Youth and the working class


The following article by Jarvis Tyner was originally published in the November 1973 edition of Political Affairs.


As the accelerated attack of monopoly and imperialism places more hardships on the working class, other social strata suffer as well, often in special ways, reflecting their special position in the economic, social and political life of the country. Without a doubt the plight of the highly proletarianized oppressed minorities, particularly Black Americans, is worsened. But also young people as a whole, and especially young workers, face a most severe crisis. Their well-being and prosperity is intrinsically linked to that of the working class. Contemporary state monopoly capitalist rule has accentuated this interrelationship.


It is further the case that the unity of the working class with youth and students is essential to the vitality and forward thrust of the working class and the trade union movement. Without such unity the interests and efforts of the youth and students, as we have seen recently, will be frustrated, fall short of their aims, and eventually be set back. Recognizing this vital truth, it is our task to clarify our thinking and action in our approach to the youth movement-to counter all obstacles to this unity and to facilitate its development. Objective conditions today have again made such unity more possible than ever before.


One hundred years ago Karl Marx stated succinctly, “The younger generation is in step with me.” In 1905 Lenin wrote, “… all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely and again more widely and again more boldly, without fearing them. … The youth—the students, and still more so the young workers—will decide the issue of the whole struggle.” (Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 146.).


The founders of the science of Marxism-Leninism understood the importance of youth and consistently strove to win the younger generation to socialism-to the side of the working class.


The youth question as a special question


Indeed, Marx, Engels and Lenin all recognized the special oppression and insecurity brought down upon the adolescents and children by capitalism and therefore the need for a special fight to be made by the youth in alliance with the working class as a whole. Under pre-capitalist modes of production one might get married, have children and commence independent economic activity at age 13 or 14, whereas under advanced capitalism this, as a rule, does not take place until the age of 18 or later. And even though social conditions often force early marriages, today the requirements for leading an economically independent life are far greater than in earlier times and are becoming greater yet as the productive forces advance. In fact, under earlier modes of production, the youth question did not assume its special importance, since the period of youth was relatively brief. Capitalism has enhanced the importance of the youth question.


Hence to describe youth as solely an age question is to obscure the full content of that period of life. Neither do youth represent a “special class” or a “new revolutionary class” as some on the Left assert. We understand classes scientifically, as economic categories, defined by their relationship to the means of production. Under capitalism the main classes are those who own the means of production and those who must sell their ability to labor in order to survive. Among the youth there exist all class strata, even though, as we will show, youth have a certain plight in common which transcends classes and even though one’s class position is often in flux during one’s youth. Youth itself is of course a temporary state whereas a class is a fixed category having interests and an outlook separate and apart from other classes.


Youth is a social stratum, not a class, a social stratum which is multiclass. Although youth have common interests and needs, its interests do not stand alone and apart from those of the main classes. The son or daughter of a General Motors executive may have some interest in common with an auto worker’s son or daughter, but when push comes to shove, you know pretty much where that executive’s son or daughter is going to stand. This is usually true even when such bourgeois youth put on the cloak of revolution,” usually the cloak of ultra-Leftism.


The body is composed of cells, some dying and some being formed. Actually at puberty one undergoes qualitative hormonal change, which makes for many new features in one’s life. These physical changes are reflected socially and culturally in different ways depending on the social and economic conditions, on the level of development of the productive forces. But what remains constant is that one becomes conscious of new drives. One becomes aware of sexual drives. One begins to form one’s outlook towards a mate, towards a creative future family relationship.


In Western society, one begins to discover romance, which has more meaning than childhood crushes. This is also a peak time in one’s physical energy. One is prone to find avenues to release one’s energy. Thus athletic and active recreation has a special appeal to and is especially needed by youth.


Changes also occur in one’s consciousness. For the first time one begins to really develop one’s social consciousness. One begins to discover the social world around one, to develop one’s political outlook, ethical outlook and value system. This is a decisive time for the development of a revolutionary consciousness, a working class outlook—or a reactionary, racist and bourgeois outlook, imperialism’s point of view.


One can say that society is composed of social cells, some being born, some dying. After a number of decades we get a completely new generation. Those who are being socially “born” and are just coming to social consciousness reflect current times in a sharper way than do older people.


