The role of youth
Charlie Le Paige at the Youth Forum of the Havana International Conference For World Balance, January 25, 2023
Thank you for the invitation to this forum and this unique opportunity for exchange.
The role of youth is an important and current theme that was also at the heart of the discussions at our last Party Congress. And it is from this point that I would like to share some thoughts with you.
1. The role of youth - without youth, there can be no social change
The youth plays an important role in almost all great mass movements, whether it is the revolutions of the twentieth century, the anti-fascist resistance, the struggle against colonialism, May 68 ... This has been true throughout the last century and it is still true today, just look at movements like the Arab Spring, the international mobilizations for climate or around Black Lives Matter.
Without youth, there is no social change. The working class, because of its place in the production process, its organization, its traditions of struggle, is the only class capable of leading and imposing a real change in society, but the youth as a social group has the potential to play a role of trigger and amplifier in the struggles. The energy and creativity of youth are powerful weapons. In this sense, we can say that those who capitulate in the struggle for the youth, capitulate in the struggle for social change.
2. The youth today - 4 characteristics
Obviously, the youth is not a homogeneous group, it is crossed, like all society, by class differences that have a determining effect.
But at the same time the youth is a specific layer in society, a layer that is defined by its age, one that changes and evolves rapidly. Each generation has its own codes, habits, language, ways of interacting and cultural references.
Four characteristics can be found in today's younger generations:
1° The youth today is confronted with the full force of the crisis of the capitalist system and its different facets at the economic, climate and military levels.
At the economic level, the crisis is pushing the reinforcement of exploitation. Young people are on the front line of the job market: they are confronted with unemployment, precarious contracts, flexibility, uberisation and temporary work. They struggle to afford housing and secure their livelihoods at a time in their lives when they are often starting a family. In working-class neighborhoods, young people are confronted with police violence and racism from an early age. And the Covid pandemic has also passed through. Today we have the energy crisis and the food crisis at the global level, which is hitting all populations hard, including young people. In Western Europe, the young generations are the first to face the prospect of having a worse quality of life than their parents.
The climate crisis is also an increasingly tangible reality. It has been so for a long time already in the countries of the South, with dramatic consequences, but more and more in Europe as well. Heat waves follow one another, drought records also, and we experience natural disasters such as the big floods that hit Belgium in the summer of 2021. We are about to hit the wall in terms of climate, and at a faster rate than scientists predicted. This climate crisis worsens the living conditions of billions of people on our planet, and it mortgages the future of the next generations. This is the objective basis on which climate awareness is growing among the new generations, and which leads to increasing mobilizations on the subject.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine brings European youth face to face with the reality of war. A reality that was already experienced by young people on other continents. And a reality that, certainly in the context of the confrontation that the US is launching against China, seriously increases the risk of war at the global level, which is particularly worrying for young people.
All these crises obviously affect the whole working class, but also specifically the youth. Not to mention the Covid pandemic and the measures that were taken, which have particularly affected young people. In the darkest moments of the crisis, when lockdowns and restrictions followed one another, young people suffered greatly: Schools were closed as well as sports activities, meeting places and cultural events. The human being is a social being, this is even more true for young people: they need each other to grow and develop. Yet, when it comes to taking strong health measures, young people have often been among the first to be sacrificed and the last to be supported. These months and years of crisis leave long-term traces.
2° Mastery of the new means of communication - the connection with the world - and the increasing internationalization of struggles
Our generation grew up with smartphones, social media and the latest technologies. This opens up new possibilities in terms of organization and communication. And, in a world where technologies are developing at an ever increasing pace, the role of the young generations is becoming more and more important. Much more than before, we have to learn from young people.
This technological evolution also opens up an international dimension to social movements, as seen in recent years with the climate strikes or the Black Lives Matter movement, which have had repercussions far beyond the borders of a few countries.
3° It is typical for young people that they are not yet settled in life, some of them have not yet founded families, they have their lives ahead of them, they are not (or at least less) slowed down by routine, habits, the weight of the past. Young people dare to question what seems unchangeable. They are an important source of energy, commitment and protest.
4° Today's youth in Belgium is also more and more diverse. In the big Belgian cities, currently three quarters of young children have parents of foreign origin. It is a reality that is very different from that of previous generations and that makes young people more sensitive to discrimination and the fight against racism.
Some of these characteristics are common to all young generations throughout history. Others are specific to the current young generations in the 21st century. They are the basis for explaining the revolutionary potential of youth.
