Striving for Solidarity
Without solidarity, Angela Davis would not be alive with us today, still resisting the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and U.S. empire.
In an interview discussing solidarity and her work, the famed activist and scholar explained how her release from possible death row in the 1960s heavily depended on the combined agigation of people across the globe, from protests in Soviet Union to parts of Latin America.
“And, of course, my own trial on charges that initially carried the death penalty ended in victory largely due to the vast international campaign that touched people in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America,” she stated.
During the Trump administration, Davis would continue to champion the concept of “solidarity” and against a politics of parochialism that can be felt simmering in Afro-pessimist thought which has the tendency toward arguing against black people working with other racialized oppressed groups or can be expressed in a reductive form of class struggle that fails to envision the humanity of working people beyond the formal bounds of the U.S or beyond one’s own workplace. Davis, ultimately, has been a promoter of different groups of working people being willing and able to recognize the usefulness of fighting for each other, especially when that other person is a stranger and to some extent, will remain an unknown apart from the oppressed and exploited position they share in.
Solidarity, ultimately, is a necessity, according to Davis and other radicals those striving for the dismantling of capitalism and other forms of unjust power and hierarchy in the U.S. As exemplified throughout history, when oppressed and exploited peoples coalesce, such as during the labor rebellions of the 1930s and ‘40s, or during the civil rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, forms of power that had been denied them is finally shifted away from those who may currently dominate the rest of society, such as segregationists or factory owners.
Akin Olla, a trainer organizer at Momentum and someone I’ve known several years ago as labor organizers, defined solidarity in our discussion over the term as “people from different social and class groups working together as a means of seeking liberation and understanding that liberation is tied to each other and that the system relies on them remaining separate as a means of domination over them.”
Thus, developing solidarity, a sense of shared interests and common destiny, across various groups of people must be a priority in our current era of neoliberal rule exacerbated by Covid-19 and its various mutations. The leading capitalists and their lackeys in government and those who cling onto narratives of “entrepreneurialism” being the key to so-called “innovation” (i.e. people who idolize Tony Stark like some look up to Rocky Balboa) will not cease in their mission to accrue more power and influence at our expense as working people. None of them will “choose” to change their devilish ways of consolidating wealth and power until a significant number of people, regardless of race or gender or nationality, also consolidate their own efforts to shift the balance of power in their favor in recent years. A willingness and clarity among various groups of people to fight for one another until a new political system replaces the one we’ve been suffering through now, a political system that serves to degrade and drain us, even when some of us have achieved a so-called white-collar job.
Solidarity, as will be explored in the remainder of the essay through theory and insights shared by experts on the topic, does not emerge organically. Crises can certainly nudge people into a different point-of-view than one’s previously held, which may include being more open to recognize their shared dilemma with another. Yet, for this shared interest to be channeled into action and commitment, there needs to be political leadership and organizations dedicated to shifting the balance of power effectively.
But what type of solidarity should be championed by such leaders and groups? How can it be cultivated and sustained?
SOLIDARITY AS COMMON DESTINY
Solidarity, as present throughout modern history, is when groups of people realize they share a common political future with others. Meaning: a person realizes their interests are bound up with the advancement of interests of someone else, regardless.
“Solidarity basically says we need each other,” Bill Fletcher, Jr., long-time labor organizer and thinker, expressed.
Along with Fernando Gapasin, Fletcher, Jr. has written extensively on the subject of solidarity as it relates to labor organizing, co-authoring the seminal text, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice.
Solidarity has been critical for oppressed and exploited groups of people to achieve some measure of power for themselves, including inside the U.S. It was the combined efforts of African Americans across the south, organized by groups like the SCLC and SNCC, as well as those in the north, and other non-white groups, such as Mexicans and Asians in the west, and radical whites, for Jim Crow to be dismantled and for the U.S. to liberalize its political system. It was also the pressure directed by the Soviet Union and other socialist and newly independent countries across Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, often in the form of people protesting in such countries and in propaganda exposing the hypocrisy of so-called American democracy, that shamed the U.S. federal government into taking a more explicit stance against institutional racism. Although it’s safe to say that not all of the political calculations and interests perfectly aligned between all groups involved (for the Soviets, it was certainly also a need to weaken U.S. hegemony), there was a shared sense of a common destiny, which was to exist in a world whereby oppressors and exploiters held far less power over others.
This was also demonstrated in the anti-Vietnam war struggle inside the U.S. and globally where activists in the U.S, despite differences in racial/ethnic background and social position, feared being drafted to kill Vietnamese peasants. Among the Vietnamese, there was the fear and anger of having another colonized, the U.S., determining their lives. Activists and fighters for independence both desired an end to U.S. empire, knowing it negatively impacted both groups.
At the same time, when groups of oppressed people lack a broader network of support, they’ve been more easily alienated from institutions of power and outmaneuvered by their class enemies. The Vietnamese struggle for liberation was a valiant one but one could imagine the fight being even more bloody and lasting for far longer if there wasn’t any type of disruption from within the U.S. Similarly, if African Americans didn’t find ways to organize themselves across region and with whites in the north and if there wasn’t an international outcry, the ending of Jim Crow would also grinded on for a few more decades and in the process, grinding out bodies, causing more African Americans to flee, or to be disappeared, or to internalize ways of survival that demean oneself, such as stepping off the sidewalk when a white person was heading their way.
