Organizing students and the youth overall is a “waste of time.” At least that’s what I’ve been hearing recently in some of the leftist organizing circles I belong to. When I push back on this narrative, those who initially took this position modify their stance: “Well, let’s focus on organizing young workers. They can be radicalized and tend to be more reliable than students.”
Now, I was a college student at one time. I worked three jobs, two at Asian restaurants and one in a retail store, to pay rent and tuition. I hardly had time to study, but, somehow, I managed to get good enough grades to get through college and even get accepted at graduate school. But never once had I not considered myself a worker. Had someone asked me at the time, “are you a worker or a student?,” my logical and obvious answer would have been, “both.” Come to think of it, my more precise answer would have been, “I work full time and study full time.”
According to a survey from December 2020 (in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic), almost 70% of college students also worked. So there is no need to differentiate students from workers, since they are often one and the same. And students who do not work while in college eventually go on to join our workforce after graduating, often doing so in a field of work which has nothing to do with what their college degree focused on: 41% of college graduates, in fact, end up working in a field different from the one they studied.
So writing off students as “not able to be organized” is to dismiss a significant portion of our working class.
Now, to the next claim that “students are not reliable.” The same could be said for workers without a college degree. People are people. In the Communist Party and Young Communist League, it’s often like pulling teeth to get certain members to attend meetings, whether they are 20 or 60 years old. It’s true that a 20-year-old may have more commitments due to family, school, work, etc. But that’s not to say that a 60-year-old comrade does not have those same commitments to their children, grandchildren, work, and so on.
Youth take the lead
As many as 60% of millennials (ages 24–39) agree with some form of socialism as an alternative to capitalism. While this generation has begun to “age out” of the youth category, their sentiment is one we should build on, not ignore. And let’s remember that it was the student movement which led the Civil Rights marches, bus boycotts, and lunch-counter sit-ins. Let’s not forget how the youth led the Black Lives Matter and Abolish ICE movements during the height of the far-right Trump administration in the middle of a global pandemic. Indeed, it was the youth that V. I. Lenin called on to organize independent communist youth leagues and “learn communism” to prepare the future generations for revolutionary tasks needed to further the struggle for democracy and worker power. (To this end, the Party recently organized a successful Marxist school for young people.)
I think of how the Communist youth led the way for the Party in this last period, from organizing mutual aid drives for the unemployed and impoverished during the pandemic to rising up in defense of the 2020 vote after Trump claimed the election results were a fraud. These young comrades organized rallies in defense of Cuba and were invited to lead BLM marches. Many of these youth cadre are students, while others are unemployed workers or employed workers with or without college degrees. In other words, these young comrades are the product of a radicalization process which brought them to the Communist Party and Young Communist League. Whether they came to the movement on campus, through a book club, or from signing up online, young Communists are finding a role to play in the collective revolutionary process. While all radicalization processes are different, we must not give up on young comrades who for one reason or another do not show up for meetings or events. Keep trying! They have a role to play, and it could be in the form of managing social media, creating artwork or flyers, etc.
Confusion among radicalized youth
In the radicalization process of youth in the 2020s, many young people are being brought to the left through self-education and conversations with other young leftists online, particularly during the pandemic quarantine and self-isolation. While this radicalization process is welcomed by the CPUSA and YCL, we understand that it can be confusing.
For example, a popular narrative going around online is that “white workers cannot be revolutionary because they depend on the exploitation of workers of color in the global South.” To my surprise, it is mostly white “Third Worldist” Maoists who push this narrative after their reading of J. Sakai’s Mythology of the White Proletariat. This position is not only anti-Marxist, given that Marx, Engels, and Lenin were themselves white Europeans and attempted to unite the workers of all lands despite skin color and creed. It also provides a convenient excuse for inaction when it comes to working for political change. In other words, if one is a Black or brown student and is convinced by this book, perhaps they would be reluctant to take up the struggle with an organization such as the Communist Party that seeks to unite all workers; Sakai’s defeatism would might lead them to conclude that since they are in the minority and whites are (presently) in the majority in the U.S., there is no hope for socialism. While Marxists agree that colonization and imperialism must be defeated, we never single out one racial category as “non-revolutionary” or “anti-revolutionary.”
This characterization of whites as anti-revolutionary and not proletariats is part of middle-class radicalism; it has nothing to do with a revolutionary, working-class, Marxist-Leninist analysis. Still not convinced? Imagine telling Lenin that Russians could not be organized during the October Revolution because they were Slavic, and the Slavs historically colonized the Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians south of the Caucus Mountains as part of the Russian Empire. Or, conversely, that only Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians could lead the revolution. Imagine where this mentality would have gotten the Bolsheviks — not very far, I’m sure. Any “revolutionary” position which prevents the unity of the working class is not revolutionary after all.
