On Solidarity

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood. 

G. M. Tamás
26 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.


"Quarto Stato" di Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved. On the idea of solidarity many bien-pensant authors have written a great deal. Like ‘fraternity’ and unlike liberty and equality, it is considered soft and fuzzy, a matter of leading articles on national holidays and solemn anniversaries. As if it were not a concept.

But it is.

In a famous study, Jeremy Waldron has shown how the universalist notion of human dignity has its historical origin in the not very universalist – to wit, feudal – idea of ‘rank’, the dignity attached to status.

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood.

What has ‘solidarity’ meant for the workers’ movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? 

Looked at from the outside, the workers’ movement was a set of organizations for and of an exploited, oppressed and politically unrepresented class which was trying to improve its lot.

It was, in particular, an attempt to introduce politics into an area from which it was legally banished. Modern, that is, bourgeois society is based on a series of separations. One of the most important separations – on which the social equilibrium, the balance of social forces depends – is the distinction between public and private. The public – the realm of the common good – is identified with the affairs of the state, the only realm in modern society where legal coercion is accepted and where obedience and deference to authority is obligatory.

In the sphere of the private, in ‘civil society’, it is contractual, that is, free and voluntary acts that are the rule (private citizens normally don’t have the right to coerce fellow citizens into obedience). Such is the case, according to official doctrine, of labour contracts and, in general, of labour that is seen legally and jurisprudentially as a private affair between two contracting parties, the employer and employee, where money will usually change hands, going from employer to employee, for the performance of voluntarily assumed duties prescribed by contract, custom, technology and the like.

The law is there only to ensure that the implied promise of performance is kept and that the agreed salary is faithfully paid. But the substantive and material content of the labour contract remains a private affair in which no ‘third party’ is allowed to interfere, as such an interference would hurt the freedom of contract, one of the fundamental prerequisites of any civilized, that is, commercial society.

It is good to remember that once upon a time strikes were considered illegal precisely because they constitute a breach of contract. Moreover, they use violence – by closing down machinery or other technological devices etc. – to force one of the contracting parties, the employers, under the threat of financial loss, to change the terms of contract previously accepted. This is, of course, a disloyal and unfaithful breach of promise, a promise that people are supposed to observe under penalty of law.

Why did the striking workers – apart from the wish to improve their economic and social position, e. g. to increase their wages, shorten their working day and improve their working conditions, including various social advantages, such as unemployment benefit, old-age pensions, paid holidays, social housing, free healthcare and the like – think that they were justified in changing the terms of a fundamental, perhaps constitutional arrangement essential for the inner peace and for the existing system of liberties? For it is undeniable that for secular bourgeois societies the system of separations is necessary for upholding individual autonomy, by making private life, private affairs and their framework, civil society, inviolable by political authority, in other words, by the state.

Why did the workers’ organizations believe that it was morally permissible to use coercion, sometimes physical violence to force the employers (or the employers in general, the ruling class) to give up some of their privileges and advantages guaranteed by another fundamental right, the right of property? (This is why socialism was and sometimes still is seen as an enemy of freedom, a tendency to make politics, that is, the state, absolute and one which is bent on destroying the autonomy of civil society and of the individual.)

Plainly, albeit discourteously formulated, they obviously thought that they were in some sense morally superior to their adversaries, which would justify coercive, sometimes violent, but in any case illegal tactics which have questioned the constitutional order, even one of its foundations, the customary distinction between public and private or, if you prefer, between politics and the economy (and the ‘social’).

Moral superiority

Let us examine this idea of moral superiority, which is of course alien to Marxism, but which has influenced the followers of Proudhon, Lassalle and Bakunin, in many respects more influential than Marx in the practical movements of the nineteenth century, and an idea revived in the anti-war movement after 1914, in the Russian revolution in October 1917, in the anti-colonial or ‘national liberation’ movements, and which has indeed coloured the Bolshevik version of Marxism for nearly a century.

This fight for seemingly humdrum and mundane goals may appear as a rather poor reason for the kind of sinful pride affirming moral superiority.

How could be such a feeling sustained?

Bourgeois society was regarded by olden-time proletarian revolutionaries as a régime of selfishness. After all, liberal capitalism, especially its early version, was constructed as a régime of self-representation. Built as a clash of wills, a clash of interests, regulated, tempered and moderated by an overarching constitutional order ensuring that conflicts of interests would be conducted in a peaceable manner, decided by elections and court trials, where everybody’s rights will be respected, but otherwise the (peaceful) battlefield is open for all.

Quite apart from the traditional advantages of the wealthy, of the well-educated and of the well-connected, this was held by the proletarians – even if it was not a sham or a fraud – to be quite contemptible, as it was governed by self-interest and decided by force, both damned by Christian morality. But what then was the difference? Were the workers not fighting for their own advantage or interest, just like the bourgeois?

But the proletarians – an identification that was tantamount to being called a socialist, a communist or an anarchist – did not regard the class struggle as a zero-sum game or merely the aspiration for the lowly material advancement of a group of people united by their similar economic and social condition. They did not believe that they represented only themselves and their narrowly defined interest. Their own authentic aspiration could be told apart from the aspirations of the rest by the principle of solidarity.


This had many features.

