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10 Years of  the Young Socialists:
Building a Socialist Youth Movement

by Jacquie Henderson

(Young Socialist Forum, February 1970)

Ten years ago, on January 30, 1960, seven students and young workers met in a cramped apartment in Toronto’s east end to found a revolutionary socialist youth organization. Their group has now developed into the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, largest organization of Canadian socialist youth. What brought these pioneers together, and set their group on the road to such growth?

1960—there was no campus revolt. Universities and high schools still lay under the deadening apathy and conservatism of the '50's. But the founders of the "Young Socialist Alliance" in Toronto in 1960, and their comrades in Vancouver who joined them shortly, came together in response to the inspiration of two great political events that showed them the challenge of the ’60s.

The Cuban revolution was rapidly heading for its showdown with U.S. imperialism, and the establishment of a workers’ state in this hemisphere. The Young Socialists saw their first task as defending the Americas’ first socialist revolution against the campaign of slander and hysteria of the U.S. state department and its Canadian flunkies.

Meanwhile Canadian workers were moving towards the formation of their own political party, the New Democratic Party. The Young Socialists were active in its formation—their first meeting centered its discussions on a conference of youth supporters of the "new party" called for the next week. They aimed to bring the message of Cuba—the necessity of socialist solution to the gathering world crisis—to the militants of Canada’s new labor party.

Later the Young Socialists rapidly responded to the greatest event of the sixties—the attempt by U.S. imperialism to crush the Vietnamese revolution. They centered their energies around helping to found an anti-Vietnam war movement in Canada.

"A World to Win" read the motto on the early Young Socialists’ red membership cards. But they were a small and unimposing group alongside the rival forces of 1960 youth radicalism. There were strong clubs of the CCF (predecessor of the NDP) on most campuses, where the Young Socialists’ talk of nationalizing big business was dismissed as dangerous dogmatism. A "ban the bomb" movement had thousands of supporters among youth, but its early leaders, the developing New Left, thought the YS call for a stand against NATO was damaging and premature.

The Communist Party still had a cross-country youth organization with a monthly newspaper, Advance. And the Young Socialists were a tiny and inexperienced group.

How was the Young Socialists able to grow while other, initially far more imposing organizations splintered, split and disintegrated? Unlike the new left groups, CUCND [Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] and its successor SUPA [Student Union for Peace Action], the Young Socialists almost never made the newspapers. They didn’t have the powerful support the NDP’s right-wing leadership granted its youth supporters, or the financial resources of the Young Communist League.

But that small group did have a few things going for it. They knew where to start. They began with the developed program of revolutionary socialism. If the New Left leaders prided themselves on rejection of all "dogmas", changing their strategies and principles with each new season, the Young Socialists based their program on the experiences of one hundred years of Marxist revolutionary thought and action. While many young radicals preached "you can’t trust anyone over 30," the Young Socialists saw nothing to fear in Marx’s grey beard or Lenin’s bald head. In their day-to-day work they looked to the adult revolutionary organization the League for Socialist Action, as the embodiment of these traditions. And far from rejecting this adult organization, they collaborated with it, were aided by it, and helped to build it.

The decade was to see their fundamental positions, at first scornfully rejected by all other youth tendencies, win wide respect and often universal acceptance on the student left.

The Young Socialists named the enemy—the capitalist profit system organized around the world under the leadership of U.S. imperialism. They demanded a fundamental solution, a revolution, to build a totally new, socialist society. They looked to the working class as the key force to bring about this change. While supporting the workers’ organizations, the unions and their political party then in formation, they saw their task as, together with the League for Socialist Action, a revolutionary working-class organization, in building a new, revolutionary leadership for this class. They foresaw a massive radicalization of students ahead and aimed to win these students to revolutionary socialism. And they were internationalists—defenders of Cuba, of Vietnam, of world socialism.

