The past fifty years have witnessed successive waves of popular protest and social unrest largely inspired by the conditions facing young people. For Alex Homits of the Connolly Youth Movement, the possibilities presented by current period of youth politicisation can only be harnessed through organising in the ‘community, workplace and homeplace’.
A startling poll, conducted in 2017 among people aged 18-34, found that more than half would participate in an uprising ‘against the generation in power if it happened in the next days or months’. If this is not indicative of the condition of how young people feel about their environment, social and economic conditions, and their view of politics, then I am not sure what else could indicate as incisively the atmosphere in Ireland.
The immediate question that must be posed is why do young people in Ireland feel this way? In statistics, we can find a variety of answers and in statistics a summary of those answers will be presented. According to figures from the EU, IMF and ECB 10% of all Irish young people in the South emigrated during the last recession. Statistics for the North are equally stark, cited at 3,000 young people a year leaving and never coming back. The result is that approximately one in six people born in Ireland are still living abroad, their destinations the same as those generations who went before them – Britain, Australia, North America and, to a lesser extent, Continental Europe.
This is not a new phenomenon in Irish history, and therefore carries with it a certain emotive weight. For me, as someone who was part of the ‘New Irish’ it was a bit more confusing in the immediate post-crash period to see people I had gone to school with essentially pack up and leave the country in droves to anywhere but here. I did not entirely understand what was happening and more importantly, I had no intention of leaving – we had already migrated once and as far as I was concerned, that was enough.
The departures from 08-11 were done differently but the reasons that underpinned them were the same as every generation before. The reason they were different is as a result of the work put in by American and European capital. One of the primary means of rehabilitating the ideas around emigration has been the J1 Visa to America. This programme is well advertised on every university campus in Ireland and pushed extensively. It is essentially a summer work visa. It paints out the American experience as a magnificent adventure for a young person, full of new friends and new memories and the like. The actual purpose of visas and programmes like this is to rehabilitate and normalise emigration, historically the safety valve deployed by the political class in times of economic difficulty. It’s OK to leave your friends and family is the message behind this visa and to some degree, that’s why the 08-11 mass emigrations of young people were different.
The Irish youth today
As the economy continues to shift to one that focuses on management of finance capital and services, opportunities for the majority of young people continue to diminish. A more recent article by an Irish Times columnist paints the picture perfectly. There is no place for the young, creative or the homeless, and becoming homeless is not as difficult a task as you might imagine.
Many young people get sucked into working and giving their lives to the hospitality industry – which seems like a great place when you’re studying or doing something part-time, but quickly becomes something you invest yourself in to live, settle and start a family. The hospitality industry is fully aware of this hyper-exploitative relationship and often deliberately maintains a mostly student body of workers in their workplaces. Easier to control, manipulate for hours and ensure that they remain dependent on the manager doing the roster. From our perspective, it’s one of the few jobs available, and if it isn’t, the alternatives are not great. Low paid, precarious work dominates and prevails among the youth.
The low union density within the industry is one of the main factors sustaining these horrible conditions. This feeds into a wider issue in Ireland – the new industries which young people are drawn into are not unionised. Union culture, tradition and history is lost on them. New members of unions who have matured and entered the workforce in the last few years, particularly in Mandate and Unite, have pioneered more radical measures and should be commended. But it isn’t enough and much more will need to be done to reverse the pattern of declining union density in Ireland.
In summary, the Irish youth are pissed off and increasingly vocal. We see this in how they vote, how they become active in referendums and how they respond to disruptions of Fine Gael meetings. Young people are more politically engaged in the 2011-2020 period than they have been since the Vietnam War and 1968. The capitalist class and its political agents have activated them by depriving them of opportunities and dignity.
The climate strikes
One of the most important and key features in the radicalisation of the youth are the global climate strikes, which occurred several times last year and brought secondary and primary school students out. The premise of the strike was simple: students withdraw themselves from school in order to protest, similar to a withdrawal of labour. My organisation, the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM), attended several of these protests. I managed to get in at three. What I saw there was beautiful.
Thousands upon thousands of radicalised and empowered young people marching together. Many of them brought pieces of art they made in school or at home. Some brought anti-capitalists slogans, I saw someone walking down the road with a flag of the Soviet Union. In Cork, when members of the CYM joined the march, we got a huge cheer: “The Communists are here!” This was an insightful little event. What did it demonstrate?
