Young people have fueled the recent revitalization of socialism in the United States, but the concentration of “radicalized” youth in college campuses prevents this literally-rejuvenated movement from being truly representative of the American working class. The increase in youth affiliation with socialism is an undeniably positive sign, but it requires some honesty about who’s being recruited into radical politics and who isn’t. If we want to take on the ruling class and transform our society, the composition of the socialist youth movement needs to be changed.
What should youth organizing look like? Right now, it’s mostly restricted to campus activism. University students disproportionately comprise our current base of support, leaving out the millions of high school students who would benefit from the destruction of the status quo. Socialist youth recruitment since the post-2016 surge has almost entirely occurred at the collegiate level; taking YDSA as the most prominent example, only 15 of 125 officially registered chapters are in high schools, nearly all of which are prestigious and well-funded, with two being among the most exclusive in the country. This is not to say, like some online circles do, that this is a damning flaw, or that they are incapable of supporting or fighting for socialist transformation. These privileged, well-educated, middle-class youth can be useful to the socialist movement, and often it is them rather than non-college-educated workers who are first attracted to socialism due to their exposure to socialist thinking in an academic or campus organizing setting and their greater leisure time. They have played an important role in socialist movements throughout history — many of the most prominent revolutionaries and theorists were college-educated, including Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao. Therefore it shouldn’t discourage or surprise us that contemporary American radicalism, in its nascent organizational stage, rebuilding after decades of stagnation, represents them disproportionately. No serious person would suggest that campus organizing is a complete waste of time, or that we would be better off without them.
But if we’re being serious about building the power of the working class, college students cannot remain the focus of our youth outreach moving forward. Universities are disproportionately wealthy and the distortion is only getting more extreme. CBS News has reported that 7 out of 10 low-income workers — designated as those making $16 or less an hour (roughly 40% of the population) — do not have a college degree. According to the American Council on Education, “the percentage of students from low-income families enrolling in higher education immediately after graduating from high school has declined by 10 percentage points since 2008, from 56 percent of graduates to just 46 percent… low-income students are actually much less likely to enroll in college immediately after high school than they were seven years ago.” Are we implying that anyone who isn’t a shirtless guy in a WPA mural isn’t an authentic member of the working class? No, but if most working class people do not attend higher education, our approach needs to be reformed. That won’t happen until “youth” in politics ceases to mean “college”.
How can the socialist youth movement recruit the segments of the working class who do not attend college — often the segments who would have the most to gain from a socialist revolution? Young American radicals should (critically) study the examples of communist organizations in other countries. One crucial lesson we can learn from them is that we should stop lumping high schoolers and university students together in the same organizational structures. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) divides its young members between the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE), which is for high school students and youth in general, and the All Students’ Movement of Cooperation (PKS), which is for university and technical-school students. The KNE’s youth recruitment has been extremely successful since the late-1990s, and the PKS has effectively adopted dual power strategies taken from the KKE-affiliated All Workers’ Militant Front (PAME) which “brought together unions and students close to PKS under central coordination and mirroring PAME's tactics in the student movement,” enabling radical students to significantly expand their ranks and consolidate their presence in many trade unions and universities. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is another flawed organization with an impressive approach toward youth politics. The party’s student wing, the Student Federation of India (SFI), has demonstrated a substantial capacity for efficient mass mobilization, distributing sanitary products to women, particularly in rural or impoverished areas, dominating student union elections, forcing the Madras High Court to order the state government to make a decision on postponing exams until after the pandemic is contained, and translating information on the pandemic to migrant workers to combat misinformation. The party’s separate youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation, deserves immense credit for its Covid-19 relief efforts, which include delivering food and supplies to those in quarantine, mass production and distribution of masks and sanitizer (alongside the SFI), and staffing community kitchens that supplied food to those in need.
Regardless of our disagreements with some of the positions and actions of these organizations (the KKE, for example, voted against a Civil Partnerships Bill in the Greek legislature, stating that only heterosexual relationships would exist in a socialist society; they have also opposed the legalization of drugs), it's hard to ignore the achievements of their young members and the benefits of their delineation between university students and non-university youth. The purpose of this separation is not to alienate the two groups from each other, but rather to guarantee that leadership exists to recruit high schoolers and young people who don’t go to college into radical politics while leaving the already-existing structures for campus chapters in place, ensuring that the interests of both segments are represented within the socialist movement. This autonomy would assure that campus organizing is not abandoned for high school recruitment, but rather that both can operate at the same time. A youth wing could also hold its own conventions and adopt priorities relevant to its needs and interests instead of being subordinated to the sometimes-divergent priorities of organized college students.
