Signed up for Changing the World 101

Campus meetings sponsored by the International Socialist Organization are drawing big audiences this fall. Eric Ruder talks to some of the participants to find out why.

Students discuss building a socialist movement at Loyola University in ChicagoStudents discuss building a socialist movement at Loyola University in Chicago

TAKE A walk down any street that you've walked down before, and unless you live in an area where a forest fire or flood has transformed the landscape (something that sadly seems all too plausible in 2016), it will likely look more or less the same as it looked a year ago.

You will see people going about their business, doing all the usual stuff: going to work, buying groceries, getting ready for the new school year. Perhaps the trees and shrubs look a little different, but by and large, everything remains the same.

Or so it appears.

During the last year, there has been a dramatic and rapid change in political consciousness, and while the 2016 presidential race gives some sense of what's different, the change is even more profound than the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump suggests.

There's a way to measure this even if polling by the mainstream media has moved on now that Bernie Sanders is out of the presidential race: An unprecedented number of students and young people are headed to ISO meetings at campuses across the U.S. this fall.

Sanders' defeat by Hillary Clinton--and his subsequent decision to endorse her--has created a political vacuum for a huge audience of people energized by his left-wing message and identification with socialism.

"Bernie Sanders and his use of the term 'democratic socialism' started the domino effect that led me to becoming a socialist," said Zakariya Uddin. In mid-September, Uddin attended a meeting entitled "The fight for a socialist future" sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at the University of Maryland in College Park. It was the first time Uddin had ever attended a socialist meeting.

"The controversy surrounding him identifying as a socialist led me to look into what exactly socialism meant," Uddin continued. "From there, I discovered socialist publications like Jacobin and Socialist Worker, and was able to understand and agree with what socialism actually is."

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CONSIDER THIS: Sanders received 30 percent more votes from young voters--people under 30--than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.

With his withering assault on the billionaire class and urgent calls to tax the rich, create jobs and address threats to the environment, Sanders inspired this younger generation in a way that no mainstream politician has in decades.

But then he did the unthinkable--after spending a year criticizing Clinton as the candidate of Walmart, war and Wall Street, Sanders endorsed her.

And so, as the mainstream media was consigning the socialist candidacy of Sanders to a quixotic and largely irrelevant footnote of the 2016 election, millions of young people were embarking on a journey to figure out what they should do next.

They had believed Sanders when he said that the national political debate must be enlarged to include the idea of socialism--and now that Sanders had abandoned that project with his endorsement of Clinton, these young people started looking elsewhere.

Emma Ward, a sophomore at State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz, said:

Bernie was the reason I went to the ISO's kickoff event last year featuring Danny Katch. I knew I liked the idea of socialism, but I didn't know much about it at all. I learned an incredible amount and realized how progressive my politics were as I spent more time around the group.

Uddin explained that the scourge of war has played a big part in his political radicalization:

A large portion of my interest in socialist ideas stems from my disgust with American imperialism--or any other nation's imperialism, for that matter. Having seen that military action in places like Palestine, Syria, Iraq (and the list goes on) is driven by the profit motive, I find that socialism attacks the very root cause of imperialism.

Additionally, rising economic inequality throughout America and the rest of the world serves as an irrefutable condemnation of capitalism, indicating to me that socialism is the only path to a truly just society.

The contrast between the urgency of the problems facing people and the planet and the business-as-usual figure of Hillary Clinton is the perfect illustration of what's wrong with mainstream politics, which explains Kelsey Aaron's decisions to join the ISO two months ago at the University of Vermont in Burlington. According to Aaron:

I'm an environmental studies major, and all throughout my first year last year, I was learning how the earth is a distraught and messed-up place. I was getting tired of a system that never created any real change while the state of our world was getting worse by the hour. I went to a presentation that an ISO member, Sharon Smith, gave at UVM, and from there, I was hooked. I realized that all of these problems that I was frustrated about would never get better under a capitalist society and that socialism was the only real solution.

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THE GULF between mainstream politics and the ideas of a new generation are so obvious--because the system's two main representatives right now are so backward. Trump throws out red meat to his reactionary base with the slogan "Make America great again." Clinton's response? "America is already great."

So it falls to unlikely figures like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to courageously say what no politician has the guts to: The national anthem and the U.S. flag are symbols of the racism this country was built on and the epidemic of police murder of Black and Brown people that the political elite are indifferent to.

Sure, Kaepernick has attracted some abuse, but also an incredible amount of support.

Ward explains that she went to a speech on her campus by Michael Moore a few weeks ago and an ISO meeting the following day:

Michael Moore started off pretty radical, speaking about voter suppression and the guilt being thrown onto people who support third parties. He stressed the importance of voting to us. However, toward the end of his speech, he turned on the Hillary switch and completely contradicted his previous argument, telling us to vote for her even though we might hate her.

Fortunately, we weren't going down without a fight. One of my comrades, Molly, challenged his position, saying that voting is not the most political thing one can do and that real change comes from the bottom. The fight for a socialist future will ensure that every marginalized group under the capitalist system will come together as one to reclaim their space in this world, which was created by nature without borders and discrimination.

The kickoff event featuring Sherry Wolf was electric and inspiring. We had blitzed the campus and handed out fliers in town for two weeks leading up to the event...The discussion after the talk was great and elicited many questions about the election, such as the varying prospects for a revolution under Trump versus Clinton and how we will organize people on November 9 [the day after the election].

Many who are part of this new audience for radical politics have already begun teaching themselves about socialist ideas and are now looking for ways to put this vision into practice. As Uddin put it:

Having radicalized and grown more knowledgeable about socialism over the past couple of years--and consequently the abhorrent faults of capitalism--I felt the need to organize and effect change. I've lived in an area devoid of any sort of left organization for most of my life, so when I came to the University of Maryland, I sought out the ISO, knowing it was an organization that strived for the same ideals as I did, and whose members I could learn a lot from.

But it's not just about the ideas. This new generation wants to take action, and the left needs to prepare itself to arm a new generation with the lessons of the past to build the strongest possible fight for a just future. In the words of Aaron:

For the most recent ISO meeting, we read the Socialist Worker article "Radical Columbia," and we had a Standing Rock solidarity rally the previous day, so there was a lot to discuss. I was excited for the meeting so we could strategize about the coming year on campus--by learning from the history of student struggle at Columbia University as well as by learning from the outcome of the rally. It was a great meeting.

Using the organizational tools of the ISO as well as past strategies from other successful campus campaigns, we had a wonderful discussion. Each branch meeting fires me up for the fight to come.