Class Struggle: The Role of Democratic Socialism in Higher Education

Date: 2023-11-08T17:33:58+00:00


Elia Newsom discusses the contemporary political economy of U.S. academia and proposes a strategy for socialist educators in higher education.


In my last article for Cosmonaut, I made the case for socialist intervention in higher education.1 Of course, this has been tried before by radical black students in the Civil Rights Movement and in groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).2 To use SDS as an example, their struggles were initially focused on issues that affected students: free speech on campuses, the war in Vietnam, structural racism, and so on,3 which eventually spiraled out into much larger goals that were not achieved. Like other social movements that held sway during this period in U.S. history, the identity marker of student was used as a foundation for constructing a political subject capable of changing not just higher education, but U.S. society.

Through solidarity with other social movement actors in the far left, civil rights, and labor movements of the time, students were able to force change on higher education. This is where ethnic studies departments, affirmative action, and even the glimmer of open admissions come from.4 However, groups like SDS also ran into serious internal and external obstacles to their stated objectives, which others have covered more fully and effectively than I can in this article.5 For my purposes, it is important to note two major impediments to SDS’ work. The first was internal: SDS was ultimately unable to move beyond a single identifier (in this case student) into a more holistic mass movement of those who make up higher education and greater U.S. society. The second was external: colleges and universities had a different political economy. There were fewer students, they were more affluent and whiter, and the university had not been fully neoliberalized. 

I will begin with my latter point, picking up on the argument I made in my previous article. Higher education as it is now constituted has a lot more potential for socialist intervention than it did in the 60s and 70s. With structural changes that have turned colleges and universities into massive exploitation machines,6 democratic socialists have a unique opportunity to create more socialists and challenge for power if we can develop a coherent strategy. In order to develop this strategy, we should first consider how public universities and colleges are materially constituted and who inhabits them.

Just a cursory glance demonstrates the true scale of the higher education industry in the United States. Roughly 3 million people are employed by colleges & universities as of 2023 and in 2022, just under 18 million students were enrolled in some form of higher education.7 This is approximately 11% of the United States’ potential workforce, with all students, faculty, and staff working under vastly different circumstances from campus to campus but all employed by or attending college or university.

This setting is often ignored as a site for socialist struggle for several reasons. The first is a fundamental misunderstanding of what those 21 million people who are engaged at sites of education do. As I laid out in my last article, the vast majority of these people are students, janitors, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, administrative staff, and non-tenure track faculty. The tiny minority are what people think of when they think of higher ed: tenured professors, deans, provosts, etc. Upper administration and tenured professors constituted a more significant chunk of higher education workers in the 60s and 70s when students were trying to radically change this structure, but this is no longer the case. It is because of this misunderstanding that socialists abandon higher education itself as a site of struggle because they deem it to be full of liberal professors and privileged students who do nothing but sit in the ivory tower and talk circles around one another. This is no longer a fitting vision of higher education. There are millions of working-class people employed by or attending colleges and universities who are far more willing to hear out socialists than the comfortable bourgeois intellectuals or the administrative overlords.

This first misunderstanding plays into the second, which is the class character of those involved in higher ed. At every level, there are places for socialists to agitate. The blue collar workers are heavily exploited by the university for their labor and are sympathetic to unionism. The students are idealistic and energetic, willing to hear ideas outside of the norm. Then, there are non-tenure track instructors, who constitute a majority of college teachers in the United States,8 have gone through at least 6 years of school after high school, and are also highly exploited by the university. This group, in particular, are an important cohort for radicalization as there are several “advanced members of the working class” in their numbers, myself included.9 These are people who absorbed all the bourgeois notions of meritocracy and in most cases, watched it fail them as they took jobs in higher education that offered none of the security or middle class wages they would’ve expected as a tenure-track faculty member. 

