Hatching a revolution

How Chapman U. Produced a Socialist Student Leader

Photo by Jack GouldWhen he was still a wide-eyed high school student growing up in Lake Forest, Steve Hatch was like most kids. His main concerns were mundane: music, friends, sports and school. All that began to change when his high school English teacher posed the following question during a classroom debate: "Who here believes that the government really exists only for the rich?"

"I was the only student to raise my hand," says Hatch.

Flash forward to the present. Hatch is now a senior at Chapman University, where he double majors in history and political science. He is also a member of the Young Peoples' Socialist League, a youth affiliate of the Socialist Party USA, and chairman of the Orange County chapter of the Socialist Party.

As of this month, Hatch is also president of Chapman's student government, which makes him the most powerful student at what is arguably Orange County's most conservative campus.

"I don't think I'd be a socialist if it weren't for Chapman University," Hatch said.

The fact that Chapman made Hatch a socialist may explain the kind of socialist he is. Hatch's approach to socialism is the most inclusive imaginable, inspired less by Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto or Leon Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed than Upton Sinclair's user-friendly The Jungle, which documented an immigrant family's struggle for survival inside Chicago's stockyards. Hatch also loves the adventure-oriented novels of Jack London, perhaps America's most prominent early socialist—and an early critic of the sectarian disputes that plagued the American Left throughout the past century.

Hatch says he became student body president at Chapman only after being urged to run for the job by friends. His previous experience in student government was a brief stint as a member of the student House of Representatives —a position Hatch automatically received last year after being elected secretary of Chapman's Progressive Student Alliance (PSA).

Hatch helped found PSA during his sophomore year at Chapman. But the idea for the group emerged during his freshman year, shortly after Hatch gave a speech during an oral communications class and announced to a bewildered crowd of 150 fellow students that he was a socialist. "I also denounced communism and the Soviet Union," he adds, but that distinction was lost on most of the crowd. While the majority of his audience simply stared at him in a mixture of fear and loathing, exactly one student cheered.

"That guy turned out to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)," Hatch recalls. "At first, we wanted to form a DSA chapter on campus. But we knew there was no possibility of that happening because most of the people that were interested were either disgruntled Democrats, Greens, liberals, anarchists or communists."

Hatch and his friends chose to name the inchoate group Progressive Student Alliance, so as not to turn off prospective members who didn't consider themselves socialists.

Twenty-five people turned out for their first meeting, but PSA's most obvious and immediate impact was on Chapman's more conservative students. They quickly formed their own opposition group, the Conservative Student Association.

PSA's diversity turned out to be unstable ground for their big progressive tent. "There was a group of people in the PSA who were more libertarian-oriented," explained Matt Ishii, a sophomore and self-declared socialist. "Their main focus was the legalization of drugs. Considering how conservative Chapman is, this was a source of contention within the group. We had to tone things down."

Ishii said PSA's activities were always relatively modest: no angry demonstrations, just a monthly movie night and an occasional political debate featuring off-campus speakers. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the group's membership has dwindled to just four people. "Ever since Steven got his appointment to the student government, we haven't done anything," he added. "It's hard to gauge how successful we've been."

If nothing else, PSA has helped give voice to a minority of Chapman students disgusted by what they see as a materialistic student culture that eschews intellectual debate while espousing social popularity, wealth and fashion. One of those disenchanted students is Gustavo Arellano, a senior who serves as Chapman's student director of multicultural affairs. Arellano considers himself a socialist and, like Hatch, credits Chapman with making him that way.

"The libertarian ideology of the school, which worships making money and embraces consumerism, pushes people like me into Leftist causes—in my case, socialism," Arellano said. "I always see kids at Chapman University who have never worked in their lives, gabbing on cell phones, driving the latest cars and wearing top-of-the-line clothes. . . . Most of these kids are born wealthy and have no idea of real work."

Hatch expects his toughest job as student body president will be trying to change the attitudes held by the school's administration—and a majority of Chapman's white students—about issues like multiculturalism. Although many minority students support the creation of a multicultural center, Chapman's administration opposes the idea.

"Students at Chapman—and white people in general—don't even want to talk about race issues," Hatch lamented. "But it's really important to educate people about what's going on in the rest of the world and why they should care. It's a battle."

 
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