Cover image for Political Solidarity By Sally J. Scholz

Political Solidarity

Sally J. Scholz


$66.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03400-3

$29.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03401-0

296 pages
6" × 9"

Political Solidarity

Sally J. Scholz

“The very idea of a theory of solidarity that is akin to a theory of justice is a revelation. Sally Scholz does a marvelous job of presenting hers in this thorough and illuminating work.”


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Experiences of solidarity have figured prominently in the politics of the modern era, from the rallying cry of liberation theology for solidarity with the poor and oppressed, through feminist calls for sisterhood, to such political movements as Solidarity in Poland. Yet very little academic writing has focused on solidarity in conceptual rather than empirical terms.

Sally Scholz takes on this critical task here. She lays the groundwork for a theory of political solidarity, asking what solidarity means and how it differs fundamentally from other social and political concepts like camaraderie, association, or community. Scholz distinguishes a variety of types and levels of solidarity by their social ontologies, moral relations, and corresponding obligations. Political solidarity, in contrast to social solidarity and civic solidarity, aims to bring about social change by uniting individuals in their response to particular situations of injustice, oppression, or tyranny.

The book explores the moral relation of political solidarity in detail, with chapters on the nature of the solidary group, obligations within solidarity, the “paradox of the privileged,” the goals of solidarity movements, and the prospects for global solidarity.

“The very idea of a theory of solidarity that is akin to a theory of justice is a revelation. Sally Scholz does a marvelous job of presenting hers in this thorough and illuminating work.”
“Lucidly written, theoretically interesting, and closely in touch with the real world, this book should be read by anyone interested in feminism, social ontology, political philosophy, or progressive politics.”
“Scholz’s book is perhaps the best I have read in dispensing with the vexing problem that has shadowed liberation movements: whether only the victims know best. Yes, Scholz writes, those who have been oppressed have vital knowledge, but others can bring other perspectives and points of view that can connect one movement with other ones.”

Sally J. Scholz is Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University.




1. Solidarities

2. Toward a Theory of Political Solidarity

3. The Moral Relations and Obligations of Political Solidarity

4. The Solidary Collective

5. The Paradox of the Participation of the Privileged

6. The Social Justice Ends of Political Solidarity

7. On Human Solidarity and the Challenge of Global Solidarity




Why Solidarity?

When I was in college, I took a one-credit course in sociology called the “Urban Plunge.” The course took about a dozen students and two professors from a lush, suburban campus that sat on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River to downtown Portland, Oregon. For three days, we stayed on the smelly, hard floor of an upstairs room of a church. Downstairs, in the basement of the church, was a homeless shelter for men. Each day our intrepid crew marched out into the rainy Portland weather to experience life on the street—or, in the rhetoric of the course, “to be in solidarity with the homeless.” We served and ate at soup kitchens, cleaned mice feces and roaches out of food pantries, met with advocates and social workers, listened as two former prostitutes told us of their life, and generally wandered through streets unshowered and proud of our liberal efforts to change things for the better and “truly experience” what it meant to be homeless. Although I look back on that experience with a mixture of humor at my naiveté and cynicism about whether our efforts really had any impact at all, the course got me thinking a lot about solidarity. The word itself was inspiring—as if in spending three days in that church meant I suddenly became transformed to be one with workers struggling for the right to unionize, the poor and oppressed in Latin America fighting oppressive regimes, prisoners at the mercy of impersonal criminal justice systems, and countless other struggles. I had a vague understanding that solidarity was some combination of compassion and social justice but beyond that, I just was not sure.

