough split of about 60% to 40% in the Congress to the favour of the leadership.     

 

The highest unsuccessful candidate was the Scottish engineering worker, Kenny Crawford, who received 120 votes and very nearly knocked Bob Lentell off the recommended list. The Party had sent Lentell into the YCL as a gesture of political concern in order that he could take over as National Organiser from Dave Carson. Lentell suffered from having come straight from university to full time Party work initially and had only then joined the YCL to enable him to become the YCL's number two. It was a simple matter for those opposed to him to raise doubts about his lack of experience of YCL work and to convey an impression of Party interference. As for the auditors' election, Abdul Malik, who ran against the leadership's preferred candidate, took a very creditable 68 votes to the winner’s 101. The leadership was also unable to win the vote to reduce the age limit. Large sections of the League were against this, suspecting a political ploy and being unable to countenance the fact that it would reduce membership. Consequently, the amendment to rule fell easily on a show of hands.

 

But what of the pressing problems of the League? The Congress viewed the drop in membership from 6,000 to 2,500 over eight years as largely a reflection of the objective political situation. Yet, "despite these complications, League growth could still have been registered". Such a view seemed to rather fly in the face of the plain fact that since 1968 the YCL had only known an unrelieved and persistent decline in membership:

 

YCL national membership 1968-1975

 

1968

4,651

1969

3,686

1970

3,385

1971

3,276

1972

2,970

1973

3,012

1974

2,576

1975

2,338

 

Figures are for November of each year, except for September 1968

 

The bureaucratic view, that what was required was mainly a matter of renewed confidence and hard work on the part of the activists to turn the membership position around, prevailed in the text of the resolutions. Rather patronisingly, Congress considered that "the basic problem is one of political understanding in the League of the need for a resumption of League growth as the first step towards building a mass League". The need to end mudslinging seemed not to be a concern and how this degenerated style of politics contributed to `youthfulness’ was also un-addressed. The EC indulged in some desultory self-criticism for lack of attention to providing recruitment materials and a lack of educational provision, but concluded that the essence of the correct approach was to be bold and open in campaigning.

 

The EC's subsequent assessment of the 30th Congress followed on from this line. The need was for an emphasis to be given to "rescuing growth ... we have got to become more conscious of the need to recruit and develop a style of work corresponding to this need". Glad now to have an EC composed of a cross-section of younger members from all fields of work "dedicated to fighting for Congress policy", the overwhelming feeling of the EC was "one of confidence that some major obstacles to YCL growth had been removed and the way forward for the YCL was full of promise". [YCLIB 3rd/4th May 1975]

 

A new emblem was adopted, perhaps symbolising the new feeling of confidence and certainly seeking to boost morale. Surprisingly, this was a clenched fist intertwined with a red flag, a militant design borrowed from the West German Communist Students organisation. Perhaps reflecting some of this confidence, a positive uplift occurred in a number of Districts, even where there was not complete unanimity behind the line of the Congress, as interpreted by the leading national officials, or for that matter even behind the formal resolutionary position of Congress itself. Many who were not fully signed up to Bell's ideological position thought that the diminishing of factional opposition might aid unity and influence League activity in a positive way.

 

In Birmingham, the League came out of the doldrums somewhat, although local factors played a part the mood of confidence was clearly evident. By August 1975, significant membership growth was registered. From April, there had been 10 recruits made. There was even talk of establishing three area groups in the South, North and Central parts of the city. Groups in the South and the Central area were already functioning semi-independently, in tandem with the overall branch leadership. In 1976 the branch AGM looked back on the previous year as "a good year" with "encouraging growth". Membership rose from 43 to 72, of which 26 were recent recruits. By the end of 1976 this had risen to 84. During 1975, Birmingham YCL held six public meetings with an average attendance of 22. There were seven film shows, with an average attendance of 47. The branch issued 30,000 leaflets, sold 2,500 Challenge and 4,000 campaign badges of various designs. Even so, and despite the extra effort that went into this, the branch had simply retrieved its previous strength from just a couple of year's earlier.

 

Perhaps contributing to some of this, there was a heightened political atmosphere in 1975, with the Common Market referendum campaign up to the July 5th vote and with major left advances in Italy, Portugal and Vietnam. The Midlands YCL bulletin felt able to call it a "Year of Communist Advance" and there was very much a sense of this mood generally in the League. Dragging itself out of lethargy, which had been inculcated by the freezing of real leadership due to internal division, the YCL seemed now to pulse with confidence. But this euphoria began to dissolve as the months dragged on and reality set in. Simply marginalising political dissent from the deliberations of the EC would not revitalise the YCL. As the difficulties re-emerged, mutterings of dissent began to reappear in some districts and branches.

 

Membership of the League at the 1975 Congress had been 2,089. Within six months this had risen to 2,338. Yet the Congress aim of 100 public meetings had resulted in only 22 being held, at which 380 people attended, cumulatively, with 25 recruits being made at these meetings. The intent had been to roughly match one branch to one meeting. By February 1976, Bell was to report to the EC that the YCL had "80 odd branches, some limping". [YCLIB 7th/8th February 1976] In April of that year it was clear that vast losses had been made in the 1976 Card Issue. Scotland lost 31%, London 27% and the Midlands 23%. Out of the 2,338, some 700 or 30% were lost nationally. Only 1,714 members had received their 1976 cards. There is only one conclusion to be drawn and that is that the confidence of activists prepared, or even pleased, to work with the tendency which had demonstrably won the faction fight in the League did not rub off on the membership or potential membership. The YCL's terminal decline was now more than evident.          

 

Major national events, which were organised to stimulate confidence, did little to arrest the decline that now set in with a vengeance. The Yorkshire YCL had for many years organised a regular Whitsun weekend called the Red Festival. The League nationally decided to copy the name and the concept. The 1976 Red Festival attracted some 600 people to the varying events on the Saturday and some 400 came to the Sunday demonstration and rally.

 

Propaganda material now became more in evidence in the League in a frantic endeavour to stem the losses. Vast quantities of material were produced, with considerable hidden CPGB subsidy, in an attempt to test out the bold and open campaigning style which Bell insisted would turn the tide.

 
 
Propaganda material produced by the YCL nationally 1971 - 1977

 

 

                        1971-3

1973-5

1975-7

 

Total printed

No. Items

Total printed

No. Items

Total printed

No. Items

Leaflets

90,000

9

400,000

9

457,000

7

Posters

 3,000

?

5,000

4

  8,500

7

Pamphlets

 2,000

1

6,000

2

  2,000

1

Stickers

10,000

1

20,000

2

     ?

1

 

 

                       

There now followed an extremely volatile period for the League's organisation, with membership plummeting and soaring at local level, branches fading and emerging. Nearly always, these were re-incarnations of dead branches with new activists and they did not always by any means follow the tune of the Bell leadership. A Dundee branch was formed towards the end of 1976 and a Wolverhampton branch was set up at the beginning of that year. Within six months it had 17 members. Edinburgh was one of the fastest growing branches, winning 21 recruits in 1976, eleven of them in one week in May.  By 1977, Kent YCL was now in a better shape, with membership tripling, two branches being formed and 100 Challenge being sold regularly. The same year, a Stockport branch was set up with 13 members, a Doncaster branch was re-established and an Accrington group emerged when half a dozen young Pakistanis joined the YCL en bloc after having set up their own socialist youth group. A Brighton YCL was created in a grafting operation from the local Party branch, based on an initial group of five young CPGB members. In the course of 1977, it was able to grow to a 15 strong branch. But, positive though these developments were, it was but a small contribution to a larger problem, even if it proved that there was scope for development and many young people could be attracted to the YCL.

 

Despite the limited nature of these developments, the leadership attributed them to the bold and open public work strategy. There were however perhaps other factors. A resurgence of fascist and extreme right wing ideas was taking place, arguably fostered by big business and its media in a backlash being prepared against the Labour Government, which would culminate in Thatcherism. The strategy being a complete restructuring of British industry, which would be resisted by organised labour, it would be necessary to cultivate a mood of despondency and division in the working class. Labour's economically repressive policies, added to a deeply unpopular statism that it was cultivating, also made scape-goating inevitable. Black and Asian communities felt increasingly threatened and many young people of all races were horrified by this turn of events. Yet racist groups also deliberately targeted young people. In Blackburn in 1976, the British National Party, a splinter from the then larger National Front, was able to get two councillors elected. Children of eleven were actively involved in their campaign. In response, the YCL started a branch as part of the general fight back against the fascists; an offensive that involved the wider left and had considerable popular support. Even so, the Blackburn results were not isolated affairs. Two competing fascist candidates in Deptford, NF and BNP, won a higher combined percentage vote than the winning Labour candidate. In Leicester, NF candidates in multi-seat wards won high votes, one of them coming within 40 votes of unseating the city's Mayor. 

 

In many localities, the racists began to organise youth sections. The Young National Front (YNF) entrenched itself in Enfield to a considerable degree. It was supposed to have 35 activists and up to four or five hundred members in the area. In contrast, there was a great deal of anti-racist activity in schools organised by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). This was initially a broad organisation but it became increasingly dominated by its key initiator, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Communists disputed the use of the word `Nazi', reasoning that racism did not necessarily always come with a fascist ideology. However valid this argument was, the emotive use of the term certainly mobilised opinion and the ANL's combative demonstrations against fascist meetings galvanised youth, especially black youth. As well as the ANL, there were also, notably in Enfield, Youth Against Racism (YAR) committees in many boroughs, towns and cities. For the League, the period was dominated by its slogan "Root Out Racism". A Schools Against Nazis movement was created with an acronym and a journal called SKAN (Skools Against Nazis, as in the punk style). Relations with SKAN and the YCL were a little cool at first, with the former being run by older SWP members. However, working relations with the NUSS and, therefore indirectly with the YCL, were established after a while. The NUSS now had a magazine called Blot that was staunchly anti-fascist and it sought to engage in the campaign to resist racist infiltration into schools as its main field of activity. By 1978 it was clear that 1978 successfully turned the tide of racism in schools. Moreover, the electoral successes of fascists was short-lived, such was the high profile of the campaign against them. The fascist bubble had burst, for the tag of Nazism was just too close to accuracy for many ordinary people, too uncomfortable for voters who could not stomach the idea however much they were attracted to the simplicities of racism. But the League did not profit from these struggles.   

 

Despite some favourable instances of local growth, the League was on a fast and slippery slope to extinction, even if it was not immediately obvious that this was so. The CPGB held an event counter to the Queen's official 25th Anniversary at Alexandra Palace in June 1978, entitled The Peoples' Jubilee. The YCL was able to make 29 recruits at this. Whilst the Challenge circulation conference that year was reasonably well attended with 62 delegates at it. A Challenge Festival was held in May 1978 and, although it was reasonably well attended, expenditure exceeded income by £1,523 to £941.

 

The 31st National Congress in Easter 1977 had 191 delegates attending it, from 85 branches. This Congress was even more decisive than that of two years previously, in terms of the progress of the internal feuding in the League. The leadership determined, once and for all, to exterminate the opposition as a viable force in the League. They saw this as crucial if the organisation were to prosper. The time spent dealing with the administrative and political control of the opposition was seen as a frustrating irrelevance. Without doubt, the breakaway of the Surrey-ites from the CPGB and the YCLGB determined a mood of aggressive confidence.

 

The most recent draft of the BRS had been in 1968. The Party leadership was conscious that much had changed since that time which went beyond the mere passage of years. Moreover, there was an assertive demand from the revisionist camp for a major over-haul of the Party's programme. This tendency increasingly went by the title of "Euro-Communists", since they set so much store by the `modernising' tendencies of the Italian and Spanish Communists in particular.  The Euro-Communists in the Party were in the main led by former members of the YCL leadership and the current YCL leadership was firmly in this camp. Euro-Communists were dismissive of the value of democratic centralism, queried the notion and past practice of the Party in industrial work and in particular its concentration on the big battalions of the trade union movement. They denigrated wages militancy and saw the role of supposedly new forces such as the peace movement, women's liberation and ecological and environmental movements as equal or superior to the traditional Labour Movement. Precisely what kind of struggle was at the forefront, or needed to be, to advance to socialism was seen as a matter of debate. Those who doubted the position of the Euro-Communists saw the struggle against the multi-national and trans-national corporations, what was called the anti-monopoly alliance, as crucial. If alliances were to be constructed, they should emanate from that struggle. The Euro-Communists saw the struggle for democracy as synonymous with the struggle for socialism and believed that in an advanced bourgeois democracy, alliances with forces which could identify with the defence and extension of democracy was the key. Mere trade union struggle would not achieve this, it was argued. Increasingly, such a view tended to think of socialism as being a very distant objective. The Euro-Communists adopted a position of severe criticism of the socialist countries, especially the USSR. Although most `centrists’ and some `traditionalists’ were also critical, albeit generally in a more restrained way. These contrasting views, sometimes in bizarre and multi-layered shades, were held at all levels and in all Districts of the Party. But the Euro-Communists were more and more emerging as being in control not, only of the YCL, but also of sections of the Party itself. It was now clearer than ever that the Euro-Communist project had a similar plan in store for the Communist Party as it had applied to the YCL. This was, in effect at least, to denude the organisation of Marxist content and eliminate its role as a key force for militant working class struggle.

 

The central grouping of career politicians in the Party coalesced for the moment around a compromise position, which united the more traditional wings of the membership with the leadership. The Euro-Communists were forced to accept a fudge, much against their will. The 1977 redraft of the BRS resulted in facing both ways on the key questions of difference, Before this occurred, the Surrey-ites sensing that a major revision was under way which might provide them with sufficient sympathy to form a new party, decided to break away. During the course of 1976, there had been growing restlessness in the anti-BRS camp, which became increasingly, if loosely, allied to more obviously specific camp of traditional views that were opposed to fudge. Yet the latter tendency did not in the event follow Sid French's lead to leave the CPGB. This left the Surrey-ite faction isolated and small. In the League, the leadership was unrestrained but, in the Party, the leadership was not able to pursue a more ruthless attitude even as a breakaway was increasingly openly being talked of.  

 

At the beginning of 1976, the Northern District of the YCL, previously named the North East District, was closed down. The District had been oppositionalist for some time. 60 members in four branches were reduced to 27 members in two branches within nine months due to the demoralisation that ensued. Another thorn in the side of the leadership, the small South Midlands District, based on Oxford, was also abolished. Both the Party and YCL South Midlands Districts were quickly divided up amongst others. To a certain extent these changes could be presented as being organisationally driven, although the motivation was certainly factionally driven. Even more obviously related to the internal situation was the position in the South East Midlands District of the YCL. An outside EC member attended every Secretariat and District Committee during the course of 1976 and this intervention culminated in the withdrawal of district status and an approach to the CPGB "with a view to tackling the problems in the district". [YCL EC Minutes 5th/6th June 1976] These problems were unambiguously seen as being political.

 

But it was the Surrey District that was especially targeted as a problem area in the period before the breakaway. No doubt as part of a tactic to highlight their views as distinctly as possible, the Surrey YCL produced two pamphlets quite independently of the national YCL. The first, called "Unemployment and the Crisis of Capitalism", attracted strong criticism from the YCL EC. It was decided that "in future all district produced pamphlets should be written in consultation with the EC". [YCL EC Minutes 5th/6th June 1976.]  Textually, the work was actually a fairly naïve critique of capitalism, perhaps rather fundamentalist in presentation, but saying nothing that countered YCL policy directly. The question was whether democratic centralism extended to ideological nuances, rather than simply congress policy and clearly it did not, or was not supposed to. The second pamphlet, "Against War - the Soviet Union Leads the Way", was less obviously as `innocent'. The YCL EC was outraged, more at the cheek of the district in being so overtly pro-Soviet. But a more considered criticism was developed for wider consumption, that the text did not really recognise the value of the home-grown British peace movement in the anti-war struggle. When the Surrey-ite faction broke away to form the New Communist Party, taking a small number of members around the country with them, the Surrey YCL was formally disbanded and the work of the District run directly by the PC. Thus, there was no formal breakaway in the YCL.

 

Interestingly, the PC ruled that, it being the "youth organisation of the Communist Party", membership of the New Communist Party breakaway constituted "a resignation from membership of the Young Communist League". No formal breakaway had been announced by the Surrey YCL, although the bulk of its membership had taken out NCP cards. Considering that constitutionally at that stage the YCL was "organisationally and politically independent", as well as "the youth organisation of the Communist Party", the YCL PC’s position was at the very least arguable in this context of ambiguity. [YCL Rules and Constitution 1977] Either that or the rules of the YCL did not accurately reflect the genuine relationship between the League and the Party. The PC’s discussion on the matter avoided the constitutional nuances in favour of gaining factional advantage from the situation. Formal disciplinary action on an individual basis was avoided by the simple expedient of mass exclusion from the YCL of those who had split from the CPGB. But it was a cynical exercise, since the view of the bulk of the national leadership of the YCL was that the more distant the YCL could become from the `old' ideas of the CPGB, the better. In truth, the breakaway gave the YCL leadership an excuse to interpret the rules in a creative way, something that was carried out with almost indecent, certainly unnecessary, relish. For, the NCP shortly produced a "Communist Paper for Youth", called the Young Worker, that would certainly have provided grounds under YCL rules for expulsion of those associated with it. Young Worker was an eight-page newspaper, sold at 15 pence. It was advertised as the journal of the NCP's Youth Section, which also had a Youth Committee. This was clearly a splitting act, yet it did not actually occur until after exclusion from YCL membership. The leadership of the YCL had acted opportunistically, disillusioning many who may possibly have been kept within the organisation in different circumstances. Such unprincipled cynicism would reappear within seven years inside the CPGB, with many of the same individuals now reprising their earlier modus operandi. 

 

For those remaining in the YCL who were hostile to Bell's leadership or who were not fully signed up to the Euro-Communist view of things, the leadership took the view that their days were numbered. Little now remained to restrain a full scale purge. All members of the Hackney YCL branch committee were removed from office for three months after a branch public meeting against the new draft version of the BRS was organised. The Party and the League took the view that meetings neither for nor against the draft should be organised. After all, the reasoning went, the Congress will debate the draft and the varying amendments that would be submitted and the draft was not up for endorsement or rejection as an entity. The London District YCL leadership continued the day to day work of the Hackney branch and a member of that branch, Anne Champion, was removed from the London YCL DC. Mick Gavan, another Hackney member was also suspended from membership, pending consideration by the EC of expulsion for his part in the organising of the offending meeting. Anne Champion's errors, it seems, were to argue against her branch organising a public meeting on racism, saying that it would be a "one-off event". In endorsing this, the branch was guilty of acting in a "narrow and sectarian" way. In the climate after the NCP breakaway, the leadership felt no sense of restraint when acting against opposition.

 

This hard-line approach is underlined by the resurgence of an obsession with the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia. The YCL agreed to send a delegate to its sister organisation, the SSM, which was holding a congress in Czechoslovakia. Even so, it was decided that the YCL would "withdraw if our speech which will contain a statement of our position on events in Czechoslovakia is not accepted". [YCL EC minutes 6th/7th August 1977]                  

 

There was considerable controversy over the PC statement on the breakaway. The Party's statement on the affair was naturally hostile to the breakaway but was also tinged with some concern that the opposition had gone so far. Regret at the loss of members and an appeal for those with differences to stay and fight their corner was implicit in the Party’s view. The YCL leadership viewed the event very differently. The PC agreed a statement that it did not "regret the resignation..." (as it termed the mass exclusion of NCP supporters from the YCL) "...from the Young Communist League of those who have held fundamental differences above the unity in action of the League". [YCL EC 6th/7th August 1977] Significantly, this sentence was omitted from the Morning Star's report on the breakaway. This reflected the sensitivity that the bulk of the Party's leadership felt was needed in handling the whole issue [Morning Star 22nd July 1977]

 

Whilst the NCP took only many hundreds from the CPGB, there were potentially thousands of converts to a split, given the right timing and conditions. Even at this time there were large numbers of members inside the Party who were uneasy at some of the ideas and views emerging. Those with divergent or diffident views on the question of the Party's attitude to the socialist countries represented quite a wide spectrum of opinion and most were totally against a split. This was particularly so in London, where much controversy raged in the run-up to the Party congress which discussed the BRS. Those who where against the breakaway took the view that the fight against revisionist tendencies must go on inside the CPGB and YCL.

 

There were 191 delegates at the Easter 1977 YCL Congress, the 31st. There were six resolutions from the EC. One was on the Labour Government, another on Racialism and others on Young Women, Youth Unity, YCL organisation and Challenge. In the run up to the CPGB's 35th Congress, which debated the new draft of the BRS, it was inevitable that the League’s congress should be seen as a sort of trial run for a trial of strength over ideological matters. In fact, the 31st Congress was to represent the most decisive break yet with the class conscious policies which the YCL had held in the early 1970s.

 

The October 1976 YCL EC had concluded, in a retrospective analysis of the League's work in the earlier part of the decade that "an erroneous view of the relationship between unity, mass work and League growth had been (then) adopted". Activity on young workers’ and school students' issues "was not accompanied by effective campaigning and social, cultural and educational activity among the majority of young people, who are not involved in these organisations. In other words we confined our work to a very small number of politically conscious young people. We should have been linking this work to a bold and open approach to the mass of youth." [Tom Bell's report to the 31st Congress]

 

For Norman Lucas, a former National Young Workers Organiser and London full timer for the League, writing in the pre-congress discussion journal, the previous congress had re-emphasised the Young Workers policy adopted at the 27th National Congress, "not the policy of the 28th Congress which in retrospect was economist in nature characterising the YCL as an `essential component of the young workers movement' ". Lucas felt this to be a significant theoretical error. He thought that the 27th Congress policy correctly put the question of the YCL's work amongst young workers "in the context of our overall work as a YCL in the women's movement, amongst black youth, in the youth councils, in community activity, youth clubs etc". [31st pre-congress discussion document No 2]

 

Another contributor, Dave Styles the National Treasurer, expressed the general tenor of the majority of the leadership. He felt that the argument about "what type of YCL was needed" in the 1960s and 1970s had "polarised into two opposed views". The first view was that the League should be a "broad-based, mass YCL which will be an active campaigning organisation on all issues that affect young people". This was Styles' interpretation of what he saw as the YCL's official position. The other view was that the League should be a "select cadre YCL which places exclusive emphasis on two things, (1) political work to win young workers and school students (2) teaching the young the ideas of Marxism-Leninism". This was his view of the position of the long-standing opposition in the YCL. The estimate is at once at the heart of the matter and also a gross over-simplification. Summing up the leadership's feelings, Styles noted that "these two viewpoints have clashed at all of the last 4 National Congresses ... and I feel that the time has come where this argument must be resolved in order for the YCL to take major strides forward".

 

The very practical sense of weariness with the internal conflict coincided with the arrival of the stimulation of a revisionist interpretation of Gramsci's ideas, what would be dubbed Euro-Communism. Bell hit the Congress with a full-bloodied version of it. A new awareness was needed, he argued, of the ideas underpinned the BRS. "(T)his ideological development must involve a deeper awareness that the ruling class dominates in Britain primarily by gaining popular consent for capitalism among wide sections of the people." Alliances must be forged to challenge the ruling class, this means "working in all possible areas of struggle and not almost exclusively prioritising certain economic battles". A wide range of areas of struggle amongst young people "must be taken beyond the economic level whereby demands are fought for from a sectional sense, without linking them to other struggles of youth ... The class struggle must be broadened to involve everybody whose objective interests clash in any way with monopoly capitalism."

 

The Congress was bitter and argumentative in a way not quite realised before. As the Morning Star put it, there was a "long and sometimes acrimonious debate on the main draft resolution". [Morning Star April 12th 1977] Some idea of the tension in some localities leading up to the Congress is given by the Luton branch's contribution to pre-congress discussion. Sharp political differences had, it seems, contributed to an antagonistic atmosphere in the South East Midlands YCL. The result of these hostilities "led to the withdrawal from YCL activity of two successive South East Midlands District Secretaries". While the political disparity and subsequent bickering" led to the EC removing "the political status of a District". [Pre-Congress Discussion Document No 1]

 

The Congress endorsed the "need for a bold and outwardgoing style of work, in which we attempt to forge unity between ourselves and other groups or sections of young people". According to Challenge, the opposition of one third of the delegates "blamed the League's decline in membership on this strategy and (argued) that our work should be concentrated among young workers and school students". [Challenge Issue No 44 May/June 1977] The Guardian gleefully reported on one celebrated piece of graffiti. A scrawl in the gents at the Congress hall depicted a plunging membership graph. Below it was the slogan "Time to Change Course - fight for Marxism-Leninism". Membership was one third of what it had been a decade before, while the number of districts had fallen from 17 to 7.    

 

On all these arguments about the "nature and style of work of the YCL", according to Challenge, it was the "younger delegates who showed clear frustration with the inward looking internalistic nature (of) some of the debates". Much was made of the youthfulness of the new EC, the average age of which was 21 years. Challenge thought this the "youngest leadership for a long time". While the Morning Star reported the average age of 20 as "the lowest ever", a statement which is, as we have seen, a blatant error related to the age-ist myths being fostered by the ascendant revisionists in the Communist movement. [Morning Star 12th April 1977] More accurately, the number of women on the EC was reported as being comparatively high. All this was central to Bell's view of the way forward for the League, for it to become thoroughly young in every sense. It was at this Congress that he was able to at last obtain support for the lowering of the maximum age limit for YCL membership, from 30 years down to 28. Whilst the Congress also elected the most unanimously solid leadership for decades, even if it was not the most experienced. There had been a determined aim by the central Party leadership to purge the League of factional tension and clear the ground for a more positive future. The centre's links with the District of the CPGB were exploited to put pressure on dissidents towards Bell's leadership to cease hostilities in the interests of the greater good.

 

A resolution adopted by Congress on the inner-league situation said, rather quaintly, if not with much sophistication, "the number of young people won to effective political action by personality clashes, innuendo, threats, intrigue, and divisions can be counted on the toes of Long John Silver's wooden leg". (The jokey style was typical of Bell.) The Congress decision recognised no third force, no shades of opinion. The basic political division was defined as being between " (a) those comrades who disagree with the YCL political position and thus fail to adopt the strategy of building a broad democratic alliance of youth; and (b) those who accept the principles on which our strategy is based and have fought, some more ardently and some more than others for the implementation of our policies". It was considered as being that simple, for and against. The Congress resolution insisted: "The solution to these differences lies neither in straddling the division nor in the continued compromising of the YCL's political position." Thus was war declared on opposition. Any tendency that argued for toleration was brushed aside as objectively assisting opposition. The very differences were the key factor holding the League back, reasoned the leadership. So, this uncompromising stance was justified and doubters of the wisdom of this aggressive posture were to choose which side they were on. There would be no middle ground in the future.

 

The election of a leadership absolutely within the foregoing category (b) was of prime importance to the leadership. In the preceding four congresses a kind of polite fiction was maintained that a candidate's personal political position within the YCL was not a bar to holding a leadership position. Indeed, election to the EC was often, but certainly not completely, a matter of competence and ability. There was nonetheless some element of each outgoing leadership creating a successor in its own image, perhaps a natural human frailty. At the 31st Congress, all caution was thrown to the winds and an EC based entirely on political voting patterns was sought. A premium was laid on youthfulness, even if that was not always the same thing as a shortage of years. A vigorous attitude to opposition views in branch life was calculated to gain attention for a candidate, whilst hesitancy or - worst - active connivance with the opposition was certain to exclude them from consideration.

 

Those with suspect politics were opposed in the Congress Elections Preparations Committee (EPC) by pro-leadership delegates, seeking to keep them excluded from the recommended list.  They were variously attacked for "having political differences", "moving into the YCL from the CP prior to congress", even "being mixed up". Another supposedly "refuse(d) to work to collective decisions", others were "motivated by a desire to oppose policy". Two or three South East Midlands candidates were accused of "indulging in factionalism, meeting before DCs to decide on policy and platform". [These and subsequent quotes from the EPC sessions from the author's own notes as Chair of this committee.]

 

In a counter-attack, the leadership's favoured candidates were also attacked in the EPC. The Scottish Secretary was opposed for being too indulgent of an incident concerning cannabis smoking on the coach down to Congress. The Scottish YCL was supposed to have "degenerated" since he took over. Another leading member of the Scottish YCL was accused of “indulging in vitriolic personal attacks". But, sharp as this was, it was nothing beside the torrent of abuse that was unashamedly orchestrated behind the scenes, with the leadership strongly encouraging delegates to go into the EPC to oppose `unreliable' candidates. One delegate of some influence from London argued for one candidate he favoured because in the "situation of a DC split (he) is very good at fighting for the line of the YCL".      

 

One London activist had "made negative contributions and was not prepared to support the line of the DC". A leading national and district official who had known one candidate since he joined the YCL now opposed him, for "his branch was now very much in the hands of people against the leadership". He had been put on the District Secretariat (a similar body at district level as the PC) and the DC but "this hadn't worked: he was now very firm in his opinions and had a long history of not carrying out decisions". He had even been removed from the District Secretariat for these reasons.

 

Another had resigned from the same Secretariat over this affair. This was much resented, for "she had been put on the Secretariat to strengthen collective work, but she had failed to give leadership in her area for DC decisions". Others could not "carry out decisions", or saw their "role as opposing, but won't do any work".

 

There was a strong lobby from Scotland to remedy the industrial weakness of the recommended list. One Scottish industrial worker was criticised by the National Secretary of CAYU for demanding of him on first meeting him where "he stood on the BRS", as the first matter of concern. Moreover, he had differed with the view that CAYU was an appropriate vehicle for struggle on unemployment in Scotland, believing – probably with enormous factual justification - that the STUC Youth Committee could do whatever was needed. This genuine political difference was treated as a fundamental failing by the candidate’s opponent.

 

Those clearly opposed to the Bell leadership did have one token on the list. She was from the Northern District, such as it was now. The CPGB consultative delegate from her district stressed that she was a "firm believer in democratic centralism" and that it would be "very useful for the district to have her on (the EC). While she had political differences with the YCL leadership, she will work in a disciplined way, putting the official line in public." A national official of the League, who underlined the fact that despite having differences, she "works for the position of Congress", supported this approach.

 

It was now a clear offence not to be part of the mainstream. One delegate visiting the EPC sessions had originally supported another delegate as a candidate for the EC on the basis that as the branch secretary of a large YCL branch he would need to be on the EC. But also because he felt he would benefit from the political education of being on that committee. But he now retracted, as this delegate held a political position "not sympathetic to the line of Congress he would be a nuisance to the new EC". This was only now clear, it was claimed, since some of his fellow delegates were "surprised at the way he is voting in Congress - he's not really a hard liner."   

 

The culmination of this bitter struggle was made more decisive by an emotive plea for unity amongst those delegates not actively associated with the opposition camp in support of the recommended list made by the Chair of the EPC. (In fact the author! To permit a personal aside, at the time I felt that the calculated, almost vitriolic, certainly devastating and unrelenting attack, which I launched on the motives and policies of the shunned camp, in my final reply to the closed session debate, was justified as a tactic in a wider strategy of clearing the League of infighting in order that it might begin afresh with a new leadership. I was wrong, despite being motivated by deep loyalty to the organisation itself, or rather to the Communist Party which at the highest levels certainly encouraged me in this attitude. Whatever the veracity or otherwise of the motives, without doubt, the ferocity of the assault, coming from one who was known to harbour doubts about some of the wilder policies of the leadership, contributed to one of the most disciplined voting patterns ever at a modern YCL congress. In retrospect, I am not proud of it.)  The Guardian described the outcome of the Congress as a "decisive rout" for the opposition and the actual results of the EC election bear this out.

 

A clear voting pattern showed a very tight band of votes for the successful candidates of from 117 to 124 votes. All but one of these were on the recommended list, the solitary exception being the Northern District candidate who enjoyed support from both camps and received 151 votes. There were no less than 51 non-recommended list candidates, but most polled badly. The highest unsuccessful candidate was Kenny Crawford, a Scottish engineering worker. As a Secretary of his local AUEW Junior Workers Committee and a member of a YCL ship building branch, Crawford was a strong candidate. But he was only to win 64 votes, making the general margin something like two to one for the leadership. The successful candidates for the position of auditor polled 117 votes each, their single competitor receiving only 45. Even the opposition motion, which congratulated the USSR on its role in the release of Chilean Communist leader, Luis Corvalan, was defeated. The leadership did not like the prisoner exchange swap, whereby a Soviet dissident was allowed to leave for the West in order that Corvalan, seriously ill from prison treatment, could be released.

 

This political infighting was set against the background of rapidly declining membership. In the 1976-77 Card Issue campaign, there had been an aim to recard 60% of the membership by December but only 40% was achieved. This resulted in the statement by the EC that "losses had not been higher than usual, but the recruits have not been made at the usual pace". [YCLIB April 1977] The YCL now had eight District Committees, "about 90 to 100 branches and 1,620 members", according to Bell in May 1977. [EC Minutes 7th/8th May 1977] In an attempt to inject optimism, the EC was told by the General Secretary that "many of you have only known the year by year drop in membership, but this is not some divine law decreed by above. Once the league begins to operate the approach arrived at collectively at Congress, then we will begin to take the YCL out of this period of history."  

 

Left: Birmingham YCL outside the local Town Hall on an anti-cuts demo in 1977

 

Bell's heir apparent, Nina Temple, saw 1978 as the "year in which the YCL moves away from endless internal battles with Stalinism which have in the past crippled the YCL". [EC Minutes 3rd/4th 1977] This, then, was the legacy of the 1977 Congress. The argument put forward in its wake was that the YCL could grow if it was united. Disunity was a function of the very existence of what the leadership termed Stalinist opposition; hence the elimination of this tendency would provide a fertile basis for growth. It seemed all so simple. Indeed, there was little sense of irony intended as the Political Committee (PC) acted to nullify decisions taken by the East Midlands DC of the League in November 1977, in respect of its own leadership arrangements. These were not to the liking of the national leadership but, instead of confronting the political concerns which Bell really had, the EC was asked to endorse interventionist actions taken by PC because the Eats Midlands DC had acted "without going through the proper procedure of consultations". [EC Minutes 3rd/4th December 1977] It would not be many months before Bell felt confident enough of his position to ditch such procedures, where it suited him. Such an act of administrative control of a political problem was not considered by the leadership to be authoritarian, or sleight of hand manipulativeness. That would have been Stalinist! The stage was now truly set for a remarkable, even Orwellian, turn of the tables in which anti-Stalinism was bolstered by increasingly Stalinesque methods of control. Democratic institutions would be increasingly dulled or abolished, as the perceived threat of opposition faded along with the League itself. Democratic centralism would now be replaced by bureaucratic centralism. The `Euro-communists’ in the YCL had begun as a small faction within the leadership and it now it had become the entire leadership it exercised its leadership functions as a faction. Such a style would increasingly emerge within the CPGB itself, leading eventually to its total demise.

 

10 Euro-Communism as a Distortion of Gramsci

 

 

The leadership of the League, in common with certain trends within the CPGB, began to develop a considered philosophical justification for its position, almost in response to the ideologically clear, if sometimes staidly traditional, stance of the opposition. Not that the opposition was uniformly identical in outlook, other than in its implacable hostility to Bell and his immediate coterie. Those who followed the line of the Surrey District of the CPGB and YCL were often viewed with condescension by more sophisticated proponents of the classical tradition as political cavemen.

 

The YCL's leadership claimed as the source of its political identity as being the British Road to Socialism, the Party's programme. However, its view was, as Mike Power put it, that the "theoretical basis of many propositions in the BRS still needs to be fully established twenty-five years after the initial adoption of the programme in 1951".  [Cogito No 4 1976]  This was an extraordinarily extravagant claim, typical of the YCL leadership cabal. After all where did those ideas, which gave rise to the BRS, actually come from? This is not the place for a discourse on the theory of socialist transition, but a brief outline of the issue in the context of the YCL leadership’s use of the debate is necessary.

 

Despite later claims that the BRS was authorised by Stalin, the concept of a peaceful road to socialism based on the might of united working class was rooted in the real, practical and historical experience of the Labour Movement, going back to Chartism. The BRS was not some flight of fancy but was grounded in the unity forged in struggle between Communists, trade unionist, co-operators and Labour activists in pre-war anti-fascism, wartime solidarity with the USSR and peacetime union, political and peace movement activities. Yet many in the League saw the Party's traditions as out of date, its theories unsophisticated and its image in need of livening up. The `Young Turks' adopted the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, as their new Messiah, a prophet of modernism, despite the fact that he had written most of his politically significant writing in prison in Fascist Italy more than forty years before. Much of Gramsci's writing was coded and couched in the language of culture, since he had to be cautious while writing illicitly in prison. Consequently, Gramsci was wide open to interpretation despite the fact that he definitely came from a revolutionary position.

 

Just to take one example of how a pithy phrase of Gramsci’s would be twisted away from its context to validate a view that actually ran quite counter to his own. The following wonderful quote was (and still is) widely employed: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Applying this to the conditions of the 1970s, which appeared all to crisis-ridden and more than a bit morbid, it was rather mystically use by some to lend authority to a view that socialism was off the agenda - `the new cannot be born’ - however disastrous the political situation looked for capitalism.

 

Yet the context of the page before and the page after this isolated quote in Gramsci’s text makes clear, if one grasps that he is writing whilst in a jail in fascist Italy, that he is saying that no matter how repressive the regime might be the plain truth is that working people are not won around to passivity but are merely biding their time and that this is on their side. This is no place to reprint the entirety of what is actually a sub-chapter in Gramsci’s notebooks but the  couple of sentences before the favoured quote give a flavour: “That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority”. If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only dominant”, exercising force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.” ["Antonio Gramsci - Selections from the Prison Notebooks" in the chapter "State and civil society" in a section entitled `wave of materialism and crisis of authority' publ. Lawrence and Wishart (2005) p276]

 

Posing the challenge of ideological hegemony as somehow diminishing the effects of the ever-tilting balance of raw power in 1970s Britain and Italy, where the then mighty Communist Party was now reaching a key point in its development. It would either become a natural party of government, or it would splinter. Gramsci was being similarly used to justify an equally revisionist position in Italy as it was in Britain.

 

For Mike Power, British Communists still responded to "issues of principle as though we still adhered to the programme `For a Soviet Britain' adopted in 1935". Such a view distorted what that programme actually was, implying that it sought a direct translation of the Russian experience to Britain. It is perhaps difficult to comprehend at such a distance, but the reputation of the USSR in the mid-Thirties was high. The planned economy pioneered by the USSR had been admired by many. Prominent intellectuals like Bernard Shaw and the Webbs were impressed by its achievements.  The Russian revolution had only taken place 18 years before and Communism still thought of itself as a world party.

 

Even so, a reading of the 1935 programme shows that the CPGB called for a revolutionary Soviet Britain largely in a very specific sense. The word `soviet’ meant the use of workers' councils (harking back to the 1926 General Strike councils of action) to subvert power away from capitalism in a single break. The programme was unsophisticated, even naive, but throughout it ran a sense of the power of a united people to challenge the existing order. In an era when the corporate state was flagrantly used to buttress a capitalist system in crisis, electoral democracy was still incomplete, relatively new and seemingly fragile, the Russian path to power did not seem totally out of place for Britain. The conception of a transition without civil war being inevitable came only after the experience of just what was possible arising from the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, especially given the new balance of world forces after 1945.

 

Certainly, now the BRS still saw the leading role of the working class as central. This conception was firmly fixed in the actual assessment of the nature of class forces in Britain, which was clearly very different from Spain and Italy, where Gramscist re-interpretations of Marxist strategy for advanced Western democracies were now emanating from. British adherents to Euro-Communism slavishly copied these ideas, in a grotesque parody of their own critique of how Communism had absorbed Soviet Stalinism.

 

In no other area than the question of the centrality of the working class to anti-capitalist struggle was this theoretical debate so obvious. Those who wished to revise the BRS by reference to the theoretical undertones of Gramsci emphasised the importance of struggles that went wider than the traditional working class movement. It would be a first step to downgrading trade union orientated work, by first `levelling the playing field' and attacking such work as non-revolutionary. It would be a battle of emphasis which culminated in eliminating class conscious work altogether. They even sought to justify their views by attracting political credibility from Vietnam. Ian Findlay, for example, in a report to the EC on political education claimed the following. "At no time did the Vietnamese comrades over-emphasise the significance of any aspect of the struggle. A constant battle to win the many sections of the people of Vietnam, Catholics, Buddhists, students, school students, trade unions and women's organisations was waged." [YCLIB October 4th/5th 1975] While it is true that Vietnamese Communists worked with many broad organisations and won the respect of many varied sections of Vietnamese society in the national liberation struggle, it is a distortion to say that no single section or no single tactic was elevated. Moreover, the comparison is surely an unequal one, given the largely peasant nature of production in Vietnam and that the overwhelming bulk of British society is wage earned.

 

But no less a person than Le Duan, Vietnam's leader from 1969, made it absolutely clear that, in the context of the experience of Marxists in the developing world generally, the peasantry were the key revolutionary force and the armed struggle was the key revolutionary tactic. "Our Party has assessed that the peasants were the main force of our national democratic revolution which was essentially a revolution of peasants, under the leadership of the proletariat and its party." [Le Duan "On the Socialist Revolution in Vietnam" Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi Volume 1 p91] So, the peasants made the revolution but needed the vital force of the organised working class as a backbone. Clearly, however the peasantry was elevated over other forces, especially as the working class vanguard were increasingly eliminated physically and individually by the armed struggle. (A similar experienced had arisen in Russia as a result of the Civil War, which physically eliminated the bulk of the pre-revolutionary proletariat. Whilst the Chinese Kuomintang’s purge of the Shanghai working class had left the pre-eminent role to the peasants organised in the Red Army.) Findlay's argument drew the kudos of Vietnam to a position that was already in the process of downgrading the British working class and its struggles, which were essentially related to the sharpest conflicts in an advanced capitalist society. In effect, he was saying that if the Vietnamese did not elevate one sector in the revolutionary process, why should we. It was a direct rebuttal of the class-conscious policy that identified school students and young workers as the key target area for the YCL.

 

In YCL national education schools in 1975 and 1976, the theoretical position based on Gramsci's work emerged openly for the first time. In Cogito, Mike Power introduced the concepts of `civil society' (i.e. non-government institutions and trends) and `political society' (i.e. the state machine and allied institutions). "It is through the medium of civil society that capitalism in Britain maintains its hegemony." (Hegemony was a favourite word of the Gramscians, implying leadership or domination.)  By omission, this argument implied that no repressive side exists to British capitalism, a concept that would have then seemed strange in Ireland and positively perverse only a few years hence to trades unionists in struggle against Thatcherism, especially the miners in 1984-5. Gramsci's original conception was to actually emphasise that a careful balance between the consensual and coercive roles of political power was a key strategy of West European capitalism. A consensual role of civil society exists in all state systems, to greater or lesser degrees. The more sophisticated a state system becomes, the more civil society assumes importance.  The degree of balance between coercion and consent would vary according to the severity of crisis that the ruling circles faced. In the period of the rise of Thatcherite government, New Gramsci-ist thinking would assign to its authoritarian tendencies an entirely new role, which presumed the terminal decline of the Labour Movement.

 

In the mid-`1970s, for Power and his fellow revisers of Marxism, in Britain winning or educating the working class in a larger societal sense was key. "(W)e must proceed to establish working class hegemony in civil society, not just through economic struggle, to build up and strengthen the British working class Marxist theoretical tradition in order to transform the intellectual and moral outlook of the vast majority of the people. To win state power, therefore, the working class must win hegemony in civil society" [Cogito No 4 pp 9-10] Here then, is the central thesis of the revisionists. For them state power equalled hegemony and it is hegemony that must be won. The conception went beyond the BRS's strategy of winning a majority of the people, the vast majority of which is working class, by a fusion of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary struggle.

