Part of illustration by Moa Thelander.

Okategoriserade Solidarity beyond exclusion

Ludger Hagedorn has gathered together different voices, all adding insights into the meaning of solidarity. Here he presents the different contributions and place them in a wider context. He concludes, "Perhaps the outcome of solidarity counts less than the atmosphere that it creates and in which it unfolds its explosive message.".

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2015, pp 87-90 + 104-105
Published on on May 19, 2015

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Solidarity is not an easy concept to deal with. It is widely used in intellectual debates and everyday discussions of political issues, but it appears to have manifold meanings, carrying a number of divergent claims and sedimented traditions. Historically, the concept hovers somewhere between its Roman origins, its Christian adaptation, and its heyday in the leftist movements of political and social emancipation. Although the proclamation of solidarity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries became inseparably linked with the international workers’ movement and socialist ideals, it is significant that the very same word obtained almost emblematic meaning as an anti-communist slogan in the Polish Solidarność movement of the 1980s.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim famously differentiated between two kinds of solidarity: a solidarity based on kinship and similarity, which he called mechanical (to be found primarily in less developed, rural societies with a high degree of homogeneity), and the more refined concept of an organic solidarity, based on mutual interdependence and the insight that somebody else’s work is constitutive for one’s own well-being (characteristic of more developed societies practicing division of labor).1  Yet the decisive question is whether solidarity should not be described altogether differently, namely as an ethical commitment that precisely goes beyond the confines of kinship and economy. Every “mechanical” or “organic” understanding of solidarity would then be deficient, because it omits the most characteristic trait of solidarity as an act of transcending. If solidarity is meant to designate a moral attitude, it will necessarily have to go beyond the confines of its naturalized reduction to the mechanical or organic bonds of similarity, kinship, and economic interdependence.2

In Roman law the obligatio in solidum denoted a common liability of a group of people: Each person was individually responsible for the liability of the group; i.e. everybody was liable in solidum (= for the whole). This understanding of solidarity as a juridical obligation can still be felt today in many usages of the word. A new tax levied in Germany after reunification, aimed at restructuring the former East Germany, was called Solidaritätszulage (solidarity surtax).3 People are forced to pay, but it leaves no space for free individual commitment. The act of solidarity, in this case, is proclaimed and demanded by state law, degrading the word “solidarity” to a euphemism for enforced taxation. By contrast, an example of solidarity as an act of free support and sympathy may be seen in the case of the Swedish miners’ strike in Norrbotten in 1969, when several artists donated their works in support of the strike fund.4 It was a gift in the original sense, given to the striking miners as a means of support, whereby the symbolic meaning of this gesture was probably more important than its monetary value. Our colloquial notion of solidarity still tends to oscillate between these two extremes: between a juridical obligation and a free gesture of moral commitment and support for somebody or for the “good cause” —  the meanings are rarely found in their purest form, uninfluenced by each other, but it is undoubtedly the second usage (the free commitment) that we would call an act of solidarity in the primary sense.

It is also a difficult task to determine philosophically what comprises the core or the essence of solidarity. Leonard Neuger’s reflections (published in this supplement) skillfully discern two divergent types of solidarity: Solidarity against is exclusive; it demarcates the in-group  —  “we” as opposed to “them” or “the others”. “Solidarity against” creates identity and stability (solidity), yet it also presupposes the solid demarcation lines of who is “in” and who is “out”. In this sense, it is a re-affirmative and self-affirmative action, corroborating the established order. Solidarity for, in contrast, is a risky and dangerous undertaking; it cannot build on any pre-established ground. It operates on a “groundless ground”, trying to be open for that which is different and goes beyond the current order. It is, in very concrete terms, an openness towards those who are neglected, deprived or marginalized. Showing this kind of solidarity makes the individual vulnerable and dependent on others. One becomes dependent on trust and mutual responsibility. Yet as Neuger says, it also entails something “explosive”; it is a spark that can easily ignite the whole building.

