This pamphlet should be seen as part of the series on aspects of Labour History collected by the Socialist Party, the CWI in Ireland. See the bottom of page for more articles.

Revolutionary Role of Youth

This pamphlet was written by Billy Stephens in July 1987. However, the lessons and analysis are as relevant today as they were when it was written. This pamphlet gives great practical and historical examples of the revolutionary role of youth. Much can be learnt as to the importance of youth and student work in building the party, as well as understanding the importance of lessons learnt through experience.

[Editors note: This pamphlet was written in the late 1980s when sections of the CWI in Ireland, Britain and some other European countries were building their forces within the ex-social democracy, for example the Labour Party in Britain. We were being witch-hunted from these parties by the right wing leaderships who were abandoning the "left" and socialist politics. Therefore in this pamphlet our parties are referred to as The Marxists rather than Militant which was our public name before we changed it to the Socialist Party. Some readers today may find some terminology and the use of psydenoms outdated and strange. Rather than just make life simple for Kinnock and the rest, we sidestepped the problem and used some minor defences. Very few documents had publication details, contact addresses, etc. Most authors used psydenoms, but it was hardly a major effort to work out that Billy Stephens was Steven Boyd, then resident in Belfast, that 'supporters' referred to members of Militant, etc.]

To build a revolutionary party, Marxists must orientate the bulk of their work towards the youth. This has been borne out by the experience of the Bolsheviks and of the Marxists in the more recent period.

At the beginning of the 1980's important advances were made which strengthened the forces of Marxism. This was a direct result of the 'Youth for Socialism' campaign and subsequent youth activities. The 'Youth for Socialism' campaign, which lasted for two years, was organised by a very small number of cadres. Yet because their work was audacious it was able to attract hundreds of young people. The campaign culminated in the 'Youth for Jobs' demonstration on November 6th 1982. This demonstration came at the end of a 9 month period of activity by the youth. It was a 500 strong demonstration of Catholic and Protestant youth, who marched on the Protestant Shankill road and the Catholic Falls road, united in their demand for jobs. A large number of the present day cadre of the Marxists were won during this period.

On June 9th 1984 the Fascists organised a demonstration in Coleraine. On this occasion the Marxists were the only people ready and willing to oppose them. The Marxist youth organised a counter march of 800 young people in a show of strength of which the Fascists have yet to recover. Again in 1985 on the issue of YTP [Youth Training Programme - a scheme to force young people of the unemployment register.] conscription the Marxist youth were able to mobilise and lead a strike movement of over 10,000 school student in the North as part of a strike of 250,000 throughout Britain. This protest was successful in forcing the Tories to back down.

Unfortunately due to the rapid increase in sectarianism, which resulted in the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement, youth work had to be suspended. However it is now essential that the Marxists now re-orientate themselves to the youth. The purpose of this document is to underline in an historical and theoretical point of view, the importance of youth work. It must be used as a basis for discussion by all of the Marxists.

Revolutionary Role of Youth

Historically the youth have been to the forefront of all revolutionary movements. This is because young workers are the most exploited section of society. They are constantly used by the capitalists as a source of cheap labour. For example in Britain today thousands of young people are super exploited by employers who hire them under the guise of YTP work schemes. Also the youth are the freshest sections of the classes. They have not been worn down by defeats and betrayals but retain the energy and elan essential to any revolutionary movement. In addition they have fewer ties and responsibilities and are generally the most prepared to make sacrifices. Diane Koenkerr in her book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 says "the risk of twenty year prison sentence seems less daunting to a twenty year old than to a forty year old", as one of the reasons the youth of Russia were so self-sacrificing.

The school students' strikes of the last 2-3 years have not been the first of their kind. Lenin in a lecture on the 1905 Russian Revolution gives the example of the Polish secondary student strike, which took place in December of 1905. Polish students in hundreds of schools burned all Russian books, pictures and portraits of the Tsar, and attacked and drove out the Russian teachers and their schoolmates, shouting: "Get out! Go back to Russia!" the Polish students put forward among others, the following demands:
  1. All secondary schools must be under the control of a Soviet of Workers Deputies
  2. Joint pupil and workers meetings to be held in school premises
  3. Secondary School pupils to be allowed to wear red blouses as a token of adherence to the future Proletarian Republic.

