At the 2020 YDSA convention, delegates voted for a resolution on “Adopting a National Tasks & Perspectives Document,” which outlined the process for drafting a document aimed at clarifying our principles, priorities, and theory of change as an organization. The purpose of this document is to serve as a statement of purpose for YDSA, clarify organizational priorities, inform the creation of political education materials, and provide direction for campaigns at the chapter level.
The following document is based on resolutions passed at convention and is meant to serve as a starting-point for discussions about national strategy within and across YDSA chapters.
You can access a guide to help with local discussions here.
The history of YDSA
YDSA has existed since the founding of DSA, but its rejuvenation can be traced back to 2016, when it boomed in size from 12-15 chapters to 50-60 chapters in 2017-18, then 80 in 2018-19 and 130 in 2019-20. In 2016, YDS chapters were mostly located at private, majority-white universities, but over the next few years, many new state schools as well as a few high schools joined our ranks. Our trend of diversification continued into 2019-20, when many community colleges, high schools, and the first few HBCU chapters joined YDSA. As YDSA continues to grow, it continues to become more racially and economically diverse, creating an organization that now looks very different from our starting point in 2016. Public high schools, community colleges, HBCUs, and other minority serving institutions will play a crucial role as we continue to grow and diversify YDSA.
In 2016-17, YDS had existed simply as the campus section of DSA and lacked any national work of its own. Our chapters and members acted merely as a loose collection of activists that organized in coalitions or as individuals. Then, in 2017-18, we voted to adopt DSA’s national priorities work: Medicare for All, labor work, and electoral work. Though this was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t sufficient to create a true national organization, because we didn’t yet have all of our chapters’ buy-in and collaboration focused on a common project. Only by addressing this issue could we eliminate the narrow scope of work constrained to only a local level, and grow into a true fighting organization on the national scale.
In 2018-19, our members sought to address this problem by creating a single national campaign, College for All, with the aim of cohering our chapters around a common project. However, the success of our College for All campaign was limited by a relative lack of membership engagement, especially when it came to connecting local chapters to national committee work.
In 2019-2020, this single priority campaign was replaced by a number of priority campaigns and committees, including College for All but also Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, Labor, Political Education, and YDSA for Bernie. This proliferation of committees was a direct reaction to the sense that members had been left out of national work in the past, but it also damaged our national-level work by far exceeding the capacity of our membership and spreading core YDSA organizers too thin.
Two of our 2019 national committees, however, avoided falling into the capacity trap that doomed other national YDSA work. Starting in Fall 2019, the YDSA for Bernie campaign helped to grow and cohere our organization, even though our efforts were not as united as they could have been. Despite the lack of central coordination by the NCC, however, our chapters took advantage of the moment and used their Bernie work to grow their membership and develop new leaders—and our national organization is stronger for it. In addition, many Students for Bernie chapters transitioned into YDSA chapters after the 2020 primary season, contributing to an influx of young organizers into YDSA.
YDSA found itself at a crossroads when Bernie Sanders’ loss in the Democratic primary coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding quickly to the demands of the political moment, the 2019-2020 NCC voted to replace all other campaigns with a Student & Workers’ Recovery campaign which was then renewed as our national campaign at the 2020 Summer Convention.
In the current moment, we find ourselves in the midst of a multi-faceted crisis of capitalism—with the COVID pandemic further immiserating the working class as billionaires grow even wealthier, police cracking down on protesters calling for racial justice and defunding the carceral state, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party consolidating against progressive challengers and policies like Medicare for All, and our already-inadequate democracy facing further threats from the right wing. The only way we can win demands like Medicare for All and student debt cancellation is by shaping a mass movement of young people making our voices heard. In this crisis, YDSA seeks to win economic relief for students and workers by building power from the local to the national level in order to win power from the capitalist class and empower working people everywhere.
Our immediate tasks
By engaging in rigorous political education and campaigning for concrete, widely-felt demands that shift the balance of power between capitalists and workers, YDSA members can build our skills as organizers and political thinkers, allowing us to reach and radicalize our fellow students, build stronger chapters, and prepare ourselves for lifetimes of commitment to militant socialist struggle.
