Beyond the "solidarity of the same” - Solidarity, class and empowerment


Solidarity is a word that fills the songs, slogans and even names of movements in the anarchist, socialist and left tradition. Yet the meaning of the term is often assumed to be common knowledge that needs no further explanation or enquiry. In line with the theme of this issue of the Irish Anarchist Review this article aims to look a little deeper into the history and meaning of this term and how it should inform our activity today and the problems we face. Particularly in situations when equal empowerment between all the participants in the solidarity relation cannot be assumed as a starting point. Clearly solidarity, class and equality are all in some way intertwined, but the question is how, exactly?


History of the word

Let us begin at the beginning with the history of the word. The origin of the word “solidarity” is relatively recent, appearing first (in French) in the great Encyclopédie of the French enlightenment of the late 18th century. It appeared as a term for the legal situation of being jointly liable for a debt, solidarité being the noun derived from the adjective solidaire, from the legal latin “in solidus”. That being the collective legal term for the named group of people, any one of whom could be required to make good the debt at the creditor’s request.

At some stage between the publication of the volume of the Encyclopédie containing the entry for solidarité and the publication in 1840 of Etienne Cabet’s “Voyage en Icarie”, the word had been appropriated by the nascent socialist and communist movement and acquired something close to its current meaning.

A French radical, Cabet had been exposed to the ideas of the original Co-operative movement while in exile in London from 1834-1839. Although taking his inspiration from the utilitarian philosophy of Irish proto-communist William Thompson, neither the latter’s atheism or utilitarianism appealed to Cabet. In Thompson’s philosophy, the utilitarian principle of benevolence underlay the appeal to welfare for all as the goal of social transformation.

The passage from benevolence to solidarity in the language of Cabet and other French socialists of 1840 reflected perhaps not just a translation from English to French, but also a growing reflection of the specific appeal of socialism to the dispossessed and working class. In any case a clearer distinction is made between solidarity and altruism. The latter concept representing a benevolence towards fellow human beings divorced from any notion of personal interest in the matter. In distinction from benevolence, the early French socialist adoption of solidarity as as core value reflects the notion of common interest of the initial legal term.

Moving from the pre-1848 socialist movement to the late 19th century, the notion of solidarity was taken up by the founding fathers of sociology. Sociology itself was initially a term associated with the early socialist movement, being the neologism popularised by the positivist socialist Auguste Comte for his “science” of society. However the founding fathers of modern sociology were motivated more by opposition to the socialist movement. Indeed the initial problem that these later sociologists set themselves was to how to make modern society sustainable and avert the threat of class war and social revolution that had first shown its public face in 1848. A motive that was to lead to a later sociologist, Talcott Parsons, into describing sociology as mainly concerned with “the problem of order”.

The early sociologist who most adopted this approach to solidarity was Émile Durkheim. Nowadays in 21st century sociology Durkheim is deeply unfashionable, often dismissed as a “social conservative” with little other regard. While he was certainly committed to defending bourgeois society against social revolution, yet within the context of turn of the century France he was far from being unambiguously on the right. As not only a bourgeois Frenchman, but also a Jew, Durkheim was an ardent partisan of the pro-Dreyfus camp in the 1894 scandal that divided French society of the time, pitting the forces of anti-Semitism, Catholic integralism and far-right reaction against progressive, liberal and left Dreyfus supporters.

In like fashion, in his sociology Durkheim reacted against the thesis on solidarity by Ferdinand Tönnies, an early German sociologist. Tönnies invented the now infamous Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction, which translates roughly as (natural/traditional) community versus (artificial) association. To the two types of social order he ascribed corresponding bonds of “organic” and “mechanical” solidarity, respectively. Durkheim fundamentally rejected Tönnies’ schema. Above all by reversing the polarity of mechanical and organic solidarity.

For Durkheim mechanical solidarity was based on the artificiality of sameness. By contrast, for him organic solidarity represented the interdependence of the different trades, professions (and classes!) of French citizens, whether Christian or Jew, in modern society with its developed division of labour. Of course in the post-WW2 West, with its recoil from the “blood and soil” themes of the Third Reich, Durkheim’s view of social order has become part of the mainstream to the extent that it is generally no longer remarked on and all that remains in current sociology is his unfashionable “everyone in their place” social conservativism. But that doesn’t mean that his objections to the “solidarity of the same” as a viable basis for social bonds are necessarily outdated.

Problematic - tribalism or charity?
In fact, the problematization of the “solidarity of the same” is going to be part of our discussion here. Historically the socialist movement, in all its forms, has tended to talk about solidarity and class primarily in terms of commonalities, the things we all share - or supposedly do.