Many on the left (especially in DSA) are concerned about our lack of integration into the working class, trade unions, etc.. This is a concern from time immemorial, going as far back as the “merger formula” discussed by Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Lenin, etc.10 This is a serious issue and one that must be reconciled to achieve our aims. DSA, in particular, remains a decentralized, hobbyist, activist organization populated by highly educated, downwardly mobile people. So, while I have seen many socialists take up the union struggle in higher education (which is worthwhile and of which I am a part) we tend to ignore the powerful role we could play in the structure of this institution as it is already constituted to bring more people into the fold. Given that YDSA on its own is one of the largest socialist organizations in the United States with 125 chapters across the country,11 colleges and universities are clearly places where we should be agitating, propagandizing, and recruiting new members.

Class Struggle in Higher Education

As a candidate member of Marxist Unity Group, I believe the struggle for a democratic-republic is central to the socialist struggle. Gil Schaeffer has pointed out that leaving the call for a democratic-republic out of their collective efforts was one of the major internal failings of SDS in their heyday.12 When it comes to democratic governance, it turns out that public colleges and universities are, in many ways, administered by the same logic as the United States federal government in miniature. For example, the administrative rulers of higher education love to talk about how sites of higher education are places where we develop and defend democracy but then pay their workers poverty wages, fight unionization, and disempower the preexisting democratic structures of the university (like faculty, staff, and student councils) by investing all real power in high-level bureaucrats.13 These bureaucrats are necessary to run the increasingly complex university system and fights for democratization are often lost to economic concerns such as debt.14  In order to actually realize the radically democratic ideals these leaders supposedly espouse, there’s a lot of work to do.

Previously, I made the case for three main ideological pillars when it comes to a socialist position toward higher education: enact class suicide, reject bourgeois intellectualism, and demand democracy.15 Below, I will concretely describe the actions I have been taking based on these presuppositions and then reflect on how these actions have borne out. My hope is that these reflections on my work will spark greater conversation and debate over our role in higher education.

1. Unionism

Economic democracy plays a huge role in making the university a bastion of democratic socialist values. Socialists in higher education have a responsibility to be active in their unions and form socialist caucuses in those unions. Others on the left have said this, but my additional contribution is that socialists in unions should be fighting for the full democratization of the university. We need to fight against institutionalized debt with the additional end goal of firing every regent, chancellor, provost, and dean, abolish these offices, invest all power in faculty, staff, and student councils, as well as create new councils for other job classifications and tasks.16

Of course, we must also be wary of our union work. History has shown that unions can either be powerful forces for revolutionary change (the Soviets in Russia) or for the status quo (the AFL-CIO in the U.S.). Socialists in trade unions have a difficult needle to thread by both demonstrating that they are willing to fight for the amelioration of suffering for their fellow workers while keeping their eye on the prize: the democratic-republic. While this is not yet the case, a mass party with a minimum-maximum program would go a long way in threading this needle for socialists in higher education unions.

I am an active member in my union (United Campus Workers Colorado – CWA Local 7799). While the economic struggle has primacy in our work and is often how fellow workers join the union, I consistently advocate for the political struggle, which is democratic governance of my university (i.e. all power to the student, faculty, and staff councils). I also refuse to hide that I am a socialist or a member of DSA. This demonstrates to other workers that socialists are the ones holding up our labor struggle. Were DSA to become a mass political party with a minimum-maximum program, this work would be even easier as I would actually have a structure outside of radical trade unionism to point people toward. As of now, there’s not much point in trying to recruit people for DSA as it is currently constituted.


Nevertheless, it is important for socialists in higher education to participate in their local DSA/YDSA chapters and in internal DSA politics. Many others have written more effectively on this issue. I’ll just add that much like in any other workplace, socialists are working against the tide in higher education. If you’re a radical student, staff member, or faculty, you need another locus of organizing power beyond trade unionism and the economic struggle. Otherwise, the socialist struggle will become a purely economic and/or reformist one.