This is what happened at the tail-end of the 1960s and early 1970s, as Max Elbaum describes, when various New Left groups in the U.S. started to respond to the repression they were experiencing by drifting apart from one another, and from mass constituencies, black, brown or white. Some groups, like the Weather Underground and black militants, descended into armed struggle and were easily dismantled by U.S. law enforcement given their lack of support and connection to others. The clandestine approach to liberation led into more nihilism and desperation instead.
Fletcher Jr. added when asked about the strategic need for solidarity, “We simply cannot win by ourselves no matter how militant our rhetoric is, no matter how just our case is.”
There are, essentially, two levels to how solidarity can operate. The first level is solidarity as vital tactic for achieving even a short-term need, such as anti-discriminatory legislation for a particularly oppressed group. This recalls the fight for same-sex marriage. More people expressing support and protesting for such a right certainly added the necessary pressure on institutions for that right to finally be won. The second level, and the one that has been embedded in revolutionary struggles for power, is when people not only see others as a tool for an end, but rather, as part of their own community, as those whose political liberation is bound with theirs.
Margaret Stevens is a professor of history at Essex County in Newark and author of the Red International and Black Caribbean, whose work explores the history of communists across the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean waging class and anti-colonial struggle. Communists and various anti-colonial thinkers, as highlighted by Stevens, saw solidarity as both strategic in the sense of winning key demands and resources as well as being rooted in an objective understanding of how colonial and capitalist societies operate, in how such systems of control ultimately force many of us into sharing similar needs and long-term interests. Because of these overarching systems of control and domination, we have more in common than we may otherwise think.
The majority of Asian, African and other colonized peoples, due to European and U.S. imperial oppression, share in some level of dehumanization and oppression. Certainly, the intensity of dispossession and exploitation differs across region and context. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the experience of colonialism, however brutal, that Indians in India had faced to the apocalyptic experiences of indigenous peoples in North and South America, Australia, and parts of Latin America as exactly aligned. At the same time, the majority of Indians and the majority of colonized indigenous peoples at the peak of modern imperialism lacked certain rights and access to resources, like land, because of their second-class status behind most Europeans.
The famed anti-colonial thinker and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, identified this organic connection between the masses of colonized peoples. For him, whatever differences between say, the Algerian struggle and the Vietnamese, did not override the objective fact that both would benefit from a world where European colonizers had less power globally.
“The great victory of the Vietnamese people at Dien Bien Phu [the major battle the Viet Minh won against French forces] is no longer strictly speaking a Vietnamese victory,” Fanon stated in his essay “On Violence”
During the Cold War, social democrats (like in Guatemala), socialists and communists across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and left nationalists, realized that for the masses in their respective countries to finally lead lives of dignity and respect and joy, there would need to be a redistribution of resources and power internally and internationally. Of course, such drastic changes would be countered by the U.S., the Europeans, and their social conservative and anti-communist allies in various countries. Hence, those invested in this process of redistribution and re-alignment of power sought to coordinate across regions, as seen in various socialist coalitions led by the U.S.S.R. and in the efforts of countries in the Third World to work together. A world that would be just and freed of the legacy of colonialism could not be possible without U.S. empire and European hoarding of resources and rights being dismantled completely. Until then, countries would face pressure to integrate themselves into the pro-U.S. global capitalist order, and thereby, forced to shed policies that the majority of people desperately needed. Or countries hoping to generate a more pro-human economy would start to feel the pressure from local conservative and anti-communist forces that will be propped up by the U.S. and their own network of allies.
Thus, the ending of the global capitalist order, buttressed by the U.S. and their allies, is crucial for any other country forging their own pro-human agenda to succeed.
“When your goal is to eliminate the political and social economic root of inequality, then the process of doing that is much more fundamental than an alliance. It’s a centralization of commitment, a centralization of forces, a concentration of forces that an alliance can’t create. Revolutionary work requires much deeper political unity than an alliance.”
Under capital, all people who must work for a wage are exploited. Whether as white-collar or blue-collar or temporary (which has been the permanent reality for many now), black, brown or white, immigrant or citizen, all working people are subject to laboring for hours that will never be compensated by their employers. Such hours will never be reflected in their paystub or retirement savings. Further, for capitalism to function as it does in the U.S. since the dawning of neoliberal control, such things as healthcare and housing and other necessary amenities must remain in private hands. Thus, even if someone is in an occupation that pays well (as compared to others), that person is still susceptible to the stresses and hazards of surviving in a society where basic needs must be paid for. As demonstrated by the prioritization of business needs in a pandemic by our policymakers and the lack of government power against the power and influence of major companies, most people are seen as and treated as collateral under a capitalist system, whether as nurses or as supermarket employees, or as people who have been let go from their firm.
