Young Communist League (Great Britain)

The Young Communist League (YCL) was founded as the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1921 to 1988. Since 1991, the YCL has been the youth section of the Communist Party of Britain.

Young Communist League
ChairpersonRobin Talbot
Secretary GeneralJohnnie Hunter
HeadquartersRuskin House, Croydon, London, England
MembershipIncrease 500+ (2022)[1]
Mother partyCommunist Party of Great Britain (1921–1991)
Communist Party of Britain (since 1991)
International affiliation
  • WFDY
  • Meeting of European Communist Youth Organisations (MECYO)
MagazineChallenge Edit this at Wikidata

Youth section of the Communist Party of Great Britain (1921–1988)Edit


In August 1921, two of Great Britain's leading radical youth organisations, the Young Workers' League and the International Communist Schools Movement, gathered at a special conference held at Birmingham.[2]: 45  The assembled delegates to this Unity Conference passed a proposal calling for the two standing groups to merge under a new name, that of the Young Communist League.[2]: 45  This proposal was taken to the rank-and-file of each group, and the proposed unified constitution and organisational rules ratified in a referendum of branches held in October.[2]: 45 

Logo of the Young Communist League as it appeared in 1923.

The YCL was the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which exercised oversight over the group. The YCL modeled itself upon the adult party and, in the estimation of historian Thomas Linehan, "functioned as a younger version of it."[2]: 45  In 1954, the YCL supported 'The Red Scout' Paul Garland who had been dismissed from his local Scout Group in Bristol following his dual membership – a controversy with wide media coverage and a debate in the House of Lords.[3] While formally independent, the group was always closely linked to the CPGB and its activities and fortunes broadly followed those of its parent organisation.[4] As with the adult party, the YCL saw itself as part of a unified world movement, and took its ultimate direction from the Young Communist International (CYI), with headquarters in Moscow.[2]: 45 

The YCL was seen as a recruiting school for activists in the adult party, and the organisation's structure, internal relationships, and tactical activities closely paralleled and followed those of the CPGB.[2]: 45-46  This was in turn a reflection of the structure and practise of the Russian Communist Party (later known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).[2]: 46  Similarly, the Young Communist International, which formally stood at the head of the YCL's decision-making process, was closely modelled upon the adult Communist International, which itself was shaped by Russian Communist Party practice.[2]: 46 

The fledgling YCL published its own official monthly periodical, known as The Young Communist[2]: 45 , before establishing its own magazine Challenge in 1935, which continues to be published today.[5]

The Spanish Civil WarEdit

Between 1936 and 1939 over 35,000 men and women, from over 50 countries, left their homes to volunteer for the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War within the British Battalion. More than 2,300 of these came from Britain, Ireland and the commonwealth, with as many as 80% being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Young Communist League. The volunteers came from overwhelmingly working-class backgrounds, with large numbers hailing from cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Only a small number were unemployed with large numbers involved in industrial occupations, such as labouring, construction, shipbuilding and mining. The average age for the volunteers from Britain was twenty-nine.[6]

Volunteers included John Cornford; a poet and Young Communist League member from Cambridge who was also the great-grandson of Charles Darwin,[7] and Charlie Hutchison; chair of the Young Communist League branch in Fulham and the only black British volunteer to join the International Brigades.[8]

The 1960s and 1970sEdit

During the 1960s, the Young Communist League actively supported the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War.[9] They supplied large quantities of Blood plasma, as well as collecting funds to buy over one hundred bicycles, many of which were donated to the Vietnamese at the 9th World Festival of Youth and Students in Bulgaria, 1968.[10]

Young Communist League, Vietnam campaign lorry, 1968

A recruitment drive started in 1966 around the slogan "The Trend - Communism" associated the group with wider cultural trends in society.[4] Pete Townshend of The Who was a prominent but short-lived member, and "The Trend" campaign emphasised the power of music in social change (Irish folk singer Luke Kelly was also a member in the 60s).[11][12] Throughout this period, YCL membership grew to over 6,000 members and a generation of young members, led by Barney Davis (national secretary), George Bridges (London secretary) and others challenged the political approach of the parent party.[13]

The YCL took a lead in condemning what it defined as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia[4] (the Party called it an "intervention" at the time), but the position was only adopted by a 60:40 vote. Some members who favoured a pro-Soviet line, including John Chamberlain (Jack Conrad), left the YCL to join the New Communist Party of Britain in 1977.[4] Chamberlain was to become head of the NCP's youth section; however, shortly after this, he attempted to rejoin the CPGB[citation needed].

The 1970s and 1980sEdit

1968 proved the start of a long decline in membership, characterised by competition between different tendencies. The leadership tended to be eurocommunist, but opposition to it was stronger than in the CPGB[citation needed].