First, they did not recognize the uncoerced, voluntary character of the labour contract, the alternative of which, if you were unwilling to sign, was starvation. Hence, they did not recognize that labour was in the private realm and that as such it was not political. (This is the intuitive foundation of every version of anti-capitalism, even today.) So the fight for higher wages and for a shorter working day and working week had the dignity of politics, formerly the preserve of the upper classes, barring revolutions.

Second, they did not recognize the absoluteness or exclusiveness of property rights as, in accordance with natural right, they regarded wealth as a source of obligation for the promotion of the common good (or of public interest) and thus subordinated to the superior claims of the quest for a better human society. (This is obviously also the claim of the ecological movements.)

Third, in agreement with the young Marx, they believed that the working class heralded the dissolution of all classes, that it was the quintessential non-class, defined as an aspect of the human condition in which the self-interest of some would mean the end of all sectional interests and so, the emancipation of the human race. By opposing property and power, they did not want to acquire property and power for themselves, but to destroy property and power for ever and in all respects. This was not supposed to be reduced to a political interference in civil society, on the contrary: it was supposed to mean the obliteration of the duality civil society/state by putting an end to class/state coercion and to its law.

Hence, this was not self-representation (this would be a miscontrual of old social democracy, in a way that has become familiar from current historiography, which has always been so wary of ideas) but a battle fought on behalf of humankind as such.

And as this fight was always understood as unselfish, generous and heroic, as the fight of the weak against the strong, the virtues that went with it were similarly generous and heroic: they were essentially virtues of self-sacrifice. During and after strikes and rebellions, workers were laid off and thrown into jail: this was a badge of honour and a mark of the highest moral pride, always construed as suffering for a noble goal at the hands of the flunkeys of the ruling class – gendarmes, gaolers, professional soldiers, spies, scabs, snitches, prosecutors, judges, priests, bourgeois politicians, kings and journalists. Voluntary suffering for the noble goal is naturally also Christian in origin: it is the secular version of the idea of martyrdom. Also similar to Christian moral theology: this was the proof of the essential justice of the noble cause.

And the highest proof was solidarity with other workers, especially that which took the form of internationalism.

One of the main instruments of bourgeois society, then as now, is the cross-class solidarity of the nation – the main moral competitor to the workers’ movement. National interest was supposed (this is the bourgeois standpoint) to supersede ‘selfish’ and material class interest (the bourgeois interpretation of the proletarian stance) particularly in the way this supercession was demanded and expected in wartime. The proletariat had (or should have had) the effrontery to doubt the legitimacy of this claim, through three natural right-style principles, typically forgotten:

   • equality between nations,

   • friendship between peoples,

   • world peace.

In this, the workers’ movement was the true heir of Immanuel Kant, despised as an ‘idealist’ not only by the General Staff, but also by most political theorists, in the first place by Carl Schmitt, so much admired these days by the baddies. Kant’s assumption of ‘publicness’ as the sole guarantor of an international law conducive to perpetual peace is parallel to the demand of ‘publicness’ by socialists as regards labour and property. Perpetual world peace through ‘hospitality’ (not philanthropy, but right, says Kant) means the extension of regular democratic politics to a territory from which it was banished earlier. In exactly the same manner, socialism extends politics to civil society.

The end of peace

In his influential book about the crisis of the European Union, Jürgen Habermas acknowledges the changes in the official international doctrine of a universal rule of law after 1945 – in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the UN Charter and a number of national and regional constitutions, conspicuous among them that of the Free State of Saxony, which was accepted and enacted after 1989 – where it appears that the recognition of universal and equal dignity plays a role previously unknown. He does not spell this out in precisely these terms, but it is glaringly obvious that this development took place thanks to the influence of socialism, as it enjoyed its brief moment of international legitimacy immediately after the victory over the Third Reich.

One of the institutions dreamed up to ensure peace at least in Europe – which is of course unthinkable without the cognate principles of ‘equality between nations’ and ‘friendship between peoples’ – was the European Union, or ‘Europe’ for short.

There is no need for extraordinary acuity to discover that the most recent European crisis, not caused by but only made visible by the Syriza government in Greece, presents us not with a banal instance of the difference between theory and practice, principles and interests, but with a deeper and more worrying malfunction: this appears to be the renunciation of egalitarian principles on the international level, where once the idea of solidarity was injected into an exceptional historic moment. Now the ejection of solidarity heralds the end of international or, in this instance, European peace. Such a peace, already broken in the former Yugoslavia and now in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine/Russia) is nearing its conceptual and moral end, also within the narrower confines of the European Union.

The disappearance of socialism from the political mix – and with it, of solidarity, acted upon as a principle, and not merely an empty emotional phrase in May Day speechifying – demonstrates the close of an epoch. It is the first time in European history that capitalism is alone, unresisted by socialism or, for that matter, by Christianity. The international solidarity evinced in anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism seems also defunct.

There is no question, that the proud faith in the moral superiority of the solidary proletariat has become obsolete. Contemporary anti-capitalist protesters – sons and daughters of the middle class and of the intelligentsia or rootless bohemians of working-class ‘backgrounds’ kept alive by the bourgeois welfare system – do not advocate and practice self-representation, they are rebelling on other people’s behalf. But those people are strangely silent.

Solidarity is a social ideal that always tries to become a politics. Its chances are slim.



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