It would, therefore, be the priority for even a white-collar “professional” to fight for a socialist society whereby labor is meant for social need, and where social life is no longer perverted by the “market” and so-called free enterprise schemes. After all, the imperative of capitalists in a capitalist system is to turn a profit and maintain control while doing so. This would always lead to a diminishment of meeting human needs. By the late 1960s, companies were already transitioning into a globalized neoliberal economy, despite still making profits domestically. Consequently, companies began to shift their offices across the globe, and move into the sunbelt states within the U.S, where unions were either non-existent or much more pliant to the needs of big business. As detailed by Louis Hyman in Temp, companies began also turning permanent employee positions into temporary ones, which allowed them to avoid basic labor protections and pay guidelines. Over time, the deindustrialization and instability generated by capital would spread from major cites into major towns and now, into the suburbs, picking apart the sanity and financial security of working people who once believed they’d “made it” into the vaunted middle classes. Indeed, African Americans, Asians and certain segments of Latinos in the middle classes have found themselves in a precarious position, one paycheck or medical emergency away from ruin.
Most working people require a society that is far more stable and enduring than what capitalism can provide.
“An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” A capitalist society as ours where it is the norm for the undocumented worker to suffer tremendously without political voice, where non-men are forced to be dependent on familial arrangements that ensnare them in patterns of abuse, a capitalist society where working people must sell their labor for a pittance, is a degraded and degenerative one. It is more prone to violence, to competition, to cruelty, to callousness, to generating various forms of inhumanity. It is a society that props up the bosses and their sycophants (the GOP base foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Frederick Douglas) and others who claim to care but are complicit (i.e., neoliberal NGO who inserts “radical” into every phrasing as they seek funding from the U.S. state department).
Consequently, you fight until every vestige of oppression is vanquished, even for those with a different experience or social position. You fight until the borders are shut down for capital but open for people to travel as they please. You fight until the bosses no longer determine policy. You fight until there is no opportunity for anti-human values to thrive, festering within the so-called sanctity of “home”, “religious institutions” and the small business fiefdom. The public-private divide is seen for what it is, another barrier to sustaining a healthier and happier society for everyone. You fight until there is no chance for society to degenerate into the unstable wreck it currently is, which impacts the majority of us.
Carissa Cunningham, a fellow communist, has been an organizer on issues of labor, housing, and sexual harassment, and assault.
“Through solidarity, you are there for someone else and they are there for you, because both of you now realize you both would benefit from being in a different society entirely,” they explained.
But this dovetails back into the conceit of solidarity as tactical as well, although now the goal is far more universal than any particular demand that various groups may have. To change society from its current degraded and inhuman stage into one that is far more joyous and ideal for human creativity and care, there must be a significant number of working people involved. How can develop the pressure we would need if not enough working people are willing to withdraw their labor? There must be women and men and non-men from various occupations (nurses, teachers, the “essential” labor that props up society during the pandemic crisis), backgrounds, as well as a segment of the undocumented who’ve bought into the struggle wholeheartedly (the backbone of agriculture and critical low-wage industries). We need an international movement of course. So long as countries exist that are pro-capitalist, the capitalists of any country shall find a space to amass power and lead a counterattack. Call it paranoia or hubris. I call it reality and historical precedent.
But to develop this solidarity does not necessitate a dismissal of difference entirely. There are indeed material differences between working people, in terms of how they navigate life under capital. An undocumented worker certainly faces against obstacles that others do not, such as the INS and ICE roaming their neighborhoods and workplaces, picking people off, especially the so-called “troublemaker” sold out by their employer. For such groups to become integrated into a broader socialist movement that needs them, such obstacles must be confronted simultaneously. ICE must be curtailed in the meantime, and eventually, dismantled.
Claudia Jones, the now iconic Marxist feminist who would be deported during the Red Scare in the U.S., would constantly remind comrades in the U.S. Communist Party how necessary black women would be to the struggle, and how to reach them.
Strategy and moral imperative collide and mesh through this concept of solidarity, espoused by Jones and others like her.
“To win the Negro woman for full participation in the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist coalition, to bring her militancy and participation to even greater heights in the current and future struggles against Wall Street imperialism, progressives must acquire political consciousness as regards her special oppressed status.”
Again, there is a universal class struggle. The divide that capitalism produces, between the exploiter and the exploited, had to be annihilated for a new society to be born. Jones would consistently stress,
“We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic system of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the bosses.”
Yet, to create this stronger universal struggle needed such differences between working people to be addressed, especially during a time of explicit Jim Crow. The CPUSA were chastised by Lenin for nearly following the same line as the socialists, which was to pretend as if African Americans and whites were operating with the same set of obstacles. The white worker did suffer and struggle, as they do now. But the African American working person, especially given the number who were stuck as sharecroppers across the former Confederacy oozing violence and crypto-fascist tendencies (that Hitler modeled his own regime after), had to face down not only oppressive bosses, but a deadly and outright repressive law enforcement apparatus, and against segments of white working people. Poor whites lacked dignity and respect as well but it was the African American man or women who’d be disappeared if they ever dared to vote rather than simply be turned away.