In part this is both natural and necessary given the competitive nature of capitalism, that sets worker against worker, as well as against bosses, in the absence of any shared commitment to making common cause. This has historically been the role of solidarity for the workers movement - as a unifying value. The shared ethos that allows us to unite against a common foe. That the “class enemy” often tended to be represented as a cigar-chomping, monocle-wearing, top-hatted cartoon villain, is one thing. But far more of a problem has been the same stereotyping tendency reflecting back on our own self-image of the representative “virtuous” proletarian. The problem with uniforms is there’s always those that don’t fit in them. No sooner did Marx and Engels declare in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism was more and more reducing all the world’s producers into a single undifferentiated mass of proletarians, than Marx was inventing the category of the “lumpenproletariat” for all the “dregs” who didn’t fit his Victorian prejudices of the ideal disciplined worker. Glorious proletariat or swinish multitude? Like Christ’s poor, the “rabble” it seems are with us always.

Of course, solidarity has to be discriminatory to some, crucial degree. It’s a basic of class solidarity that you can’t support both bosses and workers in an industrial dispute. But even amongst people who share the same objective class situation of dispossession and wage slavery, you cannot act in solidarity with both strikers and strike-breakers. So solidarity cannot be unconditional, it relies on evolved norms and rules of conduct, like “never cross a picket line”.

But at the same time, the logic of excommunication cannot be allowed a free run. Otherwise before you know it, it’s not only scabs that are cast out, but next the drug dealers and pimps and then the junkies and prostitutes follow and so on, until the restricted circle of “decent” working class people shrinks ever-tighter based on a moralising exclusionary logic. A logic blind to the economic and social forces of marginalisation that force people into ways of life they would never have chosen freely.

In summary what Durkheim called mechanical solidarity or the “solidarity of the same” is really the narrow tribalism of “looking after your own”. In a capitalist world based on the competition of all against all and the progressive division of people into smaller and smaller fragments treating the “other” with suspicion and mistrust, such a principle can never be the foundation for the recomposition of a class counterpower capable of counterposing human need to capital’s accumulation.

Solidarity and struggle
Without struggle there is no need for solidarity. Just as the original joint liability meaning implies opposing interests between the collective of debtors and the creditor, so solidarity implies standing together against a common opponent. In other words, that society is fundamentally riven by struggle.

In the bourgeois liberal utopia where there is a win- win solution to every problem, there is no need for talk of solidarity. Even the language of religious communities about the need for the congregation to help out less fortunate parishioners talks about the duty of charity, not solidarity. Charity is based on the idea that fortune or misfortune in some way reflects the “judgement of god” on individual virtue or sin or karma. As such charity is a demonstration of piety and humility based on “there but for the grace of god, go I”. But there is no concept of the misfortune of others being based on a fundamental conflict in which you and the person you are supporting are on the same side, facing a common enemy. Charity is an act of submission to the cause of misfortune (the judgement of god) not an act of defiance that seeks to overturn it.

This distinction between charity and solidarity is all the more important in an era where much of the so- called “solidarity” performed by most of the left is really a form of secular charity, a demonstration of leftist piety. This cannot be seen as a general template for solidarity. Whereas charity is conservative rather than transformative, in leaving the basic divisions between giver and recipient unchanged, solidarity must always work towards transformation and breaking down pre-existing divisions. That goal of transformation must be reflected not only in the aims of the campaign but also in the way in which participants interact and work together within it.

“Solidarity under fire?”
But while the relation between solidarity and shared struggle is key in understanding the difference between it and charity, there is a third potential danger in over-emphasising the moment of conflict itself as its birthplace. That is, to take “solidarity under fire” as the model for the production of solidarity.

Of course solidarity given in situations of extreme crisis or conflict is invaluable. Sometimes the very intensity of the situation can call forth solidarity that was not previously shown in more normal times. Indeed the left’s favourite stories tend to be of this type - e.g the racist who was converted by support of the local Bengali community while on the picket line, etc.

But these “heroic” anecdotes hide the fact that generally solidarity relies on building up relations of familiarity and fellow-feeling in less stressed circumstances. The exceptions prove the rule that in general we cannot rely on crisis to prepare for crisis. Preparation, by definition, precedes the thing it is preparing for.

Once again we have a case of mistaking end for means. A kind of negative utopianism or better, a juvenile dystopianism, an all too common affliction of the left. This “worse the better” mentality of it taking a crisis to “wake people up” is, together with military metaphors like “solidarity under fire”, the intellectual cancer of the left. It leads to progressive detachment from reality and the normal emotive range of so- called “non-political” people and to a development of hyper-intensified, aggressive and paranoid psychologies and affects that alienate people outside of the micro-left bubble. Even if many people genuinely do have frustrations and angers that often overlap with some of the issues the “angry left” are shouting about.

