- Solidarity, Liberalism, History
David Roediger’s ASA presidential address challenges us to see through seemingly simple and easy solidarities, to dig deep into our histories and politics, to appreciate that “solidarity proceeds excruciatingly slowly and not always forward.” The word solidarity, he reminds us, has complicated and contradictory origins, and wasn’t associated with the labor movement and Marxist discourse and practice until the late nineteenth century. Those who theorized, visualized, and valorized labor solidarity, Roediger argues, notably failed to grapple with race and gender, making solidarities appear “organic” to capitalism (in Émile Durkheim’s writings) and not inconsistent with empire (in Walter Crane’s drawings). Those limitations and contradictions persisted in the US context, he continues, as Christian reformers outpaced labor organizations, including the Knights of Labor, in embracing the term solidarity and its implicit capacity to bridge racial and national divides. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World championed the term and the ideal of worker solidarity, but its imagery and usage relied more heavily on eliding rather than recognizing and addressing differences. Roediger concludes his essay by reflecting on how memories and interpretations of the past can “reflect a sometimes enervating desire for solidarity to be easy.” Though not framed as such, Roediger’s essay compels us to see that solidarity, when rendered easy and inevitable, affords little more than the liberal promise of universal freedom.
Roediger’s essay, at root, offers a sobering account of solidarity, as a word and as a concept. Whether in listening to “Solidarity Forever” or searching for instances of solidarity in the past to inspire us in the present, he points out that we often take solidarity for granted, without considering its etymology or its contradictions. If we accept the Oxford English Dictionary’s lead definition—“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; spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members”—the most effective and enduring examples of worker solidarity have had little to do with social justice. Alongside Alexander Saxton, whose work Roediger’s essay cites, [End Page 257] no one, of course, has uncovered the racist origins of working-class formation in the United States more cogently than Roediger. In The Wages of Whiteness, he revealed how white workers defined themselves against slavery and blackness before the Civil War, a historical process, he argued, that expressed white workers’ simultaneous hatred of and longing for “the preindustrial, erotic, careless style of life” that they imagined black people to embody. Worker solidarity meant white solidarity, a translation and conflation that defined and shaped the US labor movement for generations.1
That is not the kind of solidarity that most of us are trying to evoke when we, perhaps all too easily and breezily, sign off our correspondence with “In solidarity.” Solidarity, at least as used by those on the left, suggests a collective struggle against the dominant order of things. But therein lies its danger, Roediger argues, for it is habitually assumed to be a historical given, a teleological force determined by the contradictions of capital and by workers’ conscious opposition. It is those Marxist assumptions that Roediger’s essay critiques, “first, that our success in producing unity lies in the logic of capital, and second, that our own voluntary action can easily secure solidarity’s triumph.” History has not proceeded so neatly or predictably. A century ago, in a remarkable essay “The African Roots of War” (written in 1915, the same year that Ralph Chaplin penned “Solidarity Forever”), W. E. B. Du Bois argued that a racial compact at the heart of the modern nation—“a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor”—explained the new stage of “world-wide freebooting,” where “the white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’” If there were solidarities waiting to be formed, for Du Bois, they were among “the yellow, brown, and black peoples” who would “endure this treatment just as long as they must and not a moment longer.”2...