What does "solidarity" mean? Some scholars have suggested or implied that solidarity means a shared consciousness, experience, history, or identity. Yet how then could someone who not only had no experience of oppression, like me and my colleagues in the Urban Plunge, possibly share the same consciousness with those who live the oppression relentlessly? Others suggest that solidarity is a feeling, but feelings alone do not always motivate us to act, nor do we even understand all the feelings that we may experience. Still others say that solidarity is the bond uniting individuals whatever their life circumstances may be. Most appeals to solidarity appear to be deliberate differentiations from unity, camaraderie, sociality, sympathy, or community. So what makes solidarity distinctly different and yet also allows it to be meaningfully used in such different ways? What did we mean when we claimed solidarity with the homeless and what did workers in Poland mean when they chose it for the name of their movement in 1980?

Philosophical literature on race and the history of the women’s movement offer two pertinent examples that illustrate both the appearance of common understanding and the different possible uses of the concept of solidarity. A recent debate within the literature on race pertains to the moral obligations of racial solidarity. W. E. B. Du Bois used the term “racial solidarity” to draw out the familial analogy for race, and Alain Leroy Locke used “race solidarity” to indicate consciousness of and pride in cultural difference or artistic achievements within racial groups (see Scholz 2003a). But Locke also used it to indicate the ties that bind whites in a race-supremacist society: “The vicarious satisfactions of the poor whites, with a small share in the benefits of restricted labor competition, have been used to create a specious solidarity of interests based on the perpetuation of the discriminations of color caste” (Locke 1946, 235). Locke also mentions the bond that forms among colonized peoples in reaction to the dominance of the colonizer (Locke 1946, 531). Contemporary critical race theory further unpacks this term and challenges its social and moral content. What emerges is a complex, and at times vague, appeal to racial solidarity as an ontological concept, moral imperative, and social descriptor. Some argue that racial solidarity is meaningless because there are no races (Appiah 1996). Others argue that racial solidarity ought to be analogous to the ideal family and thus justifies giving partial treatment to members of the same race so long as no harm is done to others (Stubblefield 2001). Still others want to retain the notion of racial solidarity not for its truth or falsity as an ontological concept and not in order to justify moral partiality but as a recognition of the social construction of race (Mills 1997) or the political empowerment such a concept entails (Shelby 2005). Clearly, different conceptions of solidarity are at work in at least some if not all of these invocations of the term. More often than not, the understanding of solidarity is blurred as scholars use it to discuss external identity, shared experience, shared consciousness, and political resistance separately and simultaneously.

The second example is drawn from feminist activism and theory. Since the 1960s, the possibility of solidarity among women has been in the background of almost every feminist political theory. Activists of the 1960s and 1970s asserted strong connections among all women with their use of the term “sisterhood.” But sisterhood belied the range of divisions between women and the diversity of oppressive experiences often interconnected with racial and class oppression. This critique, put forth (among others) by bell hooks in her well-known essay “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women,” challenged conceptions of solidarity grounded on similar experiences of oppression or shared experience. She argued that male-supremacist ideology encourages women to bond only with men. Sisterhood was meant to show that women could bond on the basis of our shared oppression. But, as hooks explains, “The idea of ‘common oppression’ was a false and corrupt platform disguising and mystifying the true nature of women’s varied and complex social reality. Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices” (1984, 44). Solidarity as a political movement, she argued, is built on resistance struggle and emphasizes shared strengths and resources. Perhaps even more radical, the shift in the understanding of solidarity challenged feminists and others who fight for liberation to see connections between their efforts and the efforts of other resisters. As hooks sees it, “Women must learn to accept responsibility for fighting oppressions that may not directly affect us as individuals. Feminist movement, like other radical movements in our society, suffers when individual concerns and priorities are the only reason for participation. When we show our concern for the collective, we strengthen our solidarity” (1984, 62).

