Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States – MISHLER (CSS)

MISHLER, Paul C. Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 172p. Resenha de: GLASSFORD, Larry A. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.2, 2001.

The author of this intriguing, though sloppily edited, little book is a self-proclaimed radical parent, himself raised by parents who were intellectuals and radicals. His personal philosophy, he confides, is that the world is out there to be changed (x). His sympathy for the goals, if not always the means, of the American Communist activists described in this book is readily apparent.

Mishler’s analysis concentrates on the period from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s. This chronological era sandwiches a fifteen-year period of semi-respectability for the Communists in America, 1930 to 1945, between two decades of virulent Red Scare. His book provides a timely reminder that, during the depths of the Great Depression, and continuing through the anti-Fascist war years, the Communist Party was able to connect with significant aspects of mainstream American society and culture. During this time, Communists led labour unions, wrote leading articles for the popular press, and taught openly in universities. A combination of the Cold War, McCarthyism and working-class prosperity terminated this rapprochement between Marx and the Mayflower, though Mishler argues that much of their radical critique of capitalism resurfaced in the New Left protests of the Sixties and Seventies.

The central focus for Mishler, as it was for Communist parents in the first half of the 20th century, is the problem of how to educate children so that they would grow up to be radicals (25). The issue of which community institutions – the family, the school, the state, various voluntary organizations – are to be charged with the responsibility of socializing the next generation is an ongoing dilemma. At that time, most Communists were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. They understood the pressure on their own offspring to conform to the norms of the mainstream culture in this ‘New World’ society. Yet they rejected much of that society’s founding myths on ideological grounds. What to do? The answer was sought in after-school programs and summer camps built around the Marxist values of the parents, though these ideas were framed to be as compatible as possible with the more radical aspect of American liberalism.

Through the 1920s, the largest number of American Communists derived from the immigrant Jewish and Finnish communities. Parents and party organizers frequently clashed over the relative weight to be given to working-class solidarity, as opposed to ethnic heritage, in the curriculum of the out-of-school educational programs. By the 1930s, party thinking had relaxed somewhat, so that ethnicity was nurtured rather than shunned, even as the youth programs moved to adopt more of the trappings of the host culture, notably organized sports.

During the more strident period of party educational activity in the 1920s, parents had often been deliberately excluded from participation in the leadership of the main youth organization, the Young Pioneers. In fact, the children were sometimes taught to undermine the authority of their own parents, particularly authoritarian fathers, as a metaphor for and precursor to the coming revolutionary victory of the working class over the bourgeoisie. Mere analysis of the injustices in society was deemed insufficient. The young students were inspired by their adult leaders to take direct political action in support of their causes. This included skipping regular school attendance to take part in public rallies, demonstrations and strikes.

In the end, the institutionalized extra-school education of young Communists in America collapsed. The threats and enticements of mainstream society prevailed over a determined but tiny minority. Here and there, however, a few residual survivors – sometimes dubbed Red Diaper Babies – surface to remind Americans of an overlooked element of their past. This book and its author provide one such example.

Larry A. Glassford – University of Windsor.

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