 

In his keynote article in Cogito, Power further distorted Marxism and Marx individually by referring to his oft-quoted view that "theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses", as if ideas actually equal material force. Put simply, a military weapon needs thought to wield its armed might. But thought alone cannot wield the power of a weapon. This may seem to be mere semantics, but the revisionists were proposing a thin end of the wedge by devaluing force, albeit force with some popular character. The initial success of Thatcherism in winning neutrality of a third of the electorate, coupled with the support of another third, seemed later to initially back up this analysis.

 

Gramsci's concept of hegemony, as a kind of preponderating control, centres on the fact that the ruling ideas of a given historical epoch are the ideas of the ruling class of that age – as Marx in fact proposed. That is to say, in modern Britain, working class people largely accept capitalism. But of course unless there is a revolutionary situation arising from the inability of the force of capital to continue to rule in the old way, this has been and will always be the case. It tells us nothing new, even though it may emphasise the importance of the politics of culture. But an analysis, which fails to take account of the non-consensual or repressive nature of capitalism's triumphs, will inevitably be flawed. Capitalism is backed by fear of unemployment, sickness, starvation, homelessness, arrest and imprisonment for breaching the sacred rules of property. The British State has become increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic. A different conclusion to that reached by the Euro-Communists is that struggle against capitalism at its weakest link, its economic base, must aid the revolutionary process. Introducing interesting ideas about the nature of dissent and the possibilities of broad alliances resulted in the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the bath water, as community politics was posed against class politics. In hindsight, it is clearer than it was, particularly at the high water mark of Thatcherism, that capitalism has only changed in terms of scope, dimension and place. The nature of the working class may have changed in that an overwhelming percentage of the population is now proletarianised, but the essential, antagonistic relationship between capital and labour remains however weakened the trade union movement has become. For Communists, work with and within the Labour Movement is as essential as ever. Given the limited resources of the British Communist movement, spreading its activities too thinly results in diminished effectiveness.         

 

Such a view was rejected by the Euro-Communists, who pointed to the need for winning popular consent, by the struggle of ideas. They posed the experience of socialist states as being essentially a negative one. Socialism they saw a having up to now being imposed by political even military, society, without reference to civil society. Hence, at its most primitive, the view of the socialist states propounded by the YCL's leadership was that they had lost any potential support for Communism in Britain by virtue of their repressive character. Czechoslovakia's traumas of 1968 still haunted the League, which produced branch education notes in 1976 on "What happened in Czechoslovakia". While, in 1978, on the tenth anniversary of 1968, Issue 55 of Challenge came out with a full page article from the editor on what was then a matter of history for most YCLers.

 

Seeing the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe in the mid-1970s, the YCL - and its ideological allies in the CPGB - inevitably toyed with the idea that anti-Sovietism was intrinsically popular. Reviewing Santiago Carrillo's book, "Euro-Communism and the State" in January 1978, Luis Santamaria proposed its importance because the "principles of Euro-Communism have just become the leading trend in the Western Communist Movement". [Challenge No49] He felt that government was once again on the agenda for these parties for the first time since just after the Second World War. It in fact this proved not to be the case, as left governments fell everywhere in the wake of a confident reaction heralded by Reagan and Thatcher.

 

Given such fundamental revisions of Marxism as were now being swallowed, it is not surprising that the League also applied fundamental revision to its view of young people in capitalist society. The 1970s were marked by an internal Communist debate on youth culture, which had less to do with youth or culture than the nature of capitalist rule. In September 1973, Marxism Today formally opened up a debate on `Trends in Youth Culture', by means of an article authored by Martin Jacques, later to become the journal’s editor. Developments in music and fashion were considered to be critical. Ideological and cultural work was the key to combating "the various forms of spontaneity be they economist or anarchist". Equating the two concepts was a significant step in revisionist thinking, distorting the classical Marxist understanding of the term `economism'. It had been used by Lenin to identify the spontaneous reaction of workers to the excesses of capitalism. What was needed, he argued, was the injection of political consciousness into these struggles to move them into revolutionary action. CPGB revisionists began to use the term in a pejorative way to decry the deep involvement in trade union work of many British Communists, implying that this was a non-political occupation that weakened the Party. In the article, Jacques dismissed young workers, admitting he had "not dealt sufficiently with the position of industrial youth". The debate around youth culture and young people reappeared in the period 1976-78. To start with, in 1976, Paul Bradshaw, Challenge Editor, developed, in the YCL's theoretical journal Cogito, Martin Jacques' original Marxism Today article of three years earlier with his piece entitled `Trends in Youth Culture in the 70's'. [Cogito No 3] This was followed in January 1978 by an article in Marxism Today, which had now fallen completely under the orbit of the Euro-Communists, entitled `Youth in Contemporary Capitalism', from Bob Lentell, YCL National Organiser. As a publicity blurb in Challenge put it, such a debate drew "together many new ideas being kicked around in the League". [Challenge No. 50] Steve Munby, a later editor of Challenge, managed an article on the politics of youth unemployment without once mentioning the YCL. ["Bored and Angry", Marxism Today June 1978] In each of these initiatives, the study of youth culture was used as a means of promoting ideas that undermined confidence in class struggle.

 

It was against this background of major theoretical revisionism that the decline into oblivion of the YCL took place by the early 1980s. Rapidly now, the leadership began to divest itself of the last vestiges of the Leninist model of organisation. In April 1978, the EC decided to "ditch formalism". The EC would be more of a working body, would break into workshops. DCs would be open to all. Bell, now in the last stages of leadership, argued the need to open the League up in its internal life. He believed that this process had been started back in the 1960s, but it had been "abused" by those elements "seeking to hold the League back". Bell's struggle against opposition and "their more open factionalist manifestations", he told the EC, had required restriction by the creation of procedures which "became the law of precedent". With opposition to Bell in tatters, he felt that it was now clear that these practices were a "fetter" on the organisation. They needed to be "ditched as the first step in a war against formalism ... that's to say an emphasis on formal procedure rather than getting a political job done is not the characteristic of young people".

 

The aim set by the League for itself in 1978 was to achieve 100 branches, 6,000 Challenge sold for each issue and 2,000 members. Yet, in April, membership reached rock bottom, or so it seemed, at around 1,000. The YCL was also plagued with financial difficulties, having to launch a £1,500 National Fund to plug the gap between costs and the increasingly minuscule quota from those districts that were still functioning. By October, the YCL had determined to cease major national events and concentrate on campaigning work in the districts. The leadership would "spend more time out in the League, while the EC would be given "more authority ... in relation to the PC". The EC was in fact now seriously weakened by absenteeism, encouraged by despondency at the state of the organisation. The election of younger, inexperienced cadres simply hadn't worked. An infusion of no less than 13 permanent invitees was needed to make the EC function. Dave Cook would now attend as an "observer from the CP". Bell summed up the situation: whilst the YCL had "got rid of fundamental political differences within the League's leading body", it had not yet "come to terms with the new problem thrown up by the political process". He admitted that there were serious problems of "collective work" not resolved. Moreover, the relationship of the PC to the EC was "unsatisfactory". EC meetings were "unrelated to the real situation at grass roots".

 

In membership terms, the League was at a "decisive stage in its history ... we don't have an exact figure, but we know that we have not yet reached the thousand mark" in membership. Bell's view was that the "political process" begun in the 1960s was now maturing but he recognised that it had cost the YCL "dearly". Scotland, the North West and the Midlands had "collective problems", that's to say that there were few left able to lead. East Midlands had problems of "political differences"; it was still home to opposition elements. London had reached a turning point, the "light was at the end of the tunnel", since the purge of dissidents was nearly complete. It was felt that Yorkshire and South Essex were beginning to recover a little and new members had been made in West Middlesex, Kent and Sussex. However, Wales, Northern, West of England, South East Midlands, Hants and Dorset, East Anglia and Surrey had all but collapsed. Membership had almost halved in four years.   

 

YCL national membership 1975-1978

           

1975

2,338

1976

1,985

1977

1,663

1978

1,278

 

Figures are for November of 1975 and 1976, and  for June of 1977 and 1978

 

 

The April 1979 Congress had as its main items for debate the YCL's new mini-BRS, `Our Future'. There was also Challenge, the YCL's new constitution, the EC elections and Branch Resolutions on the agenda. The main challenge to `Our Future' came from an East Kilbride motion to refer the entire document back to the new EC on the basis that the text reduced the YCL's role to that of a "ginger group on the fringes of existing radical trends". The reference back was defeated by a vote of 81 to 38, with one abstention.

 

`Our Future' sought to direct spontaneous activism into radical channels. The progressive developments in the British Youth Council were elevated to central importance and critics of the draft saw it as being soft on the Young Conservatives. The YC was then controlled by liberal reformists, in a matter of just two years ultra-right wing forces would sweep into power in that organisation. Nonetheless, at the 1979 Congress, the majority brushed aside objections, claiming for the Young Conservatives a greater commitment to democracy and racial harmony than was supposedly the case for their elders in the adult party.

 

A debate on education in schools and colleges saw the setting aside of estimates of the class content and role in the class struggle of education as a simplistic, blanket analysis. By a narrower margin than other issues, 66 votes to 50, the criticism was defeated that capitalism was only mentioned in the document 500 lines into the draft. The majority held sway, arguing that the document needed to start from the "actual thinking" of young people.

 

A major redraft of the YCL's rules and constitution was proposed by the outgoing General Secretary, Tom Bell, and was agreed to in principle by Congress. Bell suggested that anti-authoritarianism was stronger among youth at this time than in the previous waves of youth protest in the 1950s and 1960s. A drop in the age range of the YCL would, he believed, bring in a fresh influx of younger activists who would demand a more relaxed framework of organisation. Now that the battle to reject "Stalinist ideas and practice" had been won, it was safe to experiment. Perhaps symbolic of this new mood was the adoption of a new emblem, a map of Britain inside a large star. The ideological commitment to "Marxism-Leninism" was dropped in favour of the "creative application of Marxism". Democratic centralism could now also be dropped in favour of "internal democracy". The EC would be renamed the General Council (GC) and, in effect, a federal structure was partially introduced. Congress would elect only half of the GC, regions would nominate the other half. Districts were abolished, or substantially reorganised into these new regions. When a regional representative was appointed, it was by means of an aggregate of membership where there was no functioning DC, as rapidly became the case with many a locality. Further to the dismantling of democratic centralism, leading cadres would also now be allowed the right to express disagreements with the decisions of the committees they were on when reporting to a lower committee. For example, a GC member reporting to a regional structure. As part of the re-organisation, national officers now acquired the title of secretary. For example, organising secretary instead of National Organiser, school students secretary instead of School Students Organiser and so on. The notion being not to place any one officer above another and to generally diminish the leadership quality of the title. It should be noted that a similar attachment to the abandonment of democratic centralism and the Leninist model was projected by the Euro-Communists in the CPGB at its 1979 Congress. However, a united response of forces defeated their proposals.

 

The YCL now began to experience the most devastating membership loss ever up to that time. A few small branches were established, or more accurately re-established. Bristol YCL was resurrected in May 1980 and grew to the painfully minuscule level of 12 members. In the middle of that year a small branch was set up in Arbroath and a `new' branch established in Doncaster in February 1981. Southampton YCL was set up in December 1980, Swindon in 1981. Membership increased five-fold in Yorkshire over a few months in 1981 also. But this arose from a previously collapsed district. But now there were once again branches, albeit small ones, in Sheffield, Leeds, Thirsk, Hull, Huddersfield, Bradford and, as mentioned, in Doncaster. Huddersfield went from five members to eleven, about an average size for a 1980s YCL branch it seems.

 

By this stage, the YCL was very clear about its identity, if not perhaps about how to resolve its fundamental problem of decline. A current information leaflet for potential recruits defined the organisation. "The YCL is a marxist organisation and draws its ideas from the past as well as the present. Apart from the great teachers of yesterday, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci and all the others, it draws its ideas from the struggles and lessons of the mass movements of our day, the Women's Liberation movement and the ideas of Feminism, the experiences of the Black Community and the Lesbian and Gay Community and of course the Peace Movement (YCND and CND) and the Labour Movement." A YCL Gay Collective (committees being now quite passé) was set up and regional schools on sexual politics were organised. In an odd throw back to obsessions of the late 1960s, the Legalise Cannabis Campaign was promoted in the YCL.

 

The logic proposed for the ditching of much of the classic structure of revolutionary organisations was that, as the YCL was a youth group and distinct from the Communist Party, it needed different forms of organisation. Yet, to some extent, the severe contraction that the League was now going through made this a `virtue' out of a necessity. Whether there was cause and effect, the demolition of the YCL's Leninist structure coincided with its utter collapse of membership, to such a degree that it now became a serious question as to whether it had anything of a future at all.

 

Over the next few years the CPGB itself imploded over a range of issues which markedly paralleled those which had beset the YCL in the 1970s. This has been extensively dealt with elsewhere, but a brief exposition of these events is perhaps of some value in placing the final extinction of the YCL into context.  Marxism Today, under the editorship of a key Euro-Communist, Martin Jacques, began to increasingly distance itself from the Communist movement and became a focus for the jettisoning of left ideas by many Labour Party figures anxious to reach out to the centre ground. A big bust up occurred within the CPGB PC over its attacks on the shop stewards movement and the Party's Industrial Organiser shifted position, after loosing the argument in the PC, to work for the Morning Star. Those most hostile to Euro-Communism increasingly focused around the paper. In 1984 the Party leadership, now composed of a united front of the career politicians and the Euro-Communists, after similar ructions at Congresses to those which the YCL had seen in the 1970s, sought to regain control of the paper. Arguably, the Party was imploding over its key assets, its premises and journals. The question was which faction would hold control over them. The Party launched a savage attack on the Morning Star, seeking to control the technically independent paper. With the support of many in the wider Labour Movement, the Party was refused this control by virtue of loosing elections to the Management Committee of the co-operative that owned the paper. In response, an even more violent assault was made on key Districts, notably London and the North West, which saw hundreds of long time Communists expelled or excluded from membership of the CPGB. In response they set up their own group which campaigned for a reversal of these moves. In the meantime, the massive year long struggle of the miners took place without the advantage of the CPGB's still considerable industrial muscle. The Party leadership prevaricated and allowed public criticism of the tactics of the NUM leadership, despite the presence of one of its most valued members, Mick McGahey, as Vice-President of the union in the `troika' of leadership in the dispute. Little was done to mobilise solidarity with the miners and the Party began to fall apart. Shortly after, the excluded group decided to re-establish the Communist Party as the Communist Party of Britain.

 

What of the YCL after all this? Iain Chalmers, Scottish YCL Secretary, reported to the General Council (GC) of the League, the renamed EC, in March 1986 on the future of the organisation. So serious was the crisis that the very existence of the YCL as the "only autonomous political youth organisation in Britain was at risk”. [Quote from the rather oddly named internal bulletin "The Informer" and also YCL information leaflet for potential recruits.]  Chalmers' estimate of the reasons for the very dismal state of the YCL was that many young Party members were unattracted to YCL work, being unconvinced of its relevance. The implication was that an infusion of `reliable’ young CP activists would be welcomed yet, whilst this may have reflected a particular aim of the YCL at this stage, it had never been a serious basis for recruitment to draw young CP members into the League. Chalmers also noted that many YCL members had diverted their energies to the CPGB in its own period of internal crisis, many taking on leadership responsibilities in their own local Party branch. The same process in reverse was frowned upon, unless the YCL leadership had requested such a move. For the YCL GC had once again been "politically divided with a group attempting to transport the discussions and debates which were current in the party, into the YCL. This created a situation," Chalmers thought, "where we became very inward looking and internalised".

 

There was now no YCL in Wales, even more unthinkably "the structure of the YCL in London has collapsed". Many branches only existed on paper, although membership had "held up" in Scotland. The only contact many members had with the organisation was "a card sent through the post from a remote office". The complete lack of regional or area structures within the League meant that "it is difficult for YCL members to see themselves as an organised body". The YCL had reached "a pivotal point ... there comes a point in any organisation that once it falls below a certain amount of members this fact alone aids its decline". The YCL now had only one full-timer, the General Secretary, Mark Ashton. He was the first gay leader of the YCL and had been urged to give up his position "on medical grounds, as he has a potentially dangerous medical condition, which is exacerbated with fatigue and stress". As it was, Ashton had been spending nearly all his time on purely office duties and he was subsequently to die from AIDS related illnesses.

 

Membership in 1985 had been a mere 426. But, even by the spring of 1986, only 160 of this membership had received cards for that year. Challenge had appeared only very sporadically, when the money was available to finance it. In fact, its appearance was so irregular that Chalmers wondered whether the effort would be "best directed into the production of broadsheets and leaflets instead". The Party EC would be asked to discuss the whole question of the YCL. Meanwhile, the League itself would be asked to "examine all the political options whether it be organised on a regional basis, or by the formation of a Youth Section within the Communist Party". The role of the GC was to ensure that congress policy is carried out. But this "pre-supposes we have the structures and resources to carry out (congress) will". The Party might perhaps have to ask itself if there were better ways of using its finances, one contributor to the discussion journal thought. "Should the YCL be a clearly separate unit? No? Why? Is it not just a joke that two organisations in the same building are entirely independent? Does anyone believe a national youth organisation can be self-funding without some `adult' advice and finance?"

 

In the event, the July EC of the Party received a report, which identified only 218 members of the YCL carded up for 1986, compared to 439 in the previous year. Only Scotland and the Midlands were considered active, organised areas. There was some limited branch activity in Luton and Chelmsford. Little or no organisation existed in the North West, Yorkshire and Wales. Although Manchester, St Helens, York and Leeds showed some signs of activity. There was absolutely no organisation or activity in Hants and Dorset, Kent, Northern, Surrey, Sussex or the West of England Districts.

 

The YCL's view expressed to the Party was that grouping members into branches was "a bureaucratic exercise". Apparently, the "flexible relationship that young people have with organised politics as such, means that the Branch-Regional-National structures don't have the same meaning as they do in the Communist Party. The criticisms of these formal structures in politics by women and black people for example means that there can be the same problem there." A guide to the degree of the League's strength was provided but the EC of the CPGB was told that it should not put "too much emphasis on `building branches' and `recard'. The shortfalls in these areas are the result of political and organisational problems and not the cause or cure of them."

 

Such a short-sighted, even arrogant, analysis was perhaps no more than the creation of a virtue out of a necessity, or even a distortion of reality to hide political confusion. That EC of the CPGB felt that winding up the YCL was no answer to the problem and it resolved to give some limited immediate assistance and to come back to the question in November of 1986. The sad question to be asked is come back to what?

 

Formal dissolution of the YCL was rejected by the CPGB leadership in the 1985 debate on its future. Yet, in practice the YCL was dying on its feet. The 35th Congress, held in 1985, was the last ever. The 36th Congress, due to be held in April 1987 was never convened. That year's CPGB Congress was informed that the YCL was no longer a national organisation and had approximately 50 members and three branches. This was a decline of 90% since the 35th Congress. It was effectively the end of the YCLGB. Without doubt, the central factor in its demise was the brutal use of administrative means to handle political dissent. Unquestionably, by its very nature as a youth organisation, the YCL would have always been a rebellious body of people. The determination by key Communist Party leaders responsible for the political direction of the YCL to impose on it the orthodoxy increasingly favoured by the CPGB leadership – a politics of a revisionist nature - was central to the League’s demise. This determination was rooted in the cynical tactic of using the YCL almost as a testing ground for the future nurturing inside the adult party of a similar course. This approach sharpened debate in the YCL, polarised activists and bred factionalism amongst its leadership. The identity – and variable quality - of this leadership was moulded by such needs. But the YCL was dying long before the CPGB entered the phase of its own terminal decline, bound for a suicidal end. As a `society of great enemies’, to turn Manuilsky’s phrase on its head, the YCLGB was bound for extinction, even though it did not know it, once its leadership adopted the cancerous policy of bureaucratic centralism, whereby the leadership acted as a faction, from the very early 1970s. 

 

The Communist Party of Great Britain took the same course certainly from 1984, possibly as early as 1979. The transformation of the CPGB into Democratic Left was merely a staging post on the way to the abolition of that organisation, amidst internal controversy, as its membership withered. Subsequently, the transfer took place of the remaining assets of the CPGB to a self-indulgent project of political iconoclasm for a handful of former Euro-Communists. The re-establishment of the YCL by the Communist Party of Britain has seen slow but satisfying growth, including the re-issuing of Challenge.  Along with the strengthening of the CPB itself and the current growth in circulation of the Morning Star, the political organisation of British Communism has been truly re-instated. The need for clarity of analysis in the British labour and progressive movements has never been greater. The YCL’s broader history has been illustrious, particularly in its role of nurturing a fresh generation of activists. The clear lesson – for any organisation – is that an inability to tolerate dissent, and the adoption of unpleasantly rooted factionalism in those who lead, will inevitably lead to despondency, diminishing morale and, ultimately, atrophy.    

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Appendices

 

The main sources of information are private papers in the author’s possession, which are occasionally incomplete. Hence the absence of some detail.

 

1        YCL National Officials

 

Chairpersons

 

Danny Bryan                             May 1969-May1971

Peter Kavanagh                         May 1971-June 1973

Phil Greene                               June 1973-February 1974

Anne Park                                 February 1974-December 1975

?                                             December 1975-

Anne Park?                               May 1977

Dave Harwood

Steve Bonham                          1979-

 

National/General Secretaries

 

Barney Davies                           196?-1970

Tom Bell                                   1970-1979

Nina Temple                              1979-1983

Doug Chalmers                         1983-1986

Mark Ashton                             1986    

 

National Organisers

(retitled Organising Secretary from 1979)

 

Pete Carter                                1963-1969

Tony McNally                            May 1969-March 1972

Dave Carson                             June 1972-

Bob Lentell                               August 1975-

Steve Munby                             October 1978

 

Challenge Editors

 

George Bridges                                     1967? – 1969

(with Pete Frost as Assistant Editor)

Pete Frost                                 February 1970

Brian Filling                               July 1971-February 1974

Ian Findlay                                April 1974

Paul Bradshaw                          October 1975

(with John Baker as Assistant Editor from February 1976)

Steve Munby                             December 1977

(with Paul Bradshaw as Assistant Editor)

Ted Wassell

Chris Horrie and Sean Feeney    (as Co-Editors)  1979

 

National Challenger Organiser (a kind of circulation manager)

 

Jackie Bridges                          May 1971

Phil Greene                               June 1972

Ian Findlay                                June 1973

Alan Speck                               October 1974

John Baker                               June 1975

Liam O'Sullivan                         c1977

Maggie Barth                            June 1978-October 1978

Steve Bonham                          October 1978

 

National Treasurer

 

Tom Bell                                   1969-1970

Dennis Walshe                          May 1971

Mary Attenborough                    December 1972-June 1974

Dave Styles                              October 1974-June 1976

Nina Temple                              August 1976-June 1977

Dave McLoughlin                      June 1977-October 1978

 

National Young Workers Organiser

 

John Durkin                              1968 - 1969

Roger Murray                            May 1971-1972

Norman Lucas                           June 1973-October 1974

Carole Woodward                      June 1975-December 1975

Chris Darke                               December 1975-June 1977

Graham Stevenson                    June 1977-April 1978 

 

National School Students Organiser

 

Nic Mitchell                               July 1971-August 1972

Tish Collins                               August 1972-August 1973

Stewart Turner                           August 1973-June 1974

Mary Attenborough                    June 1974-October 1975

Chris Newcombe                       June 1975-June 1976

Sue Swain                                 June 1976-August 1977

Bob Scotland                            April 1978-June 1978

Gillian Bowdler                          June 1978-1979

 

International Organiser

 

Jenny Maldon                           1967-1969

Jim Brookshaw                         1969-1971

Graeme White                           May 1971-December 1972

John Ashworth                          December 1973-June 1974

Noreen Hosey                           June 1974-April 1975

Norman Lucas                           June 1975-February or June 1976

Mike Miltiadous                         May 1977-April 1978

Luis Santamaria                         October 1978-

 

Young Womens Organiser

 

Cathy Winkworth                       October 1977 - October 1978

 

National Education Organiser

 

Colin Yardley                            1968 - 1970

Laureen Mason                          October 1970

Jackie Bridges                          June 1973

Barrie van den Berg                   June 1974

Ian Findlay                                1975?-August 1977

Siwsan Jones                            1979

 

POLITICAL COMMITTEE

 

After the 28th Congress in 1971, the National Committee (NC) was renamed the Executive Committee. The sub-committee that met between NCs and prepared its work, which had been called the Executive Committee, was renamed the Political Committee, or PC for short, from September 1971.

 

June 1971-June 1973.  At its first meeting after the 28th Congress the NC elected the following EC members to the PC: Bob Allen, Jackie Bridges, Tom Bell, Dave Carson, Jon Dyson, Bill Hickey, Pete Kavanagh, Laureen Mason, Roger Murray, Tony McNally, Alan Speck, Barrie van den Berg, Dennis Walshe, Graeme White.

 

Brian Filling came on to the PC in September 1971 and Bridges came off in March 1972. Phil Greene joined the PC in August 1972. Tony McNally and Jon Dyson left the YCL leadership in March 1972 and February 1973 respectively.  Laureen Mason left the PC in November 1972

 

June 1973 - June 1975. At its first meeting following the 29th Congress, the EC elected the following to the PC: Bob Allen, Mary Attenborough, Tom Bell, Dave Carson, Imtiaz Choonara (North West District Secretary), Brian Filling, Ian Findlay, Phil Greene, Gordon Lawrence (Scottish District Secretary), Graham Stevenson (Midlands District Secretary), Barry van den Berg

 

Bob Allen came off both the PC and the EC in February 1974. Mary Attenborough, Brian Filling and Norman Lucas left the PC in October 1974.

 

June1975-June 1977. At its first meeting after the 30th Congress the EC elected the following PC: Tom Bell, Phil Greene, Gordon Lawrence, Ian Findlay, Norman Lucas, Graham Stevenson, Ray Sutton (East Midlands District Secretary), Carole Woodward

 

Bob Lentell joined the PC in August 1975, Anne Park came on in December 1975 and left in April 1977. Gordon Lawrence left the PC in December 1975. John Baker and Dave Styles were elected to the PC in February 1976. Les Hixon (North West) became a PC member in April 1976. The new Scottish Secretary, Danny O'Donnell attended the PC in a non-voting capacity from April to June 1977. Phil Greene departed from the PC in June 1976. Paul Bradshaw attended in a non-voting capacity from October 1975.

 

1977-79.  At its first meeting following the 31st Congress, the EC elected the following to the PC:

Tom Bell, Paul Bradshaw, Mel Danvers, Ian Findlay, Bob Lentell, Dave McCloughlin, Steve Munby, Danny O'Donnell, Bob Scotland, Pete Shaw, Graham Stevenson, Nina Temple (London District Secretary from June 1977).

 

Subsequent changes were: Rob Logan (East Midlands) elected Dec 197? (original document unreadable), Bob Scotland (joined December 1977, left August 1978), Dave Harwood and Rob Rolfe joined the PC in October 1977. Pete Shaw came off in August 1977. Frank Chalmers (Scottish Secretary) and Nial Jinks came on in a non-voting capacity in April 1978. Findlay, Jinks, Logan, Scotland and Stevenson all came off the PC in October 1978.  Towards the end of 1978 a discussion was planned with Harwood, McLoughlin and Rolfe as to their position on the PC.

 

Challenge National Editorial Board

 

Membership as at April 1973: Brian Filling, Bill Smith, Lesley Reed, Roger Murray, Alan Lindsay, Phil Greene, Mike Luzio, Jeff Sawtell, Pat Cook, John Rhodes, Nic Mitchell

 

Reconstituted board - June 1973: Dave Carson, Brian Filling, Ian Findlay, Norman Lucas, Anne Park

 

Additions - August 1973: Pat Cook, John Rhodes, Bill Smith

 

Reconstituted board - April 1974: Tom Bell, Ian Findlay, Dave Carson, Anne Park, Brian Filling, John Rhodes

 

Reconstituted board 1975: John Baker, Tom Bell, Ian Findlay, John Gowling, Anne Park

 

 

The interesting thing to note is the movement of membership of the board in the context of the political tensions within the YCL. There were few Bell supporters in the early 1973 board. The new board constituted in June 1973 was fairly evenly divided, with Carson as a kind of arbiter. The August 1973 additions strengthened Bell's position by bringing two of his supporters on with one opponent, making the new balance five to three in favour of Bell. The April 1974 changes made the board equally divided, since Carson was now working more closely with Bell. The 1975 board was a decisive rout for the opposition, giving Bell total control of the journal for the first time. Subsequent membership of the board continued the consolidation of the revisionist leadership, with no concessions to political opposition. The nature of the coverage in Challenge reflected these moves.

 

 

2        YCL membership by District and National totals 1967-1986

 

 

1967

1968

1969

1970

1971

1972

1973

London

1,460

1,050

1,004

978

964

800

801

Scotland

1,509

1,213

503

476

440

455

609

 Lancs & Ch

501

313

260

320

312

325

330

Yorkshire

510

350

325

319

336

230

185

Midlands

360

420

383

271

210

225

230

E.Midlands

241

189

194

128

136

161

135

Surrey

177

155

140

142

84

56

72

S,Essex

185

150

149

147

84

56

72

W. Middlesex

175

95

95

76

53

64

54

S.E.Midlands

120

85

77

87

111

73

96

N.East

130

60

41

54

64

85

87

Wales

210

177

116

86

105

90

68

W. o England

79

97

74

60

50

39

54

Kent

105

94

90

70

82

61

50

E.Anglia

67

69

65

60

51

42

9

Hants & Dors

70

75

77

59

55

43

36

Sussex

46

33

50

21

30

15

0

Devon  & Cor

27

               0

7

10

13

13

0

S.Midlands

59

26

35

21

10

10

11

Channel Isles

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National

6,031

4,651

3,686

3,385

3,276

2,970

3,012

                                               

 

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1985

1986

London

624

516

413

320

323

76

39

Scotland

547

512

442

353

220

166

90

 North West

370

386

341

250

170

49

10

Yorkshire

193

128

106

106

98

11

4

Midlands

165

170

180

176

138

59

37

E.Midlands

135

110

109

96

69

     Merged

     Merged

Surrey

50

55

57

60

40

4

1

S.Essex

50

55

57

60

40

8

10

W. Middlesex

61

64

39

34

41

3

4

S.E.Midlands

90

83

55

44

16

8

10

N.East

67

48

27

30

14

19

6

Wales

49

63

54

31

22

10

3

W. o England

48

36

30

35

12

12

1

Kent

9

15

11

10

50

4

2

E.Anglia

9

12

9

15

7

     Merged

     Merged

Hants & Dors

15

15

13

9

2

9

0

Sussex

9

9

13

20

0

1

1

Devon  & Cor

0

  Closed   

 

 

 

 

 

S.Midlands

9

      Closed

 

 

 

 

 

Channel Isles

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National

2,576

2,338

1,985

1,663

1,278

439

218

 

Lancashire and Cheshire was renamed North West in 1971. East Midlands was absorbed by the Midlands and South Essex and East Anglia were merged in early 1980s. North East Coast was renamed Northern. The figures for 1986 are as at July 7th of that year.

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Membership of YCL as a %

percentage of CPGB membership

 

Year
        
YCL as % of CP membership (Months cited refer to CP membership)

 

1924
16.66 (May)

12.5 (Sept)

1926
See note
1928
18.18
1934
11.38
1935
28.57
1938
29.54
1942
20.6 (March)

17.86 (Dec)

1947
  5.18
1949
  7.61
1950
12.87
1951
  8.85
1952
14.09

1955

10.71
1956
  7.93
1958
  5.62

 

 

It is very difficult to calculate a figure for 1926, as the YCL claimed between 5,000 and 9,000 that year and the CPGB was at 6,000 in April and 10,730 in October.  Clearly the ratio was very high. What is clear from the overall figures is that the ration of YCL membership to the CPGB’s was extremely high in the pre-war years. Some double counting is likely, however, since membership of the Party was probably obligatory for those of majority age in this period.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
5       A personal note

 

I include this not for reasons of vanity but, since it will be obvious from the text that I have a close personal involvement with the subject, it is only fair to readers to make clear what my own involvement has been – both in the YCL and subsequently.

  

I first made contact with the Communist Party in 1966, just having turned the age of 16, having counted myself as a Communist for over a year before that, after reading about Marxism and then finding the Morning Star. I joined the YCL in January 1967 and became Coventry Branch Secretary within a few months. I was initially co-opted onto the Midlands YCL DC in May 1968 and was formally elected a member at the District Congress in 1969. I remained a member until May 1978, being a member of the District Executive or Secretariat for all that time. At the 1969 YCL District Congress, I was Chair of the Standing Orders Committee. In February 1972 I moved to Birmingham to become the Midlands YCL District Secretary. During my period in Coventry, I was active in the DATA Youth Committee and the Trades Council Young Workers Committee. In the early stages of my residency in Birmingham I was active in UCATT.

 

First elected to the YCL National Committee in 1969, I was a continuous member until 1978 of this body and its successor, the Executive Committee. On the 1969-71 NC, I was a member of the Finance Committee, when Tom Bell was National Treasurer. During the 1971-3 EC, I was responsible for the Midlands Regional Editorial Board of Challenge. In 1973, I was elected to the Political Committee and was continuously a member until October 1978, when I reached the maximum age limit for YCL membership.

 

Identified with the centrist trend in the leadership in the late 1960s and 70s, by the time of the 1971-5 leadership crisis, I had moved to a loose alliance with oppositionalists, especially on the issues of the nature of Challenge and industrial work. With the exclusion of all opposition from the EC at the 1975 Congress, I found myself isolated. The overwhelming nature of the leadership now being Bell loyalists, I resolved to work as best I could to build the League, setting aside political differences with the dominant trend as being divisive obstacles to YCL growth. In common with many YCLers, I felt at the time that the splits in the organisation were the root cause of its decline and that the clearing out of one faction or the other might help. I therefore played something of a role to this end in the 1977 Congress and the lead up to it, a congress that was to see the decisive rout of all effective opposition. I introduced two items at the EC in 1976, as part of these preparations, and was the Chairman of the EPC at the Congress in April 1977, playing a somewhat ruthless role in excluding opposition.

 

I was the National Young Workers Organiser of the YCL from June 1977 to April 1978 and represented the League on an international work delegation to Cuba in 1972 and the German Democratic Republic in 1977, being the fraternal delegate to the Free German Youth Congress. I was a T&G delegate to the 11th World Youth Festival in Havana in 1978, having become active in the TGWU in 1975.

 

Throughout my membership of the YCL I was a regular contributor to Challenge, including film and book reviews and cartoons, as "Brummie", as well as political articles, the last of which was a full page feature on the 60th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1977. I was the joint author of the 1977 YCL publication "Young People and Industry in the 1970s".

 

A member of the CPGB from the first possible moment, at the age of 18, I was a member of the Midlands District Committee of the Party from 1969 to 1978 and of its Secretariat from 1972 to 1978. At the Midlands District Congress of the CPGB in 1978 I was Chair of the Standing Orders Committee. Despite being on the recommended list, I was not elected by the Congress in what was effectively a take over by the Euro-Communists of the Midlands District.

 

In 1980 I was appointed a full time officer for the TGWU, operating in the Derby area until 1987. During that time I was a member of the East Midlands District Committee of the CPGB from 1982 and its Secretariat from 1984. I was Chair or Secretary of the Derby CP branch for most of the period I was in Derby. In 1987 I was transferred to the Regional Office of the T&G in West Bromwich to take up the position of Regional Trade Group Secretary for the Passenger Trade Group and in the following year was promoted to National Secretary of that Group, operating from the union's head office. In 1997 the National Secretaryship of the Docks and Waterways Trade Group was added to my responsibilities. In 1999. I was appointed National Organiser for the T&G's new Transport Sector, encompassing the four transport trade groups of the T&G. A Vice-President of the European Transport Workers Federation from 1997, I became its President in2009 and retired from full time union work in 2011.      

 

I remained a member of the CPGB until its dissolution. In the following two years I was Chair of the non-party organisation, Communist Trades Unionists, which united disparate tendencies which had emerged from the demise of the CPGB. Most involved in CTU were party to the Communist Unity process which was eventually resolved by virtue of applying en bloc, but individually to local branches, to the Communist Party of Britain which had emerged in 1988 from the CPGB dispute over the Morning Star, as the re-established Party. From 1994 onwards, I remain an active member of the CPB and, arising from the CTU’s negotiated entry into this, count my membership of the British Communist Party as continuous from my youth in Coventry.      

 

 

 

6. Initials used in the text

 

ACTT                Association of Cinema and Television Technicians

ADPM              Average Dues Paying Membership

AEEU               Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union

AEF                  Amalgamated Engineers and Foundryworkers

AEU                 Amalgamated Engineering Union

AESD               Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen

ANL                  Anti-Nazi League

APEX               Association of Professional, Executive and Clerical Workers

ASTMS             Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs

AUEW              Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers

AUEW/TASS     ditto/ Technical and Supervisory Staffs Section

AUT                  Association of University Staffs

 

BNP                 British National Party

BPC                 British Peace Committee

BPC                 British Preparatory Committee

BRS                 British Road to Socialism

BYC                 British Youth Council

 

CAWU              Clerical and Administrative Workers Union

CAYU               Campaign Against Youth Unemployment

CND                 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

CPB                 Communist Party of Britain

CPGB               Communist Party of Great Britain

CPNSC             Communist Party National Student Committee

 

DATA               Draughtsmen’s’ and Allied Technicians Association

DC                   District Committee

DL                    Democratic Left

 

EC                    Executive Committee

EEPTU             Electrical, Engineering and Plumbing Trades Union

EPC                 Elections Preparations Committee

 

GC                   General Council

 

IMG                  International Marxist Group

IS                     International Socialism

 

LPYS                Labour Party Young Socialists

 

NALGO             National Association of Local Government Officers

NATFHE           National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

NC                    National Committee

NCP                 New Communist Party

NF                    National Front

NLF                  National Liberation Front

NOLS               National Organisation of Labour Students

NUM                 National Union of Mineworkers

NUS                 National Union of Students

NUSS               National Union of School Students

NUT                  National Union of Teachers

 

PC                    Political Committee

 

RCA                 Royal College of Arts

 

 

SAS                 Scholar Associate Scheme                   

SAU                 Schools Action Union

SKAN               Skools Against Nazis

SOC                 Standing Orders Committee

SOGAT             Society of Graphical and Allied Trades

STUC                Scottish Trades Union Congress            independent of the British TUC

SWP                 Socialist Workers Party

 

TASS                Technical and Supervisory Staff

TGWU               Transport and General Workers Union

TUC                  Trades Union Congress

 

UCS                 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders

USDAW            Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers

USSR               Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

 

VSC                 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign

 

WAY                 World Assembly of Youth

WFDY              World Federation of Democratic Youth

WRP                 Workers Revolutionary Party (formerly SLL)

 

YAR                 Youth Against Racism

YCLGB             Young Communist League of Great Britain

YCLIB               Young Communist League Information Bulletin

YCND               Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

 

 

NOTES OF EXPLANATION ON THE INTIALS USED

 

Organisations known by their initials, or now acronyms even, are to be considered a blight on any hopes for the understanding of the labour and progressive movement. Given that the passage of time has rendered many of the above organisations redundant by merger, or obscurity of one kind or another, it seems helpful to provide a few notes on the otherwise bewildering complexity of this array of initials!

 

The engineering union

 

The many incarnations of the main union for engineering workers, as time unfolds, are reflected in the many variations on the AEU theme in the initials that appear in the text. As various independent unions, such as the foundry workers or draughtsmen (no women unfortunately, they were all tracers! – now long since extinguished by computer aided design) joined or left the amalgamation/federation, the name and identifying initials changed. For most of the period of this study this body was known as the AUEW. This was a left facing organisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But an aggressively anti-Communist, right wing faction increasingly captured the manual worker based element. This resulted in the break up of the federation with the always defiantly left wing, and now amplified, `white-collar’ section, TASS. This then pursued an independent course which, after a variety of wide-ranging mergers, ended up in MSF (Manufacturing, Science and Finance), after a merger with ASTMS. The engineering section of the AUEW later merged with even more right wing EEPTU, to produce the AEEU. Completing a cycle of irony and complexity, this has merged with MSF to produce the oddly named “Amicus”.

 

The Communist Party

 

A note on the use of the CPGB initials may be instructive, particularly in view of its appropriation in the 1990s by a tiny (a group of perhaps two dozen individuals!).  The inclusion of the word “Great Britain” originally implied two things, firstly – that the organisation was the British section of the world communist movement – and, secondly, that it did not cover Northern Ireland, since Communists, along with Irish Republicans, have never recognised the partition of Ireland. From around 1984, the revisionist wing of the CPGB retained majority control until the vote to dissolve the organisation. Despite then relinquishing the title, Democratic Left, the new organisation which kept the CPGB’s assets, also defended the title of “CPGB” fiercely, almost as if it were a brand name. A tiny minority of former CPGB members joined the new organisation, often out sentimental loyalty, or because they felt there was no other place to go. The Communist Party of Britain, which argued that it had in fact already re-established the Party, was initially composed mostly of expelled and excluded members. This has arisen from the factional struggles of the CPGB leadership in the mid-to-late 1980s to, effectively, `re-brand’ the organisation as a non-communist force. A potential legal challenge between the CPB and DL over rights to the title foundered on the sheer costs and impracticability of resolving the issue this way. Democratic Left’s probable motive, in claiming the right to the name, was mainly to safeguard the lucrative and sometimes individually substantial will bequests that many (often now out of touch) veteran members, or even ex-members, had made to the CPGB in sometimes untouched and long-standing legal testaments.   The CPB rightly concluded that, aside from the question of political legitimacy, the term “Great Britain” no longer had appropriate resonance and gave up the fight for the title. However, to reinforce its justified historic political legacy of the bulk of the existence of the CPGB, the CPB numbers its Congresses as if being in a continuum from the foundation of the CPGB in 1920. In a final irony, a tiny (maybe two dozen) group of Trotskyists of obscure derivation who had sought to bed themselves into the dying CPGB, then claimed the name for themselves in highly-publicised stunts, thus sowing the seeds of considerable confusion!

 

 

Trotskyist Groups

 

The genesis and subsequent development of various Trotskyist groups is even more complex than the above. Arguably, a detailed explanation would leave the realms of science and move into the arena of art! This is also not the place for a detailed analysis of the ultra-left. Essentially, the many tendencies differ over theories that characterise the socialist states as to whether they are, or were, degenerate, deformed or state-capitalist. Sometimes the argument centres on precisely at what moment in history it was when one of these characterisations arose.  Additionally, arguments over tactics towards the labour movement and/or the Communist Party exist. The question of entering such bodies or creating a separate revolutionary party has resulted in divisions. Whilst, finally, the predilection for splitting organisations has produced a plethora of bodies. 

 

The main faction that dominated the LPYS in the 1970s was publicly known as Militant, after its newspaper. This core of this was called the Revolutionary Socialist League. After Neil Kinnock’s assault on this entrism, RSL consolidated itself (after some disagreement and expulsions) into today’s Socialist Party. The SLL became the Workers Revolutionary Party and later split into two, one fragment becoming the Marxist Party. The IMG fractured and some of its ultra-deep entrists remained as an obscure group inside the Labour Party. More successfully, the International Socialists emerged as the Socialist Workers Party, a dominant force inside the electoral vehicles, the Socialist Alliance and the Respect Party.

 

I cannot claim to be a dedicated follower of contemporary ultra-left fashions and so am sure that there could be a more definitive explanation of the subsequent developments associated with such bodies mentioned in the text, which were contemporary to the 1960s and 1970s, but this general explanation will have to suffice!

