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Aspects of Solidarity

Enda O’Doherty writes: The 27th European Meeting of Cultural Journals is to take place in Gdańsk in Poland this weekend. The theme for the gathering, fittingly for such a venue, is solidarity ‑ have we lost it, can we get it back? ‑ we, of course, in this case being Europe.

Gdańsk is the spiritual home of the Polish trade union-cum-political movement Solidarnośc, which fought a long battle, both openly and underground, for democracy in Poland, a battle that was finally successful in 1989.

Words of course do not always translate neatly, in spite of obvious connections. Solidarnośc may not exactly be French solidarité, Italian solidarietà or English solidarity. The Germans, quite unusually, do not use a word from their own linguistic resources and are content with Solidarität, but can we be sure that these words mean the same thing in different languages or carry the same connotations?

I grew up in a very political milieu in Northern Ireland but the key words of our discourse as teenage activists and participants in political activity which – for want of anywhere else to go – took place chiefly on the streets were “rights” and “justice”, important concepts for a community that felt itself to be excluded and looked down upon. Solidarity was not a word I heard very much until, in the mid-1970s, as a young man, I worked in Paris and found myself fairly briefly, but quite intoxicatingly, participating in grassroots trade unionism through membership of the communist union the CGT (Conféderation Génerale de Travail).

The point, I think, is that while justice might be the rallying point for an oppressed group (either a minority or a majority) which is just beginning to organise and “raise consciousness”, solidarity is a concept which is of more use to an already coherent group which has some experience of what the far left likes to call “struggle” (or lutte or lotta) under its belt. Though it is a word that was to be much abused by empty rhetoricians, at its most basic level solidarity is an extremely important element of the resources of any campaigning group facing an opposing repressive power, and perhaps particularly important for a trade union. It is to be expected that they (oni, as they say in Poland) will try to grind you down, demoralise you, divide you, even terrorise you. In reponse to this you are SOLID. You support each other, both in moral and practical ways. This is what kept Solidarnośc together in the 1980s in spite of a huge effort by the police state to infiltrate and suppress it. It is not a fancy story of heroism. We are not all heroes. But we can, in a mutual organisation, help each other to be as strong as we are capable of being and also perhaps find it in our hearts to forgive, or at least understand, those who are less strong.

A secondary meaning of solidarity, though it was perhaps the most common one in Western Europe in that tawdry decade the 1980s, conveyed a mental gesture, a genuflection, towards something one approved of (or wished to be seen as approving of) but which existed in a different world over which one had really no influence whatsoever. Thus, one could scarcely attend any political meeting (of the left, that is; the right didn’t bother with meetings) in the 1980s without being asked to support a “motion of solidarity” with, let us say, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua (the phrase used, of course, was “the people of Nicaragua”). The practical aspects of this solidarity occasionally extended to buying coffee. There were also the miners in Britain, who were endlessly proffered solidarity at events all across the British Isles, but to no avail as Mrs Thatcher and her government ground them into non-existence.

Interestingly, the most advanced sections of the left in Ireland did not feel any solidarity with Solidarnośc: the movement quite clearly had the full support of the Polish Catholic church, a reactionary outfit there, as everywhere else, many thought; Solidarnośc was also confronting socialist (that is communist) power and, as likely as not, was being helped by Western security services. There was of course strong evidence that most Polish people supported the organisation, but as the far left has ample reason to know, the people can often be quite seriously mistaken.

Moving from historical notions of what solidarity might mean to current ones, it strikes me that there are three main areas of concern and three to some extent distinct meanings of the word. Will we have solidarity within our individual national societies? That is, will we take care of all of our citizens, including those who cannot take care of themselves and those who have, to use a biblical phrase, fallen by the wayside in our rush to modernisation, competitiveness and “best practice”? Secondly, can there be solidarity and sweet reasonableness between the twenty-eight (soon to be twenty-seven) rather various members of the EU? Thirdly, do we have enough solidarity to accept refugees from distressed areas not in Europe but relatively near it – Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Saharan Africa?

In the first sense of the word, I would argue that solidarity cannot simply be wished into existence. Nor can people who seem to have it in their bones somehow magic it into society (the entity, let us remember, that Mrs Thatcher said did not exist). In a liberal democracy, solidarity is a proposition, and individual self-interest is another. In the last general election in the United Kingdom, the political offer of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband’s leadership was a fairer Britain, a Britain in which poorer people would not be ground down or left behind in the rush to greater prosperity. The voters rejected this offer, re-electing, with a larger number of seats, the Conservative Party, whose mission is, as always, to advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The Labour Party membership’s response to this rebuff, after Miliband’s resignation, was to elect a more radical left-wing leader. The party is now between fourteen and seventeen points behind the Conservatives in opinion polls.

