Young people suffer systematic oppression in capitalist society. In Britain young workers earn, on average, far less than their adult counterparts. Employment protection is minimal. You have to work in a job for a year before you are protected against unfair dismissal, which leaves young workers with-out basic rights such as compensation for redundancy.
Even the very low minimum wage, introduced to such fanfare by the Blair government, discriminates against under 18s and under 21s, who receive less pay for doing exactly the same job as their older workmates.
In the former colonies of Asia, Africa and Latin America, young people suffer even more brutal and unrestrained exploitation. The case of Primark clothes being stitched by children earning pennies a day is only the most recent example of this exploitation. Nor is it the worst.
In the slums and shanty towns of Brazil, homeless children huddling in doorways are the target of organised assassinations in a murderous campaign of “social cleansing” by police and paramilitary gangs.
Youth are denied basic democratic rights. In Britain people who are old enough to fight and die “for their country” are deemed too young to vote for the governments which decide on war and peace. A propaganda campaign against “youth crime” justifies the return of Stop and Search – the disproportionate racist harassment of black youth.
In school, youth are prevented from exercising any control over the administration or content of their education. Blind obedience is instilled as a positive virtue. This prepares the future worker for the labour discipline that capitalism demands, and gives servitude its ideological legitimation.
Sexual repression is also fundamental to the oppression of young people. In the family the sexuality of the child is taboo – condemned to silence and ignorance. The sexually active youth is persecuted – masturbation and under-age sex are stigmatised as shameful and “damaging”.
At the same time, silence and the culture of obedience create the very conditions in which the sexual exploitation and abuse of children can flourish – whether under the tyrannical prison conditions of “care” institutions or within the smothering moral confusion of the family.
All of this oppression is rooted in the material conditions and social relations that shape our lives. The fundamental source of this oppression lies in one of the base units of capitalism – the family – one of the most important institutions for what Marxists call the reproduction of labour power.
The main productive work of capitalism is carried out in the factory, mine and office. But the vast amount of work that must be done to get today’s workers back to work the next day and to nurture the workforce of tomorrow is carried out in the family home. Domestic work is done at no cost to capitalism. And in the isolation of separate families, the ideology of discipline and obedience is instilled in the future generation.
Capitalism reinforces this family unit through the systematic oppression of women and homosexuals; alternatives to the nuclear family are discriminated against in law. Young people are prevented from living where they want, they are paid less than other workers, are stopped from going out at night in order to reinforce their subordination to the family wage, the family regime and the family’s care.
But oppression produces the spirit of rebellion. Young people are often to the fore in movements of resistance. The predecessor of the Bolshevik Party – the RSDLP – made great headway among radical students in the late 1890s. The Bolshevik Party itself was made up predominantly of teenagers and young workers when it took power in 1917.
Young people have always been at the forefront of struggles, from fighting the water cannon outside the G8 summit in Rostock, to the refugee camps of Lebanon and the West Bank, young people everywhere are in the vanguard of revolutionary struggles against racism, oppression and imperialism.
The reason for this lies not only in the weight of oppression that young people face. Their relative lack of conservatism is because they have not experienced the full weight of bourgeois ideology or the accumulated defeats that can demoralise and exhaust older generations. The youth are by nature directly concerned with the future. This makes them especially receptive to revolutionary ideas.
At the same time the conditions under which young people live can create real barriers to their recruitment to a revolutionary political party. This is why in the history of the revolutionary movement special efforts have been made to reach out to young people and organise them in the struggle for socialism – in a revolutionary working class youth movement.
This movement should be organisationally independent of the party, while the party should endeavour to persuade the youth to adopt a consistent Marxist world view and a principled programme.
In 1916, Lenin explained why this is necessary, not merely as a tactic but as a principle:
“The middle aged and the aged often do not know how to approach the youth, for the youth must of necessity advance to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, in other circumstances than their fathers. Incidentally, that is why we must decidedly favour organisational independence of the Youth League, not only because the opportunists fear such independence, but because of the very nature of the case. For unless they have complete independence, the youth will be unable either to train good socialists from their midst or prepare themselves to lead socialism forward.”
The task of revolutionaries today is to reach out to the new generation in whose hands the future of the planet lies, to apply the rich lessons of the history of the revolutionary movement and organise the working class youth for the obliteration of all oppression, exploitation and war.