 

7. List of World Festivals of Youth and Students

 

I

Prague

25 July -17 August 1947

17000 young people from 71 countries

"Youth Unite in the struggle for a lasting peace!"

 

II

Budapest

14-28August 1949

20, 000 young people from 82 countries

"Youth Unite! For a lasting peace, democracy, the national independence of peoples and a better future'

 

III

Berlin

5 -20 August 1951

26 000 young people from 104 countries

"Youth, unite against the danger of a new war for a lasting peace!"

 

IV

Bucharest

2 -16 August 1953

30 000 young people from 111 countries

"We say No to Death and Devastation!"

 

V

Warsaw

31July -15 August 1955

31,000 young people from 114 countries

"For peace and friendship!"

 

 

VI

Moscow

28 July -11 August 1957

34, 000 young people from 131countries

"For peace and friendship!"

 

VII 

Vienna

26 July -4 August1959

18000 young people from 112 countries

"For peace and Iriendship!"

 

VIII

Helsinki

1962    

18,000  from 137 countries       

"For Peace and Friendship"

 

IX

Sofia

1968    

20,000  from 138 countries       

"For Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

X

East Berlin

1973    

25,600  from 140 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XI

Havana

1978    

18,500  from 145 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

Xii

Moscow

1985    

26,000  from 157 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XIII

Pyongyang

1989    

22,000  from 177 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XIV

Havana

1997    

12,325  from 136 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XV

Algiers

2001    

6,500    from 110 countries       

"Let’s Globalize the Struggle For Peace, Solidarity, Development, Against Imperialism"

 

XVI

Caracas

2005    

The 1965 Midlands district congress of the YCL held at Well Lane, Birmingham. Harry Bourne, Midlands Party secretary speaks; the rest of the platform is Danny Bryan (chair) and Jim Hunt (secretary)

 ANATOMY OF DECLINE

 

        

 

      The Young Communist League

                    of Great Britain

 

      1967-86    

 

                                   

         GRAHAM  STEVENSON

 

 

 

 

PREFACE

 

"The tasks ... of the Young Communist Leagues ... might be summed up in a single word: learn ... the youth in general, who want to advance to Communism, should learn Communism."

 

"It is the task of the Youth League to organise its practical activities in such a way that, by learning, organising, uniting and fighting, its members shall train both themselves and all those who look to it for leadership; it should train Communists."

 

V I Lenin "The Tasks of the Youth Leagues". Speech delivered at the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League on October 2nd 1920.

 

 

"It is a quality of youth to be receptive, to be warm-hearted, to glow with enthusiasm. It is a characteristic of age to become opinionated, dictatorial...”

 

Tom Mann 1921

 

 

 

"Young people who come into contact with us, and they are many, choose not to join us partly because we don't have our house in order yet and partly because of the minority of "revolutionary Marxists" who rant on endlessly about the glories of the Soviet Union or the Bulgarian wheat harvest at YCL meetings, rather than grapple with the dilemma that feminism, lesbian and gay liberation and the black community pose to the established structures, theories and practices of the YCL. The YCL must change if it is to continue in existence."

 

Mark Ashton General Secretary of the YCL in a letter to the Morning Star published 21st March 1986.

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

 1         Bursting the Bubble

 2         Turning Rebels into Revolutionaries

 3         World Youth Festivals

 4         The Ideological Base of Inner-League Differences

 5         The 1970 Leadership Contest

 6         Retribution Against Opposition

 7         Three Cardinal Questions

                        a) Young Workers

                        b) School Students

c) Challenge

 8         Age and the YCL

 9         Division and Decline

10         Euro-Communism as a Distortion of Gramsci?

 

 

Appendices

 

1          Officers of the YCL

2          YCL Membership by Districts and National totals 1967-86

3          Graph of National Membership of the YCL 1967-86

4          YCL membership as a percentage of the CPGB membership

5          A personal note

6.         Initials used in the text

7          List of World Festivals of Youth and Students

 

 

 

1       BURSTING THE BUBBLE

 

From a strength of 6,031 members in 200 branches at its modern peak in September 1967, the Young Communist League ended the Eighties as an extinct force, long before the end of Eastern European Communist governments. The confusion, disappointment and despair arising from all this enabled the Communist Party of Great Britain, by a majority vote in its final Congress to vote itself out of existence. But it had been bereft of a YCL for the best part of a decade earlier. How had such a situation arisen? Why a study of the YCL?

 

The YCL largely mirrored - sometimes in advance - the decline of the Communist Party. The "adult" body had 30,000 members in 1,200 branches in the mid-Sixties, yet entered the Nineties with less than four thousand members. The problems faced by the YCL had been the same as those faced by the Party, yet interestingly the youth organisation anticipated its "parent" body by several years in parallel circumstances. There is a sense in which the CPGB leadership "experimented" with the YCL before trying out ideas inside the Party itself. Therefore, in this case, to understand the child is to understand the parent. Not the least since many key figures in the leadership who presided over the YCL's demise, were later to become part of the Party's leadership at its very core.  This section of the CP's leadership provided much of the leadership of Democratic Left, the rump, revisionist organisation which the CPGB transformed itself into during the 1990s. This body has now voted itself out of existence, after an inglorious period of continuing to disseminate confusion. Whilst the considerable assets of the CPGB remain in the hands of a tiny element constituted as a “network” in support of “pluralist politics”! The very name of the CPGB has become purloined by a handful of strange ultra-leftist, unconnected with its illustrious namesake’s past. The historic CPGB (but not its youth wing) has now become the preserve of writers, in search of new territory for PhD’s and their by-products, who rarely acknowledge the re-establishment of its finest traditions as the Communist Party of Britain. This was itself the product of attempts to prevent the Party from going the way of the YCLGB. In recent years, a renewed YCL has once again been established as the parallel youth organisation of the CPB. A study of the YCL in its final years thus repays itself for those who are interested, in a deeper understanding of the suicidal and homicidal tendencies displayed within the CPGB in its own last years.

Pic: 1964 YCL badge

 

The beginnings of the end are to be clearly identified in the 1960s. Yet this decade was a period of growth for the YCL. It would be followed by a period of intense decline in the 1970s. As a result, its 1960 membership of 1,796 was roughly equalled in 1976. The 1960s boom followed a difficult period. Membership had fallen dramatically from the 1957 figure of 3,000, reflecting the problems after the Khrushchev revelations over Stalin and the events in Hungary. A clear period of growth took place as the Communist movement began a process of recovery. By 1962 the YCL was a third larger than it had been a mere five years before and it more or less held on to the gains for a short period. But, during the course of 1965 the YCL grew by around a quarter-fold and the trend to expansion seemed to be holding steady.

 

Right: YCL national membership 1957-67

1957

3,000

1959

1,700

1960

1,796

1961

2,702

1962

4,019

1963

3,989

1965

4,276

1966

5,420

1967

6,031

 

Figures are for November of each year, except for October 1967

 

The growing popularity of CND and the struggles of engineering apprentices contributed much to this. In retrospect 1967 was the beginning of a terminal slide to self-induced oblivion. 1966-7 was ostensibly a good period for recruitment, membership lifting by 611 from 5,420. Yet there are reasons to seriously query the accuracy of the 1967 peak, actual membership was probably just below 5,000. The issue of membership cards for that year (membership cards lasted for a calendar year and the renewal of cards was called a "card exchange" or "card issue") had been largely postal and the normal 20% turnover rate was not realistically faced up to until 1968. In this period, the CPGB tended to have a turnover rate of half that of the YCL, remarkably stable in terms of leftist political groups. (Significantly the turnover rate of the CPGB in the 1980s became very high indeed.) Paradoxically, whilst it was at its most vigorous for years that summer of 1967, the League was already in decline, but did not know it.

 

There are other considerations as to the accuracy of membership figures. A considerable overlap always existed between the Party and the League. Although some YCLers over the minimum age of 18 years did not always also join the Party, while those that did could get counted twice in any attempt to assess the overall strength of British Communism. More relevant to the League as an organisation was that its greatest difficulty was the 'shooting star' syndrome. That is to say frequent, wild and sudden upsurges of activity as a new and enthusiastic recruit directed the pace of events at a local level. Posed against this positive, if typically youthful feature, were the big drops associated with the loss of a particularly valued cadre.

 

Unlike the Party, the YCL never had the luxury of a stable leadership at any level of its organisation. Perhaps this was partly due to the very nature of young people. Intensely mobile in social, geographical, occupational and personal terms as they are. Such phenomena gave rise to an uneven pace of development and/or decline in particular sectors of the organisation, accentuated most sharply in times of decline.

Manchester YCLers in 1966

 

However, the absence of a clear policy of cadre development by both the League and the Party, coupled with an often puzzling and arbitrary - certainly inconsistent leadership policy with regard to the League by the Party contributed to instability. The CPGB often neglected the League, but it never let it range free. The Party's leadership seemed often more concerned to weed out 'oppositionalists' from the YCL, especially was this so in 'purges' of Party members from leading positions in the League in 1973 and 1975. Individuals in a number of districts were pressured to a greater or lesser degree by Party functionaries to leave the YCL, either simply in spirit or by actually leaving their League membership to lapse, in favour of predominantly or completely working inside the Party. In this sense the League was always subject to arbitrary and artificial assaults on its ability to thrive, very rarely compensated for at all, but sometimes insufficiently compensated for by the periodic thrusting of young Party members into key roles in the League, without having 'grown up' within the organisation.

 

 

2      TURNING REBELS INTO REVOLUTIONARIES

 

The key notion of the League in the mid-Sixties was to translate the self-evident mass rebelliousness of the generation of young people then receiving a high profile in society at large, into Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Seizing on the mood of the times, the YCL launched its "The Trend is Communism" campaign in 1966. For which the leadership grouping became abused as being "Trendies" by the more traditional elements inside the League.

 

400,000 gaily-coloured folders were produced and a full-time field worker sent out into the country, to tour the coffee bars. The League planned a novel approach for its 26th National Congress due in 1967 at Skegness, in keeping with this carefully cultivated image of modernity. One thousand delegates and visitors attended what was in fact an international youth festival, grafted onto the usual Congress. There were competitions in the arts - painting, poetry, short story writing, plays, photography, cartooning, song competition, even a beat group contest. Amongst the judges were the journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, Arnold Wesker the playwright and Adrian Mitchell, the poet. Positive though all this undoubtedly seemed, a debt of £1,097 was left owing to the Derbyshire Miners Holiday Camp after the event, a very large sum indeed at the time. This debt was not cleared by the YCL for four years and remained a source of embarrassment for Communists active in the NUM. (To gauge the seriousness of the debt, the figure should be multiplied by at least ten times to account for inflation.)

This lively, enjoyable style began to be presented as an essential component of the League's policies. Even to the extent of YCLs in Bristol, London and Surrey organising coach trips to the seaside! The YCL in Manchester was able to get a team on 'Juke Box Jury' - a sort of forerunner of the 'Top of the Pops' - on BBC TV. Christian-Communist dialogues, debates with the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and Young Liberals, letters to the local press became a feature of YCL work. More solidly, the League also began to be deeply involved in solidarity work with other youth groups, around the issue of peace in Vietnam. The YCL launched the Medical Aid for Vietnam appeal in 1965 and was the first organisation to donate £1,000 in medical aid. Subsequently a national charity with very broad support was set up.

 

A Youth for Peace in Vietnam Committee, uniting 14 national youth organisations was set up, although it did not have stable, parallel organisations at regional level. Against a background of rising concern at the appalling levels of death and injury to civilians in Vietnam as the US became more actively involved in bolstering up its puppet government, the League had little difficulty in mobilising interest in its independent activities on Vietnam. The YCL organised a 'US Out Of Vietnam' petition with a target of 100,000 signatures, and planned a culmination of the campaign with a demonstration to Downing Street to present the petition to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Over the same weekend another jamboree was set up in the same vein as the Skegness congress. The Round House at Chalk Farm in London was taken over for an event encompassing poetry, films, arts exhibitions, theatre, dancing, jazz, folk music and so on.

 

Left 1966 Vietnam demo, full of YCLers

 

As the war progressed and the liberation forces made headway, for all the sophisticated military hardware of the USA, a wave of international resentment at the carnage emerged. Amongst young people in particular, interest in radical and revolutionary ideas grew apace. 1968 became a year famed for left-wing youthful protest. The flavour of YCL publications now took on a decidedly revolutionary, even military, character. The armed struggle as practised by Vietnam and Cuba were popular amongst many young people. Poster portraits of Che Guevara were all the rage.

 

The Vietnamese had always insisted that the best form of solidarity would be for Communists in the advanced capitalist nations to press for their country's disassociation from the actions of the US in Vietnam, to breach the solidarity of capitalism. Only revolutionaries would be in favour of full-bloodied victory for the liberation forces and this line - of pressing for the British (Labour!) Government's disassociation from the US - proved popular. Opinion polls by 1968 were showing two-thirds support for such a proposal. In such a climate, and with a new phase of the war entered by a general offensive of the liberation forces in 43 urban centres in Vietnam, the YCL began to feel that it was "not sufficient to ask only for disassociation".

 

Right: a design aspect from a Midlands YCL silk screened poster

 

Groups that saw themselves as to the left of the CPGB/YCL did not accept this subtle approach. This saw the Medical Aid campaign as appealing to the widest sections, the disassociation campaign as building on this and the most advanced sections only being won on a position which accepted the military victory of the National Liberation Front (NLF) as the solution.

 

This line led to severe tensions between Communists and leftist groups. Strongly influenced by the International Marxist Group (IMG) - notable personage, Tariq Ali - and the International Socialists (IS - later Socialist Workers Party or SWP) - notable personage, Paul Foot - was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. This body however contained a range of radical groups, including the YCL and the CPGB National Student Committee (CPNSC). It was symptomatic of the period that the Scottish YCL congress in 1968 invited a fraternal delegate from the VSC. Even so, he was strongly criticised for over-estimating the mobilising powers of his organisation and for "an under-estimation of the importance of other sections of the peace movement and the need to unite them in action". [YCL Internal Bulletin, hereafter YCLIB, September 1968]

 

An international campaign for practical and material aid to Vietnam was launched by the World Federation of Democratic Youth set up in 1945 by delegates from 63 countries in London - a sort of latter-day Comintern, without the power, of YCLs and Marxist-Leninist youth organisations throughout the world. Ultra-leftists pondered upon the possibility of a reply of the kind of international solidarity shown in Spain in the Thirties, in the form of the International Brigades. Communists were more realistic and asked the Vietnamese what they needed. Foreign volunteers, untrained in jungle warfare and unfamiliar with the territory, the people and their language and culture, was the last thing required.

 

                        Right a challenge poster from the late 1960s

 

Material aid in the struggle was however crucial. The WFDY campaign - entitled "Victory to the Vietnamese People for their Freedom, Independence and Peace" - was geared to raising money for the purchase of particular, militarily useful commodities, difficult to get hold of in war-torn Vietnam. Bicycles were a popular item to purchase, being easy to acquire in the west, yet possessing an unimaginable strategic value on the jungle trails. Supply lines from the more conventional warfare zones were very extended. To get medicines, food, ammunition and so on to the underground in US dominated areas was a very difficult task. Everything had to go by foot, so the bicycles, stripped down, were very useful as transporters of goods. But there was also a need for cameras, radios, typewriters and even motorcycles.

 

The YCL entered this campaign with considerable gusto at all levels, and often brought considerable imagination to fund-raising as well as vigour. Leeds YCL bought rolls of cloth which would make uniforms for the NLF, Bristol and SE London aimed for a £250 motorbike each. Bletchley aimed for two transistor radios, Hatfield and Luton for a walkie-talkie set each, Stevenage for a field operation kit. There were scores and scores of bicycles - Dundee YCL for example bought 5, Coventry 3.

 

Newcastle, which had been dormant for six months, collected £90, Bristol £80, Coventry £26, Manchester £30, Dundee £81, Croydon £30 - each of them in less than the first eight weeks. Eventually over £6,500 was raised and perhaps as a measure of the relative worth of this amount it would be well to bear in mind that a wage of £15 to £20 a week would considered very acceptable to most people at this time.

 

A lorry (left) was bought with which to collect all these items in a round-Britain celebratory tour. Over June 14th to July 19th 1968 a couple of dozen locations were visited. These were: Newcastle, Stockton, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Birmingham, Scotland, Luton, Wales, Bristol, Oxford, Southampton, Brighton, Chatham, London.

 

The campaign partially climaxed in a 15,000 strong demonstration on July 21 supported by 17 national organisations. While the material was transported by bus across Europe to Bulgaria, the YCL’s lorry having now become a write-off as a result of a road traffic accident. A second hand bus was secured as a replacement and, once safely there, the goods were presented, along with the aid from other WFDY affiliates, in symbolic ceremonies at the World Youth Festival then underway in the capital, Sofia. It was reported at the 27th Congress that a shipment of over £4,000 of goods had gone to Vietnam.

 

However, without doubt, the culmination of the victory for Vietnam campaign was the October 27th 1968 demonstration. The YCL and the CPNSC participated with the VSC, IS, the Young Liberals and the British Peace Committee (a body strongly influenced by the Party which campaigned on questions of international security) in the October 27th Ad Hoc Committee - the only degree of unity feasible. Despite the provocative and irrational actions of a tiny number of Maoist-led demonstrators, which received significant press and media attention, some 250,000 marched peacefully in London. Rather stupid suggestions that this was the signal for a leftist putsch emanated from the gutter press, yet this was the biggest protest since the war probably, certainly since Suez.

 

The atmosphere generated by all this, particularly the YCL's own solidarity campaign, laid the basis for much potential growth. 150 of the YCL's 200 branches took part in the campaign and no less than 323 applications for membership were received nationally during this period. This was very important for the YCL, which had begun to appreciate severe membership problems.

 

The YCL saw the 1967-68 card exchange, as Colin Yardley reported to the YCL National Committee (NC) in March 1968, as "a serious set-back for us”. The League's 200 branches were in 19 Districts, all but three of which had functioning District Committees. Comparing these to the last non-postal card issue, nine districts were up in membership, three were about the same and seven had suffered a loss. The two biggest districts, London and Scotland, had experienced severe losses.

 

Nationally, the drop in 1966 was 16%, by 1968 it was 29%. Two year's losses almost had been collected in one year. Moreover, this was part of a long-term trend. There had not been a 100% result in the card issue for nine years, while the Average Dues Paying Membership (ADPM) - the value of membership stamps bought by districts from centre divided by official membership figures - was only 24% in 1967. The YCL congress felt obliged to note that "the decision to post cards to members has created more problems than it has solved".

 

At the start of the card issue, the League noted in December 1967 that "many districts have reported losses through people going into the Party, through people moving and leaving no forwarding address. So far only a tiny amount of direct political losses have been reported. It was thought that recruits could replace every loss. "If members are lost, then they must be replaced by new members." Every branch was very strongly urged to achieve 100% membership. "Anything less", wrote Barney Davis, the National Secretary of the YCL, "is not just a loss to the branch but a loss to the whole communist movement". [YCLIB No3 December 1967]

 

There was thus a contradictory, confused yet still largely positive position. New branches were being formed all the time. Ebbw Vale, Bristol (Lawrence Weston), Balham, Barnsley, Dover, Hemel Hempstead, Wigan, Sale and several in Scotland were all reported as being set up by January 1968. While there were a number of branches making large numbers of recruits: - Mansfield 13, Bristol 22, Catford 15, St Pancras 13, Newham 12, Hampstead 12 and Edinburgh 60.

 

Birmingham YCL had an explosion of branches, 6 or 7 being set up out of one in no time at all, although it turned out that there was not a sufficiently strong basis for these. They were not maintained long and soon disintegrated back into the one. The YCL in Birmingham finished the card issue with 109 members, having made 20 recruits during the campaign. The district - the Midlands YCL - achieved 330 members by April 1st and was "recruiting 20 new members per month". A district target of 600 members in 30 branches might have been ambitious, but it did not seem unnecessarily unrealistic, even if later such targets became mechanical ambitions, from sheer enthusiasm. After all branches were springing up all over the place in the Midlands, as elsewhere.

 

In January a Mid-Warwickshire branch was formed, based on Leamington and Rugby. In June, two branches of 10 members each were set up in Wolverhampton. A branch of 10 was established in Lichfield, which began working in Tamworth, Burton -on-Trent and Walsall, where there was a small group of five members needing encouragement. The aim of setting up a South Staffordshire organisation was decided upon.

 

Groups emerged in the smallest of towns - Stourbridge (8 members), Worcester (8), Hereford (14). Political activity naturally reflected this mathematical increase. A Midlands YCL district school in the spring of 1968 on the Party's programme, the British Road to Socialism (BRS), was organised with the expectation of getting some 45 in attendance, in the event 65 turned up! Three members of Birmingham YCL were involved in the Youth Parliament, an establishment body which involved a very wide range of youth organisations. Wolverhampton YCL was selling 50 copies of the YCL's paper, "Challenge", in the first half of 1968, but 400 in July.

 

In the East Midlands, 25 delegates to the YCL's 4th District Congress in 1967 heard how membership had rocketed from 127 in 1965 to 230 in 1967 in 7 new branches. Though how much of this reflected the postal card issue is naturally a factor to be born in mind.

 

At the 26th National Congress there had been much concern at the position in Wales, traditionally a strong area for Communism - in the mining valleys at least. In the Sixties it had become a "very weak area and on the verge of collapse" for the YCL. More positive was the fact that the Welsh YCL had been able to organise a weekend school with 12 present from 4 branches, the average age of those attending being 19 years 2 months. [YCLIB September 1967]

 

A little late in the day, the North East YCL was reformed in 1970, but rapidly doubled membership and tripled Challenge sales, with new branches at Darlington and Sunderland. The West of England District Congress held in September 1968 was the first for 12 years. During the course of that year the district had achieved the fastest rate of growth of any. There were now 93 members, 60 of whom were recent recruits. Bristol Central YCL was selling 600 Challenge - enormous for a branch of about 20 members. The 20 delegates at the congress came from 5 branches in this widely scattered, largely rural district.

 

Yorkshire YCL was 267 strong in 1966, but mushroomed to 422 in the following year, with three branches alone in Leeds. South East Midlands doubled in size in one year, reaching nine branches. The Scottish YCL Congress in May 1968 was attended by 76 delegates from 24 branches, together with some 30 odd consultative and fraternal delegates, yet this represented a weaker position than the previous congress two and a half years before. Then there had been 100 delegates. This reflected a severe organisation weakness, akin to that experienced by Wales. 500 members had been lost and the full-time YCL District Secretary's position was reduced to that of a part-timer. (Doug Bain had been the full-timer from 1963 to 1968, Andy Sweeney was the part-time replacement.)

 

The Scottish YCL spent the next couple of years grappling with what was essentially a financial problem. The League, perhaps like the Party, in Scotland had real and popular support in some areas, but translating what was often a family, almost tribal, commitment into organised activity was another matter. Both the Midlands and the Yorkshire YCLs planned full-timers, but only the latter was able to achieve this by creating a full-time post which was in fact jointly part-time with the Yorkshire Communist Party. Generally it was only through such mechanisms that the YCL could fund district full-timers. Whilst the CPGB part-funded the YCL nationally by means of a "grant", the districts were obliged to raise their own finances and usually were only treated to implicit subsidy by the Party, perhaps for example by writing off literature debts to CP owned bookshops.

 

Like the Party, the League saw left unity as being built to the extent to which the CPGB and the YCL grew in size and influence. "The paramount task is to lay the basis for the immediate and rapid growth of the Young Communist League ... The revolutionary character of every young communist must now be tested by his or her part in achieving the 4,000 membership in this 1970 card exchange." This was how the YCL national leadership put it, just as it became clear that the 1968 bubble had burst. [YCLIB January 1970] Motivating much of the YCL's work was a belief in the special revolutionary character of youth. As George Bridges put it: "Youth are free from reformist illusions. They develop new uninhibited forms of activity immediately corresponding with their mood".  [George Bridges August 1969 Marxism Today] This concept underlay a blind faith that mass membership was there to be won and it would only take hard work to achieve it.

 

Size became an all-important feature of the League's work and as the organisation did not gear itself to consistent long-term work, immediate startling publicity became the most sought-after objective. That is to say, imaginative events that attracted national, establishment media attention. Bob Allen, London YCL District Secretary, and Tony McNally, YCL National Organiser, late in 1969 protested outside a seminar of British generals against their suggestion to re-introduce conscription, in such a way that Fleet Street took notice. With membership at 3,686 in November 1969 - 2,300 down on the 1967 position, a thousand down on 1968 - the League began to become more than a little concerned. The number of branches was down to 181 in April 1969.

 

The aim of 4,000 members was established as a supposedly realistic benchmark and 100,000 recruitment leaflets produced, as the organisation set itself to remedying the problem. But there were serious internal difficulties that were in part a product of long-term decline, but were also largely the cause of fundamental damage to the organisation in the 1970s. These arose out of the sharpening political differences which were to, as Doug Chalmers, the then YCL General Secretary put it at the 1983 CPGB Congress, "to paralyse the work of League". [Author's personal contemporary notes]  These differences were eventually treated in so fractious a manner as to cause outright personal hostility between individuals of such a character that the work of the organisation was de-stabilised. But it was not always so.

 

Amongst the tutors at a YCL national school in October 1967 were Sid French and Eric Trevett, the Surrey full-timers for the Party, long-time critics of the BRS's programme of parliamentary transition without civil war and eventual first and second leaders of the breakaway New Communist Party. Their presence at the school ensured that "the discussion thrived and even became heated. In fact ... it was generally felt that some of the tutors were more "off the line" than the students", commented the YCL's internal bulletin rather mildly. Such a possibility - of major dissidents lecturing a national cadre school - would later become unthinkable. [YCLIB December 1967]

 

Dissent was tolerated sufficiently for one participant on a 40 strong YCL organised holiday trip to the Soviet Union to comment in the bulletin in the following terms. "There were no holds barred in our talks and our Russian hosts spoke freely about issues on which their country has been heavily criticised in the West...on the question of the treatment of the Jews in the Soviet Union, which was raised in a British Communist Party statement, they (i.e. the Soviets) were all agreed that our party had been duped by capitalist press reports." [YCLIB December 1967 - article by Mike Ambrose]

 

There would be little of such comment - other than in a letter printed to reveal the quirkiness of the dissidents - in YCL publications in the 1970s and beyond. Articles sympathetic to the Soviet Union would be excluded as 'not being of interest to young people' and individuals who differed with the League leadership on these questions would find themselves excluded from leadership roles. Some YCLers adopted pro-soviet views that conflicted with reality as even seen by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but the process of squeezing fundamentalist assessments out of the League even inhibited balanced - and accurate - analyses and reinforced a cynical but vigorous anti-Sovietism in the leadership.

 

The Party and the League had of course been no strangers to political dissent, particularly arising from the need to protect the organisation from outside interference and policies. There had been a brief period of Trotskyist involvement in some YCL branches when the Socialist Labour League (later Gerry Healey's Workers' Revolutionary Party - WRP) had infiltrated cadres. Then the split between China and the Soviet Union had resulted in the whole new tendency of Maoism, which actively sought to split and infiltrate Communist movements. The YCL had its share of trouble from these quarters. There had been plenty of tensions and differences before, over major policy questions, but minority opinions had usually been minuscule. Most of those who had left over Hungary had done simply that, resigned or lapsed from membership. Factionalism, whether informal or semi-organised, had not been strongly evident in British Communism for the bulk of its existence. (Early Trotskyite internal dissent had been marginal.) So the ruthless crushing of different views inside the organisation, by ostracising large numbers of branches or even whole Districts, had not been an obvious feature of Party life. The much publicised prohibition, a decade before, of Party members such as Edward Thompson from publishing a non-Party journal, the New Reasoner, had led to a small number leaving to involve themselves in the New Left. No leadership led wholesale purge of dissent had ever occurred and there had been little need for administrative action to silence critics. There had been differences of course, largely at leadership level and consequently much internalised, and these had often been debated with sharpness, but personal vindictiveness was not a hallmark of the CPGB/YCL at that stage.

 

As J R Campbell had told the Comintern functionary, Manuilsky, "it is not the tradition of the British Communist Party to divide the Party into goats and sheep". Manuilsky replied by comparing unfavourably the British Communists with the Germans who allowed "no deviation from the line, they attack the least deviation, respect no persons... Yet in the British Communist Party there is a sort of special system which may be characterised thus: the Party is a society of great friends..." [Noreen Branson "History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941" pp45-6 (1985).] What went for the Party in a traditional sense also went for the YCL of course.

 

However, questions of democracy in socialist countries, attitudes to errors and distortions, controversies, differences in social, historical or political traditions between the western liberal-democratic style and the rather more basic aspirations of second and third world peoples, all became highly significant debating points in the YCL. Indeed in the Party also, even if the latter took a more restrained view of things.

 

Without doubt, the single most significant happening in this period, which forced along the pace of division inside the YCL, was the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The YCL immediately distinguished itself as having a sharper line than the Party did. The CPGB characterised the affair as an "intervention"; the YCL preferred the more emotive "invasion". The Party sedately called for district aggregates to debate the matter behind closed doors in sombre, thoughtful discussions. The Midlands aggregate was enlivened by a call from one of the leading YCLers of the time, later a pillar of the Birmingham Labour Party, for the CP's resignation from the Comintern, which had of course been dissolved in 1943!

 

The YCL leadership saw their position as more clear-cut, less a case of debating the matter in the branches as "Fighting For The Line", as a series of articles in the Internal Bulletin put it. Moreover, for the League it was less a case of making careful condemnatory press statements concentrating on matters of high diplomatic and international legal principles and tenets, and much more a case of campaigning to distance the organisation from the Soviet Union. An Emergency National Committee of the YCL decided to organise a series of public meetings in solidarity with Czechoslovakia - or at any rate Dubcek's Czechoslovakia. "Challenge" came out with a front cover irreverently and irrelevantly decorated by a psychedelically dressed young woman who informed the reader that: "If you think Communism means that tanks can roll in at anytime, you're bloody wrong." [Magazine Series: Issue No 9]

 

Nonetheless more weighty matters had to be borne in mind at the 27th National Congress of the YCL in Scarborough in April 1969, when the policy of the League had to be put to the test. Despite the distortions of popular myth in the YCL in the 1970s, the conflicting positions actually voted on at the Congress were not baldly for or against the actions of the USSR and its allies. The National Committee's sharp characterisation of the affair as an invasion was actually faced with an alternative position of opposition to the events on the basis of international communist principles. An alternative motion from Harrow supported the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the other Warsaw Pact powers, on the basis of their statement after the events of the summer of 1968. This jointly agreed Czech-Soviet position largely affirmed much of the demands in the NC resolution for a spirit of harmony. There was no simple choice - oppose the `intervention/invasion’ or support it, for the congress reflected the more complex realities of Communist life. Many, on all sides, later reflecting on that Congress simply forgot that.

 

The policy of the League on Czechoslovakia was increasingly seen as a totem, perhaps even to the extent that the actual nature of the policy was less relevant than its observance. For the CPGB, the whole issue was a question of a fundamental and principled difference over the nature of territorial integrity between socialist states. This was a difficult question for believers in world socialism. Strictly speaking, differences over the question need not necessarily colour other areas of work. Yet, for the YCL, attitudes to Czechoslovakia became a substitute for support or otherwise of the concept of a mass League; i.e. a YCL of size and influence working for socialism within the BRS's tactics and strategy.

 

Differences in the League over the mass YCL concept actually became confused as positions polarised. London full-timer for the YCL, Laureen Mason (later Hickey) put it well. While complaining about the "eternal labelling of individuals in one camp or another" (a case of goats and sheep?), she argued that "it is possible for instance for a member to believe the Soviet Union were correct about Czechoslovakia but still play a positive role in the league". [YCL Pre-Congress Discussion Document 1971] Others in the YCL's leadership thought differently.

 

Indeed, there is a sense in which Czechoslovakia became a matter almost of obsession to the leadership of the YCL, exceeding the relevance of the issue to young people in a continuing way far into the 1970's. At its crudest, the obsession was based on a simple belief that the events of 1968 had cost the League its popularity. That the membership problems which soon emerged in a most obvious way were inter-linked somehow with a juxtaposition of the '68 spirit. YCL national leader for nearly all of the next decade, Tom Bell, made his view clear as early as 1970. "The invasion of Czechoslovakia set us back more than we realise. Thousands of young rebels who could have been won to the YCL were turned to Ultra-Leftism and cynicism, they less than ever looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration." [Cogito No1 1970 "Time for Change"] Bell made a similar point in the YCLIB in January 1971 concerning death sentences, albeit subsequently withdrawn, of would-be Jewish plane hijackers. The affair had received hysterical press condemnation and the whole was assessed by Bell thus: "our struggle has been made harder".

 

Left: An example of the YCL’s theoretical journal

 

The League issued statement after statement on Czechoslovakia, following events there with dogged persistence. After the congress had endorsed the NC's position, the leadership issued a statement in September 1969. There was another in April 1970, expressing concern at the Czech Party disciplining Dubcek and his associates. (This statement was endorsed by the NC on a vote of 15 to 5, with one abstention.) There was another in March 1971, another in August 1972, and another in October 1976. The latter statement was in protest at trials of rock musicians in Prague. In a calculated rebuff to the Czech YCL (the SSM, or Czechoslovak Socialist Youth Movement), it was decided not to actually go so far as to sever normal relations with that organisation but to refuse the offer of exchange delegations. Another statement came out in February 1977, when the YCL decided to look into the possibility of affiliating to Amnesty International. The tenth anniversary of the 1968 events was marked by the YCL by a special statement and an article in "Challenge" - most YCL members by that stage would have been in primary school when the Dubcek government was in power.

 

Differences of the kind experienced by the YCL occurred in other countries, although these, where they were exaggerated by special conditions, could explode into splits which in turn posed problems for fraternal organisations. For example, which grouping to support?

 

In common with the vast majority of Communist Parties and Youth Leagues in the world, the British Party and YCL were estranged from the Chinese during the Sixties. The Chinese YCL representative at Budapest to the World Federation of Democratic Youth was "withdrawn" as the YCL Internal Bulletin put it, rather ominously perhaps. Like most YCLs, the British organisation had "some difficulty" in locating the Chinese YCL, refusing to recognise the Red Guards as a formal organisation, so the YCLGB simply lost touch. Concern over maintaining relations noticeably rose in the early 1970s, as the tensions over Czechoslovakia mounted, the leadership grew more anxious to prove that it was not coat-tailing Moscow by appearing open-minded over China. In 1970 the YCL felt impelled to specifically state that for its forthcoming Congress "fraternal delegates from overseas be invited, including Chinese". [YCLIB 18th November 1970] Although this was later qualified to make it clear that such a Chinese organisation be the "Communist youth organisation if it existed". [YCL 28th Congress documents 1971]

 

In Australia, the Communist Party and YCL moved rapidly through Maoist and Trotskyist influences, only to find much of the trade union base of the movement splitting off after major expulsions into the Socialist Party of Australia and the Young Socialist League of Australia - seen as new replacement Marxist-Leninist organisations. The YCL in Britain had no difficulty in refusing to recognise the YSL in August 1974, despite the appearance of representatives of that body at WFDY meetings. Interestingly, the Australian Communist Party, at this stage certainly, preferred an analysis of the socialist states as being "post capitalist societies" or "socialist based".

 

In Greece, differences over the conduct of the anti-fascist struggle against the army junta then in control, merged with international controversies inside the Communist movement. Two Communist parties and youth organisations emerged, but here - partially because of certain strong links with the British Party on the part of both groups - the CPGB decided to maintain relations with both. The YCL was loath to follow such a course, having strong political allegiances to the revisionist student movement, Rigeos Ferros - which was what later would be called the Euro-Communist tendency. The Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) had many contacts in London, not the least through the strong Cypriot presence there - a presence which had always been dominated by Communists. The YCLGB decided in June 1975 to keep contacts with both groups in line with the CPGB's position, but the League was cool with the KNE at national level, while the 'opposition' in the YCL was very much taken with it.

 

Increasingly, the YCL found itself isolated along with a group, mainly west European, at WFDY meetings which was distant and cool with the majority. Questions of Soviet policy were seen by this minority group as prime matters of concern. In consequence of the minority with which the Italians, Spanish, British, Japanese and others found themselves they began to query the role of WFDY.

 

The periodic world gatherings of WFDY were every five years, with a general council meeting yearly in between. Mike Power, the British delegate to the 8th world assembly in 1971, reported to the YCL that WFDY "had never really become a broad all embracing youth movement" and that there seemed "very little likelihood of it doing so". He felt WFDY to be "following a tired pattern". WFDY's recognition of both Greek youth movements was seen by him as "support to splitting activities". Moreover, the insistence of the majority of organisations in WFDY that the notion of peaceful "co-operation" between states be included in a statement on European security irked Power. Because of this he complained that it was "hard to decide whether the Assembly is a gathering of international youth against imperialism, or a meeting of young diplomats". Power saw the fight for European security as "a class battle and part of the struggle for socialism". [YCL NC Minutes January 2/3 1971] Rather ironically, the early 1980s debate about the direction the Party should take was initially and partially symbolically centred on whether peace is a class issue or a democratic issue. (Mike Power subsequently became the editor of the short-lived Democratic Left's even shorter-lived journal "New Times".)

 

3       World Youth Festivals

 

The most significant role of WFDY was to organise the massive cultural and political festivals held periodically in differing parts of the world. There have been 12 Festivals: Prague (1947), Budapest (1949), Berlin (1951), Bucharest (1953), Warsaw (1955), Moscow (1957), Vienna (1959), Helsinki (1962), Sofia (1968), Berlin (1973), Cuba (1978), and Moscow (1983) A festival usually had around sixteen thousand participants at it, although the 1973 Berlin Festival touched 26,000. From the original 63 founding countries of WFDY, it had affiliates from 72 countries at its first festival and 112 by the 1959 Vienna event. These festivals aimed to involve youth organisations other than of the Communists and were moreover always spectacular in character - a memorable event in each generation's experience.

 

Some 14 organisations were involved in the Sofia 1968 British Preparatory Committee, the link up with the Vietnam campaign making this possible. Organisations like the Young Liberals, Young Oxfam and the Student Christian Movement joined up with the YCL in sending some 300 delegates to Bulgaria. The League saw this as an especially important development for its work in Britain. So much so that it approached the 1973 Berlin Festival with great plans for massive broad youth unity in the British Preparatory Committee, one thousand delegates were aimed for. Already, the previous year, a Vietnam Youth Committee had been set up under the auspices of the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam. This brought together the National Union of Students (NUS), the Young Liberals, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (Technical and Supervisory Staffs) (AUEW/TASS), the United Nations Youth and Students Association and of course the YCL. All of these organisations and others were easily won to involvement in the World Youth Festival, the NUS being a particularly important body. The NUS had supported the 1947 Youth Festival, but had not done so since due to governmental and other pressures associated with the cold war.

 

Apart from some tensions within the British delegation arising out of the presence of a Gay Liberation banner, the whole event did much to break down barriers artificially erected by the cold war. (The banner had been rather frowned upon by the East Germans, but supported vigorously on a point of principle by both the Young Liberals and the YCL national leadership, perhaps with tactical considerations back home being very much in the collective mind of the latter.) Major changes in the official youth movement in Britain were on their way. Together with the positive gains of the Berlin Festival, these laid the basis for even more significant unity. The main resolution at the YCL's 29th Congress in 1973 saw "the preparations (as) an example of the broad youth unity, albeit embryonic" that it sought generally in Britain.

 

Of tremendous significance for the next World Youth Festival after Berlin was the disaffiliation of the British Youth Council (BYC) from WFDY's cold war rival, the World Assembly of Youth (WAY). This was to open up the possibility of much wider involvement in youth unity activities. It had become public knowledge that WAY had been at least partially funded by the CIA for much of its life and the BYC's links with that body grew more and more tenuous. The BYC itself had been set up in 1949 and it was funded by various British government departments, as well as by the subscriptions of the affiliated organisations. These included such groups as the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Boys’ Brigades, Young Farmers, Young Conservatives and a variety of Christian youth organisations, as well as the Labour Party Young Socialists and the Young Liberals. In 1976, with the link with WAY now dissolved, the YCL and other progressive organisations like the Co-operative movement's Woodcraft Folk, the NUSS and the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) all decided to affiliate to the BYC. At his first attempt, Tom Bell narrowly failed to obtain election to the executive committee of the BYC.

 

Preparations for the 11th World Youth Festival, to be held from Friday 28th July to Saturday 5th August, were already underway and it was clear that, especially with it being held in Cuba, that there would have to be a tremendous effort to avoid the massive organisational and travelling difficulties. Indeed the Festival was put back a year to allow for all of this. 23,000 delegates - 18,500 from outside Cuba - from 145 countries were expected, along with 1,000 journalists. There were 3,200 from West Europe, 800 from Africa, 3,800 from the Americas, 1,600 from Asia, 800 from the Middle East, 1,000 from the USSR, 750 from the GDR (East Germany) and 3,050 from East Europe. After an initial expectation of a higher number, it eventually became clear that the British delegation would only number 180 and it would cost £310 to send each one.

 

The BYC agreed to participate in the Festival on the understanding that the British Preparatory Committee would support the right of its individual member groups to raise whatever issues they wished and that the BPC itself raise certain issues of controversy with respect to democracy in socialist states. The BYC was under great pressure before the event from the Federation of Conservative Students and the Young Conservatives to withdraw its support, indeed these groups themselves refused to participate. Even so, several Tories remained on the delegation as representatives of the Churches, in particular in the Methodist camp. While the Foreign Office refused to give a £5,000 grant for a cultural delegation from Britain.

 

The NUS was to play a particularly important part in this BPC. Charles Clarke, who had recently been the National President of the NUS, landed the job of permanent British representative in Havana for a year before the Festival. While the leader of the delegation was Trevor Phillips, 24 year old NUS President. His deputy was Peter Mandelson, noted then only for being personally related to the former Labour Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison and tipped, like Phillips, to go on to greater things. (Mandelson had been a member of the London YCL for about nine months in the early 1970s.) 

 

For both of these the whole affair was an important test. As the Sunday Telegraph, rather bluntly put it, "both plan careers in mainstream politics, and Mr Mandelson felt that a heavily Stalinist British contribution in Havana could have serious career repercussions for him. Messrs Phillips and Mandelson, therefore, were determined that Britain would raise the issue of human rights." [Sunday Telegraph August 6th 1978] In particular, they planned that leaflets on the status of Soviet dissidents, Shcharansky and Orlov, should be distributed at the Festival. Mandelson, of course, notoriously became Labour's key media man under the Kinnock leadership; Clarke was the key figure in Kinnock's personal political advisory team. Phillips went on to become a TV producer and occasional presenter. All three ended up as key figures in the Blair project.

 

In a heavy-handed move of supremely unconscious irony, the BPC leadership decided to rid itself of any delegates who would be too obviously opposed to the plan to seek publicity for an anti-Soviet position. What involvement there was on the part of the YCL in the original calculations remains undefined, but how else could the non-communist leadership of the BPC be aware of identity of the most outspoken Communists hoping to be part of the delegation? Who told Phillips and Mandelson which were the key people to exclude? Whatever the position, seven CPGB and NCP members were literally banned from going to Cuba. Trevor Phillips, as Chair of the BPC, and Tom Bell, as its Secretary, wrote to at least three of these who then made the whole affair public. They were Dave Smith (ASTMS), Will Gee (FBU) and Lysandras Lysandrou (United Cypriot Youth Organisation - EKON).

