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David Roediger - Making Solidarity Uneasy: Cautions on a Keyword from Black Lives Matter to the Past


 “Solidarity is always an active achievement, the result of active struggle to construct the universal on the basis of particulars/differences.” - Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2006)

The important insurgencies that have matured in response to the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin and to the many murders by police of mostly young Black women and men have brought outpourings of solidarity and important debates over what forms such solidarity should take. These developments, like the efforts of the American Studies Association (ASA) to be in solidarity with Palestine, challenge the ASA to approach the question of solidarity in a direct and sustained manner. The Ferguson, Missouri killing of Michael Brown quickly brought massive August, 2014 demonstrations often explicitly expressing “Solidarity with Mike Brown.” Thousands of young people were introduced to the idea and actuality of solidarity in these protests.

However, the solidarity was anything but simple and easy. In Ferguson, Minneapolis, Providence, upstate New York, and elsewhere demonstrators collectively debated whether protesters who were not Black ought to raise their hands in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chants and to participate in die-ins, given that whites were far less likely to suffer fatal attacks from the police. Debates over whites wearing “I Am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts—signaled especially by the widely circulated internet video “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” featuring the University of Kansas activist and American Studies major Emma Halling--troubled a too easy discussion of unity by pointing out that some populations face threats of extralegal and unpunished violence in ways very different from what others face. Embryonic movement debates even developed over whether the word “ally” ought to give way to “accomplice” as a better description of the role best played in a Black-led movement by those who are not whites. The counter-position, that simply invoking of a past golden age of solidarity could settle matters, was also put forward.  Thus the often perceptive political philosopher Steven D’Arcy wrote less than convincingly that the loss of a language of solidarity, and the rise of “positionality” as a term, had derailed the left. He specifically held that “I am not Trayvon Martin” disabled whites from “identifying with African American resistance.” Solidarity, on the other hand, had treated “injuries to one” as “injuries to all” and succeeded in “resisting them in common.”

My giving the ASA presidential address, available online and significantly different in presentation from this article, unexpectedly underlined the difficulties of calling at once not only for more scholarly consideration of solidarity but also for more sober and uneasy reflection on the difficulties of thinking through its promises and difficulties. I began with just such a call but then played, for reasons clarified below, a video clip of Utah Phillips singing “Solidarity Forever.” Despite my promptings toward unease with solidarity a fair share of audience members sang along. Doubly complicating matters was my realization that, positions reversed, I would surely have been among the singers. Nevertheless it remains critical to make a case for embracing solidarity but simultaneously being uneasy about the assumptions it sometimes evokes. The unease ought to make us wonder if solidarity is always a good thing, to recall what and whom solidarity leaves out and how it is premised on those leavings out, to consider how solidarity works across differences in kinds and degrees of oppression, and to ask if the presence of solidarity is the logic of things or if for long periods it may be a treasured exception. The article also focuses on “solidarity” as a surprisingly neglected keyword in cultural studies and discusses how we ought to historicize and memorialize the word.

The last twenty years of my career, roughly evenly split between service in the ASA and in the Working Class Studies Association (WCSA), inevitably shape my approach. In the ASA, talk of solidarity—at least using that word—has been almost absent in presidential addresses over those years, even when such great historians of working people as Vicki Ruiz and Michael Frisch delivered the talks. Digital searches return no more than a handful of such usages, more or less offhand, until the last two years. In the two presidential addresses before mine, in the wake of the ASA’s attempts at solidarity with Palestine, solidarity came to appear several times in the searching presentations of presidents Curtis Marez and Lisa Duggan.  Duggan vividly contrasted the “fun of solidarity” with the “fury of critique.” Her remarks sparked a response from Scott Morgensen that anticipated themes within my contribution here. Morgensen explicitly addressed “relationality within solidarity,” seeking in tribute to the late Jose Munoz, “a politics not yet known.”  That so many young scholars experienced in graduate student labor activism invigorate ASA also argues for investigating and interrogating solidarity as an American Studies topic.

On the other hand, searches for an inspiring record of solidarity very much drive labor history and working class studies scholarship, though not always leavened by sufficient curiosity regarding what scholars are doing when we search hard for a usable past. My own 2009 WCSA presidential address shared this lack of curiosity, supposing that there was an archive of solidarity answering our needs, needing only to rediscovered or perhaps just popularized. As Jana Lipman and Dan Bender have written in introducing their excellent recent collection on labor and empire, “Solidarity is one of the most evoked but least analyzed concepts in U.S. labor history. [It] always has been a central assumption—rarely a topic of analysis . . . simultaneously a powerful ideal and a slippery category.”

Needing Solidarity and Keeping Balance

My own first hearing of “solidarity” was perhaps an exotic one. Although I was raised in a family of trade unionists in the 1950s and 60s, the “solidarity of labor” did not register with me through my teen years. By the time I heard “Solidarity Forever,” probably first in the context of support for the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, the idea of “solidarity with the Vietnamese revolution” was familiar to me. Both examples matter in showing how modern learnings the word are associated with coming be on the side of angels. Indeed they suggest the several dominant axes on which the recent and contemporary left has cherished solidarity—as labor unity, as (for example in the grape boycott) interracialism, and as internationalism. Solidarity’s magnificent association with the good fights is thus well-established in its recent past. To encourage an unease with the magic seemingly worked by such a word is therefore perilous. It risks being misheard as defeatism and resignation in the face of division rather than as an appeal for sober reflection on the difference that differences make even in how unity is apprehended. Nevertheless the magnificence of solidarity can hardly be realized if tethered to impossible expectations leaving us coming up forever short of an unexamined ideal.

