An organization known as the LaRouche Youth Movement has become a fixture on many college campuses over the past few years. Many of its adherents are undergraduates, though members are eventually urged to quit school to work full-time for the organization. "We are in a complete breakdown of the financial system and we know that," one member told a student newspaper in California. "We can use our time in a more appropriate manner than going to school." Recruits have been tireless in distributing tracts that bear such lurid titles as "Children of Satan" (about members of the Bush administration) and "How the 'The Sexual Congress of Cultural Fascism' Ruined the U.S.A." (an allusion to the Cold War-era Congress for Cultural Freedom).
While LYMers do support the perennial American presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, it is somewhat misleading to think of these texts as mere campaign literature – or the movement itself as essentially political. Members are recruited in part around the claim that the movement will give them a real education in classical culture, with a particular emphasis on mastering Plato and Leibnitz.
His adherents regard Lyndon LaRouche as the greatest mind of the past 300 years, at very least. "I'm probably the best economist in the world today," as LaRouche told The Washington Post in 1985. But a list of the areas of expertise behind that claim of eminence is even more astounding.Members of his youth group now publish a scholarly journal, of sorts, called Dynamis, devoted to their studies of his mathematical and scientific doctrines.
LaRouche has also determined the correct pitch for tuning musical instruments. Any other tuning bothers him, besides being incompatible with the structure of the universe. In the best of all possible worlds, people found in possession of "incorrect" tuning forks and pitch-pipes would be fined. His followers in Italy once proposed legislation to that effect. It failed. That campaign seems to be at a standstill, but it once drew close attention in the pages of Opera Fanatic magazine.
In one of his autobiographies, LaRouche explains that his mission is to create what Plato called "golden souls" – fit to rule those of us of a more silver or even bronze hue. His quest to do so began among students on college campuses 40 years ago. Members of the inner core of his organization have long since qualified to join the AARP. LaRouche himself is now 85 years old. And yet it is clear that he remains ready, willing, and able to serve as philosopher-king for the entire planet, given half a chance.
And so a few years back LaRouche's followers began recruiting new support among university students. In 2002, organizers for the movement, one of them carrying a megaphone, rushed into classrooms at Santa Monica College to spread the good word, according to the campus newspaper. By 2003, recruitment was successful enough to receive LaRouche's own enthusiastic approval."Give me 1,000 youth leaders like these," he announced that year, "and I'll take over the country."
That goal may have been a little optimistic. The figure of 1,000 new members has not been mentioned in a while. But the movement's Web site now lists contact information for 21 cities.
Members of the LaRouche Youth Movement also make themselves visible, if no means welcome, at Democratic Party events. Perhaps "visible" is not really the right word. The LaRouchies are prone to heckle and to sing – often, in fact, at the same time. One central doctrine of the movement is that certain classical compositions (sung at the proper pitch) can transform both singer and listener in a golden-soulful way. Here, for example, is a video of Joseph Lieberman being subjected to LaRouchian bel canto yodeling
LaRouche supporters claim to be a wing of the Democratic Party — something the party itself strenuously denies. His following has the LaRouche Political Action Committee as its electoral arm. LPAC raised more than $7.4 million in 2006, according to statements filed with the Federal Election Commission. It dispersed a grand total of $1,565 to a Democratic candidate for president.(Guess which one?) A review of expenditures (also available at the FEC site) shows a total of $462,850 going to the LaRouche Youth Movement. Another $6,223 went to Bruce Director, a longtime supporter of LaRouche who teaches the candidate's mathematical theories to the youth group.
When they are not busy studying geometry or learning to sing properly, youth organizers are expected to meet a daily fund-raising quota. In an open letter to the father of a Youth Movement member, a former long-time supporter of the LaRouche organization described the life of a full-timer organizer as "dreary."
But one might never know that from LaRouche's speeches to the movement, which often end, "Have fun!"
The emergence of the group is all the more surprising, given that LaRouche himself has long since become the walking punchline to a very strange joke. He is known for some of the most baroque conspiracy theories ever put into circulation. Members of the LYM now deny that he ever accused the Queen of England of drug trafficking – though in fact, he did exactly that throughout the 1980s. At the time, he won admirers on the extreme right wing by denouncing Henry Kissinger as an agent of the KGB and calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined. A good roundup of LaRouche's positions and conspiracy theories is available from PublicEye.org, the website of Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank.
The movement lost even more credibility when LaRouche and several of his top associates were convicted of mail fraud in 1988. He even ended up sharing a prison cell with Jim Bakker, the disgraced televangelist. (Now there's a Platonic dialogue one would like to read.)
But most of the students joining his movement now were barely learning to read when LaRouche was paroled in 1994. He has managed to repackage himself as a former "political prisoner." Actually LaRouche was prosecuted for making a million dollars' worth of unauthorized charges to credit cards, which would not ordinarily count as a manifestation of high idealism. Be that as it may, LaRouche has displayed a certain knack, over the years, for pitching his message to young people. The new focus on student recruitment is, in fact, a return to the movement's origins.
In the mid-1960s, LaRouche gave rather spellbinding lectures at Columbia, Temple, Swarthmore, and other campuses – never as a professor, but rather as a guest speaker invited by radical students. His career up to that point had certainly been unusual.
Although a member of various small Marxist organizations, LaRouche was also employed as a management consultant to the shoe industry. According to some of his later statements, he was involved in early efforts to apply computer technology to bookkeeping practices.Meanwhile, he published radical tracts under the pseudonym Lyn Marcus. (He describes his early years as a revolutionary, his use of the pen name, and his pioneering role in creating accounting software in The Power of Reason, an autobiography published in 1979.)