3. The battle for the youth
Capitalism no longer has an ideal to offer young people. In the beginning, the bourgeoisie still had a sort of world view. Today it can no longer provide a coherent vision of society. It scatters science in isolated areas, it is a brake on responses to different crises. Many young people feel it.
There is a growing concern among the establishment. The Financial Times recently headlined "Millennials are shattering the oldest rule in politics and no longer move to the right as they age" (Dec. 30, 2022). A study of British and U.S. data shows that millennials, the generation that became politicized in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, are much more left-leaning on economic issues than previous generations, favoring greater redistribution from rich to poor. Studies also show that, despite the daily propaganda, capitalism is increasingly losing its appeal among young people, while, including in the U.S., the word 'socialism' is becoming more and more popular.
It is within this framework that the bourgeois forces are doubling their efforts in the battle to win over the youth. They spread their conception of the world and their business models based on individualism, consumption, competition and selfishness. They impose a huge social selection in education, wasting a huge amount of talent. Their goal is on the one hand to win over as many young people as possible, and on the other hand to inculcate resignation, discouragement and a feeling of collective impotence in all the others. Because the social problems caused by capitalism also lead to a lot of pessimism among young people, who lose confidence in the possibility of a positive future.
Faced with this, and as always in times of crisis, there is the rise of extreme right-wing forces, political but also religious, which try to recruit among the youth, to respond to pessimism and the lack of collective identity by creating an identity based on racism, nationalism, violence and the rejection of the other, a vision of society that masks class contradictions.
If we do not offer young people a social alternative, they will opt for individualism, nihilism or the extreme right. The challenge for progressive forces is to lead and win this battle. There is an opening and a potential, because many young people are looking for an emancipatory vision of the world. A vision of the world in which collective rights and services are guaranteed so that everyone can be truly themselves and can deploy all their talents. A vision that opposes all types of discrimination on the basis of colour, gender, sexual orientation or other. A vision built around a collective "we", a unifying "we", a "we" of the creators of wealth, a "we" of the working class.
The economic crisis. The climate crisis. The imperialist wars. These are consequences of the capitalist system, and there are no lasting solutions to these problems within the framework of the capitalist system. It is up to us to win over the youth and convince them of this analysis. It is up to us, for example, to make the climate issue a class issue, to explain the link with the current economic system. A survey we conducted among young people in Belgium shows that the climate is - together with the question of racism - the main concern of young Belgians on the one hand, and, on the other hand, they think the big multinationals are the main culprits, which provides an opening for an anti-capitalist analysis. It is our task to seize this potential and to offer an emancipating and liberating perspective to the youth.
But the first condition to be able to fight this battle is to be aware of it. At our last Congress, we pointed out the lack of awareness and unity in our party at this level. This is what we want to rectify in the coming years.
Because, in a changing world, we need the energy of the youth, their commitment, their determination, their mastery of new technologies.
The party needs young people, and young people need a party to direct and deepen their desire for change, their energy, and to link it to the vast movement of emancipation of the working class.
4. Rejuvenating - becoming the party of the youth
Based on the experience that young people attract young people: to reach, mobilize, organize youth, we need a party that is itself rejuvenating. At our recent party congress, we discussed the mechanisms that hinder this rejuvenation and took a series of measures:
- Quotas for the presence of young people under 30 in the National Council and in the provincial councils of the party (at least 10%)
- Establishing a National Council Youth Commission
- Giving final responsibilities to young people in different areas of the party, and putting forward young spokespersons
- Rejuvenating our communication
- Rejuvenating our base groups, and temporarily allowing the establishment of base groups organizing only young comrades
- And investing in support for our three youth organizations: Pioneers (for children), RedFox (for pupils) and Comac (for students).
5. The RedFox experience - the challenge of building a broad youth movement
On this last point: Youth organizations play a key role in mobilizing and organizing youth.
Starting in 2015, we laid the groundwork to rebuild a broad movement of pupils - RedFox. This is an example I would like to develop to show the potential that exists today among the youth.
Since the late 90s we have had no real youth movement with the ability to make an impact among pupils, so we decided to launch RedFox in 2015 and give priority to its development.
Why focus on RedFox as a movement for pupils?
- Pupils are the largest part of the youth, including the working class youth. At the student level, there is a strong social selection filter that excludes a significant portion of working class children.
- It is from the youngest age that the capitalist vision of the world is imposed on young people, it is from the youngest age that it is important to propose an alternative. Especially since what you learn when you're young stays with you for the rest of your life.
RedFox aims to raise awareness, mobilize and organize youth aged 12 to 21 who are still in secondary school. As a mass organization, it has its own structures, its own adapted organizational principles, its own dynamics and its own campaigns. Obviously RedFox as a youth organization is linked to the party, but the members of RedFox are not members of the party, they are members of the party's youth organization. The focus is on action and education.