Unlike the mobilisations surrounding the Iraq War in 2003, the spreading of easily accessible internet via smartphones has helped reframe how young people engage in discussions. Memes, gifs, and so on form a central plank in introducing the youth to political ideas. What little anecdotal snippets like mine and of other comrades suggest, is that young people understand, at least on surface level the link between capitalism and climate change. As a result of this, they draw conclusions and those conclusions lead them to begin to scrutinize the world as they see it.
In parallel to this growing politicisation we have seen how political youth organisations have been slow to keep up the pace. They exist largely on campuses and function as social clubs for young people looking to pursue a career in politics. Performative acts such as sleep outs for homelessness done by Young Fine Gael or watching movies and eating pizzas dominate their activities. Campus political organisations have also failed to materialise outside of their own campuses, rarely engaging people not in third level education or concerning themselves with class issues.
The result of this is that the largest youth organisations numerically which are student based are politically ineffectual on bread and butter issues. Rising tuition fees, rent increases, the privatisation of university and a rapid slide in work conditions, while in third level education and out of it, have created an incredibly difficult environment for young people and the response from the student movement has been virtually non-existent.
For the most part, Student Union positions and Union of Students of Ireland (USI) positions are interlinked with the career climb of ‘activism’. You pursue election, then you either stand again or you grade up a little higher to another position and finally you either look for work in the Trade Union movement or as a political candidate. This is common, and unfortunate, but ultimately leaves the youth rudderless to combat austerity.
The limits of parliamentarism
Many political youth organisations are completely entrapped within campus politics, rarely having the creativity or innovation to break that mould. This is linked to electoralism and parliamentarianism as being the only methods of expressing one’s desire for change. I would go as far to say that political parties which rely exclusively on parliamentary means, have the strongest representation on campus and reproduce a presence on campus. These organisations are the graveyard of the radicalism that the youth possess.
We see right now, youth sections of various center-left organisations competing with one another on Twitter as to whose policies on x,y and z are better. These youth organisations have many people in them as a result of their immediate conditions, but remain gridlocked structurally and institutionally by their organisations.
Our organisation, the CYM, has attempted to circumvent this gridlock and is composed of mostly members who are working, renting and experiencing capitalist realism. Their material conditions significantly inform their politics and our ability to present a coherent, scientific analysis of how society functions has provided us with a cutting edge that all other youth organisations do not possess. We place an emphasis on community, on workplace and on homeplace. We are not afraid to explore the limitations of the law and if necessary, go beyond them. In many ways, we have assumed the role and are beginning to assume the role of what Ógra Shinn Fein might have been before the Good Friday Agreement and what Na Fianna were before the Irish War of Independence: a radical youth organisation committed to one objective.
Trade unions and the youth
The youth committees/representative bodies of most trade unions are completely inactive and function as talking shops. This is the result of two major phenomena.
Firstly, it is the decline of the trade union in general. Since 1973 the number of workers in a trade union has declined, so has union militancy. Large sections of Irish trade union movement, like their counterparts in Britain, are ironically anti-Communist, anti-political education and in favour of class collaboration. What is meant by this is rather straightforward: the legislation that devolves industrial relations into negotiations and endless arbitration has diluted militancy and undermined the ability of unions to act. As a result, their decline has continued. This pattern is seen equally in the United States and Britain.
Secondly, as a product of the above events, young people have not joined, as they might have before. Young people are not educated about the merits of the trade union movement and rarely engage with it. Often when cold calling to various businesses or speaking to my peers you get a blank face when mentioning the word ‘union’.
The pattern of unionisation is likely to continue to change in the coming years – whether for better or worse depends on to extent to which the institutional left responds effectively to, and shapes, changes in the economic base. In the Connolly Youth Movement, our members receive political education on the merits and importance of the union movement before being aware of it and then joining, but join them. A part of our strategy is to reverse the stagnant approach and encourage young people to join with a more militant and combative attitude to dealing with problems. Minor successes have occurred, but none worth yet mentioning.
Needless to say, however, the methods the CYM has adopted have proven to be popular among our peers. Occupations of businesses, airing their nasty businesses practices or protesting relentlessly on their doorstep have yielded better results than many months of negotiations and even shocked some union officials whose entire raison d’etre is to ‘negotiate’. We are in the middle of one of the greatest shifts of wealth in Irish society; the time to negotiate ended a long time ago.