                  A personal and a recent historical example will have to suffice to introduce these points. The personal one involves self-criticism and led to my sampling Utah Phillips in the presidential address. The book I was writing two years ago in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the general strike of the slaves, Seizing Freedom, included from its earliest drafts discussions of three songs sharing one tune. The first was the Union Army song “John Brown’s Body,” composed in 1861 and quickly a favorite of troops. Memorializing the eponymous Kansas freedom fighter and abolitionist martyr, but not his specific politics, “John Brown’s Body” was soon given new lyrics by Julia Ward Howe in her nationalist anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Connected to both feminism and abolition. Howe herself long supported antislavery causes. Her husband secretly funded Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and went into exile in the repression that followed. She was soon to be president of the New England Women’s Suffrage Association. Fast forward fifty years from Howe’s composition and the labor organizer Ralph Chaplin was borrowing the tune in writing “Solidarity Forever.” I found myself listening to the songs—as performed by Paul Robson, Janice Harrington and Phillips respectively--in writing.

The three songs brought together the emancipation of slaves, of women, and of wage workers in ways that resonated with Seizing Freedom’s argument that the example of the slaves’ general strike energized the reinvented women’s suffrage and labor movements. The songs formed the soundtrack that led to my considering briefly whether to end Seizing Freedom at the high point of solidarity just after the war rather than also telling the bleak story that followed. But I knew that the music could only guide me so much in romanticizing matters because the slaves themselves were absent in the songs and because the sharp divisions that almost immediately emerged among the African American, white workers’ and women’s movements necessarily ended the story I ultimately needed to tell on a fully somber note.

Just as the manuscript was almost done, I read Harvard historian John Stauffer’s introduction to the reissue of Slave Culture, the classic study by my wonderful mentor Sterling Stuckey. Stauffer answered a question that should have occurred to me: Where did the creators of “John Brown’s Body” get the tune? They heard it, Stauffer shows, it in “Say Brothers,” a camp meeting religious song. That song in turn originated as a “ring shout,” a counterclockwise dance and call-and-response musical performance that Stuckey places at the center of African culture in the United States. Variously titled, it was sung and danced from the Carolina coastal areas all the way to Arkansas. Listening to Sparky and Rhonda Rucker sing “Say Brothers,” I also heard their version of the “Marching Song of the First Arkansas,” in which African American troops fighting for emancipation sang late in war of revolutionized social relations:

They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin,
They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin.

The tune is attributed to “John Brown’s Body,” but some who sang would have known it as the ring shout “Say Brothers.”

The timing of my learning all of this as the book was being completed seemed almost providential and rekindled my desire for a usable past making solidarity easy.  The symmetries for a moment seemed so perfect, right down to the room for audiences to improvise new verses, present from the shout, to “John Brown’s Body,” to “Solidarity Forever.” I almost concluded the book with that symmetry, trying to make music seal an easy solidarity only undermined by the real lives of social movements but opted instead for a closing meditation on the difficulties of solidarity.  It is such a pull towards believing so urgently that everything is connected that we minimize the disconnections that I hope to make us uneasy about, especially insofar as the argument becomes that the Black solidarity of the ring shout becomes the supposedly broader class solidarity of “Solidarity Forever” in any unproblematic way.

Looking as well at the forms of solidarity that emerged after the killing of Mike Brown underscores another dimension of the difficulties involved in arriving at a sober assessment of the phenomenon. We confront,, that is, not only the question of our own desires but also perhaps an erratic pattern of ways in which solidarity actually comes and fails to come into the world. In at least two particular areas—Black/Palestinian solidarity and Black/queer solidarity—the dramatic successes after Ferguson seemed almost simple in their triumphs—a matter of showing up and reaching out and waiting. And yet other efforts at solidarity, such as trade union solidarity with victims of police white supremacist police violence, solidarity proceeds excruciatingly slowly and not always forward.

The connecting of Black and Palestinian issues moved forward from early in the Ferguson protests. The reaching out and showing up occurred through social media and physical presence. Activists in Palestine sent pictures of their demonstrations of support, some simply a picture of young people with a sign saying “FERGUSON WITH LOVE FROM PALESTINE.” They sent advice about coping with tear gas. Knowledge that some police deployed in Ferguson had received training in control of demonstrators from Israeli authorities brought points home. Above all pro-Palestine forces in the United States mobilized impressively for the Fall, 2014 marches in Ferguson and St. Louis, joining locally based Palestinians. They came to demonstrate and also to address questions of day-to-day interactions between Arab and Islamic owners of stores and their African American customers. Within months African American activists from St. Louis and nationally were touring Palestine. Summer of 2015 saw solidarity flow from Black America with dozens of organizations and over a thousand movement leaders signing a statement declaring for Palestinian freedom.“

Queer solidarity often seemed as charmed. From the beginning of the overnight presence of demonstrators near where Brown died, participants reflected on the presence of trans people and the impact of their bravery and their ideas. Thus central figures in Millennial Activists United and other movements were young African American lesbians so much so that Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a veteran organizer, recently told an interview, “I take my orders from 23-year old queer women.” In December, 2014 local St. Louis leaders Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, took advantage of an opening for same-sex marrage. They went to St. Louis’ City Hall, site of so many protests again police violence, to apply for a marriage license. The local African American paper, the venerable and typically mainstream St. Louis American, headlined on page one: “REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.” The same issue included a guest editorial urging African American advocacy of trans issues.