I am an active participant in my DSA chapter and work closely with the YDSA chapter on my campus (which I will discuss more fully later on). I forward the positions of Marxist Unity Group publicly and try to demonstrate to my fellow democratic socialists that I respect the democracy of our organization and am willing to lend my hand to any struggle our chapter democratically decides to join in. 

3. College-Adjacent Communities

As any student of political economy knows, colleges and universities exist within a greater local system. We must be participating in the struggles of our local communities in any way we can. We should not focus purely on higher education struggles and ignore community issues. We must be cognizant of the economic-political situation in our given local communities regardless of where we are organizing.

In my case, this means organizing against things like a ballot measure in the City of Boulder called “Safe Zones 4 Kids,” which would prioritize police work on removing propane tanks and tents 500 feet from school perimeters and 50 feet from paths or sidewalks.17 As is often the case, reactionaries use the language of public safety to functionally make it impossible for unhoused people to live in a city that offers them completely inadequate resources. 

This is an issue deeply felt in my community, with implications for many of the students, staff, and faculty at my university. The issue of homelessness reveals the interconnected issues of the insane cost of living in Boulder County and our country overall, the lack of housing, capitalism’s complete disregard for human life, and how the university is aiding and abetting these crises.19

4. Teaching & The Fight Against Stultification

This section is concerned with any socialist out there teaching in a college or university. I will discuss this in more concrete terms in a moment but I cannot stress enough the importance of a class suicide approach to teaching. Most college instructors fail to realize that the students, lower level staff and non-tenure track faculty, not tenure-track faculty, are those who we should be putting our faith in and organizing with. Tenured and tenure-track faculty can and are welcome to join our movement, but they should not lead it unless they have demonstrated the principles I discuss in my previous article.20 Faculty (tenure and non-tenure track alike) are addicted to meritocracy as people who went through years of higher education. This addiction requires an abstinence approach, especially when it comes to grading (which I will discuss more fully below). Rather than spending all day trying to convince comfortable tenure-track faculty to join the union or DSA, we should instead be focusing on students, staff, and non-tenure track faculty who are far more amenable to the struggle.

This goes hand-in-hand with another anti-democratic principle of higher education and that is the way we do education based on this idea of meritocracy: high stakes tests, essays, quizzes, and arbitrarily decided upon grades. This is stultifying, doesn’t teach students what they need to actually exist in the world, and undermines the democracy of the university. Students, in particular, see no point in trying to change anything because they are convinced that nothing can change, but also that they are too young and uneducated to really understand the “complexities” of our system. This guarantees the status quo and must be fought against.

The Rhetoric & Writing of Socialism

1. The Class

Many of the actions I discuss above are synthesized in a class I am currently teaching titled “U.S. Resistance Movements: The Rhetoric & Writing of Socialism.” This course is a general education upper-division writing course and is required for most students at CU Boulder. I created this class for several reasons. The first is to propagandize and provide political education to students outside the socialist orbit. Many of these students are attracted to left-wing topics due to their selection of the class, which is only visible to them publicly as “U.S. Resistance Movements.” They aren’t aware of the subtitle unless they look for it on my department’s website or otherwise on the first day of class. Either way, they are often predisposed to be interested in these topics and are willing to hear a socialist out. Of course, there are also reactionaries and apathetic students who take the course purely because it fits into their schedule. I spend little time trying to propagandize these students and instead make it extremely easy for them to make it through the class, which I will go into more detail on later.

The second reason I teach the class is to provide a space for the local YDSA chapter to get college credit for organizing and developing their class consciousness through reading and discussion. Every assignment in the class can be completed by an average student, but they also reinforce work that YDSA is already doing. For example, we’re only reading socialist texts that the students from YDSA helped pick, which take on the role of political education for the YDSA chapter. There are also four major projects, mutually agreed upon by YDSA representatives, which include a manifesto, strategic plan, propaganda and presentation, and reflection. The manifesto gives the YDSA comrades an opportunity to articulate their arguments effectively to outsiders, the strategic plan is a moment for them to tease out the long-term goals for their organization, the propaganda and presentation is something they can use to advertise an event and draw in members, and the reflection gives them an opportunity to look back on the experience and articulate what we can do differently next time. I also have shorter reading responses that YDSA members can simply ignore if they write about some kind of action they’re taking in the YDSA chapter.