 

They were told that there were travel difficulties and that as they were nominated by organisations not in membership of the BPC and that the "trade union section of the delegation is already fairly heavily subscribed to" it was not possible to accept their nomination. More decisively, and the strongest clue to where the objections were coming from, "it has been questioned by a member organisation of the BPC whether your approach to the Festival, given the basis of your past political record and activity would be entirely in line with the tenets and spirit of British participation in the Festival, as agreed and delineated by the British Preparatory Committee". [Letter dated 14th July 1978] Which "member organisation" was not publicly revealed, but clearly non-communists could only be aware of what was essentially a criticism of their differences with the YCL's line on socialist democracy from the YCL leadership.

 

After receiving the Phillips-Bell letter, two of the excluded met with the BPC's organising committee and offered to travel by other means, if travelling was the problem. The committee voted by 3 to 1 not to reverse their exclusion - leaving the matter of their political suitability as the key objection. A simple reference to the balance of the delegation reveals a high proportion of students and a rather small trade union delegation.

 

 

Student Bodies

 

National Union of Students                                            38

National Union of School Students                                   1

Communist Party National Students Committee                3

National Organisation of Labour Students                         3

Student Christian Movement                                            4

 

Trade Unions

 

AUEW/TASS (engineering workers and staff)                     4

ACTT  (cinema technicians)                                              1

EEPTU (electricians)                                                        1 

ASTMS (managers/technicians)                                        2

NUT (teachers)                                                                4

NUPE (public employees)                                                2

NUM (miners)                                                                  5

AUEW (engineers)                                                           1

AUT (university lecturers)                                                 1   

TGWU (transport & general)                                             5

NATFHE (college lecturers)                                              1

NALGO (local government)                                              1

APEX (clerical workers)                                                               1  

Greater London Association of Trades Councils                1

Haringey Trades Council                                                  1

 

 

 

Community and Miscellaneous Bodies

 

Returned Volunteer Action                                 1

Melting Pot Foundation                                                 1

British Council of Churches - Youth Unit                         4

CBSLC (identity unknown to author)                   1

British Preparatory Committee                            10

Young Farmers                                                             1

BLF (identity unknown to author)                        1

Legal Staffs Association                                   1

National Assembly of Women                            1

National Film School                                         1

Afro-Caribbean Education Resource Project       1

Community Service Volunteers                           1

Jubilee Hall Recreation Centre                            1

National Association of Indian Youth                  1

Southall Youth Movement                                  2

Indian Youth Association                                   2

EKON (Cypriot Youth)                                       2

RCA Film School                                               1

Woodcraft FoIk (Co-op)                                     1    

Cultural Delegation                                           8

Young Friends (Quakers)                                   1

Women in Manual Trades Group                         1

National Association of Youth Clubs                  1

British Youth Council (BYC)                               5

 

 

Campaigning and Political Bodies

 

YCL                                                                                          16

Labour Party                                                                 2

LPYS                                                                            4

Young Liberals                                                              4

Campaign Against Youth Unemployment (CAYU)            1

Anti-Apartheid Movement                                               1

Chile Solidarity Campaign                                              1

Young European Left                                                    1

Namibia Support Committee                                         1

Namibia International Peace Centre                                 1

African National Congress                                             1

 

SUMMARY

 

Category                                               No.                   %   

 

Student Bodies                         49                     30

Trade Unions                             31                     19   

Political/Campaigning                34                     21

Community/Miscellaneous         49                     30 

Total                                        163                   100

Given that travelling was not really the problem, although there were difficulties these were not insurmountable, and that if any group needed thinning down it was the student element of the delegation, how could the BPC's banning of the dissident element be justified? The community sector could not lend itself to reduction, as there were generally only one or two delegates per group. If the TGWU with two million members could be easily represented by 5 delegates, how could it be that the NUS with perhaps half or a third of that number needed 38 delegates? In truth, delegates were often simply people who had both the interest and the money to pay. Their sponsoring organisation had simply endorsed them as delegates, at no cost to the organisation. Apart from measures to ensure that each single organisation was at least once represented, very little tinkering with the overall delegation was really necessary. Therefore, there could only seriously remain the matter of the political objection. Two of the excluded delegates produced statements, revealing the full details of the affair, including copies of the correspondence. They declared that the BYC had given an ultimatum to the BPC to veto the likes of them and that they had been removed for political reasons "without any opportunity to reply to the allegations." In the Morning Star, Reuben Falber for the CPGB was pressed by their statement to publicly respond for the Party that it understood travel problems. But that it was regrettable that, in making the difficult decisions to thin down the delegation, it was implied that some were excluded because of their politics.

 

Bob Lentell, speaking for the YCL as its National Organiser, made a similar point as Falber over the travel arrangements question. But the YCL had disagreements on some parts of the festival preparations and felt that the BPC, having laid down its political principles at an early stage, had the right to ensure "that the British delegation adhered to these principles". Implicit in this was some degree of sympathy for the exclusions.

 

Tom Bell, in a subsequent article on the Festival in Challenge, conceded that the BPC "didn't handle every question as well as it might have done", but thought on balance the Festival overall was a positive development. While the exclusion of some people was not "handled in the best way" and some should have gone, Bell supported the right of the BPC to make the decision. [Challenge No 55 1978]

 

For the vast majority of delegates the first they knew of the controversy was when they arrived in Cuba. The statements of the excluded two, together with the copies of correspondence were distributed in large numbers by their sympathisers amongst the delegation. After protracted arguments a delegation meeting at the large, modern teacher training college six kilometres from Havana, which the British shared with the Irish, Scandinavian and Low Countries delegations, passed a decisive resolution to bring over three individuals excluded from the delegation. Clive Haswell of the Welsh Preparatory Committee - two of the excluded were Welsh - moved that the steering committee running affairs in Cuba amongst the delegation be instructed to reverse the ban and make arrangements to get the three to the Festival.

 

It had been necessary to propose a procedural motion to discuss the matter, despite an attempt by the steering committee to avoid this. Then the motion was narrowly passed.  Once the issues were debated the delegation voted 84 for the critical motion 50 against. It should be noted that 73 of the delegation were either absent or abstained. The decision was of course largely symbolic, the meeting being held on the first day of the Festival at 1pm on Friday 28th August, but it was symptomatic of a large gap between the steering committee and the delegation majority. The three never got to the Festival of course.

 

This affair rather conditioned the atmosphere on the delegation and attitudes to the leadership of the steering committee, in particular the determination of Mandelson and Phillips to issue a delegation statement on human rights. A document, which bore all the hallmarks of a rushed and thoughtless composition, especially in the circumstances that the delegation now found itself, suddenly appeared. Very little consultation with very few people had prefaced its appearance, which drew much criticism. It was ill conceived and almost calculated to annoy most Communists.

 

Bell, in his subsequent Challenge article, conceded that "while some delegates wanted more time to discuss the contents of the statement, a minority were determined to prevent it being issued at all … given the sectarian, Stalinist positions they held they were not prepared to accept any criticisms of the Soviet Union or other socialist countries.”

 

The Sunday Telegraph reckoned that about half of the delegation – something like 80 odd people – were Communists, and their views varied. Many supported the CPGB’s position on socialist democracy, but were unhappy with the ease with which some allowed unbalanced positions to be postulated by the delegation leadership. Many, perhaps 30 to 40, were committed to one or another of the tendencies inside the British Communist movement, which repudiated the official position on these matters. An alliance between the two elements, winning support amongst the trade union and some Labour and progressive groupings, ensured that the delegation was deeply split.

 

Some, especially those associated with anti-imperialist causes like Ireland, were strongly opposed even to the notion of carrying the Union Flag ahead of the British delegation's representatives on the opening ceremony's 'walk past'. While the discovery that the official, identifying T-shirts bore the Festival logo coloured in with the Union Flag created some controversy. Those who objected argued that the flag was associated in half of the world with bloody imperialism, a force which the Festival was specifically in opposition to. Those who favoured the Union Flag simply viewed it as the nation's official emblem, which was known to all.

 

With all this, it is not surprising perhaps that the draft statement on human rights was greeted with hostility. Moreover, there was a time constraint that led to a feeling that the steering committee was trying to rush things. The BPC wanted the statement ready for a particular commission on the first Monday of the Festival. Despite an attempt to block the statement completely, the delegation voted to discuss the draft and to amend it by a vote of 64 to 60. (Noticeably, as the controversy raged, fewer and fewer people participated in the delegation meetings.) 30 to 40 delegates then walked out to draft an alternative statement. The remainder, including many who differed with much of the intent, tone and content of the originating statement determined to change it.

 

From 6.00 p.m. on Sunday 30th to 4.00 am on Monday 31st, during successive, strained and marathon sessions at the delegation’s lodgings, the statement was hotly debated and amended. The initial session by 6.30 p.m. had agreed on the go-ahead. Then the YCL EC members met with the CPNSC members - as no doubt did other caucuses - drafting amendments which were in the main agreed to by the delegation leadership and, subsequently, the majority of the delegation as a whole, in a midnight to four am meeting.

 

The original statement linked the Helsinki Declaration on Human Rights to détente, arguing that concern over human rights did not sabotage the fight for peace. Central to all this was the freedom of speech and assembly. Concern was expressed about the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia and the more recent experience of the Charter 77 group there. The case of Yuri Orlov in the USSR was raised and it was made clear that the British delegation would continue to campaign on these matters most firmly. All in all it was calculated and blunt - the intent being to clearly distance the British delegation from the socialist countries on issues of controversy in Western media. These participating nations would most certainly view the highly specific and selective statement as an intended insult in what was intended to be a Festival of friendship.

 

The eventual amended version put these points a little more in context. A firm distinction between those who are "genuinely committed to both détente and human rights, and those who are exploiting the issue of human rights for their own political advantage" was made. Moreover, the absence of some fundamental human rights in Britain was noted, especially with regard to Northern Ireland. It was recognised that human rights also involved some fairly fundamental economic rights and the exploitation of developing countries by the advanced capitalist nations (not specified as such however) was a pre-requisite to human rights in that part of the world.

 

The hypocrisy of the Western nations was thus signified in the revised statement. In particular, specific instances of abuses of human rights in the USA were mentioned, especially of black and indigenous American peoples. The original draft had called for the ending of racist political systems just in South Africa. This was implicitly widened to allow for the interpretation that this could apply to Britain also. The original had said that the delegation was opposed to particular imperialist interference from whatever quarter and this was softened to make it less an obviously contrived comment on the socialist as well as capitalist world. A positive note was also injected, linking anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world to the concrete solidarity organisations and actions traditionally associated with the British people. Criticisms of the USSR and South Africa had been made in the same breath, but were now separated and some positive features of Soviet life were incorporated, albeit that these were rather lamely highlighted. The previous condemnation of the Warsaw Pact intervention in 1968 in Czechoslovakia was turned into a statement of the fact that the intervention had been widely condemned in Britain. As was the criticism of the trial of Yuri Orlov, again, instead of the delegation being committed to condemn the USSR, it was observed that such criticisms had been made by some. While, finally, the previous commitment to campaigning on differences with the socialist world was eliminated.

 

The minority produced their own statement, on behalf of "a large percentage of the British delegation" they dissociated themselves from the majority statement, which they identified as being issued by the BPC - which it had not been, even in the first instance, let alone after amendment by the delegation. The minority statement complained that the majority statement did not "represent the views of the youth and students of Great Britain". Moreover that the BPC since its inception had not taken the "wide ranging opinions of the British youth into account". The exclusions were referred to and it was stated that the BPC had not "taken actions based on majority decisions either here (in Havana) or in Great Britain". The spirit of the Festival was endorsed by the statement, with the implication that a minority of the delegation, especially in leadership positions, had other axes to grind.

 

Not that this was the end of such controversies. Phillips, of course, made speeches and distributed leaflets of the statement. But the British delegation officially used its veto during one of the main debates against a Festival communiqué, stating that the capitalist countries were locked in a deepening economic crisis, from which the only escape could be profound political and social change. While women's liberationists distributed leaflets in Spanish, outlining their demands, which put attitudes to homosexuality that clashed sharply with the Cuban view then prevailing. (A more relaxed attitude now exists.) However, at no stage did the Cuban authorities or the World Preparatory Committee interfere with any of this. Other than a mild expression of displeasure by one of the Soviet representatives to Phillips at the discourtesy of the British delegation statement, there appears to have been only a feeling of bewilderment at the antics of the British by a number of delegations at the most and, at the least, a general lack of interest in what was largely an issue only for some on the British delegation.

 

In Britain however there was some interest. The Times, in an editorial, generally welcomed the British delegation's official position - arguing that even the split within the delegation must have been a lesson, though a puzzling one, on the freedom to disagree. While the East Midlands District Committee of the CPGB was more worried about the affair and wrote as much to the YCL EC. The latter however was not impressed by the lesson on the right to disagree. Two of its delegates to Havana, one of who was from the East Midlands, were "no longer to be allowed to represent the YCL at any outside event, due to events that took place in Havana". [YCL EC Minutes 14th/15th October 1978]  They had of course been associated with the minority statement.

 

Despite the trauma of these differences, the British involvement in the Festival had been positive and a wide degree of youth unity had been achieved around the ideas of world peace and friendship. Many cold war barriers had been broken down, but for some the question would naturally be posed - at what price for the YCL's own internal unity?

 

Organisations as disparate as the BYC, the NUS, NOLS, the British Council of Churches, the Student Christian Movement, the National Association of Youth Clubs, the Young Liberals, Quakers, the school students union (NUSS), AUEW-TASS, Young European Left and the YCL had agreed to the statement on Détente, Peace and Human Rights. It had been issued in their names, not the BPC, however. Even though the BPC continued its work for a short while after the Festival, the YCL was edgy about its continued existence and ensured that its influence was brought to bear in winding up the organisation.

 

4 THE IDEOLOGICAL BASE OF INNER-LEAGUE DIFFERENCES

 

 

How had the League arrived at such a position, whereby the views of non-Communists on the problems of socialist construction - even Tories - were considered by the YCL leadership as of more consequence than the minority within their own organisation? Contrary to the simplistic impressions of media commentators it was not just the differing attitudes to socialist states, but also the matter of the analysis of the role of the working class and their organisations vis-à-vis young people, that the YCL found to be a source of inner-League tension.

 

The main arguments in the YCL before 1968 had centred on what kind of League there should be. Whether it should gear itself to the most advanced, most committed youth; whether it should be a mass league or a cadre league. The latter view saw the high turnover of membership as reflective of the poor quality of recruit and of the dearth of Marxist education in the organisation. It was argued that considerations of membership size should not be paramount, that "deadwood" membership - inactive cardholders - should be cut out.

 

The 1969 Congress of the League issued a call for a mass YCL, but saw this in terms of how the YCL branch worked rather than a demand for abstract increases in size. A mass league worked in a mass way. Three distinct approaches could easily be discerned in the motions from branches and districts to this congress. There was the tendency to oversimplify the problems of achieving a large YCL, but which nonetheless saw size and working in a mass way as crucial. This line tended to stress the value of local branch work in the community and the independent work of the YCL as a communist organisation in public as crucial. Such a tendency might be dubbed `the propagandist’ approach. Then there was the position that it was important to win a larger YCL, but that in any case the way the League worked with other movements was paramount. This position was trade union and mass movement orientated. The third position stressed the importance of having a correct Marxist-Leninist line, the size of the organisation and its relationships with other youth movements being entirely secondary. While there was a sense in which regional rivalries played a part in creating allegiances around these positions there was also an important, but underlying, theoretical clash.

 

The 1969 Congress called on the League in its main resolution to "Win Youth into Class Struggle". Yet the experience of the YCL's work revealed a gap between the desire to do so and the style of the YCL's campaigning activity, set by the over-conscious rejection of what was seen as old-style Marxism. The League leadership was obsessed with presentation, with creating a 'modern', untarnished image. Most symptomatic of this trend was the transformation of Challenge from a political campaigning monthly newspaper into a colourful, but rather frivolous poor copy of `youth life-style’ magazines.

 

For some, the experience of this trendy Challenge indicated a real need for a change to a more class-conscious, fighting journal. The National Organiser, Tony McNally, produced a short discussion paper - "Forms of Work Amongst Young People" - in September 1970. Unofficially it was by way of a manifesto, for the National Secretary, Barney Davis, was soon to retire and make way for a successor. In his analysis, McNally argued for Challenge to "go over to a more campaigning style ... that retains a popular appeal combined with articles of a deeper political, social and cultural nature".

 

The return of the Tories to government, after the 1970 general election, demanded a sharper struggle and clearer arguments for socialism. But any change, McNally thought "should be subject to a majority decision of our branches where they could have one or more clearly defined alternatives". The journal, like the League, should gear itself to three sections of youth - school students, young workers and youth in the communities. The outgoing Yorkshire District Secretary of the YCL, Dave Cook, argued for this concept in pre-congress discussion prior to the 1971 Congress. The notion of recognising the "complex and diverse structure of working class youth" meant the way was "theoretically clear to ... more clearly identify the basic class issues, which can unite the youth of the class in mass struggle". [Cogito No1 of the 1971 Congress - pre-congress discussion document]

 

Or, as Tom Bell (pictured left) declaimed, "our generation is not a homogenous mass. It is more diverse than ever before." [Cogito No.1 (1970) “Time for Change"]  Apart from those sections of the League identified with the Surrey District, there was amongst the other trends a general acceptance of this analysis in the League. However, a divergence of opinion developed about the third sector in McNally's paper - youth in the community. McNally and Cook had talked in terms of identifying with youth culture groupings like mods and rockers, as well as school students and young workers. There was obviously a dichotomy here - for mods were students and workers as well as an identifiable social grouping, and the same applied to any other section. As one YCLer with differences with the leadership defined it in pre-congress discussion in 1973, the YCL had to "aim at those in struggle and not at a block of young people i.e. the young generation".  [Pre-Congress discussion document No.1 for the 29th Congress (1973)]  The question began to be posed, therefore, as to whether the League was aiming at young people per se. This being on the basis that youth constituted a new, additional force in society, which could challenge right-wing ideas. Alternatively, was the YCL seeking to win those young people who could be defined as being part of the overall struggle of the working class against capitalism? Was the younger generation a revolutionary force in itself, or was the working class the revolutionary force and those young people who were a part of this the YCL's target constituency?

 

 

5                 THE 1970 LEADERSHIP CONTEST

 

It was against the background of this debate, every bit as profound in terms of Marxist theory as the differences over the socialist states, that the 1970 leadership contest to succeed Barney Davis took place. Davis, by now 30 years of age, had raised the need for a replacement, so that he or she could prepare themselves for the forthcoming congress, at the National Committee’s inner body, the Executive Committee, on Tuesday 8th September 1970. He had course discussed this with close colleagues, including McNally, who obviously stood in a very favourable position to move one rung upwards. (Subsequently, the National Committee was renamed the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee became the Political Committee to come into line with Communist Party practice on nomenclature. The old EC and the new PC were in theory subordinate to the larger NC/EC.)

 

Four days later, the EC looked a variety of names: Dave Cook (Yorkshire), Bob Allen (London) and Laureen Mason (London) were considered. But the committee eventually arrived at a decision for McNally - but it was close. Tom Bell, the National Treasurer (not a full-time post) emerged with 5 votes to his credit and 2 against as second runner. McNally had 6 votes for himself and only 1 against. But this was only by way of a recommendation to the full National Committee.

 

Things moved very rapidly thereafter. A scheduled NC school was changed to the weekend of 3/4 October at Coppice Camp. This was an area of wooded land, which could house around forty people in some fairly basic wooden structures. There were communal kitchen facilities and a toilet block. In the Essex countryside it had been left by a CPGB member in his will as a bequest to the YCL - more formally it was the Harry Pollitt Memorial Youth Centre. (Years later, Democratic Left was to sell the site for a considerable sum.) It was decided to elect the new Secretary at this Coppice Camp event, to which a number of NC members were unable to get to. Significantly, during the business part of the weekend, when other NC matters than the election were attended to, McNally came in for some fairly heavy - and perhaps a little contrived - criticism for producing an EC statement concerning the campaign to win a Youth TUC. No less than 17 out of the 18 NC members present came into what was a controversial debate. In the end, the EC statement was endorsed by the NC except for a suggestion that "youth delegates" - i.e. not from a bona fide trade union, but from a campaign committee - attend a planned conference on the Youth TUC campaign. But McNally was criticised for the statement, the NC taking the position that YCL branches should campaign in varying ways, according to local circumstances, on this particular point.

 

The outcome was that McNally lost the election to Bell on two counts - there were more that voted against him than for, and Bell had two votes more than McNally positively for him. Thus:

Ø  Tony McNally         for 7         against 9        abstentions 1

Ø  Tom Bell                for 9         against 6       abstentions 2

 

There was widespread surprise at this. Bell was a 21 year old electrician from South East London and while he was a national officer, this was the Treasurer's position, usually seen as being a bit of a drudge and hardly the key political position from which to spring to the National Secretaryship. For those who were behind him there was his youth, which potentially gave for the possibility of many years' stability and also a fresh, modern approach. Probably more decisively was his more combative approach to the dissenting membership on international matters and his suspicions of McNally's talk of class battles. For some, this counted against him, as did his unrelenting advocacy of the propagandist approach and a certain flippancy of approach. There was also much talk of a stitch-up, orchestrated by the Party leadership.

 

While it was obviously in the interests of many to cast doubt about the validity of Bell's election, there were also real and quite genuine worries amongst a wider section in the League that all was not well with the election. At the normal NC meeting on October 31st Davies felt obliged to stop further rumours in the League, by insisting that the decision to leave had been his own. He also strongly rebutted the widespread hints of intervention by the CPGB leadership, motivated to support a more combative candidate by an anxiety to ensure the YCL would not become a preserve of the oppositionalists. Yet, in a paradoxical way, this is almost very nearly what did occur in the next four to five years. If there had been - and it is inconceivable that there was not - Party intervention then it would have come from the leadership in King Street, the central headquarters. The Party's Organisation Department was the section concerned with liaison with the YCL and the responsible official would have been the then National Organiser, Gordon McLennan. (McLennan would succeed Gollan to the General Secretaryship of the CPGB and see out its remaining years as leader, retiring in 1989 in favour of Nina Temple.)

 

The October 31st NC was the first with Bell as leader and the minutes record his first opening on the political situation. This "covered S African Dam, United Front in Chile, Bolivia Left, Angela Davis and Black Panthers (sounds like a pop group), linking growth of liberation movements with present situation in Britain". The sudden, unexpected and unprecedented frivolity - making a mild joke out of what was then a relatively unfamiliar and perhaps rather exotic name for the British left - in a set of official minutes was in a sense revealing. For some it marked the entrance of a modern easy-going, youthful image; others were disparaging about the stature and personality of the new National Secretary. Out with stuffiness certainly, but out with seriousness of purpose? And what purpose? That would be the test.

 

For the leadership were already showing signs of weakness. Only 16 full members attended that meeting - an additional four members of the leadership were co-opted onto the NC in a non-voting capacity as well. Significantly, one of McNally's proteges Peter Kavanagh, was the only one not to be co-opted unopposed. The rationale for his co-option was "the role he is playing in the young workers movement", but a vote had to be taken because of opposition of some from London and he was brought on by a vote of 11 to 4.

 

6       RETRIBUTION AGAINST OPPOSITION

 

From here on there emerged a campaign of unremitting retribution against any opposition within the organisation to the Czechoslovakia policy or for that matter, ultimately, almost any policy. George Bridges, former editor of Challenge and London District Secretary, and Tom Bell, for example, both complained to the NC that one Pete Ackerman had breached democratic centralism at a YCL school for the Camberwell branch, at which he was the tutor. Ackerman had been a key organiser in the youth section of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (later Liberation) for a couple of years and was also deeply involved in matters concerning European Security. Facing discipline, Ackerman agreed that he had breached the rules of handling dissent and was censured for this under Rule 4 of the YCL constitution, which covered democratic centralism.  The formal minute of censure was rather ominously misspelt, thus: - "It was agreed: - 1 To censor (sic) P Ackerman unanimous 2 To ask him to resign from the NC - 2 against 1 abstention."  [YCL NC document November 10th 1970] The essence of the complaint against him had been that he had taken his differences with policy downwards to a subordinate body within the organisation, an action incompatible with leadership."

 

The following March, another NC member felt constrained to resign from the leadership. John Page, from the East Anglian district, had found himself occupied with many duties associated with his responsibilities in the NUS, which made it difficult for him to continue on the NC. Although why, so close to a congress when an entirely new leadership would be elected anyway, he needed to resign may perhaps be partially explained by his second reason, that "political differences (existed) which made it increasingly difficult to continue as a NC member".       

 

As the 1971 congress approached, more and more signs of tension were exposed. The pre-congress discussion night for the Southampton branch was deemed null and void by the NC, "due to irregularities". Tom Bell reported that "a number of CP/YCL dual members who had not previously been involved in the YCL and whose main field of activity was the CP had attended YCL branch congress nights and voted on a number of issues, against the views of comrades who had played a role in the YCL and people had been elected delegates in place of these comrades". It seems that the District Party's van had been used to facilitate the dual members attending the meetings.

 

Elsewhere, some like Mike Ambrose of the West Middlesex District, who had been the District Secretary but had indicated intent to move out of YCL work in favour of Party work entirely, had changed their minds. Pete Hall had taken on the Kent District Secretaryship without consultation with the national office. Les Howie, the Hants and Dorset District Secretary of the CPGB with Sid French, the Surrey District Secretary, had assisted with all of this "interference" as Bell termed it. Moreover, they had supposedly made remarks to Tony McNally and Dennis Walshe, the key YCLer in Hants and Dorset at that time, of an "insulting nature". Howie and French were barred from the forthcoming congress and the CPGB executive decided to advise all Party members in the YCL that they must “fight for Party policy, including in the YCL Congress".

 

The YCL leadership felt now able to act upon their complaints. Mike Laws, a long standing critic of the YCL's leadership and a Party member who had been seconded by the Surrey district to help in the YCL, was tersely told that his invitation to work in the YCL was terminated, he "being now 32 years of age". Pete Hall was interviewed by the NC "on the question of his suitability as Kent YCL district secretary".  After this the NC, rather predictably, instructed the Kent YCL DC to elect another district secretary, due to Hall's "role in the League, in terms of both personal instability and ability to fight for Congress decisions". Hall said he would accept the decision of the NC, but would fight it at congress in a constitutional appeal. Significantly, almost in defiance of the opposition in the League, that NC issued a statement on the trials of 19 young political subversives in Czechoslovakia at the same time as dealing with these matters.

 

The pre-congress discussion documents for this period show the strident tone of the debate. Some saw mass work as activity in the youth clubs or in local football teams, almost and in some cases actually posing this arena against trade union or other mass struggles. The practical experience of some was almost calculatedly ranged against the theoretical criticisms of those who complained of an absence of Marxist study in the organisation.

 

One contributor queried the "limited democracy that has plagued the YCL lately because of the threat of the 'hard-liners' ", and pointed out that the only concrete example of mass work that the YCL could cite in its credit, in the most recent period up to Congress, had been the TUC Youth Conference campaign. Was selling Challenge on the local High Street, an activity much demanded by those in favour of community-style YCL work, directly mass youth work? Some in the YCL were so disgruntled at the style of the new Challenge that they had begun to boycott it in one way or another. The Camberwell branch of the League for example found its branch committee suspended from office for one month for returning the October 1969 issue of the magazine to the district office on account of the "pornography" contained within. (Photographs of `artistically’ posed female nudes were seen by the leadership as 'trendy'!) But, to return to the notion of selling Challenge as a means of locality work, one YCLer pointedly commented that London was probably the only city where 'locality' had any real meaning. In Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds and elsewhere, if you wanted to sell Challenge successfully you went to the city centre.

 

Of considerable significance was the contribution to discussion from the London District Organiser, Laureen Mason. Although at the time, for reasons that we shall see next, Mason's views were rather overshadowed by a more stunning and sensational article from McNally. Mason called for unity in diversity: "the last congress saw somewhat of a polarisation of opinion ... since then to some extent the polemic has developed and within basic viewpoints many shades and shapes of opinion are coming forth". For her, a Marxist synthesis - not compromise - of clashing views should be possible. Yet rival cults and personality differences prevented this. Inflexibility could be our downfall, she argued, some have ceased to struggle in the battle of ideas and play "on the emotional feelings" of members. Implicitly, she complained that those who had differences on Czechoslovakia were not being treated fairly, "an over-reaction has arisen". Her contribution was immediately followed in the discussion document by a case in point.

 

It was a revelatory article by Tony McNally, a contribution to discussion which was spirited, to say the least, which became the talk of the League in the run up to congress. He argued that those who disagreed with the last congress decision on Czechoslovakia had "embarked on a course of organisation, and plain mudslinging to disrupt the 28th Congress." He believed that the NC had "bent over backwards" to avoid disciplinary action, even though a leading member of the Party had referred to the disunity as "close to Civil War".

 

He claimed as evidence of unconstitutional factionalism the booking by Surrey YCL of 60 beds at a hotel in Scarborough for the congress, when the district had only 24 delegates - the excess beds presumably being taken up by delegates from other districts of a like mind. Home Counties and London branches of similar views were travelling in the same coaches to Scarborough. Every Sunday night these people congregated in the Metropolitan pub near the Morning Star for a "drink" as McNally contemptuously put it. The machinations in Southampton - on one side - and the measures taken against Hall and Ackerman were additionally cited as evidence of a conspiracy. It all added up to "bordering on 'organised opposition'". Sid French, McNally complained, had called him a liar and now denied saying so. French had also supposedly said that there was a need to "clear the mafia out of the YCL", referring to the leadership, presumably as a cabal, although the implication was left that it was a bizarre reference to infiltration of the YCL by the criminal society. McNally asked French to "name those comrades in the YCL who are in the Mafia". Linked to this charge was the complaint that a Hants and Dorset CP DC member, a "Mrs Moody", referred to Tom Bell as a "CIA agent". While she had denied saying this, McNally demanded the evidence or withdrawal.

 

Largely ignoring the fact that much of the litany of complaint had occurred in the pre-congress discussion period, when democratic centralism was supposed to be largely waived in the interests of debate, McNally charged the so-called "hard-line Marxist Leninists" with behaving like liberals and anarchists by not adhering to policy. "If we allow these activities to carry on, the end result will be the slow but sure destruction of our communist youth organisation. THIS IS WHAT IS AT STAKE." McNally took personal responsibility for his statement. But he had "found support from comrades such as Barney Davis, Pete Kavanagh, Tom Bell, Jon Dyson" … (Dyson was in his last year as Midlands District YCL Secretary. His name was followed by another name, which was deleted from the original cyclo-styled stencil leaving a blank in the duplicated text. This was presumably because the individual withdrew expected support. Another blank followed this blank in the text. These two presumed refusals to be identified with McNally's onslaught are indicative of just how controversial the attack was viewed. The original text then continues.) " … Dave Cook and many others." (Then there was a further lengthy blank in the text, which was probably some vituperative point that those who allowed their names to be used could not sign up to.) The position is now before you." It was as if McNally was speaking directly to the congress - which indeed he was! Delegates were, he told them in advance: " mature enough to discriminate between genuine criticism and proposals for concrete work ahead from any mudslinging that may unfortunately occur. " There was no irony intended. [Cogito No 3 pre-congress discussion document] Significantly, McNally later had a statement, that he considered he was "wrong to issue his contribution" to the pre-congress discussion document minuted by the NC. [11/12 September 1971 NC Minutes]  But by then the purpose of its production had been achieved - the opposition had been marginalised, just when they were presenting a problem.

 

The congress had unanimously adopted a resolution on unity and democracy within the League, but there had been no real debate about how to achieve either. McNally presented a report to the NC of 15/16 May, in which he observed that it was "quite clear that a growing political difference within the YCL over the past five of six years has grown deeper and in this period leading up to and during the 28th Congress began to express itself in an organised form which in part was referred to in my article in No3 Pre-Congress discussion." Ending this required an identification of the objective political base that gave rise to the opposition, thought McNally. The leadership had to win those against congress decisions, overcoming its own weaknesses, but not tolerating "any activity at variance with the Congress decisions and democratic centralism."  To this end the NC in July, after a further discussion on YCL unity, decided on a school on Socialist Democracy and a Cogito on the same subject - the aim being an ideological offensive in the League of official policy on these matters.

 

The National Committee issued a statement on YCL Unity on 26th August 1971. In dealing with the problem of the Surrey-ite faction, the NC went back to the 28th Congress. The alternative list or slate for the NC elections, for which George Reader was supposed to have prime responsibility, had " come to light " when Dave Cook discovered it circulating. The NC described this list as "a violation of rule", despite the fact that the constitution did not specifically prohibit such a list, nor did the Congress Standing Orders deal with the possibility.

 

Notwithstanding all this, the next step was the expulsion of Pete Hall by a vote of 25 to 8 with two abstentions. [NC minutes July 3/4 1971] Hall was accused of breaching democratic centralism on four counts: a) at a Willesden YCL branch social on 19th December 1970, "Bob Allen had to object to an attack (by Hall) on our position on Czechoslovakia"; b) Hall had attacked the YCL and Party leaderships when talking to a Komsomol delegation at a social on 21st November 1970; c) He had attacked the congress position at a Marxist study school; d) He had distributed a statement of the Austrian Communist Party (which had just had a major reversal in policy on Czechoslovakia after key leadership changes) "without consultation with the NC".

 

Hall was also accused of breaching 'procedure' on four counts: a) a series of "incidents" at socials; b) having opposed aspects of the YCL's work in his branch; c) being elected Kent YCL secretary without consultation with the NC, or the London YCL DC, when still a member of the Islington branch; and d) having been removed from the EPC at congress because "he refused to carry out majority decisions". (The EPC, or Election Preparations Committee, was the enabling committee responsible for preparatory work on the elections of the executive at congress.)

 

Further disciplinary measures were also adopted, this time more firmly perhaps, against Phil Cutler and Dick Dixon both of Surrey, who each received three months suspension from membership from the NC on a vote of 31 to 1 with 2 abstentions. [NC minutes September 11th/12th 1971] Less certain were the actions on London, West Middlesex and Yorkshire YCLers. Val Dixon, Gordon White and Sarah White were proposed for 3 months suspension from membership (Gordon White had originally been recommended for expulsion). At the July 1971 NC five names from West Middlesex had been considered - two were suspended for 3 months, and these three were to be looked at again as they had failed to attend. In the end, however, they too were faced with discipline, but a new situation had arisen. There had been a district congress and there was now a new leadership. An agreement with the District Party over these three was reached whereby no further action would be taken in these circumstances.

 

Bert and Margaret Strange of Yorkshire faced action. Although at first the NC, with some members being rather concerned at the apparent flimsiness of the case and others aware that the procedures had not been strictly kept to, had advised the Yorkshire DC to either take the action as far as they could themselves under rule, or come back to another NC meeting better prepared. In the end Margaret Strange was suspended from membership by 19 votes to 8 with one abstention.

a Party

Left: a section of Margaret Strange’s formal complaint to the CPGB EC, about a Party full-timer, which was not shown to the YCL NC.

 

More embarrassing for the YCL leadership was the appeal of Perry Miles and Pete Ackerman against the London DC’s removing them from office as a disciplinary measure under rule. It was their right to go to the NC on this and the committee backed them after a lengthy argument - some 13 NC members came into the discussion. Their appeal was upheld by 12 votes to 11 with 4 abstentions. The London District Secretary, Bob Allen, came in for some stern criticism from some and it was clear that there was an element which was loosing the taste for discipline as a means of resolving the fundamental differences that beset the League.

 

The group around the Surrey district began to demand a recall Congress under rule as the pace of discipline stepped up. By September, five districts had formally done so (Surrey, Kent, North East, West of England, South East Midlands District Committees). But the rules required a third of the districts to make such a call. At that stage, six were needed to force the EC to call an emergency congress. Some 50 branches nationally had joined the call by the spring of 1972, but again this was insufficient, half of the total branches were needed and at least on paper there were sufficient branches not joining the call to inhibit such a development.

 

Going beyond all this formal disciplinary action, the leadership found other less obvious ways of curtailing the opposition. Ways which were sometimes not even immediately obvious to EC members, who voted on the seemingly abstract merits of the case; an example being the question of foreign citizens holding YCL membership. The PC recommended to the EC in September 1971 that only British and Commonwealth citizens be eligible for membership. But the EC overturned this, reasoning that this was a matter that really needed the attention of the next YCL congress, being a question of a fundamental, rather than an interpretative, nature. Only the Congress could change rules in this way, it being the EC's job to interpret them in practice, not make up new rules as it went along. This was very much against the wishes of the London YCL leadership, for they had found the activities of a number of foreigners (Germans and various Middle Eastern nationals in particular) in the YCL especially irritating and had in consequence produced the proposal to clear these out of membership. Significantly, no amendment to rule was produced banning membership on nationality grounds at any subsequent congress.

 

Clearly, there was a serious situation developing for the group around Bell, which had its power-base in the leadership of the London YCL, for it could no longer be certain of getting through its every whim at the EC. In fact a spirit of open scepticism had developed on the EC, almost as a reaction to the use of administrative power to control the dissidents. Almost certainly, this had some basis in the rapid changes and uncertain character of the leadership of the EC as a whole. Only 12 of the 1969 NC were elected onto the 1971 NC and only two of these were on the 1967 NC (i.e. Tony McNally and Bob Allen). There was in fact an almost unbelievable lack of experience of the national leadership at large, although after the 1971 congress the PC was strengthened by a better balance of full-timers and non-full-timers, London and provincial members. Moreover, the practice of the national full-timers and the London full-timers meeting as a sub-committee of the PC was stopped after the Scottish Committee complained that the practice was unconstitutional and accorded undue influence to a small bureaucratic elite. In truth, the London based leadership was now beginning to find itself under fire from an alliance of forces. Differences on the role of Challenge and the question of the independent role of the YCL, vis-à-vis the mass movement, began to surface inside the majority grouping which had previously been more or less united, at least so far as the Czechoslovakia question was concerned. A debate developed over how to mesh the independent YCL role with that of the wider progressive movement.

 

McNally had been National Organiser for three years and after the tussle with Bell it is probably not surprising that he felt the need to move on. The EC revealed, in a letter dated 8th June 1972, that "Comrade McNally has been released from the position of National Organiser of the League". Unlike Barney Davis' successor, the appointment of McNally's successor was treated with great care. No less than 21 names were considered, these being supplied by DC nomination. A short-list of six emerged with Dennis Walshe, Barrie Van Den Berg and Phil Green favoured by Bob Allen and Tom Bell. Also in the running were Brian Filling, Bill Hickey and Dave Carson, the successful candidate, favoured by McNally. Carson was a 23 year old former motor mechanic, who had been the Scottish YCL full-time secretary from late 1970. He had been a Party member since 1968 and had joined the YCL the following year.

 

An example of the healthy suspicion the EC had of its PC was revealed in 1973, when it had been proposed that non-contentious, but important PC items be reported generally to the League in the internal newsletter and that the subsequent EC raise any queries or concerns. Other matters not reported in the newsletter, but for the attention of the EC would be raised under the item 'YCL Newsletters' at the subsequent EC. A vote of 16 to 13 defeated the proposal, insisting that the matters for political rather than administrative decision be reported in full PC minutes to the EC as a proper item for debate.

 

According to rule of course, the PC was subordinate to the EC, being a sub-committee designed to administrate the business of the latter. In practice it accorded to itself substantial prestige - especially after the Scottish DC forced the demise of the semi-official London based full-timers elite - and influence over the EC simply by virtue of recommendation and the doctrine of collective responsibility of the PC. While this could never be taken for granted, especially in the 1971-5 period, careful handling of sensitive issues could and did easily deteriorate into manipulation of the less experienced and less well-informed EC.

 

The League faced a severe test of self-contradiction when it assumed the mantle of conscience of the socialist states. In January 1971 McNally had introduced an item at the executive on internal democracy. He expressed a desire to "avoid the grave defamations" made by some communists especially in the socialist world. Ideas on how to maximise inner-League democracy were invited from the whole of the organisation and the NC decided there and then to institute a practice of sending it minutes to all branches as well as the existing circularisation to district secretaries and of course NC members.

 

Yet the biggest weakness was in the sudden and dramatic decline of the organisation brought in by the 1970s. Apart from a slight stabilisation of the membership decline in the first few years of the decade, the trend was very decidedly not communism - membership plummeted. The NC, in talking about the need for strengthening the organisation, should have been acutely aware of its own limitations. Of the 40 elected at the April 1969 Congress to the NC only 15 were actually functioning, according to McNally. Of the 10 EC members only 5 or 6 regularly participated, the EC sub-committee of London and National full-timers had an indeterminate status and too much power. [NC Minutes 2nd/3rd January 1971]

 

While in the League at large there was a serious sense of demoralisation. Bell, in the January 1971 Internal Bulletin talked of the need to "restore the dynamic that led to NLF flags flying from such notable flagpoles as the one on Nottingham Castle during our Vietnam Campaign of 1968 ... more than ever we see that we are rapidly approaching a watershed between imperialism and socialism. Not only in Britain but internationally." A new spirit certainly emerged - one of industrial militancy in the face of Heath's Tory government. 600,000 had engaged in an unofficial political strike against the Tories' anti-union Bill, with thousands lobbying Parliament that day. In Birmingham, a local day of action was called, with 45,000 out on strike and a large demonstration of some 5,000 in protest at the Bill. The TUC was forced to take a strong line on the Bill even to the length of a special recall congress at Croydon. While the government's economic policies introduced wage restraint, public expenditure cuts and other moves which struck at ordinary people.

 

This militancy obscured the realities of certain differences in the League. While there was still a debate about the balance of the activities of the organisation that was desirable, there was formal unanimity about the importance and value of industrial work. As Bell put it to the 29th Congress that year in his opening speech, "it would be wrong to overestimate the possibilities opening up or overstate the degree to which young people are becoming involved. But the fact is that sections of young people who hitherto have not been involved in the present level of struggle are associating with the labour movement in growing numbers. This is the definite and welcome trend among working class youth." Even more decisive was the declaration that youth and student unity, "with labour movement youth at its core", could be more and more "linked with the whole labour movement and the struggle to kick out the Tories".

 

7       THREE CARDINAL QUESTIONS-

YOUNG WORKERS, SCHOOL STUDENTS, CHALLENGE

 

These factional differences in the League were in fact rooted in deep divisions that existed inside the Party. To understand how the tensions expressed themselves in the YCL, it will be useful at this stage to look at the broader picture of what would only in retrospect be easily seen as a fundamental, even terminal, crisis for the CPGB.

 

There had been crises in the Party before of course. The 1929 `Bolshevisation’ of the Party saw the ending of the leadership of an older breed of socialist who had been associated with the old SDF/BSP propagandist style of work - those who were less attuned to the new internationalism and discipline of a Comintern `world party’. 1939 had seen the largely leadership orientated controversy over whether the war was imperialist in character or objectively anti-fascist. 1947-8 saw doubts about whether the wave of repression in Eastern Europe and the ejection of Yugoslavia from the socialist bloc. But this had been largely internalised, people kept their doubts to themselves. 1956 had seen the dispute over Hungary and the Krushchev revelations. These political crises and others were effectively contained and did not wreck the very fabric of British Communism. Although in the case of 1956 a third of the party membership had left, the Party had weathered the storm. Even then, after a few years, membership actually rose in the early Sixties. These earlier, seemingly larger crises, were arguably more about the way the CPGB perceived the international communist movement and the centrality of the need for the defence of the USSR than about how it saw itself as the vanguard of a British revolution. The oddity about the much deeper divisions which arose from 1968 was that, whilst ostensibly about the USSR and the socialist camp, underpinning the controversy was a deep crisis of confidence in whether or not there was a role at all for a distinctive Marxist voice within the progressive movement in Britain. Added to this was doubt about whether that progressive movement was best orientated around the labour movement or not.