Neuger’s account of the historical development of the Polish trade union Solidarity is an outstanding example of this: Starting from very inconspicuous and minor events, it grew into a solid movement of 10 million people. It is not always clear when and how and why the initial ignition takes place: “One begins by acting out of self-interest, and suddenly this horizon is transcended.” Solidarity is not calculable —  it has to do with the abyss of responsibility and trust that will always remain a risky undertaking. But neither is solidarity idyllic or innocent. At some point solidarity for can turn into solidarity against, easily evoking all the evils of nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Here lies the valuable insight in Ewa Majewska’s contribution to this issue. Her article examines the historical development of Solidarność in relation to feminist issues. Without condemning the movement or ignoring the liberating effects of Solidarność, Majewska nevertheless directs our attention to the flaws in these events that grew to gain global historical significance.  Solidarność was indeed carried by a wave of solidarity for, but this should not obstruct our perception that such a movement is not pure and might also entail aspects of solidarity against. Solidarity is not immune, and efforts to idealize it are probably the best indicator that the maxims of solidarity against are beginning to infect it. Neuger perfectly sums up this ambivalence in his remarkable final sentences: “In its explosive phase, solidarity opens a door, takes the risk. But solidarity also contains other foundations, leading to a closed door.”

Jean-Luc Nancy’s article, bearing the straightforward title Fraternity, examines a similar set of issues. Brotherhood or fraternity is not only a historical precursor to the modern political concept of solidarity; it shares the same characteristics in building a community or “togetherness” among people. Fraternity appeals to solidarity among equals, among “us” who are brothers. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the tripartite slogan of the revolution of 1789 and afterwards, has taken on almost symbolic status in delivering keywords for modern politics. But whereas liberty and equality express civil rights, the role of fraternity is less clear. Is it a duty, a Utopian ideal, a sentimental and deceptive illusion? It is certainly by no means an unproblematic and innocent concept, since its rhetorical power of inclusion is gained by the tacit exclusion of those who are not among the brothers. Jacques Derrida in particular has expressed this critique of the idea of fraternity. Originating as an explicit answer to Jean-Luc Nancy, the reciprocal dispute between the two of them finally became what Derrida called “a fraternal squabble over the issue of fraternity”.5 The article published here constitutes a kind of belated epilogue to this debate.

Nancy returns to Derrida’s mistrust of a term that is “simultaneously familial, masculine, sentimental and Christian-sounding”. From the beginning, Nancy makes it clear that his idea of brotherhood is certainly not to be understood in the biological sense. According to him, “being siblings” is a “social model”; it is “an association without substantial (ontological, original) necessity”, designating a model of social reality that has more to do with “having to adjust to living together” rather than with “being together”. This attempt to play the “symbolic register” of fraternity (instead of the biological, substantial, ontological) was however already explicitly addressed in Derrida’s earlier critical work. In Rogues he states:

In fraternalism or brotherhoods, in the confraternal or fraternizing community, what is privileged is at once the masculine authority of the brother (who is also a son, a husband, a father), genealogy, family, birth, autochthony, and the nation. And any time the literality of these implications has been denied, for example, by claiming that one was speaking not of the natural and biological family (…) or that the figure of the brother was merely a symbolic and spiritual figure, it was never explained why one wished to hold on to and privilege this figure rather than that of the sister, the female cousin, the daughter, the wife, or the stranger, or the figure of anyone or whoever.6

In his answer, Nancy counters this objection with the assertion that fraternity in itself does not necessarily carry the values of the masculine and paternal. He sees the constant interpretation of family ties along this patriarchal model in itself as a projection that upholds the tradition of emphasizing the father and the transmission to and through males. Fraternity obviously includes elements of sorority (sisterhood), but Nancy’s approach is not intended to counter one with the other. Instead, both of these concepts should be seen as independent of “nature”, “origin” or “foundation”. Sorority and fraternity interlace just as the masculine and the feminine do in general; therefore fraternity does not necessarily have to be a confraternity of males. The differentiation of these two terms is strongly reminiscent of Neuger’s distinction between solidarity against and solidarity for: Confraternity “unites subjects tending to be identical since they are identified by a function, an occupation, a role” (and in this sense they form a solidarity against), whereas fraternity in Nancy’s sense is “the conjunction of chance”, just as in the case of the family, and it poses the continuous challenge of mastering that chance. Fraternity then —  and this is Nancy’s final claim —  will always be an insufficient term, but it might nevertheless be seen as providing a model for a form of coexistence without necessarily referencing genealogy, privilege, or the logic of exclusion.

