This article is part of the series collected by the Socialist Party, the CWI in Ireland, on aspects of Labour History.

Revolutionaries at 17

Ruth Coppinger,
Dublin South Labour Youth Militant Irish Monthly, December 1988/January 1989

Youth have always been to the forefront of political and social change and some of the greatest socialist leaders in history embraced revolutionary ideas at a very early age.

Rosa Luxemburg, a giant of the German revolution and the international workers' movement, had a gold medal for achievement at school exams withheld 'on account of her rebellious attitude toward the authorities.'

Born in Poland in 1871, she led one of the many struggles of Polish Jewish students against Russian repression in the schools. Luxemburg became active at 16 in the revolutionary socialist party Proletariat and at 18 helped found the Polish Workers' League.

Her political ideas were well formed at a young age. At 22, she wrote the new document of principles for the Third Congress of the Socialist International at Zurich and was editing the Workers' Cause newspaper.

At university in Zurich, she wrote a history of Poland and developed her theory on the national question, arguing that it was inseparable from the struggle for socialism.

The Polish Socialist Party went through hard times and almost disintegrated, but was kept alive by herself and other young revolutionaries like her lover Leo Jogiches who had founded the first ever revolutionary circles in Vilna, aged only 18.

In her twenties, Rosa Luxemburg was already widely known, writing numerous articles for all the socialist journals. She was active in the French, Swiss and German labour movements. At 27 - young, foreign and female - she was conducting tours for the German Social Democratic Party, speaking to thousands of workers at a time and the breath of her writings and her mastery of ideas at this stage was enormous.

Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution, founder and leader of the Red Army and of the opposition to the developing bureaucracy in Russia under Stalin, was also politically active at a very young age.

The Tsarist education system produced many young revolutionaries - Trotsky spent 24 hours in solitary confinement for questioning his teacher - sowing in him, 'the seeds of enmity for the existing order.'

Politicised by conditions around him, Trotsky explained that he struggled with existing ideas before accepting them. At 17 Trotsky organised 'a society for the distribution of useful books.' With a few other individuals he began discussions with workers in the developing factories and wrote proclamations and printed them in longhand.

It took two hours per page, but workers in the mills and factories read them voraciously. The South Russian Workers' Union was formed though the members were subsequently arrested.

At 19, Trotsky served the first of 20 prison sentences, using the time to develop his political knowledge. He did a study of Freemasonry, wrote pamphlets and read Lenin's works for the first time. By 1902, at the age of 23, Trotsky had spent four years in prison and exile and was an émigré in London, where he let Lenin and other leaders of Russian Marxism.

Lenin had wanted Trotsky (aged only 24) to be on the Iskra editorial board, having known him for only four months. At 26, Trotsky had played a leading role in the 1905 revolution in Russia, as President of the St Petersburg Soviet. By December, the leaders of the Soviet were arrested and he began his second prison sentence.

He had already developed the theory of the Permanent Revolution, an analysis of the class forces in Russia and the prospects for the revolution. His theory was confirmed by events.

In every society, in all struggles for a better world, youth forced into struggle by material conditions or motivated initially by idealism, have played a key role in all the overthrows of dictatorships and social transformations.

Tragically, many courageous and determined youth filled with anger and seeing no alternative have gone down the blind alley of individual terror or become cynical of the possibilities of change.

Rosa Luxemburg was murdered with the collaboration of the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party in January 1919. Trotsky was murdered in 1940 on the direct orders of the Stalinist bureaucracy who had trampled on the ideals of he 1917 October Revolution.

The ideas and heritage of Marxism which those revolutionaries studied and made their lives work from their youth, live on, proving time and again that poverty, misery and want will only be ended in a socialist world and that only the working class can succeed in this task.

Any young person seriously interested in understanding capitalism so as to change it, would do well to read, and study the works of Luxemburg and Trotsky.

Read about Socialist Youth, the youth wing of the SP in Ireland

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap