Revolting Youth

By Palmer, Bryan | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Revolting Youth

Palmer, Bryan, Canadian Dimension

Marching to the Music of Youth

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


"Bliss was it in that dawn": Youth and Revolution's Origins

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

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

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

This demography of democracy is not often noted in discussions of revolutionary histories dominated by accounts of sans culottes and figures such as Robespierre and Danton. But it was decisive. In 1789 the old order was assailed by the explosive presence of the young. Those under the age of 20 made up no less than 36 percent of the population; those over go had dwindled to barely one quarter of the society. Yet for the young, avenues of opportunity seemed closed. Crane Brinton's classic study The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1952) long ago pointed out the importance of the increasing numbers of unemployed young intellectuals who, by the 1.78os, were flocking to Paris to "write and talk their way" to fortunes that seemed, year by year, to be more and more illusive.

What Is to Be Done's Appeal to the Young

Something similar was happening in Russia in the late 19th century. Successive waves of "angry young men" emerged out of the privileged classes, complementing the seething discontent of the landed and increasingly oppressed peasantry. The "Young Russia" movement of the 186os called for a relentless war to be waged against czarism. One of its leaders, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, was arrested, imprisoned and condemned to forced labour in Siberia, but he managed to write a revolutionary novel, What Is to Be Done?, while incarcerated. More than any other single text, including Marx's Capital, Chernyshevsky's book galvanized youthful Russian revolutionaries, some of whom mobilized as the People's Will. Lenin read What is to be Done? repeatedly in 1887 as his older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was executed by the state for his part in a plot to kill Czar Alexander III. The brothers were 17 and 21 years of age at the time. Six years later Lenin was a committed revolutionary, spearheading the formation of the Union of Struggle and the Emancipation of the Working Class. Most of the leading figures in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Leon Trotsky included, had become committed revolutionaries before they reached the age of 20.

The situation was remarkably similar among the growing ranks of Japanese, Chinese and Korean anarchists in a slightly later period, where leading activists in the movement had almost always served time in prison well before they reached the age of 30. In such circles Peter Kropotkin's Appeal to the Young, first published in Le Revolt in 3.88o and widely translated into many languages, was influential. Among many East Asian student radicals, anarchism, socialism and anti-colonial nationalism fused in the 1920S and 1930s, this mixture always percolating through the political sieve of internationalism. A youthful Ho Chi Minh, the future liberator of Vietnam, traversed the globe before settling into the Comintern, where his nom-de-plume was "Nguyen the Patriot. …

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