Solidarity and exclusion

This discussion of solidarity (and fraternity) takes place against the background of other attempts to define what is at the core of acts of solidarity. Richard Rorty once observed that solidarity seems to work especially within groups that have something in common or share a certain identity. This would mean that solidarity is predominantly felt for somebody who is like myself. Somebody might be, as Rorty puts it, “a comrade in the movement” and accordingly she/he deserves solidarity because we are working for a common goal or share the same political convictions. A striking phrase describing exactly this feeling of a common bond is the popular “people like us”. No further reason is needed —  people have our solidarity simply because they are “like us”, good people. Tacitly, the claim presupposes a flip side: no need, no reason to feel solidarity for the other people, the ones who do not belong.

This is a puzzling and disturbing observation in relation to a humanistic concept which is apparently based on the assumption that solidarity reaches out to everybody, to every human being regardless of any further qualification in terms of race, religion, nationality, social class, or political conviction. For whom is solidarity felt, and who feels it? Or to put it another way, what is needed for the bond of solidarity to be established? The answer to this is not as obvious as an enlightened optimist might suggest by referring to the common characteristic of sharing an essential humanity.

First of all, one should perhaps say that solidarity can only be strongly felt in relation to human beings. This counters what for example the Swedish Green Party (Miljöpartiet) defines as its party program which, briefly, consists of three forms of solidarity: with nature, with future generations, and with people.8 Although the underlying intention of these forms might be plausible, all three of them clearly go beyond the concept of solidarity. If solidarity is a shared responsibility for and with the other, then nature and future generations can obviously not be the addressees of this common striving. Solidarity also seems to presuppose a mutual commitment — mutually binding and mutually emancipating. Even the proclaimed solidarity with “people” as an abstract entity is difficult to grasp: Is it possible to feel an obligation, a simultaneously emotional and yet deliberate, conscious tie to all one’s fellow human beings without any further qualification? This idea might be found in the Christian tradition (everybody is your neighbor) and also survives in secularized universalism as in Kant. But isn’t solidarity with all people as abstract and undefinable as solidarity with nature? What would it consist in? Solidarity, it seems, always has to be concrete, directed at somebody.

Whom then does it include, whom does it exclude? As suggested, Rorty holds that solidarity is always ethnocentric or clancentric, that it will always look out for a “fellow Roman”, for “Greeks like ourselves” (as opposed to the Barbarians), or for a “fellow Catholic”. This last example clearly shows that “clancentric” is not meant in a biological or racial sense —   a “clan” does not have to be linked by blood;  it may also be a common belief or conviction, the common fight for the good cause etc. Yet however the “clan” is precisely defined, it is a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion that solidarity should always, and necessarily, be restricted to a certain predefined group, that it should always, and necessarily, be an inclusive as well as an exclusive concept. Can there be a solidarity that does not have its source in a substantial unity, however defined? Can there be a solidarity that defines a belonging, a togetherness, that may be only momentary, transitory; perhaps more  in the form of a gift than of an obligation?

This is also the key question in Gustav Strandberg’s contribution. Its cogent title Solidarity of the Shaken already indicates the direction of his approach which attempts to develop an existential understanding of solidarity. Strandberg bases his reflections mainly on the philosophy of Jan Patočka, whose famous formula “solidarity of the shaken” was evidently inspired by his life as a dissident in communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s. Patočka was the first spokesman of Charter 77 (next to Václav Havel and Jiří Hájek) and for a short historical moment his name became world famous in March 1977, when the philosopher died in dramatic circumstances while under police interrogation. Even his burial was a political manifestation, forever unforgettable for all who witnessed it. There is a strong link between his thought and the historical conditions and atmosphere of that time. The opposition against a seemingly unshakable order and the fragile, yet highly explosive character of a solidarity in resistance is very reminiscent of Neuger’s account of the Polish Solidarność movement which was to emerge only a few years later. However, the most valuable impact of Patočka’s sketch of solidarity might be that it can also be read fully independently of these biographical and historical circumstances.