In spite of Ed Miliband’s defeat, it still seems to me that the best chance of facilitating solidarity in our individual societies is through the valorisation of the concepts of fairness and inclusion (and by spelling out clearly what this means in practical terms) rather than through proposing a radical restructuring of economy and society. There is very little evidence of any appetite for such a restructuring in a society as conservative as the United Kingdom – and not a great deal anywhere else in Europe either.

As regards solidarity between the member-states of the European Union, there is of course strong evidence that the ties that bind are increasingly frayed. Indeed in the case of our English (not quite British) friends they have snapped. In addition, many liberal and left-wing analysts have recently criticised actions of the governments of some of the accession countries of 2004 which are seen as undemocratic, illiberal or unEuropean. Such strictures have often been welcomed by liberal and left-wing activists in the countries concerned – chiefly Hungary and Poland – who regard them as a form of, well, solidarity. Others (including the present writer) have made the point that citizens of countries which host very successful right-wing populist parties (France, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, for example) should be a little wary of getting up on a moral high horse to condemn ideological aberrations in other (and poorer) countries. This position has something to recommend it, but there is a distinction to be made. While the presence of the populist right is undoubtedly an important political influence in states where it is not (yet) part of the governing majority, there is an important distinction to be made between, say, France, where the Front nationale is very strongly supported but is shunned by the left and a considerable part of the centre-right, and Poland and Hungary, where the nationalist right is in power and seems to be using that power to change the rules of democratic engagement and hobble its political adversaries.

This is a serious concern. The European Union is not just a project to promote economic liberalism (a doctrine whose benefits to its citizens have been, in its most recent phase, at best mixed). It is also a union firmly based on political liberalism, and if it does not vigorously defend encroachments on that article of faith (by imposing sanctions on offenders) it seriously risks losing credibility. In the 1950s, “Europe” was an idealistic project; and for some people – just about and to some degree – it still is: man doth not live by competitiveness alone.

As regards what I have called the third aspect of solidarity – Europe’s response to the violent shocks and ensuing large movements of people that can happen on its much poorer periphery – perhaps it is the case that the various meanings of the word are like the ripples we see when we throw a stone into a pond, the outer concentric circles each appearing progressively weaker and fainter than the inner ones. Though it cannot absolutely be taken for granted, it is not so difficult to create and maintain a sense of purpose and coherence in a group which has much in common, politically and culturally, and this may be particularly the case when that group faces an external threat. If the ties that bind are perceived as being less natural and organic and as emanating more from “an elite project”, as in the case of the EU, then it may well be the responsibility of those elites to persuade the demos that solidarity is not just a desideratum but an imperative if the project, and its known benefits, are to survive. Few of us, I think, believe that European elites have done anything like enough – or indeed have shown much energy or imagination – in this regard.

When it comes to the third ripple, we notice a further weakening of the more or less natural human response of solidarity. Here we may be dealing with people whose distress is evident but who, to many if not all of us, seem strange and different and – an equal problem ‑ perhaps likely to remain so if they settle in our society. If, however, the international community – or the sub-section of it to which we belong in Europe – has decided that it will act to alleviate the distress of refugees and accept numbers of them into individual states, each according to its resources and ability rather than its inclination, it should not be permissible for any state to say “Yes, we will accept a thousand people, but only if they are not Muslims.” That is neither a European position nor indeed a Christian one, and it should not be tolerated in the European Union.

Perhaps when it comes to a willingness to help those whom we may perceive to be very different from ourselves, the idea of solidarity becomes stretched and the Christian idea of caritas (charity) is more appropriate. It is worth remembering that in the New Testament, a book or collection of books thoroughly imbued with impractical and counter-intuitive notions, it is the other, the Samaritan, who comes to the aid of the injured Jew whom his fellows have ignored. Christianity is, of course, as much a part of the heritage of the European Union as liberalism, though the ideas of hospitality and offering aid to the stranger extend well beyond that creed: for the nineteenth century medical reformer Rudoph Virchow, an agnostic, the point in human history where strangers were first offered hospitality and safety was the point at which civilisation began. I would like to think that Europe – more so perhaps than some equally wealthy or powerful parts of the world – is a place where civilisation is still highly valued.

3/11/2016