One of the reasons the Russian Revolution of 1917 was so successful was the decisive role that the youth played both in the Bolshevik Party and in the Red Army. Trotsky explained in his speech to 2nd Congress of the Communist Youth International in 1921 when he said:" And when the hour of great battle strikes, a very great role will be played in them by the youth. We need only recall the Red Army in which the youth played a decisive role, not only politically, but in a purely military sense. As a mater of fact what is the Red Army Comrades? It is nothing but the armed and organised youth of Russia."

The Bolshevik leadership had confidence and faith in their young cadres and in the Municipal Duma elections in June of 1917, 44% of the Bolsheviks candidates were aged between 20 and 29. On 9th October Lazimir, an 18 year old Left Social Revolutionary proposed at the Executive of the Petrograd Soviet that the Military Revolutionary Committee be set up. It is significant that it was an 18 year old who was responsible for the setting up of the body which led the revolution.

South Africa

In the decade since 1976 the youth of South Africa has provided an unparalleled example to the working class internationally. They have been at the forefront of the fight to overthrow the apartheid system. They recently boycotted school for a year. In all the battles with the state forces during the present state of emergency, the youth have defended the townships. It was the 'Young Comrades' who fought the vigilantes at crossroads. The membership and leadership of the new trade union congress, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), are young black workers. The Marxists in South Africa have called on the leadership of COSATU to enlist the youth in their ongoing campaign to recruit new members: "With the full talents and energies of the youth enlisted, it would be possible to win a million more workers to COSATU- and tens of thousands of new members to the youth organisations also."


For years the Marxists in schools directed themselves towards schools. The time and effort they invested over this period was repaid with interest, when 3 million school students took strike action and defeated the Gonzalez government. The school student movement lasted 71 days with 12 days of national school strikes. This had been a practical demonstration to the working class of Spain, showing that it is not only possible to fight, but to win.

In January 1987 strikes in Spain increased by 30% on January 1986; the number of workers on strike increased by 118% and the number of hours lost by 152%. There has been a 3 day strike of metal workers, a strike of coal, steel and shipyard workers; a strike of building workers in half the countries provinces; strikes in car plants, arms factories; strikes by teachers; demonstrations by small farmers and even a strike of shopkeepers in the capital Madrid. All of these events were sparked off by the students movement, lead by the Marxists. The details of these events can easily be found in other material.

There are important lessons that can be learnt from the Spanish events. They showed that given favourable objective conditions, a small number of Marxist cadre, armed with the correct programme and working meticulously with the correct methods are capable of instigating and then leading a massive struggle of young people.


In Ireland and Britain the involvement of young workers is one of the key factors in the process of transformation of the unions to the left. Young miners played a decisive roll in miners' strike of 1984-85 and are now involved in reshaping the NUM. The public service is one the few areas where young people can get jobs, particularly in the North. This in part explains the radicalisation of Civil and Public Service unions and the receptiveness of their membership to Marxist ideas. On a recent pay demonstration by civil servants in Belfast, there were over a 1000 marchers, the majority of whom were under the age of 25. This was reflected in the mood of anger which was evident, the singing of the Red Flag and continual chants for all out strike action. At the recent (May '87) NIPSA conference the position of the Marxists was taken on a whole series of issues: eg nationalisation of the economy, the defence of workers against sectarian attacks and the circulation of unions' executive minutes. At the conference the overwhelming majority of the young delegates supported the left. The Broad Left is made up of mostly young people.

The CPSU has the youngest membership affiliated to the TUC. It is the first British union ever to have an executive with a majority of Marxists elected on the basis of one member one vote. There were 1,500 observers at the CPSA conference. The majority of them were under 25, and supported the left. These two unions are a key area of work for the Marxists both in the North and in Briton. As these unions today - the rest of the trade union movement tomorrow.


The role of youth in revolutions is decisive. So too is the role of youth in the revolutionary party. Revolutions are not the handiwork of youth led by parties of old men and women. Mass revolutionary parties are essentially parties of youth.

Leon Trotsky was born on 7th November 1879, exactly 38 years later he had led the Russian Revolution. Trotsky became interested in the ideas of Marxism when he was 17. In the winter of 1897 when he was 18 he formed the Southern Russian Workers' Union in Nikoloyev. It had 200 members; most were Locksmiths, juniors, electricians, seamstresses and students in their early or middle twenties. Trotsky was the political and organisational leader of this Marxist organisation. In 1905 Trotsky was the leader of the Petrograd Soviet and led the Russian Revolution of that year, at the age of 26. The fundamental factor in Trotsky's' development as an outstanding Marxist and leader, was the fact he became politically active when he was a teenager.