How would a youth wing function, and how would it differ from the current student movement? Currently, YDSA’s primary national project is a campaign to cancel student debt — an issue that’s only relevant to college students or high school students who plan to attend college. Without a separate structure for high schoolers, that organization cannot provide a space for them to do things more relevant to their own interests. A youth socialist organization could give high school students a place to go after school to finish their homework, talk about politics, and generally feel that they are organic parts of something dedicated to the betterment of society. Although the summer camps affiliated with the Socialist and Communist Parties such as Kinderland, Wo-Chi-Ca, and Woodland were usually for kids younger than high school, offering some type of activity when school isn’t in session could foster a sense of belonging and purpose outside of just being a student. High school is often an extremely alienating time, and offering an alternative can allow kids a place to connect with others who feel the same way. This can prevent alienated youth from falling into far more harmful practices, beliefs, or movements, such as the rising rate of self-harm and suicide, as well as growing reactionary or misanthropic currents, such as the far-right and inceldom.
These after-school or summer programs could also offer young students the opportunity to learn socialist theory and organizing principles. After all, political consciousness isn’t something reserved for undergraduates; plenty of people in high school are beginning to form their worldview, but their in-person (or virtual) political education is restricted to the different forms of liberalism taught in civics classes. They are also preyed upon by primarily conservative organizations, such as the Scouts and military recruiters, who may offer them college opportunities and/or “practical skills” while brainwashing them in American exceptionalism, strict deferment to superiors, and the discouragement of independent thought. We should be exposing them to ideas that none of the educational institutions aligned with the ruling class will teach them. The Black Panthers used to take kids in their youth education program on field trips to courthouses and prisons to “acquire direct exposure to the inadequacies of the American judicial system.” A contemporary radical youth organization could replicate this logic, providing a counter to what kids learn about the legal system through government classes.
Radical organizations that prioritize non-college youth would also give them an opportunity to cut their teeth putting what they’ve learned into practice through campaigns in their school and community. Projects rooted in the participation of students at neighborhood high schools offer significant advantages over similar attempts by college groups. College students often hold dismissive and condescending attitudes toward the inhabitants of the town their campus is located in; they may call them “townies” or assume that they’re irredeemably reactionary or ignorant. Even well-intentioned student activists find themselves disconnected from nearby residents simply because they have no organic ties to the area, or lack the time to build those connections because their organizations solely prioritize on-campus issues. High school chapters would be better suited for this local political work. “The community” is not something they are outside of; it’s something they live in and belong to, along with their parents/relatives and many of the workers in their schools. Organizing campaigns such as mutual aid projects would be much more likely to succeed if the young people who already live there are actively involved in them than if college students from out of town try to do it on their own.
There’s talk in the DSA of focusing more resources on the “rank and file strategy,” where members are encouraged to get jobs in strategic sectors like teaching, nursing, and logistics with the intention of joining unions. College-educated socialists who become public school teachers could help their students form political organizations in areas that don’t yet have any organizational infrastructure. By inserting themselves into those situations, they can offer kids an alternative path to political power. But a larger base of non-college-bound youth would provide a great source of people who were already planning to go into these types of jobs. Kids with a passion for politics should be exposed to the idea that working to change things does not necessitate a college degree and upward mobility into the ranks of professional-managerial positions. In fact, they’re strongest and most powerful as members of an organized, conscious, militant working class.
If we are serious about turning our movement into one which legitimately empowers the working class, the organization of the socialist youth movement cannot stay the same. We are not dismissing the organizing being done on college campuses, but simply making the case that we can’t afford to continue ignoring vast swaths of working class youth. Universities have been key bases for radical politics in this country for over a century, but since the 1970s, the Left has retreated into academia as it took losses everywhere else. The divide between the highly-educated socialists and the rest of the working class must be bridged, and high school students — particularly in low-income and non-white neighborhoods — are a good place to start.