The social consciousness of this generation


This generation of youth has grown up at a time when not for ten per cent but for one hundred per cent of their lives they have seen and experienced social upsurge. They have had to live with Vietnam and other U.S. imperialist aggressions around the world. One hundred per cent of the time since social consciousness they have experienced the upsurge of the Black liberation movement, the Puerto Rican, Chicano and Indian movements. Because of the student revolts the campuses are viewed as centers for political activism as well as for other things. This would not be true of a person, let us say, in his forties or fifties, who has seen periods of lull and developed his consciousness under different conditions (such as those that existed during the 50s). Indeed, anti-Communism, though a serious problem, does not have the impact on this generation as it had on earlier generations.


For one hundred per cent of this generation’s period of social awakening, they have seen the shift in the world balance of forces go basically one way-in favor of national liberation and socialism. They have clearly seen imperialism as the aggressor and not the savior. They have seen capitalism losing its grip on the world. If we are living in revolutionary times, then these times will be most clearly inscribed in the makeup, the outlook, the psychology of this younger generation.


There are of course, weaknesses that emerge in youth as well. Often youth lack the “revolutionary patience” that Lenin talked about. They often don’t see things in a process of change and are prone to accept simple “instant solutions.” They often will reject history and wallow in the present moment. As Engels said, “… it is useful to remind young people of former movements, because they think that they are indebted for everything only to themselves.”


Also, if these are insecure times, then the younger generation will reflect that insecurity most sharply. The fact that the Black Panther Party actually called for “revolutionary suicide” at one point, or the desperate anarchistic trends that emerged among petty-bourgeois white youth, or the fact that the music and art of this generation is often dismal, extremely cynical and morbid, show this. One rock group actually calls itself the “Greatful Dead.” There is also the fact that many former activists have chosen various escapes from reality and struggle. Rennie Davis is now with a guru. Some are on a drug trip, blindly seeking new life styles, pursuing notions of extended family, and some have even gone back to Jesus. While all of these have some humanist content, they mainly aim at disorienting the humanist ethical outlook which is so much a part of the basic psychology of this generation. Assuredly, the ruling class is doing all it can to promote such trends, since they have taken activists away from the movement and pointed in the wrong direction for thousands of youth seeking a (potentially activist) direction.


We must also mention the right-wing, racist appeal to masses of white youth aimed at pulling them into the service of monopoly: the “Jewish Defense League,” the “Young Americans for Freedom,” and now the so-called “National Caucus of Labor Committees” who are trying to do what the JDL started out to do some months ago, and who are racist and vile, as pretentious and fallacious, self-serving and fanatically anti-Communist and anti-working class as the KKK or Nazi Party are. All of these groups are part of monopoly’s “youth movement,” are part of imperialism’s “direction” for youth.


Due to the predominance of class collaborationist leadership in the trade union movement, this generation has not experienced a time when the U.S. organized working class has been visibly in the forefront of all social struggles. This has made it most difficult to win many youth to the view that the labor movement is decisive to all struggles and that the interests of the youth and students are interrelated with those of the working class.


The overwhelming majority of U.S. youth, though bombarded with a multitude of ideological diversions, are most prone to move in a political direction for peace, equality and economic justice socialism. A growing number, rebounding from the experience of ’60s, and newly radicalized, are finding their way to the science of Marxism-Leninism, the Communist Party and the Young Workers’ Liberation League. Remember that this is the generation of youth who revolted in the military, who are key to revitalizing the labor movement. This is the generation of young women who lead the fight for women’s equality, against Nixon’s cutbacks and against high food prices. This is the generation that made it possible to form the Young Workers’ Liberation League. This is a leftward moving generation that suffers lulls, as do all social movements, that is often derailed, but which reflects the world around it—a world moving toward socialism.


We can therefore say that youth is a very complex and important period in life, characterized by a transition from dependency to independence. It is a time of rapid-paced development and changes. These changes make for a particular state of mind, body and economic status which makes youth more economically insecure, ideologically open-minded and activist oriented. Youth are therefore a special fighting force which must be won to the side of the working class. Following oppressed minorities, youth are the next most important ally of the working class.