The Bolshevik Party was unquestionably a youth party. The Menshevik Larin attacked Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1906 for having too many young comrades. In reply Lenin quoted Engels from his pamphlet the 'Housing Question': "Is it not natural that the youth should predominate in our party, the revolutionary party? We are the party of the future and the future belongs to the youth. We are a party of innovators, and it is always the youth that most eagerly follows the innovators. We are a party that is waging a self-sacrificing struggle. Against the old rottenness, and the youth is always the first to undertake a self-sacrificing struggle. No let us leave it to the Cadets to collect the tired old men of thirty, revolutionaries who have 'grown wise' and renegades from social democracy. We shall always be a party of the youth of the advanced class!" at the 6th congress of the RSDLP in 1910 50% of all delegates were aged under 30, the youngest was 18. When Lenin spoke to the congress he underlined the essentiality of youth to the party when he said, "the young are the only people worth working on!"

Revolutionary Youth Work

Hence all genuinely revolutionary revolution orgaisations must establish a proud tradition of audacious work aimed at the youth. There are many historical examples which serve as an inspiration to us today.

In 1907 there were Young Socialist Workers' Leagues in all European countries. Apart from educating the youth on the ideas of Marxism they also carried on struggles to improve the conditions of apprentices and try and protect them from exploitation by their employers. The Youth Leagues made big turns to the army in order to recruit young soldiers. They put forward anti-militarist propaganda in France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Spain, Finland and Russia.

The leagues published leaflets, appeals, pamphlets, weekly newspapers, fortnightlies, monthlies and all directly aimed at young soldiers. In France 100,000 copies of a paper were printed and in Belgium around 60,000 copies of Le Conscript and La Caserne were printed. The soldiers were bombarded with Young Socialist propaganda wherever they went, in the cafes they ate in, in the pubs they socialised in and in the camps they slept in. Everywhere the soldiers went, the socialists would follow. New recruits were usually taken from one village or town at a time. The Young Socialists would find out who the conscripts were and post material to their homes. The new soldiers would always march out of town in a ceremonial parade; the Youth League would always put up large red banners which said "You Will Not Shoot the People". This hard meticulous work was not in vain.

In Belgium there were 15 soldiers unions in the army, most of which were affiliated to the social democracy. In some regiments up to 2/3 of all soldiers were unionised. The youth fought on a programme aimed at the abolition of standing armies, the abolition of military justice and material improvements and guarantees for the soldiers. But their activities went far beyond this programme. The postcards, leaflets and posters, often powerfully illustrated, which were published by the leagues, continuously repeated the slogans- "Down With Military Justice!", "Down With War!", "Down With Militarism!" , "Long Live Peace Between Nations!".

The Marxists

Today the Marxists internationally consciously aim the mass of their work towards the youth.

In Britain the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was dominated by the right wing until the late 60's when the Marxists won a majority. Until then LPYS had a very low membership and was largely inactive. The ideas and campaigning work of the Marxists has changed this. Now the LPYS has grown to an organisation of 10,000. 90% of the Marxists in Britain has been won directly from the Youth Organisation or through its interventions in the class struggle. The importance of working in the Social Democratic Youth Organisation, and the effect that can have on the rest of the workers movement, can be seen from the example of Belgium. Belgium is a country composed of two nationalities, the Flemish and the Walloons. The Flemish and the Walloon workers have separate socialist parties, trade unions and youth organizations. There are Marxists in both the Flemish and Walloon Young Socialists. It is possible that the Marxists will win a majority of the Flemish Young Socialists in the near future. They will have the task of uniting the Flemish and Walloon Young Socialists into one organization. When this takes place it will be a significant stepping-stone to uniting the whole of the Belgian working class movement.