Internationally, this is following the same trend
As more people are drawn to the unorthodox and creative ways of challenging institutional power structures in Ireland, this follows a similar trend all across Europe. The festivals that the KNE (Greek Communist Youth) and JCP (Portugese Communist Youth) organise are drawn in hundreds of thousands of people, while the resurgent Communist Party in Italy is once more inspiring a generation of very angry and disenfranchised young people. The trends of growth in our fraternal organisations suggest that crisis has precipitated a polarisation of society and we are seeing it firsthand.
Piece-meal solutions to systemic problems are no longer acceptable and the widespread use of memes, the internet and an immediate access to all knowledge and communication has radicalised young people in a way that was impossible before. In the US, 7/10 millennials say they would vote for a socialist. While my idea of socialism is dramatically different to the average American’s idea, this is nevertheless a huge leap and development of ideas represented in polling.
Complacency is the very opposite of what young radical minded activists should be doing. Now is the time for us to engage, estate by estate, community by community, workplace by workplace and build a coherent understanding of and challenge to capital.
The Connolly Youth Movement
The organisation that I have had the privilege of being General Secretary of has continued to blossom into a well-established youth organisation on the left. There are many hurdles for us to cross before we reach the number 1,000 members, but we are well on the way there. We have observed the failings and successes of other youth structures and synthesised them into our strategy. We have also drawn greatly from our fraternal comrades in the Leninist Komsomol in Russia and the Greek Communist Youth, who both boast membership in the hundreds of thousands.
It might have been thought impossible for an explicit communist youth organisation ever to take off in Ireland. In the past, Catholicism and the hegemony of right-wing politics proved to be obstacles that could not really be overcome on one hand, and on the other hand, the most militant elements of the working class and youth filled the ranks of the republican movement and its many offshoots.
Today, the political landscape is very different. There is no armed conflict that is drawing on huge portions of the working-class youth. You could say there is virtually no struggle at all, no opposition to the powerful and mighty of Irish society. What exists is a struggle for identity. The youth organisations of today style themselves as representatives of a long historical lineage, one riddled with violence and struggle. This is not an exclusive phenomenon, and is even more acute in the loyalist community, where the question of unification has intensified discussion of Unionism’s future.
Big house Unionism is splintering at the seams, but this does not seem to ultimately translate to changes in the political landscape or a sort of ‘thawing’ among young people from loyalist working-class communities. But what has occurred is the transformation of Belfast City Centre and the wider economy into one focused on service and hospitality. All young people are now pooled together in the same workforce. The practical benefit of this miserable arrangement of employment is that as trade unionists, we can now seek to organise young people across communities along class lines and penetrate the insular nature that sometimes accompanies staunch communities.
Class interest above all else
I like to think that this is where the Connolly Youth excels. Our small organisation has captured national headlines six or seven times in the last 24 months, and each time precipitated a wave of applications. People join us because they want to pick a fight with those oppressing them. They want to improve their workplace conditions, don’t want to pay extortionate rent and don’t want to be evicted. It’s not complicated – but organising around these issues can be. We place our class interest above all else, and intersect that class interest with other underlying issues that capitalism reproduces or exaggerates for its own benefit.
CYM members are involved in their communities, in their trade unions and in local housing action groups. Locally and nationally we try to strengthen the aforementioned groups and inject much needed political education. We believe that if our peers are politically educated, then their ability to fight their enemy – the capitalist – is improved. We believe this on the basis of the collective experience of the working class since there has been one. We believe it and articulate our slogan: AGITATE, EDUCATE, ORGANISE!
Two quotes, articulate the atmosphere of our membership and how they understand their own reality. One is from Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker whose anniversary of 39 years is marked as I write this; another is from Huey P. Newton, who was one of the founders and leaders of the Black Panther Party. Our organisation strives to stand in the tradition of Connolly and many revolutionaries who have become before us, politically and culturally.
“I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic.” – Bobby Sands
“Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death. We will have to be driven out with a stick.” –Huey P. Newton
Only by imbuing this strong sense of self among the youth of Europe, will the dramatic systemic change that we all strive and desire come.
Alex Homits is a Dublin-based trade union activist and organiser, and General Secretary of the Connolly Youth Movement.
Originally published on 15 May 2020 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.