A united national campaign
Between economic downturn on the scale of the 2008 recession, a deadly pandemic, and mass unemployment, students and workers on campuses around the country face a crisis unprecedented in the postwar era, one which is only compounded by capital’s response in the form of austerity-driven assault on the working class.
Meanwhile, working-class Black people continue to face racialized violence on a mass scale at the hands of a police industrial complex increasingly empowered by American capitalism.
To combat this adversity and achieve our socialist vision, we must organize for the COVID relief we all deserve and plan a transformative campaign for social and racial justice that will build the power of the working class at a local and national level.
For this reason, YDSA’s priority campaign for the upcoming year is centered around the key demands of a $2,000 monthly stipend for all, health for all, student debt forgiveness, and rent cancellation, along with defunding the police and other #8toAbolition demands.
The anti-austerity and anti-policing demands of our national campaign are inextricable from one another, because only fully-funded social services can eliminate capitalism’s need for police violence, and only by combating racial injustice can we achieve the united, multiracial working-class movement that we need to in order to win material improvements for the vast majority of people.
We will orient towards the working class in fighting for all of these demands, based on the recognition that student-workers and other campus or education workers are the ones who possess the structural power to win these demands at the local level.
In the first hundred days of a Biden presidency we have seen many of the failures of austerity, and DSA has taken a stand against continued neoliberal policies by supporting campaigns such as the PRO Act which will increase the power of working class people who have been increasingly exploited during this pandemic. This is an opportunity for Y/DSA chapters to get involved with building a movementthat could lay the groundwork for further working-class power and organization. Many chapters are running local campaigns to push their representatives to support this act and bring attention to it on a national level.
YDSA’s priority campaign for the first hundred days of the Biden presidency has been to demand full student debt cancellation, as part of our campaign for economic relief for the working class as well as part of a broader vision of education for all. Cancelling all student debt would immediately alleviate the dire economic situation that millions of working-class people are facing at the moment. This will mean a greater degree of economic freedom as less people will be compelled to work jobs that they hate simply to pay off their debts. But even more significantly, it will give working-class people a sense of their own power, and grow the base of socialist movement. Ultimately, we see our campaign for full student debt cancellation as part of a movement for the abolition of all exploitative debts—which we will win only by transforming education, healthcare, and housing into human rights freely available to all, rather than commodities meant to produce profits for the few.
Our focus on rank-and-file labor organizing
As socialists, a labor-oriented strategy must be central to our work. This is why YDSA is committed to the rank-and-file strategy, which aims to build strong, fighting unions from the bottom-up by empowering rank-and-file workers to engage in militant class struggle. One aspect of this strategy involves training socialists to take jobs in strategic sectors such as healthcare, education, and logistics to organize their fellow-workers.
This strategy is based on the recognition that the labor movement, despite a recent resurgence of militancy, is still in a relatively weak state, as well as recognizing the complex role of unions—which are at once the only sites of mass working-class organization that currently exist in the U.S., but also do not always fulfill their potential as vehicles of class struggle owing to a lack of focus on deep, rank-and-file organizing and a de-emphasis of mass collective actions like strikes.
This is why one of our main national priorities this upcoming year is to recruit a much broader layer of YDSA members to pursue the rank-and-file strategy, in addition to providing them with the mentorship, guidance, and networks they need to develop their organizing skills before they even enter the workplace.
Another key aspect of this labor-oriented strategy involves labor organizing on our campuses. YDSA chapters occupy a potentially strategic position when it comes to rebuilding labor militancy on campuses, especially when YDSA members are campus workers themselves—which is why we see rank-and-file strategy not only as an orientation towards the future, but also as an approach that YDSA members can use to organize on their campuses in the immediate term as well. Socialism requires an organized working class, which means that socialists themselves must become organizers where they work. The university system depends on the labor of a vast number of workers, both unionized and non-unionized, and organizing that labor force must be a key part of any strategy to decommodify education and shift power to the working class.
The importance of political education
Rigorous political education is crucial for developing our members into lifelong socialist organizers. At the local level, robust political education allows us to grow our membership, develop existing members, and encourages members to think of their local campaign work in a way that is closely informed by YDSA’s overall socialist vision.