In the South, Labour Youth was set up in 1978-79 as a direct result of a campaign of the Marxists. The Marxists have had to fight long and hard to gain and keep the leadership of Labour Youth. During the 'dark' years of coalition the work was not easy and often very unrewarding. However, now that the coalition has been broken and the working class are quickly moving into struggle with a general strike becoming an increasingly likely perspective, the painstaking work of the past can bear fruit. Labour Youth can play a crucial role in leading mass struggles of the youth against the right wing Fianna Fail government. The Marxist will work to turn Labour Youth outwards to intervene in all of the workers strikes and demonstrations. It is through Labour Youth and through young people in the trade unions that the majority of new supporters will be won to Marxism.

The North

In the late 1960's early 1970's there were significant movements of the youth on a world scale. The North was not an exception.

The mass upheaval surrounding the Civil Rights Movement was a revolutionary opportunity lost. The responsibility for this lies with the leadership of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (N.I.L.P.) and of the trade unions who refused to give any leadership or direction. Instead the youth ended up turning to the paramilitaries. The young people who made up this movement and those who became politically aware during the beginning of the 'troubles' were entrapped by incorrect methods of struggle and their revolutionary zeal was wasted. In the main they ended up apathetic, imprisoned or dead. As a result of this betrayal by the leadership of the labour movement, the working class suffered a defeat in the course of which the political wing of the movement, the N.I.L.P, was destroyed. With no mass working class party or youth organisation in existence the Marxists have had to embark on independent work. However this work is carried on with a clear perspective of working within a mass social democratic organisation at a certain stage. In youth work, particularly of the nature carried out in the North, clear perspectives are necessary in order to provide a sense of proportion.

In Spain the Marxists independently succeeded in mobilising 3 million youth. Yet the official PSOE Young Socialists, from which the Marxists have been expelled, is empty of the youth. Yet the working class, including the youth albeit with a greater tendency towards spontaneity, still move in and through their traditional organisations. So in Spain the really big movement of the working class and youth will be in and through PSOE and the Young Socialists. Despite the school students strike the Marxists cannot substitute themselves for these future movements. Hence the perspective must be retained of future work in the PSOE youth, an organisation which today exists in name only.

In the North the most likely perspective is that the working class will recover from the defeats of the early 1970's and the more recent past and will move into struggle. Out of the future class battles a new mass workers party will be built by the trade unions.

The present work of the Marxists is a preparation for work within its youth section, if and when one is established. In Spain the perspective is of future work in a now moribund youth organisation. In the North it is a perspective of work at some stage in a youth section of a party, which has not yet been established. This is an idea which would baffle all our enemies but it is an absolutely correct groundwork for our youth work.

A perspective is not a sterile blueprint which allows the Marxists to fold their arms and 'wait on events'. It is a guide to action. If the youth at this stage are not in the mass parties, the Marxists must turn outward to where the youth are. In the North the Marxists must for the present period conduct independent youth work, taking up the issues which affect the youth. The immediate task is the building of a viable, energetic, campaigning youth organisation across the North. The more through this work today the better prepared the Marxists will be for the future work within the social democracy.

Youth Can Be Won

The Tories have stated their intention to introduce YTP conscription this Autumn. The Marxist Youth in 1985 led an extensive school students movement to victory over the Tories. Who else is there able to motivate and direct the youth this time? NO one! No one is competent enough to repeat such a feat, except the Marxists. But the Marxists will not be capable unless the groundwork is properly carried out.

Under certain conditions possibly on this issue for example, it cannot be ruled out that the Marxists could instigate and lead mass movements of the youth. Neither is it ruled out that such movements could provide the spark for the formation of a new worker's party. However none of this will become reality if the youth section is not built from this juncture in the correct manner.

The unfavourable objective conditions over the last 18 months have placed obstacles in the path of the Marxists. The lack of new supporters can be directly attributed to the lack of youth work. A revolutionary tendency cannot standstill; it must constantly have its ranks replenished with 'young blood' in order to prevent fatigue, sterility and conservatism.

Despite the objective conditions youth can be won. Who else can the advanced youth turn to? Sinn Fein fought the 1983 General Election in west Belfast and other urban areas with a 'socialist' slant to their manifesto. In 1967 this hint of class politics was abandoned in favour of right wing republicanism. The advanced catholic youth, from time to time, will be temporarily attracted to Sinn Fein, but the organisation has incorrect ideas and an incorrect programme and will therefore be unable to hold them. The advanced protestant youth has no alternative at all.


Lenin in 1905 strongly criticised members of the Bolshevik party who believed that it was not possible to recruit because of unfavourable objective conditions in Russia at the time. Lenin's' reply is very applicable to the situation today: "We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion; all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and more boldly, and widely and again more wildly and again more boldly without fearing them".