But a program, no matter how correct, doesn’t mean much unless translated into a strategy for action aimed at real and immediate possibilities. So the early Young Socialists Alliance hailed the formation of the movement for nuclear disarmament as the vehicle to awaken youth to the war danger posed by imperialism and to mobilize them towards disarming the warmakers.

The leaders of the "ban the bomb" movement, the CUCND, rejected any concept that the roots of war might lie in the capitalist system of profit and world pillage, and believed the bomb made traditional ideological divisions of left and right obsolete. In November 1960 the Young Socialist Alliance, in the first issue of its Canadian Youth Bulletin called on the CUCND to take a stand for the unilateral disarmament of the western powers. It called for opposition to the Liberal and Tory war parties, for immediate Canadian withdrawal from war alliances like NATO, and for the right of the Canadian people to vote on the question of nuclear arms.

In the fall of 1960, YSers Dick Fidler and John Riddell initiated the first high school anti-war movement in Toronto, the Canadian Students for Nuclear Disarmament. In January 1961 hundred high schoolers came to a CSND debate on NATO featuring unionist Doug Carr and Andrew Brewin of the CCF. After a powerful YS intervention in the floor debate, the assembly voted 2-1 against NATO and NORAD, establishing itself thereby as the radical wing of the anti-war movement.

In December 1960 John Darling ran as a YSA anti-war candidate for Toronto’s Board of Education, receiving 6000 votes in a student-run campaign against cadet-training in the schools and for students rights.

But the greatest challenge faced by the early Young Socialists was the foundation of the New Democratic Party. They plunged into the building of the new party’s youth wing. YSers John Wilson, Ernie Tate, Dick Fidler and Toni Gorton initiated the first Toronto clubs. With the NDP’s founding the Young Socialists gave up their independent organization in order to move fully into the work of building the New Democratic Youth, and became its organized revolutionary socialist wing.

By 1961, the Young Socialists had organized a group in British Columbia, and formed a left alliance that won the leadership of the B.C. New Democratic Youth. In January 1962 they launched Young Socialist Forum, a mimeographed monthly magazine which served as the forum for socialism in the B.C. NDY. Its chief editors were Ruth Tate and Phil Courneyeur. The early YSF campaigned for a socialist NDY, featured articles on the successes of the Cuban revolution and the war danger, and achieved a broad circulation in the B.C. left.

For six years the Young Socialists participated in the New Democratic Youth, building its clubs, promoting its activities, fighting for a socialist program and leadership. They organized a Left Caucus, uniting a broad range of forces to carry the socialist struggle in the organization. In Toronto, they led the NDY in a dramatic and successful campaign for the right to form political clubs in the high schools. Joe Young and Ken Wolfson were among the YSers that led this campaign and eventually won the partial agreement of the Toronto school board.

But the YS’s very success led to vicious reprisals by the Party’s right wing that was embarrassed by their radicalness and couldn’t cope with the power of their revolutionary ideas. Expulsions of YSers from the NDP took place in British Columbia (1962) and Ontario (1963 and 1967). Yet the forces and influence of the Young Socialists in the NDY continued to grow.

In December 1963, B.C.’s mimeographed Young Socialist Forum was expanded into a monthly cross-Canada newspaper marking a turn to the building of a cross-Canada movement. The YSF was sold at high schools across the country, provoking considerable anger with high school principals and several encounters with the police.

In the summer of 1964 four of YSF’s editors spent six weeks in Cuba as part of a tour of 45 Canadian students. They returned to speak in defense of the Cuban revolution at high schools and universities.

By 1965, YSF had a new headquarters at 32 Cecil St., and a program of regular forums and parties that made its address known by hundreds of youth as the meeting place for young radicals.

The summer 1964 issue of YSF carried this headline on the first page: "Get U.S. Troops Out of Vietnam!" The article said, "The Vietnamese are fighting for their independence and their right to determine their own future. The U.S. has declared itself ready to plunge the world into war to prevent this. Where does Canada stand? … Canada must act to stop the war in Vietnam! As a member of the Geneva commission, Canada must demand withdrawal of American forces, and assert the right of the Vietnamese to determine their own future!"

