Burning Questions of the Student Movement: Against Mistaken Ideas in the YDSA

An article by Sebastián Uchida Chávez, “From Campus Organizing to Rebuilding the Left,” published in July by Jacobin, raises important issues about student organizing. This article lays out several erroneous positions characteristic of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) trend which predominates among progressive students today. However, its program of class collaboration and its muddled conception of the student movement is wholly insufficient from the perspective of revolutionary theory and practice. Uchida Chávez and the YDSA fall on the side of reform over revolution, despite seeking to obscure the difference between the two. This is clear from the YDSA’s endorsement of electoralism, their imprecise understanding of the position of students and the university under capitalism, and their failure to take an international perspective in regards to student and worker struggles.

Uchida Chávez presents a history of student activists remaining in the framework of ruling class politics. He highlights the student section of the League for Industrial Democracy campaigning for Norman Thomas in 1932. Then he lauds the American Student Union, which “worked with FDR to expand New Deal youth-programs.” He portrays the YDSA as a continuator of this legacy, with their endorsement of the Sanders presidential campaign. This celebration of mainstream progressive student activism and support for bourgeois politicians begs the question: how is the DSA any different from the Democratic Party? In terms of the author’s understanding of the state, there would appear to be no difference at all.

In bourgeois society, the state is necessarily the organ of the dictatorship of the capitalist class. It is the weapon that protects capitalist exploitation. The historical task of the working class is to rally all the progressive forces in society to destroy this weapon. Once it has taken political power, the working class must lead the masses of the people in abolishing all exploitation and oppression. The YDSA, through its silence on the nature of the state in capitalist society, implies that the state is the neutral expression of the will of the whole people, as if the organ of capitalist dictatorship were the vehicle of class peace. This position rejects the strategy of uniting the people in a militant struggle against the enemy and instead promotes collaboration between exploiter and exploited, through the medium of the dictatorship of the exploiting class. In reality, the electoral strategy serves to limit the student movement to the role of auxiliary to the bourgeois electoral machine. Having clarified the role of the state in capitalist society, it is clear that the YDSA fails the student and worker movements by leaving the question of political power in the hands of the exploiting class.

Similar to the YDSA’s program of bourgeois electioneering, the “rank-and-file labor strategy” also serves to isolate the worker movement from the question of political power. The central point of their strategy is to develop a layer of workers within existing unions that will lead struggles for economic demands. However, economic struggles for higher wages, better working conditions, etc., do not on their own challenge the political or economic supremacy of the capitalist class. In fact, trade unionism without revolutionary political leadership serves an important function for the capitalist class in ensuring wages do not fall below the minimum necessary for subsistence. In contrast to narrow trade-unionism, it is necessary to connect each economic struggle with the necessity of social revolution, of placing political power in the hands of the working class.

“Students,” the article says, “don’t have the kind of power that workers do in society,” but we are assured that they can play a “principled” role in the worker movement. In fact, history tells us that students have led and organized political movements as students, and not as auxiliaries to the trade unions, NGOs, or bourgeois electoral campaigns. China’s May Fourth Movement in 1919 and France in May 1968 show students serving as both the reserve and the speartip of workers’ political struggles. Neither this economism nor “universal” student demands are sufficient for student participation in class struggle. Class struggle is the key link and it must be understood politically, where the student movement can play a “principled” role in showing the necessity of political power for the working class. 

Also absent from Uchida Chávez’s article is the most basic class analysis of the bourgeois university. The YDSA’s erroneous view of the role of the student movement is a product of this absence of analysis. According to the YDSA, it would seem that the university, like the state apparatus, is a neutral institution kept apart from class antagonism. This is false. The university under capitalism should be understood as a tool of the bourgeoisie. It restricts knowledge to the youth of the ruling class and its allies, and propagates ideologies that buttress class divisions. The YDSA does not acknowledge the division of education into strata for different classes, which reproduces the division of mental and manual labor. A theory of the student movement that does not address this division and the university’s role in perpetuating it rests on thin air. This division is the basis for the self-reproduction of capitalism and reinforces the contradiction between workers, who have nothing to sell but their labor power, and students who earn degrees that guarantee access to professional careers among the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, to ignore the ideological function of the university is to concede leadership of the student movement to the ruling class. The university itself is stamped with bourgeois class interests and must be transformed in the course of a social and political revolution to end class society.

The concept of a permanent liberal-radical coalition is central to the YDSA’s strategy. There are a couple of remarks in the text about “sectarianism and radical posturing,” which the author seems to understand as the fracturing of this supposedly permanent alliance.  Sectarianism “weakened the Left,” he claims at various points, splitting “radicals” from “liberals” in the student movement of the 1930’s, and in the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. When the author attacks “sectarianism” they actually attack those that take an independent working class political position. In the course of concrete struggles, revolutionary forces should unite with all who can be united with. This is not only to gather the necessary forces in order to impose immediate demands on the bourgeoisie, but also to win others to our revolutionary perspective. However, it is an error to make a universal principle out of this tactical alliance, as in the final analysis liberalism is an ideology that serves the capitalist class and its dictatorship. To cede leadership of the student and worker movements against capitalism to the political representatives of the capitalist class is necessarily self-defeating. Likewise, splits between the camp of the revolution and those that seek to protect the position of capital are necessary and inevitable. Uchida Chávez’s attacks on “sectarianism” are really a defense of and demand for a permanent, unprincipled unity, one that would hobble the movement of revolutionary workers and students.

The absence of any internationalism or anti-imperialist stance in the piece is disconcerting. Any clear understanding of capitalism in the United States must acknowledge that the US bourgeoisie depends on superprofits extracted from oppressed nations, which are burdened by the parasitic interests of capitalists within the imperialist countries. While the imperialist monopoly bourgeoisie protects its predatory interests through economic warfare and military adventures, revolutionary students and workers must take on the perspective of the international working class, and support any nation (though not every state) in their struggle against imperialist domination. Uchida Chávez’s article goes into early 20th century Popular Front history, but passes over the more recent and relevant mass struggles of Black and Puerto Rican students for guaranteed admissions at CUNY in the late 60s. But student activism that tails “progressive” politicians is bound to take up a national-chauvinist position.

Whether it’s the link between the student and worker movements, the role of the university in capitalist society, or the relationship of the student body to internationalism and socialist revolution, the YDSA’s approach to student organization cannot pin down these fundamental concepts in a comprehensive way. As a result, these fundamental concepts are obliterated. For them, the worker and student movements are appendages for compromise initiatives with the capitalist class led by bourgeois politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. This strategy accepts and preserves the class rule of the bourgeoisie, playing into the hands of the enemy. Students should integrate their demands with existing working class struggles and join the project of advancing the socialist revolution. To meet the challenge of ending class society, we need to correctly understand capitalism’s inner workings and class forces. The struggle we carry out should rely on the creativity and combativeness of the people and challenge the political system from top to bottom, surpassing the narrow framework of the next election.

This article was written by two members of the MDSO and approved by the executive board of the MDSO.

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