The Case for Renewing College for All

An author of YDSA’s initial College for All proposal advocates for a national campaign and demands.

First passed at the 2018 YDSA convention, College for All was a serious, effective campaign run by several chapters across the country. The national campaign organized around demands for decommodifying and democratizing higher education and cancelling all student debt on a national level. To achieve these broad goals, local chapters advanced demands that were specific to their campuses to expand their organizing capacity. Both new and old chapters found common cause in running the campaign on their campuses with demands like tuition freezes and decreases and other tangible changes. To determine these campus-specific demands, chapters were supposed to conduct research and figure out what strategic issues could cohere students and workers around their YDSA chapter and the campaign.

Before the 2018 convention, we had no national campaign to cohere our organization. The result of this was that many YDSA chapters were simply cultural clubs — small reading groups on obscure texts — or coalition partners in dead-end projects that were only inviting to pre-existing activists — instead of appealing to a diverse group of people through organizing based on class politics. There were a few chapters that engaged in higher-level work, like helping local organized labor, but they were the exception to the rule. The 2018 convention marked a new turn toward more concrete, coherent campaigns. Unlike what YDSA had been doing in the period before, College for All became the thing YDSA was known for, precisely because it offered a programmatic vision that was strategic, with concrete, winnable demands that could be scaled up. That’s why we should renew the College for All campaign.  

Finding our way

Unfortunately, this promising College for All organizing took a backseat after the 2019 summer convention. A small group of members who were “displeased” with the national organization led bitter fighting and polarization. Before the 2019 convention, many leaders felt pressured into backroom deals that created multiple committees for various issues. It was a mistake for us to make these political compromises instead of debating on the convention floor and the proposals that were advanced were doomed because they only appealed to activists.

We did pass College for All, in addition to those other campaigns, but the lack of capacity caused by spreading a small national layer of members across too many working groups meant that it wasn’t YDSA’s main focus. Predictably, most of our work failed. Luckily the energy of the Bernie 2020 campaign demonstrated a way forward for principled, popular politics. Our revived publication, The Activist, allowed us to debate how to get there. And all the inactive national working groups served as negative examples of exactly what not to do.

As COVID-19 spread, YDSA chose to pursue a “Student and Workers’ Recovery” campaign instead of College for All at our convention last year. Through many debates, it was settled that it was better to focus on the immediate severity of the pandemic and to organize around that. But this was another mistake: we were essentially responding to the pandemic instead of attempting to understand the impact of this global event and what it would mean for the long-term process of class-formation in the United States.

Of course, there’s no magic orb or tarot cards that can tell us the future through the laws of metaphysics — only the material world that shapes us and that we shape back. So it’s understandable why the 2020 YDSA delegation took a reactive approach when faced with such difficult terrain. And it’s especially difficult for us to chart a course when — even though we have grown — we are still so small and largely do not impact the lives of the working class.

Why College for All? 

What is unique and promising about College for All is that it actively seeks to build the long-term capacity of socialist organization (YDSA) for students and workers we exist in proximity to. Every campaign requires a vision and strategy. The vision for the Student and Workers’ Recovery was to inspire people to engage in socialist organizing to win concessions for the working-class  through leveraging strategic demands against the state. Although the moral argument was there, the organizing capacity and quality of organization were not. 

In response to moments of crisis, upsurge, and uncertainty, socialists should seek to shine as leaders of the class. Organizers who have risen through the ranks have spent years and years preparing for these moments when the stakes are much higher. When we don’t try to lead, we see what happens instead: socialists abandon the goal of becoming leaders of class struggle and instead “tail” current events and movements, unsure about where they’ll end up.

In the transition to the Cancel Student Debt campaign, during lockdowns and virtual classes, we eventually relied on phonebanking random people to attempt to pass legislation — instead of calling members without chapters to start new OCs or helping new chapters begin campaigns. We should avoid this when we renew College for All this year.

Of course, if we adopt the College for All campaign, there’s still a chance that we could revert to tailism or employ bad strategy. But due to the nature of College for All’s political vision and its programmatic quality — it consists of brief, easily explainable, measurable, and winnable demands — it would put us in a better position to organize students and workers and spread our broader message of socialism. 

College for All isn’t just morally correct, it also engages students at every level — local pressure campaigns against campus administrations; statewide pressure campaigns for statewide demands, as we’ve seen in California where YDSA chapters do joint labor work and in the past worked on College for All; and on the national level, where the prior two levels are built up (as is implied by the name “pressure” campaign) in order to win the demands we’ve agitated around and popularized through an escalation of struggle.

Lead with a political vision

As a final addendum to how we should perceive College for All, and contrary to how some caucuses in DSA approach work, we should not lead with structure and expect the politics to follow. We should lead with politics, an enthusiastic vision, and actively create the organizational structures around our politics and vision. 

We shouldn’t cry “Oh no! National campaigns don’t work and are too much to bite off. We should only encourage our chapters to run local campaigns on issues they decide are strategic because they are immediately tangible and realistic.”

This is an approach that is defeatist in two ways. 

Firstly, it believes that YDSA should do nothing more than train and funnel people into DSA — something that needs to happen but as a focus would basically undermine the entire importance of an independent student organization, putting YDSA under the full control of DSA. 

The second reason this approach is defeatist is because it does not put forth a national political vision — as socialists must do. It encourages socialists to remain coalition partners, often junior partners, with the already-existing liberal organizations on campus. Local campaigns don’t always require liberal coalitions, but the tendency toward local work is reminiscent of the post-1968 Left, which focused on hyperlocal organizing and ignored putting demands on the federal government.

The foundational lessons we should learn from these past few years of organizing in YDSA — and verified by over a century of socialist organization and party-building — is that socialists must put forth class leadership; the advancement of demands must be programmatic in order to communicate what the intent what socialist class leadership is; and that we must be an active participant in the process of class formation in order to have workers and students identify as socialist workers and students. This goes back to why class leadership is important, so that we aren’t just seen as friendly “allies” to people, but something they too aspire to become and are organized into. 

The core of the College for All’s campaign politics touches on each of these elements and many others while being strategic — organizing students and workers into socialism with winnable demands. That’s why we should adopt College for All as our single national campaign this year. I encourage delegates to vote for Resolution 5 and against both amendments to it.

What have you learned from participating in YDSA campaigns? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!