As Strandberg states at the beginning of his article, solidarity traditionally has to do with solidity, i.e. forming a union with others on a firm and stable ground of a shared identity. Yet for Patočka, precisely this solidity is shaken. Those who join in a “solidarity of the shaken” do not obtain a common ground; it is a solidarity brought about by existential upheaval and disorientation, not by sharing something but, in a sense, by sharing nothing. It is a solidarity beyond solidity. The underlying experience is that of a confrontation with finitude and meaninglessness. Strandberg relates this closely to Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety and Dasein’s confrontation with his/her own death. He therefore rightly describes Patočka’s approach as “a solidarity in and for finitude”. It is our shared experience of a loss and of insufficiency that “will forever force us outside of ourselves in the direction of other people.” One might also invoke Dostoevsky’s literary portrayals of existential occurrences similar to those that were so crucially important for Patočka. What they depict literally is the same existential experience of an uprooting within which all worldly and egotistic relations are transcended (egotistic in the sense of ego-related, not as a value judgment). It is an existential breakthrough, opening up to a “new meaning of life”, a life with others and a life in solidarity, the main event of which is to be described not in a moral dimension but exactly as this ontological opening.

This is indeed a quite different and “new” concept of solidarity, a solidarity beyond solidity and a solidarity beyond the exclusion of solidarity against. It is revealing to compare this to the solution suggested by Richard Rorty. After stating that the new concept of solidarity should no longer be ethnocentric or clancentric, Rorty develops his own idea of a solidarity beyond these limitations. Solidarity, in his answer, should be a solidarity of all those who have come to distrust ethnocentrism! It is indeed a truly post-modern answer, addressing the liberal, urban and sophisticated people who have left behind (or think they have left behind) an essentialist view. But is it also a convincing suggestion? His attempt surely addresses a crucial and painful deficiency of the whole concept of solidarity. Yet it is also highly unsatisfactory: What solidarity presupposes most urgently is trust: it therefore is an almost absurd maneuver to base solidarity precisely on distrust. Would the distrusters ever do anything else other than exactly that, namely distrust: distrust the concept of solidarity and their supposed relationship of trust and solidarity to other distrusters? Although at a superficial glance, the “solidarity of the distrusters” seems to be not far removed from a “solidarity of the shaken”, it is precisely the lack of any existential dimension that makes it difficult to trust an asserted solidarity of the skeptical post-modernists.

The most apparent contradiction to this intellectualized approach is expressed in the article by Kateryna Mishchenko, whose contribution is quite different from all the other reflections. It does not deal with solidarity from a theoretical or historical point of view, but out of a sense of the immediate urgency of the topic. Written in a Ukraine in upheaval, a country inflamed by the revolutionary events on the Maidan and at the same time stricken by the atrocities of an undeclared war, the short essay mainly invokes solidarity on two levels: first, the international solidarity with a country in turmoil and endangered from the outside (Mishchenko sees the principle of solidarity itself under attack, inflated and hollowed out by “idle mind games” of the West and especially the European Left), second, the solidarity of and for those people bodily involved in the conflict —  their only answer being the “wild savagery” of “self-dedication and self-sacrifice”. This formulation exactly recalls the idea of sacrifice in Patočka, which is not sacrifice for a purpose or a goal, but the inner necessity of a life that is in “resistance to the ‘demoralizing’, terrorizing and deceptive motifs of the day.”9 This sacrifice is not a price to be paid for something, but —  as Derrida put it —  the “gift of death”, 10 i.e. the invocation of life’s finitude as a means of life in the face of the calculations of dead bodies. ≈


1 Émile Durkheim, De la division du travail social (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1893), 73ff; 118ff.