Solidarity as a political movement superseded sisterhood or solidarity as shared experience when women recognized the need to unite based on shared strengths, common goals, or even identification with struggles. Sara Ruddick describes this transformation and adds that “solidarity extends indefinitely with different emphases depending on the feminist” (1989, 240). Solidarity among and between women became the ideal to strive for even while vast class and race divisions forced women to acknowledge their own role in upholding systems of oppression. Ruddick characterizes the ideal of solidarity as capable of uniting women in struggle across national and state boundaries because it favors “a closer look at what women actually suffer and how they act” (1989, 240). Feminist solidarity, she continues, seeks to “identify with women’s culturally specific struggles to work, care, and enjoy, to think and speak freely, and to resist abuse” (1989, 240–41). These passages, like the material cited above for racial solidarity, reveal different, shifting, and even contradictory conceptions of solidarity often differentiated by a fine line between the unity for a purpose and the unity based on shared experience. Identifying with women’s culturally specific struggles is different than uniting women in struggles. Two different notions of solidarity are at work.

One way to think about the apparent perplexity of the concept of solidarity is to scrutinize the social ontology of the group relation described by the term. The social bonds, strength of sentiment, identity, and overlap of interests among people in solidarity differs in many of the examples used above. Alternatively, because “solidarity” clearly carries some moral or political import, perhaps examining various solidarity relations for that content would clarify things. Racial solidarity or the solidarity among women might imply an obligation to patronize minority- or woman-owned businesses, to support cultural events and artistic endeavors that demonstrate race or gender solidarity. But that is different still from the political meaning of solidarity’s socialist roots. Although not as explicit as the social ontology or the moral and political aspects, solidarity also seems to have an epistemological side. It has been described as sharing consciousness and as empathetic understanding. But many of the different forms of solidarity overlap in their social ontologies, moral and political norms, or epistemologies. These categories may aid in distinguishing forms of solidarity for ease of theoretical discussion, but there is not always an easy alignment of actually existing solidarities solely along these theoretical lines.

How, then, can forms of solidarity be delineated? Is there reason for keeping them connected? Should vastly different phenomena be similarly labeled solidarity? Is solidarity best understood as a description of the relations of human persons or community, a moral virtue, a political activity, or a state of mind?

Political Solidarity, a monograph in moral, social, political, and feminist philosophy, defends a system of classification for levels and types of solidarities and develops a theory of one of those types. I argue that there are three levels of solidarities. The first and most general level describes the content or expectations of every form of solidarity, thereby identifying the traits that distinguish solidarity from camaraderie, community, association, and other social groupings. This marks solidarity as a morally rich concept for political theorists in that it describes some form of unity (however tenuously the members might be united) that mediates between the individual and the community and entails positive moral duties. Each of these components informs the richness of the concept solidarity while also contributing to the challenge of articulating a theory of solidarity.

From this general level, a second level adds specificity and nuance to the different moral relations of solidarity. Three types of solidarity emerge that may be distinguished by their social ontologies, moral relations, and corresponding obligations. Consider, for instance, the solidarity of a tightly knit society. There is something different between this solidarity and the solidarity that unites individual workers in their collective efforts to win free unions or just wages. Similarly, the solidarity that victims of domestic abuse share with each other is not equivalent to the solidarity of a social activist movement aimed at changing a culture of abuse. In both cases, the initial sense of solidarity marks the bonds of a community united by some shared characteristic or similarity (social solidarity) while the second sort of solidarity indicates political activism aimed at social change (political solidarity). A third sense of solidarity is found in the obligations of civil society to protect citizens against vulnerabilities through the provision of healthcare, welfare, and consumer and environmental protection (civic solidarity). These three types meet the general features of solidarity and even have some other important traits in common. Their social and moral structures, however, make them distinct forms of solidarity and worthy of separate study.

The third level of solidarity might be thought of as “parasitical solidarity.” “Solidarities” at this level are not rightly solidarity at all insofar as they fail to meet at least one of the criteria for solidarity generally. Parasitical solidarity draws on some of the elements of a form of solidarity but rarely has the strong positive duties that constitute social, political, or civic solidarity. Parasitical solidarity is a rhetorical tool rather than a moral relation. By identifying and delineating the other forms of solidarity, we stand a better chance of rescuing this important moral and political concept from slipping into cant.