How could one then even dare to develop a radical movement if such obstacles are not somehow alleviated? Why would African Americans join a labor struggle if they felt unsafe doing so? Consequently, the CPUSA during the 1930s and 1940s organized African Americans in the south by also providing security at rallies, as well as explicitly calling out the repressive law enforcement apparatus in the south. In turn, this and other organizing campaigns appealed to a growing number of the poor and working class among African Americans, who had initially felt pushed away or ignored by white socialists who were racist and naïve.
For Jones, organizers must find ways to reach out to black women in the south, to black women who formed the backbone of the domestic worker economy. Black women whose labor was desperately needed by many white families. Hence, it was an imperative in not only organizing black women as working people but also against sexual harassment and abuse they face at the hands of their employers and from working-class men. Such harassment, then as is now, depletes the person’s willingness to fight for a broader change in society. Lack of safety contributes to alienation and frustration. This is what occurred during the era of Black, Brown, and Yellow Power. Mostly male leadership of various nationalist organizations would ignore issues of sexual harassment and abuse and ultimately, women would leave. Soon after, such movements would also crumble and fall apart.
In our current era, a class struggle that is effective and not overtly romantic about its future is one that deals with the issues of law enforcement, the issues of social conservatism, the issues of the “home”, the issues pertaining to how certain jobs are more dangerous now such as jobs done by women, the issues of U.S. military aid to right wing despots and free market liberal regimes, the issues of immigration detention, the issues of housing among others. An effective class movement would therefore, challenge those forces that may not perfectly align with certain capitalists interests, like the segments of the right-wing obsessed with ending legal immigration or the right-wing Trumpist mobs roaming and supporting so-called right-wing populists. These are forces that can incite fear and trepidation as well as lead to laws that apply more weight on the shoulders of immigrant labor, of segments of people of color who are working class and poor, and anyone else who would benefit objectively from a new world being forged, including poor whites.
Crush the right-wing and you will see a larger labor struggle bloom.
At the same time, the goal of ending and replacing capitalism must remain the vital concern. If this goal is somehow removed or diminished, differences will spill into pathology, and the privileging of less radical aims. Regardless of background, most people will not experience any type of improvement in their lives unless class struggle is still the overarching mission.
Material differences among working people under capitalism does not negate, whatsoever, a broader struggle. Those who lead believing in this are either disingenuous, self-absorbed or politically naïve. Or worse.
SOLIDARITY AS A PROCESS
Currently in the U.S., the political and economic crisis the country is facing, generated by decades of social welfare being gutted and the privileging of the “private sector” (i.e. allowing healthcare to remain in the hands of a few companies) to determine government policy, has negatively impacted a growing number of people. What was once restricted to the hollowed-out cores of major cities, which ironically now being gentrified, has extended to much of the country, including its suburban regions, such as Prince George’s County, a predominantly African American middle-class community or the San Fernando Valley, which is mainly Latino and Asian, or parts of the Midwest.
Indeed, most non-white and white Americans are suffering under the weight of neoliberalism, albeit at varying degrees of economic distress and intensity. Such distress, however, is reflected in recent polling conducted by the Jacobin and YouGov, in which a number of Americans expressed a left-leaning political appetite in regards to economic issues (“bread and butter” issues).
“Candidates who prioritized bread-and-butter issues (jobs, health care, the economy), and presented them in plainspoken, universalist rhetoric, performed significantly better than those who had other priorities or used other language. This general pattern was even more dramatic in rural and small-town areas, where Democrats have struggled in recent years.”
This has been the reality for some years now, with Data for Progress having also revealed among many people a shared interest in policies like raising the minimum wage and more positive views toward labor unions.
Yet, as has been demonstrated historically, popular support expressed through surveys can be meaningless if there’s no material pressure brought to bear on dominant institutions and those in power. The labor movement achieved what it did not by conducting survey after survey of its own membership but rather, when its leadership mobilized a significant number of workers to occupy, to strike, to make life difficult for the bosses and for the New Deal Democrats who were claiming to be sympathetic but still promoted “patience” from the masses. The same had happened during the emergence of the modern civil rights movement against formal Jim Crow. Certainly, public opinion did matter in the sense that the U.S. federal government was forced to respond to water hoses being turned on peaceful protestors in the south, images broadcast to all corners of the country and the world. But it was still protests and rallies and direct confrontations with the segregationists that drew more attention to the cause. It was the organizing of African Americans across the region, from various social positions in solidarity with one another, that tore apart the foundation of apartheid inside the U.S.
Such pressure, however, does not manifest organically. Rebellions do spill through, as evidenced in the recent protests against policing or in the massive rallies against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but when there are no organizations to channel and cultivate righteousness into consistent tactics and pressure, less radical forces and oftentimes, counterrevolutionaries swoop in. Not much has changed since the rebellions in the first year of the pandemic. Some cops were charged, which is always necessary (my “abolitionist” politics has its limits). But in the grander political U.S. landscape, it’s been business as usual, as funding for the police have been increased under Biden, and major companies continue to reap the rewards of a beaten down and alienated workforce, all the while sticking a hashtag next to their company names.