2 The most famous example of a solidarity overcoming kinship and fraternity is obviously the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan taking care of somebody who is not his kin. Accordingly, a truly solidary stance is independent of being motivated by one’s own profit.

3 Announced as a temporary act of solidarity, the levy still exists 25 years after the reunification and has long since become an extra general tax.

4  The Miners’ Strike Art Collection was shown from March to May 2013 in Tensta konsthall.

5 Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, transl. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005) 56.

6 Derrida, 58.

7 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 190.

8 The party program defines itself with the following three claims of solidarity: (1) solidarity for animals, nature and the ecological system, (2) solidarity for future generations, (3) solidarity with the world and the people.

9 Jan Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, ed. J. Dodd (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1996) 134.

10 Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. D. Wills (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Final remarks

Solidarity is the tenderness of peoples (or nations)”, a saying attributed to Che Guevara, is the best-known formulation of the leftist adoption of the concept of solidarity.1  The statement was widely used in socialist countries. In the GDR it was often referred to in solidarity campaigns etc.  Yet even the link to the iconic figure of “Comandante Che” can hardly obscure the fact that the romanticizing slogan is in tension with the revolutionary aims of Marxism. Despite its appeal to equality and the mitigation of injustice, solidarity is possible only within a structure of inequality —  it presupposes inequality but also, in a sense, upholds it. The act of solidarity may indeed soften an all too flagrant hardship and suffering, yet it will not lead to a full equalization of chances and living conditions. Solidarity necessarily involves the rather condescending movement of those ‘who have and give’ towards those who have not (not only in terms of money and commodities, but also including the ‘capital’ of time, energy, resources). Karl Marx, therefore, attaches no great significance to the concept of solidarity.2  It runs counter to his idea of revolution, which is meant to abolish and finally overcome all kinds of social inequality and injustice. Solidarity not only seems to presuppose inequality but, within the logic of revolution, it even to some extent prolongs the state of inequality by mitigating social contradictions and alleviating the worst hardships. Solidarity seems to have something in common with the idea of charity, with sympathy and support for those who are neglected. No wonder that Marx can do very little with it —  his primary aim is not to better the conditions of people here and now, not some kind of compromise solution that will make harsh injustice a bit milder. His ultimate goal is revolution, and revolution is not concerned with the well-being of those involved in the process, but with the definite and sustainable change of societal conditions.

Yet it is not only his concern for the irreversible and permanent change of societal conditions that keeps Marx from advocating solidarity. The idea of solidarity also entails an appeal to individual human agency and the individual’s freedom of choice. Marx however insists on historical progress as a necessity. Revolution will be brought about by the iron laws of historical development and by the change of social conditions. It is a process fully independent of morality and responsibility, whereas the appeals for solidarity address exactly these capacities for individual agency.3

Not surprisingly, it is Marx’s fierce antagonist, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who was the most outspoken proponent of solidarity among the leftist thinkers of the 19th century. It is, in fact, one of the leading principles of his thought. For Bakunin, the initiator and the driving force for all revolutionary change is the human being, the individual, not the dependency on a gradual development of mankind in accordance with the objective historical conditions. This conviction is also the guideline for his understanding of solidarity as the basic principle of humanity. No human progress will come from a change of government; even Marx’s dictatorship of the Proletariat will still resemble the old monarchy, because it will be the domination of the masses from the top, the domination by a privileged minority that allegedly knows the interests of the people better than they themselves do. His opposing model is therefore the emancipation from the bottom which will only be attained by the principle of mutual solidarity.

This humanistic approach of universal solidarity and mutual emancipation is somewhat tainted by the fact that Bakunin also built on the concept of race to explain the differences in the development of civilizations. Some of his writings also make heavy use of anti-Semitic clichés. One could feel tempted to overlook this as the expression of personal resentments that do not affect his theoretical approach. Yet these shortcomings in fact seem to hint at a deeper and more general problem. Bakunin is indeed a detractor of repression by the state and by religion, but his anarchism is itself not free of repressive elements and civilizational preconceptions. Bakunin’s idea of solidarity builds heavily on essentialist views of humanity, humanism, morality, enlightenment, etc., all of which are abstract, thereby creating a model of what the individual human being has to be. His theory presupposes a human essence that is necessarily good, disregarding the inherent vices and evils of the human condition. Solidarity becomes a solidarity of the “good”; it thereby remains re-affirmative, self-affirmative, and circular in its logic of exclusion. Our discussion is driven back to the issue of overcoming the concept of solidarity against.