 

Perhaps not knowing it at the time, those who were later to abolish the CPGB already doubted the validity of the concept of a revolutionary party. The present writer has it on good authority that Gordon McLennan was privately voicing to a Party school for advanced and senior cadres as early as 1972, whether there was a basis for an existence of a Communist Party in this country. Arguably, the inner-party turmoil of the next twenty years were simply about keeping hold of the assets and good name of the Party, whilst expunging the organisation of any element which would not go along with this process.

 

It is in this sense that the divisions were potentially, as it turned out actually, terminal. Whilst the actual experience of those divisions in the YCL display for posterity the larger and later experience of the Party. Since 1929, the Communist movement in Britain had rarely had such fundamental differences emerge so openly, and so deeply across the Party and YCL, in such a way as to raise a doubt about what constituted failure to fight for decisions. In practice it was but a thin line between excluding candidates on the basis of failing to fight for majority decisions and excluding those who had minority opinions. For it would increasingly become a severe impediment to leadership hopes in the YCL (and later in the Party) to have strong dissenting views. Moreover, the leadership itself began to operate in a factional way - opposition versus executive (or to be more precise Political Committee) - excluding those from amongst its number who could not be relied upon, in an increasingly wider frame of definition.

 

The entire spirit behind the notion of democratic centralism abhorred the creation of factions. Whilst the notion of the recommended list, in theory, worked on the basis of consensus on what kind of leadership was required. Even so, there was no bar as such to any delegate proposing an alternative list of one, two, three or thirty candidates. Indeed, at the 1979 CPGB Congress Dave Cook spoke for a long list of alternative names by the simple expedient of naming them in his speech during the closed session debate on the EC elections. The recommended list system however presumes, as the NC statement on YCL Unity put it that "having a minority viewpoint is not in itself a basis to be excluded from positions of leadership, but failure to fight for majority decisions ... is such a basis".

 

The process of election was wide open to PC fractional influence - despite the theory that the congress was supreme in its choice. Initial ideas on a recommended list would be put by the General Secretary to the PC, which in turn put its view to the EC, which in turn produced a list for the Election Preparations Committee, which in turn produced such a list for the Congress. While there would inevitably be alterations - and that was the point of the system - between each of these stages, individual candidates could emerge as the process unfolded; a leadership bent on exclusion of a given trend could easily do so. The EC was thus increasingly more unrepresentative of the whole YCL, albeit representative of the majority of the congress, and the complaint of the opposition increasingly centred on such a suggestion. The repudiation of the leadership of this accusation was simply that a minority view was not a condition for membership of leading committees.

 

Differences did exist however over the question of industrial activity, especially on the degree of its importance - some saw it as central, others as important to a lesser or greater degree. If activity amongst young workers was relevant then of course so was the other key area of YCL membership - school students. Inevitably, the character of Challenge then current raised much concern especially in the context of what the journal of the YCL was for. A groundswell of opinion in the League was to build up around the simple notion that Challenge ought to reflect the work of the League in these spheres, both as an independent organisation and as part of movements specific to these spheres. These three cardinal areas of difference were set to provide the League with an explosive situation. Differences around the League's position on international matters, a serious test of the leadership' ability to maintain unity in diversity and to translate that into a healthy, positive and expansive atmosphere all came together in a critical moment of doubt. In particular, Tom Bell, as national leader, faced the most taxing assessment of his own role in the organisation he ostensibly led. How then did these three factors contribute to this situation?

 

a) Young Workers

 

The British Labour Movement had long displayed a history of a contempt for youth, assigning militancy to the follies of immaturity, and assuming a studied disregard for the particular problems of young people which face them by virtue of their age as well as class. Unlike many working class movements in other countries, British counterparts have rarely considered the need to establish special bodies, sub-committees, conferences and the like, for youth. More especially is this so for trade union organisations.

 

One of the first real attempts to reverse this contempt was put to the TUC in 1928 by the AEU, which has always displayed an interest in youth matters, by virtue of an endemic concern for apprenticeships of a craft nature. Indeed the AEU, later the AEF and then the AUEW (Engineering Section), long maintained a youth structure of its own, part and parcel of the "adult" machinery of the union. However, that early attempt came to naught, but the Scottish TUC decided to hold an annual youth conference from 1937 and this has been so for all but the war years ever since. In 1947 the British TUC General Council discussed the experiences of these Scottish TUC Youth Conferences, but went no further. The following year a motion was put to set up some form of a youth structure, but this was defeated. The issue would not go away though - in 1954 the General Council was forced to prove its interest by making a statement urging more participation of younger union members.

 

Under pressure from the AEU in 1955, the General Council told the union that it considered that there was enough being done in respect of youth. The next year, the clerical workers union, CAWU, and the AEU presented a motion favouring the establishment of a youth conference and committee of the TUC. The advisory body would be comprised of young workers elected at an annual youth conference and some General Council members, but the notion was just too much for the TUC and it failed to win sufficient support.

 

Throughout the 1950s there were sporadic and significant apprentices strikes in engineering and shipbuilding, testament both to the organising influence of the Communist Party in these industries and to the growing awareness of strength and the contradictory lack of say on their lot amongst young workers. Attempts to channel this discontent into more long-term organised forms took off only in a few areas. Engineering youth committees in Sheffield and the Clydeside, trades council advisories in Coventry and Birmingham and youth unemployed committees in the North East were amongst some of the products of this period. But the official trade union youth structure was largely limited to the AEU and to the draughtsmen's and technicians union (AESD, then DATA, later TASS), which were briefly in the AUEW/TASS federation, which was later to split. This loose and short-lived alliance contained the anomalous position of the AUEW having a national youth conference but no national committee, while TASS had a national youth committee, but no national youth conference.

 

The YCL had been fairly well involved in the engineering struggles of youth in the North, the Midlands and Scotland in the Fifties and early Sixties, while it had engaged in campaigns around youth unemployment in the 1962-3 period, especially on the Tyneside. By the late Sixties, the League had begun to once again centre its attentions on these matters. Challenge sponsored a largely London based conference on automation and youth in 1967, while towards the end of the year a one day YCL national industrial conference was called with 39 attending - it had been hoped that some 60 would attend. The Party had a clear presence, Julie Jacobs from the National Industrial Department was there with a colleague, to hear the conference assessment that the YCL had "not worked amongst young workers for a long time" and its determination to change that. [YCLIB December 1967]

 

There were exceptions, which highlighted some very interesting possibilities for the YCL. It was able to boast that Mick Shepherd, convenor of stewards at the Sheffield factory of Shardlows, was a member. Despite being unusually young for such a position, he was substantially assisted in obtaining the convenorship by being a Communist. There were then 73 Communists out of a workforce of 1,300. 100 copies of the Morning Star were sold every day inside the factory, apart from the many Party members who had it ordered at their local newsagent, and there was even a Party factory newspaper called Crankshaft.

 

In Dundee, a Junior Workers Committee of the AEU had been set up with YCLers playing a leading part. There were YCLers active in a variety of such committees throughout the country in both the AEU and DATA. The League very soon found itself with a small industrial group on the largest building site in Europe - Thamesmead. While Sheffield Trades Council, in October 1969, led by Communists, sponsored a city-wide youth conference, which subsequently resulted in a re-vamped youth committee. Similar conferences were set up elsewhere, at Ealing for example.

 

There was a very real, rising tide of protest amongst young people at work at the effects of the Wilson Labour government's policies on the economy. For the first time, young people felt they had a voice and used it in the face of attacks on their precious and newly acquired standard of living. Young women in particular established a reputation for 'having a go'. At Fords in Dagenham, BSR in East Kilbride and the nurses’ 'Raise the Roof' campaign (both young women’s struggles), all contributed to this trend. The League produced a Young Workers' broadsheet and quickly sold 2,000 copies.

 

When in February 1970, the vote at 18 years of age was eventually conceded, more as a piece of Wilsonian trickery than any genuine response to a much needed democratic reform, the young worker in particular became significant political potential in the eyes of society at large. There were no less than 5 million young workers less than 25 years of age in the early 1970s.

 

Against this entire background, the AEF (as the AEU was now called by virtue of an amalgamation with the foundry workers) Junior Workers' National Conference in March 1970 called for the TUC to set up a national youth conference for the whole of the movement. YCLers were predominantly involved in the work to win this call and the League did not waste much time advancing the case further. The 7th September Lobby Committee was formed to co-ordinate youth to demonstrate outside the Brighton TUC that year in support of the AEF's call.

 

Some 350 people, representing one million trades unionists were elected to lobby and about a quarter of the delegates to the TUC - 250 - signed a petition of support. Vic Feather, the TUC General Secretary was obliged to sympathetically listen to the lobbyers. Arising out of this campaign, 16 local `Youth Conference Committees’ were set up, mainly in the industrial provinces, to campaign for a Youth TUC. Following the TUC Lobby, a national conference was called to campaign for such an end. This was held in Manchester on February 7th 1971. The 7th September Committee was renamed the Trade Union Youth Conference Committee and its national secretary was London YCLer Pete Kavanagh, a 24 year old Dublin-born steel fixer. The national chair was Ian Reekie, a YCLer and firefighter from Edinburgh. (Kavanagh was later, for a period, to become a prominent regional full-time official for the TGWU, concentrating on the London building industry.)

 

There were no less than 450 delegates and 80 observers in attendance at the conference. An unqualified success by any standards, there were 15 trades councils and 32 trade unions represented, the latter of course at a variety of levels. No doubt as a partial response to the pressure, the TUC General Council decided to introduce a special Congress Award for Youth in 1971, still a permanent feature of the trade union movement. Interestingly, throughout the early 1970s, the Award was dominated by YCLers in general and by TASS in particular. The year of the introduction of the Award was also the year of the second lobby of the TUC on the question of a Youth TUC, held this time on September 6th 1971. Trades Council youth committees in Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle, Coventry and many other towns and cities geared themselves up for the campaign.

 

Coventry's committee was typical of many, in that it had been initiated by the YCL, utilising the good offices of the TASS Youth Committee. A 7th September (1970) committee had followed on from the League's activities, which in turn had been bodily transformed into the Trades Council Youth Committee. Coventry sent 15 to the first TUC Lobby, 8 to the second, 10 to the first TUYCC Conference in Manchester and 17 to the second conference in Sheffield. The whole experience was thus a tremendous stimulation towards the establishment of official, yet rank-and-file, trades council youth committees.

 

Over the next couple of years, these bodies were to play a useful part in the overall anti-Tory struggle. Birmingham Trades Council Youth Section organised a march and a meeting on youth unemployment in 1972, while the Midlands Federation of Trades Councils (this was in the days before Regional TUCs, so the body had some importance) organised a one-day conference in September 1972 on the problems of youth. No less than 11 YCLers out of the total of 50 delegates attended. Even more decisive was the fact that the conference had only been organised by virtue of a motion put by Tom Finnemore of the Coventry YCL on behalf of the council's youth committee at the Coventry Trades Council, which had in turn won support at the Midlands Federation. Similar events were called by the London Trades Council, which was able to attract 82 delegates, and the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Counties Trades Council Federation.

 

The YCL was most at the centre of these activities in Scotland, which had a long and strong Communist tradition, as well as a trade union and for that matter youth trade union tradition. Of the 100 delegates to the Scottish TUC Youth Conference in January 1972, as many as 29 were YCL members and the chairman, Ian Reekie, was a prominent YCLer. Another significant voice was John Lyons, secretary of the Glasgow AUEW (as the engineering union was now called following its loose, federative amalgamation with TASS) Junior Workers Committee. Of the committee of seven that was elected, three were in the YCL and "another joined after to make it a majority". [YCLIB January 26th 1972 - the YCLers elected on were Andy Mattson (TASS), John Lyons (AUEW Engineering) and Jim Doolan (ASTMS).] Scotland was to produce in this decade, as in many others, quite a crop of militants. Indeed, by this stage, the YCL was especially well endowed with industrial activists of some note. There was Alan Ritchie, in 1971 a 19 year old shop steward at the Clydeside shipyard of UCS, Tom Brotherstone, another UCS shop steward and also secretary of the Glasgow Trades Council youth section. The League even set up branch of nine at the Robb Caledonian shipyards in Dundee, so successful was its industrial work. Similarly, the YCL was able to establish the Monktonhall pit branch in East Lothian. A colliery branch was even more rare than any kind of industrial branch in the YCL at this time, so this was some achievement even if the membership of 7 was rather small. The YCL in Scotland was especially active in the campaign to save the UCS shipyards. The Scottish Committee of the YCL produced and sold 6,000 of a Special Challenge on the UCS. Many areas of course produced their own leaflets and posters, e.g. London, Bristol and Birmingham. In the North East, there was the example of YCLers like Stuart Hill, the Secretary of Teeside Trades Council in 1972. Generally, the situation elsewhere in the League was very similar, if not so relatively impressive. YCLers were active in a very wide range of trade unions and held many important and not so important posts in the movement. Set against the background of considerable industrial militancy and a great deal of political activity by the trade union movement, it was not to be surprising that the TUC Youth Conference Campaign was successful - as far as it went.

 

The first TUC Youth Conference was held in 1974 after an USDAW motion was passed at the previous year's TUC. Even so, the platform had strongly opposed the USDAW motion until the very last moment. Then, sensing defeat, the General Council switched to supporting it, reversing its previous 18 to 13 vote of opposition in a complete and rather inexplicable somersault. The conference, held on February 22nd, attracted 90 delegates from 35 national unions. Although most of the speakers expressed a desire for a formal committee as well as a conference, and thought it better to be able to debate resolutions at the conference and elect their own chair from the floor, the TUC leadership showed little sympathy. Indeed, Congress House - TUC headquarters - staff ensured that the conference had fewer rights than the TUC Women's Conference and that both were rigidly controlled. The chair was appointed, not elected, no motions were allowed, the agenda organised without reference to anyone outside Congress House, let alone affiliated unions. Finally, the conference came to no decisions at all, for it was not allowed to. Despite a brief attempt to campaign for a democratisation of the TUC Youth Conference, from hereon, despite the conference's continuation, the League did not truly take up the full possibilities of the TUC Youth Conference and it remains a stagnant force.

 

The third conference in 1976 had 81 delegates present and there were strong tensions between the platform and the floor of conference. 77 delegates signed a petition protesting at the actions of the chair in cutting short the debate on the need to democratise conference. Unemployment - rapidly soaring under a Labour government was a big issue, but not with the TUC which was tied to support for the Social Contract. The Congress House arranged agenda hardly featured the question. Of course it became increasingly difficult for the leadership of the trade union movement to control their rank-and-file membership on the issue of the Government’s Social Contract. The AUEW Youth Conference in 1977 voted 25 to 9 with 3 abstentions to oppose the Social Contract and youth were never shy in advancing their needs when challenged by the monetarist policies Labour was now following.

 

The YCL now began to show greater interest in the arena of youth unemployment. In early 1976, the League initiated the formation of CAYU, the Campaign Against Youth Unemployment, the honorary Vice-Presidents of which were Joan Lestor MP and John Forrester, National official of AUEW/TASS. Bob Boyton was the National Secretary and Ian Ritchie the National Chairman. In the summer of 1976, Liverpool Trades Council Youth Committee proposed a lobby of Parliament for November 3rd. Some five hundred turned out on the lobby, which was somewhat overshadowed by a campaign against public expenditure cuts, held on the same day.

 

Steve Munby, editor of Challenge, in the June 1978 issue of Marxism Today saw the way forward for CAYU as needing to develop an image that will capture "popular imagination" whilst such an image would only be drawn from "within the arena of contemporary youth culture." CAYU had the support of the National League of Young Liberals, whose national conference in April 1978 resolved as such. The Labour Party Young Socialists seemed initially to support CAYU, but abhorring the heavy YCL domination of the group, now that the LPYS was Militant dominated, it split off to form its own supposedly broad based campaign. Called the Youth Campaign Against Unemployment, this never really broke free of the LPYS at all. While the YCL's initiative was similarly organisationally hide-bound, it did reach out to ordinary youth in many areas. CAYU and YCAU engaged in an unproductive war of paper for a short while. The essence of the LPYS's position was that unemployment was a class issue, that youth could not be separated off from adults. Youth needed to campaign against unemployment, but it was considered by LPYS to be sectarian and un-Marxist to campaign just against youth unemployment.

 

CAYU eventually found a niche in its campaign for drop-in centres for the rapidly rising level of young unemployed. In the course of the late 1970s, drop-in centres were set up in Leicester, Peckham and Brent. CAYU's campaign saw local groups organise all-night vigils - in the case of Coventry, outside the old Fire Station, which had become a Job Creation Scheme. Coventry CAYU’s main thrust was the need for real jobs, not schemes. Nationally, CAYU organised an event outside the 1978 TUC, which it styled the "Other TUC", to draw attention to the rising tide of unemployment. Meanwhile cities like Birmingham, which had wound up its Trades Council Youth Committee when the Youth TUC was set up, re-formed youth committees as it became clear that it could not do the job. Birmingham's committee soon organised a 200 strong youth demonstration in February 1976 against unemployment.

 

100 delegates attended the Ninth TUC Youth Conference in February 1982 from 40 unions. The traditional tensions were evident as ever, but the YCL's influence was now minimal. Militant/LPYS was much more to the fore. Moreover, it was the Baker's, Food and Allied Workers Union whose general secretary was a Militant supporter, which put forward a motion dealing with youth at the TUC in September of that year. The motion rather stupidly left itself wide open for criticism as failing to appreciate the realities of the jealously guarded individual independence of member unions within the TUC. Such independence is safeguarded only by the knowledge that TUC policy can only be determined at the annual congress itself, that congress from which the very organisation gets its name. The Bakers’ motion demanded a two day youth conference and a youth committee that could initiate campaigns. But it also spoke of the need for the Youth Conference to “receive motions from constituent unions (to) be debated and policy on young workers be adopted by the youth conference". Moreover, the fact that the Youth Committee, under this motion, could campaign on these policies independent of the TUC was almost calculated to raise the maximum opposition.

 

A delegate from the Institute of Professional and Civil Servants spoke against the motion, arguing that there was a "danger that policies (thus) adopted would be unrepresentative and, because of this, could clash with Congress or individual union policies". As if that was not enough to once again make the issue of democratising the Youth Conference a non-starter, Bill Keys of the printworkers union, SOGAT, opposed the motion for the General Council. In so doing, he made a similar point - that the motion could create a youth movement which was not "accountable to the General Council or indeed, for that matter, to the national executive councils of the various unions. It is power without responsibility, and we do not even give that power, may I say, to the Women's TUC".  [TUC Report 1982]

 

b) School Students

 

The right-wing pressure group inside the Tory Party, the Monday Club, ascribed to the YCL a decisive role in the organisation of the school students movement in the 1970s. To the extent that the role of the Communist Party students active in the NUS is also recognised, then this estimate was largely true. The Monday Club noted that the League was "instrumental in setting up the Islington Schools Committee ... which led to militancy among pupils in the area" and that "many YCLers have been active in setting up schools councils. Magazines are devoted to these themes, KRAKEN in N London; RED HERRING in Hemel Hempstead; and the voice of W Midlands school students under close YCL direction, has been heard in their magazine CHANGE ... the YCL announced plans to build and develop a schools section within the NUS ... which is firmly established as an infant conceived by the YCL, and nurtured by the NUS." [Sam Swerling "Who's Getting at Our Kids?" Monday Club Home Affairs Committee]

 

YCL districts like the Midlands were thinking of forming 6th Formers' Committees as early as May 1968. An assessment had been made that the spirit of rebellion amongst university and college students was likely to overspill into schools. Towards the end of the year, the League was gearing itself up to a nationally co-ordinated campaign in schools. Political activity was reported in Belle View Grammar School in Bradford and in Hemsworth Grammar School, near Pontefract. Similar such experiences were quite common in most parts of the YCL, whilst mass spontaneous action also occurred.

 

In Cardiff that year, a magazine called "Ashes and Grapes" was produced by school students and a two hundred strong conference was organised in the city, which resulted in the establishment of the Cardiff Union of School Students, which formed links with similar groups in Bristol and Swansea. In Manchester, some two hundred school students went on strike against conditions at their school, the Miles Platting. Of particular concern was the use of the `tawse', a fringed leather strap used to beat students as a form of punishment.

 

Similar pressures built up in London and, as a response to the need for co-ordination, the Schools Action Union (SAU) was formed in January 1969. As part of its campaign for genuinely comprehensive education, the SAU organised a demonstration in June 1969 to Dulwich College, a selective school in South London, to test the openness of its `Open Day'! Whilst a strike was also called for the last day of the Christmas term in 1969, admittedly a very likely day for unrehearsed absenteeism, but reflective of the confidence and boldness of the organisation. The SAU also produced a newspaper, the `Vanguard', the very title of which betrays a certain ultra-leftism which always tended to dog the union. At times, there were Maoist or anarchist tendencies in the leadership. Typical of the rhetoric of Vanguard was the oft-used slogan "Smash the Dictatorship of the Head". Even so, many YCLers in London were very active in the SAU. Julius Robinson, the London YCL Schools Organiser, was the London Chair of the SAU in 1970, for example. The SAU claimed 500 members in late 1970, but most of these were in London.

 

YCLers and schools activists of all kinds came under considerable establishment pressure. One YCLer at a prestigious Midlands school found his father under irresistible pressure to remove him from the school, after the boy had refused to name the `cell' of a dozen fellow pupils he had recruited to the League. The head had been a key officer in military intelligence in post-war Germany. His initial brief to de-Nazify youth organisations in the British sector had rapidly changed to an anti-Communist role.  Such a man was able and anxious to tackle what he saw as subversion. Then there was the case of the five 14 year old school students at Kingsdale School in London, who were expelled after the 1969 SAU Christmas strike, their futures potentially ruined by this. Given that taking a day off school in Christmas week was not unknown, simply peacefully picketing the school against corporal punishment and for some sort of say in what went on at school seems little justification for such harassment. Even the normally demure Guardian newspaper commented that “unfortunately for the them they did not sit at home reading comics, got to the pictures or hang about amusement arcades”. [Guardian February 9 1970]

 

More obviously outrageous was the scandal unearthed by students at Warwick University during a sit in. Many documents linking big business to the University were revealed and an unhealthy interest in quite normal political activities was disclosed. The legal director of a Coventry car company spied on a Labour Party meeting to see if anything said could be used against the speaker at law. A letter from the headmaster of the William Ellis School in London to the Tutor for Admissions at Warwick University was found during the sit in. This identified an applicant for entry to the University and added to the usual comments on the UCCA form certain confidential points. The head drew attention to the school student who had applied being pre-occupied "with student politics". He was a committee member of the London SAU. Needless to say, the youth did not become a student at Warwick!

 

The League had faced the upsurge of schools radicalism early and was much clearer about the long-term possibilities for schools activism than the bulk of SAU members. The "Youth Rights" resolution at the 26th Congress had argued for the "setting up of school councils with effective participation by students in school decisions". Moreover, popular matters of discontent were addressed in the call for "the right of senior school students to dress as they wish at school". But, aside from the London SAU work and one issue of a national YCL schools magazine called `Format' in January 1969, little concrete work had been initiated by the national leadership by the time of the 1971 Scarborough National Congress. It was then that the League decided to work for an autonomous section of the NUS for school students.

 

Key to the YCL's strategy was the scheme set up by the NUS in 1968, whereby all full-time scholars over 15 years of age were enabled to join the union under the NUS Scholar Associate Scheme (SAS). The YCL planned to encourage a special union for school students, allied to the NUS, out of this scheme. The potential was enormous. While there were `only' some 12,000 NUS/SAS members in 1971, there were three million schools students aged between 13 and 18 years of age. The NUS executive member responsible for the SAS was a Communist, Jeff Staniforth. He had been President of the NUS at Trent Polytechnic in 1971 and had now become NUS National Treasurer. Clearly, this presented the YCL with something of an opportunity.

 

A composite motion was put forward at the NUS Conference on the 20th and 21st November 1971. Supported by Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol Polytechnic, Garnet College, the Colleges of Education Conference and the NUS Executive itself, it proposed that the NUS would convene Area Conferences at which the setting up of a national union of school students would be debated. The NUS being a federal body, it was not obligatory on NUS Areas to convene such conferences. YCLers were instrumental in many areas in tipping their local NUS into holding conferences and thinking seriously about the matter. The conferences were an unqualified success and a consensus emerged in the NUS that the time was ripe for such a move. Attendance at these conferences was good, varying from 85 in Oxford, to 82 in Islington and 25 in Leicester.

 

After all, this period revealed much evidence of the burgeoning consciousness of young people at school. There was the 1971 trial of the publishers of the celebrated `alternative' hippie magazine `Oz', which produced a special school kids' issue and landed themselves in trouble with the archaic obscenity laws. The contents of Oz and similar publications, such as Frendz and IT, actually paled into insignificance when compared with the hard porn freely available In Soho. It was the focus on young people that had stirred the attention of authority. The longest obscenity trial in British legal history resulted in savage sentences of 15 months imprisonment only quashed on appeal after a wave of public protest. There was also the `Little Red School Book', the title of which recalled the radicalism of Mao's `little red book'. The schools version would have horrified the puritanical Red Guards, with its attempts to inform school students on all the mysteries of life - drugs, sex and adults! For his pains, Richard Handyside - the proprietor of Stage 1, the publisher, was convicted of `possession of an obscene article for gain' and the book had to appear heavily censored thereafter.

 

The YCL not only co-operated with Communist students who were active in the NUS in building support for a NUSS, it also geared up its own membership. Two issues of the League's new school's journal, "Tolpuddle" came out after the 1971 Congress, the second in a print of 1,500. An effective Schools' Organiser was found - Nic Mitchell, an 18 year old school student who was editor of "Cherry Red", a broad schools magazine circulating in London with a print run of several hundreds. A national conference of YCL school students was held with an attendance of 35 from 7 districts. No less than 16 of these were from the Midlands, reflecting the strength of that YCL District’s work in schools, and which justified the holding of the conference in Birmingham. Of other YCL Districts, London sent 6, East Midlands 4, South East Midlands 3, North West 3, Surrey 2 and Wales 1.  

 

The founding conference of the NUSS was held on May 20th 1972, attended by one hundred delegates from the thirty Area Conferences of the NUS/SAS. A twelve-strong National Executive was elected, no less than half of which were YCLers.

 

The first President of the union and chair of the conference was Walsall YCLer, Mary Attenborough (left), who had joined the YCL around the age of 16 in 1970 in Walsall in the West Midlands. She came from a Communist family, her uncle, Bill Evans, being a stalwart in Leeds for many years, latterly in the CPB; and her parents were Morning Star readers until their deaths. She became especially active in YCL schools work and was a member of the YCL (West) Midlands District Committee. On one occasion, when YCL publicity materials (probably the Midlands YCL school students’ bulletin, `Change’) were being distributed outside the school, there was quite a public commotion involving her.

 

A Superintendent of the local police revealed to the Walsall Observer, the local paper, that he had taken Special Branch advice on the matter. As far as he could tell, no offence was committed! With sinister implications meant, the unidentified Attenborough (a pupil at the school!) was referred to in the article as "the woman in grey", a reference to the colour of her coat. (Attenborough was later also elected President of her Students’ Union at university, and continued in CPGB membership to 1991.)

 

Alongside work such as this, a twenty-five point charter of campaign points was adopted, alongside a constitution that provided for four members of the NUSS before a branch could be started. There was now a very solid base of schools groups up and down the country from which the NUSS could grow.

 

In London, there were publications like Cherry Red, which could be used to promote the NUSS. But there were also existing groups such as the Enfield Forum, the Elliott School Council, the Prendergast Political Society and the Islington School Students Committee. The latter was based on six local comprehensive schools. The YCL had distributed three sets of leaflets at each school before the group took off. At its peak, the committee involved some forty activists and produced a magazine called "Kraken".      

 

The school students' movement now clearly became significant, even in the eyes of its detractors, especially in London. In schools in Westminster and Forest Hill, mass petitions supporting potential victimisation pre-empted such intentions. Whilst a largely spontaneous reaction to authoritarianism resulted in the May 1972 strike of some eight thousand schools students against the use of the cane. The SAU sought to claim credit for these events, but many schools were unorganised and even where there were members of either the NUSS or the SAU, there was rarely a coherent leadership. The SAU's increasingly sectarian approach inevitably divorced it from the bulk of school students and led many activists into the blind alley of challenging authority per se, rather than building on genuine mass issues of concern. The YCL took the view that "strikes should only be called if they are well organised and if other methods have failed to realise just demands". [YCLIB June 9th 1972] None the less, many YCLers had played a significant role in the SAU and were able to bring many into activity within the NUSS.

 

Elsewhere in the country, there had been similar activity that provided a sound base for the NUSS. In Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, the schools magazine "Red Herring" began selling three hundred copies, rising to seven hundred.  This was formally a SAU journal, but was in fact produced by the local YCL branch, with LPYS and IS support. YCLer, John Chamberlain, was its editor. No less than one hundred copies of the Little Red School Book were sold in Hemel by the Red Herring group. However, the inevitable tension between the left groups resulted in a spilt and the YCL then produced its own "Red Lines" as a local paper for schools, which ran to a dozen issues or so.

 

The tendency for schools magazines providing the basis for local activity, leading to groups, continued into the NUSS's existence. "School Students Voice" was the organ of Leicester Area NUSS and this played some part in stimulating schools strikes against heating cuts. In Glasgow, the NUSS produced "Task".

 

There had been some 1,500 NUS/SAS members in the Birmingham area, a very large proportion of the overall total. Not surprisingly, therefore, the NUSS took off quite well there and generally in the Midlands. Ann Davies, the External Affairs Officer of the NUS at Birmingham University called the first public meeting to set up an embryo NUSS in March, even before the formal founding of the organisation at national level. The Midlands YCL was strongly committed to the notion of the NUSS, witnessed by its production of the first NUSS President. The District YCL published a schools journal called "Change" and this was printed every school term from 1971 to 1973, three hundred copies of the last issue being produced. The first NUSS conference for the Midlands was held in Birmingham in 1972 and there were eight YCLers in attendance out of the total of sixty present. These eight played a key role in the meeting and, of the four delegates elected to represent the Midlands at the national conference, two were YCLers. Testament to the quality of the Midlands delegate conference was the fact that 22 schools were represented. Mary Attenborough's leadership role was perhaps the key to the successful work in the Midlands. She attended the elite Queen Mary School in Walsall. On one occasion, when publicity materials (probably Change) were being distributed outside the school, there was quite a public commotion. A Superintendent of the local police revealed to the Walsall Observer that he had taken Special Branch advice on the matter and that, as far as he could tell, no offence was committed! With sinister implications meant, the unidentified Attenborough was referred to in the article as "the woman in grey", a reference to the colour of her coat.

    

On March 1973, sixth formers at a similar establishment, King Edward's High School for Girls in Birmingham, boycotted lessons and picketed outside their school in support of a campaign for higher student grants, thus backing the NUS on the occasion of its one day strike on the issue.

 

The Manchester Union of School Students pre-dated the NUSS and now formed its local organisation. Like other areas after the national union was formed, the schools magazine "School Oddity" continued as an official publication. In one Manchester school in 1972, four hundred school students massed in the playground to protest against the Head's action in suspending a pupil for NUSS activities. A delegation was sent to the Head but this was threatened with expulsion. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the Local Education Authority and the victimised NUSS member was re-instated.

 

Seventy delegated attended the annual NUSS conference in October 1972, designated as the first proper conference. Attenborough retired as President, the position being an annual one given the age of the incumbents. Another Communist, Bob Leeson, was elected as the second President, now a full time post paying £18 a week. This was not a particularly high wage for full time employment, reasonable perhaps for an 18 year old, but to most school students it must have seemed a fortune, hence there was a certain amount of controversy over this. The union now had four thousand members and ambitiously, but seriously, aimed for forty thousand as a short-term goal. The second conference elected Simon Keys as the third President in May 1973 and a National Organiser to accompany him. A YCLer, Simon Emerson, took this post. The NUSS had now expanded to around 10,000 members in May and 12,000 in August of 1973. There was a twenty strong national executive with six national officers. But there were political problems.

 

In his retiring speech, Leeson said that the union would "find strength not only in its size and ability to move and lead the majority of school students but also by being united within itself. Decisions should be fought out within conferences of the union, but after that the need was to fight for these policies in a united way." This was a classic Communist view of how mass organisations should ideally work, but the NUSS was in fact becoming a minor battleground of struggle between every conceivable left group. This greatly contributed to firstly divorcing the union by gradual degrees from the YCL and then to weakening the organisation.

 

Even more decisive in undermining the vigour of the NUSS was the hostility of the teachers' unions to its very existence. Whilst the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teachers’ union in Scotland, supported NUSS both the NUT and the Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses were strongly opposed. Most embarrassing for the YCL (for the Communist Party officially supported the NUSS), one of the Party's most well known teachers' activists, Max Morris, was violently and publicly hostile to the new union. Morris had been President of the NUT for a period and was generally a respected headmaster in the education world. But he vigorously suppressed the NUSS in his own school. (Subsequently, he became a less than left wing Labour councillor in Haringey.) The YCL EC was driven to formally writing to the CPGB EC, asking it to "advise Comrade Morris to reverse the position at his school in relation to the NUSS". [YCL EC minutes 12th/13th October 1974]               

 

Aside from such embarrassments, the NUSS was able to mount several significant campaigns in this period. In the autumn of 1973, the union launched a high profile campaign against corporal punishment, with the support of some thirty MPs. Although a vote in Parliament on the issue went against the NUSS, the initiative went with the grain of history and the union continued to press the issue, eventually helping this much needed reform to reach fruition. Another highly publicised campaign was that to win the re-instatement of an Edgware activist. This was successful only after he had been suspended for 15 weeks for superficial and probably spurious reasons. The real, underlying cause was a dislike of the student's questioning of petty rules and the misuse of authority by prefects to harass NUSS members. In a bizarre last minute twist, the suspended pupil received a copy of a letter actually intended for a school governor from the LEA. This strongly recommended his re-instatement, but urged this be done in such a way as not to give the NUSS any credence.

 

A distinct lack of momentum emerged in NUSS activities in 1974. The YCL noted that schools work was at low ebb, only five districts even had YCL Schools Organisers. Simon Emerson reported on that year's NUSS conference to the June EC of the YCL. Only fifty delegates had attended, of these there were 12 YCL members and 8-10 were "dodgy or don't know". The `dodgy ' category was probably the ultra-leftists in the "School Students Alliance", a loose amalgam of Trotskyist groups. 26 were independent of such clear political allegiances, but were "more or less broad left". Of the 20 NUSS national committee members elected that year an extraordinary 11 were YCL members! [Personal notes of the author of the YCL EC June 22/23 1974]

 

Things picked up a little in 1975, with 90 in attendance at the July annual NUSS conference, where "for the first time delegates belonging to youth political groups were in a minority". The National Organiser's position was made full time, though most NUSS branches were still very weak and membership was nominally around 10-15,000. The organisation was so shaky that no one really knew actual membership and financial viability really depended upon the NUS's hidden subsidies. President for 1975-6 was Dave Patterson. The number of delegates to national conference was down again in 1976, when Dan Hopewell and Toby Brown were President and Vice-President respectively, both being Islington YCLers.    

 

That year, the NUSS organised a lobby of Parliament on caning, which was backed up by local boys at Alleyn's School in South London staged a sit-down protest for one hour in opposition to compulsory Army Cadet membership. Such events were, however, becoming sporadic. In 1977, pupils at East London's Wanstead High, encouraged by a students occupation at Loughton College, voted in a mass meeting by 190 to 70 votes to occupy part of the school in protest at education cuts.  There being only some 50 NUSS members at the school at the time, the event is of some interest in highlighting the possibility for mass involvement led by a few. A one-day's occupation of the 6th Form common room saw speeches from Dan Hopewell, NUSS President, and the school's NUSS branch chair. The staff were largely supportive, whilst the head remained diplomatically neutral.

 

During this period, both the YCL and the NUSS prepared and presented evidence to the Taylor Committee, which had been set up by the Government to look into the management and government of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. This finally reported in September 1977, backing the notion of pupil representation on schools boards. But no clear view was put on the mechanism for lowering the minimum age requirement for membership of boards, with Taylor vaguely commenting that 16 years would be appropriate.

 

By 1978, when the NUSS conference elected John Mumford, a 16 year old Labour Party member from Harlech, as President, the union had failed to seriously advance. The writing was on the wall. Mumford's view was that the organisation had been too "bureaucratic in many ways. We've been sticking to procedure, being extremely constitutional, rather than discussing what needs to be done and getting on and doing it. People have finally begun to realise that we're not the Transport and General Workers Union."  Such an analysis, whether correct or not, did not address the fundamental crisis affecting both the wider progressive movement and broader democratic and demographic changes. An end to deference as a social obligation was widespread. In a sense, the NUSS was a victim of its own successes and the YCL suffered too. That year's YCL school students' conference held in November had only 20 delegates at it. The rapid decline of independent school students' organisation took place amidst many factors. Changes in the NUS leadership, in how young people, especially students, perceived themselves and a radical shift in the philosophy of the educational establishment all conspired to undermine the NUSS. The tensions between left groups that sought to capture the NUSS and the wider crisis in the YCL contributed to the effective collapse of the union.

 

 

c) Challenge

 

Challenge had been the paper of the YCL since 1938 but it had been in many different formats. In November 1967, after the 26th Congress at Skegness authorised a change in style, it became a magazine. The editorial style of George Bridges was largely influenced by the then youth cult journals such as Private Eye, Oz and others. The new Challenge tended towards a heavy concentration on pop music and, after about a dozen or so issues, gravitated towards a rather commercial form of `sexploitation' by the gratuitous use of female nudes to `brighten up' the magazine. As it got into its stride, the coverage of pop and sport shot up. Most of this was quite unrelated to any form of political analysis. Supporters of the new image argued that the magazine tried to relate to youth `where they were at', in the jargon of the time. Critics in the League called it a political Private Eye, meaning this as an insult.

 

In September 1969, Surrey YCL proposed that the district produce its own paper, a notion understandably rejected outright by the NC which voted overwhelmingly to prohibit such a move. But the concern about the new style magazine was by no means restricted to the Surrey-ites. The delight in trivialisation, which rather marked the magazine, was well illustrated when a Tory minded young woman wrote a serious, if somewhat insulting letter to Challenge which was published. Her letter queried whether the Tories ever did anything good at all. The editor's riposte was that Iain McLeod, a senior Conservative, had done a good turn by recently dying.

 

Blatant sexism crept into the magazine, at first in the form of a regular series of small advertisements for Challenge subscriptions which, against the background of scantily clad, bikini wearing models, asked the question: "Are you getting it regularly?" Barbara Castle's controversial trade union legislation, hastily withdrawn after concerted union opposition, provided an opportunity for further ribaldry. A front-page poster of a young woman's legs, her knickers around her ankles, was graced with the motto: "Down with Barbara's laws - up with Trade Union rights".

 

Issue 16 of Challenge saw a full-page article entitled "Who says no nudes is good nudes?" Four letters of protest and the Editorial Board's reply were printed. The latter essentially argued that the disputed pictures illustrated the articles and in any case "women's bodies are attractive, interesting and visually exciting. How bad." The National Gallery was cited in defence of this position. The criticisms continued however, so Issue No 18 in February 1970 again took up the argument. This time there was a double spread letters page, featuring a remarkably provocative photograph of a de-personalised female torso.

 

It was clear by now to most YCLers that the magazine had gone just too far in attempting to popularise Communism as part of young people's lives by linking it to popular images and ideas, without distinction or selection. During 1970 nudes were phased out of the magazine, the occasional swim suited figure adorning holiday advertisements in socialist countries remaining as a tongue in cheek swipe at those who had protested against the leadership.

 

Issues such as this aside, there was a real crisis of confidence developing in the League over the direction Challenge was taking. The magazine did not appear for seven months in 1969. The next year, the editor reported that sales were "at a low ebb". He admitted that the standard of the magazine was "in some way `out of step' with the League". The YCL's Internal Bulletin mused that Challenge ought to "reflect the Anger and Militancy developing in our class". [YCL IB 18th November 1970] The editorship of George Bridges ended in 1969 when he left to go into full time study. His replacement was Pete Frost, who stayed as a full time editor until January 1971, continuing part time until March 1971. The election of a Tory Government and the subsequent reaction against its policies by the Labour Movement radically changed the political mood of the country. This mood had its effect on the YCL and Challenge in particular. At the April 1971 Congress, a resolution from the `centrist' Midlands and Scottish Districts was carried overwhelmingly, against the recommendation of the NC. This sought to change Challenge completely from the pop style magazine to a campaigning newspaper, with a special emphasis on young workers and school students. That the composite was carried by 230 votes to 38 is in itself indicative of not only the dissatisfaction in the League with their journal but also the poor quality of Challenge as part of the proud and competent heritage of Communist journalism.

 

Nic Benson of Bristol moved the composite, which was critical of some academic articles and the lack of relevant campaigning material in Challenge. (Benson resigned from the NC early in 1970, disagreeing with the YCL's "attitude to the Labour party, or concept of Left Unity, and our conditions of membership". [NC Minutes 25th/26th April 1970]  The "failure of the old National Committee" was highlighted in the resolution and it was argued that Challenge needed to be more popular in that it not only relate to youth, but also move them "to thought and political action of a progressive nature". This Congress also passed motions on young workers’ and school students' policy, which provided for very ambitious and far-reaching campaigns by the League. The whole tenor of the Congress was one of militant class struggle.

 

Following this Congress, a new editor was appointed. This was Brian Filling, a 24 year old computer operator for IBM, who took over in July 1971. Filling had been chair of the National Student Committee of the CPGB and was now YCL Scottish Education Organiser. To give Filling a chance to move to London and acclimatise himself, a Summer Special edition of Challenge in broadsheet format was produced and a launch date for a new series of Challenge was set for October 1971.

 

The new Challenge had a markedly different flavour to its predecessor. Class conflict, especially economic struggles, came much more to the fore. The following summary of the front pages of the first fourteen issues gives a feel of this:

 

 

  • 1 Tories Out - Make Socialism Our Future
  • 2 The Tories think of us a just a row of figures on a balance sheet - Fight Unemployment
  • 3 1,000,000 reasons to make the Tory Govt REDUNDANT! (This was a reference to the official level of unemployment, which had hit the politically sensitive figure of one million for the first time since the war.)
  • 4 Tories Out!
  • 5 Follow Our Lead - Smash the incomes policy! (This was accompanied by a graphic of a miner's face.)
  • 6 All Out May 1st (There were unofficial stoppages against the Industrial Relations Act, the Tory anti-union legislation.)
  • 7 Into Battle (There was also a half page newspaper style editorial on the front page.)
  • 8 Arise Ye Workers - kick out the Tories (This was a reference to the dockers imprisoned by anti-union laws, the Pentonville 5, and the slogan on a dockers' shop stewards’ banner.)
  • 9 Tories Out (There was a graphic of a clenched fist hitting out.) Smash the Act now (The Industrial Relation Act.) 
  • 10 New Fair Rent (This referred to Tory legislation attacking council house tenants. The page had a Daz style graphic of an exploding star effect, possibly reflecting the severe arguments which went on amongst the leadership over a need for Challenge to appear `youthful’.) - increases you can really feel
  • 11 USSR 1922-1972 Workers of all countries unite (The coat of arms of the USSR accompanied this front cover which celebrated the relatively unknown anniversary of the formal founding of the federated constitution of the national republics which constituted the Soviet Union. This edition was subject to furious hostility from the bulk of the leadership.)
  • 12 Unite! Act! Defeat the Tories!
  • 13 build a Hospital in North Vietnam (The YCL had a fund raising campaign going on in connection with this.)
  • 14 Use Industrial Action to Smash the Tories.