Somewhat more caution could be useful in thinking about even such inspiring victories. If they seemed spontaneous, such examples of solidarity reflected prior and ongoing work across Black/queer, Black/ Palestinian, and even Black queer/Palestinian differences. At times Ferguson protesters had to fight their ways on to the agendas of existing LGBTQ groups. Nor of course were debates and even fights over priorities absent. However, the larger point remains that groups who built solidarity by first showing up and reaching out stood the best chance of prevailing.

In other instances solidarities developed far more slowly. The very high rates of killings by police of American Indian people generated an impressive Indian Lives Matter movement that gained traction only slowly before joint protests with groups focusing on Black lives disrupted the 2015 Twin Cities marathon. Immigrant rights, a movement in which Black Lives Matter founder Opal Tometi had organizing roots, nevertheless has come into alliance with anti-police violence initiatives only modestly. Nor, despite many rank-and-file participants being active in both movements, have ongoing ties with the “Fight for 15” minimum wage movement among fast food workers matured quickly along programmatic lines. To comment on such matters is not to suppose that solidarities in these areas can’t or won’t develop but it is to say that timing, spatial distance between groups, varied histories and difference in the forms oppression takes can make the achievement of unity a large and long task. Nor in this instance could the overarching unity of class bind constituencies effectively. The heralded statement on Ferguson by the AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka turned out to offer a re-acknowledgment of the position that police unions are labor organizations just like any other: As Trumka had it

Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.

Moblization of membership by the AFL-CIO for demonstrations in solidarity with Mike Brown was unsurprisingly meager.

Solidarity's Checkered Origins

Beginning with the longer history of “solidarity” as what the American Studies tradition has called a “keyword” opens some space for reflection. From Raymond Williams’ innovative 1976 volume in British cultural studies, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, to recent American Studies volumes of such words edited by Bruce Burgett, Glenn Hendler, and others, scholarship in this area has produced scores of essays on the shifting meanings of particularly resonant words around which Anglophone conceptions of power and social knowledge have coalesced. Ranging back especially to Latin and French origins, the contributions often establish that it is less the precision of a keyword than its various, even conflicting, resonances that underpin its power. Neither Williams nor American Studies scholars have yet made “solidarity” a keyword, but in the forthcoming Keywords for Radicals Markus Kip contributes a fine entry on the word.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry on “solidarity” reveals the jumble of meanings, historically and now, attached to the word. The first definition refers to the “fact or quality, on the part of communities, etc., of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations,” a meaning easily congruent with the unity of a preindustrial village, across lines of class. However the OED quickly adds “spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members.” Two further additions send us to older and newer meanings. First a separate but related meaning sends us back to Roman civil law: A “form of obligation involving joint and several responsibilities or rights.” Second a recent example of usage points towards forms of solidarity absolutely transcending particular local communities, connoting instead interracialism and internationalism, as illustrated by “Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Committees.”

The origins of the term “solidarity,” and even usage into the nineteenth century, are surprisingly entwined with impulses that, if not conservative, are seemingly at odds with the left uses of the word so common today. In the longest view, the word arose from Roman law, and specifically the enforcement of “in solido” obligations of debtors in common to each be responsible, if held to account, for an entire debt. As Gaius’ Institutionum Iuris Civilis put it “Every creditor is severally entitled to receive the whole object of the active obligation, and every debtor is bound to discharge the whole object of the passive obligation.” The rearticulation of this principle in Napoleonic law after the French Revolution coincided with the opening of political space for a consideration of corporate obligations more generally, especially under the auspices of Catholic social thinkers. Thus the OED notes the “French origin of the word is freq. referred to during the period of its introduction into English use.”

Well into the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church, not radicals, deployed “solidarity” most effectively being better poised to survive repression and more able to combine a critique of bourgeois individualism with a hankering for older pre-industrial regimes of rule, including at times even royalism. Even near the end of the 1800s “solidarite” in France and elsewhere was elaborated as part of what Michael Hoelzl described as “the exchange between theological and political ideals” and its emergence at times in mainstream discourses bespoke elite attempts to arrive at a response within capitalism to heightening class divisions.  None of this reveals “solidarity” to be devoid of social critique. Even as they favored creditors over groups of debtors in the main, “in solido” obligations (nominated in English as “solidarity obligation”) were part of pre-capitalist discourses on debt that were at times able to take community norms and even moral economies into account. Catholic emphases on of solidarity both underpinned the Church’s episodic commitments to the poor and expanded, especially after Pierre Leroux’s 1840 De’ l’Humanite, in secularizations animating a variety of political positions. Two years later Hippolyle Renaud’s Solidarity, a brief study of utopian socialist Charles Fourier, became the first book explicitly taking its title from the ideal of “solidarity.” However, it is worth emphasizing that into the early twentieth century key ideas of solidarity in France and elsewhere had much to do with both the internationalism of Catholicism and with that of socialism, if only to remind us that what the historian of France J.E.S. Hayward calls the “mystique” of solidarity cut in many directions.

