It’s been some time since I’ve written here about my research on the World Youth Congress Movement. I’m still chipping away and just got back from a trip to Amsterdam, Manchester, and London, where I was trawling around archives in search of evidence of the nature of the relationship between liberal internationalists and communist youth. Why’s that, you ask? Well, the last time I wrote about the WYC I was still early in my research process and relatively unacquainted with the dynamics of interwar youth movements. I read the records of the Congresses and judged them to be reasonably reliable, despite my historian’s sense of innate skepticism.
I was in good, if naive, company. As I wrote in my last piece on the WYC, the 1936 Congress in Geneva was sponsored by the International Federation of League of Nations Societies, a group of liberal idealists based in Brussels who saw themselves as the ‘avante gard’ of internationalism, focusing on issues from minority rights to education reform. In the US, the WYC and its national affiliate the American Youth Congress (which predated the WYC) attracted support from notable figures like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Columbia historian James Shotwell. Like them, I thought that allegations the movement was dominated by communists were mere red-baiting. After all, there were dozens of non-communist youth organizations present. But we were wrong.
The World Youth Congress had been infiltrated.
In addition to the delegates representing the Young Communist League and the Communist Youth International that had been invited to participate, a number of young people from other organizations were also covertly affiliated with the Communist Party, at that time largely an instrument of Soviet influence. These included none other than Elizabeth Shields-Collins, the international secretary appointed to advance the aims of the movement between congress meetings. According to Joel Kotek, the Belgian historian who has done the most work on communist youth front organizations, the rest of the continuing committee was also packed with communists and communist sympathizers. This helps account for the comparatively radical (and communist-friendly) positions taken at the Second World Youth Congress on issues like imperialism, labor rights, and collective security.
Obviously, all of this changes the direction of my research. The World Youth Congress was no organ of cross-ideological cooperation if it was dominated by communist voices—right?
I think cooperation is too strong a word given that the communists actively subverted the purpose and character of the organization, but I do feel that there still needs to be allowance made for accommodation of competing ideological perspectives. Whatever role communists did play in the organization, they were not out beating the drums for class war and revolution. That had already proven a losing strategy in the earlier interwar period. Now, they claimed common cause with liberals and socialists as part of the Comintern’s Popular Front against fascism. Granted, the young communists hadn’t reconciled themselves to coexistence with the non-communist left, but they did have to accept that their positions had to be framed as acceptable to liberals and socialists. Covertly infiltrating the World Youth Congress allowed the communists to claim to speak for all young people everywhere, but it also required them to (cynically) endorse the League of Nations, which in turn gave the appearance of universalizing liberal and socialist interests despite the primacy of communism in the WYC.
Ideological encounters, even unequal ones, are not unidirectional. While naivety was a major factor in liberals’ continued interest in the WYC, so too was the fact that liberals still had something to gain from the Congress. Though the communists were clearly more aggressive and successful in their maneuvering, both sides, ultimately, had to make some degree of accommodation to the others’ positions. This arrangement persisted until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact revealed the absolute loyalty of the organization’s communist leadership to the dictates of the Comintern, emphasizing the limits of accommodation in a world of authoritarianism and realpolitik.
So that’s where I am at the moment. It’s all still subject to change as I continue going through the archival documents I recovered on my trip, but for now it should give a good sense of where I’ve moved since last semester.
Kotek, Joël. Students and the Cold War. Translated by Ralph Blumenau. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Richard, Anne-Isabelle. “Competition and Complementarity: Civil Society Networks and the Question of Decentralizing the League of Nations.” Journal of Global History 7, no. 2 (July 2012): 233–56.
Whitney, Susan B. Mobilizing Youth: Communists and Catholics in Interwar France. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.