As I mentioned above, YDSA/DSA were central to the creation of the class. YDSA membership helped me work out the assignments, readings, and structure. DSA members offered some reading recommendations and a significant number of chapter members are coming to speak to the class. Guest speakers are covering everything from anarchism to trade unionism to socialism in Cuba to running for mayor. This is mutually beneficial for all parties. DSA members get practice presenting their ideas to new audiences, the relationship between DSA/YDSA is strengthened, there are more opportunities for collaboration, and in these early stages we have even brought a couple of students directly into the fold.

2. Political Education in Non-Socialist Spaces

Political education in U.S. socialist groups typically plays out through voluntary participation. People come to DSA, YDSA, or other socialist/communist organizations and then attend political education classes based on their own interest. Obviously, the fact that people come willingly to these classes demonstrates an interest that will propel them forward through their political education. However, by self selecting, it will usually be committed socialists who attend these reading groups. It is ultimately insular participation as someone who is already predisposed to be interested does the reading.

In the case of using a university level class to do political education, students are required to inhabit this space, take the class, and pass it in order to graduate. This situation presents unique challenges and potential boons that must be taken into consideration. In the following paragraphs, I will address these challenges and lay out why I think overt political education in these spaces is of value.

There are several immediate challenges one must consider when teaching a class on socialism. The first concern is obviously the reactionary student or students who happen to take the class on a whim or (unlikely but definitely possible) intentionally take the class to sabotage the work. Rather than fight fire with fire and try to wage war against these students in a battle of ideas or allow them to take up class time with their reactionary opinions, I take a more open and democratic approach.

On the first day of class, I openly tell students that I am trying to propagandize them, that I believe in the things we’re discussing, and that I want them to agree with me. I also tell them that disagreeing will not impact their grade in any way and encourage my conservative students to make their voices heard. Keeping the classroom open, democratic, and above all respectful negates some of the vitriol I get from conservative students. They are often negated by the majority of the class in some way but I try to be an impartial arbiter. 

As far as grades are concerned, even bourgeois intellectuals have pointed out that grading to a single standard is reactionary, classist, and white supremacist.21 So, I allow all of my students to grade themselves, which has the dual impact of creating some measure of self control and empowerment in a students’ education and equally important, those students who might take issue with my propagandizing are mostly neutralized because they realize they can participate in the class how they see fit and I won’t fail them because of it. In my experience as a college instructor, conservative students take a highly instrumental perspective toward their education. They aren’t in college to learn. Instead, they just want to make connections, get their business degree, and start making six figures or more a year. If I leave them alone, they leave me alone.

The second challenge is the coercive nature of the class itself. In my case, the class I’m teaching is a general education class, it’s required to graduate, and students have to attend classes and write papers to receive a grade. These aren’t socialists or interested parties who come to political education willingly. These are students (apart from YDSA members in the class) who are just trying to get through their schooling. Therefore, it’s important to motivate these students beyond the subject matter with engaging activities, speakers, and learning-by-doing to bring them around to being propagandized.

This is why I’ve moved away from traditional writing projects (research papers, rhetorical analysis, etc.) into more personal/engaging projects. For example, as I mentioned previously, the first major project of the course is a manifesto. Students are asked to articulate to what degree they agree or disagree with the course material so far. Yes, they need to do some research, but by accessing their individual interest in the topic, they’re far more likely to engage with socialist concepts. Ultimately, these students won’t come to socialism or care about it unless they themselves decide it matters. So, the class for non-socialists becomes about prompting them into provocative concepts and taking direct action.