Laboring Solidarity

In second half of the nineteenth century the connection between solidarity and labor became firm for the first time at the level of both practice and theory. Ironically Marxist practice, far more than Karl Marx’s theoretical writings, spread the use of “solidarity”—often in its English rather than in its French form—across national boundaries. The elaboration in theoretical work came principally from the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Both Marxism and Durkheim predicted, in very different ways, that industrial society would make possible wholly new forms of solidarity. Both traditions also missed at times the extent to which existing patterns of racial divisions and uneven development produced solidarities compromised by their creation within industrial capitalism and imperial expansion. The empire-inflected work of the great radical artist Walter Crane, who attempted to “labor solidarity” in drawings at about the same time as Marx and Durkheim did so in words, will illustrate some of the complications.

At the time of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels had maintained that the growth of industry created the conditions for solidarity, though they did not use the word. Machines and new divisions of labor minimized distinctions based on skill and flattened wage differences, they argued in The Communist Manifesto. Thus “equalized,” though in desperation and alienation not in freedom, workers could move together in new ways. Moreover, “National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing . . . to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production.” By 1864, with Marx as a leading force, the newly formed International Working Men’s Association (IWA) decided on its “General Rules.” Their drafting made “solidarity stand among the first words of an organization uniting communists, anarchists, and trade union leaders.   The four brief rules insisted that solidarity could not be left to the processes set in motion by capital but that it could be organized. The last of them described the stakes, at home and internationally: “That all efforts aiming at the great end [of labor’s emancipation] hitherto failed from the want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labor in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries.” A year later, when the IWA issued cards to members their text described the International’s goal as “complete emancipation, economical and political, of the Working Classes.” The means to reach such an end included to “promote the establishment of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labour in each country, and the co-operation of the Working Classes of different countries.” In 1872, Marx would speak of “the basic principle of the International: Solidarity,” which doubled also as the “great lesson of the [defeat of the] French Commune."

While a passionate concern of the Marxist political project, solidarity did not centrally figure in Marx’s main theoretical work. The word appears not at all in the first volume of Capital, published in German in 1867 amidst Marx’s concerted activism on solidarity’s behalf and subsequently translated into English. The Canadian Marxist economist Michael Lebowitz made this point powerfully from a related angle. Lebowitz wrote of the lack of any theorizing of the necessity for capital of producing differences among workers in order to maintain hegemony within the process of production. He name that difference-generating variable the “x-factor.” X, “the tendency to divide workers,” functions as “part of the essence of capital, indeed, an essential aspect of the logic of capital.”  Lebowitz allowed that Marx “recognised well,” as for example in the latter’s famous writings on the role of anti-Irish prejudices of English workers in weakening the movement of the latter group that fostering disunity was a “secret  . . .   by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” However, at the level of theory “the importance to capital of dividing workers” remained unaccounted for by Marx. Specifically, Lebowitz continued, “racism and sexism [do] not appear as part of the essence of capital in Marx’s Capital.” Within the American Studies tradition such a critique of, or (as I’d prefer) supplement of, Marxism has been powerfully advanced by Lisa Lowe, Grace Kwungwon Hong, and others.

The flip side of Lebowitz’s insights is what interests me here, namely the extent to which Marx’s relative disinterest in theorizing how solidarity operates simplifies matters, but at a cost. We inherit the rather different stops of the Manifesto, seeing labor unity as produced by capitalism, and of the IWA writings, casting solidarity as needing to be urgently built across difference by the purposeful, powerfully opposed, voluntary actions of workers. These are the poles in thinking about solidarity that this article seeks to trouble: first that our success in producing unity lies in the logic of capital and secondly that our own voluntary action can easily secure solidarity’s triumph.

Durkheim’s far less globally ambitious work nevertheless made him the nineteenth century thinker most explicitly articulating a theory of solidarity, particularly in The Division of Labor in Society(1893). Specialization in industrial society played for Durkheim an almost magical role in creating the basis for new human bonds. He was not very interested in specific configurations of productive processes, and far more apt to write about legal codes than factories even in a volume ostensibly centered on the possibilities opened by the modern division of labor. However, Durkheim hinged big ideas about a more dynamic and meaningful solidarity on new labor processes, differentiated political and social roles, urbanization, and the consequent rise of complex personalities able to see that others had necessary skills and roles that they did not. He twinned that hopefulness with a very constricted view of the possibilities of meaningful solidarity in preindustrial and especially in kin-based societies. Durkheim termed the constricted “solidarity by similarities” that applied in such societies as mere “mechanical solidarity.” His metaphors to describe such societies and their solidarities came often from science. The people caught in them lacked individuality and the societies resembled segmented worms accreting in webs of sameness. At another juncture Durkheim regarded the persons in village or tribal settings as being like molecules fixed in “inorganic” objects. Thus it was poosible to name the meaningful solidarity that he saw as being enabled by modern of divisions of labor as “organic solidarity.”  This made logical the counterintuitive terminology in which Durkheim had the age of capitalist mechanization supplanting “mechanical solidarity” with a manufactured “organic solidarity.”