 

As part of the new policy, regional editorial boards were set up to feed stories, photographs and articles through and provide a basis for campaigning for the paper. Six were established in 1971 but, in truth, they were not very successful as they cut across established district structures and were very difficult to maintain. Indeed, in August 1973, these were altered to district boards. Even then some were not established for quite a while, others never.

 

At the time Filling was editor, Jeff Sawtell found himself asked to become involved in designing Challenge, having been at the Royal College of Art and a member of Fulham and Hammersmith branch, which had formulated the successful Challenge resolution at the 1973 congress, which he had personally moved.  Sawtell was placed onto the editorial board as a designer, having previously produced Artery, covers for Marxism Today and other designs for the Communist movement.

 

Sawtell’s memory of the change of policy and editorship to Brian Filling was that Challenge was suddenly very successful, transforming what had been a moribund paper, owing £500 (a very big sum then) to Farleigh Press, the Party printers in Watford.  These earlier debts were the reason why it was always claimed that Filling could not be paid as a full-time worker. So, he merely worked as editor for nothing, and the paper paid off its debt with massively increased sales of 13,000 of Issue 11, which had celebrated the foundation of the USSR. But this edition sent the revisionist elements wild with anger.

 

Especially following this celebrated edition, Sawtell found himself obliged to frequently personally travel to Farleigh Press, to ensure that Tom Bell hadn¹t changed the content behind their backs. Before that, he and Filling had early on felt themselves forced in the first place to take the paste-ups to Watford personally so as to ensure they got their safely and without silent yet malevolent interference. Indeed, a farcical game ensured whereby they were having to reinsert material after the Farleigh staff, many of whom were Party members sympathetic to what they were doing, told them that Bell and his coterie were turning up unannounced to excise material and replace it with that more to his liking. “It was quite ludicrous,” Sawtell recalls, “a bit like some slapstick film. Us arriving with paste-up, then hiding in an office; they coming in and changing it; we emerging to change it back after they had gone…”

 

Sawtell, amusingly, also recounts that a particular reason for the success of the foundation of the USSR issue was that the design reflected the dichotomy within the YCL. He had designed two covers and these were used with one constituting the front and the other the back. One the front was sported the hammer and sickle, the back featured campaigning on Vietnam. One section of the YCL had no problem with showing the front cover when engaged in street sales; the other felt happier with selling the paper by showing the back cover to the public!

 

Jeff Sawtell was then suddenly administratively removed from working on Challenge. A bizarre and otherwise meaningless explanation was put forward by Phil Greene (perversely, who had been the one who had nominated him in the first place), that the reason was that he was “too influential”. Of course, Sawtell recounts, the real reason was that Greene had now been persuaded by Gordon McLennan to come out in support of Tom Bell in the battle with Brian Filling over Challenge content. Since Jeff Sawtell was solidly allied to Filling, the administrative officials of the Party and YCL were seeking to isolate him and, eventually, he had to go.

 

Even so, Sawtell continued to design and produce Challenge along with Brian Filling. Since the latter was working unpaid as editor full-time, he and his family were subsequently forced to live with Sawtell until they managed to find a one bedroom flat on the border of Shepherds Bush and Kensington. They were there for about six months before Filling was formally removed as editor and returned to Glasgow.

 

Jeff Sawtell even tried repeating his front page/back page formula, but there was now a new editor, unsympathetic to his design style and Challenge didn’t even come out for many months. Interestingly, although sales were now less than impressive, money was immediately found to pay the new editor with.

 

From Issue No 20 a new editor was in the chair. Filling moved back to Scotland in the autumn of 1974 and came off the editorial board. Ian Findlay was made editor, although not on a full time basis, he being employed as a teacher, and Alan Speck was made Assistant Editor. Significantly, the editorial board was expanded to include Tom Bell and others. Furious controversy had previously visited every issue of Challenge, with Bell seeking to lighten the flavour and Filling reacting by stiffening every issue with hard politics. Filling's departure marked the end of a long period of internal strife in the national office, which had seeped onto the executive. Filling may have lacked `youthfulness’, whatever that was, but he had a political gravitas that reflected badly on his General Secretary. Thankful though Bell was to see Filling depart, the loss of the full-time position was unarguably a big set back and the paper was in serious debt. Farleigh Press, the Party owned printers, was owed £667 and a bank overdraft of £70 existed, both very considerable sums at the time.

 

There were significant changes at the 1973 Congress, with Bell having it much more his own way. Policy on Challenge was varied to actually match the style of the paper as it had now become under Findlay's editorship, who was very close politically to Bell. The 29th Congress determined that Challenge should "reflect the lives and struggles of young people and YCL members. It should take measures to cater for their wider interests in life, with articles from a communist viewpoint, featuring the social and cultural interests of young people's lives."  

 

Left: 1975 YCL poster

 

Very soon, Challenge began to show signs of harkening back to the old magazine. In 1974, Issue 22 headed its article about pen friends in the socialist states: "Hey: what's it like down in the salt mines?” While Private Eye style speech balloons appeared on photographs bearing poor jokes. More positively, questions concerning gay politics began to be treated seriously for the first time. Articles about the politics of leisure emerged and, with 1975 being International Women's Year, the politics of feminism began to be covered. For the 1975 Congress decided that Challenge should "give a Communist view to a variety of themes young people can relate to". A full time editor was to be appointed for a trial nine months. In October of that year, Paul Bradshaw became editor from Issue 27. Questions of black politics, reggae music and anti-racism became a marked feature of Challenge's style. In 1976, the full time editorship was restored and the quality and frequency of the paper was much improved. To ensure that the full time position was maintained, the CPGB launched a £3,500 appeal for the ten week period from September 11th.

 

From Issue No 50 another editor took over, this was Steve Munby. Then aged 23 years, he had been the Leeds branch secretary. After graduating from university he became the Yorkshire District Secretary. In the latter stages of Bradshaw's editorship the journal adopted the League's new policy of seeing life styles as central. In a conscious way, Challenge now took on the new youth cult of punk music and culture. Punk's "non-passive and participatory nature" was particularly valued, as one letter writer and future editor, Chris Ramsey, wrote in Issue 48 (November/December 1977). Early in 1978, punk featured in no less than five full pages over three issues.

 

After Munby became the National Organiser, there was a need to find a replacement. Two nominations for editor emerged. Sean Feeney, a 26 year old post-graduate at Essex University was one, and Chris Horrie, a 21 year old former social science student at Warwick University, the other. Both had been active in the YCL in their hometowns and were now each available part-time. In consequence, a co-editorship was arrived at. However, within a very short space of time, change was once again upon Challenge. Another editor, Ted Wassell, brought another style to what was now, after a decade, once again a magazine.  The fortunes of Challenge had closely followed those of the YCL itself. Its content and style, the `market’ it aimed at, had varied according to the changes in the nature and politics of the leadership. A key argument had been over the quality of `youthfulness’. Before exploring the factional end facing the League, it may be useful to now consider just how young the YCL had been at different stages and whether this had a material effect or not. 

 

A note on Challenge circulation

 

(See chart which follows)

 

Challenge circulation steadily dropped from nine thousand in 1971 to just a little over four thousand nearer the end of the decade. The summer 1971 broadsheet, produced to fill the gap between editors and allow Brian Filling time to settle in, received orders of around 17,000. Although this publication was intended to last the League for several months’ street-selling. Ian Findlay became editor from Issue 20 when circulation dropped from over eight thousand before he took over, to five thousand when he left. Shortly after Findlay took over, Issue 22 benefited from a sale of 672 copies at a pop concert. A special, unnumbered issue was also produced at this time, with orders of 2,478.  Figures for Issues 31 to 45 had not been attainable, but an election special was produced as issue 43 selling 3,206 copies. Paul Bradshaw was editor from Issue 27, towards the end of his editorship circulation was moving below five thousand. Steve Munby took over from Issue 50 as circulation was moving down below five thousand. All figures quoted are the record of total orders received from districts. For a few issues records of different figures exist and these are for the known sales. Whilst districts were usually invoiced for an amount relating to their actual orders, there were also attempts to establish the true position of total actual sales.

 

 

8) Age and the YCL

 

There were many frequent debates in the YCL about the need to be `youthful'. The concern ostensibly being to avoid getting out of step with the current generation of potential recruits. In the late 1970s, the term age-ism began to be exploited by the YCL's leadership. This was meant in the sense of the sort of chauvinism that women experience from men and blacks receive from whites. It was argued, then certainly with some justification, that older people, particularly middle-aged, white men held patronising views on the young. Yet the attachment to youthfulness, increasingly adopted by the YCL, was rather over-played. A myth emerged that the YCL had not in the past been very youthful and the revisionist leadership were now engaged on a project to rectify that error. Increasingly, trade union activity and a strong adherence to Marxist theory was interpreted as being, per se, non-youthful. Outside of a belief that individuals needed to be culturally, in terms of sport and music, close to the mass of youth a definition of `youthfulness’ seems to have eschewed seriousness of purpose with regard to politics, which any neutral observer would believe was the very point of the YCL. On the other hand, the organisation was created to be a training ground for future activists of the Party. Surely, a lightness of touch, a certain frivolity and fun was an essential requirement for any youth organisation, if it were to attract youth? Was then the nature and age of its leadership critical in this regard? Not if the facts of the League’s age profile in this and earlier periods are to be believed.

 

For the truth is that the YCL has had a remarkably consistent quality of leadership, measured in terms of the length of membership and age of the leadership at all levels. Hence, what became an almost obsessive regard for creating a younger and younger YCL would seem, in retrospect, to have been rooted in a largely sterile debate, irrespective of the apparent merits of the notion. The truth is that `un-youthfulness’ was a term of derision for opponents who used Marxism – whether creatively or dogmatically seemed not to matter much – to argue against the core of revisionist leadership.

 

Some self-regulating mechanism seems to have been at play, which kept the league always roughly in the same state of youthfulness. Perhaps this was connected to the way succeeding school generations relate to each other in tight bands of age span. This phenomenon can also readily be observed in the way such age bands relate to each other as they mature into middle age and beyond. The average age at a few random congresses over the years appears to confirm that there was almost a permanent self-selecting tendency in the age-range of YCLers. Either that or the CPGB held an unbelievably rigid control over the relative youthfulness – in terms of actual age - of the League over many decades. Any informed view from inside suggests that this does not seem feasible. From Lenin to Tom Mann (see preface), seasoned Communists had argued for tolerance of the waywardness of youth. In the conditions of the `friendly society’ of British Communism, this was arguably even more pronounced. Perhaps, rather than there being `Stalinist’ control over the age range, it may be that a socially based consensus existed on the age that it was considered to be appropriate to be in the YCL and that was relatively invariable down the decades.

 

One informed veteran, writing on the YCL during the 1920s, testifies to the "youthful independence of the YCL of those days". [Mick Jenkins February 1972 Marxism Today] At the 4th Congress in the 1920s, the average age of the 120 delegates was 20 years and eight months. Whilst the 300 attending the 12th Congress in 1943 had an average age of 171/2 years, this was an aberration. It is obvious that very large number of young people in their late teens and early twenties serving in the armed forces, who were YCL activists, were unable to be delegates and this doubtless contributed to a distortion of the figures, producing an unusually low average age. Once things were back to normal, as with the 318 delegates attending the 19th Congress in 1952, the average age went back. The 166 males and 75 females representing 151 branches had an average age of 21 years. The 21st Congress in 1956 had 175 full delegates and 36 consultative delegates, 122 males and 53 females, having an average age of 221/2 years. This is perhaps a little higher than the historical trend but may well reflect the difficulties of the Cold War, resulting in cadres staying on in the League longer before moving completely into Party work.

 

Even with these wartime and post-war variations, there does seem to be a consistent average hovering around 20 to 21 years. At the 1963 London District Congress, the average age was 20 years, while the 27th National Congress in 1969 revealed precisely the same average. In the Midlands, the average age of the 25 delegates to the 1967 District Congress was 20 years, the 19 delegates to the 1974 Congress 203/4 years and the 18 delegates to the 1976 Congress, 19 years. These facts drive to a conclusion that, over much of its existence, the YCL was remarkably consistent in producing an average age of activist which coincided with the run up to the then age of majority. [Various YCL Congress documents for the relevant years cited]

 

In the 1970s an abiding myth was generated that the YCL had been a relatively old organisation a decade before. Yet, a study of Birmingham YCL membership in July 1961 shows that, of 106 members, 32 were students or school students. This proportion of 30.2% compares with the 1975 figure of 20%, at the height of the branch's successful involvement in the NUSS. The discrepancy is possibly accounted for by a greater involvement of university students in the YCL in the early 1960s, a tendency that the Party began to deprecate - all the better to isolate the YCL from controversy. In the 1961 Birmingham YCL, a further 18 had been in engineering and the rest were in work but in highly disparate industries. 80 were under 20 years of age, while the actual average age in the branch was 22 years for males and 19 years for females. In Coventry, at the same time, there were 29 members, 14 of who were students of one kind or another. Even so, the average age there was fairly young at 17 years for females and 16 years for males.

 

Looking at the middle level leadership, the Midlands YCL District Committee reveals an extraordinary degree of commonality. It is also worth making a few points about turnover on the Midlands DC at this point, since it is not unrelated to age profile and the Midlands was always a good barometer for the YCL as a whole.  The following figures show remarkable consistency both in age and in length of membership across two quite different decades, the 1950s and the 1970s: 

 

Year DC            Young women   Average age        Average years                      Males    

elected                                            of DC              in membership

 

1955                             9                      22                     4                                  16                                

1957                             6                      ?                      ?                                  6                    

 

1974                             5                      21                     4                                  10                    

 

1976                             6                      20                     4                                  11                    

 

Of the retiring DC at the 1976 Congress, only two remained of the 1972 committee. The turnover of most YCL DCs was similarly high. The following details of the Midlands DC gives an indication of the reasons for this.

 

Year DC            DC                   left                                           into             resigned

elected             size                  area                  lapsed              CP              from YCL

 

1965                 16                     4                      none                 none                 4

1972                 19                     5                      7                      3                      2

1969                 23                     see below for details, which are not readily comparable

1972                 19                     "                       "                       "                       "     

1974                 15                     3                      2                      2                      none

 

Whilst none of the DC members elected in 1965 were lapsed off the committee there were several who had very bad attendance who would normally have been removed. Comparable figures for the DCs elected in 1969 and 1972 are harder to relate, since the precise reasons for coming off the committee are not recorded and also the turnover was staggering. Indeed, it might be concluded that the era of `youthfulness', which was rigorously applied in the Midlands, contributed enormously to the instability of the YCL in this period. Of the 23 elected in 1969, 15 had lapsed, transferred or resigned by the next congress in 1972. Of the 13 co-opted during the period 1969-72, six had lapsed or resigned. There were 15 members left in theory but only seven were truly functioning. A DC of 19 elected in 1972 was whittled down, despite co-options, to a 12-person committee. Only two of those elected in 1972 were left on the DC two years later. Similarly, of the 15 elected in 1974 only seven were left by 1976. Four people had been co-opted but only one of these remained, leaving a committee of eight.  

 

The tenure of office of a cadre such as the Midlands YCL District Secretary over a thirty year period tended to be quite limited, two or three years being the norm. Three held the office for two years and four served for three years.

 

Colin Williams               1954-57

Ron Dorman                 1957-60

A McCulloch                 1960-62

Pete Carter                    1962-64

Jim Hunt                       1964-67

Tony McNally                1967-69

Jon Dyson                    1969-72

Graham Stevenson        1972-77 and 1978    

 

What kind of League had the 1950s seen, then? Had it been sectarian, isolated, age-ist, Stalinist, as often implied by the 1970s leadership? Had it ignored the broad mass of youth? The evidence of the Midlands YCL suggests not. Its District Congresses down the year reveal an ever-present understanding of the need for a relevant youth dimension in the YCL's work. For example, a Coventry branch resolution was passed at the 1955 District Congress that the YCL should "carry on an intensive fight for the issues arising from the immediate local demands of the youth". Yet there was no dubiety about the need to link "the struggle on immediate questions with the struggle to develop consciousness and understanding of the basic need for ending the capitalist system and replacing it with Socialism". [Midlands YCL Congress papers 1955]

 

Nationally, the League organised a "Festival of Socialism" in 1957 in London. A leaflet advertising the event offered little other than the fashions of the day. These may have well been out of place in the Festival of Socialism in 1974 (left) or the Red Festival in 1976. But the spirit was not so far out of kilter. 1957 offered a "skiffle concert, Dance, Competitions, Exhibitions, and Fun". The YCL and CPGB faced serious problems in this period as a result of the Khrushchev revelations over Stalin and the controversy over Hungary. As the Midlands YCL put it: "the outstanding fact about the League is that it has survived the worst difficulties the Communist Movement had faced for many years". [Midlands YCL Congress papers 1957] But it viewed "our main trouble" as the fact that "the League is too small in size, and not in touch with other youth clubs - young workers in the Factories do not see our socialist propaganda". The enthusiasm of the League for the breadth and scope of the World Youth Festivals in the 1970s has to be measured against the fact that, for instance, some 1,600 from Britain, from all walks of life and organisations, attended the 1956 Moscow Festival. There were no Tories, however. Of the next festival in Vienna in 1959, the Midlands YCL was sufficiently proud to make a special point in the report of work at the 1960 District Congress, which spoke of the League's work for the CND Peace Trains to Aldermaston and other broad initiatives.

 

Another Festival of Socialism was held in June 1959. No less than 40 young people went from the Midlands. Whilst the League was also involved in "student demonstrations against Apartheid and made a vocal protest at Birmingham Town Hall when Mosley tried to hold fascist revival meetings". The YCL also spoke at "Labour youth sections, youth and church clubs on communism".     

 

The League of the 1970s never really engaged in a serious analysis of membership structure by age, gender and occupation. Only when the YCL began to decline significantly in numbers and some districts became defunct was there even such a thing as one single national membership list. Therefore, whatever may be deduced from the only definite statistics available, albeit that they concern the cadreship rather than the actual full membership, must be of considerable interest. What can be deduced then?

 

The average age of delegates remained remarkably consistent in this decade through three successive National Congresses in 1973, 1975 and 1977 and true to the historical trend. The age range in spans of two years shows marginal changes. The youngest age range of 13-15 actually dropped, although the lowest three age groups show broadly the same proportions as one block over the whole period, with a slight re-emphasis on the 16 -18 group being apparent. At the other end of the scale, the number of mature delegates actually increased, although the upper range from 25 - 30 shows the earlier two congresses having around 25% of the delegates in this span. By 1977, due to the `youthfulness’ policy, this had dipped somewhat to around 20%. The 25-27 years age range progressively declined at each congress. The age range 22-24 dropped and the surged again over the three congresses, perhaps due to the tendency for cadres to spend around four or five years in the League, a remarkably consistent trend. Here we see a process of continuity in action. The proportion of young women noticeably improved from 1975 to 1977. The urgent and over-conscious attempt to feminise and rejuvenate the YCL did show concrete results, albeit in a minuscule way. From 1973 to 1975 to 1977, the 16-21 age range rose from 42.6% to 52.12% and then down slightly to 51.83%. By contrast, over 28 year olds actually rose in the entire period, as `stabilising' cadres were consciously retained.

 

The continuity aspect is very apparent when looking at the length of YCL membership. Delegates with more than seven years membership increased over the whole period, dropping in 1975, as one generation of YCLers departed, and increasing in 1977 as their successors assert themselves. At the other end of the scale, those with minimal membership length actually diminished very considerably. So, does the YCL Congress in the 1970s increasingly become the preserve of young, inexperienced YCLers? The figures say not. Each span of YCL membership length remains broadly the same across these six years, other than the most experienced and the least experienced.

 

Below right: length of YCL membership of Congress delegates 1973-7 in figures

 

 

1973

1975

1977

Less than 1 year

8.03%

6.95%

4.19%

1 to 2 years

38.55%

34.36%

37.69%

3 to 4 years

21.29%

28.57%

23.56%

5 to 6 years

14.46%

14.29%

12.04%

7 years plus

17.67%

15.83%

22.51%

 

The figures on YCL education are too generalised to make any real sense of, beyond that a big drop in district run education in the latter period is evident. This seems to have been met by the introduction of a national education programme. The effect of this must have been to provide the same, perhaps more competently delivered, degree of education. There was however a definite downgrading of Marxist theory, which had been used by many Districts, even `loyalist' ones, even as the national leadership was decrying this as outdated. The other main drawback to the shift to national provision was that this could not by definition be as frequent or as son after joining as when Districts had fuller programmes of their own. It would take a potential cadre much longer to get the benefit.

The proportion of activists in mass organisations, trades unionists and NUS and NUSS members, remained around the same over the period at some four-fifths of the total number of delegates. The increasing de-politicisation and commercialisation of the Co-operative movement is perhaps reflected in the alarming drop in the proportion of delegates who were members of co-operative societies. There was however also a current of thinking that believed that the co-ops were of little relevance to young people, although this was never clearly argued out and the YCL made little of the Woodcraft Folk, the `scouting’ arm of the co-ops. Even though, for a while, a National Secretary of that organisation was a YCL member.

 

Percentage of Congress delegates in particular trade unions 1973-1977

 

 

Of particular note is the fact that those delegates who were members of the engineering union, then called the AUEW, actually increased both arithmetically and proportionally between the 29th and 30th Congresses. This may have been due to the trend in industrial militancy in engineering in particular and manufacturing in general. Delegates who were in the TGWU actually doubled in numbers and proportion between these two congresses. The categories become too small in number in many cases to make genuine comparison. But it is noteworthy that, where it is possible to break down mass organisations broadly into the rather unsatisfactory definition of white collar or manual, the proportion of the latter increased whilst the former decreased. The YCL did not by any means become a middle class, student organisation.

 

Congress          % of delegates classified                      % of delegates classified

as `white collar'                         as manual workers     

 

1973                             62.50                                                    37.50

1975                             56.67                                                    43.33

1977                             57.90                                                    42.10

 

But what effect had all this on the decline of the YCL? While there was some continuity in the middle ranks between the 30th and 31st Congresses, there was actually a serious problem of leadership continuity at EC level. Eighteen of the EC members elected at the 29th Congress went onto the EC again at the 30th Congress. Yet only three of these EC members were left by the 31st Congress and only two went onto the new EC elected at that Congress. Co-incidentally, both of these had been first elected as far back as the 28th Congress. One of these was Tom Bell, who as General Secretary would of course be expected to provide continuity. (The other was the author.) Bell's role was key. Within the space of two congresses, major changes in the leadership could be expected at any one time as a matter of course. Against this background of relatively little experience in a leadership which was increasingly handpicked for its political reliability rather than anything else (other than a marked predilection for `youthfulness') the period 1975-77 would be critical to the YCL's long term future, or more precisely lack of it.

 

 

9 Division and Decline

 

The League found itself in a disastrous financial and organisational position at the beginning of the 1970s. The membership level in early 1970 was described as "pathetically low". [NC Minutes 3rd/4th July 1971] Dues were 2/- (10p) a month, 50% of which went to the national organisation with 25% each going to the district and the branch organisations to which the member belonged. By the first half of 1971 the level of actual dues paying membership (ADPM) was only 18.9% compared to a budgeted target figure of 60%! By June 1972, ADPM was still only 27%. Perhaps the loss of many inactive members actually improved the figure as much as organisational effort. The other key component of finance was district quota, being a levy on membership levels which local organisations raised money for by a variety of means. But in 1972 this target was only 65% fulfilled. The YCL had been just about solvent, in the financial year of 1971-2. Moreover, a bank overdraft of £200 and the Skegness Congress debt were cleared as well. But a very different story existed for 1973-4.

 

1971-2                                      1973-4 

 

Income                         £6,701                                      £8,312.39

 

Surplus/Deficit after

All Expenditure             +£1,421                                    -£253.29p          

 

Whilst, as far as membership was concerned, the aim of issuing 100% of cards by Christmas 1970 failed. Only 55% were issued. Membership in June 1972 was 2,785 compared with 3,276 the previous year. But the decrease was not uniform. Scotland, Wales, Midlands, North East and North West were all either near to, on, or over the 100% target. London and Yorkshire "faced serious problems". [YCLIB June 9th 1972]

 

The Party was of course facing some loss of momentum also, even if there was more stability in its internal life. Nonetheless, the Party felt constrained to bolster morale and public presence by organising the first national Party demonstration since 1964 and this was held on June 13th 1971. The League mobilised around a thousand of its members to attend and the concept of mass public events attracted its leadership, wedded as it was to the concept of mass public events and posing this against agitational styles of work. There developed a cult of the imaginative out of a political battle with some who repudiated often stimulating forms of presenting ideas. The leadership, reacting against such opposition, began to elevate the form as being more significant than the content itself. The YCL's Internal Bulletin was beside itself with enthusiasm at the notion: "YCL branches should organise imaginative and extroverted public meetings (perhaps using street theatre, costume vigils)". [YCLIB May 21st 1971]

 

This concerted effort, by sheer dint of will, to raise membership actually worked for a limited period, even if the tactic began to become ossified into a mechanistic exhortation of Communists to work harder. Failure to grow the movement was increasingly attributed to the inertia of activists, with the CPGB and YCL leaderships increasingly unwilling to accept responsibility or to see that the political situation would determine failure or success. What limited growth there was may have been more due to the tremendously heightened sense of confidence amongst the working class. 1972 saw the victory of mass picketing and solidarity at Saltley Gate in Birmingham during the course of the miners' strike. There was also the highly political trade union struggle against the anti-union laws, culminating in unofficial general strikes and a planned strike called by the TUC, only called off when legal manoeuvres freed five dockers imprisoned in Pentonville. There was also a mood of confidant industrial militancy on the wages front.

 

The League saw membership increase to 2,931 by August 1973 and that year's national congress had felt confident enough to set out an organisational aim of achieving 100 self-reliant branches. This was an obvious but new concept in the YCL. Bell had defined a self-reliant branch as one that could "act as a political force among young people in its locality, taking the general programme and campaigning of the League and applying it to the local situation. It maintains its own organisation, developing its members and supporting the District and National organisation". A target of 3,000 YCL members had been set, but by the August meeting this was so near that a revised target of an additional 200 recruits was set for the CPGB congress in November.

 

There was a distinct increase in activity in the YCL during 1973. Merseyside held a rally with 70 at it, gaining 15 recruits. Battersea YCL leapt dramatically from 29 to 50 members by October, compared to its congress membership position. In 1971, Birmingham had plaintively wailed in its internal bulletin: "Your Active Cadres Need You!" Against a background of rising working class militancy and a savage Tory Government, it was thought "atrocious that a branch of 100 members in a city like ours can produce only 10 (!!!) active comrades". [Birmingham YCL Bulletin November 1971] There had been a branch committee of ten - all the activists. Yet by July 1973, 53 attended a YCL public meeting in the city as activity heightened and the branch reached its 100% card figure the same month. 18 new recruits to membership were made in that year's card issue, allowing the branch to go over the top by four.       

 

During this period, the YCL was engaged in another Vietnam campaign that rather harked back to the heady days of 1968. A campaign to raise funds for the Nguyen Van Troi hospital provided the organisation with practical and positive inspiration. Some £2,000 had been raised by February 1973 and a further £700 came in over the next three months. Glasgow had a Flag Day, collecting £274. Southampton organised a rally of 150 people at which £137 was collected. London YCL had a series of meetings culminating in a Christmas torchlight march of 300 people.  Two more flag days were held in Scotland, one in Paisley raised £120 and another in Aberdeen took £75.

 

The 29th Congress of the YCL, held in 1973, saw a consolidation of the leadership in the face of the orthodox opposition. Whilst there were also some subtle but important policy decisions which took the League away from the more decisive, class consciousness of the 1971 Congress. A five-branch composite on Challenge, for example, was referred to the EC and later formed the basis of a distinct line about the paper which sought to move away from the militant, struggle orientated version then current. The composite thought it essential that Challenge "seek to fire the imagination of young people not yet organised in the main stream of struggle". The socialist alternative had to be put to the "great majority of young people who are not organised in any way and (Challenge) should therefore include items relevant to this section of young people".

The leadership was careful to avoid a confrontation with a Fulham and Kensington motion, which put the issue of cultural coverage in Challenge into context. However, there were several key votes at the Congress, which revealed strong support for some of the central concepts put forward by the opposition even if there was some reserve about the less delicately phrased aspects. Nonetheless, the platform won every count where it was needed.

 

Key Votes at the 1973 29th Congress of the YCL

 

 

Branch/District & Motion No

.                       Subject

              Result of the Vote

Harrow    43                                                     

Labour Party

lost:100 for 139 against            

Surrey   239

YCL

membership                                         

lost by show of hands

Islington 257, 260  

 

 

deleted references to all round styles of work  

lost by show of hands     

Mansfield 244 

qualified target of 4,000 members to "as far as possible"

 

lost by show of hands

 

Mansfield 255(b)

a call for card issue to be completed in six months was opposed by the Standing Orders Committee

 

lost: 107 for 149 against                       

 

Fulham & Kensington 415                                                                                               

 

Challenge should reflect the cultural interests of youth, but it should mainly be concerned to win them for socialism

carried overwhelmingly

 

 

 

Nonetheless, the EC amendment to rule, which sought to lower the age limit for YCL membership to 28 years of age, was not successful, loosing by 93 votes to 115 votes. It was an issue that the leadership would come back to.

 

One positive feature of the YCL's work in this period was the campaign against the imprisonment of one of its members in South Africa. Sean Hosey, a YCLer who had been active in Coventry, Birmingham and London, was arrested in October 1972, on arriving in South Africa on an undercover mission for the African National Congress. His crime was the possession of two false passbooks (the documents which all blacks were required to carry at all times as a form of identity), tax receipts and £300 all destined for the ANC.

 

Left: Hosey after his release speaking in Cuba in 1978

 

For this illicit activity as a courier, Hosey was sentenced to five years imprisonment on top of the year he had been held in detention before sentencing. Others were involved in the trial, which clearly was the result of a security force set-up, and the defendants became known as the Pretoria Six. Even more savage sentences were handed out. An Australian was given 12 years and four blacks got 15 years apiece. Despite appeals from MPs, the Labour Party, the US Ambassador to the UN and the Irish Government (Hosey was born in Ireland), the racist regime lessened his sentence by not a single day. The YCL waged determined campaigns in London and in the Midlands, especially Coventry where Hosey's family still lived. Since the whole family was rooted in the Communist movement, they were particularly staunch in their commitment to the campaign to free Sean.

 

1974 saw a weakening of the League's organisation. In October, Bell reported to the EC that the YCL had dropped to 2,572 members with 11 Districts functioning as such. West Middlesex had no DC but was active to some degree. Wales had "one or two pockets of activity, as do East Anglia and Sussex, while Hants and Dorset and Kent have very little activity in them as far as the League goes". [October 12th/13th 1974 EC materials]  The YCL's National Organiser, Dave Carson, pointed to the discrepancy between the political situation and the high turnover in membership and the poor level of recruitment. There had been two General Elections that year, resulting in Labour wins. The normal position was that when the trade union movement was active, and when Labour was popular, so also did the Communists see increasing membership. Why then the apparent contradiction? Carson's view was that "inadequate consistent supply of relevant recruitment materials" was to blame. But this was not, it seemed, the entire story. The February General Election period had been a "very active time for us", Carson thought. "Communists were always in the news", arising from their role in the vigorous trade union activity which in part led to the demise of the Tory Government led by Ted Heath in the first 1974 election. But far from there being a boom in membership, "February ... killed the Card Issue stone dead". There was a lack of conscious determined attitude on recruitment, the momentum had been lost, but we "must regain the commitment to YCL growth", said Carson.

 

There was a serious downturn in the League's industrial work in these few years. Almost as if having made headway on the Youth TUC and now being conscious of a crisis in YCL membership, the only way to resolve this was to meet it head on by making every issue a recruitment issue. Additionally, there was a serious deepening of the divisions on the EC in the face of all this. As previously mentioned, a significant group of EC members - about a dozen or so, centred around Brian Filling in particular - were still hostile to Bell's leadership. This group tended to be from Scotland, the North and the Midlands and held a concern for maintaining industrial work. For much of the period 1973-5 there was in practice no National Young Workers Organiser and the work of the League, under Bell's influence, seemed more and more geared away from the mass labour movement and more towards local YCL public work. Debates on the EC reached high degrees of sharpness and the EC opposition, while not possessing an actual majority, formed a formidable and influential tendency. At one EC, in April 1974, of the 14 who participated in the discussion on the political situation, no less than eight were of the critical group. In the debate on the YCL's Summer Campaign, out of the nine who spoke, only two were clearly with Bell's leadership.

 

The Party, conscious of the tensions on the YCL EC, began to show formal signs of concern. It had had before its 33rd National Congress in November 1973 a main resolution that, for the first time for decades dealt exclusively with the question of the YCL and youth. This spoke in bold terms of providing maximum assistance to the League. But much of the aid was geared to helping the YCL in its campaign of `bold and open' styles of work. 

 

The CPGB Youth Affairs Committee went beyond its traditional remit, of analysing trends in public youth service policy, towards practical activity to get the YCL moving into action on a variety of themes. The League, in emulation of the earlier initiatives, which the Party had toyed with, such as the national demonstration, organised a Festival of Socialism over the weekend of June 8th and 9th 1974. A cultural extravaganza on the Saturday was followed by a demonstration on the Sunday with some 600 on it. The whole concept had been mooted at the February EC meeting as "something which can give a tremendous boost of morale to our new members who are active in the branches and districts". [YCLIB 2nd/3rd February 1974]  Despite much hard work and an enjoyable experience for the many youngsters who participated, it was nowhere near enough to effect a turn-around in the membership position. Even the EC had deemed the event only a qualified success.

 

The YCL launched its "Youth Charter for Democracy" in December 1974. This aimed to attract 20,000 signatures by the next National Congress in Easter 1975. The Charter was really a public petition around the question of democratic rights, harassment of black youth, anti-fascism, the unionisation of the armed forces and police and opposition to the Common Market. A notion existed that the League possessed a boredom threshold in its style of work, which needed to be broken; that, to stimulate the rank-and-file, the organisation had to romanticise and electrify every issue. There was much internal criticism of this Charter campaign, which in fact never really took off. One middle-of-the road DC viewed "with concern the announcement of yet another YCL National Campaign without any serious analysis of the success or otherwise of current campaigns (Vietnam, Chile). While racism is a very important issue in this country at the moment, and in the future, we feel that issues concerning democracy, whilst relevant, are not the main issues under a new Labour government. The main struggle will be around the implementation of Left policies by the Labour Government." [Minutes in the possession of the author] Such considerations were brushed aside as being too rooted in concerns for economic struggle. But, by April 1975, the YCL had only 72 branches meeting regularly out of 92 and by June had only 2,265 members.

 

There was an attempt to make the 1975 30th Congress a big public event, as well as a gathering of elected delegates. This was another attempt to copy a precedent in the 1960s but it was by no means as effective as the earlier jamboree, beset with problems though that had been. The 28th and 29th Congresses had specifically analysed young people at work and at school, along with having a main political resolution. The 1975 Congress differed, for the main resolution took in all three of these aspects, while the other two resolutions were on racialism and on Challenge. This Congress was notable for substantive pressure on certain areas of the YCL to conform to the League leadership's political position. Gordon McLennan, as CPGB National Organiser had already intervened in a sharp way to clear the YCL leadership of elements dissatisfied with Bell and his political tendency. 1975 saw McLennan's elevation to General Secretary of the Party. Dave Cook, who had been part of the 1960s YCL leadership and who had succeeded the anti-revisionist Fergus Nicolson as Student Organiser in 1973, was elected National Organiser to replace McLennan. As the YCL’s 30th Congress approached, the highest echelons in the Party had determined that political dissent in the League would not mar its success.

 

The Midlands District of the YCL was practically obliged by their District Party to withdraw its amendments and motions proposed for the Congress. Tony McNally, now a leading figure in the Midlands Party, was sent to a specially convened YCL DC, which had only the one item on the agenda. The offending propositions were actually rather innocuous, but they challenged the shift away from young workers and school students and considerably annoyed Bell. It was thus a very simple matter for the national leadership of the League to call on the national leadership of the Party to utilise its district machinery to pressurise district YCL leaderships. Not the least since the latter were usually Party members themselves and participated in the leading committees of District Parties and were subject to the discipline of those bodies. But recourse to formal discipline was rarely required, since such YCLers could be encouraged by appeals to greater loyalty to the Party itself.

 

As one writer on youth political groups has commented, "there is a pattern common to the history of Labour and Communist youth movements, despite (or rather because of) their intense rivalry. Whenever trusteeship of the party's ideological inheritance is under threat, its elder statesmen move to tighten up the system of political apprenticeship to ensure that youth toes the correct line". [Philip Cohen in "Loosing the Generation Game" New Socialist Nov/Dec 1983 pp28-36. Cohen, wildly and rather erroneously, goes on to blame the CPGB's supposed obsession for the working class as the reason for its supposed definition of new forms of struggle as adventurist.] It may be arguable, at the very least, with hindsight that the `ideological inheritance’ was more under attack from the inner core of the leadership of the CPGB/YCL rather than some of its dissidents. Even so, Cohen’s phrase about tightening up the system of political apprenticeship rings very true to this writer who personally experienced this pressure!     

 

The 1975 Congress was faced with a proposition that the new EC be 35 in size, a reduction of five. A 40 strong EC had been elected at the preceding three congresses. The apparent rationale for this move was the reduction in membership. Clearly, this reduction squeezed the chances of anyone not on the almost unbeatable recommended list. The leadership found itself accused of sharp practice and was forced to stress the financial side of the case. Payment of fares to and from the EC was a significant element in the overall costs of the League at a national level. It was suggested that, if an EC of 40 were kept, a pooled fare system would need to be introduced. The total cost of all EC members' fares would be averaged out and those who had fares in excess of the average figure (or a minimum sum which the YCL decided it was prepared to give everyone) would receive the difference between this figure and the actual cost of travelling. The effect would be that everyone paid a few pounds out of their own pocket even if they came from just around the corner. Such a system would obviously be unpopular with those members resident in the South East, who currently had little costs associated with attending the EC. Whilst those living north of Watford, who presently faced regular expensive weekends in the capital, hardly wanted a system which gave anything less than full reimbursement. In short, a pooled fare system was unpopular, if fairer. In such circumstances it proved easy to win the Congress for a reduction in the size of the EC. What of the accusations of cynical manipulation to affect the chances of unfavoured candidates for the EC? A conclusion may be drawn from the fact that at the subsequent 31st Congress in 1977 the figure of 40 was reverted to, once the troublesome elements had been largely removed. This, despite the fact that between 1975 and 1977 membership dropped by 29%! Expediency, rather than finance, would seem to have been the key concern.

 

The 1975 Congress experienced the bitterest controversy so far on the matter of the composition of the newly reduced EC. The closed session that heard the final report of the Congress Election Preparations Committee (EPC) was long and rancorous. A marathon session saw no less than 51 speakers from the floor, 13 for the EPC's recommended list and 36 against, with only one or two who had local axes to grind. As many as 10 of the 13 who spoke for the list were amongst the last 12 who spoke, suggesting manipulation by the platform over the order of speakers. Self-evidently, wavering delegates would be influenced by whom they last heard speak. The positioning of calm, reasoned performers near the end of a chaotic debate were clearly beneficial to the leadership.

 

There was an absolute surfeit of pettiness and personal attacks from all sides. Despite the appeal of an early contributor to the debate for delegates to be political and not to resort to personalities, this was largely a forlorn hope. This speaker argued that it was divisive for the recommended list to exclude eight former EC members who were standing for re-election. Their political position `happened' to be different to Bell's. Whatever the merits for their exclusion - and little of a case was put - the very fact that they were not on the recommended list was unarguably divisive. Opponents of their exclusion increasingly responded to this action with verbal ferocity, fuelling the atmosphere of divisiveness.

 

Referring to various people included on the recommended list, contributors to what can only be called a discussion by stretching the meaning of the word used a variety of offensive tags. One candidate was responsible for "political inertia", another had "done nothing" in YCL work, a third had made "nil contribution". Others had "done little work" and were "guilty of gerrymandering". More mildly, one was criticised for being "inexperienced". Another was "incapable of comradeship, (being) disruptive and full of sneers, slanders and innuendoes", yet another did not "understand the BRS". [These and subsequent quotes from the closed session from the author's own contemporary notes.] Whatever the accuracy or otherwise of these assaults on individuals, the comments reveal just how sharp the divisions were in many branches and districts.

 

But those who supported the recommended list opposed those who were not recommended in a similar vein. One EC member claimed that another (one of the eight who were to be dropped), who was especially active in school students' work, had no contact with his appropriate local branch for six months after moving to a new area. Another defended the exclusion of the eight, arguing that some were guilty of failing to report current card issue figures and that their contributions to political discussion at the EC were "weak". Another EC member thought the eight were "lacking in political clarity and they have a bad record of work". A fourth EC member thought the "biggest favour" one of the eight could do was "to leave the YCL".

 

Against this background of mutual mudslinging, the recommended list went through but not smoothly. The successful candidates received votes mostly in a band from 138 to 162 votes out 253 out of possible votes. There was clearly an unofficial, alternative slate and four candidates from the Midlands and Yorkshire were obviously on both lists. For they were elected with a range of votes from 215 to 235, well ahead of every other elected candidate, out on their own and having the support of the vast majority of Congress. Otherwise there was a rough split of about 60% to 40% in the Congress to the favour of the leadership.     

 

The highest unsuccessful candidate was the Scottish engineering worker, Kenny Crawford, who received 120 votes and very nearly knocked Bob Lentell off the recommended list. The Party had sent Lentell into the YCL as a gesture of political concern in order that he could take over as National Organiser from Dave Carson. Lentell suffered from having come straight from university to full time Party work initially and had only then joined the YCL to enable him to become the YCL's number two. It was a simple matter for those opposed to him to raise doubts about his lack of experience of YCL work and to convey an impression of Party interference. As for the auditors' election, Abdul Malik, who ran against the leadership's preferred candidate, took a very creditable 68 votes to the winner’s 101. The leadership was also unable to win the vote to reduce the age limit. Large sections of the League were against this, suspecting a political ploy and being unable to countenance the fact that it would reduce membership. Consequently, the amendment to rule fell easily on a show of hands.

 

But what of the pressing problems of the League? The Congress viewed the drop in membership from 6,000 to 2,500 over eight years as largely a reflection of the objective political situation. Yet, "despite these complications, League growth could still have been registered". Such a view seemed to rather fly in the face of the plain fact that since 1968 the YCL had only known an unrelieved and persistent decline in membership:

 

YCL national membership 1968-1975

 

1968

4,651

1969

3,686

1970

3,385

1971

3,276

1972

2,970

1973

3,012

1974

2,576

1975

2,338

 

Figures are for November of each year, except for September 1968

 

The bureaucratic view, that what was required was mainly a matter of renewed confidence and hard work on the part of the activists to turn the membership position around, prevailed in the text of the resolutions. Rather patronisingly, Congress considered that "the basic problem is one of political understanding in the League of the need for a resumption of League growth as the first step towards building a mass League". The need to end mudslinging seemed not to be a concern and how this degenerated style of politics contributed to `youthfulness’ was also un-addressed. The EC indulged in some desultory self-criticism for lack of attention to providing recruitment materials and a lack of educational provision, but concluded that the essence of the correct approach was to be bold and open in campaigning.