Sonia Song-Ha Lee is an assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Building A Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City, which explores the once burgeoning community control movement among Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
By the end of the 1950s, most Puerto Ricans and African Americans were still politically marginalized across the five boroughs, lacking representation in government, and access to power. The ones who determined city policy were businesses, party officials, labor groups that were amenable to the status quo, and mainly whites. Overall, to be Puerto Rican and African American was to be seen and treated as somehow, “culturally” inferior. According to Lee, the “culture of poverty” narrative had slowly been building among mainly white social scientists and policymakers, blaming the economic struggles that certain non-Anglo and non-white groups faced as stemming from so-called “broken” homes and bad habits passed down or shared within their community.
It was also during this era when a new crop of Puerto Rican and African American organizers emerged, having gathered experiences on labor campaigns and fighting for civil rights, realized the need for Puerto Ricans and African Americans to see each other as sharing common enemies and interests. For some Puerto Rican progressive organizers, such as Manny Diaz, they would take direct lessons and insights about the necessity of solidarity from African American leaders, like the socialist Bayard Rustin, who oftentimes played the role of elder statesmen.
Puerto Ricans and African Americans across the city, despite their shared marginalization and immiseration, still believed that working with the other side was unnecessary, or counterproductive. Many Puerto Ricans were convinced by “moderate” local leaders that they should wait and learn to “assimilate” and in that process, not associate themselves with African Americans too closely. Conversely, many African Americans felt that Puerto Ricans did not have the same types of problems they did, although there was a higher percentage of Puerto Ricans suffering in poverty at the time.
“Never assume people have a built-in solidarity based on how they look or where their families come from,” Lee expressed, highlighting this as relevant now.
Today, there has been more alignment on critical issues, as mentioned, across racial/ethnic lines too. However, it’s one thing to share a belief, it’s quite another to be willing to fight for systemic change, and to do so alongside others you will never completely know as a full person as you would with a close friend or family member, or even with a neighbor and co-workers. Instead, given how people are socialized and how society itself is structured, both mental and physical barriers emerge to people being willing to truly extend themselves for a common political destiny alongside people who may be seen as “different” in some way.
For many white people in the U.S., the mental barrier of white identity politics is a critical obstacle, one that’s been reinforced historically through material incentives. Such incentives would include better pay than a non-white worker, or receiving some type of protection from the police rather than being hounded by them at the same consistent level as most black and brown people are. It is a series of perverse material incentives that have managed to convince segments of white America to believe in themselves as either “white” first or as only a white worker, taken advantage of by the maniacal Other, mostly someone of color. You also have white people who are splitting away from more conservative-minded politics and yet, are falling into the pit of conservative Democrat party politics instead, voting in a Joe Biden with the belief this is the best they can do, once more apprehensive over issues like “law and order”.
According to Natalie Masuoka and Jane Junn, many non-white Americans also hold extremely stereotypical beliefs of one another, such as Asians not being truly American, or all African Americans being on welfare and not working hard enough. Among Latinos, we already see some trending right-ward, admitting in polls that they would vote for Trump if he were to run in the future. On a macro level, the myth of the American Dream is shared across groups, including among indigenous peoples, which can certainly prevent people from identifying the political system of capitalism as the major problem, and instead be liable to deflect issues onto others in the community, such as the undocumented, the so-called “underserving” and poor.
This is what took place during the runup to the War on Drugs, whereby some African Americans, its middle classes, but also those who were lower income but not in poverty, cheered on the hiring of black sheriffs and the election of tough-on-crime politicians who would take a hardline stance on drug addiction and crime during the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, in postwar California, various groups of color split apart from each other, with Mexican Americans and some Asians choosing Reagan in his first run as governor, believing that black people were being favored by the Democrat party establishment.
Tensions are always there, simmering.
Most importantly, for the past forty to fifty years, there has been a massive void in working peoples’ lives in the lack of left-wing and class-struggle labor politics. Since the political repression and missteps of the late 1960s by groups on the Left, and of course, the diminishment and devaluing of labor unions, most working people have barely any interaction with organizations that promote any type of class solidarity beyond the bounds of electoral politics, if that at all.
This absence has allowed for “reformist” and anti-solidaristic politics to be the only viable political options for many working people, especially non-white given the state of the GOP as the main vehicle for white nationalism, nihilism, and rabid anti-immigrant sentiment. Indeed, there are now segments of African Americans across parts of the south, mainly older and more apt to vote, who have thrown their support toward conservative Democrats such as Biden. There are Latinos and Asian Americans in cities like New York that have either supported candidates such as Eric Adams, an ex-cop and bitcoin enthusiast. There are other localized forces, such as religious institutions or business, that promote progressive rhetoric to a certain extent all the while preaching ultimately, an extremely parochial set of politics. Instead of learning to work with others for broader and necessary aims, many are organized into groups preaching self-help, entrepreneurialism, and tightening one’s financial belt. As Lester Spence details in Knocking the Hustle, there are organizations promoting rhetoric and policies that serve to restrict one’s politics to the local (such as starting a community garden) and to those invested in a neoliberal politics, such as believing in the local business as the vanguard of progressive change. For instance, following the murder of mainly Asian women workers in Atlanta, there was a public outcry but eventually, what could’ve been a moment to elevate the concerns of working people in the community, it became more important for Asian-owned business to receive funding and to be supported.
More broadly, most people restrict themselves to mainstream electoral politics, or to their own needs and concerns, such as making sure there is still a roof over their heads and that their family is safe. The long-term goal of progressive change is often obscured by immediate and short-term need. Who wants to fight for socialism, even if they believe, when they’re swimming in debt, or can’t pay their credit card bill? Why care about someone else I don’t know when I’m too tired to do anything apart from work and errands?
For Puerto Rican leaders like Manny Diaz and Antonia Pantoja, the interpersonal and systemic barriers between Puerto Ricans and African Americans must be overcome strategically and not by expecting either group to suddenly ally with one another. Instead, Diaz and others needed to find ways to at least appeal to and lure other Puerto Ricans into the same spaces as African Americans.
The organizers just wanted to “get people to the table”, according to Lee. This meant leveraging government programs that had been created for the sake of funding local organizations to combat poverty and other social issues. The motivation of these federal programs was partly in reaction to the riots that ensued in the 1960s, and the fear that more were on their way (and they were given the lackluster response to peoples’ needs by the government itself to such things as growing corporate power and fascistic law enforcement practices).
Diaz and others who formed various Puerto Rican-led organizations for the explicit purpose of receiving government funds would meet with people in the community, telling them to join their groups, and to align as oppressed to receive the money the community needed (which was a federal government requirement). Even for those Puerto Ricans who still didn’t view themselves as sharing similar concerns with African Americans, receiving much-needed funding for community improvement had overridden any petty concerns.
“Once they saw the benefits that came with it, many started to think, ‘Hey, this ethnic strategy as a marginalized people alongside African Americans is beneficial to us’”, Lee expressed.
As the funding started to roll in, Diaz and others maintained their organizations, as people in the community had become more interested in other ways of getting more resources. Rather than wait for the miracle of “assimilation”, some began to realize they could lobby and fight for things they needed now.
For Diaz and their African American counterparts, such as Rustin, appealing to common shared short-term interests, such as funding for programs, was simply one step in a much larger chain of developing a pro-solidarity consciousness. As interest piqued on what else could be done, the organizations that led the effort for funding continued to organize meetings, trainings and discussion space for developing campaigns.
There was an emphasis by Puerto Rican and African American-led organizations to situate people from their respective racial/ethnic groups in the same discussion spaces. To have them listen to one another, to strategize, and re-evaluate what they had previously thought of one another.
It was the repeated actions of people discussing issues together, debating, and strategizing that deepened a sense of some connection across groups.
“The more we can practice solidarity, the more we can also ensure that we’re also deepening our understanding of each other and get to build a beautiful world,” Olla explained, echoing a similar strategy of cultivating solidarity in contemporary organizing.
People cannot simply be told to work together. They must see that for themselves at times. Rustin himself made certain that on campaigns in regards to education in the city included an equal number of Puerto Ricans and African Americans organizing as campaign leaders. Similarly, revolutionary left organizations, such as the Puerto Rican-led Young Lords, who modeled themselves after the Black Panther Party, also incorporated African Americans into their leadership as well as broader membership.
None of this, ultimately, was possible without leadership believing in the long-term necessity of solidarity and the organizations they forged and maintained.
As Jodi Dean has accurately conveyed in her work on solidarity and organizing, a reflection of historical examination of communist and progressive movements, “What the crowd wants most of all—what it lacks—is endurance”, which is channeled through a party or organization.
Whether the SCLC and SNCC in the Jim Crow South, or the ANC in South Africa, or the Viet Minh, or FLN in Algeria, or the Young Lords and BPP in cities like New York and major towns, it is the organization, a core and consistent group, that provides the consistency that the masses need to win, and to develop politically. This core group, much like members of the YL or organizers like Diaz, can consist of people from areas they hope to serve, who can dedicate the time and energy to knock on doors, to hold space and discussion, to strategize and finally, coordinate resources, including peoples’ insights (and funding).
“No country that fought for its freedom to end colonialism did so without political organization,” Stevens explained, “and most times it was a socialist or communist organization at its root.”
People’s minds and behavior do not change without consistency. They do not change based on some ad hoc fashion of organizing, whereby the very same people burdened by society’s challenges, are always asked upon to deliver their own liberation, without funding, without training, without help from those who know a bit more about what needs to be done. Without the leadership and the coordination that the SCLC and SNCC provided the modern civil rights movement, the training they disseminated on how to prepare for the dogs and hoses trained on them, the ways in which they could organize multiple protests across various parts of the region, Jim Crow itself would’ve survive for far longer than it did. The people themselves, regardless of how they hated the political system, would’ve also drawn themselves back, feeling abandoned, and lost.