Aspects of Durkheim’s thought, on “slotting” into jobs for example, suggest ways to think about how the division of labor was also racialized and gendered but his central arguments on solidarity do not. Persistent problems foreclosed possibilities of his addressing how solidarity might apply in a highly uneven world. Durkheim’s analysis of mechanical solidarity does usefully describes reciprocities based on likeness and reminds us that the word “solidarity: might apply to also describe insularity. However, positing such a deep gulf between the pre-modern and the industrial leaves little rooms for his considering  the xenophobic but thoroughly modern solidarities of, for example, the racially exclusionary “sundown town” and the imperial state.

Moreover, as Lawrence Wilde’s very generous appraisals of Durkheim’s work on modern solidarity observe, the latter’s theorizing of solidarity assumed the nation as its unit of analysis, though with some musings on what a broader framework would look like. Although he was very active as a French liberal reformer and associate of Léon  Bourgeois, the politician and author of the wildly popular 1896 volume Solidairité, room for Durkheim to reflect on global inequalities was scant. Nor did his framework of seeing history as a triumph of civilization and productivityover backwardness expand possibilities for such analysis. While the late Marx had moved decisively towards an appreciation of the what Native American  and Russian village society offered to those prizing solidarity, Durkheim held that industrial society excelled in both individualism and solidarity. Such a formulation also absented the extent to which modern working class solidarities continued to be lived in small communities and kin networks. Nor did Durkheim provide a strong alternative to views that regarded solidarity as “natural” given the existing division of labor. While he recognized that class struggle, economic crises, and something like alienation attended the division of labor, these were “abnormalities” born of an “extreme division of labor,” not structural features of a system he saw as normally producing “happiness.”    

Picturing Empire and Solidarity

A recent discovery in the history of cartography dramatically shows how race and uneven economic development across the globe burdened the laboring of solidarity. The map itself was made in 1886 for the Imperial Federation League (IFL), which commissioned it for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of that year.  The IRL had the map published as a lavish special supplement to the liberal weekly The Graphic. Huge and colorful the map included inset facts, prepared by Captain J. C. R. Colomb, the Conservative MP, on the value of empire. His essay of the IRL and empire appeared in the same issue of The Graphic as the map. Within the pro-imperial run-up to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and in the early stages of the “New Imperialism” period and the attendant “Scramble for Africa,” the map shaded the Queen’s realm in pink. It demands being read as an artifact publicizing empire’s appeals and showing support for expansion, and for the IRL’s plans to modernize and reform imperial rule, across party lines. A Mercator projection, the map made Britain the center of the world. Orientalist imagery, exotic animals, partially clad women, and racial stereotypes abounded. The links among peoples pictured were trade routes and a shared turning towards the reclining figure of Britannia, bottom center, who seems in turn to watch out for all. Three banners at the map’s top proclaim the promise of the reformed and expanded empire: “FREEDOM,” “FRATERNITY,” and “FEDERATION." 

FIGURE ONE: Walter Crane, “Imperial Federation Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire (1886),” The Graphic [supplement] (July 24, 1886).       

Just over a decade ago a graduate student geographer, , spotted a signature of sorts on the 1886 map and recognized its import. In the lower left corner, the artist had signed with a tiny rebus, or pictogram, depicting a crane and adding the still tinier stylized letters “W” and “C.” Such was the mark of Walter Crane, known as the “artist of socialism” and a major figure with William Morris in the radical Arts and Crafts movement. For the purposes of this article, the most significant of Crane’s drawings was the 1890 frontispiece to an American edition of William Morris’ News from Nowhere. Titled “Labour’s May Day,” but proclaiming “Solidarity of Labour,” it is the first major artistic work to name “solidarity, in English, as its theme.


FIGURE TWO: Walter Crane, “Labour’s May Day,” in William Morris, News from Nowhere (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890), frontispiece.

It too shows a Britain-centered globe, held up by an Atlas figure, labelled “Europe” and now joined by clasped hands with the workers of the world. Nature and a liberty-inspiring woman again feature prominently and the three banners topping the image change in only one instance: “FREEDOM” and “FRATERNITY” survive but the IRL’s beloved “FEDERATION” yields to “EQUALITY” in the socialist internationalist version.           

Both of the main writers on the 1886 imperial Crane map, Biltcliffe and  the curator and geographer Felix Driver, situate it amidst Crane’s socialist and eventually strongly anti-imperialist works. They specifically consider “Solidarity of Labour” in counterpoint to the IRL-commissioned map and rightly refuse to regard the two works as completely separate in their politics. This Crane scholarship notes that as an artist needing paid work he could hardly have created only revolutionary art and emphasizes that the 1886 map was very much produced with the demands of the employer in mind. Crane’s textiles reproducing imperial and Orientalist images might be considered in the same light. Moreover, both authors find in the 1886 map a certain success by Crane in smuggling subversions into a work commissioned to praise the possibilities of empire. The three draped women at the top, for example, sport headwear, “distinctly reminiscent . . . of the red Phrygian cap worn by liberated Roman slaves, which had become a symbol of liberation and specifically of opposition to colonialism, figuring as it did in the flag of revolutionary Haiti. Asian labor is pictured as both bowed down by exploitation, “struggling in midst of plenty” as Driver writes, but also as powerful. Atlas, holding up all, wears a belt reading, albeit in tiny letters, “HUMAN LABOUR.” A plausible case can be made for seeing the map as containing subbterranean critique. Indeed the IRL seems to have quickly lost interest in promoting it, preferring a simple version with the empire colored in a far more dramatic dark blue.