Withdraw U.S. troops. End Canada’s complicity in the war. Around these demands and the concept that it is necessary to mobilize large numbers of people in Canada and around the world to force the imperialist to concede them, the Young Socialists and the League for Socialist Action helped to build the Canadian anti-Vietnam war movement and have been its strongest builders ever since.

In July 1965, delegates representing 60 Young Socialists in groups formed around Young Socialist Forum in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa met in the YS’s first cross-Canada convention.

The convention was something new for the Canadian radical youth movement. It was far from the "group grope" and therapy marathons of New Left gatherings. Months of discussion had ensured that all members had heard all the points of view in question, and when delegates were elected, after these discussions, they came equipped to democratically resolve the questions in dispute. The New Democratic Youth and the activity on the campuses were two of the major topics discussed.

But the great debate took place around the future direction of the publication, YSF. Two proposals were put forward when the discussion opened in April. Allan Engler and Jean Rands in Vancouver called for YSF to become a quarterly magazine to serve as a theoretical commentator on the student movement. YSF’s editor, Art Young, and the Toronto editorial board said YSF should remain a popular monthly newspaper able to intervene in the student struggles rather than just comment on them. At the convention a synthesis of the two positions was reached. YSF was to become a bimonthly magazine—but one which retained a broad popular appeal and orientation to intervening in student struggles.

The following years saw rapid changes and new beginnings on the student left. The policy of inaction and expulsions of the New Democratic Youth’s leadership was reducing a once broad and promising organization to a bypassed and isolated grouplet. SUPA, the powerful new left organization, floundered and dissolved. At the same time, the first beginnings of the student power movement could be discerned. The Young Socialists grew rapidly, rising to prominence on the campuses for the first time through their leadership role in the anti-war movement.

In the fall of 1966 the Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, a group parallel to the Young Socialists, was formed in Montreal. The following July the groups in both the English and French nations came together to form the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes. The 150 participants from seven major Canadian cities founded Canada’s only bi-national socialist youth movement and, fully a year before the "student revolt" was generally recognized and analyzed, adopted a far-reaching analysis of youth radicalism and the coming upheaval on the campuses.

One document, by Jean Rands, a delegate from Vancouver, called for the formation of a federated socialist youth movement that would include different forces on the student left. The majority of the convention delegates argued against this idea. They felt such an organization would be based on the bringing together of different groups with fundamental programmatic differences, that could only lead to the disintegration of forces rather than their strengthening.

The revolutionary youth organization, the delegates argued, had to be based on a clear program which could not be compromised to meet some immediate whim or opportunity. On this programmatic base the organization would have to be highly organized, demanding a high level of understanding and activity from all its members. After an extensive discussion the federated youth movement proposal was withdrawn and this position was unanimously adopted.

Jean Rands also submitted a document on the need to orient to the Students for a Democratic University formations. Left unresolved was a marked difference in emphasis between the independent work of the YS/LJS and support of these reemerging new left groupings. This question was to be the center of discussion at the convention the following year.

In addition to the resolutions passed providing the basis for the activities of the YS/LJS, the convention elected a cross country leadership for the organization. This Executive Council was made up not of individual stars, but rather a group of people who the delegates felt together would build a strong leadership team. Following the convention the Executive Council met and elected a Central Executive Council to handle the day to day problems of leadership. They elected Gary Porter to the post of Executive Secretary of the YS/ LJS.

The following years saw rapid progress for the YS/LJS on the campuses—and yet its very growth and the opening up of the student movement posed new problems, and sharpened old differences. So in July 1968 the organization met in an emergency convention called by a dissident minority in its ranks. Two counterposed positions on the building of the organization were submitted, one by the Central Executive Council, and one by Jean Rands and Brian Slocock from Vancouver.

