A Brief History of YDSA

Long-time DSA member David Duhalde spoke about the history of YDSA. Here are some of the facts and his lessons.

A few months ago, David Duhalde — former DSA Deputy Director, before that YDSA staffer, before that YDSA member — gave an excellent talk to a few dozen YDSA members about what YDSA has been and done since its founding. It would be an understatement to say that the Left has changed a lot in the last few years. Really it might be more accurate to say that before there were scattered groups and networks of activists and, of course, huge popular protests; now there is a socialist movement, and its most developed part is our organization, Democratic Socialists of America. And if we want to continue building that movement — to meet the moment — it helps to know what our organization has done well and tried to do in the past. 

[Author’s note: YDSA was YDS before a name change in 2017. I use YDSA throughout for clarity.]

The founding of DSA. 

DSA’s nominal predecessor is the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a 1973 split from the Socialist Party led by Michael Harrington. DSOC, in Cde. Duhalde’s words, was oriented toward reforming the Democratic Party, collaborating with labor leadership, and engaging with progressive social movements. DSOC didn’t have a youth section until a 1976 conference (and an official 1977 founding). But DSOC didn’t become DSA until merging with the New American Movement (NAM) in 1982. 

NAM was an eclectic group of New Communist Movement activists and seasoned Marxists. You might think, communists and social democrats merging instead of splitting? This unlikely combination speaks to a political moment much like our own: the established Left traditions by that time were unable to adapt to changing conditions. These were decades of world-historic civil rights and student mobilization and, later, militant wildcat strikes. We can forgive the radicals at the time who weren’t able to predict the neoliberal turn and Reaganism. Today, “reformists” and “revolutionaries” are still at home together in DSA. 

[To read one memory of the first YDSA conference, click here.]

The end of the Cold War. 

The death of Michael Harrington, who was the U.S. democratic socialist movement’s foremost public figure, coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union. Many who were opposed to the Communist model or its international role believed that the fall of the Soviet Union would hasten the rise of a new anti-authoritarian or genuinely revolutionary socialism. In reality, the exact opposite happened. And this is a real conceptual problem that we should try to figure out. Across the world, the entire Left suffered in terms of membership and morale, official Communists and Trotskyists and social democrats alike. Since World War I, the socialist movement had been split more or less between loyalists and progressive and democratic critics. At the most abstract level, perhaps the Soviet Union represented the possibility of ordering society in a different way. In Russia, collapse meant the country’s public assets were ransacked and the population experienced the despair of a war zone. But what were the specific effects that dealt a blow to socialists around the world?

During the Cold War, YDSA raised awareness about international issues: campaigning against a possible draft in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; supporting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; opposing the Chilean dictatorship; and launching “corporate campaigns” for divestment from apartheid South Africa. This international solidarity was the source of some disagreement because popular forces in these foreign countries often included Marxist-Leninists, an alliance that was unacceptable to some anti-Stalinists. Later, this corporate campaign model was adapted to prison divestment, with the simple and still-correct slogan “Build schools, not prisons,” much like the contemporary abolitionist movement.

Labor has always been one of YDSA’s priorities. 

Cde. Duhalde correctly emphasizes that YDSA is one of the first places people get introduced to the terminology and values of the labor movement. This is at least true for me: I didn’t know what a union was until I was probably 21, no thanks to my public schooling. The election of John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO and the creation of Union Summer meant many YDSA members were able to get union staff jobs, and many chapters participated in solidarity campaigns with “alt-labor” group supporting farmworkers, for example.

It remains to be seen if YDSA’s new rank-and-file pipeline — to support graduating students who will work in strategic and/or unionized industries — will mark the beginning of an active organizational approach to labor work. But organizations like the Communist Party USA had party fractions at all levels in the labor movement, so there is some way to coordinate members.

In some cases, YDSA’s success escaped it. The previously-mentioned prison activism became its own organization, Prison Moratorium Project. United Students Against Sweatshops similarly drew together labor-curious students, but separate from YDSA. The old-timer diagnosis of this phenomenon is “the doughnut problem”: DSA as a place for activists to network and then go their own ways to work on productive outside projects, never building the center. Hopefully the recent elections of DSA members to office and DSA-launched campaigns are a sign that we’re filling the hole. 

YDSA and DSA haven’t necessarily grown at the same times. 

Cde. Duhalde raises the observation that the youth section and Big DSA haven’t always been in sync in terms of activity. This might seem confusing, but young people or students might feel that some issues are more pressing or may react to current events differently. He also notes that YDSA was generally the way that DSA as a whole was connected to social movements.

Internal and external factors.

As an analytical point, Cde. Duhalde urges us to think of what YDSA can do and has done in terms of internal and external factors. This might sound simplistic or plain, but, put differently, figuring out the constraints on our actions and what courses of action are available to us is really at the heart of the political practice of Marxism. 

So, external or objective factors: FOX News always called Obama a socialist, which defanged the label; and then Bernie was an obvious boon. Unfortunately, deteriorating social and economic conditions have also meant that the socialist message now has more listeners. The campus itself is also an objective or external factor: not only do we not control what administrations or local governments do, but students, workers, teachers, and professors all live very different lives. Cde. Duhalde says that there’s always been an effort to make YDSA chapters appeal to everyone who works at and lives near a campus, but it never really catches on simply because these different groups are at different points in their lives and relate to schools differently. Similar efforts to create “area” YDSAs also never took off. In other words, there are real — but not insurmountable — pressures that limit what a YDSA chapter can be.

And an example of internal or subjective factors: YDSA chose to campaign for Bernie, and then to convince Bernie student groups to become YDSA chapters, a choice that clearly paid off. Going forward, we will have to choose what our main issue will be: canceling student debt, College for All, protesting police violence? These issues aren’t mutually exclusive, but it does help to think in terms of our limited resources so that we craft the most effective messaging and campaign.

Another example of a subjective factor is how we organize. How do we connect all the active YDSA chapters so that they work together? And how do we start more new chapters? One obvious answer is that YDSA should have more staff: for 130+ chapters, YDSA has two staffers, disproportionately fewer than Big DSA. But even more staff might not be able to start chapters at different schools from scratch. That takes personal connections, conversations, time, and politics.

The occasion of the talk was two-fold: 1) with support from the DSA Fund, Cde. Duhalde and Ben Kreider helped conduct 200 interviews with old YDSA members to prepare an entry for the forthcoming republication of Encyclopedia of the American Left; 2) YDSA is preparing a Tasks and Perspectives document to guide our work in the coming years and, appropriately, we asked for some perspective. We have much to learn from the socialists who kept the red torch lit through dark times — and especially from those who were in our own organization before its rebirth. Cde. Duhalde later gave a version of his excellent talk for Jacobin, but I’m sure he’d be willing to speak individually to any chapters that are interested.

YDSA has experienced tremendous growth. We’ve gone from a dozen chapters to ten times that. Local meetings now attract more members than some national rallies used to. YDSA’s bigger-picture function is vital: attracting and socializing successive generations of socialists. Cde. Duhalde reminded the audience that Jacobin magazine, such an asset for the Left, was formed by close YDSA comrades. Hopefully current YDSA members — and Activist contributors and readers! — will go on to found important socialist institutions, but also to build DSA. God willing, we will grow to 100,000 members by this summer, and eventually 1 million members with a chapter on every campus.

What should YDSA’s future be? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

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