The third and final challenge is the potential consequence I could face for this work. When I took the job at CU Boulder, I was required to sign a loyalty pledge to the State Constitution of Colorado (a document as equally vile as the U.S. Constitution). I’m certain that part of the work I’m doing in the class violates some principle of my job at the university somehow. Unlike my fellow tenured or tenure-track professors, I do not have the benefit of tenure to fall back on for “academic freedom.” If the university wanted to fire me, they could very easily. 


Having only recently come to this approach and several weeks into the Rhetoric & Writing of Socialism course, there is still much to reflect on and study. Thus far, while YDSA took an active hand in creating the course, the class is not their own. Obviously, the socialists in the class enjoy being able to talk about socialism openly in a college classroom, but we have not yet moved to the level of empowerment I was hoping for with the YDSA members in the course. We are working together to find a way forward for more agency for YDSA members in the class next time it’s run.

Additionally, this work is essentially yelling into the void until others find interest in some of the work we’re doing and try to replicate it. I’d like to imagine a world where YDSA/DSA chapters in every town/city/region find a sympathetic, socialist college instructor, develop a course together, and then run it in combination with the organizing work they’re already doing. This work linked to a mass political party with a minimum-maximum program fighting for the democratic-republic would be especially useful for political education, recruitment, and agitation. 

As Lenin once said, we “must go to all classes of the people” and have a response “to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns.”22 Higher education is rife with the same contradictions as any other eroding late-capitalist institution. We cannot afford to abandon such important terrain for class struggle.

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  1. Elia Newsom.“Anti-Democratic All The Way Down: The Constitution, The Court, The School.” Cosmonaut, July 12, 2023.
  2. Ibram Rogers. The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  3. Students for a Democratic Society. The Port Huron Statement. C.H. Kerr, 1990.
  4. Roderick A Ferguson. We Demand: The University and Student Protests. University of California Press, 2017.
  5. Gil Schaeffer. “You Can’t Use Weatherman To Show Which Way The Wind Blew: The Unfinished History Of The New Left; Participatory Democracy, Marxism, and the Goal of a Democratic Constitution.” June 2019.
  6. Dennis Hogan, interview by Daniel Denvir, “US Colleges and Universities Are Becoming Giant Exploitation Machines.” Jacobin, August 19 2023.
  7. IBISWorld. “Colleges & Universities in the US – Employment Statistics 2005–2029.” September 13, 2023.; Lyss Welding. “College Enrollment Statistics in the U.S.”, August 8 2023.
  8. Wes Anthony, et al. “The Plight of Adjuncts in Higher Education” Practitioner to Practitioner.” vol. 10, no.4, 2020. pp 3-10.
  9. Lars Lih. Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context. Haymarket Books, 2008.
  10. Ibid.
  11. YDSA. “Find a Chapter.”
  12. Schaeffer,
  13. Jessi Sachs. “Chancellor DiStefano talks democracy at the 2023 Chancellor’s Annual Summit.” CU Independent, March 19 2023.
  14. Hogan,; Eleni Schirmer et al. “Making the Invisible Visible: Organizing against the Instructionally Harmful, Antidemocratic Effects of Institutional Debt.” AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, no. 12. 1–18. 2021.
  15. Newsom,
  16. Ibid; Student councils are well known for being a magnet for social climbing undergraduates while faculty councils are often another feather in the cap for tenure-track professors. However, these are also democratic bodies that could take up the role of every upper-level administrator. In the University of Colorado system, for example, we have councils for every campus, college, job classification, and function e.g. finance, operations, etc. I’ve watched colleagues spend hours of time on these committees for no compensation or recognition. Clearly, these could be the deliberative bodies of higher education. We don’t need bureaucrats. We need to be fully empowered and take care of our business ourselves.
  17. Safe Zones 4 Kids. “Home.”
  18. 18Hogan,
  19. Newsom,
  20. Asao B. Inoue. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Perspectives on Writing. The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado, 2019.
  21. Vladimir Lenin. What Is To Be Done? Marxists Internet Archive. p. 49.