Throughout high school I thought I was politically engaged. Despite attending an elite private high school, I attempted to engage with social justice work there, but those attempts largely amounted to hollow liberal self-struggle and educating the children of the elite about the importance of social justice. It wasn’t until I joined NYU YDSA and NYC DSA that I began to understand what engaging in real politics meant. It was through the active process of collective political education and struggle –– organizing around universal rent control, Medicare for All, working on NYC DSA’s electoral campaigns –– that I was turned from a progressive Berniecrat into a committed lifelong socialist organizer. This August, I began my first year at Yale and have since been working to help organize a YDSA chapter there. At first it might seem strange to organize in such an elite institution. But the immense inequality both on campus and between the university and New Haven and Connecticut’s working-class communities is what demands socialist organization fighting back against these injustices and for a better world.
In the beginning of the semester, I met up with an organizer from Students Unite Now (SUN), an organization campaigning to abolish the Student Income Contribution, a significant share of tuition that students on financial aid have to pay. While we were talking, he asked me about my vision for the Yale YDSA chapter. He had been a member of the previous iteration of Yale YDSA, which had fizzled out and essentially didn’t exist by the time I arrived on campus. Like other former members, he didn’t view it as a productive use of his limited time: it had met once a month, consisted of small, unconnected working groups of a few members each, and had no major campaign of its own, instead acting as a mobilizing body to support other campus activist work. He asked what would there be in this new iteration of YDSA for him –– why YDSA? His question has stuck with me all semester as I’ve worked to build Yale YDSA into a fighting organization.
To answer the question Why YDSA?, we have to start by outlining our vision for how we might achieve the world we want to see, which, in the case of socialists, is the overthrow of capitalism.
What comes closest to my own vision is outlined by Eric Blanc as the “Marxist case for democratic socialism” in his debate with Charlie Post at the Socialism in Our Time conference last year.
Blanc proposes that winning socialism in an advanced capitalist democracy like the United States will require a “universal suffrage election of a workers’ party to government.” When the party begins to implement its democratic mandate, “the ruling-class minority” will “resort to antidemocratic sabotage of the elected government.” A mass socialist workers’ party would be tasked with “[d]efeating this reaction—through the power of mass action as well as the actions of our elected representatives—[which] would culminate in a complete break with capitalist control over the economy and the state.” This party would derive its power from its roots in the organized working class, in the form of militant and democratic unions willing to engage in strikes and mass actions to defend the revolutionary program, seize the means of production, and bring about the transition to socialism.
Given that we currently have neither the mass socialist workers’ party nor the militant and democratic unions that are required for the overthrow of capitalism, the central tasks ahead for organized socialists must be guided by a strategy specifically geared toward building said party and reuniting the left with the organized working class. National campaigns like YDSA for Bernie, College for All, a Green New Deal, and Campus Labor Organizing allow us to connect different local issues to larger unified struggles, bringing together campaigns on campuses around the country in service of a larger movement. By connecting these demands to a broader socialist program, we are able to build the structures and membership for a future party.
Party-building not only entails the local articulation of common campaigns and struggles, but the active coordination of independent socialist electoral politics, an arena that Rosa Luxembourg described as “one of the most powerful and indispensable means of carrying on the class struggle.” This isn’t to say we can simply elect our way into socialism, but that the electoral realm is a necessary venue for class struggle –– especially since most people’s sole engagement with politics is through elections. Class-struggle electoral campaigns and socialist electeds can use their platforms and offices to organize workers and communities, and to heighten conflict against the politicians and capitalists standing in the way of reforms. These types of campaigns must be actively antagonistic toward the Democratic Party, and must also bring people into non-electoral campaigns as part of a broader socialist vision.
This fusion between electoral and non-electoral work demands an independent socialist organization to bring the two together with explicit socialist consciousness. Currently, most students supporting Bernie Sanders are not part of an organization that engages in non-electoral socialist organizing. Canvassing for Bernie with YDSA allows us to talk to our classmates and community members not only about Bernie’s radical platform, but also the obstacles that passing it will entail and how only collective power and organization can overcome them.