To be a youth is to begin to establish one’s economic security, to be seeking the moral and educational assets to guarantee a fulfilling and meaningful future. A decent education is a life and death issue for youth. But in bourgeois society youth faces a very insecure life. Under capitalism, youth is one of the most difficult periods in life. The root of this insecurity lies in the basic contradiction between the social nature of labor and private appropriation of the product of labor and private ownership of the means of production. The root of youth’s insecurity lies in the exploitation of the working class. Just coming into productive social life, youth have a difficult time, especially working-class youth and especially Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Native American youth.


Youth in the working class


This generation of young men and women workers, students, rural youth, middle class and professional youth face a most severe attack on their standard of living, on their cultural, social and political life, on their basic ability to secure a future and survive. This is most true when it comes to working-class, Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American and Asian youth. But it is true overall under capitalism. Youth have a life without a future.


As in the general population, the majority of the youth population is working class. Young workers, particularly organized young shop workers, serve as a link between the youth and students as a whole and the working class. Their role is crucial to the forward motion of the youth movement and the developing rank-and-file movement in labor. Though many assume the characteristics and basic life style of adults, being married, with children, etc., they nevertheless still maintain many youthful traits which are valuable in bridging the gap between youth and students and the working class. They can talk to, relate to, speak in the style of and understand the younger generation.


The proportion of young workers in the work force is today at record levels. Workers under 25 today account for 25 percent of the work force, as opposed to 18.7 per cent in 1960. This can be explained by the effects of the post-war baby boom. But we should not disregard the needs resulting from capitalist exploitation of the scientific-technological revolution. One result of this has been an increase in semi-skilled, highly speeded-up production line jobs, jobs that are monotonous and alienating. These jobs are given to youth. Youth are being hired in large numbers because they are cheaper, capable of more intense labor, and therefore more profitable for monopoly. They also lack long term trade union experience and monopoly hoped to play on the antiunion inexperience of young workers. Lordstown, of course, exploded this myth and showed how the radicalization of youth didn’t stop on the campuses.


While there has been an increase in youth employment, this has not eased the unemployment picture. In fact, it has gotten worse. In this respect the increase in the youth population (due to the post-war baby boom) has more than offset the increased youth employment in the semi-skilled, highly automated sections of U.S. industry.


The influx of large numbers of university trained technicians and scientific research workers has further brought youth into the working class. This is because it has accompanied the accelerated proletarianization of the middle strata which is very much at the base of the student revolt of the ’60s and today. It has brought the problems of intellectuals and students closer to those of the working class. This is of considerable importance since there are presently eight million persons enrolled in colleges. Many of these work simultaneously.


Young workers have grown as a percentage of the working class, but they lag behind in unionization. For example, persons under twenty-five are 13 percent of 341,000 unionized construction laborers and 52 per cent of the 798,000 nonunionized workers in the same industry. A Department of Labor study showed 13.6 per cent of 17,192,000 organized workers under 25, and 28.8 per cent of 67,083,000 unorganized workers under 25. Young workers are concentrated out of proportion in those industries that are nonunion, where the working hours are longest, the pay lowest, and the working conditions worst. Often these youth have no job security, are hired and laid off continually, and lack even such elementary fringe benefits as hospitalization insurance, paid sick days and holidays, etc. Twenty five per cent of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are children aged 6 to 16. Further, some 850,000 children 14 and 15 years old were in the labor force in 1970. The attack on working-class families has forced not only women to work, but in many cases the children as well.


The needs of U.S. youth


When U.S. youth are confronting a 20 per cent unemployment rate, which rises to close to 40 per cent among Black urban youth, when 300,000 vets are unemployed, then youth are facing mass social destruction. If you cannot find a job, your future is in great doubt. Masses of youth are hanging out on the corners; some wander aimlessly throughout the country. (Ten thousand teenagers run away from home every week in the U.S.) Or many youth stay eternally in school because there is no work or because there is only the trap of meaningless, monotonous labor. And those who do find jobs face the worst working conditions: speedup; industrial accidents which cost the lives of 55 U.S. workers per day, 50 per cent of them youth; 8,500 severe injuries every day on the job.