The military model of brutalising recruits in preparation for the brutality of combat is an unworkable model for building solidarity amongst working class people in society at large. The love/hate relationship is an asymmetrical one. Love of kith, kin and community leads naturally to hatred towards those that oppress or threaten them. But simply sharing a common hatred will never create bonds of trust and solidarity between people by that fact alone. Quite the opposite. This is also a cause and effect relation that the partisans of class war sometimes seem to get the wrong way round. The difference between fascists and anarchist-communists is not the target of our respective hatreds and loves, as in those “Class war, not race war” banners. What matters is more than who is the target, but which one of love and hate is the rule and which the exception. Solidarity is built by soft social skills, not hard men.

Prefigurative egalitarianism
Now it’s time to turn to our initial question of the relationship between solidarity and egalitarianism. Egalitarianism must necessarily be the goal of solidarity, if it is not to be charity. But it cannot be the precondition for solidarity, otherwise this would be self-help rather than mutual aid. In other words, egalitarianism is prefigurative and solidarity is the transformational practice that allows us to go from a situation of less equality towards more of it.

By prefiguration we mean a transformative philosophy that rejects instrumentalism (“end justifies the means”) on the one hand and utopianism (“be the change you want to see”) on the other.

The default utopian approach to issues of inequality in solidarity campaigns is to begin by demanding that everyone must act as if they were already equal. The problem with that is that it too easily becomes acting, not in the sense of exercising agency, but in the sense of a fictional performance, like acting in a play, whether comedy, tragedy or farce, and often a combination of all three. Worse, when the less empowered participants, inevitably, make an intervention to point out that this charade is not addressing their issues, they then get the blame for bursting the bubble of illusory “all equals together” unity. Victim- blaming comes built-in as a standard with the utopian approach. As a transformative strategy it is a failure because it doesn’t in practice accept that we are not yet at the place we want to get to.

The instrumental approach to the problem of inequality amongst participants within campaigns is simply to rely on the goals of the campaign as an alibi. If the success of the campaign is seen in some way as an advance against inequality, then what does it matter if an anti-racist campaign, say, is dominated by middle class white people already holding political and other institutional power, and within it the voices of black participants with little or no such power, are marginalised? Isn’t the campaign against racism a good thing? Stop making trouble and follow the lead of the people who know best how the levers of power work, then...

The problems of overt and crass displays of this sort of logic are obvious. Both to the people with the greatest stake in the issue, even if they start with the least power. As well as to anyone with a scepticism born of past experience with institutional authority figures. Which is not to say that it is rare, albeit in perhaps in slightly more masked forms. The point is that by being carved out of any real control over the process, the potential participants from the community or group that the specific solidarity campaign is for, the original divisions are simply being recreated and re-inforced, just as we’ve already seen in the case of charitable “solidarity”. In fact there’s a good deal of overlap between the instrumental and charitable versions of sham solidarity.

What is to be done?
So if ultimately both utopian and instrumental approaches fail to be transformative in practice, how should a prefigurative practice of solidarity proceed?

First of all we have to recognise that solidarity is not simply an ideal or a value, but a practice. What’s more, a practice that aims to have real transformative effect. Going on anti-war marches around London with “Not in my name” placards, for example, is not an act of solidarity but of conscience-salving. But the problem of finding an effective practice, both in terms of the campaign making positive impact in the wider world, and also being empowering for the participants, is not a simple one. Everybody wants it, nobody knows how to get it. At least not in terms of simple, sure-fire, success guaranteed, rules of operation. But just because there are no magic formulas out there, doesn’t mean that nothing is known at all, that everything has to start again from scratch every time. If there are no “rules”, as such, there are certainly “tools” around - i.e. practices that other groups and people have used successfully in diverse struggles in different places and in living memory.

The problem can be seen in two interlinked parts, internal and external. The external is how the actions of the group or campaign are seen by the outside world, particularly those parts of the class that are the intended targets for becoming part of the solidarity relationship.

Most importantly that relationship has to be understood beyond a simple capitalist balance-sheet division between givers and takers. The whole basis of mutual aid is that it is far more than a zero-sum game, each side, by cooperating, receives more from working together than they could get alone. In the solidarity relationship the more empowered section of the class is not only going to act as provider for the less, but will also, in the process receive vital knowledge about the workings of the system that oppresses us all, new ways of understanding situations and experiences of exploitation and oppression and different traditions of organising and evading state surveillance.

But neither should this two-way flow between participants in the solidarity relationship be mistaken for the capitalist model of exchange between two distinct groups that gain only “wealth” from the interchange, without being otherwise transformed by it. The point of the solidarity relationship is for all participants to be transformed, by becoming more equal and stronger for it. These may seem like abstract ideals, but in the absence of programmatic rules, directional principles are the best we can do at a non-specific level.