It is often said by LaRouche's critics that his pseudonym, Lyn Marcus, was meant as a reference to Lenin and Marx – a colorful detail, though, alas, one not really supported by an evidence. A more parsimonious explanation for "Lyn" is that it is just a contraction of "Lyndon." As for "Marcus," he claims that his nickname as a young man was Marco Polo.
But my friend James Weinstein — a radical historian who knew LaRouche briefly during the mid-1960s — had a different perspective. "A lot of Jews in the radical movement took WASP-seeming party names," he told me. "So here you had this guy who looked and sounded like a Boston Brahmin taking a Jewish name. He was very strange. He would show up at meetings of his own organization to hand out leaflets denouncing it."
He was, in any case, a man of numerous theories. And as protests against the Vietnam war grew, he found a ready audience for them. Lyn Marcus developed a following among radical students at Columbia University in the months just before the campus upheaval there in 1968. Several of his young disciples were part of the student strike committee. His following won occasional passing references in James Simon Kunen's once-famous book The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, published the following year.
Kunen describes a meeting at Columbia during which a shaggy-bearded radical orator, obviously is somewhat older than his audience, lectures on the impending global depression. Although he is not identified by name, this was almost certainly LaRouche. The beard is documented in a photograph from the period. He later cut it off – but kept the lecture about impending global depression, which has always been a staple of his ideology.
By the early 1970s, he had a following of nearly 1,000 students on campuses across the country, organized as the National Caucus of Labor Committees. It was the most bookish of far-left groups, and included some very smart people, several of them holding advanced degrees. (Quite a few also had trust funds, at least when they joined.) At least some professors must have taken the movement seriously. Writings by Lyn Marcus and other NCLC members appeared in Institutions, Policies, and Goals: A Reader in American Politics, a college textbook issued by D.C. Heath in 1973.
In 1975, Heath also brought out a curious volume called Dialectical Economics: An Introduction to Marxian Political Economy, which appeared under LaRouche's pseudonym. This was his theoretical magnum opus. It received exactly one notice in an academic publication: a review in The Journal of Political Economy by Martin Bronfenbrenner, a professor of economics at Brown University.
The LaRouche movement has inspired some excellent investigative journalism over the years – in particular the work of Dennis King, who has unearthed many a surprising and unpleasant fact about the candidate. (His book about LaRouche, published by Doubleday in 1989, is now available online.)
But it seems that no reporter has ever noticed Bronfenbrenner's examination of Dialectical Economics — the one occasion, I believe, when LaRouche's work was discussed by a serious scholar. It is a remarkably interesting item in its own right. As a review-essay, it is sober and judicious, yet suffused with a certain tone of puzzlement, as if Bronfenbrenner had to stop every so often to scratch his head.
"As regards content," he noted, the book was "perhaps 50 percent dialectical philosophy, with a strong epistemological stress. The remaining 50 percent appears fairly evenly divided between history (including economic history), anthropology-cum-sociology, and economics (including a surprisingly large loading of business administration).....For a 500 page introduction to economics, in sum, the economics is disappointingly thin."
And yet there was, indeed, some economics in it. The exact kind was worth noting — for not all of it came from Das Kapital, by any means. Bronfenbrenner discerned that the author "had the advantage of more private-business experience than the great majority of academic economists." A good deal of that direct knowledge "has been at the exploitive frontier of 'white-collar crime,' bordering on fraud both in the inducement and the factum....Marcus's experience extends to the speculative overcapitalization of capital values, creating 'fictitious capitals' which cannot later justify themselves by earning capacity in the normal course of events."
In short, Dialectical Economics was the work of someone familiar, not just with Marxist theory, but with creative bookkeeping. Bronfenbrenner also wrote that the book left "a distinct impression, redolent of the 1930s, of the one-man-party member with whom the world is out of step."
That may be one of the more insightful comments ever made by a book reviewer. But at the time, in the mid-1970s, LaRouche's "one-man party" was already a bit larger than that. An account of life in the group appeared in a memoir by two friends, Jeff Durstewitz and Ruth Tuttle, called Younger Than That Now: A Shared Passage from the Sixties (Bantam, 2001). One of the authors, Tuttle, joined the group in the early 1970s.
Members "spent countless hours reading and studying," she wrote, "getting a better education in Western philosophy and politics than we had gotten [in college]. But that benefit was far outweighed by the brutalized and controlled nature of our day-to-day lives. Even as we were verbally flogged each day to use creative thinking to achieve 'humanistic relevance' in the world, the reality was that we and our comrades used most of our time in dehumanizing and mind-deadening activity."
Not that much has changed in more than three decades, to judge by accounts of life in the LaRouche Youth Movement from people who have left recently. There is something morbidly fascinating about the phenomenon, if also terribly sad. One of LaRouche's longtime followers, the head of his publishing company, recently jumped to his death from a highway overpass after a statement by the leadership praised the dynamic youth organization while suggesting that "Boomer" members might just as well commit suicide.
Charisma is a mysterious thing, and even more so when it has a rather seedy feel — the claims of universal genius, a la Leibnitz, suffused a quality owing more perhaps to Elmer Gantry. It is hard to imagine what the organization's future may be. Even if LaRouche is Socrates, all men are mortal, and everybody knows how that syllogism works out.
But any member of the LaRouche Youth Movement with moments of doubt can now readily get access (after a few minutes online) to extensive information on the real history of the organization as well as a forum where ex-members compare notes. Have fun!