The 5.5 per cent Nixon freeze means a special hardship for the young worker, who is on the very bottom of the wage scale. The spectre of higher prices and taxes in light of frozen low wages is an ominous plight for millions of young workers. The Nixon Administration, through its monopoly flunky Peter Brennan, is pressing for a subminimum wage law for youth under the pretense that this is a measure to help provide jobs. This bill places young workers against their parents in the competition for jobs. Passage of such a bill would mean that youth would take home $66 a week for the first 13 weeks of employment (and in practice this would mean that for many the first 13 weeks would also be the last 13 weeks). Such a law would be exploited to the hilt by the monopolies in their drive for superprofits.


For millions of young workers, many with young families, the permanent features of U.S. state monopoly capitalism of inflation and simultaneous unemployment spell poverty, deprivation and malnutrition. With such pressure on the young family, it’s no wonder that one out of every three marriages ends in divorce. Without a job and job security youth have no future.


With the acceleration of the scientific-technological revolution, an education, including a higher education, is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Present conditions of life and work demand that one be able to do more than read, write and add. During the last decade the number of jobs demanding 16 or more years of education rose by 67 per cent, while the number of jobs requiring only a high school diploma rose by 40 per cent.


While the demand for education has increased, the actual avail ability of educational facilities and opportunities has not kept pace. There is a lack of vocational training. The racist system of channeling” is designed to funnel particularly Black and specially oppressed youth into the army of unemployed. Thirty to 40 children to a class room is the norm for public schools, especially in the ghettos and barrios. The consequence of these conditions is that every year 750,000 drop out of high school to face a life of low-paying jobs or unemployment. If you’re unemployed and have no prospects for a job, there is the military, a consignment to an early grave, fighting for U.S. imperialism in its profit-hungry drive. Youth constitutes 25 per cent of the work force but are 90 per cent of the military. This is why militarization of youth has become an important aim of monopoly. Such are the conditions which have created the hundreds of thousands of draft resisters and war-related prisoners. The demand for amnesty for all such people is one of the key struggles for youth.


For those who do find low-paying and difficult work, the monopolies offer dope if the speedup is too much and a pink slip if they dare to fight back. The conditions of life, economic, social and cultural, in the ghettos and barrios facing working-class youth necessitates a fight for life itself. Mass struggle against racist repression aimed at specially oppressed youth is part of that fight. These are the reasons that 50 per cent of the 600,000 registered drug addicts are under 25. As one League member put it, “It’s easier to find a junkie than a job.” “It’s easier to get a fix than a fixed income.”


Inadequate education, unemployment, racism, drugs and militarization all kill. The youth must fight for their lives in unity with the working class; youth must fight for the right to earn, learn and live. This is the central campaign of the YWLL. This campaign offers the basis of unity between the youth and students and the working class. It offers the basis to develop a united anti-monopoly youth front, a front of the generation fighting for its basic rights against monopoly oppression and imperialism’s aggression.


What is needed is emergency provision for some of the basic needs of U.S. youth including:


– Public works jobs at decent wages and with union protection.
– Revamping the educational system to provide free, meaningful education from day care to graduate school.
– A massive campaign to organize the unorganized, the vast numbers of young workers ignored by the trade union movement’s bureaucratic leaders.
– An end to racism and racist practices, police harrassment and repression. Freedom for political prisoners.
– Extension of unemployment benefits to include the entire period of unemployment, including first job seekers.
– Enforcement of safety regulations on the job, an end to speedup and unsafe working conditions.
– Peace: an end to U.S. aggression and plunder abroad; an end to the draft, ROTC and all forms of militarization of U.S. youth.


What is needed above all is socialism, where the salvation and well being of the young people will be an aim of society rather than monopoly profits, where all of these things and more will be guaranteed. And it can be realized within the lifetime of this generation. Socialism is the system where youth can enjoy a secure, prosperous, culturally rich, peaceful life.


The recent period has shown world-wide that youth and students, particularly young workers, do reflect the revolutionary times we live in. Events have dramatically demonstrated that youth have a key role to play in revitalizing the labor movement and broadening the social base and scope of the antimonopoly coalition.


Today’s college students will in the main not be independent entrepreneurs, but will be wage earners in highly centralized, monopolized industry. It is therefore objectively possible to develop the unity of workers and youth and students. The conditions are more favorable than those of even a decade ago. In the present period, the campus struggles, the struggles in the high schools and communities will have as a basic brace the rising mass upsurge of the millions of U.S. organized and unorganized workers. This upsurge will bring an antimonopoly coalition into being and will bring socialism closer to realization.