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  • Mobilizing Youth: Communists and Catholics in Interwar France
  • Ben Mercer
Mobilizing Youth: Communists and Catholics in Interwar France. By Susan B. Whitney. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. xii + 318 pp. $24.95 paper.

Youth acquired a newly important political role in interwar Europe. Yet unlike the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, in France the state played a minimal role in youth mobilization. Instead, Susan B. Whitney analyzes the two groups—Communists and Catholics—that were more successful at creating large youth movements: respectively, the Jeunesse Communiste (JC) and the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC). Both Communists and Catholics, at least initially, defined youth narrowly as young male workers. Indeed, prior to the First World War, "the term 'youth' was generally limited to male intellectuals. Other young people fell outside this category, and were described by such terms as young worker, young woman or juvenile delinquent" (p. 18). The First World War upended the category of youth, exacerbated generational conflict, ushered in the Russian Revolution, and provoked an expansion of religiosity. After the war, both Communist and Catholic hierarchies saw the young ("wild little rabbits" as one Jesuit described them) as more susceptible to mobilization than adults with entrenched allegiances.

In the early 1920s, the JC embraced a vision of youth as the vanguard of Communism, a frontline battalion in a revolutionary struggle, masculine, "virile, tough and unafraid of violence or war" (p. 43). While Comintern officials occasionally intervened to restrain the JC, they found the organization a useful ally in the Bolshevization of the French Communist Party. Yet the Jeunesse Communiste struggled to make an impact due to state repression and because its attempts to mobilize youth always subordinated specific youth interests to the prime goals of class struggle: "they emphasized the importance of maintaining working-class unity, even if this meant calling on young workers to ignore the most blatant generational inequalities"(p. 53). The JC defended the image of the Soviet Union, but by 1932 the organization languished with a mere 3,500 [End Page 170] members. While women constituted forty percent of the workforce under age twenty-four in the mid-1920s, Communists understood worker youth as a male category and female workers as a threat. The militants themselves were overwhelmingly men. The few women who joined adopted an androgynous model of behavior in a radical challenge to contemporary gender roles but one which found little broader resonance.

The political polarization of the 1930s transformed the Jeunesse Communiste. Under the popular front strategy, revolution was relegated in young workers' interests to a place after eating, amusement, and education. Age supplanted class as the primary identifier, and the JC extended appeals to peasants, students, Catholics, and women. Thus a very broad, inclusive, mix-gendered, and multi-class understanding of "youth" emerged as a function of Popular Front anti-fascism, despite the hesitancies of many JC militants. Its newspaper Avant-Garde's subtitle changed from "Newspaper of Young Workers" to "Newspaper of Youth." Suspicion of sport and leisure gave way to their promotion. Communists embraced the defense of the family and traditional gender roles. Women became an important symbol of purity in Popular Front pageantry and were prohibited from selling newspapers on the streets—something its Catholic rival permitted. In its new guise, the JC and Union des Jeune Filles de France reached new heights, the former some one hundred thousand members in 1936, the latter claiming two hundred thousand in 1937.

The Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, founded by clerics rather than by young workers themselves, sought not to overthrow social structures, but to "[alter] their operations through the infusion of Christian values" (p. 81). The JOC strived to inculcate in its members a morality that would inoculate them from the corrupting dangers of work and leisure—such as dancing or cinema. In the political radicalization of the mid-1930s, it remained resolutely apolitical, insisting politics was inappropriate for young workers, or that the political system was altogether irrelevant. The JOC floundered during the strikes of 1936, but only a few responded to the Communist main tendue of the popular front. In 1937 at the World Fair the JOC, like the JC, claimed one hundred...


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