We build RedFox from concrete actions and initiatives, both in the territory and online:
DiverCity, an annual festival organized by and for young people in a working-class neighborhood in one of the country's largest cities. It was one of the initiatives when RedFox was launched, with a first edition in 2015. And every year in May since then. It is an initiative that is driven by the youth themselves, to put diversity and an anti-racist message forward in a positive way and through cultural expressions. The 2022 edition brought together nearly 6,000 young people.
The historic 2019 school climate mobilization was also an important moment in building RedFox. At that time, starting in January and lasting for several weeks, thousands of young people led actions and went on strike for the climate in Belgium. At the height of the movement, on Thursday 24 January 2019, 35,000 young people marched through the streets of Brussels. Several RedFox youth took up the fight in their schools and towns. They set up committees, spoke out in public, led training sessions and organized strikes. They have had thousands of petitions signed to make public transportation free. It is a school of struggle that has shaped a whole generation of young activists in Belgium, and that has also allowed a qualitative leap in the construction of RedFox.
During the corona crisis, when many young people were suffering from being cooped up in their homes and withdrawing into themselves, RedFox set up the ‘Youth in Solidarity’ initiative to inspire hundreds of young people to concrete solidarity actions. Young people have helped out in nursing homes and medical facilities, distributed meals to the homeless and migrants, and collected laptops for pupils in need.
RedFox has also led other actions and campaigns, including Solidarity with Palestine during a new Israeli aggression against Palestinians in May 2021, or for the rights of students against discriminatory school rules.
The major campaign launched last year was the one around the day against racism on March 21. The goal is to create a large youth movement in the whole country over a few years, with strikes and actions in several hundred schools. To create a broad current against racism among young people and to put the far right on the defensive. And through this kind of campaign, discover new activists and allow young people to experience activism, political struggle, mobilization, organization, etc.
For this purpose, RedFox has created an Action Pack, a tool in the form of a booklet that brings in-depth content to the level of young people (through comics, through culture, through an interactive aspect) and prompts action through tips and examples of what can be done in their school or at their level. This, combined with an organizational plan to activate and mentor members, has activated many young people and has resulted in actions in over 100 schools across the country with thousands of young people being reached. These actions were organized by members but also by new contacts. In total the Action Pack was sent to nearly 3.500 people, including 500 non-members. It was the young people themselves who took the organization of the actions into their own hands, the vast majority for the first time. Sometimes small symbolic actions, and in some cases also sit-ins and collective actions. In one school, a young person even gave a presentation on racism to the other students in the school based on the content of the booklet. This entire campaign is a pioneering experiment in organization and awareness building. And the goal is to further develop this model in the months and years to come.
The other area of work for RedFox is online, via communication and social networks. The potential is huge to reach young people but also to interact, organize and activate them. RedFox has launched an online shop where young people can order free stickers and posters related to the campaigns and the main issues that affect them. More than 20.000 young people have ordered stickers and materials from RedFox against sexism, against racism or in solidarity with the Palestinians. That is 1.5 million stickers. All over the country today you can find RedFox stickers that are applied by members but also by many young non-members. These are the same campaigns and actions that extend and complement each other on a digital level. It is a simple and direct way to activate people. Just like the young people who ordered the Action Pack on racism, these young people can then also be contacted and invited to become members and be active with RedFox.
RedFox's visuals and videos on social networks like Instagram and TikTok also reach thousands of youth. Some RedFox youth videos on TikTok reach up to 1 million views. Following a video on TikTok about racism where we invited people to order the RedFox stickers, we had for example more than 1,000 young people who placed orders in one weekend. They were all contacted and many of them became members. Online activism thus goes hand in hand with mobilisation and organisation on the ground. The digital evolution offers enormous opportunities to mobilize and organize the youth. This should certainly not be left to the extreme right.
RedFox works on social media with its own visual identity, which was developed in collaboration with young people. And also uses this visual identity in its off-line material (stickers, flyers, etc.). Merchandising is also developed based on this visual identity. Early experiences reveal the enormous potential of progressive merchandising. There is a huge demand for sweaters, t-shirts, hats with progressive slogans and allusions. During the Covid crisis, mouth masks were also popular with youth. Young leftists also want to express their identity and their ideas visually. Sharing progressive visuals or messages is also a form of youth activism. Young people are looking for ways to express their identity, to display the values they stand for. Their clothes are a statement. Hence the importance of having such an offer.