To eventually break from the Democratic party and ballot line, however, requires something else: militant, democratic and socialist unions that will help carry out this break and provide the base of and power behind this new party. Most major unions in the US are currently governed undemocratically. They stifle rank-and-file militancy, don’t organize their members, and (rather than invest in organizing new shops) spend their resources lobbying and electing Democrats. To truly reinvigorate the labor movement, imbue it with a socialist consciousness, break from the Democratic party, and eventually win socialism, we need a concerted effort to make new socialists with a lifelong commitment to building both left organization and organic militant leadership on the shop floor. We have seen the beginning of the former through recent growth of DSA and YDSA, and the latter through rank-and-file caucuses formed by socialists, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, as well as many of the recent teachers’ actions and strikes in which militants built power on the shop floor. In some cases DSA chapters played outsized organizing and support roles, and during the Chicago teachers’ strike, New York City YDSAers flew to Chicago to do strike support and wrote about it for The Activist. Other YDSAers around the country have worked alongside campus staff and graduate students in supporting their rank-and-file organizing, and YDSA’s labor committee is hard at work connecting soon-to-be graduates to jobs where they, too, can become rank-and-file union activists.
Often upon graduation, socialists, progressives, and others with a commitment to social justice are unsure how to realize their values in their careers. Many choose to pursue graduate school, enter the non-profit world, work on liberal political campaigns, or become lawyers hoping to fight injustice in the courtroom. While these decisions are driven by noble intentions, they reflect an individualized theory of change that capitalism conditions into people. This is especially true in elite institutions such as Yale and NYU that actively prepare students to enter into elite segments of society, and tell others that actually want to create change that they can only do so through working within non-profits and the Democratic Party, social entrepreneurship, or individual consumption choices.
As the youth and college wing of DSA, YDSA is uniquely positioned to train organizers that can avoid these individualized and ineffective pathways to social change upon graduation and instead enter rank-and-file union jobs in strategic industries to help bridge the gap between socialists and organized labor. After years of undergraduate organizing, young socialists will have the tools, education, and social and organizational support systems to begin organizing with their co-workers on the shop floor. Through organizing with YDSA, many YDSA graduate students are already organizing within their unions. Recent grads are opting to go into union jobs as Teamsters, teachers, school social workers, nurses, and carpenters, bringing the organizing skills and political vision they’ve learned with them into their unions. Others are taking positions as staffers for rank-and-file caucuses, or becoming union staffers who use their roles to elevate rank-and-file power.
This is one reason why the political education provided by YDSA is so crucial. The role of political education in a nationwide socialist organization is more than to simply discuss socialist history and theory. Rather, it must prepare socialists to translate that history and theory into organizing in the current moment, and to engage students about what it means to be a lifelong socialist organizer. Campus activism often entirely focuses on issues that only concern students and fails to articulate how these campaigns build toward a larger movement. It’s easy to be loud and angry about large-scale injustice for four years, but it’s far harder to commit a lifetime to building toward socialism through deep organizing, which entails building deep relationships, making asks, and engaging workers and communities in strategic self-action around campaigns that respond to their own material interests. This is the type of deep organizing that Yale YDSA has been engaging in alongside Central Connecticut DSA in its nascent statewide Tax the Rich: Fund Public Education campaign, which hopes to use the issue of educational inequity in Connecticut to develop wider working-class organization that can fight back against educational austerity statewide. With Central CT DSA, we have done multiple educational equity canvasses in Waterbury, where the goal has been to get people to sign a petition and also to identify organic community leaders for follow-up meetings to bring them and their community connections into the struggle.
While Yale YDSA is still in its embryonic stage, we have already developed a core group of committed organizers as well as a broader base of those we have been able to mobilize to canvasses or meetings. Collective political education has aided in developing a common understanding of socialist strategy and what we’re fighting for. This upcoming semester, we have plans to get more students off campus and into New Haven’s working class communities to canvass for Bernie, grow Yale YDSA and Central CT DSA, and make new committed socialists who get there through the process of collective action, struggle, and education.
This is an incredible moment of growth for the US left, but it’s important that we make the most of it and move forward with conviction and a clear strategy. With a globally rising violent far-right, skyrocketing inequality and impending climate doom on one hand and the possibility of a Bernie Sanders presidency and a resurgent labor movement on the other, it is more critical than ever to build YDSA and create a long-lasting left organization that can fight back and, one day, win socialism.
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