Valencia Street, San Francisco, August 2012 //
I sit on the terrace of a hipster bar. Bianchi’s bikes parked on the sidewalk, organic food served, the latest artwork from occuprint.org displayed. A typical combination of sustainable awareness, healthy lifestyle, the art scene and political engagement.
While sipping my coffee I read a blog entry of 82-year-old professor Immanuel Wallerstein: ‘We are living in a chaotic world situation. When the world-economy stagnates and real unemployment expands considerably, it means that the overall pie is shrinking. The fluctuations in everything are large and rapid. This applies as well to social protest. The geography of youth-led protests constantly shifts. Tahrir Square in Cairo and Wall Street yesterday, unauthorized massive marches with pots and pans in Montreal today, somewhere else (probably somewhere surprising) tomorrow. The groups in power can repress popular unrest harshly, and many do. Or, if the unrest is too strong for their repressive mechanisms, they can try to co-opt the protestors by seeming to join them and limiting real change’.
In the moment in which we try to create a change in the mainstreamed policy mindset that investing in youth should actually be part of the solution and not a burden for the actual crisis, the words of the professor are particularly interesting. What makes them even more relevant is the fact that Wallerstein was a prominent youth activist himself, a world federalist and Vice President of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) from 1954 – 1958. He was part of the generation of youth leaders in the decade following World War II. For many months I tried to speak with him but he declined any requests for interviews on the topic. I suspect because of the reputation of WAY, being one of the C.I.A. funded organisations during the cold war.
To dig more in that past, in April I met with David Wirmark, an 86 years old former Secretary General of WAY from 1958 – 1964. Sitting in his apartment in Jakobsberg, Sweden, we had a long chat surrounded by old documents and pictures. The first memory brought me back to his first international meeting in 1951, when he did not only meet a young Wallerstein but also the inspiring Eleanor Roosevelt.
The story got more and more passionate when he recalled the General Assembly of WAY in New Delhi, India, August 1958. David was elected as Secretary General there, and the organisation positioned itself officially against colonialism in the context of the Algerian war. The WAY president of the time, Antoine Lawrence from Guinea Conakry, loyal to the French Youth Council, protested by leaving the room theatrically hoping to stop the debate, but immediately Wallerstein took over the debate as Vice President, and the Assembly decided to support and encourage youth organisations in the ‘non-self-governing’ countries in their struggle to attain independence.
Following this episode, a few years later, David built very good relations with the African liberation movements. His first meeting with Oliver Tambo is a good example of how things worked at the time. ‘It was April 1960 in connection with our first Pan-African seminar in Tunis’ – David recalled – ‘Tambo was then the Vice President of the ANC in South Africa and the Sharpeville massacre had just taken place. The situation was very tense. In the Guardian I read Oliver Tambo escaped by car to Bechuanaland (Botswana). I telegraphed immediately Chief Seretse Khama who governed this British protectorate as I knew he was a friend of the ANC. I requested him to ask Oliver whether he would be willing to come to Tunis. At the same time we sent him an air ticket. After a couple of days Khama replied that he gave the ticket to Tambo. The speech he made at the seminar was unforgettable. In the middle of a grim description of the South African repression he underlined that there was only one possible way out: equal rights and opportunities for everybody!’
The actions of those young leaders however, was not limited to Africa. It was truly global and impressive for the time. For example, in January 1964, David met the military junta in Ecuador. He asked for the release of the student activists who were arrested because they demanded an agrarian reform. When David argued that they had only expressed their opinion and said that it was their democratic right to do so, the president of the junta replied: ‘It is the Ecuadorians that govern in Ecuador, not the Swedes! Agrarian reform is not my field, I am an admiral!’
Just a few months after the mission in Quito, David’s mandate ended. Probably the best way to end his term was for him to listen to the words of Robert Kennedy on 7th August 1964 at the WAY General Assembly in Armherst, Massachusetts: ‘Do we have the capacity to make that wealth meaningful to the poor of the world? these problems are not for the individuals to solve. They are not even for individual Nations to solve unaided. As our problems grow more complex our world grows smaller and our need for solutions becomes common’.
While I finish my coffee, I turn again my eyes at the hipster posters and at the current state of youth movements in the world and what can we learn from the past. Memories from this generation show me clearly how international youth work had a crucial impact in the geopolitical arena back then, particularly on three levels. Firstly, in training political leaders. Especially in the case of liberation struggles, international youth movements were essential in their political development. Secondly, in their intellectual development. For Wallerstein, it was fundamental to later develop the world systems analysis – a multidisciplinary, macro scale approach to world history and social change. World systems analysis stresses that the world system (and not nation states) should be the primary (but not exclusive) unit of social analysis. Thirdly, young people were at the forefront of human rights and emancipatory movements already in the end of the 1950s.
A youth policy that is not sectorial but works for a wider societal, political, intellectual, and economic change: 60 years later we still need it!