 

The EC's subsequent assessment of the 30th Congress followed on from this line. The need was for an emphasis to be given to "rescuing growth ... we have got to become more conscious of the need to recruit and develop a style of work corresponding to this need". Glad now to have an EC composed of a cross-section of younger members from all fields of work "dedicated to fighting for Congress policy", the overwhelming feeling of the EC was "one of confidence that some major obstacles to YCL growth had been removed and the way forward for the YCL was full of promise". [YCLIB 3rd/4th May 1975]

 

A new emblem was adopted, perhaps symbolising the new feeling of confidence and certainly seeking to boost morale. Surprisingly, this was a clenched fist intertwined with a red flag, a militant design borrowed from the West German Communist Students organisation. Perhaps reflecting some of this confidence, a positive uplift occurred in a number of Districts, even where there was not complete unanimity behind the line of the Congress, as interpreted by the leading national officials, or for that matter even behind the formal resolutionary position of Congress itself. Many who were not fully signed up to Bell's ideological position thought that the diminishing of factional opposition might aid unity and influence League activity in a positive way.

 

In Birmingham, the League came out of the doldrums somewhat, although local factors played a part the mood of confidence was clearly evident. By August 1975, significant membership growth was registered. From April, there had been 10 recruits made. There was even talk of establishing three area groups in the South, North and Central parts of the city. Groups in the South and the Central area were already functioning semi-independently, in tandem with the overall branch leadership. In 1976 the branch AGM looked back on the previous year as "a good year" with "encouraging growth". Membership rose from 43 to 72, of which 26 were recent recruits. By the end of 1976 this had risen to 84. During 1975, Birmingham YCL held six public meetings with an average attendance of 22. There were seven film shows, with an average attendance of 47. The branch issued 30,000 leaflets, sold 2,500 Challenge and 4,000 campaign badges of various designs. Even so, and despite the extra effort that went into this, the branch had simply retrieved its previous strength from just a couple of year's earlier.

 

Perhaps contributing to some of this, there was a heightened political atmosphere in 1975, with the Common Market referendum campaign up to the July 5th vote and with major left advances in Italy, Portugal and Vietnam. The Midlands YCL bulletin felt able to call it a "Year of Communist Advance" and there was very much a sense of this mood generally in the League. Dragging itself out of lethargy, which had been inculcated by the freezing of real leadership due to internal division, the YCL seemed now to pulse with confidence. But this euphoria began to dissolve as the months dragged on and reality set in. Simply marginalising political dissent from the deliberations of the EC would not revitalise the YCL. As the difficulties re-emerged, mutterings of dissent began to reappear in some districts and branches.

 

Membership of the League at the 1975 Congress had been 2,089. Within six months this had risen to 2,338. Yet the Congress aim of 100 public meetings had resulted in only 22 being held, at which 380 people attended, cumulatively, with 25 recruits being made at these meetings. The intent had been to roughly match one branch to one meeting. By February 1976, Bell was to report to the EC that the YCL had "80 odd branches, some limping". [YCLIB 7th/8th February 1976] In April of that year it was clear that vast losses had been made in the 1976 Card Issue. Scotland lost 31%, London 27% and the Midlands 23%. Out of the 2,338, some 700 or 30% were lost nationally. Only 1,714 members had received their 1976 cards. There is only one conclusion to be drawn and that is that the confidence of activists prepared, or even pleased, to work with the tendency which had demonstrably won the faction fight in the League did not rub off on the membership or potential membership. The YCL's terminal decline was now more than evident.          

 

Major national events, which were organised to stimulate confidence, did little to arrest the decline that now set in with a vengeance. The Yorkshire YCL had for many years organised a regular Whitsun weekend called the Red Festival. The League nationally decided to copy the name and the concept. The 1976 Red Festival attracted some 600 people to the varying events on the Saturday and some 400 came to the Sunday demonstration and rally.

 

Propaganda material now became more in evidence in the League in a frantic endeavour to stem the losses. Vast quantities of material were produced, with considerable hidden CPGB subsidy, in an attempt to test out the bold and open campaigning style which Bell insisted would turn the tide.

 
 
Propaganda material produced by the YCL nationally 1971 - 1977

 

 

                        1971-3

1973-5

1975-7

 

Total printed

No. Items

Total printed

No. Items

Total printed

No. Items

Leaflets

90,000

9

400,000

9

457,000

7

Posters

 3,000

?

5,000

4

  8,500

7

Pamphlets

 2,000

1

6,000

2

  2,000

1

Stickers

10,000

1

20,000

2

     ?

1

 

 

                       

There now followed an extremely volatile period for the League's organisation, with membership plummeting and soaring at local level, branches fading and emerging. Nearly always, these were re-incarnations of dead branches with new activists and they did not always by any means follow the tune of the Bell leadership. A Dundee branch was formed towards the end of 1976 and a Wolverhampton branch was set up at the beginning of that year. Within six months it had 17 members. Edinburgh was one of the fastest growing branches, winning 21 recruits in 1976, eleven of them in one week in May.  By 1977, Kent YCL was now in a better shape, with membership tripling, two branches being formed and 100 Challenge being sold regularly. The same year, a Stockport branch was set up with 13 members, a Doncaster branch was re-established and an Accrington group emerged when half a dozen young Pakistanis joined the YCL en bloc after having set up their own socialist youth group. A Brighton YCL was created in a grafting operation from the local Party branch, based on an initial group of five young CPGB members. In the course of 1977, it was able to grow to a 15 strong branch. But, positive though these developments were, it was but a small contribution to a larger problem, even if it proved that there was scope for development and many young people could be attracted to the YCL.

 

Despite the limited nature of these developments, the leadership attributed them to the bold and open public work strategy. There were however perhaps other factors. A resurgence of fascist and extreme right wing ideas was taking place, arguably fostered by big business and its media in a backlash being prepared against the Labour Government, which would culminate in Thatcherism. The strategy being a complete restructuring of British industry, which would be resisted by organised labour, it would be necessary to cultivate a mood of despondency and division in the working class. Labour's economically repressive policies, added to a deeply unpopular statism that it was cultivating, also made scape-goating inevitable. Black and Asian communities felt increasingly threatened and many young people of all races were horrified by this turn of events. Yet racist groups also deliberately targeted young people. In Blackburn in 1976, the British National Party, a splinter from the then larger National Front, was able to get two councillors elected. Children of eleven were actively involved in their campaign. In response, the YCL started a branch as part of the general fight back against the fascists; an offensive that involved the wider left and had considerable popular support. Even so, the Blackburn results were not isolated affairs. Two competing fascist candidates in Deptford, NF and BNP, won a higher combined percentage vote than the winning Labour candidate. In Leicester, NF candidates in multi-seat wards won high votes, one of them coming within 40 votes of unseating the city's Mayor. 

 

In many localities, the racists began to organise youth sections. The Young National Front (YNF) entrenched itself in Enfield to a considerable degree. It was supposed to have 35 activists and up to four or five hundred members in the area. In contrast, there was a great deal of anti-racist activity in schools organised by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). This was initially a broad organisation but it became increasingly dominated by its key initiator, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Communists disputed the use of the word `Nazi', reasoning that racism did not necessarily always come with a fascist ideology. However valid this argument was, the emotive use of the term certainly mobilised opinion and the ANL's combative demonstrations against fascist meetings galvanised youth, especially black youth. As well as the ANL, there were also, notably in Enfield, Youth Against Racism (YAR) committees in many boroughs, towns and cities. For the League, the period was dominated by its slogan "Root Out Racism". A Schools Against Nazis movement was created with an acronym and a journal called SKAN (Skools Against Nazis, as in the punk style). Relations with SKAN and the YCL were a little cool at first, with the former being run by older SWP members. However, working relations with the NUSS and, therefore indirectly with the YCL, were established after a while. The NUSS now had a magazine called Blot that was staunchly anti-fascist and it sought to engage in the campaign to resist racist infiltration into schools as its main field of activity. By 1978 it was clear that 1978 successfully turned the tide of racism in schools. Moreover, the electoral successes of fascists was short-lived, such was the high profile of the campaign against them. The fascist bubble had burst, for the tag of Nazism was just too close to accuracy for many ordinary people, too uncomfortable for voters who could not stomach the idea however much they were attracted to the simplicities of racism. But the League did not profit from these struggles.   

 

Despite some favourable instances of local growth, the League was on a fast and slippery slope to extinction, even if it was not immediately obvious that this was so. The CPGB held an event counter to the Queen's official 25th Anniversary at Alexandra Palace in June 1978, entitled The Peoples' Jubilee. The YCL was able to make 29 recruits at this. Whilst the Challenge circulation conference that year was reasonably well attended with 62 delegates at it. A Challenge Festival was held in May 1978 and, although it was reasonably well attended, expenditure exceeded income by £1,523 to £941.

 

The 31st National Congress in Easter 1977 had 191 delegates attending it, from 85 branches. This Congress was even more decisive than that of two years previously, in terms of the progress of the internal feuding in the League. The leadership determined, once and for all, to exterminate the opposition as a viable force in the League. They saw this as crucial if the organisation were to prosper. The time spent dealing with the administrative and political control of the opposition was seen as a frustrating irrelevance. Without doubt, the breakaway of the Surrey-ites from the CPGB and the YCLGB determined a mood of aggressive confidence.

 

The most recent draft of the BRS had been in 1968. The Party leadership was conscious that much had changed since that time which went beyond the mere passage of years. Moreover, there was an assertive demand from the revisionist camp for a major over-haul of the Party's programme. This tendency increasingly went by the title of "Euro-Communists", since they set so much store by the `modernising' tendencies of the Italian and Spanish Communists in particular.  The Euro-Communists in the Party were in the main led by former members of the YCL leadership and the current YCL leadership was firmly in this camp. Euro-Communists were dismissive of the value of democratic centralism, queried the notion and past practice of the Party in industrial work and in particular its concentration on the big battalions of the trade union movement. They denigrated wages militancy and saw the role of supposedly new forces such as the peace movement, women's liberation and ecological and environmental movements as equal or superior to the traditional Labour Movement. Precisely what kind of struggle was at the forefront, or needed to be, to advance to socialism was seen as a matter of debate. Those who doubted the position of the Euro-Communists saw the struggle against the multi-national and trans-national corporations, what was called the anti-monopoly alliance, as crucial. If alliances were to be constructed, they should emanate from that struggle. The Euro-Communists saw the struggle for democracy as synonymous with the struggle for socialism and believed that in an advanced bourgeois democracy, alliances with forces which could identify with the defence and extension of democracy was the key. Mere trade union struggle would not achieve this, it was argued. Increasingly, such a view tended to think of socialism as being a very distant objective. The Euro-Communists adopted a position of severe criticism of the socialist countries, especially the USSR. Although most `centrists’ and some `traditionalists’ were also critical, albeit generally in a more restrained way. These contrasting views, sometimes in bizarre and multi-layered shades, were held at all levels and in all Districts of the Party. But the Euro-Communists were more and more emerging as being in control not, only of the YCL, but also of sections of the Party itself. It was now clearer than ever that the Euro-Communist project had a similar plan in store for the Communist Party as it had applied to the YCL. This was, in effect at least, to denude the organisation of Marxist content and eliminate its role as a key force for militant working class struggle.

 

The central grouping of career politicians in the Party coalesced for the moment around a compromise position, which united the more traditional wings of the membership with the leadership. The Euro-Communists were forced to accept a fudge, much against their will. The 1977 redraft of the BRS resulted in facing both ways on the key questions of difference, Before this occurred, the Surrey-ites sensing that a major revision was under way which might provide them with sufficient sympathy to form a new party, decided to break away. During the course of 1976, there had been growing restlessness in the anti-BRS camp, which became increasingly, if loosely, allied to more obviously specific camp of traditional views that were opposed to fudge. Yet the latter tendency did not in the event follow Sid French's lead to leave the CPGB. This left the Surrey-ite faction isolated and small. In the League, the leadership was unrestrained but, in the Party, the leadership was not able to pursue a more ruthless attitude even as a breakaway was increasingly openly being talked of.  

 

At the beginning of 1976, the Northern District of the YCL, previously named the North East District, was closed down. The District had been oppositionalist for some time. 60 members in four branches were reduced to 27 members in two branches within nine months due to the demoralisation that ensued. Another thorn in the side of the leadership, the small South Midlands District, based on Oxford, was also abolished. Both the Party and YCL South Midlands Districts were quickly divided up amongst others. To a certain extent these changes could be presented as being organisationally driven, although the motivation was certainly factionally driven. Even more obviously related to the internal situation was the position in the South East Midlands District of the YCL. An outside EC member attended every Secretariat and District Committee during the course of 1976 and this intervention culminated in the withdrawal of district status and an approach to the CPGB "with a view to tackling the problems in the district". [YCL EC Minutes 5th/6th June 1976] These problems were unambiguously seen as being political.

 

But it was the Surrey District that was especially targeted as a problem area in the period before the breakaway. No doubt as part of a tactic to highlight their views as distinctly as possible, the Surrey YCL produced two pamphlets quite independently of the national YCL. The first, called "Unemployment and the Crisis of Capitalism", attracted strong criticism from the YCL EC. It was decided that "in future all district produced pamphlets should be written in consultation with the EC". [YCL EC Minutes 5th/6th June 1976.]  Textually, the work was actually a fairly naïve critique of capitalism, perhaps rather fundamentalist in presentation, but saying nothing that countered YCL policy directly. The question was whether democratic centralism extended to ideological nuances, rather than simply congress policy and clearly it did not, or was not supposed to. The second pamphlet, "Against War - the Soviet Union Leads the Way", was less obviously as `innocent'. The YCL EC was outraged, more at the cheek of the district in being so overtly pro-Soviet. But a more considered criticism was developed for wider consumption, that the text did not really recognise the value of the home-grown British peace movement in the anti-war struggle. When the Surrey-ite faction broke away to form the New Communist Party, taking a small number of members around the country with them, the Surrey YCL was formally disbanded and the work of the District run directly by the PC. Thus, there was no formal breakaway in the YCL.

 

Interestingly, the PC ruled that, it being the "youth organisation of the Communist Party", membership of the New Communist Party breakaway constituted "a resignation from membership of the Young Communist League". No formal breakaway had been announced by the Surrey YCL, although the bulk of its membership had taken out NCP cards. Considering that constitutionally at that stage the YCL was "organisationally and politically independent", as well as "the youth organisation of the Communist Party", the YCL PC’s position was at the very least arguable in this context of ambiguity. [YCL Rules and Constitution 1977] Either that or the rules of the YCL did not accurately reflect the genuine relationship between the League and the Party. The PC’s discussion on the matter avoided the constitutional nuances in favour of gaining factional advantage from the situation. Formal disciplinary action on an individual basis was avoided by the simple expedient of mass exclusion from the YCL of those who had split from the CPGB. But it was a cynical exercise, since the view of the bulk of the national leadership of the YCL was that the more distant the YCL could become from the `old' ideas of the CPGB, the better. In truth, the breakaway gave the YCL leadership an excuse to interpret the rules in a creative way, something that was carried out with almost indecent, certainly unnecessary, relish. For, the NCP shortly produced a "Communist Paper for Youth", called the Young Worker, that would certainly have provided grounds under YCL rules for expulsion of those associated with it. Young Worker was an eight-page newspaper, sold at 15 pence. It was advertised as the journal of the NCP's Youth Section, which also had a Youth Committee. This was clearly a splitting act, yet it did not actually occur until after exclusion from YCL membership. The leadership of the YCL had acted opportunistically, disillusioning many who may possibly have been kept within the organisation in different circumstances. Such unprincipled cynicism would reappear within seven years inside the CPGB, with many of the same individuals now reprising their earlier modus operandi. 

 

For those remaining in the YCL who were hostile to Bell's leadership or who were not fully signed up to the Euro-Communist view of things, the leadership took the view that their days were numbered. Little now remained to restrain a full scale purge. All members of the Hackney YCL branch committee were removed from office for three months after a branch public meeting against the new draft version of the BRS was organised. The Party and the League took the view that meetings neither for nor against the draft should be organised. After all, the reasoning went, the Congress will debate the draft and the varying amendments that would be submitted and the draft was not up for endorsement or rejection as an entity. The London District YCL leadership continued the day to day work of the Hackney branch and a member of that branch, Anne Champion, was removed from the London YCL DC. Mick Gavan, another Hackney member was also suspended from membership, pending consideration by the EC of expulsion for his part in the organising of the offending meeting. Anne Champion's errors, it seems, were to argue against her branch organising a public meeting on racism, saying that it would be a "one-off event". In endorsing this, the branch was guilty of acting in a "narrow and sectarian" way. In the climate after the NCP breakaway, the leadership felt no sense of restraint when acting against opposition.

 

This hard-line approach is underlined by the resurgence of an obsession with the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia. The YCL agreed to send a delegate to its sister organisation, the SSM, which was holding a congress in Czechoslovakia. Even so, it was decided that the YCL would "withdraw if our speech which will contain a statement of our position on events in Czechoslovakia is not accepted". [YCL EC minutes 6th/7th August 1977]                  

 

There was considerable controversy over the PC statement on the breakaway. The Party's statement on the affair was naturally hostile to the breakaway but was also tinged with some concern that the opposition had gone so far. Regret at the loss of members and an appeal for those with differences to stay and fight their corner was implicit in the Party’s view. The YCL leadership viewed the event very differently. The PC agreed a statement that it did not "regret the resignation..." (as it termed the mass exclusion of NCP supporters from the YCL) "...from the Young Communist League of those who have held fundamental differences above the unity in action of the League". [YCL EC 6th/7th August 1977] Significantly, this sentence was omitted from the Morning Star's report on the breakaway. This reflected the sensitivity that the bulk of the Party's leadership felt was needed in handling the whole issue [Morning Star 22nd July 1977]

 

Whilst the NCP took only many hundreds from the CPGB, there were potentially thousands of converts to a split, given the right timing and conditions. Even at this time there were large numbers of members inside the Party who were uneasy at some of the ideas and views emerging. Those with divergent or diffident views on the question of the Party's attitude to the socialist countries represented quite a wide spectrum of opinion and most were totally against a split. This was particularly so in London, where much controversy raged in the run-up to the Party congress which discussed the BRS. Those who where against the breakaway took the view that the fight against revisionist tendencies must go on inside the CPGB and YCL.

 

There were 191 delegates at the Easter 1977 YCL Congress, the 31st. There were six resolutions from the EC. One was on the Labour Government, another on Racialism and others on Young Women, Youth Unity, YCL organisation and Challenge. In the run up to the CPGB's 35th Congress, which debated the new draft of the BRS, it was inevitable that the League’s congress should be seen as a sort of trial run for a trial of strength over ideological matters. In fact, the 31st Congress was to represent the most decisive break yet with the class conscious policies which the YCL had held in the early 1970s.

 

The October 1976 YCL EC had concluded, in a retrospective analysis of the League's work in the earlier part of the decade that "an erroneous view of the relationship between unity, mass work and League growth had been (then) adopted". Activity on young workers’ and school students' issues "was not accompanied by effective campaigning and social, cultural and educational activity among the majority of young people, who are not involved in these organisations. In other words we confined our work to a very small number of politically conscious young people. We should have been linking this work to a bold and open approach to the mass of youth." [Tom Bell's report to the 31st Congress]

 

For Norman Lucas, a former National Young Workers Organiser and London full timer for the League, writing in the pre-congress discussion journal, the previous congress had re-emphasised the Young Workers policy adopted at the 27th National Congress, "not the policy of the 28th Congress which in retrospect was economist in nature characterising the YCL as an `essential component of the young workers movement' ". Lucas felt this to be a significant theoretical error. He thought that the 27th Congress policy correctly put the question of the YCL's work amongst young workers "in the context of our overall work as a YCL in the women's movement, amongst black youth, in the youth councils, in community activity, youth clubs etc". [31st pre-congress discussion document No 2]

 

Another contributor, Dave Styles the National Treasurer, expressed the general tenor of the majority of the leadership. He felt that the argument about "what type of YCL was needed" in the 1960s and 1970s had "polarised into two opposed views". The first view was that the League should be a "broad-based, mass YCL which will be an active campaigning organisation on all issues that affect young people". This was Styles' interpretation of what he saw as the YCL's official position. The other view was that the League should be a "select cadre YCL which places exclusive emphasis on two things, (1) political work to win young workers and school students (2) teaching the young the ideas of Marxism-Leninism". This was his view of the position of the long-standing opposition in the YCL. The estimate is at once at the heart of the matter and also a gross over-simplification. Summing up the leadership's feelings, Styles noted that "these two viewpoints have clashed at all of the last 4 National Congresses ... and I feel that the time has come where this argument must be resolved in order for the YCL to take major strides forward".

 

The very practical sense of weariness with the internal conflict coincided with the arrival of the stimulation of a revisionist interpretation of Gramsci's ideas, what would be dubbed Euro-Communism. Bell hit the Congress with a full-bloodied version of it. A new awareness was needed, he argued, of the ideas underpinned the BRS. "(T)his ideological development must involve a deeper awareness that the ruling class dominates in Britain primarily by gaining popular consent for capitalism among wide sections of the people." Alliances must be forged to challenge the ruling class, this means "working in all possible areas of struggle and not almost exclusively prioritising certain economic battles". A wide range of areas of struggle amongst young people "must be taken beyond the economic level whereby demands are fought for from a sectional sense, without linking them to other struggles of youth ... The class struggle must be broadened to involve everybody whose objective interests clash in any way with monopoly capitalism."

 

The Congress was bitter and argumentative in a way not quite realised before. As the Morning Star put it, there was a "long and sometimes acrimonious debate on the main draft resolution". [Morning Star April 12th 1977] Some idea of the tension in some localities leading up to the Congress is given by the Luton branch's contribution to pre-congress discussion. Sharp political differences had, it seems, contributed to an antagonistic atmosphere in the South East Midlands YCL. The result of these hostilities "led to the withdrawal from YCL activity of two successive South East Midlands District Secretaries". While the political disparity and subsequent bickering" led to the EC removing "the political status of a District". [Pre-Congress Discussion Document No 1]

 

The Congress endorsed the "need for a bold and outwardgoing style of work, in which we attempt to forge unity between ourselves and other groups or sections of young people". According to Challenge, the opposition of one third of the delegates "blamed the League's decline in membership on this strategy and (argued) that our work should be concentrated among young workers and school students". [Challenge Issue No 44 May/June 1977] The Guardian gleefully reported on one celebrated piece of graffiti. A scrawl in the gents at the Congress hall depicted a plunging membership graph. Below it was the slogan "Time to Change Course - fight for Marxism-Leninism". Membership was one third of what it had been a decade before, while the number of districts had fallen from 17 to 7.    

 

On all these arguments about the "nature and style of work of the YCL", according to Challenge, it was the "younger delegates who showed clear frustration with the inward looking internalistic nature (of) some of the debates". Much was made of the youthfulness of the new EC, the average age of which was 21 years. Challenge thought this the "youngest leadership for a long time". While the Morning Star reported the average age of 20 as "the lowest ever", a statement which is, as we have seen, a blatant error related to the age-ist myths being fostered by the ascendant revisionists in the Communist movement. [Morning Star 12th April 1977] More accurately, the number of women on the EC was reported as being comparatively high. All this was central to Bell's view of the way forward for the League, for it to become thoroughly young in every sense. It was at this Congress that he was able to at last obtain support for the lowering of the maximum age limit for YCL membership, from 30 years down to 28. Whilst the Congress also elected the most unanimously solid leadership for decades, even if it was not the most experienced. There had been a determined aim by the central Party leadership to purge the League of factional tension and clear the ground for a more positive future. The centre's links with the District of the CPGB were exploited to put pressure on dissidents towards Bell's leadership to cease hostilities in the interests of the greater good.

 

A resolution adopted by Congress on the inner-league situation said, rather quaintly, if not with much sophistication, "the number of young people won to effective political action by personality clashes, innuendo, threats, intrigue, and divisions can be counted on the toes of Long John Silver's wooden leg". (The jokey style was typical of Bell.) The Congress decision recognised no third force, no shades of opinion. The basic political division was defined as being between " (a) those comrades who disagree with the YCL political position and thus fail to adopt the strategy of building a broad democratic alliance of youth; and (b) those who accept the principles on which our strategy is based and have fought, some more ardently and some more than others for the implementation of our policies". It was considered as being that simple, for and against. The Congress resolution insisted: "The solution to these differences lies neither in straddling the division nor in the continued compromising of the YCL's political position." Thus was war declared on opposition. Any tendency that argued for toleration was brushed aside as objectively assisting opposition. The very differences were the key factor holding the League back, reasoned the leadership. So, this uncompromising stance was justified and doubters of the wisdom of this aggressive posture were to choose which side they were on. There would be no middle ground in the future.

 

The election of a leadership absolutely within the foregoing category (b) was of prime importance to the leadership. In the preceding four congresses a kind of polite fiction was maintained that a candidate's personal political position within the YCL was not a bar to holding a leadership position. Indeed, election to the EC was often, but certainly not completely, a matter of competence and ability. There was nonetheless some element of each outgoing leadership creating a successor in its own image, perhaps a natural human frailty. At the 31st Congress, all caution was thrown to the winds and an EC based entirely on political voting patterns was sought. A premium was laid on youthfulness, even if that was not always the same thing as a shortage of years. A vigorous attitude to opposition views in branch life was calculated to gain attention for a candidate, whilst hesitancy or - worst - active connivance with the opposition was certain to exclude them from consideration.

 

Those with suspect politics were opposed in the Congress Elections Preparations Committee (EPC) by pro-leadership delegates, seeking to keep them excluded from the recommended list.  They were variously attacked for "having political differences", "moving into the YCL from the CP prior to congress", even "being mixed up". Another supposedly "refuse(d) to work to collective decisions", others were "motivated by a desire to oppose policy". Two or three South East Midlands candidates were accused of "indulging in factionalism, meeting before DCs to decide on policy and platform". [These and subsequent quotes from the EPC sessions from the author's own notes as Chair of this committee.]

 

In a counter-attack, the leadership's favoured candidates were also attacked in the EPC. The Scottish Secretary was opposed for being too indulgent of an incident concerning cannabis smoking on the coach down to Congress. The Scottish YCL was supposed to have "degenerated" since he took over. Another leading member of the Scottish YCL was accused of “indulging in vitriolic personal attacks". But, sharp as this was, it was nothing beside the torrent of abuse that was unashamedly orchestrated behind the scenes, with the leadership strongly encouraging delegates to go into the EPC to oppose `unreliable' candidates. One delegate of some influence from London argued for one candidate he favoured because in the "situation of a DC split (he) is very good at fighting for the line of the YCL".      

 

One London activist had "made negative contributions and was not prepared to support the line of the DC". A leading national and district official who had known one candidate since he joined the YCL now opposed him, for "his branch was now very much in the hands of people against the leadership". He had been put on the District Secretariat (a similar body at district level as the PC) and the DC but "this hadn't worked: he was now very firm in his opinions and had a long history of not carrying out decisions". He had even been removed from the District Secretariat for these reasons.

 

Another had resigned from the same Secretariat over this affair. This was much resented, for "she had been put on the Secretariat to strengthen collective work, but she had failed to give leadership in her area for DC decisions". Others could not "carry out decisions", or saw their "role as opposing, but won't do any work".

 

There was a strong lobby from Scotland to remedy the industrial weakness of the recommended list. One Scottish industrial worker was criticised by the National Secretary of CAYU for demanding of him on first meeting him where "he stood on the BRS", as the first matter of concern. Moreover, he had differed with the view that CAYU was an appropriate vehicle for struggle on unemployment in Scotland, believing – probably with enormous factual justification - that the STUC Youth Committee could do whatever was needed. This genuine political difference was treated as a fundamental failing by the candidate’s opponent.

 

Those clearly opposed to the Bell leadership did have one token on the list. She was from the Northern District, such as it was now. The CPGB consultative delegate from her district stressed that she was a "firm believer in democratic centralism" and that it would be "very useful for the district to have her on (the EC). While she had political differences with the YCL leadership, she will work in a disciplined way, putting the official line in public." A national official of the League, who underlined the fact that despite having differences, she "works for the position of Congress", supported this approach.

 

It was now a clear offence not to be part of the mainstream. One delegate visiting the EPC sessions had originally supported another delegate as a candidate for the EC on the basis that as the branch secretary of a large YCL branch he would need to be on the EC. But also because he felt he would benefit from the political education of being on that committee. But he now retracted, as this delegate held a political position "not sympathetic to the line of Congress he would be a nuisance to the new EC". This was only now clear, it was claimed, since some of his fellow delegates were "surprised at the way he is voting in Congress - he's not really a hard liner."   

 

The culmination of this bitter struggle was made more decisive by an emotive plea for unity amongst those delegates not actively associated with the opposition camp in support of the recommended list made by the Chair of the EPC. (In fact the author! To permit a personal aside, at the time I felt that the calculated, almost vitriolic, certainly devastating and unrelenting attack, which I launched on the motives and policies of the shunned camp, in my final reply to the closed session debate, was justified as a tactic in a wider strategy of clearing the League of infighting in order that it might begin afresh with a new leadership. I was wrong, despite being motivated by deep loyalty to the organisation itself, or rather to the Communist Party which at the highest levels certainly encouraged me in this attitude. Whatever the veracity or otherwise of the motives, without doubt, the ferocity of the assault, coming from one who was known to harbour doubts about some of the wilder policies of the leadership, contributed to one of the most disciplined voting patterns ever at a modern YCL congress. In retrospect, I am not proud of it.)  The Guardian described the outcome of the Congress as a "decisive rout" for the opposition and the actual results of the EC election bear this out.

 

A clear voting pattern showed a very tight band of votes for the successful candidates of from 117 to 124 votes. All but one of these were on the recommended list, the solitary exception being the Northern District candidate who enjoyed support from both camps and received 151 votes. There were no less than 51 non-recommended list candidates, but most polled badly. The highest unsuccessful candidate was Kenny Crawford, a Scottish engineering worker. As a Secretary of his local AUEW Junior Workers Committee and a member of a YCL ship building branch, Crawford was a strong candidate. But he was only to win 64 votes, making the general margin something like two to one for the leadership. The successful candidates for the position of auditor polled 117 votes each, their single competitor receiving only 45. Even the opposition motion, which congratulated the USSR on its role in the release of Chilean Communist leader, Luis Corvalan, was defeated. The leadership did not like the prisoner exchange swap, whereby a Soviet dissident was allowed to leave for the West in order that Corvalan, seriously ill from prison treatment, could be released.

 

This political infighting was set against the background of rapidly declining membership. In the 1976-77 Card Issue campaign, there had been an aim to recard 60% of the membership by December but only 40% was achieved. This resulted in the statement by the EC that "losses had not been higher than usual, but the recruits have not been made at the usual pace". [YCLIB April 1977] The YCL now had eight District Committees, "about 90 to 100 branches and 1,620 members", according to Bell in May 1977. [EC Minutes 7th/8th May 1977] In an attempt to inject optimism, the EC was told by the General Secretary that "many of you have only known the year by year drop in membership, but this is not some divine law decreed by above. Once the league begins to operate the approach arrived at collectively at Congress, then we will begin to take the YCL out of this period of history."  

 

Left: Birmingham YCL outside the local Town Hall on an anti-cuts demo in 1977

 

Bell's heir apparent, Nina Temple, saw 1978 as the "year in which the YCL moves away from endless internal battles with Stalinism which have in the past crippled the YCL". [EC Minutes 3rd/4th 1977] This, then, was the legacy of the 1977 Congress. The argument put forward in its wake was that the YCL could grow if it was united. Disunity was a function of the very existence of what the leadership termed Stalinist opposition; hence the elimination of this tendency would provide a fertile basis for growth. It seemed all so simple. Indeed, there was little sense of irony intended as the Political Committee (PC) acted to nullify decisions taken by the East Midlands DC of the League in November 1977, in respect of its own leadership arrangements. These were not to the liking of the national leadership but, instead of confronting the political concerns which Bell really had, the EC was asked to endorse interventionist actions taken by PC because the Eats Midlands DC had acted "without going through the proper procedure of consultations". [EC Minutes 3rd/4th December 1977] It would not be many months before Bell felt confident enough of his position to ditch such procedures, where it suited him. Such an act of administrative control of a political problem was not considered by the leadership to be authoritarian, or sleight of hand manipulativeness. That would have been Stalinist! The stage was now truly set for a remarkable, even Orwellian, turn of the tables in which anti-Stalinism was bolstered by increasingly Stalinesque methods of control. Democratic institutions would be increasingly dulled or abolished, as the perceived threat of opposition faded along with the League itself. Democratic centralism would now be replaced by bureaucratic centralism. The `Euro-communists’ in the YCL had begun as a small faction within the leadership and it now it had become the entire leadership it exercised its leadership functions as a faction. Such a style would increasingly emerge within the CPGB itself, leading eventually to its total demise.

 

10 Euro-Communism as a Distortion of Gramsci

 

 

The leadership of the League, in common with certain trends within the CPGB, began to develop a considered philosophical justification for its position, almost in response to the ideologically clear, if sometimes staidly traditional, stance of the opposition. Not that the opposition was uniformly identical in outlook, other than in its implacable hostility to Bell and his immediate coterie. Those who followed the line of the Surrey District of the CPGB and YCL were often viewed with condescension by more sophisticated proponents of the classical tradition as political cavemen.

 

The YCL's leadership claimed as the source of its political identity as being the British Road to Socialism, the Party's programme. However, its view was, as Mike Power put it, that the "theoretical basis of many propositions in the BRS still needs to be fully established twenty-five years after the initial adoption of the programme in 1951".  [Cogito No 4 1976]  This was an extraordinarily extravagant claim, typical of the YCL leadership cabal. After all where did those ideas, which gave rise to the BRS, actually come from? This is not the place for a discourse on the theory of socialist transition, but a brief outline of the issue in the context of the YCL leadership’s use of the debate is necessary.

 

Despite later claims that the BRS was authorised by Stalin, the concept of a peaceful road to socialism based on the might of united working class was rooted in the real, practical and historical experience of the Labour Movement, going back to Chartism. The BRS was not some flight of fancy but was grounded in the unity forged in struggle between Communists, trade unionist, co-operators and Labour activists in pre-war anti-fascism, wartime solidarity with the USSR and peacetime union, political and peace movement activities. Yet many in the League saw the Party's traditions as out of date, its theories unsophisticated and its image in need of livening up. The `Young Turks' adopted the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, as their new Messiah, a prophet of modernism, despite the fact that he had written most of his politically significant writing in prison in Fascist Italy more than forty years before. Much of Gramsci's writing was coded and couched in the language of culture, since he had to be cautious while writing illicitly in prison. Consequently, Gramsci was wide open to interpretation despite the fact that he definitely came from a revolutionary position.

 

Just to take one example of how a pithy phrase of Gramsci’s would be twisted away from its context to validate a view that actually ran quite counter to his own. The following wonderful quote was (and still is) widely employed: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Applying this to the conditions of the 1970s, which appeared all to crisis-ridden and more than a bit morbid, it was rather mystically use by some to lend authority to a view that socialism was off the agenda - `the new cannot be born’ - however disastrous the political situation looked for capitalism.

 

Yet the context of the page before and the page after this isolated quote in Gramsci’s text makes clear, if one grasps that he is writing whilst in a jail in fascist Italy, that he is saying that no matter how repressive the regime might be the plain truth is that working people are not won around to passivity but are merely biding their time and that this is on their side. This is no place to reprint the entirety of what is actually a sub-chapter in Gramsci’s notebooks but the  couple of sentences before the favoured quote give a flavour: “That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority”. If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only dominant”, exercising force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.” ["Antonio Gramsci - Selections from the Prison Notebooks" in the chapter "State and civil society" in a section entitled `wave of materialism and crisis of authority' publ. Lawrence and Wishart (2005) p276]

 

Posing the challenge of ideological hegemony as somehow diminishing the effects of the ever-tilting balance of raw power in 1970s Britain and Italy, where the then mighty Communist Party was now reaching a key point in its development. It would either become a natural party of government, or it would splinter. Gramsci was being similarly used to justify an equally revisionist position in Italy as it was in Britain.

 

For Mike Power, British Communists still responded to "issues of principle as though we still adhered to the programme `For a Soviet Britain' adopted in 1935". Such a view distorted what that programme actually was, implying that it sought a direct translation of the Russian experience to Britain. It is perhaps difficult to comprehend at such a distance, but the reputation of the USSR in the mid-Thirties was high. The planned economy pioneered by the USSR had been admired by many. Prominent intellectuals like Bernard Shaw and the Webbs were impressed by its achievements.  The Russian revolution had only taken place 18 years before and Communism still thought of itself as a world party.

 

Even so, a reading of the 1935 programme shows that the CPGB called for a revolutionary Soviet Britain largely in a very specific sense. The word `soviet’ meant the use of workers' councils (harking back to the 1926 General Strike councils of action) to subvert power away from capitalism in a single break. The programme was unsophisticated, even naive, but throughout it ran a sense of the power of a united people to challenge the existing order. In an era when the corporate state was flagrantly used to buttress a capitalist system in crisis, electoral democracy was still incomplete, relatively new and seemingly fragile, the Russian path to power did not seem totally out of place for Britain. The conception of a transition without civil war being inevitable came only after the experience of just what was possible arising from the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, especially given the new balance of world forces after 1945.

 

Certainly, now the BRS still saw the leading role of the working class as central. This conception was firmly fixed in the actual assessment of the nature of class forces in Britain, which was clearly very different from Spain and Italy, where Gramscist re-interpretations of Marxist strategy for advanced Western democracies were now emanating from. British adherents to Euro-Communism slavishly copied these ideas, in a grotesque parody of their own critique of how Communism had absorbed Soviet Stalinism.

 

In no other area than the question of the centrality of the working class to anti-capitalist struggle was this theoretical debate so obvious. Those who wished to revise the BRS by reference to the theoretical undertones of Gramsci emphasised the importance of struggles that went wider than the traditional working class movement. It would be a first step to downgrading trade union orientated work, by first `levelling the playing field' and attacking such work as non-revolutionary. It would be a battle of emphasis which culminated in eliminating class conscious work altogether. They even sought to justify their views by attracting political credibility from Vietnam. Ian Findlay, for example, in a report to the EC on political education claimed the following. "At no time did the Vietnamese comrades over-emphasise the significance of any aspect of the struggle. A constant battle to win the many sections of the people of Vietnam, Catholics, Buddhists, students, school students, trade unions and women's organisations was waged." [YCLIB October 4th/5th 1975] While it is true that Vietnamese Communists worked with many broad organisations and won the respect of many varied sections of Vietnamese society in the national liberation struggle, it is a distortion to say that no single section or no single tactic was elevated. Moreover, the comparison is surely an unequal one, given the largely peasant nature of production in Vietnam and that the overwhelming bulk of British society is wage earned.

 

But no less a person than Le Duan, Vietnam's leader from 1969, made it absolutely clear that, in the context of the experience of Marxists in the developing world generally, the peasantry were the key revolutionary force and the armed struggle was the key revolutionary tactic. "Our Party has assessed that the peasants were the main force of our national democratic revolution which was essentially a revolution of peasants, under the leadership of the proletariat and its party." [Le Duan "On the Socialist Revolution in Vietnam" Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi Volume 1 p91] So, the peasants made the revolution but needed the vital force of the organised working class as a backbone. Clearly, however the peasantry was elevated over other forces, especially as the working class vanguard were increasingly eliminated physically and individually by the armed struggle. (A similar experienced had arisen in Russia as a result of the Civil War, which physically eliminated the bulk of the pre-revolutionary proletariat. Whilst the Chinese Kuomintang’s purge of the Shanghai working class had left the pre-eminent role to the peasants organised in the Red Army.) Findlay's argument drew the kudos of Vietnam to a position that was already in the process of downgrading the British working class and its struggles, which were essentially related to the sharpest conflicts in an advanced capitalist society. In effect, he was saying that if the Vietnamese did not elevate one sector in the revolutionary process, why should we. It was a direct rebuttal of the class-conscious policy that identified school students and young workers as the key target area for the YCL.

 

In YCL national education schools in 1975 and 1976, the theoretical position based on Gramsci's work emerged openly for the first time. In Cogito, Mike Power introduced the concepts of `civil society' (i.e. non-government institutions and trends) and `political society' (i.e. the state machine and allied institutions). "It is through the medium of civil society that capitalism in Britain maintains its hegemony." (Hegemony was a favourite word of the Gramscians, implying leadership or domination.)  By omission, this argument implied that no repressive side exists to British capitalism, a concept that would have then seemed strange in Ireland and positively perverse only a few years hence to trades unionists in struggle against Thatcherism, especially the miners in 1984-5. Gramsci's original conception was to actually emphasise that a careful balance between the consensual and coercive roles of political power was a key strategy of West European capitalism. A consensual role of civil society exists in all state systems, to greater or lesser degrees. The more sophisticated a state system becomes, the more civil society assumes importance.  The degree of balance between coercion and consent would vary according to the severity of crisis that the ruling circles faced. In the period of the rise of Thatcherite government, New Gramsci-ist thinking would assign to its authoritarian tendencies an entirely new role, which presumed the terminal decline of the Labour Movement.

 

In the mid-`1970s, for Power and his fellow revisers of Marxism, in Britain winning or educating the working class in a larger societal sense was key. "(W)e must proceed to establish working class hegemony in civil society, not just through economic struggle, to build up and strengthen the British working class Marxist theoretical tradition in order to transform the intellectual and moral outlook of the vast majority of the people. To win state power, therefore, the working class must win hegemony in civil society" [Cogito No 4 pp 9-10] Here then, is the central thesis of the revisionists. For them state power equalled hegemony and it is hegemony that must be won. The conception went beyond the BRS's strategy of winning a majority of the people, the vast majority of which is working class, by a fusion of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary struggle.

 

In his keynote article in Cogito, Power further distorted Marxism and Marx individually by referring to his oft-quoted view that "theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses", as if ideas actually equal material force. Put simply, a military weapon needs thought to wield its armed might. But thought alone cannot wield the power of a weapon. This may seem to be mere semantics, but the revisionists were proposing a thin end of the wedge by devaluing force, albeit force with some popular character. The initial success of Thatcherism in winning neutrality of a third of the electorate, coupled with the support of another third, seemed later to initially back up this analysis.

 

Gramsci's concept of hegemony, as a kind of preponderating control, centres on the fact that the ruling ideas of a given historical epoch are the ideas of the ruling class of that age – as Marx in fact proposed. That is to say, in modern Britain, working class people largely accept capitalism. But of course unless there is a revolutionary situation arising from the inability of the force of capital to continue to rule in the old way, this has been and will always be the case. It tells us nothing new, even though it may emphasise the importance of the politics of culture. But an analysis, which fails to take account of the non-consensual or repressive nature of capitalism's triumphs, will inevitably be flawed. Capitalism is backed by fear of unemployment, sickness, starvation, homelessness, arrest and imprisonment for breaching the sacred rules of property. The British State has become increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic. A different conclusion to that reached by the Euro-Communists is that struggle against capitalism at its weakest link, its economic base, must aid the revolutionary process. Introducing interesting ideas about the nature of dissent and the possibilities of broad alliances resulted in the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the bath water, as community politics was posed against class politics. In hindsight, it is clearer than it was, particularly at the high water mark of Thatcherism, that capitalism has only changed in terms of scope, dimension and place. The nature of the working class may have changed in that an overwhelming percentage of the population is now proletarianised, but the essential, antagonistic relationship between capital and labour remains however weakened the trade union movement has become. For Communists, work with and within the Labour Movement is as essential as ever. Given the limited resources of the British Communist movement, spreading its activities too thinly results in diminished effectiveness.         