The problem, revealingly enough, lies more in the 1890 map and its easy assumptions regarding solidarity across difference.  In it, women all but disappear with what Driver calls “masculine brotherhood” carrying the message. Indigenous people of both North America and the Antipodes are present in 1886 but not in 1890. The figure representing the labor of Africa appears to be a white, if sun-drenched, worker in Crane’s later depiction of the “solidarity of labour.” Perhaps most significantly, the idea that images can simply be borrowed in a drawing of global solidarity from a paean to empire suggests that Driver is correct when he writes that Crane at times thought “that empire is potentially a vehicle and not an obstacle to socialism.” Driver further argues that despite his unearthing of subversion in the iconic 1886 map, it remains “in some ways a troubling image.” As much can also be said for Crane’s likewise iconic representation of solidarity in 1890.

A United Statesian Keyword

The 601 uses in 480 published works between 1843 and 1901 returned from searching Cornell University Library “Making of America” digitized website for the word “solidarity” reveal a great variety of usages; many simply suggest a commonality among all manner of things. However, the chronologically first citation retrieved is very important for our purposes and some patterns do emerge. In June, 1843, Orestes A. Brownson, making his way from liberal Christianity to Catholicism—his conversion would be completed the following year—wrote of “the mutual solidarity of the human race” in an article on “Universal History.” He traced the language to a “French legal term.” A few months later he offered further complications, based on individualism and access to property. In 1853, scholar and merchant Charles Eliot Norton  connected “Communism” and “solidarity” briefly, rejecting both in favor of faith in his Considerations on Some Recent Social Theories.  Nevertheless the central fact regarding usage of “solidarity” through 1860 was its infrequency. As measured by Google Ngram the last 40 years of the nineteenth century saw a 13-fold increase in usage of the word over 1860 levels and the by 1920 that increase was nearly 40-fold.

Writing in 1874 the New York lawyer and literary critic Richard Grant White, regarded the word “solidarity” as exemplifying that “we [in the U.S.] have adopted a few very expansive French words.” Generally true, White’s observation cannot account for what may be the earliest usages of solidarity as a pro-labor noun in the United States.  The militant abolitionist Richard Hinton, who fought in support of John Brown in Kansas and later joined the International Workingmen’s Association borrowed from English-language publications of the IWA as he publicized the organization to readers of Atlantic Monthly. Hinton wrote of a “new and imposing politico-social organization” acting on the belief that “It is useless for the working people of one nation to attempt to remodel society; there must be a combination of all the nations.” Combining the labor and internationalist strands of solidarity’s modern meanings, he quoted an IWA resolution from its Brussels meeting: “The Congress reckons upon the solidarity of workingmen of all countries for [a] strike of the people against war.”

The Knights of Labor rightly and wrongly enjoys a reputation for advancing the cause of solidarity in its practice as the leading nineteenth century U.S. mass organization of working people, and one particularly willing to organize across lines of skill, gender, nationality, and race. Its powerful slogan “An injury to one is the concern of all” has resonated widely in changing forms in subsequent labor movements as one basis of solidarity.  Nevertheless in its 1880s heyday, the organization used the term “solidarity” scantily and contradictorily much more often describing its own ideal as “fraternity.” Indeed even the celebrated “injury to one” motto dated from the early days of the Knights as a secret fraternal brotherhood and was unevenly used during its heyday as an openly organizing labor organization. In the six fat volumes of the Knights’ Journal of United Labor published in the early and middle 1880s only two articles used the word “solidarity.” In the first, “The Present Slavery—The Coming Freedom,” the cooperative leader Justus O. Woods reflected the tendency to use solidarity to mean Christian brotherhood: “The solidarity of human interests may be safely assumed. One part of our race cannot be permanently elevated and happy while the other is degraded and miserable.” The line resonated with Marx’s famous pronouncement that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin while in the black it is branded,” but without the labor. Christian faith, Woods held, furnished “the noblest ideal of human society” that of a “grand brotherhood of the race.” Countering the individualism of social Darwinian, he used solidarity to establish right to legislate for social good.

Woods’ usage built on a strong tradition of Protestant humanitarianism, and at times internationalism and egalitarianism that in the United States often pioneered the explicit use of “solidarity” to breach racial lines. In 1886, for example, the editorial, “Daniel Webster and Caste” in The American Missionary reproduced a small part of Webster’s 1820 Plymouth Rock oration. The editors praised it as a speech that “declares for the solidarity of the race” and “frowns upon the spirit of caste at all times and everywhere.” Solidarity here was their word, not Webster’s and the evidence that Webster was a determined foe of caste is less than impressive. However, the editorial repeats a usage of “solidarity” quite firmly developed in The American Missionary, which used the word twenty-three times in the late nineteenth century, almost always in support of human brotherhood and supporting Christian education abroad and/or African American and American Indian education at home. In one remarkable 1894 article, chronicling racial oppression in the United States, the author glories specifically in the “racial solidarity” forming around the term “Afro-American.”