We have witnessed or even been part of those more or less spontaneous groups that manage, somehow or other, to work together to bring about significant social change in spite of not having any formal mechanisms for decision-making, social criticism, collective action, or even ascription of responsibilities. In this book, I articulate a theory of political solidarity that focuses on the active duties of individuals and groups “in solidarity.” I argue that political solidarity carries important distinctions from other forms of solidarity, social and civic in particular. Political solidarity is a moral relation that marks a social movement wherein individuals have committed to positive duties in response to a perceived injustice. This understanding of solidarity allows us to dissect its various parts while maintaining its concreteness or embeddedness in a practical political situation. En route to this theory of political solidarity, I lay out a social ontology of political solidarity, set a framework for categorizing the moral relationships within it, and address some potentially troubling epistemological questions regarding authentic participation in solidarity.

<1> A Brief Look at the History of the Concept of Solidarity

Any history of the concept of solidarity would be incomplete, and my aim here is not to give a definitive account of its development. Instead, I would like to offer a few relevant historical touchstones that demonstrate some of the background for the current use and understanding of the term. Many of the accounts I present here only in passing will be developed much more completely in the course of the book.

The word “solidarity,” originally French, was adopted by biologists and sociologists to indicate bonds of commonality. Karl Metz (1999) offers a fairly extensive history of the term and also notes that it is rooted in “common liability.” August Comte, the father of sociology, used the term to indicate the cohesiveness of a community or society, clearly playing on the biological origins. He saw sociology as a science like the life sciences. Using them as a guide, Comte conceived of humanity as an organism. Solidarity was a measure of the stasis and variation within social institutions, elements that are instrumental to the reproduction of society (see Wernick 2001, 54). Émile Durkheim refined Comte's conception of solidarity by distinguishing two types: mechanical and organic. I go into greater detail about the sociological use of “solidarity” in Chapter 1 but for now we can note that the sociological roots of the term describe the cohesiveness or commonality of a group or population. Max Scheler’s extensive study of sympathy added a phenomenological turn to the concept of solidarity. While these developments occurred in sociology and philosophy, the Catholic Church entered the debate with what has come to be known as Catholic Social Teaching.

Catholic Social Teaching is distinguished by a set of papal encyclicals and other documents that address the Church’s role in society. It is said to originate with the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. This first social justice encyclical addressed the plight of the worker in the wake of the industrial revolution. Among the most important subsequent documents are Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), which stresses the principle of subsidiarity and addresses the oppression of the poor, and Mater et Magistra by John XXIII (1961), which, together with Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965), examines the relation between rich and poor nations, suggesting that the Church has a responsibility to help people living in the world. In 1967, Pope Paul VI published Populorum Progressio on development, and twenty years later, Pope John Paul II paid tribute to that document with his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Solidarity appears throughout Catholic Social Teaching, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, as one of the primary principles. It applies both to individuals and nations as an obligation to aid those in need, with special emphasis on full human development—educational, religious, and social as well as economic development.

Expounding on Catholic Social Teaching and influencing it in the process, Heinrich Pesch articulated a theory of solidarism sitting soundly between the individualism of capitalism on one hand and the collectivism of socialism. Pesch argued that human beings were both individuals and social beings; social theory must take account of these two indivisible aspects of the human person (Mueller 1952, 488; Pesch 2003). Individuals maintain their own projects but are able to achieve success only within a society. For Pesch, this meant that moral obligations were cooperative. Solidarism indicated not collective responsibility wherein the individual was merely part of a whole but interdependent responsibility and joint obligations. The assumption here is that solidarity is an ontological fact; individuals are members of society and society exists for individuals. Mueller argues that “solidarity, because it is part of the very nature of society, is also a model for social action, something which society in the making ought to realize” (1952, 489). You can see here a clear recognition of the dual purpose of solidarity. Solidarity descriptively connotes the cohesion of the civil society for the benefit of individuals (i.e., for the common good). Prescriptively, it contains moral obligations to one another and may be seen as a call for social action/social change for the ends of social justice.