Another reactionary position that young online “leftists” tend to take is to support immediate (or not so immediate) violent insurrection instead of engaging in the various democratic struggles it takes to unite, radicalize, and organize the U.S. working-class. I have seen young self-identified Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and even self-proclaimed “Marxist-Leninists” take this position as well. What these groups and individuals have in common is isolation from the masses and, therefore, isolation from reality. Among young radicals who find revolutionary-sounding rhetoric appealing, there is a lack of understanding of our country’s democratic traditions, culture, society, history, and material conditions. After a while, Rosa Luxembourg’s “Reform or Revolution” begins to be understood as “Revolution or Nothing.” This attitude can also provide a ready-made excuses for inaction: “I don’t need to join a working-class organization since our working class isn’t revolutionary yet” or “We can’t do anything until our working-class is armed.”
But the reality is that the working class is not calling for a civil war, nor should we pretend to push it upon them. We meet workers and students where they are, not where we want them to be.
So instead of sitting around waiting for a violent peasant revolt to break out (as the Maoists wish to happen) in a country with no peasants, let’s encourage these young folks online to pick up the class struggle collectively with their local student organizations, labor unions, CPUSA club, or YCL branch. After all, a “COMMunist” who refuses to work with the COMMunity is not a communist, right?
Why we engage in democratic struggles
Democratic struggles take on many forms, from the fight for unions to the fights against the fascist danger, for a livable planet, and for civil rights. These struggles are essential to the overall class struggle for socialism. The struggles for civil rights for women, LGBTQ people, African Americans, and many other oppressed groups, for example, are essential because these groups face special oppression within the wider scope of capitalist exploitation. A billionaire woman CEO can still be discriminated against or sexually harassed just as a working-class woman often faces the same sorts of oppression. That is why the issue of women’s equality goes beyond class. The same goes for racism: there are Black NBA and NFL athletes who face racist oppression on a daily basis, the same as a working-class Black person. As the example of Cuba shows, racism does not disappear after the revolution when working people are in power. The struggle against racism goes beyond class and therefore is a democratic struggle.
LGBTQ equality is another arena for democratic struggle. Despite socialist countries guaranteeing freedom for all workers, we would be dishonest to ourselves and our movement if we pretended that socialist countries and our own Party have always held a positive track record when it comes to including LGBTQ comrades and the struggle for their rights as workers as well. Again, this is an issue which transcends class. LGBTQ people do not stop suffering discrimination once the capitalist class is overthrown. Therefore, the fight around these issues starts now under capitalism.
We engage in these democratic struggles whether it be on the picket line, at the ballot box, at a protest, or at a sit-in. The great triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s were won through mass struggle, whether it was the fight for voting rights or the movement to free Angela Davis. Young people who are tricked into isolating themselves from the democratic struggles are being fed anti-revolutionary rhetoric and, at times, even right-wing reactionary rhetoric posing as left-wing radical rhetoric, as is the case with the recent discussion around the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol being “working-class” and “revolutionary.” Further, the second you ignore the struggles for equality for Black and brown people, women, and LGBTQ people is when you begin to give up on entire sections of the working class. Don’t fall for it.
What do young people care about?
One of the biggest issues facing the youth and student movements in 2021 is climate change. Young people tend to care about the environment more so than their parents and grandparents because we may not be around to reach old age if something significant does not happen to save the planet in the next 5 to 10 years. It is for this reason that the youth have taken up the struggle for the Green New Deal and have led massive youth climate strikes in Washington, DC, New York City, and Seattle. Progressive U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s own daughter, Isra Hirsi, has been ruthlessly attacked by the right-wing media for her role in organizing climate strike marches and claiming to be a communist online. This is an example of why “identity politics” (democratic struggles) cannot be dismissed. The right-wing attacks on Hirsi represent the overall assault on Black people, Muslims, youth, communism, and the environment. If there is no planet left to fight the class struggle on, then why waste time only studying all this theory? Put it into practice!
Another significant area of struggle that the youth is engaged in this year is around the fight for student debt forgiveness. U.S. President Joe Biden hinted at this issue on the campaign trail at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and college graduates struggle to make ends meet when it comes to paying rent, paying insurance, and buying food on top of paying off student and credit card debt from school expenses. According to an April 2021 People’s World report, “If Biden canceled $50,000 per person, 84% of borrowers would have their debt wholly eliminated. While the media and critics of cancellation focus on relief for higher earners, 40% of those with debt never received a diploma and often work minimum-wage jobs.” This was just months before August 2021 when Biden cancelled $9.5 billion in student debt with a stroke of a pen. While this is without a doubt a victory for some, it’s still too small to make a difference for the majority of students and former students in debt. This move was made by Biden nearly a month after U.S. House leader Nancy Pelosi lied to the public, stating that Biden did not have the authority to eliminate student debt. Therefore, the struggle must continue until all student debt is forgiven, not just some of it. If we can afford a 20-year pointless war in Afghanistan, we can afford to get our young working class on its feet.
Young workers and students cannot be written off; we must bring them in and engage with them in our organizing circles. The youth question is central to the overall struggle to defend and expand democracy, thus laying the foundations for a socialist society. Without our revolutionary youth, there is no future socialist USA.
Image: Mark Dixon (CC BY 2.0).