As interest in democratic socialism rises among young people, students on over 250 campuses across the country are organizing chapters of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) this semester, including a group here at Boston College.
Josh Behrens, MCAS ‘18, was inspired to start a BC chapter of YDSA, the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), after he attended their conference in Brooklyn, New York, in February. When Behrens returned to BC, he posted messages in the class Facebook pages and began communicating with several other students who shared an interest in bringing YDSA to BC.
According to Behrens, democratic socialism is “filling a hole that existed politically,” after last year’s election left many people frustrated with the Democratic Party and the larger political system.
“[Democratic politicians] would say we need health care for everyone, we need to end wars and build infrastructure,” said Behrens. “But then they would take millions of dollars from rich people and corporations, who would whisper in their ears not to do things, and they would eventually not do those things. It really frustrated me.”
Behrens was drawn to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, which he said spoke to his frustrations. Although Sanders failed to receive the Democratic nomination, his platform drew attention to democratic socialist ideas about expanding healthcare coverage, raising the minimum wage, and increasing regulations on large corporations.
After the election, many Sanders voters turned to the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in America since World War II. The grassroots organization now has over 25,000 registered members, compared to 8,000 members before the election.
According to Behrens, there is some confusion about what it means to be a democratic socialist. Although Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist, Behrens said that his policy ideas make him more of a social democrat than a democratic socialist.
“The difference between a democratic socialist and a social democrat is that social democrats still believe that capitalism can be reformed—that private ownership as the means of production of capital will be okay if there are enough regulations,” said Behrens. “Democratic socialists believe that the system of CEOs and boards running the businesses is inherently unstable and will always lead to crisis and inequality, so we need to fundamentally change the economic system.”
Although socialism has historically been viewed with considerable suspicion in the United States due to incidents of socialist revolutions resulting in dictatorships, Behrens argues that democratic socialism is the next step in democracy’s development.
“We believe in democratizing the workplace, which means flipping the workplace structure,” Behrens said. “We want the workers to be able to vote on how their labor is used, what they produce, and their working conditions. Like we elect representatives and a president, the workers would be able to elect their bosses and CEO. This is kind of a weird notion, but democracy was a weird notion once, too.”
Instead of operating as a registered political party that nominates candidates for office, DSA is a non-profit organization that supports union organizers and advocates for reforms that “decrease the influence of money in politics, empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy, and restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable.”
As a multi-faceted movement, democratic socialism aims to address both social and economic inequalities perpetuated by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ableism.
According to Behrens, a major goal of the Young Democratic Socialists of Boston College (BCYDS) is to connect BC students to the activist community in Boston.
Recently, BCYDS organized a group of students to go to a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the Boston Common on Sept. 16. They also attended a “Fight for $15” minimum wage rally on Labor Day, along with a protest against a right wing “free speech” rally in August.
In addition, BCYDS hopes to hold debates, information sessions, and host speakers on campus once they have finished the process of registering as a new student organization, which they are currently working on.
As BCYDS sparks discussions about democratic socialism on campus, they hope to connect these values with Catholic history and social teaching. In particular, Behrens pointed to the efforts of Dorothy Day, the 20th century nun who founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement, and other Catholic activists who challenged social norms.
“BC does a pretty good job of funneling us into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and volunteering with 4Boston, Appa, and Arrupe. They are all good, important things, but I think that there has been a lack of critique about the larger system,” said Behrens.
Moving forward, Behrens hopes BCYDS will be able to use these Jesuit values to tackle difficult societal questions, saying, “We will go to the homeless shelter and we’ll serve soup and go home, but are we stopping to think about why they have to come back every week to get that soup and why they can’t support themselves? These are larger issues that sometimes we talk about in class, but what are we doing to combat it?”