Of course descending to the unique problems of specific campaigns requires selecting concrete tools for organising, communicating and collective decision- making processes. Here a balance must be struck between doing nothing and doing too much. The problem with doing nothing is obvious. By doing “too much” is meant the problem of adopting so many novel and unfamiliar tools for egalitarian organising that newcomers, particularly those from the more disempowered target audiences, will feel out of place or intimidated by an unfamiliar language and habits (funny hand signals, anyone?) unknown to them and alien to their experience and culture. Here the very measures that are supposed to create a supportive and welcoming environment, turn into their opposite and become another mechanism for exclusion and monopolisation of space by self-appointed “horizontalist specialists” and professional activists. Finding the balance right for any particular collective is an art, not a science, and relies above all on people genuinely listening to each other, rather than assuming they already know what’s best.

Coming back to the link between the internal and external dynamics of a campaign, feedback of how the campaign is seen externally is key. Here there is another area to be handled with some native wit and sensitivity. It is reasonable to think that campaign participants who are themselves from the less empowered pole of a particular solidarity relationship may well have better connections for hearing what people externally, from that same constituency, may be feeling and thinking about the activity of the campaign. But it can be pretty oppressive for those participants to suddenly find themselves shanghaied into the position of representatives of their presumed communities or groups. For instance, how many radical left or anarchist groups with terrible gender balances, continually make the mistake of trying to impose the role of ambassador of all womankind on their female members?

A related danger, albeit from a different direction, is uncritically accepting people who put themselves forward as “community leaders” or similar go-between figures. If forcing representative status on people is always wrong, the problem of how to deal with people who put themselves forward in that role is sometimes a little more complicated. If solidarity is prefigurative we have to accept that we don’t start from a position where all oppressed or marginalised communities have already freed themselves from authoritarian structures and the power-brokers that inhabit them. Of course we prefer to work directly with the followers of such figures (and of none), but it can sometimes be utopian to hope to achieve that without having built relations of trust first. Getting around this knotty problem is always difficult, but generally only successful actions can make it happen. On the other hand, what is absolutely guaranteed is that any campaign, whether from lazy instrumentalism or naivety, that relies uncritically on community leaders and mediating figures, is doomed to failure as the state eventually makes them a better offer when enough pressure is created. If no effort has been made in the interim to create direct bonds of trust and solidarity with community members that do not pass through the mediation of such figures, then the campaign is effectively finished at that point.

If these are the interior problems of mediators, whether self-appointed or press-ganged, there is also the related problem of representationalism in external communications. The mainstream media, famously operates a rigorous process of creating representatives for campaigns or movements, if necessary entirely independently from any willingness of a given campaign to play ball with this process. Not even defiantly anti-hierarchical groups like tunnelling anti-roads protesters can escape this process as the “Swampy” case demonstrated some while back.

Refusing to engage with the media is also no guarantee of avoiding the problem as even keeping external communications to your own public meetings and media still means that someone needs to take the role of spokesperson at the head table or narrate the youtube clip. Having masked spokespeople reading prepared statements doesn’t really work as a communication strategy either, unless the message you’re really trying to get across is that you’re a bunch of dangerous lunatics. Having said that, if people are genuinely unable to speak openly due to legal restrictions (say on asylum-seekers barred from making “political” statements), fear of reprisal or due to intense social stigma against their circumstances, then clearly means have to be found for their voices to be heard nonetheless. The cardinal sin that any solidarity campaign can make is “ventriloquism” in the name of being a “voice for the voiceless”.

And finally...
Time then for a final word. This article, as we said at the outset, has concentrated on the challenges of solidarity between groups or sections of the class who start from positions of real inequality in power. More so than usual in an article on class solidarity from a broadly socialist or anarchist perspective perhaps. But the parting contention is that the problems examined with this focus actually apply generally to all solidarity struggles.

What’s more given that women are the majority of the class and we live in a society that is not only based on capitalism but also sexism and male privilege, the problem of inequality for class solidarity can hardly be called a marginal issue. Similarly, the problematic dynamics of self-appointed representatives, spokespeople and “specialists” and professionalisation are universal to any sufficiently upscale organising. There hasn’t been enough room here to really dive into the detail of the concrete tools that campaigns, workplace and neighbourhood groups and movements can use. But hopefully some of the broad issues and big questions have been opened up for productive discussion in whatever struggles you are active in. Solidarity remains one of the greatest things lacking in our lives today in an inhuman, commoditised economy. So lets keep on discussing, arguing, challenging and struggling until we find the ways to get more of it, produce more of it. And never forgetting, solidarity is like a play - it is performed in acts.

WORDS: Paul Bowman

This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no 8 Autumn 2013