In 1988, shortly before the expiration of communism in Eastern Europe, I was waiting on the platform of a Prague subway station. The idea was that a member of the civic opposition would recognize me by the book I was carrying and escort me to some illegal gathering. The precautions were hardly necessary, since the regime was by then in an advanced state of decay and inanition, but I am glad I went through the "drill," because I might otherwise have missed witnessing one of the symptoms of that decadence. Onto the platform was led a spiritless troop of pre-teenage boys, all wearing makeshift uniforms of shorts and blouses. Round their necks were faded red kerchiefs. In command was an adult Communist of scarcely believable bloat and scrofulousness, who looked as if it would be beyond his power to motivate his charges even to whistle, let alone to sing an uplifting anthem. They were trudging off on who knows what futile errand of party-building. I thought of Milan Kundera's caustic reference to "pointlessness" as one of the special arts of the system. Here was another prefiguration of the coming fate of "actually existing socialism": its listless Young Pioneers were clearly no match for the pack of keen-eyed, clean-living, Kipling-quoting lads whose organization had long outlived the empire it had been formed to uphold and defend.
Happy, perhaps, the country that needs no "youth movement." In common with its comparable rivals, Victorian Britain managed quite well without one. There were some church-inspired groups for the children of the deserving poor, and conscription and emigration took care of many of the rest. The South African, or Boer, War, however, altered the picture in two ways. Sudden reverses in the field meant that new drafts of manpower were required at short notice, and the establishment discovered to its shock and dismay that Britain's cities and slums were producing narrow-chested, knock-kneed, wheezing, rickety specimens. Sir Frederick Maurice wrote a treatise concluding that only two out of five recruits were physically fit for military service. (The authorities were to make very much the same "discovery" in 1914 and 1939, before deducing that a welfare state was cheaper in the long run.) The second catalyst was the siege and eventual relief of the town of Mafeking.