This is what occurred following the protests in 2020 in regards to police brutality and violence. There were millions upon millions of people, many from various racial/ethnic groups, vying for attention on the issue. And there was momentum growing and yet, soon after the repression swept through, with cops throwing people to the ground and beating up on protestors the minute they arrived in their military garb, the masses dispersed, for understandable reasons. Frustrations brewed. There was no main organization at the national level truly taking it upon themselves to coordinate and organize through that moment. BLM and DSA remained scattered.
It is very much the same when it comes to labor unrest as well. A lack of leadership by major unions nationally has allowed for the growing frustration to simply appear sporadically, or already in unionized fields. There is opportunity for solidarity and yet, never enough time nor resources nor coordination to see such feelings bloom and spread.
SOLIDARITY AS IDEAL
Over time, through the mixture of political leadership and organizational capacity, Puerto Rican and African Americans grew closer. Many were focused on the issue of education in the city, which was a constant source of frustration. Many of the teachers were white and demeaning, and parents of color felt the curriculum was extremely Eurocentric. Puerto Rican parents wanted, for instance, Spanish-language classes, so their children could reconnect with an aspect of their heritage and culture.
With more Puerto Ricans now on board with the effort to shift power on educational policy, those in charge of such policy had no choice but to concede, especially after a significant number of black and brown parents had pulled their children out of school as protest.
The school board for the city would start to concede to some demands, which included hiring more black and brown teachers and administrators.
However, our capitalist and oppressive society, as the community control movement would soon learn, is unyielding in its pressure and ability to erode bonds of solidarity between various groups of people. Solidarity must be recognized as an iterative process that is never ending and not as something that will ever be firmly “achieved”. So long as overarching systems of control and domination predominate, solidarity must not be seen as part of a simple linear process of bringing people together and having them feeling close to others without tension or interruption.
As mentioned earlier, there are always competing forces against solidarity (in the shape of local religious institutions promoting a far less radical set of strategies for achieving certain demands) and competing values and needs expressed by “community” leaders who unsurprisingly have connections to the local chapter of the chamber of commerce.
There are also competing concerns and issue stemming from navigating capital, such as having to maintain multiple jobs, or having to pay one’s rent. These concerns do not magically go away simply because someone is now part of a progressive social movement preaching solidarity. These are concerns too that can force someone to still think in terms of neoliberal capitalist concerns, such as feeling the need to not supporting higher taxes on businesses, believing this would indeed push business owners away and cause them to lose their jobs, etc.
Scott Kurashige, chair of the comparative race and ethnic studies department at Texas Christian University, and author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles explained, “We live in a system that at its core is rooted in ideas of competition, ownership and private property and individual rights”, adding, “The system is set up to not have us in solidarity with each other.”
Prior to the pandemic, due to how racially and ethnically and class-segregated U.S. society can be, most people do not interact with people who may be from a different class, racial/ethnic background or religious upbringing. Even in major cities and towns (and now suburbs), many are still restricted to whom they work with, or interacting with people they see and meet at their local bars and religious events. There is often no public square.
Hence, even when solidarity is being cultivated by an organization, the people who are being organized will still spend a considerable amount of time in spaces where solidarity with different people is not the norm. Or return to a life that’s fairly isolating and consumed by work and other facets of maintaining what little one has, such as working and keeping to oneself at an Amazon warehouse facility.
With the pandemic, this type of isolation has only intensified.
“People are so isolated and when people are isolated, they blame themselves for their problems,” Carissa stated.
Pascal Robert, co-host of This is Revolution podcast which has on guests examining Left strategy in the neoliberal age, explained how one of the major problems of building solidarity and maintaining it is the fact of how removed people are from one another. More importantly, the issue has been how many of us have only been exposed to ideas for the most part that do not need the solidarity one would need to change broader society in a more progressive direction. Again, we are exposed to local institutions, like the church or mosque or Hindu temple, or the various local civic groups (if they exist at all), to remember to vote, or we simply hang out with friends when we can.
“The challenge is to find a way to expand the political horizons of people,” Robert explained.
The community control movement saw first-hand how issues of “class” and social position could seep in, regardless. Just as it achieved some more local control over a select few schools in the city, the economy had been shifting, producing other types of cleavages between groups of people. A middle-class among people of color, black and brown, had emerged, with sections of it more amenable to conservative Democrat politics, such as being “tough-on-crime”. Ed Koch, the precursor to Trump in many ways, who ran as a “tough-on-crime” mayoral candidate (and won), appealed to Puerto Rican middle-class voters and some black middle-class voters too, especially those who were from the Caribbean.
At the same time, a divide between the white-collar teachers and administrators and the mostly blue-collar parents started to cause leaks inside the community control movement. The parents still felt the staff at the schools were not doing enough for their children and were in fact, still very much demeaning. The teachers and administrators felt that they were undue pressure and standards to suddenly change how schools could be run, even though they still had to do things that didn’t totally upset the people higher up than them.
In the end, such fracturing led to the community control movement floundering, with organizations ill-prepared. Across the city as well, with groups like the Young Lords moving their entire base of operations to Puerto Rico, more culturally nationalist forces and “moderates” took advantage of such divides instead. As quickly as the community control movement had achieved what it did, it just as quickly dissolved due to external pressures.