 

Such a view was rejected by the Euro-Communists, who pointed to the need for winning popular consent, by the struggle of ideas. They posed the experience of socialist states as being essentially a negative one. Socialism they saw a having up to now being imposed by political even military, society, without reference to civil society. Hence, at its most primitive, the view of the socialist states propounded by the YCL's leadership was that they had lost any potential support for Communism in Britain by virtue of their repressive character. Czechoslovakia's traumas of 1968 still haunted the League, which produced branch education notes in 1976 on "What happened in Czechoslovakia". While, in 1978, on the tenth anniversary of 1968, Issue 55 of Challenge came out with a full page article from the editor on what was then a matter of history for most YCLers.

 

Seeing the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe in the mid-1970s, the YCL - and its ideological allies in the CPGB - inevitably toyed with the idea that anti-Sovietism was intrinsically popular. Reviewing Santiago Carrillo's book, "Euro-Communism and the State" in January 1978, Luis Santamaria proposed its importance because the "principles of Euro-Communism have just become the leading trend in the Western Communist Movement". [Challenge No49] He felt that government was once again on the agenda for these parties for the first time since just after the Second World War. It in fact this proved not to be the case, as left governments fell everywhere in the wake of a confident reaction heralded by Reagan and Thatcher.

 

Given such fundamental revisions of Marxism as were now being swallowed, it is not surprising that the League also applied fundamental revision to its view of young people in capitalist society. The 1970s were marked by an internal Communist debate on youth culture, which had less to do with youth or culture than the nature of capitalist rule. In September 1973, Marxism Today formally opened up a debate on `Trends in Youth Culture', by means of an article authored by Martin Jacques, later to become the journal’s editor. Developments in music and fashion were considered to be critical. Ideological and cultural work was the key to combating "the various forms of spontaneity be they economist or anarchist". Equating the two concepts was a significant step in revisionist thinking, distorting the classical Marxist understanding of the term `economism'. It had been used by Lenin to identify the spontaneous reaction of workers to the excesses of capitalism. What was needed, he argued, was the injection of political consciousness into these struggles to move them into revolutionary action. CPGB revisionists began to use the term in a pejorative way to decry the deep involvement in trade union work of many British Communists, implying that this was a non-political occupation that weakened the Party. In the article, Jacques dismissed young workers, admitting he had "not dealt sufficiently with the position of industrial youth". The debate around youth culture and young people reappeared in the period 1976-78. To start with, in 1976, Paul Bradshaw, Challenge Editor, developed, in the YCL's theoretical journal Cogito, Martin Jacques' original Marxism Today article of three years earlier with his piece entitled `Trends in Youth Culture in the 70's'. [Cogito No 3] This was followed in January 1978 by an article in Marxism Today, which had now fallen completely under the orbit of the Euro-Communists, entitled `Youth in Contemporary Capitalism', from Bob Lentell, YCL National Organiser. As a publicity blurb in Challenge put it, such a debate drew "together many new ideas being kicked around in the League". [Challenge No. 50] Steve Munby, a later editor of Challenge, managed an article on the politics of youth unemployment without once mentioning the YCL. ["Bored and Angry", Marxism Today June 1978] In each of these initiatives, the study of youth culture was used as a means of promoting ideas that undermined confidence in class struggle.

 

It was against this background of major theoretical revisionism that the decline into oblivion of the YCL took place by the early 1980s. Rapidly now, the leadership began to divest itself of the last vestiges of the Leninist model of organisation. In April 1978, the EC decided to "ditch formalism". The EC would be more of a working body, would break into workshops. DCs would be open to all. Bell, now in the last stages of leadership, argued the need to open the League up in its internal life. He believed that this process had been started back in the 1960s, but it had been "abused" by those elements "seeking to hold the League back". Bell's struggle against opposition and "their more open factionalist manifestations", he told the EC, had required restriction by the creation of procedures which "became the law of precedent". With opposition to Bell in tatters, he felt that it was now clear that these practices were a "fetter" on the organisation. They needed to be "ditched as the first step in a war against formalism ... that's to say an emphasis on formal procedure rather than getting a political job done is not the characteristic of young people".

 

The aim set by the League for itself in 1978 was to achieve 100 branches, 6,000 Challenge sold for each issue and 2,000 members. Yet, in April, membership reached rock bottom, or so it seemed, at around 1,000. The YCL was also plagued with financial difficulties, having to launch a £1,500 National Fund to plug the gap between costs and the increasingly minuscule quota from those districts that were still functioning. By October, the YCL had determined to cease major national events and concentrate on campaigning work in the districts. The leadership would "spend more time out in the League, while the EC would be given "more authority ... in relation to the PC". The EC was in fact now seriously weakened by absenteeism, encouraged by despondency at the state of the organisation. The election of younger, inexperienced cadres simply hadn't worked. An infusion of no less than 13 permanent invitees was needed to make the EC function. Dave Cook would now attend as an "observer from the CP". Bell summed up the situation: whilst the YCL had "got rid of fundamental political differences within the League's leading body", it had not yet "come to terms with the new problem thrown up by the political process". He admitted that there were serious problems of "collective work" not resolved. Moreover, the relationship of the PC to the EC was "unsatisfactory". EC meetings were "unrelated to the real situation at grass roots".

 

In membership terms, the League was at a "decisive stage in its history ... we don't have an exact figure, but we know that we have not yet reached the thousand mark" in membership. Bell's view was that the "political process" begun in the 1960s was now maturing but he recognised that it had cost the YCL "dearly". Scotland, the North West and the Midlands had "collective problems", that's to say that there were few left able to lead. East Midlands had problems of "political differences"; it was still home to opposition elements. London had reached a turning point, the "light was at the end of the tunnel", since the purge of dissidents was nearly complete. It was felt that Yorkshire and South Essex were beginning to recover a little and new members had been made in West Middlesex, Kent and Sussex. However, Wales, Northern, West of England, South East Midlands, Hants and Dorset, East Anglia and Surrey had all but collapsed. Membership had almost halved in four years.   

 

YCL national membership 1975-1978

           

1975

2,338

1976

1,985

1977

1,663

1978

1,278

 

Figures are for November of 1975 and 1976, and  for June of 1977 and 1978

 

 

The April 1979 Congress had as its main items for debate the YCL's new mini-BRS, `Our Future'. There was also Challenge, the YCL's new constitution, the EC elections and Branch Resolutions on the agenda. The main challenge to `Our Future' came from an East Kilbride motion to refer the entire document back to the new EC on the basis that the text reduced the YCL's role to that of a "ginger group on the fringes of existing radical trends". The reference back was defeated by a vote of 81 to 38, with one abstention.

 

`Our Future' sought to direct spontaneous activism into radical channels. The progressive developments in the British Youth Council were elevated to central importance and critics of the draft saw it as being soft on the Young Conservatives. The YC was then controlled by liberal reformists, in a matter of just two years ultra-right wing forces would sweep into power in that organisation. Nonetheless, at the 1979 Congress, the majority brushed aside objections, claiming for the Young Conservatives a greater commitment to democracy and racial harmony than was supposedly the case for their elders in the adult party.

 

A debate on education in schools and colleges saw the setting aside of estimates of the class content and role in the class struggle of education as a simplistic, blanket analysis. By a narrower margin than other issues, 66 votes to 50, the criticism was defeated that capitalism was only mentioned in the document 500 lines into the draft. The majority held sway, arguing that the document needed to start from the "actual thinking" of young people.

 

A major redraft of the YCL's rules and constitution was proposed by the outgoing General Secretary, Tom Bell, and was agreed to in principle by Congress. Bell suggested that anti-authoritarianism was stronger among youth at this time than in the previous waves of youth protest in the 1950s and 1960s. A drop in the age range of the YCL would, he believed, bring in a fresh influx of younger activists who would demand a more relaxed framework of organisation. Now that the battle to reject "Stalinist ideas and practice" had been won, it was safe to experiment. Perhaps symbolic of this new mood was the adoption of a new emblem, a map of Britain inside a large star. The ideological commitment to "Marxism-Leninism" was dropped in favour of the "creative application of Marxism". Democratic centralism could now also be dropped in favour of "internal democracy". The EC would be renamed the General Council (GC) and, in effect, a federal structure was partially introduced. Congress would elect only half of the GC, regions would nominate the other half. Districts were abolished, or substantially reorganised into these new regions. When a regional representative was appointed, it was by means of an aggregate of membership where there was no functioning DC, as rapidly became the case with many a locality. Further to the dismantling of democratic centralism, leading cadres would also now be allowed the right to express disagreements with the decisions of the committees they were on when reporting to a lower committee. For example, a GC member reporting to a regional structure. As part of the re-organisation, national officers now acquired the title of secretary. For example, organising secretary instead of National Organiser, school students secretary instead of School Students Organiser and so on. The notion being not to place any one officer above another and to generally diminish the leadership quality of the title. It should be noted that a similar attachment to the abandonment of democratic centralism and the Leninist model was projected by the Euro-Communists in the CPGB at its 1979 Congress. However, a united response of forces defeated their proposals.

 

The YCL now began to experience the most devastating membership loss ever up to that time. A few small branches were established, or more accurately re-established. Bristol YCL was resurrected in May 1980 and grew to the painfully minuscule level of 12 members. In the middle of that year a small branch was set up in Arbroath and a `new' branch established in Doncaster in February 1981. Southampton YCL was set up in December 1980, Swindon in 1981. Membership increased five-fold in Yorkshire over a few months in 1981 also. But this arose from a previously collapsed district. But now there were once again branches, albeit small ones, in Sheffield, Leeds, Thirsk, Hull, Huddersfield, Bradford and, as mentioned, in Doncaster. Huddersfield went from five members to eleven, about an average size for a 1980s YCL branch it seems.

 

By this stage, the YCL was very clear about its identity, if not perhaps about how to resolve its fundamental problem of decline. A current information leaflet for potential recruits defined the organisation. "The YCL is a marxist organisation and draws its ideas from the past as well as the present. Apart from the great teachers of yesterday, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci and all the others, it draws its ideas from the struggles and lessons of the mass movements of our day, the Women's Liberation movement and the ideas of Feminism, the experiences of the Black Community and the Lesbian and Gay Community and of course the Peace Movement (YCND and CND) and the Labour Movement." A YCL Gay Collective (committees being now quite passé) was set up and regional schools on sexual politics were organised. In an odd throw back to obsessions of the late 1960s, the Legalise Cannabis Campaign was promoted in the YCL.

 

The logic proposed for the ditching of much of the classic structure of revolutionary organisations was that, as the YCL was a youth group and distinct from the Communist Party, it needed different forms of organisation. Yet, to some extent, the severe contraction that the League was now going through made this a `virtue' out of a necessity. Whether there was cause and effect, the demolition of the YCL's Leninist structure coincided with its utter collapse of membership, to such a degree that it now became a serious question as to whether it had anything of a future at all.

 

Over the next few years the CPGB itself imploded over a range of issues which markedly paralleled those which had beset the YCL in the 1970s. This has been extensively dealt with elsewhere, but a brief exposition of these events is perhaps of some value in placing the final extinction of the YCL into context.  Marxism Today, under the editorship of a key Euro-Communist, Martin Jacques, began to increasingly distance itself from the Communist movement and became a focus for the jettisoning of left ideas by many Labour Party figures anxious to reach out to the centre ground. A big bust up occurred within the CPGB PC over its attacks on the shop stewards movement and the Party's Industrial Organiser shifted position, after loosing the argument in the PC, to work for the Morning Star. Those most hostile to Euro-Communism increasingly focused around the paper. In 1984 the Party leadership, now composed of a united front of the career politicians and the Euro-Communists, after similar ructions at Congresses to those which the YCL had seen in the 1970s, sought to regain control of the paper. Arguably, the Party was imploding over its key assets, its premises and journals. The question was which faction would hold control over them. The Party launched a savage attack on the Morning Star, seeking to control the technically independent paper. With the support of many in the wider Labour Movement, the Party was refused this control by virtue of loosing elections to the Management Committee of the co-operative that owned the paper. In response, an even more violent assault was made on key Districts, notably London and the North West, which saw hundreds of long time Communists expelled or excluded from membership of the CPGB. In response they set up their own group which campaigned for a reversal of these moves. In the meantime, the massive year long struggle of the miners took place without the advantage of the CPGB's still considerable industrial muscle. The Party leadership prevaricated and allowed public criticism of the tactics of the NUM leadership, despite the presence of one of its most valued members, Mick McGahey, as Vice-President of the union in the `troika' of leadership in the dispute. Little was done to mobilise solidarity with the miners and the Party began to fall apart. Shortly after, the excluded group decided to re-establish the Communist Party as the Communist Party of Britain.

 

What of the YCL after all this? Iain Chalmers, Scottish YCL Secretary, reported to the General Council (GC) of the League, the renamed EC, in March 1986 on the future of the organisation. So serious was the crisis that the very existence of the YCL as the "only autonomous political youth organisation in Britain was at risk”. [Quote from the rather oddly named internal bulletin "The Informer" and also YCL information leaflet for potential recruits.]  Chalmers' estimate of the reasons for the very dismal state of the YCL was that many young Party members were unattracted to YCL work, being unconvinced of its relevance. The implication was that an infusion of `reliable’ young CP activists would be welcomed yet, whilst this may have reflected a particular aim of the YCL at this stage, it had never been a serious basis for recruitment to draw young CP members into the League. Chalmers also noted that many YCL members had diverted their energies to the CPGB in its own period of internal crisis, many taking on leadership responsibilities in their own local Party branch. The same process in reverse was frowned upon, unless the YCL leadership had requested such a move. For the YCL GC had once again been "politically divided with a group attempting to transport the discussions and debates which were current in the party, into the YCL. This created a situation," Chalmers thought, "where we became very inward looking and internalised".

 

There was now no YCL in Wales, even more unthinkably "the structure of the YCL in London has collapsed". Many branches only existed on paper, although membership had "held up" in Scotland. The only contact many members had with the organisation was "a card sent through the post from a remote office". The complete lack of regional or area structures within the League meant that "it is difficult for YCL members to see themselves as an organised body". The YCL had reached "a pivotal point ... there comes a point in any organisation that once it falls below a certain amount of members this fact alone aids its decline". The YCL now had only one full-timer, the General Secretary, Mark Ashton. He was the first gay leader of the YCL and had been urged to give up his position "on medical grounds, as he has a potentially dangerous medical condition, which is exacerbated with fatigue and stress". As it was, Ashton had been spending nearly all his time on purely office duties and he was subsequently to die from AIDS related illnesses.

 

Membership in 1985 had been a mere 426. But, even by the spring of 1986, only 160 of this membership had received cards for that year. Challenge had appeared only very sporadically, when the money was available to finance it. In fact, its appearance was so irregular that Chalmers wondered whether the effort would be "best directed into the production of broadsheets and leaflets instead". The Party EC would be asked to discuss the whole question of the YCL. Meanwhile, the League itself would be asked to "examine all the political options whether it be organised on a regional basis, or by the formation of a Youth Section within the Communist Party". The role of the GC was to ensure that congress policy is carried out. But this "pre-supposes we have the structures and resources to carry out (congress) will". The Party might perhaps have to ask itself if there were better ways of using its finances, one contributor to the discussion journal thought. "Should the YCL be a clearly separate unit? No? Why? Is it not just a joke that two organisations in the same building are entirely independent? Does anyone believe a national youth organisation can be self-funding without some `adult' advice and finance?"

 

In the event, the July EC of the Party received a report, which identified only 218 members of the YCL carded up for 1986, compared to 439 in the previous year. Only Scotland and the Midlands were considered active, organised areas. There was some limited branch activity in Luton and Chelmsford. Little or no organisation existed in the North West, Yorkshire and Wales. Although Manchester, St Helens, York and Leeds showed some signs of activity. There was absolutely no organisation or activity in Hants and Dorset, Kent, Northern, Surrey, Sussex or the West of England Districts.

 

The YCL's view expressed to the Party was that grouping members into branches was "a bureaucratic exercise". Apparently, the "flexible relationship that young people have with organised politics as such, means that the Branch-Regional-National structures don't have the same meaning as they do in the Communist Party. The criticisms of these formal structures in politics by women and black people for example means that there can be the same problem there." A guide to the degree of the League's strength was provided but the EC of the CPGB was told that it should not put "too much emphasis on `building branches' and `recard'. The shortfalls in these areas are the result of political and organisational problems and not the cause or cure of them."

 

Such a short-sighted, even arrogant, analysis was perhaps no more than the creation of a virtue out of a necessity, or even a distortion of reality to hide political confusion. That EC of the CPGB felt that winding up the YCL was no answer to the problem and it resolved to give some limited immediate assistance and to come back to the question in November of 1986. The sad question to be asked is come back to what?

 

Formal dissolution of the YCL was rejected by the CPGB leadership in the 1985 debate on its future. Yet, in practice the YCL was dying on its feet. The 35th Congress, held in 1985, was the last ever. The 36th Congress, due to be held in April 1987 was never convened. That year's CPGB Congress was informed that the YCL was no longer a national organisation and had approximately 50 members and three branches. This was a decline of 90% since the 35th Congress. It was effectively the end of the YCLGB. Without doubt, the central factor in its demise was the brutal use of administrative means to handle political dissent. Unquestionably, by its very nature as a youth organisation, the YCL would have always been a rebellious body of people. The determination by key Communist Party leaders responsible for the political direction of the YCL to impose on it the orthodoxy increasingly favoured by the CPGB leadership – a politics of a revisionist nature - was central to the League’s demise. This determination was rooted in the cynical tactic of using the YCL almost as a testing ground for the future nurturing inside the adult party of a similar course. This approach sharpened debate in the YCL, polarised activists and bred factionalism amongst its leadership. The identity – and variable quality - of this leadership was moulded by such needs. But the YCL was dying long before the CPGB entered the phase of its own terminal decline, bound for a suicidal end. As a `society of great enemies’, to turn Manuilsky’s phrase on its head, the YCLGB was bound for extinction, even though it did not know it, once its leadership adopted the cancerous policy of bureaucratic centralism, whereby the leadership acted as a faction, from the very early 1970s. 

 

The Communist Party of Great Britain took the same course certainly from 1984, possibly as early as 1979. The transformation of the CPGB into Democratic Left was merely a staging post on the way to the abolition of that organisation, amidst internal controversy, as its membership withered. Subsequently, the transfer took place of the remaining assets of the CPGB to a self-indulgent project of political iconoclasm for a handful of former Euro-Communists. The re-establishment of the YCL by the Communist Party of Britain has seen slow but satisfying growth, including the re-issuing of Challenge.  Along with the strengthening of the CPB itself and the current growth in circulation of the Morning Star, the political organisation of British Communism has been truly re-instated. The need for clarity of analysis in the British labour and progressive movements has never been greater. The YCL’s broader history has been illustrious, particularly in its role of nurturing a fresh generation of activists. The clear lesson – for any organisation – is that an inability to tolerate dissent, and the adoption of unpleasantly rooted factionalism in those who lead, will inevitably lead to despondency, diminishing morale and, ultimately, atrophy.    

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Appendices

 

The main sources of information are private papers in the author’s possession, which are occasionally incomplete. Hence the absence of some detail.

 

1        YCL National Officials

 

Chairpersons

 

Danny Bryan                             May 1969-May1971

Peter Kavanagh                         May 1971-June 1973

Phil Greene                               June 1973-February 1974

Anne Park                                 February 1974-December 1975

?                                             December 1975-

Anne Park?                               May 1977

Dave Harwood

Steve Bonham                          1979-

 

National/General Secretaries

 

Barney Davies                           196?-1970

Tom Bell                                   1970-1979

Nina Temple                              1979-1983

Doug Chalmers                         1983-1986

Mark Ashton                             1986    

 

National Organisers

(retitled Organising Secretary from 1979)

 

Pete Carter                                1963-1969

Tony McNally                            May 1969-March 1972

Dave Carson                             June 1972-

Bob Lentell                               August 1975-

Steve Munby                             October 1978

 

Challenge Editors

 

George Bridges                                     1967? – 1969

(with Pete Frost as Assistant Editor)

Pete Frost                                 February 1970

Brian Filling                               July 1971-February 1974

Ian Findlay                                April 1974

Paul Bradshaw                          October 1975

(with John Baker as Assistant Editor from February 1976)

Steve Munby                             December 1977

(with Paul Bradshaw as Assistant Editor)

Ted Wassell

Chris Horrie and Sean Feeney    (as Co-Editors)  1979

 

National Challenger Organiser (a kind of circulation manager)

 

Jackie Bridges                          May 1971

Phil Greene                               June 1972

Ian Findlay                                June 1973

Alan Speck                               October 1974

John Baker                               June 1975

Liam O'Sullivan                         c1977

Maggie Barth                            June 1978-October 1978

Steve Bonham                          October 1978

 

National Treasurer

 

Tom Bell                                   1969-1970

Dennis Walshe                          May 1971

Mary Attenborough                    December 1972-June 1974

Dave Styles                              October 1974-June 1976

Nina Temple                              August 1976-June 1977

Dave McLoughlin                      June 1977-October 1978

 

National Young Workers Organiser

 

John Durkin                              1968 - 1969

Roger Murray                            May 1971-1972

Norman Lucas                           June 1973-October 1974

Carole Woodward                      June 1975-December 1975

Chris Darke                               December 1975-June 1977

Graham Stevenson                    June 1977-April 1978 

 

National School Students Organiser

 

Nic Mitchell                               July 1971-August 1972

Tish Collins                               August 1972-August 1973

Stewart Turner                           August 1973-June 1974

Mary Attenborough                    June 1974-October 1975

Chris Newcombe                       June 1975-June 1976

Sue Swain                                 June 1976-August 1977

Bob Scotland                            April 1978-June 1978

Gillian Bowdler                          June 1978-1979

 

International Organiser

 

Jenny Maldon                           1967-1969

Jim Brookshaw                         1969-1971

Graeme White                           May 1971-December 1972

John Ashworth                          December 1973-June 1974

Noreen Hosey                           June 1974-April 1975

Norman Lucas                           June 1975-February or June 1976

Mike Miltiadous                         May 1977-April 1978

Luis Santamaria                         October 1978-

 

Young Womens Organiser

 

Cathy Winkworth                       October 1977 - October 1978

 

National Education Organiser

 

Colin Yardley                            1968 - 1970

Laureen Mason                          October 1970

Jackie Bridges                          June 1973

Barrie van den Berg                   June 1974

Ian Findlay                                1975?-August 1977

Siwsan Jones                            1979

 

POLITICAL COMMITTEE

 

After the 28th Congress in 1971, the National Committee (NC) was renamed the Executive Committee. The sub-committee that met between NCs and prepared its work, which had been called the Executive Committee, was renamed the Political Committee, or PC for short, from September 1971.

 

June 1971-June 1973.  At its first meeting after the 28th Congress the NC elected the following EC members to the PC: Bob Allen, Jackie Bridges, Tom Bell, Dave Carson, Jon Dyson, Bill Hickey, Pete Kavanagh, Laureen Mason, Roger Murray, Tony McNally, Alan Speck, Barrie van den Berg, Dennis Walshe, Graeme White.

 

Brian Filling came on to the PC in September 1971 and Bridges came off in March 1972. Phil Greene joined the PC in August 1972. Tony McNally and Jon Dyson left the YCL leadership in March 1972 and February 1973 respectively.  Laureen Mason left the PC in November 1972

 

June 1973 - June 1975. At its first meeting following the 29th Congress, the EC elected the following to the PC: Bob Allen, Mary Attenborough, Tom Bell, Dave Carson, Imtiaz Choonara (North West District Secretary), Brian Filling, Ian Findlay, Phil Greene, Gordon Lawrence (Scottish District Secretary), Graham Stevenson (Midlands District Secretary), Barry van den Berg

 

Bob Allen came off both the PC and the EC in February 1974. Mary Attenborough, Brian Filling and Norman Lucas left the PC in October 1974.

 

June1975-June 1977. At its first meeting after the 30th Congress the EC elected the following PC: Tom Bell, Phil Greene, Gordon Lawrence, Ian Findlay, Norman Lucas, Graham Stevenson, Ray Sutton (East Midlands District Secretary), Carole Woodward

 

Bob Lentell joined the PC in August 1975, Anne Park came on in December 1975 and left in April 1977. Gordon Lawrence left the PC in December 1975. John Baker and Dave Styles were elected to the PC in February 1976. Les Hixon (North West) became a PC member in April 1976. The new Scottish Secretary, Danny O'Donnell attended the PC in a non-voting capacity from April to June 1977. Phil Greene departed from the PC in June 1976. Paul Bradshaw attended in a non-voting capacity from October 1975.

 

1977-79.  At its first meeting following the 31st Congress, the EC elected the following to the PC:

Tom Bell, Paul Bradshaw, Mel Danvers, Ian Findlay, Bob Lentell, Dave McCloughlin, Steve Munby, Danny O'Donnell, Bob Scotland, Pete Shaw, Graham Stevenson, Nina Temple (London District Secretary from June 1977).

 

Subsequent changes were: Rob Logan (East Midlands) elected Dec 197? (original document unreadable), Bob Scotland (joined December 1977, left August 1978), Dave Harwood and Rob Rolfe joined the PC in October 1977. Pete Shaw came off in August 1977. Frank Chalmers (Scottish Secretary) and Nial Jinks came on in a non-voting capacity in April 1978. Findlay, Jinks, Logan, Scotland and Stevenson all came off the PC in October 1978.  Towards the end of 1978 a discussion was planned with Harwood, McLoughlin and Rolfe as to their position on the PC.

 

Challenge National Editorial Board

 

Membership as at April 1973: Brian Filling, Bill Smith, Lesley Reed, Roger Murray, Alan Lindsay, Phil Greene, Mike Luzio, Jeff Sawtell, Pat Cook, John Rhodes, Nic Mitchell

 

Reconstituted board - June 1973: Dave Carson, Brian Filling, Ian Findlay, Norman Lucas, Anne Park

 

Additions - August 1973: Pat Cook, John Rhodes, Bill Smith

 

Reconstituted board - April 1974: Tom Bell, Ian Findlay, Dave Carson, Anne Park, Brian Filling, John Rhodes

 

Reconstituted board 1975: John Baker, Tom Bell, Ian Findlay, John Gowling, Anne Park

 

 

The interesting thing to note is the movement of membership of the board in the context of the political tensions within the YCL. There were few Bell supporters in the early 1973 board. The new board constituted in June 1973 was fairly evenly divided, with Carson as a kind of arbiter. The August 1973 additions strengthened Bell's position by bringing two of his supporters on with one opponent, making the new balance five to three in favour of Bell. The April 1974 changes made the board equally divided, since Carson was now working more closely with Bell. The 1975 board was a decisive rout for the opposition, giving Bell total control of the journal for the first time. Subsequent membership of the board continued the consolidation of the revisionist leadership, with no concessions to political opposition. The nature of the coverage in Challenge reflected these moves.

 

 

2        YCL membership by District and National totals 1967-1986

 

 

1967

1968

1969

1970

1971

1972

1973

London

1,460

1,050

1,004

978

964

800

801

Scotland

1,509

1,213

503

476

440

455

609

 Lancs & Ch

501

313

260

320

312

325

330

Yorkshire

510

350

325

319

336

230

185

Midlands

360

420

383

271

210

225

230

E.Midlands

241

189

194

128

136

161

135

Surrey

177

155

140

142

84

56

72

S,Essex

185

150

149

147

84

56

72

W. Middlesex

175

95

95

76

53

64

54

S.E.Midlands

120

85

77

87

111

73

96

N.East

130

60

41

54

64

85

87

Wales

210

177

116

86

105

90

68

W. o England

79

97

74

60

50

39

54

Kent

105

94

90

70

82

61

50

E.Anglia

67

69

65

60

51

42

9

Hants & Dors

70

75

77

59

55

43

36

Sussex

46

33

50

21

30

15

0

Devon  & Cor

27

               0

7

10

13

13

0

S.Midlands

59

26

35

21

10

10

11

Channel Isles

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National

6,031

4,651

3,686

3,385

3,276

2,970

3,012

                                               

 

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1985

1986

London

624

516

413

320

323

76

39

Scotland

547

512

442

353

220

166

90

 North West

370

386

341

250

170

49

10

Yorkshire

193

128

106

106

98

11

4

Midlands

165

170

180

176

138

59

37

E.Midlands

135

110

109

96

69

     Merged

     Merged

Surrey

50

55

57

60

40

4

1

S.Essex

50

55

57

60

40

8

10

W. Middlesex

61

64

39

34

41

3

4

S.E.Midlands

90

83

55

44

16

8

10

N.East

67

48

27

30

14

19

6

Wales

49

63

54

31

22

10

3

W. o England

48

36

30

35

12

12

1

Kent

9

15

11

10

50

4

2

E.Anglia

9

12

9

15

7

     Merged

     Merged

Hants & Dors

15

15

13

9

2

9

0

Sussex

9

9

13

20

0

1

1

Devon  & Cor

0

  Closed   

 

 

 

 

 

S.Midlands

9

      Closed

 

 

 

 

 

Channel Isles

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National

2,576

2,338

1,985

1,663

1,278

439

218

 

Lancashire and Cheshire was renamed North West in 1971. East Midlands was absorbed by the Midlands and South Essex and East Anglia were merged in early 1980s. North East Coast was renamed Northern. The figures for 1986 are as at July 7th of that year.

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Membership of YCL as a %

percentage of CPGB membership

 

Year
        
YCL as % of CP membership (Months cited refer to CP membership)

 

1924
16.66 (May)

12.5 (Sept)

1926
See note
1928
18.18
1934
11.38
1935
28.57
1938
29.54
1942
20.6 (March)

17.86 (Dec)

1947
  5.18
1949
  7.61
1950
12.87
1951
  8.85
1952
14.09

1955

10.71
1956
  7.93
1958
  5.62

 

 

It is very difficult to calculate a figure for 1926, as the YCL claimed between 5,000 and 9,000 that year and the CPGB was at 6,000 in April and 10,730 in October.  Clearly the ratio was very high. What is clear from the overall figures is that the ration of YCL membership to the CPGB’s was extremely high in the pre-war years. Some double counting is likely, however, since membership of the Party was probably obligatory for those of majority age in this period.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
5       A personal note

 

I include this not for reasons of vanity but, since it will be obvious from the text that I have a close personal involvement with the subject, it is only fair to readers to make clear what my own involvement has been – both in the YCL and subsequently.

  

I first made contact with the Communist Party in 1966, just having turned the age of 16, having counted myself as a Communist for over a year before that, after reading about Marxism and then finding the Morning Star. I joined the YCL in January 1967 and became Coventry Branch Secretary within a few months. I was initially co-opted onto the Midlands YCL DC in May 1968 and was formally elected a member at the District Congress in 1969. I remained a member until May 1978, being a member of the District Executive or Secretariat for all that time. At the 1969 YCL District Congress, I was Chair of the Standing Orders Committee. In February 1972 I moved to Birmingham to become the Midlands YCL District Secretary. During my period in Coventry, I was active in the DATA Youth Committee and the Trades Council Young Workers Committee. In the early stages of my residency in Birmingham I was active in UCATT.

 

First elected to the YCL National Committee in 1969, I was a continuous member until 1978 of this body and its successor, the Executive Committee. On the 1969-71 NC, I was a member of the Finance Committee, when Tom Bell was National Treasurer. During the 1971-3 EC, I was responsible for the Midlands Regional Editorial Board of Challenge. In 1973, I was elected to the Political Committee and was continuously a member until October 1978, when I reached the maximum age limit for YCL membership.

 

Identified with the centrist trend in the leadership in the late 1960s and 70s, by the time of the 1971-5 leadership crisis, I had moved to a loose alliance with oppositionalists, especially on the issues of the nature of Challenge and industrial work. With the exclusion of all opposition from the EC at the 1975 Congress, I found myself isolated. The overwhelming nature of the leadership now being Bell loyalists, I resolved to work as best I could to build the League, setting aside political differences with the dominant trend as being divisive obstacles to YCL growth. In common with many YCLers, I felt at the time that the splits in the organisation were the root cause of its decline and that the clearing out of one faction or the other might help. I therefore played something of a role to this end in the 1977 Congress and the lead up to it, a congress that was to see the decisive rout of all effective opposition. I introduced two items at the EC in 1976, as part of these preparations, and was the Chairman of the EPC at the Congress in April 1977, playing a somewhat ruthless role in excluding opposition.

 

I was the National Young Workers Organiser of the YCL from June 1977 to April 1978 and represented the League on an international work delegation to Cuba in 1972 and the German Democratic Republic in 1977, being the fraternal delegate to the Free German Youth Congress. I was a T&G delegate to the 11th World Youth Festival in Havana in 1978, having become active in the TGWU in 1975.

 

Throughout my membership of the YCL I was a regular contributor to Challenge, including film and book reviews and cartoons, as "Brummie", as well as political articles, the last of which was a full page feature on the 60th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1977. I was the joint author of the 1977 YCL publication "Young People and Industry in the 1970s".

 

A member of the CPGB from the first possible moment, at the age of 18, I was a member of the Midlands District Committee of the Party from 1969 to 1978 and of its Secretariat from 1972 to 1978. At the Midlands District Congress of the CPGB in 1978 I was Chair of the Standing Orders Committee. Despite being on the recommended list, I was not elected by the Congress in what was effectively a take over by the Euro-Communists of the Midlands District.

 

In 1980 I was appointed a full time officer for the TGWU, operating in the Derby area until 1987. During that time I was a member of the East Midlands District Committee of the CPGB from 1982 and its Secretariat from 1984. I was Chair or Secretary of the Derby CP branch for most of the period I was in Derby. In 1987 I was transferred to the Regional Office of the T&G in West Bromwich to take up the position of Regional Trade Group Secretary for the Passenger Trade Group and in the following year was promoted to National Secretary of that Group, operating from the union's head office. In 1997 the National Secretaryship of the Docks and Waterways Trade Group was added to my responsibilities. In 1999. I was appointed National Organiser for the T&G's new Transport Sector, encompassing the four transport trade groups of the T&G. A Vice-President of the European Transport Workers Federation from 1997, I became its President in2009 and retired from full time union work in 2011.      

 

I remained a member of the CPGB until its dissolution. In the following two years I was Chair of the non-party organisation, Communist Trades Unionists, which united disparate tendencies which had emerged from the demise of the CPGB. Most involved in CTU were party to the Communist Unity process which was eventually resolved by virtue of applying en bloc, but individually to local branches, to the Communist Party of Britain which had emerged in 1988 from the CPGB dispute over the Morning Star, as the re-established Party. From 1994 onwards, I remain an active member of the CPB and, arising from the CTU’s negotiated entry into this, count my membership of the British Communist Party as continuous from my youth in Coventry.      

 

 

 

6. Initials used in the text

 

ACTT                Association of Cinema and Television Technicians

ADPM              Average Dues Paying Membership

AEEU               Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union

AEF                  Amalgamated Engineers and Foundryworkers

AEU                 Amalgamated Engineering Union

AESD               Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen

ANL                  Anti-Nazi League

APEX               Association of Professional, Executive and Clerical Workers

ASTMS             Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs

AUEW              Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers

AUEW/TASS     ditto/ Technical and Supervisory Staffs Section

AUT                  Association of University Staffs

 

BNP                 British National Party

BPC                 British Peace Committee

BPC                 British Preparatory Committee

BRS                 British Road to Socialism

BYC                 British Youth Council

 

CAWU              Clerical and Administrative Workers Union

CAYU               Campaign Against Youth Unemployment

CND                 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

CPB                 Communist Party of Britain

CPGB               Communist Party of Great Britain

CPNSC             Communist Party National Student Committee

 

DATA               Draughtsmen’s’ and Allied Technicians Association

DC                   District Committee

DL                    Democratic Left

 

EC                    Executive Committee

EEPTU             Electrical, Engineering and Plumbing Trades Union

EPC                 Elections Preparations Committee

 

GC                   General Council

 

IMG                  International Marxist Group

IS                     International Socialism

 

LPYS                Labour Party Young Socialists

 

NALGO             National Association of Local Government Officers

NATFHE           National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

NC                    National Committee

NCP                 New Communist Party

NF                    National Front

NLF                  National Liberation Front

NOLS               National Organisation of Labour Students

NUM                 National Union of Mineworkers

NUS                 National Union of Students

NUSS               National Union of School Students

NUT                  National Union of Teachers

 

PC                    Political Committee

 

RCA                 Royal College of Arts

 

 

SAS                 Scholar Associate Scheme                   

SAU                 Schools Action Union

SKAN               Skools Against Nazis

SOC                 Standing Orders Committee

SOGAT             Society of Graphical and Allied Trades

STUC                Scottish Trades Union Congress            independent of the British TUC

SWP                 Socialist Workers Party

 

TASS                Technical and Supervisory Staff

TGWU               Transport and General Workers Union

TUC                  Trades Union Congress

 

UCS                 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders

USDAW            Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers

USSR               Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

 

VSC                 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign

 

WAY                 World Assembly of Youth

WFDY              World Federation of Democratic Youth

WRP                 Workers Revolutionary Party (formerly SLL)

 

YAR                 Youth Against Racism

YCLGB             Young Communist League of Great Britain

YCLIB               Young Communist League Information Bulletin

YCND               Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

 

 

NOTES OF EXPLANATION ON THE INTIALS USED

 

Organisations known by their initials, or now acronyms even, are to be considered a blight on any hopes for the understanding of the labour and progressive movement. Given that the passage of time has rendered many of the above organisations redundant by merger, or obscurity of one kind or another, it seems helpful to provide a few notes on the otherwise bewildering complexity of this array of initials!

 

The engineering union

 

The many incarnations of the main union for engineering workers, as time unfolds, are reflected in the many variations on the AEU theme in the initials that appear in the text. As various independent unions, such as the foundry workers or draughtsmen (no women unfortunately, they were all tracers! – now long since extinguished by computer aided design) joined or left the amalgamation/federation, the name and identifying initials changed. For most of the period of this study this body was known as the AUEW. This was a left facing organisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But an aggressively anti-Communist, right wing faction increasingly captured the manual worker based element. This resulted in the break up of the federation with the always defiantly left wing, and now amplified, `white-collar’ section, TASS. This then pursued an independent course which, after a variety of wide-ranging mergers, ended up in MSF (Manufacturing, Science and Finance), after a merger with ASTMS. The engineering section of the AUEW later merged with even more right wing EEPTU, to produce the AEEU. Completing a cycle of irony and complexity, this has merged with MSF to produce the oddly named “Amicus”.

 

The Communist Party

 

A note on the use of the CPGB initials may be instructive, particularly in view of its appropriation in the 1990s by a tiny (a group of perhaps two dozen individuals!).  The inclusion of the word “Great Britain” originally implied two things, firstly – that the organisation was the British section of the world communist movement – and, secondly, that it did not cover Northern Ireland, since Communists, along with Irish Republicans, have never recognised the partition of Ireland. From around 1984, the revisionist wing of the CPGB retained majority control until the vote to dissolve the organisation. Despite then relinquishing the title, Democratic Left, the new organisation which kept the CPGB’s assets, also defended the title of “CPGB” fiercely, almost as if it were a brand name. A tiny minority of former CPGB members joined the new organisation, often out sentimental loyalty, or because they felt there was no other place to go. The Communist Party of Britain, which argued that it had in fact already re-established the Party, was initially composed mostly of expelled and excluded members. This has arisen from the factional struggles of the CPGB leadership in the mid-to-late 1980s to, effectively, `re-brand’ the organisation as a non-communist force. A potential legal challenge between the CPB and DL over rights to the title foundered on the sheer costs and impracticability of resolving the issue this way. Democratic Left’s probable motive, in claiming the right to the name, was mainly to safeguard the lucrative and sometimes individually substantial will bequests that many (often now out of touch) veteran members, or even ex-members, had made to the CPGB in sometimes untouched and long-standing legal testaments.   The CPB rightly concluded that, aside from the question of political legitimacy, the term “Great Britain” no longer had appropriate resonance and gave up the fight for the title. However, to reinforce its justified historic political legacy of the bulk of the existence of the CPGB, the CPB numbers its Congresses as if being in a continuum from the foundation of the CPGB in 1920. In a final irony, a tiny (maybe two dozen) group of Trotskyists of obscure derivation who had sought to bed themselves into the dying CPGB, then claimed the name for themselves in highly-publicised stunts, thus sowing the seeds of considerable confusion!

 

 

Trotskyist Groups

 

The genesis and subsequent development of various Trotskyist groups is even more complex than the above. Arguably, a detailed explanation would leave the realms of science and move into the arena of art! This is also not the place for a detailed analysis of the ultra-left. Essentially, the many tendencies differ over theories that characterise the socialist states as to whether they are, or were, degenerate, deformed or state-capitalist. Sometimes the argument centres on precisely at what moment in history it was when one of these characterisations arose.  Additionally, arguments over tactics towards the labour movement and/or the Communist Party exist. The question of entering such bodies or creating a separate revolutionary party has resulted in divisions. Whilst, finally, the predilection for splitting organisations has produced a plethora of bodies. 

 

The main faction that dominated the LPYS in the 1970s was publicly known as Militant, after its newspaper. This core of this was called the Revolutionary Socialist League. After Neil Kinnock’s assault on this entrism, RSL consolidated itself (after some disagreement and expulsions) into today’s Socialist Party. The SLL became the Workers Revolutionary Party and later split into two, one fragment becoming the Marxist Party. The IMG fractured and some of its ultra-deep entrists remained as an obscure group inside the Labour Party. More successfully, the International Socialists emerged as the Socialist Workers Party, a dominant force inside the electoral vehicles, the Socialist Alliance and the Respect Party.

 

I cannot claim to be a dedicated follower of contemporary ultra-left fashions and so am sure that there could be a more definitive explanation of the subsequent developments associated with such bodies mentioned in the text, which were contemporary to the 1960s and 1970s, but this general explanation will have to suffice!

 

7. List of World Festivals of Youth and Students

 

I

Prague

25 July -17 August 1947

17000 young people from 71 countries

"Youth Unite in the struggle for a lasting peace!"

 

II

Budapest

14-28August 1949

20, 000 young people from 82 countries

"Youth Unite! For a lasting peace, democracy, the national independence of peoples and a better future'

 

III

Berlin

5 -20 August 1951

26 000 young people from 104 countries

"Youth, unite against the danger of a new war for a lasting peace!"

 

IV

Bucharest

2 -16 August 1953

30 000 young people from 111 countries

"We say No to Death and Devastation!"

 

V

Warsaw

31July -15 August 1955

31,000 young people from 114 countries

"For peace and friendship!"

 

 

VI

Moscow

28 July -11 August 1957

34, 000 young people from 131countries

"For peace and friendship!"

 

VII 

Vienna

26 July -4 August1959

18000 young people from 112 countries

"For peace and Iriendship!"

 

VIII

Helsinki

1962    

18,000  from 137 countries       

"For Peace and Friendship"

 

IX

Sofia

1968    

20,000  from 138 countries       

"For Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

X

East Berlin

1973    

25,600  from 140 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XI

Havana

1978    

18,500  from 145 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

Xii

Moscow

1985    

26,000  from 157 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XIII

Pyongyang

1989    

22,000  from 177 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XIV

Havana

1997    

12,325  from 136 countries       

"For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship"

 

XV

Algiers

2001    

6,500    from 110 countries       

"Let’s Globalize the Struggle For Peace, Solidarity, Development, Against Imperialism"

 

XVI

Caracas

2005    

17,000  from 144 nations          

"For Peace and Solidarity, We Struggle Against Imperialism and War"

 

XVII

Pretoria

2010    

15,000  from 126 countries       

"Let's Defeat Imperialism, for a World of Peace, Solidarity and Social Transformation!"

 

 

 

 

 

17,000  from 144 nations          

"For Peace and Solidarity, We Struggle Against Imperialism and War"

 

XVII

Pretoria

2010    

15,000  from 126 countries       

"Let's Defeat Imperialism, for a World of Peace, Solidarity and Social Transformation!"