The other Journal of United Labor article using “solidarity” shows that there was at least some use of the word to signify of labor unity within the Knights. Part of the long, unsigned “Chapters on Labor” series, it defended the tactic of going on strike even when immediate results were poor--most Knights of Labor had resulted in defeat according to author—because the experience has taught us the power of unity; it has shown us that all our interests are identical; it has enabled us to understand solidarity.” The author looked forward, after the growth of cooperatives, to “a general strike, which will be the last strike, the great strike, the universal strike.” The major novel reflecting the experience of the Knights from a member’s—albeit a lawyer whom the order’s formal rules barred from membership--point-of-view, T. Fulton Gantt’s 1887 Breaking the Chains, echoes this usage. As Maud Simpson, a leading female character and the novel’s best spokesperson for the logic of labor organizing, puts it, “The Knights have learned that they are powerless to accomplish anything individually and so labor for their whole class, It is the correct idea—solidarity.”

On the other hand, the same novel winds its way toward culminating scenes that offer an occasion for unease about the power of solidarity that Maud Simpson evokes. The strand of anti-Chinese racism that animated a subplot of the story, compounds into a deadly brew of opium addiction, elite decadence, and anxiety regarding interracial sex as a Chinese servant provides drugs to a young rich woman. That such casual racism did not seem to the author to clash with phrasings regarding solidarity underlines how wary we should be of seeing solidarity as merely incomplete, awaiting further inclusions. Generations of workers died with almost no impulse toward even beginning to move beyond a reflexive impulse toward Chinese exclusion. The most honest and exemplary study in this regard, Alexander Saxton’s The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Chinese Exclusion Movement in California, argues that an important part of the labor movement was built not despite a commitment to anti-Chinese racism but through such a commitment. Critical in modeling the productive uneasiness regarding solidarity urged in this article is Saxton’s repeated inclusion in his study of the anti-racist barber and seaman’s organizer Sigismund Danielewicz. Long fighting a lonely crusade against overwhelming forces that either believed in Chinese exclusion or thought themselves able to use it tactically, Danielewizc lost again and again. His brilliance as an organizer could not overcome his insistence on principle. His last appearance in the book finds Danielewizc making a statement against anti-Chinese racism knowing “beforehand that his comrades would permit him to be guffawed and howled and booed from the podium.” His presence hardly signaled for Saxton that there was always a saving remnant of the labor movement seeking a broader solidarity. In this case, there wasn’t.

Full use of “solidarity” within a language of U.S. labor awaited the twentieth century, and specifically the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). That organization would in 1909 launch the publication Solidarity so that when Chaplin’s anthem “Solidarity Forever,” appeared six years later its lyrics debuted in Solidarity. Two years later the idea that solidarity might be represented by a clenched fist appeared, again in Solidarity, with a striking cartoon in which (white male) workers form strong underground roots of a powerful fist emerging above the ground. Signed with his pen name “Bingo,” the cartoon was also the work of Chaplin, then an editor of Solidarity. In both song and image the desire for solidarity is touching but hardly interested in portraying difference, or in thinking, beyond a spirited reliance on a language of class, about what produced unity. 

        FIGURE THREE: “Bingo” [Ralph Chaplin], “The Hand That Will Rule the World,” Solidarity (June 30, 1917).

Solidarity, History, Memory

As someone trained in history I want to reflect in closing on three instances concerning how remembering the past reflect a sometimes enervating desire for solidarity to be easy. To raise this set of issues is not to disavow the pull towards what the French georgrapher, anarchist, antislavery travel writer on the United States, and Communard Élisée Reclus described as solidarity with “those who are no longer here.” Such an aspiration was beautifully apparent when freedpeople sang of the “many thousand gone” in contemplating their liberation and their future. Such a sensibility challenges, among other things, too firm separations of mechanical solidarity from organic solidarity. However, to imagine ourselves in solidarity with social movements of the past presents challenges us to remember them as presenting both ways forward and ways in which broad solidarities have often been elusive and difficult.

Perhaps the leading case in which historians have rewritten the history of solidarity in the last fifty years, Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1675 and 1676, provides the first challenging example. Before the late 1960s two connecting interpretations informed thinking about how the armed revolt led by the plantation owner Nathaniel Bacon and followed by common people presaged later anti-colonial and democratic initiatives. In the first Bacon was the “torchbearer” for a revolution a century away. The second interpretation, reading the historical record with perhaps less license, emphasized the rebellion’s anti-Indian character. When one of the leading U.S. liberal historians, Edmund S. Morgan, and one of our leading radical historians, Theodore Allen, reinterpreted Bacon, they placed his revolt in the context of many other insurgencies in Maryland and Virginia between 1660 and 1680. Turning on questions of land and labor, these class conflicts united the “giddy multitude,” indentured and formerly indentured workers of both African and European ancestry, and shook the colonial order’s foundations. Allen in particular argued forcefully that the result of threats to elite control was the “invention of the white race.” Elites reacted not only by turning to more slave labor but also to strategies drawing a color line enlisting the white poor, accorded petty privileges, in the defense of a slave system soon also functioning as a racial system. Though not quite an example of interracial solidarity of labor—on Allen’s argument racial categories came after the rebellion—Bacpn’s insurgency stood as a shining example of class solidarity.