Finally, RedFox is also built around fixed activities, notably the summer camp and the BoostDayz. The camp is a week in the summer that brings together about 200 young people from all over the country, mostly members, and gives them the opportunity to get to know each other, create bonds, but also give training and prepare campaigns. BoostDayzs is an academic support initiative for young people as they approach exams. We work with RedFox chapters to organize group spaces where youth can come to review and get help from adult volunteers, in a free and accessible way. This is a concrete aid initiative that builds solidarity, and also organizes adults in support around RedFox - including party members who come to help.
Vision and principles for building RedFox
All of this gives you an idea of the experiences we have with our RedFox youth movement. And it reflects the ideas around which we are building RedFox:
RedFox is a youth movement that addresses youth as youth, in all their diversity (also thematic). We don't want to reduce young people to their status of pupils. Young people are pupils, sportspeople, gamers, lovers, tinkerers, skaters, TikTokers, musicians, partygoers, jokers, friends, volunteers or monitors... In short, they are young.
We want to approach young people with their qualities, their potential, their talents, their activist potential, their commitment.
In order for young people to carry the movement, we need to do politics in an appropriate way: Both in terms of content (knowing what lives in young people, starting from the interests of young people) and in terms of form (finding creative and varied ways of informing and acting). Young people are interested in many things, ask many questions and want to do many different things. Our youth movement must respond to this need by addressing different themes (racism, inequality, climate, sexism, imperialism, ...) and in what concerns the form of the campaigns. Young people are diverse and interested in various societal issues. Our youth movement must reflect this diversity by varying the themes and forms of activities. Doing politics right is essential for young people themselves to carry the youth movement, mobilize other young people and make the movement grow.
Young people have cultural, athletic, emotional and social needs, and we must take them into account and enrich them. Politics can be expressed through culture, music, theatre, video, sports... RedFox is a youth movement that is also a meeting place, a place of fun and leisure for young people.
We develop campaigns, projects, actions that install a dynamic of collective action for change. With ‘ready to use’ materials for local sections, both in terms of action and education. With a yearly schedule with one or more campaigns that provide a political and organizational framework for a period.
In all this, the role of social media is crucial: Social networks are a place to raise awareness, organize and mobilize youth. Forms of activism on social media complement social movements in the streets.
Group dynamics are very important for young people. Certainly during adolescence, the feeling of belonging to a group, of feeling accepted as you are, of meeting new people and making friendships, these are essential things. That's why at RedFox we pay special attention to the atmosphere and group dynamics, to getting to know each other and to taking the time to get to know our members. The leaders strive to create a space where everyone can find their place, express themselves and participate in collective projects.
We do political education in an appropriate way. We opt for a youthful and pedagogical approach that makes young people want to learn and discover things. We offer them tailor-made training on topics that concern them, and provide the basis for a Marxist education for young people. RedFox uses the knowledge of Marxist pedagogy to politically educate young people on all the issues that affect and animate them.
The work on values is very important for building RedFox, values such as solidarity, respect for others, a sense of community, self-confidence, equality, internationalism, a sense of responsibility, respect for work, ... Because young people are in full development, in search of their own identity and vision of the world. And the values they learn are values they will carry with them for life. In every contact with young people, we ourselves actively promote these values, above all in practice.
RedFox is an organization of young people, for young people and by young people. The organization is structured at different levels, with members, facilitators and instructors. Facilitators are an essential level: They are young people starting from 16 years old who commit themselves and take responsibilities in the practice to build RedFox. The whole point is to trust young people and make them take responsibility. Instructors are young adults of 18+ years of age, who form the leadership of the local chapters and at the national level.
Specific attention is given to the young people of the working class. RedFox caters to youth from all backgrounds and social classes. But the challenge is breaking through to the youth from the working class. Addressing both general secondary school students and technical and vocational school students. There is a wealth, a knowledge, a know-how among this youth that we want to capture. These young people have often been relegated to technical and professional areas in the school system, devalued and diminished. They have been convinced that they are worthless, and yet these are the young people who will be among the "working class heroes" of this world. They are the future workers of tomorrow, the ones who will keep society going, the ones who produce the wealth. They are at the heart of the technology and the knowledge of production. And to build our society of tomorrow, socialism, we will need these young people and their abilities.
Conclusion - Youth is the future
Through the sharing of these reflections and this concrete example, I hope to have been able to give an idea of where we are in Belgium, how far we have come and the challenges that are still ahead of us.
I think, to conclude, that the main thing is this: We want an end to the exploitation of man by man, to end the depletion of the planet's resources. And this is something that young people will achieve.