The CEC position laid the emphasis for the YS/ LJS work on the campus on the independent activities of the YS/LJS, its participation in student struggles and its unity in action with other groups around specific questions such as the war in Vietnam, student power, etc. The position put forward by Rands and Slocock saw the SDU’s as the road forward for the student movement and said the YS/LJS should see as a priority the support and building of these organizations at the expense of building the YS/ LJS. The CEC position was adopted by 32 votes against 16 for the Rands-Slocock position.

The Executive Council elected at that convention included in its numbers Jean Rands, Brian Slocock and many of their supporters. The plenum following the convention re-elected Gary Porter Executive Secretary and elected Jacquie Henderson editor of YSF.

Differences in the YS are looked on as healthy signs of a vital movement and the rights of minorities are protected. But later in 1968 both leading proponents of the SDU position followed the logic of their position. Taking with them a few of their previous supporters, they left the YS/LJS to build the new left SDU on Simon Fraser (an organization which subsequently declared itself defunct!).

The Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes was a small organization in Quebec when, in October 1968, thousands of students held strikes in their schools over the inadequate educational system and the discrimination against the French Canadians. But the LJS had a strong socialist program which had as its foremost point the demand for self-determination for Quebec, and an analysis of the English Canadian capitalist exploitation of Quebec. With this program and the cadre it had already gathered, the LJS intervened energetically in the mass movement of October and were the only force to pose the necessity for coordination of the struggle and defense of the student movement. The student union, UGEQ, showed a remarkable lack of leadership in the events. Out of this struggle Jeune Garde, the paper of the LJS, was born.

Christmas 1968 and February 1969 saw two important conferences of the movement. The first was of the Young Socialists, the second a large conference of the Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes including many new French Canadian revolutionaries who joined the LJS during and after the October events. The October 1969 convention of the YS/LJS too reflected the big developments in Quebec. It adopted the first YS/LJS resolution analyzing the national oppression of the Quebecois.

Looking back ten years to the optimistic forecasts of these first Young Socialists we can see that for all their enthusiasm they were not wide-eyed idealists out of touch with reality. In ten years of rising world revolution, the program the Young Socialists put forward. regarded then by other student radicals as totally irrelevant, has now been largely accepted by many of those same radicals and, more importantly, by growing numbers of Canadian students. The character of imperialism, the inadequacy of reforming society and the need for a socialist revolution, the working class as the agent of social change, support for the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions are just some of the points that the Young Socialists initially put forward alone.

Likewise the organizational concepts adopted by the early YS and reaffirmed through the ten years have been shown in life to be correct. Many groups and individuals had different ideas about how to build a radical youth movement. Many gimmicks were tried: community organizing, students ‘winning’ strikes for workers, and confrontations ‘sparking’ mass reaction were just a few. Many groups that had dashing leaders, loose organizational frameworks, many supporters—still ended up in "the dustbin of history.".

For a few years the Canadian press was full of reports of SUPA and its supporters throughout the country. It projected a "new" road forward for revolutionary youth. But SUPA died years ago. And the organizations to come out of it, the SDUs, have in turn split and are disintegrating. But the Young Socialists, organized as a cohesive action oriented pan-Canadian unit with a well defined program has steadily grown.

The events of the world revolution too have proven the correctness in orientation of the YS. Since the upsurge of the French working class in May 1968 the YS position on the working class has become generally accepted. Likewise the failure of the French workers to seize power has pointed out very sharply the need to build a revolutionary combat party to lead the workers to victory.

The Young Socialists/ Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, allied with the League for Socialist Action/ Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière, pose this task concretely before Canadian students. The challenge is to build the leadership organization of the coming Canadian revolution. If that revolution is to be successful in this decade—in the ’70s—if humanity is to survive the ever-present threat of extermination, then this leadership must be built.

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