The recent example of the Marxists in Ballymena has proven this to be true. New young Marxists, enthused with the newly found ideas of Marxism have (almost instinctively) gone out, campaigned and recruited yet more young people. Also the limited turn to the youth over issues of South Africa and Spain has brought the Marxists new contacts and supporters.

One reason why the work of the Ballymena Marxists has been so successful is that the young people 'independently' ran and organised their own work. This is of crucial importance. It must be clear from the outset that the Youth Organisation must be led and organised by the youth. The young Marxists must feel that the Youth Organisation is their organisation. The only involvement of the 'older' Marxists should be to give political guidance and constructive criticism.

The leadership of a Marxist organization must have enough faith in its ability to politically convince the youth in its perspectives and ideas. Lenin wrote in December 1916: "The middle aged and aged often do not know how to approach the youth, for the youth must of necessity advance to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other circumstances than their fathers. Incidentally that is why we must decidedly favour organisational independence of the Youth League, not only because the opportunists fear such independence, but because of the very nature of the case. For unless they have complete independence, the youth will be unable either to train good socialists from their midst or prepare themselves to lead socialism forward. We stand for the complete independence of the Youth Leagues, but also for complete criticism of their errors! We must not flatter the youth."

The young people the Marxists will recruit, will not be perfect revolutionaries. They will make mistakes. The 'leaders' of the Youth Organisation will make mistakes. But as Trotsky said "cadres are not educated in ballet schools or diplomatic chancelleries." The youth will be educated in struggle but their education will be speeded one hundred fold by patient education and direction by the more experienced comrades.

In the discussions that took place in the French Section of the 4th International in 1935, Trotsky in an article headed 'Turn to the Masses' argued in favour of giving all of the support and resources of the section to the new developing Youth and their paper Revolution. This was to be at the expense of the leadership faction who supported La Verite. This faction was at the time in the process of abandoning, and eventually did abandon the ideas of Marxism. Trotsky was willing to take a risk, a calculated gamble with the inexperienced youth: "while La Verite has been retreating and fading lately, because of its one sided, conservative and sterile orientation toward the SFIO [French Socialist Party] the youth have been able to put out a paper that is developing very well because it is supported by the devotion of the youth. You must help them and not hinder them. If not bureaucratised, Revolution may become a mass paper for young workers, which is the first layer we want to win; the adults will only come later. That is the logic of all revolution."

If a youth section is to be built, then the work of every group of supporters must be shaken up, too many Marxists are 'afraid' of the youth. We can only overcome this 'phobia' by raising the political consciousness of all the Marxists towards the youth or we will fail.

How will this be achieved? Youth branches must be built in every area, they must go out with enthusiasm, vigour and originality; to the schools, YTP schemes, unions, picket lines and demonstrations. They must educate the youth in activity but also ideas. The Youth Section should return to the slogan 1/3 political education, 1/3 activity and 1/3 socialising. If this work is carried out correctly, every Marxist will be enthused by the results.

It is also important that we do not ignore the necessity to recruit 'older' workers. The experience of these workers is an invaluable asset to a revolutionary tendency. The youth work will play an important role in recruiting 'older' workers.

At the close of his speech to the 2nd congress of the Communist International on July 14th 1921 Trotsky talks of how the youth saved the Russian Revolution. He was speaking about when the Russian Revolution was nearly smashed by French and British Imperialism whenever Kronstadt almost fell into their hands and he asks the question, to whom did we turn to save the revolution? "We turned to our youth, to those workers and peasants who were receiving military education in our military schools. And to our call they staunchly answered, "Present!" and they marched in the open and without any protection against the artillery and machine guns of Kronstadt. And as before, beyond Petrograd, so now on the Baltic ice there were many, many corpses to be seen of young Russian workers and peasants. They fought for the revolution; they fought so that the present congress might convene. And I am sure that the revolutionary youth of Europe and America, who are much more educated and developed than our own youth, will in the hour of need display not less but far greater revolutionary energy; and in the name of the Russian Red Army, I say: Long live the international revolutionary youth- the red army of the world revolution!"

Who do we turn to, to lead society out of the morass of sectarianism and poverty? As with Trotsky our slogan must be: - To the youth!

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