At the national level, cross-chapter political education allows us to overcome the uneven political development and relative lack of shared strategic vision that currently limits YDSA’s effectiveness as an organization.
By creating a robust national political education program, we can help to develop YDSA members into more successful socialist organizers and turn YDSA into a cohesive national organization with more opportunities for open, democratic debate among members.
Our long-term strategy
As the youth wing of the largest socialist organization in the United States in nearly a century, YDSA has a unique role to play in the U.S. left, as a force that can activate, educate, and train young people to become lifelong socialist organizers.
YDSA is unique among student organizations in that we recognize our power comes not from our position as students, but as current and future members of the working class, and that our fight does not stop at the borders of our campuses or end when we graduate.
As socialists, our strategy should be focused on elevating class consciousness and building the power and organization of the working class to extract concessions from the ruling class and eventually overturn capitalism itself.
In order to achieve this aim, YDSA should take steps towards cohering an identity as a national organization, determining shared priorities and perspectives, and developing layers of trained organizers who can work together to build the base for a youth wing of a future mass party.
Based on the positions taken by YDSA after the resurgence of the socialist movement and the past several conventions, these national priorities and perspectives include:
- A commitment to building a fighting, democratic labor movement, and the centrality of the labor movement to all socialist struggles. The working class is the only class in society with the structural power and material interest to bring about a transition to socialism. This is why the labor movement must be central to our struggles. The legacies of McCarthyism and decades of neoliberalism have separated the labor movement from the socialist movement, a development that has fatally weakened labor militancy and rendered the left marginal and powerless. One of the most urgent tasks that socialists face today, therefore, is to rebuild the labor movement and restore its links to the socialist left.
- Our support for transformative reforms such as Medicare for All, College for All, a Green New Deal, and other demands that empower working people, bring key sectors of the economy under social control, and counter austerity. Our support for transformational reforms, such as Medicare for All, College for All, and a Green New Deal, is directly related to our orientation towards building working-class power. Universal healthcare and the cancellation of student debt would not only bring material improvements to the lives of working-class people; they would also serve to break the power that employers hold over workers, empowering us to fight for even more transformative changes that could eventually undermine the very foundations of capitalism. At the same time that we recognize the urgent need for reforms to shift power to the working class, we also recognize the limitations of reforms that leave the basic structures of the capitalist system intact, which is why we are fighting for a socialist transformation rather than simply a reformed version of capitalism.
- Our commitment to building up independent working-class politics and organization. We can’t rely on the Democratic Party to support the kinds of transformative reforms that will actually shift power from the capitalist class to the working class. Instead, we will need to work towards building a mass, independent working-class party. In order to lay the groundwork for such a party, we will need to build up a much higher level of class struggle and organization in our society. We can work towards this goal through a two-pronged strategy of running socialist candidates for office and organizing within the labor movement.
- Our understanding of the relationship between the fight for socialism and the struggles against racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. The working class is multiracial, multigendered, and international. Therefore, we cannot build a united working-class movement without fighting back against all the specific forms of oppression that the capitalist class uses to divide us. We believe that these forms of oppression are neither transhistorical nor simply the product of bad ideas, but rather are embedded within capitalism, and can only be challenged through class struggle and solidarity.
Ultimately, the fight for socialism is also a fight for democracy—to preserve every bit of democracy we have, and to expand it into all spheres of society. The working class is the only social force capable of carrying out this fight and ultimately creating a more free, equal, and democratic society.
Our task, as socialists, is therefore to orient ourselves to mass, working-class politics, with the aim of building up class struggle and directing it towards a vision of socialist transformation. All of our efforts must have one aim in mind: merging the nascent democratic socialist movement with the working class.
YDSA members are in a strategic position as young socialist organizers at a moment of profound crisis for the capitalist system. The only way we can address this crisis is to build the mass working-class power needed to fundamentally transform our society—to replace a destructive system based on the relentless pursuit of profit with a democratic system centered around human needs. This is a struggle that must be brought to campuses and workplaces across the country and across the world if we are to achieve victory.