During the early 1970s the Young Communist League supported the African National Congress by supplying volunteers, later known as the London Recruits, for secret missions against South Africa's Apartheid system. Young white members were chosen as they could move freely around South Africa at the time. Due to the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950, people were legally not allowed to hand out ANC leaflets in the street, so devices known as leaflet bombs were set off in a number of different cities and locations, promoting the ANC and letting the African people know that they were still around regardless of the state suppression against them.[14]

In 1979, its congress adopted a new programme, Our Future, which did not commit the group to Marxism and removed the policy of democratic centralism. The new programme exacerbated divisions in the group, and in 1983, with membership down to 510, democratic centralism was re-imposed.

In 1985, Mark Ashton became General Secretary of the YCL, having co-founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners to raise funds supporting the National Union of Mineworkers during the year-long strike of 1984–1985. By the end of the strike, eleven different LGSM groups had emerged throughout the UK, with the London group alone raising £22,500 by 1985 (equivalent to £69,000 in 2019) in support.[15] The events of Mark Ashton and LGSM have since been dramatised in the 2014 film Pride.

However membership in the League continued to decline due to its slide to Eurocommunism, and by 1986 the league had fewer than 300 members.[16]

Youth section of the Communist Party of Britain (1991 to present)Edit

After the split in the CPGB leading to the creation of the Communist Party of Britain in 1988 (and the dissolution of the CPGB in 1991), the Young Communist League was re-established in 1991, based on the CPB Youth Section, and recommitting itself as a Marxist-Leninist organisation. The YCL is organisationally autonomous to the Communist Party of Britain, deciding its own activities and priorities with its own Congress & resolutions, but is constitutionally committed to support for the CPB's programme, Britain's Road to Socialism which entered its 9th edition in April 2020.[17] The YCL is a member of the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) and participates in international gatherings, such as the World Festival of Youth and Students.[18][19]

Young Communist League attending an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, September 2020

After a resurge in popularity from 2017, the Young Communist League focuses on community, tenants and trade union work and has seen fast growth, particularly in Scotland[citation needed]. The YCL sees itself as a centre for political education for young people with an organiser describing themselves as "arming young communists with the tools to build themselves up in as many fields as we can".[20]

In September 2020, after environmental protests in London called by Extinction Rebellion, The Telegraph reported that "Extinction Rebellion at war with itself after infiltration by Marxists" and The Times reported that “Extinction Rebellion has allowed a hard core of ideologues and Marxist infiltrators to dictate its agenda”, in relation to the attendance of a Young Communist League block on the demo brandishing a banner declaring "Socialism or Extinction" alongside an image of the hammer and sickle.[21] The Young Communist League responded, stating that: "We refuse to accept any division pushed by the despicable Murdoch press between the socialist left and the ecological movement. If stating the obvious truth that countless rank and file XR groups and members have stated this week, that capitalism itself is unsustainable, makes us “hard left” then we proudly say yes: we are the hard left."[22]

Young Communist League celebrating May Day in Manchester, May 2021

Celebrations began in 2021 as the Young Communist League commemorates 100 years since its original founding in 1921, with the YCL reflecting and drawing attention to its achievements throughout that time from the testimonies of past members,[23][24] and a rejuvenation of its current organisation leading up to its 50th Congress due to take place in August 2021.[25]

The YCL holds an annual Summer Camp in Edale, to commemorate their involvement in the Mass trespass of Kinder Scout of 1932 led by YCL member Benny Rothman to win access to the countryside for working people for recreation and leisure. The Summer Camp intend to "give young workers from across Britain the opportunity to come together for political education and to socialise and enjoy our natural heritage."[26]

Coppice CampEdit

Young communists walking to Kinder Scout (2021)

Following the Fifth YCL Congress in 1928, the league began actively organising cultural events for young people. Regular political work was accompanied by film showings, football games, dances, recreational excursions, as well as a series of summer camps.[27][28] These summer camps would become a regular feature of life in the league, accompanied by trips out to youth hostels in the winter.[29]

In the 1930s, Carl Cullen bought a plot of land near the village of Kelvedon Hatch, which came to be used by the YCL as a campsite.[30] This plot would later be named 'Coppice Camp', and it was donated to the Communist Party shortly before Cullen died in 1966.[31] As well as summer camps for the YCL, the party made use of the campsite as a venue for weekend schools.[32]

The land for Coppice Camp was sold during the dissolution of the old CPGB; however, the present-day YCL continues to hold summer camps every year in Edale.[33]


