We are facing an unprecedented assault on democratic rights from an increasingly authoritarian Right. Supporters of “Resolution 9: Fighting the Right through Mass Action” argue that YDSA can fight back by building a mass movement.
We truly live in unprecedented times. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and since then, abortion rights have been rolled back in over 13 states. There are 19 states that have passed laws restricting access to gender-affirming care. At least 25 states have passed legislation restricting or banning education on topics of race, racism, gender, and sexuality. .
YDSA has yet to fully respond to this political moment. More and more students and young people grow dissatisfied with the Democratic establishment and are searching for a way to fight back against an increasingly powerful and reactionary Republican Party. We all realize that the Democratic Party and its associated network of liberal NGOs – with their focus on insider lobbying and performative activism – are unable to effectively oppose right-wing authoritarianism in any meaningful way. YDSA is at a critical strategic point in its history where we can channel discontent with the Democratic establishment and the rise of the authoritarian Right into growing the socialist movement.
For Mass Action and Social Justice Campaigns
Over the past year, YDSA chapters across the country have successfully built movements for reproductive, academic, racial, labor, and LGBTQ+ rights. The success of these campaigns is two-fold: YDSA is both actively fighting against the authoritarian Right and materially improving people’s lives, while also utilizing these campaigns to recruit and develop new, lifelong socialist organizers.
In one such case, New York University (NYU) YDSA ran a successful reproductive healthcare access campaign last year. Through a series of escalating actions – including a petition, a teach-in, a social media campaign, public art, media articles, culminating in an occupation of an NYU building – NYU YDSA forced the Student Health Center to provide free abortions and Mifepristone to all in-network students.
NYU YDSA did not just win a list of demands. Through the campaign, we were able to recruit and mentor new members into becoming lifelong socialist organizers. Many new members said they first heard of YDSA through something as simple as seeing a sticker with “NYU YDSA Abortion Day of Action” on someone’s laptop or water bottle. Other new members said they came to YDSA because they were discussing Roe v. Wade with friends, realized they wanted to do something, but couldn’t figure out what. A strategic reproductive justice campaign enabled this discontent with the status-quo to be channeled into positive material change for students at NYU.
This strategy can work across the country in a variety of different contexts. Instead of fighting for reproductive healthcare access, a campus might run a campaign centered around racial justice or LGBTQ+ rights. The struggles for economic and social justice are heavily intertwined. When we run and win these strategic social justice campaigns, we demonstrate ourselves as the strongest fighters for collective liberation, drawing people to join us and continue the fight. By participating and organizing in mass movements for social justice, YDSA has the ability to channel the difficult times we live in into a force for working-class power and socialism.
Against the Democratic Establishment
In contrast, relying on the Democratic Party to join with us and fight for concrete demands has proven to be fruitless. The inability of the Democratic Party to codify abortion rights into law on a national scale is one example. This would have been a safeguard for individuals needing abortions in many states, who are now grappling with the consequences of both a malicious Republican Party and an inept Democratic one. As infuriating as this is, it comes with precedent. Throughout history, liberals have not only failed to seize the political moment to make progress on social issues, but have actively prevented progress as well. During the Civil Rights Movement, millions of black Americans took collective action in marches and boycotts, organized through grassroots efforts by community leaders, relying mainly on the support of labor unions in which black workers played a critical role. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was silent and judges on the Supreme Court from both the Republican and Democratic parties shamelessly caved to the demands of Southern racists.
Flash forward to the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012, and teachers were taking collective action not only against low wages and privatization, but also for increased access to healthcare and other “common good” issues for a mostly non-white student population, a struggle for racial justice that the Democratic Party would be expected to get behind. But this wasn’t the case. The Democratic establishment instead stood staunchly behind Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the main opponent of CTU, who went on to close dozens of mostly black schools after the strike.
At best the capitalist leadership of the Democratic Party should be recognized as unreliable allies in the struggle for social equality against right-wing authoritarianism. At worst they’re a softer, kinder enemy to be defeated to expand our social rights and democracy. Only a politically independent mass working-class movement has the capacity and interest in delivering the world we need and deserve.
In the context of our campuses, organizations of campus Democrats often do nothing more than act as the youth wing of a capitalist party, funneling young activists into vaguely-defined internships where they will serve as staff for whichever local politician happens to be hiring. With no concerted program to train activists in running winnable pressure campaigns or challenging elite power structures, these campus organizations do not mobilize outside of election season, and during elections they support a wide array of politicians, many with a minimal commitment to a more egalitarian society. If they agitate the student body on issues affecting the campus community, they have no way of harnessing this energy. Well-intentioned discussions on securing healthcare on campus, protecting trans rights, or other plans to fight for social justice are relegated to just that: discussions. Thus, the decision to shift focus away from working with campus Democrats and other establishment political organizations on campus is a strategic one, and it is a decision we, as socialists, should get used to making.
When we fight the Right in our campus communities, we are not simply fighting conservative students or student organizations. The Right on our campuses is supported by a regressive ruling class whose power is deeply entrenched in universities’ opaque systems of management. Unelected regents and wealthy donors use loopholes in laws to carve out shells of public universities and further commodify all aspects of education in private ones, and they have every incentive to restrict access to healthcare or funding to support marginalized students. As democratic socialists, we know the only formidable threat to this seemingly overwhelming power comes from increasing the base of our strong working-class movement. Thus, our campaigns are most effective when we rely on the collective action of ordinary people to pressure our university and the ruling class to concede to our demands.
Towards a More Just Future
YDSA needs to seize the political moment. In the face of the authoritarian Right and the apathetic Democratic establishment, YDSA offers an alternative: a socialist mass movement for social and economic justice, by and for the people. National YDSA should hold calls to teach chapters how to run strategic social justice campaigns, and chapters should engage in political education on reproductive, racial, and LGBTQ+ rights. National YDSA should also make informational posts on social media highlighting the intersections between class, race, gender, and LGBTQ+ justice, while promoting the campaigns of chapters fighting for these issues and against authoritarianism. All of this should be done with a clear socialist analysis on these issues.
YDSA chapters are encouraged to build coalitions with labor unions, progressive groups, and other identity-based campus organizations when organizing and planning strategic social justice campaigns. These campaigns – focused on reproductive, racial, and LGBTQ+ rights – should always emphasize the need for political independence from capitalism and the inability of the Democratic establishment to defeat the far right. This work will enable chapters across the country to both fight for and win justice for marginalized communities while expanding our socialist movement.