In a 1968 interview, Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton said “The revolution has always been in the hands of the young. The young always inherit the revolution.” This little soundbite is often quoted but the context is usually left out. Newton was talking about the potential for youthful revolutionary fervor to be blunted and co-opted by reforms. He continued: “I doubt that under the present system any kind of program can be launched that will be able to buy off all these young people.”
At the time, the mood among America’s youth was indeed revolutionary. Opposition to the war in Vietnam had reached a fever pitch. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just a few months prior, setting off riots across the nation. And in the same month the interview was published, militant anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention were brutally suppressed by the Chicago police.
But after the Vietnam War finally ended and a series of landmark civil rights legislation passed, the movements that created this revolutionary moment lost their raison d’etre. Some radical groups, like the Black Panther Party, were actively destroyed by the FBI, while others lost momentum and simply unraveled.
If you study the biographies of 1960s radicals, some familiar themes emerge. By the 1980s, most of the young revolutionaries Newton spoke of had turned off, bought in and sold out. Many went on to write books and settle into cozy lives in academia, like Weather Underground founders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
Some used their activist cred to start consultancies like the environmentalist Jack Weinberg, who is famous for coining the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30.” Yippies leader Jerry Rubin wound up on Wall Street. Newton’s fellow Black Panther Bobby Rush became a surrogate for the failed presidential run of a racist billionaire.
David Horowitz, a young leftist professor Newton quoted at length in his theoretical text Intercommunalism, turned into a notorious far-right crank.
Others didn’t take such a drastic conservative turn — they merely became milquetoast liberals. In 2020, several leading members of the Students for a Democratic Society signed an open letter addressed to the young left, pleading with them to vote for Joe Biden.
In a manner of speaking, Newton was right to say that no one program could buy off all those young people. It wasn’t a single reform but rather a range of policies, institutions and historical conditions that led to the marginalization of revolutionary currents in the United States.
Without a focal point, such as a genocidal war or an oppressive apartheid system, movements lost steam and many of the organizations that comprised them came undone. The largest among them were co-opted by mainstream liberalism and the Democratic Party. Those that weren’t found themselves pushed to the fringes of political discourse.
In addition to these factors at the macro level, there is also the seemingly natural tendency for folks to moderate their political views with age. The qualification “seemingly” is used here because it is not necessarily inevitable. But as people grow older, their material conditions often improve. They have more to lose and less to gain from radicalism.
The past few years have seen a resurgence in leftwing youth activism, from the youth-led climate justice movement to the millions who took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. This raises the question: Will this generation follow the same trajectory as the (formerly) radical Boomers of the 1960s?
The mechanism by which radicals are turned into moderates is breaking down while the types of crises that produce radicalism are ramping up.
Where Boomers and Gen Xers generally experienced the moderating effects of a mortgage, a family and a steady job, most Zoomers and Millennials will not.
Most live precarious lives and will continue to for the foreseeable future, with COVID-induced economic crisis foreclosing on what few job prospects they may have had. Those under 40 will be less well off than the preceding generations for the first time in decades.
As a result, they won’t be able to buy houses or have kids or develop the more conservative outlook that tends to accompany those life changes. Many will be saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.
While many of the driving forces behind 1960s radicalism disappeared, those that are rallying the younger generations are only growing stronger.
We have less than a decade to address climate change before we reach a point of no return. The crisis is starting to conspicuously manifest in the form of natural disasters, like last summer’s apocalyptic wildfires and the unprecedented winter storms that devastated Texas recently.
As these incidents grow in frequency, they can be expected to have a radicalizing effect on youth. The sense of urgency that climate catastrophe instills in the young mitigates against any attempt by moderates to co-opt these movements with appeals to “pragmatism” and incremental change.
More Americans have now died from COVID-19 than in World War II, Vietnam and Korea combined — 10 times the number of American deaths in the war that drove so many Boomers out into the streets in their youth.
What’s more, Gen Z is the first generation to be born entirely after the Cold War. Having grown up during the “End of History,” they haven’t been indoctrinated in anti-communism the way preceding generations have.
Thanks in part to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Millennials and Zoomers are about as likely to have a positive view of socialism as they are of capitalism. By contrast, 39 percent of Gen Xers and and 32 percent of Boomers have a positive view of socialism.
The prospect that younger generations might only grow more radical with age could overcome a contradiction that has prevented leftwing movements from becoming sustainable: Those who have the will, energy and desire to make revolution often lack the organizational experience and political maturity to carry it out. By the time they develop this, they’ve often “grown out” of radicalism.
When Generation Z as a whole comes of age, it will join Millennials, who have been radicalized by the experience of two economic crises, two wars, a pandemic and a climate emergency. Together, the two generations outnumber all older generations combined by 4 million, and the demographic — not to mention the political — balance can only be expected to shift as time goes on.
The stage is now set for a seismic shift in political consciousness. So the question remains: Will the heirs to the revolution squander their inheritance?