Perhaps we have to concede that any solidarity deserving the name should be the fragile, temporary and uncertain ‘solidity’ of the moment. It should acknowledge that it does not give the answer to any eternal and essential concepts. Solidarity occurs only when insufficiency and finiteness are recognized and acknowledged. The very wound that can neither be negated nor healed is that which reunites us. Solidarity is not confined to reducing the suffering of others because I might find myself in their place at some point; nor is it a co-suffering that makes suffering more endurable because we can share it. Solidarity is something that responds to this wound, the shared experience. In looking for what still is the common bond, communitarianists often refer to a common good: they try to strengthen social responsibility and establish a model of bottom-up solidarity, that is, a solidarity of smaller groups (families, communities) on the level between individuals and the state. But whereas these supposed grass-roots initiatives in the communitarian view tend to operate within a certain political and economic order, driven by the attempt to reshape, rebuild this order according to what is seen as the “common good”, perhaps we should look for something in solidarity that is beyond political and economic order, not aiming at a new shape but attempting to keep the ontological, political, existential space open.

There is no common good, but there is perhaps a common experience, an experience of groundlessness and unrootedness. Counterintuitively, the phenomenon of political and existential groundlessness described is not something that isolates, but, paradoxically, that might enable a true understanding of community. Patočka’s quoted “solidarity of the shaken” expresses precisely this: a solidarity of those who have lost their trust in all positive political values such as pacifism, socialism, democracy, etc. which might serve as common goods for reshaping the society. Perhaps the outcome of solidarity counts less than the atmosphere that it creates and in which it unfolds its explosive message.≈

Note: All texts on solidarity were collected by Ludger Hagedorn in the realm of the research project Loss of grounds as Common Ground directed by Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback. Between 2011 and 2014, a group of five researchers developed an investigation about “Loss of grounds as common ground   – an interdisciplinary investigation of the common ground beyond liberal and communitarian claims”. The researchers involved: Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback (research leader), Irina Sandomirskaja, Ludger Hagedorn, Tora Lane and the doctoral student Gustav Strandberg. Several activities took place, mainly at Södertörn University, but also at the University of Strasbourg and in Vienna at the IWM. Conferences and seminars as well as a lecture series were organized in the course of the project. Three of the project researchers received prestigious awards. Numerous books were published in the project. The researchers wrote a large number of articles and the doctoral student Gustav Strandberg is about to finish his doctoral thesis.


1 In 2010, Leonardo Boff characteristically held: “Without the solidarity of all towards all and also for Mother Earth, there will be no future for anyone. (…) Che Guevara put it well: Solidarity is the tenderness of the people. It is the tenderness that we must give to our suffering brothers and sisters…”

2 The word “solidarity” might show up a few times in his huge oeuvre, but it is not connected to any idea, nor does he even come close to developing any systematic approach to the topic.

3 The French political philosopher Chantal Millon-Delsol emphasizes precisely this personal involvement in the act of solidarity. She criticizes a widespread tendency, characteristic of the political left, to identify solidarity with equal distribution and to create what she calls “an improbable dream of solidarity free of all human additions” (cf. Chantal Millon-Delsol, “Solidarity and Barbarity”, Thinking in Values, no. 1/2007, Craców, 79).

This article is one of many contributions to the theme “Voices on solidarity”, guest edited by Ludger Hagedorn.

  • by Ludger Hagedorn

    PhD and research leader at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. From 2005 to 2009 he was a Purkyne Fellow at the Czech Academy of Sciences. His main interests include phenomenology, political philosophy, modernity, and secularization. As a lecturer, he has worked at the Gutenberg University of Mainz, at Södertörn University and for several years at Charles University in Prague. Recently, he has also taught for New York University in Berlin.

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