For many radical historians of race, myself certainly included, the reinterpretations of Bacon were profoundly attractive and remain so. So much is this the case that what they have left out has been minimized. Where gender was concerned the important work of Kathleen Brown quickly pointed to a critical omission, but one that the revisionist and traditional historians of Bacon’s Rebellion had shared. More recently historians have reasserted and detailed an older anti-Indian story that ought also to complicate our understanding of the solidarity of the “giddy multitude.” Both James Davis and the late Ethan Schmidt have weighed in with powerful reminders that while Bacon’s forces came into class solidarity around a desire for land, their more precise goal was speedy movement onto Indian land. Davis demonstrates that the setting was not simply a colony but rather “Indian country.” For Schmidt, the emphases are equally on “social conflict and Indian hatred.” Indeed in concert with new work establishing some materially based pre-Bacon’s Rebellion impulses towards white supremacy and preference for slave labor, the question could be raised whether class solidarity in a settler alliance led by Bacon actually served the interests of African-descended poor people.

In the city where I live a monument particularly exemplifies how memorializing an historic impulse towards solidarity against one form of oppression can coexist with a refusal to acknowledge another. The striking 23-ton reddish pink rock, with a plaque affixed, sits across from the Lawrence, Kansas city hall. The text rightly recalls the heroism those who founded the town as an antislavery outpost:


Disappeared in the plaque’s words is the fact of settlement on native land, so tragically a part of the story of the monument itself. The stone anchoring its plaque was Shunganunga boulder, an oddity among the regions yellowish-white stone, carried from the Dakotas on a glacier during the last Ice Age. Its distinctiveness was not lost on the Kanza Indians living near its location at the intersection of Shunganunga Creek and the Kaw River. Having incorporated the boulder into water worship rites, the Kanza recalled it as a source of collective identity long after their removal to Oklahoma in the wake of the Civil War. In 1929, as part of Lawrence’s 75th anniversary celebration, the Santa Fe Railroad helped to move the stone from its centuries-old resting place. It went from marking sacred native place to being Founders Monument in Lawrence. In 1989, the Kanza asked that the Shunganunga boulder be restored to its former place in the river. a Lawrence Sesquicentennial Commission member justified rejecting the proposal on grounds clarifying that a monument to abolition could also be deeply embedded in long, unacknowledged histories of colonialism: "To the Kanza, these things had a life and a spirit," the commission member said, "In some ways, the spirituality of the rock has been shifted to a different area. The boulder was very important to the residents of Lawrence who brought it here -- it was kind of like their Plymouth Rock."

FIGURE FOUR: Pepsy M. Kettavong’s “Let’s Have Tea.” Rochester, New York. Bronze. 2001.

The last of the cautions regarding memory and solidarity directly returns us to my doubts regarding how to write Seizing Freedom. In “Let’s Have Tea” the Laotian-born American artist Pepsy M. Kettavong pays tribute to the friendship of Rochester, New York’s two great feminist-abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The decades of their collaboration, also commemorated by their names jointly gracing a spectacular bridge near the sculpture, richly deserve remembering. In an interview the artist cast his own role in producing the work and its subject matter as exemplifying the U.S. democracy at its best. All of that granted, the installation implies an ease in solidarity that the lives of Douglass and Anthony both exemplify and contradict. Their long and fruitful collaborations before and during the Civil War ought to be recalled. But so too should be the fact that in the immediate postwar years, when the questions of African American and women’s rights emerged with unprecedented intensity, bitter political splits utterly divided the two leaders.

To insist that school children who visit the park would benefit from knowing both stories is not to deprecate the plain heroism and the capacity for alliance Anthony and Douglass often displayed. Nevertheless profound structural differences in the ways in which African American men and middle class white women experienced both misery and the possibilities for redress left them in different and indeed opposing organizations. Indeed the fine eponymous documentary film based on the “Let’s Have Tea” sculpture makes just that point. To understand the power of those pressures working against solidarity is also a usable part of remembering the past, alerting us to structural differences between forms of domination in the past the present and allowing activists to know that not all fallings out of coalition are the result of bad faith.

Expressing an unease with the solidarity we nevertheless desire intersects with a variety of recent rethinking of the questions of optimism. These include Terry Eagleton’s Hope without Optimism, the excellent new British journal Salvage, and Lauren Berlant’s work on the perils of “cruel optimism.” In a related way the surrealist concept of “miserabilism,” which animated the call for papers of the 2015 ASA conference, holds that the terrible miseries social systems produce can at times reinforce the ability of elites to rule. Such different warnings against easy optimisms are far from calls for quietism. Instead they reflect on the extent to which the desire for reassurances that social motion is proceeding in our favor can lead in practice to immobilization, especially when defeats accumulate and hollow victories are extolled. They urge that we realize what we are up against and how uneasy the road ahead is bound to be.  We ought to be willing to make solidarity uneasy as well, seeking it by owning its difficulties.


David Roediger is the Foundation Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Kansas University. This latest book, Class, Race and Marxism, from which this extract is taken, is out now from Verso.