In a related vein, solidarity is among the rallying cries for liberation theology. Liberation theology, a particular branch of theology originating in the Latin American Catholic Church in the late 1960s, seeks to reinterpret the gospel in light of the plight of the poor. It takes seriously the gospel message to be one with the poor, and solidarity is the guiding principle in calling for a “preferential option for the poor.” Theologian Clodovis Boff outlines three models of participation for privileged theologians in solidarity with the poor and oppressed: the specific contributions model, the alternating moments model, and the incarnation model. These models of solidarity with the poor reflect liberation theology’s challenge of a “preferential option for the poor.” According to the specific contributions model, the theologian contributes to solidarity activity via his or her theology. The theologian uses the tools of theory to participate in social criticism while also choosing themes that support the cause of the poor (Min 1989, 55). Liberation theology strives to blend theory and practice into a praxis that challenges dominant ideologies simultaneously with its confrontation of unjust political regimes. It is important, however, that the theoretician not become isolated in theory—the theologian must actively engage in liberation activities. The alternating moments model directly addresses this tension between participation in theory and participation in activism by alternating scholarly work and social justice work/activism on a regular basis. According to the third model, the incarnation model, “The synthesis of theology and politics takes the form of social insertion in an organic, even physical way, sharing in the life conditions of the poor” (Min 1989, 55). The identification between the scholar and the poor is effected via an abdication of privileged social status, class, and location. The risk with this last model of solidarity with the poor is that theory, in this case theology, is sacrificed for activism.

Perhaps the most noteworthy development of the concept of solidarity was its use as the name of the Polish workers’ movement from September 1980 to October 1982. Many credit the influence of Catholic Social Teaching generally, and the inspiration of Pope John Paul II specifically, for offering some direction in the movement (see, for example, Libiszowska-<Zol>tkowska 1991, 103). Solidarno<sc> (Solidarity) may have been decades in the works, but it was the massive movement across Poland and eventually around the world that cemented the notion of solidarity in our consciousness. Solidarno<sc> originally fought for the right to establish independent trade unions that would depend on and serve the workers rather the Communist Party (Goodwyn 1991). It grew to a widely known movement of approximately four million workers. Seen more broadly, Solidarno<sc> was a protest against violations of human rights and citizen rights of workers. The movement targeted not only the exploitation of workers but also the unjust economic conditions, increasing poverty, and state control of information. Workers argued for free trade unions, the right to strike, and freedom of expression based on the moral values of human dignity and the freedom of conscience, truth, and justice. Although the goal of free trade unions served as the explicit end of the movement, it quickly encompassed a critique of the entire Communist Party regime. Many credit the Polish Solidarity movement with breaking the grip of Communist hold on Eastern Europe. The movement “articulate[d] common complaints against a dictatorial regime” (Walzer 1988, 15).

Frequently, solidarity is referred to as a European value. The fourth chapter of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is titled “Solidarity.” It lays out the rights of workers in Articles 27–32, familial life in Article 33, the right to social security and social assistance in Article 34, and the right to healthcare, “services of general economic interest,” environmental protection, and consumer protection in Articles 35–38.

Finally, the song “Solidarity Forever,” with lyrics by Ralph Chaplin, captures one of the most well-known applications of solidarity: unions. The song lists the many contributions of workers and the chorus echoes “solidarity forever / for the union makes us strong.” In the early part of the twentieth century, when workers’ unions exercised their strongest influence in both the lives of members and national politics, solidarity captured the spirit of loyalty to one’s union as well as the struggle for rights that served as the justification of unions. While these two functions of solidarity—loyalty to a union and struggle for rights—are united in the solidarity struggles of unions in the early part of the century, there are compelling moral and social philosophical reasons to think about them as distinct. The next section furthers the process of distinguishing forms of solidarity by looking at some contemporary solidarity theorists. Chapter 1 offers a more sustained discussion and defense of the distinctions.

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