Again, there are increasing opportunities for solidarity to become reality now. More and more people in the U.S. (and across the globe for that matter) are expressing outrage and frustration at the economy. More and more people are expressing outrage at capitalist itself, and mobilizing at times on prescient issues of housing and work. More and more people across various sectors of the economy are starting to desire an alternative political system that is more left-of-center in terms of policy and how resources should be distributed (i.e. taxing the rich).
And yet, as detailed in the community control movement, people are never immune from broader social problems and systems, such as capitalism. Whatever organizations intend to do must be aware of this fact.
Part of the solution to this, as those I’ve interviewed would suggest, is partly organizations consistently situating people inside campaigns, so they keep on strategizing and working with one another. Another way to resolve some of the pressures that serve to contradict peoples’ willingness to work together is also, raising discussions and leading political education. This is something that Robert spoke on. When people learn more about broader social factors, such as neoliberalism and how it’s impacted them, there is a chance for them to recognize how they might be projecting neoliberal values themselves that cut against their attempts at being solidaristic with others.
Finally, such groups must always emphasize the need for people to believe in a more universalized identity. In the situation we’re in now, in terms of rolling crises and instability, this would necessitate finding ways to believe and identifying or believing in a socialist vision for society.
“Things can’t get done if workers don’t have a common cause,” said Stevens, adding how critical it is for progressive movements to be led by communists and socialists with this perspective. That we must encourage people to believe in a socialist identity that beyond their individualized and other forms of group identities.
As mentioned, material differences do exist. However, the danger would be to promote the type of thinking that would allow such differences to be the sole way for some to view their struggles. As a person of color, downwardly mobile, there are experiences I’ve had that are indeed particular to me and to those in my racialized group. However, I believed in a broader vision of society that is socialist (ending of ICE and U.S. overseas military bases, redistribution of wealth and power, no more reliance on the nuclear family as safety net and reproductive care on-demand, etc.) because it is in my own interest, and that is the broader fight that is necessary.
As we’d seen in the last few decades, forms of discrimination based on difference can be alleviated in ways, but as long as capitalism has not been replaced, the improvements that are made remain extremely limited. Yes, you no longer face a certain type of discrimination that is unique to a group you’re in, but so long as there’s a boss lording over you and others have to still pay for what we need to live, what type of freedom or justice is that to be proud of?
There must be a political identity/political vision that people can hold onto. And that political vision will be socialism. Thus, people, over time, must be developed into socialists to ward off the specters of capitalist egoism and pressure. There must be a sense of unity that’s reinforced among people.
Akin, in his time organizing across parts of the Northeast, has come across working people, including people of color, who espouse extreme views about immigrants, and views that can metastasize and form barriers between people once they’re inside a campaign. It is hard for people to extend themselves for others, in a society as brutal and callous as the one we have, which usually punishes people for caring and being selfless. The person, after all, who usually gets the promotion is the one more willing to work at the expense of other concerns and responsibilities to others within and beyond the workplace.
Nonetheless, we are all socialized in a U.S. political culture that can leave us to internalize views and interests that are, long-term at least, antithetical to our needs and concerns. There are certainly working people who will never ever see solidarity as useful, or will view forms of solidarity that excludes segments of people. There are, ultimately, working people, including those in low-wage industries, who will continue to espouse and justify terrible ideas about others, whether based on race, sex/sexuality, nationality, or religion. Such people will have to be confronted and organized against, as they become the cannon fodder for the capitalists and the right-wing, whether inside the Democrat or Republican political universe.
But then, there are people who just don’t have training just yet on engaging with issues and other people, who are themselves oppressed, such as immigrants of color, who have internalized the anti-immigrant rhetoric themselves, twisting it against those who are undocumented.
“When you hear it from poor working-class people of color, it hurts,” he told me, “I usually ask them questions about what do you think is causing [problems in the community they’re in], really trying to redirect questions.”
The antidote, for many, will still be leadership and organizational guidance and discipline. And leadership promoting a socialist identity that people must believe in if they are to take the next step and change society in ways that are lasting. A socialist political identity that can be a vehicle, as Fanon would argue, for a new way of being and seeing the world. An identity that is far more universal and therefore, can cause one to see clearly what they have to gain when fighting alongside another.
Without this broad political category to believe in, without this category borne from objective need (the socialist spirit emerging from the fact that capitalism must be destroyed), peoples’ loyalties will start to fray. There will be no true momentum for people to seize onto as we try to achieve true justice and freedom, and not just mere scraps.
The questions remain, however, in terms of how can this political identity be forged in time? How can we sustain a socialist vision/identity in a way that doesn’t suggest to people they must either be socialist or nothing at all? How can we make certain that people invest themselves in a political vision when all around institutions are crumbling and a pandemic rages on?
How do we manage to sustain solidarity in the midst of political and economic disaster?
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This article includes original interviews I’ve conducted with Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Scott Kurashige, Margaret Stevens, Pascal Robert, Carissa Cunningham, & Akin Olla. It is their critical insights and work that have made this piece possible. ↑
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