Mishler, Paul C.
Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States
New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Turning Heads with Raising Reds: Mishler’s History of the Alternative Boy Scouts

Matt Groneman

From the early nineteen twenties until the onset of the Cold War, the Communist Party in the United States endured a period of substantial prosperity for a marginalized movement. This period, of course, saw many changes in the party, most notably the formation of the Popular Front in 1936, as well as many splits both within the party and within the wider realm of radical politics. It also saw the party trying to create a community atmosphere that would allow the Communist spirit to develop and prosper. One of the most contested and intriguing issues of that time period was the question of how to deal with children of communist party members. In his 1999 book Raising Reds, Paul C. Mishler attempts to explain the children’s programs of the Communist movement from 1922 until 1946. Mishler enriches his argument with detailed histories of policies on children in the Party, how those policies reflected Party objectives, and how those policies, and changes in them, affected the programs the Party sponsored for children. In addition to focusing in on the Communist children’s programs, Mishler also puts these programs in context of similar programs that were going on in other radical movements, as well as youth programs in general.

In terms of its organization, Mishler’s book seems to focus on two distinct time periods: 1922-1934 and 1934-1946. During the first twelve years, the Pioneers were the main children’s organization for members of the Communist Party. Anticipating the rise of the Popular Front movement in 1936, the Pioneers disbanded in 1934 as Party policies concerning children, the family unit, and ethnicity underwent major changes. In 1934 the IWO (International Workers’ Order) Juniors, a group created concurrently with the IWO in 1930, became the prominent children’s organization of the Communist Party.

It seems that some explanation of what the policies were before and after the shift, as well as why they shifted, would be appropriate. During the 1920s, the Communist Party was largely composed of immigrants and, to try to make Communism appear mainstream so that it would be accepted by more general sections of the working class, the Party discouraged members from emphasizing their ethnicity. The party preferred that its members spoke only English (Pioneer meetings were only allowed to be conducted in English for much of their existence, even though some members spoke little or no English). This disheartened many party members and it did not cause a significant part of the mainstream culture to sympathize with the Communist Party. In the face of fascism, the Popular Front movement, headed by the Communist Party, embraced ethnic pride and began to work to preserve cultural traditions which were almost extinct after the party had suppressed them for an entire generation. This caused major chances in the children’s programs. The Pioneers had been very active and dogmatic. The Pioneers often scorned other radical movements and were politically active, often participating in protests and picketing. After the Pioneers disbanded, IWO Juniors’ activities were quite different. Juniors’ activities often focused on cultural heritage and dealt more with things like children learning the native tongues of their parents or grandparents and learning the customs of their home country. Although support for the labor movement was always emphasized, as time went on political questions became of less and less importance to the Juniors’ organizations.

Another major policy change in the Party was its perception of the family. In the twenties and for much of the first part of the thirties, the Party saw the power structure of the family as mirroring that of real world. The Party felt that if parents were involved with their children then they were as bad as the bosses and the children were seen as little proletariats. It was thought that the children needed space in order to be able to develop politically. For this reason, parents were discouraged from taking an active role in their children’s lives. The Pioneers meetings were run by the children themselves. All decisions and ideas came straight from the children. One member of the Young Communist League, an organization for those in their upper teens and lower twenties, would oversee the meetings, but only had the power to help facilitate activities. Many of the parents felt hurt by this and felt that they could instill Communist values in their children and would not be tyrannical bourgeois to their children. The Popular Front sided with many of these parents. It saw the family as a key instrument in inculcating Party sympathies and strong political values. In the Juniors parents were not kept in the dark or refused participation The Juniors took a very family oriented approach and this helped lead the change towards the communist view of a large family.

Among Mishler’s strengths is that he goes to great lengths to explain the wide range of children’s programs that were available to children at the time. The main focus is, of course, the Pioneers until 1934 and subsequently the IWO Juniors, however, Mishler provides context for these two main groups by comparing them to numerous other groups. The Boy Scouts are mentioned throughout the book, and, especially during the twenties, were seen almost as the arch-nemesis of the Pioneers, because, as one Young Pioneers pamphlet put it, "the Boy Scouts justify and glorify bosses’ wars" (44). Mishler also considers similar groups in other areas of the radical movement. The Red Falcons, a socialist group, is also mentioned (41). Mishler uses it to compare Communist children’s programs to other radical children’s programs. The Falcons came to prominence as the Pioneers tapered off and were replaced by the IWO Juniors. More interesting is how Mishler focuses on the function of the two groups. While the Pioneers had aimed for political action, the Falcons sought only to prepare youth for the new society (41). The Juniors, in contrast to the Pioneers, were more open to other radical groups, and were even willing to use the Boys Scouts as a positive model (71). He also mentions many groups which broke off of the Communist children’s organizations, such as the Famine Scout Clubs and the Nature Friends Scouts (43). Showing a wide variety of groups gives Mishler more depth and also provides a better historical context.

Despite some organizational problems (chapters one and two raise issues that form the foundation of this book, and which are more thoroughly discussed other places without the need for much background), and a poor proofreading job that left a large number of typos that did affect meaning (including a chapter sub-heading which discusses the Pioneers from "1992-1934" (sic) (41)), Mishler does present a thorough history of the Communist children’s movements in the twenties, thirties and forties. He covers many of the major aspects and slowly conveys what it meant to be a Communist child during this time period. Mishler’s successful book is mostly interesting and manages to handle the subject with a sensitive care which makes it accessible to the largest possible number of readers.