Year Secretary
1921 Harry Gilbert
1923 William Rust
1929 (?) Wally Tapsell
1935 John Gollan
1941 Ted Willis
1946 (?) Bill Brooks
1950 John Moss
1958 Jimmy Reid
1964 Barney Davis
1970 Tom Bell
1979 Nina Temple
1983 Doug Chalmers
1985 Mark Ashton
Refounded YCL
1991–2003 ?
2003 Gawain Little
2006 Ben Stevenson
2010 Mick Carty
2012 George Waterhouse
2014 Zoe Hennessey
2016 Owain Holland
2018 Johnnie Hunter


  1. ^ Czapnik, Nathan (11 February 2022). "The eclipse and re-emergence of the Young Communist League".
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Linehan, Thomas (October 2010). Communism in Britain, 1920–39: From the cradle to the grave. Manchester University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1vwmdq7. ISBN 978-0-7190-7140-9.
  3. ^ Mills, Sarah (2011). "Be Prepared: Communism and the Politics of Scouting in 1950s Britain". Contemporary British History. 25 (3): 429–450. doi:10.1080/13619462.2011.597552. S2CID 145376869.
  4. ^ a b c d Peter Barberis, John McHugh, and Mike Tyldesley, Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005; pg.172
  5. ^ "A new Challenge for young workers and students". Challenge Magazine. 28 April 2020.
  6. ^ "The British Volunteers". International Brigades. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  7. ^ "John Cornford: anti-fascist martyr". Morning Star. 30 December 2020.
  8. ^ "Britain's Black International Brigadier". Tribune. 31 October 2020.
  9. ^ London Anti-Vietnam War Protests. AP. 13 June 1965 – via YouTube.
  10. ^ "How the YCL helped win the Vietnam War". Morning Star. 22 May 2020.
  11. ^ "Ireland's Red Troubadour".
  12. ^ Worley, Matthew (January 2020). "Punk, Politics and British Fanzines (1976–1984)". In Guerra, Paula; Quintela, Pedro (eds.). Punk, Fanzines and DIY Cultures in a Global World. Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music. p. 25. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-28876-1. ISBN 978-3-030-28875-4. S2CID 242118544.
  13. ^ Graham Stevenson (31 December 2008). "Anatomy of decline – the Young Communist League 1967-86". Graham Stevenson. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  14. ^ "How the YCL fought apartheid". Morning Star. 2 April 2021.
  15. ^ Emily Fisher (29 September 2014). "Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners material at the People's History Museum". People's History Museum, Manchester. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  16. ^ Graham Stevenson (31 December 2008). "Anatomy of decline – the Young Communist League 1967-86". Graham Stevenson. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  17. ^ Stuart, Moir (2019). How Did Young Left Wing Political Activists Learn to Become Active and Critical Citizens? (PhD). University of Edinburgh. p. 97. doi:10.7488/era/413.
  18. ^ Ball, Tom (23 October 2018). "Meet the British millennial communists defending North Korea". New Statesman.
  19. ^ Ball, Tom (20 January 2018). "What do proper communists really think of Corbyn?". The Spectator.
  20. ^ "From Scotland to London, Young Communists get organised". Morning Star. 15 February 2019.
  21. ^ "The two faces of Extinction Rebellion". New Statesman. 11 September 2020.
  22. ^ "YCL: Response to the article in The Times about the YCL and Extinction Rebellion". Young Communist League. 5 September 2020.
  23. ^ "To live life with purpose: 100 years of the Young Communist League". Morning Star. 2 April 2021.
  24. ^ "School for Communists". BBC Radio 4. 14 June 2021.
  25. ^ "Conquer your future". Morning Star. 24 December 2020.
  26. ^ "Summer Camp 2021". Young Communist League. 1 January 2021.
  27. ^ Linehan, Thomas (2007). Communism in Britain, 1920–39. Manchester University Press. pp. 55–56. ISBN 9781526130440.
  28. ^ Dee, David (January 2015). "A Means of Escape? British Jewry, Communism, and Sport, 1920–1950". Labour History Review. 80 (2): 169–194. doi:10.3828/lhr.2015.7.
  29. ^ Lynn, Richard (2020). "My Forebears". Memoirs of a Dissident Psychologist. Ulster Institute for Social Research. ISBN 9780993000188.
  30. ^ Frost, Peter (3 February 2014). "Coppice Camp - The 1930's". Frostys ramblings.
  31. ^ Stevenson, Graham (January 2013). "Dr C K Cullen". Encyclopedia of Communist Biographies.
  32. ^ Aaronovich, David (2016). Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists. Random House. p. 78. ISBN 9780224074711.
  33. ^ "Summer Camp 2021". Young Communist League. Young Communist League. 1 January 2021.

External linksEdit