September 29, 2012

Student organizing in the 1930s and the YCL

The On To Ottawa Trek
In the 1920s, 30s and 40s the Communist movement was under intense surveillance by the political police or Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- we know this because they have made their official secret documents public for this time period. The surveys continued, of course, after the 1940s and actually intensified but the reports from the years before show that the RCMP was already paying very close attention.

Below we present an RCMP report from November 1936, which includes a report about the work of the Young Communist League on campuses and a student conference organized by the YCL at McGill University. No doubt, not everything in this report is true. The informants used by the RCMP often exaggerated the statements of the Communists (saying, for example, that the Communists called for violent and bloody revolution in a public speech) to simply justify their existence as informers and spies. This organizational culture was supported at all levels of the RCMP who always monitored the CPC more closely than the ultra-right groups -- even when Canada was at war with fascist Germany and about to enter into an alliance with the USSR. As historian Chris Frazer writes in the latest issue of The Spark journal:
As chief of the RCMP's intelligence section, Rivett-Carnac argued in early 1939 that fascism was a lesser threat than communism since fascism was a "modified form of capitalism." Rivett-Carnac's opinion corresponded with the anti-communist and anti-labour views of RCMP Commissioner S.T. Wood, who argued later in 1941 that, "it is not the Nazi nor the Fascist but the radical who constitutes our most troublesome problem."[19] Although the charges were never substantiated, as early as October 1939 the RCMP Security Bulletin claimed that "there is more reason to fear ... acts of espionage and sabotage on the part of the Communist Party than from Nazi or Fascist organizations." Source.
The November 1936 report is from a series of security reports that the RCMP issued on a monthly basis. Much of what the YCL is interested in doing, as presented by this report, is anti-fascist work -- or campaigning for peace. At points the language of the document reads as if the informer simply copied the original text in shortened form. The sentence structure and wording is dated and has a kind of 1930s feel, but the thinking of young people at that time shines through.

The report states that student participants came from Queens (Kingston, Ontario) Dalhousie (Halifax, Nova Scotia), McGill (Montreal, Quebec) and Varisty -- which perhaps refers to the University of Toronto, whose student newspaper and sports teams are called that and where the YCL had an established public club at that time (although the word varsity simply means a university sports team or a university).  Two delegations also came from high schools in Montreal.

The conference called on YCLers to continue political and ideological work against "Capitalist ideology and propoganda in schools" but to combine this with immediate struggles and political work like peace, unemployment, youth rights, and united front work with other youth organizations. A strong parallel can be drawn with the work of the League today.

The report calls for "proper combination of broad campaigns on specific issues [...] with careful fostering of permanent student organizations." This approach may have some thing to teach youth and student activists today, with the spirit of Occupy, the "Casserole" solidarity protests, and other spontaneous actions on our campuses and communities. More often than not, these movements unfortunately fail to develop into real organizations and the youth movement swings along, after a few weeks or months, to the next popular issue.

Particular attention was given to the Canadian Youth Congress (CYC). The CYC included progressive religious youth through the Student Christian Movement which was the main social-justice organization on campuses at that time, but also farm youth, the Canadian Cooperative Federation Youth or CCF (forerunner of the NDP), as well as social and sports groups like the YMCA and YWCA (Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations). The CYC advocated for a Charter of Rights of the Youth or "Youth Act". It had just held, the year before, a series of protest actions against government policy during the depression -- like peoples courts against Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.

Despite that fact that most university students were not from the working class, interestingly the YCL report does not dismiss political action on campuses. Instead the League states that students are a diverse social group, generally inexperienced, and that schools varied considerably -- depending even on the personality of the school principle (or university President). As a result "no stereotyped formula can be given" but there was a sharp problem of leadership because of inexperience on campuses.

Further discussion

A lot of material is presented here which could be fruitful for further discussion about strategy and tactics.  At this time the YCL itself had only just fought and defeated, with the Communist Party of Canada, an effective ban on the organization. It was still on a precarious edge of legality.  Why would the YCL not want the Student Peace Movement to be an underground organization and forbid that direction?

Why would the YCL want official support of efforts like the CYC and peace clubs but not progressive clubs which are to remain independent?

What do you think about the experience and tactics of the YCL on high school campuses at Baron Byng and Strathcona?

Why do you think they thought it was necessary to write that"the club must neither be a collection of intellectual giants nor ostensibly be interested in nothing but ping pong while in reality acting as a snare for unsuspecting innocents"? What does this mean?

How are "linkages with the labour movement" maintained with YCL clubs in a way that is not "mechanistic"? What do you think about the example at McGill?

What do you think about the proposal for a YCL club meeting agenda on campuses and the idea of "all-talk-no-action"?

Although the story-teller is a police agent, the actual minutes from this meeting no doubt have been long lost. It is, therefore, an invaluable source of information. What we get is not the conference discussion in full, or even the complete final resolution. It is sifted by a police filter from the informant to the official report given here. The reader simply has to trust that most of the document is, more or less, accurate.

At the same time the report tells an important tale not just about the YCL but also the youth movement of the time. The final resolutions of the conference, for better or worse, show the thought-out contribution of the YCL to the students struggle: it identifies key priorities like peace and youth rights; it strives to find the maximum level of unity and militancy in the context; it navigates difficult questions like legality, illegality, and the public presence of the YCL; and it interconnects the youth struggle with other struggles.

The report especially tells its members to strive to work in a way that is not mechanistic or formulaic, to listen to its high school members, and to work in a collective fashion with initiative. Clearly, the League does not dismiss the campuses or reject participation in the political life of students -- even though access to education was much more difficult in 1936 than today for working class youth. And to be sure, campus activities were a relatively lower priority of the League which focused more on young workers. But in tacking the problems of the student movement of the day, the YCL shows its broad sweep of understanding struggle -- a revolutionary perspective of mobilizing the all the oppressed masses of youth in unity with the working class. Clearly the police though this vanguard approach towards the youth struggle in Canada was a real danger.

YCL at McGill

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular stories