What we talk about when we talk about solidarity: an interview with Bini Adamczak

In September, Jan Ole Arps interviewed author of Beziehungsweise Revolution: 1917, 1968 und kommende, Bini Adamczak, about the most beautiful relationship in the world: solidarity. Originally published in ak – analyse and kritik, the interview is translated here by Jacob Blumenfeld. 

Jan Ole Arps: Society is moving to the right, fascist movements are on the rise. Is solidarity in crisis?

Bini Adamczak: What is in crisis is capitalist democracy. The roots of this crisis go back decades. Neoliberalism has deepened the fragmentation of society. Many achievements of institutionalised solidarity, such as unemployment insurance, health insurance, pension funds and collective bargaining, have been undermined. ‘You alone can do it’ was the slogan. The world economic crisis ten years ago violently reminded us that this slogan was not true for the majority. There is a right-wing and a left-wing answer to the question about ways out of individualisation. The right-wing answer tells a part of the population that they can maintain their standard of living but at the expense of the weaker part. What is invoked here is loyalty and esprit de corps. The left answer is addressed to all who are oppressed and, as universal, goes even beyond that. It is solidarity.

JOA: What are we talking about when we talk about solidarity?

BA: In contrast to other core concepts of emancipation such as freedom or equality, solidarity is quite difficult to grasp. This is because it is even more clearly a relationship, a doing, one difficult to fix down by an external standard (such as ‘I am free to do what I want’ or ‘I earn as much money as you do’). Solidarity happens between us. This is exactly what makes it so attractive: it creates connections. Solidarity is capable of bridging divisions and bringing together what has been scattered apart. A relationship based on solidarity creates actual community on an equal basis.

JOA: If solidarity is so attractive, why is it so weak?

BA: The fragmentation of the social is a reality of life. We almost always receive pay slips, housing notices, tax assessments, arrest warrants, etc. on an individual basis. The realisation that we often share the same experience, not together but in isolation, does not automatically occur to us, but in a sense comes afterwards – through  communication, through coming together.

JOA: Apropos coming together: Marx assumed that capitalism concentrated the workers and tended to align their living conditions, which would facilitate political unity and solidarity. You say that we experience capitalism today as a great individualiser. So how can solidarity emerge?

BA: Today, a distinction is often made between old solidarity and new solidarity. The old solidarity, workers’ solidarity, is one of equality, whereas the new solidarity, such as anti-racist solidarity, is one of difference. I am not sure whether this is true. Solidarity has always been about breaking down boundaries – between workers of different pay grades, company sites, genders and ethnic backgrounds. Already in 1905, the Russian Revolution erupted because workers from various factories showed solidarity with the strikers of the Putilov factory, and the famous solidarity song of Bertolt Brecht calls for overcoming the discord of national divisions sown by the bourgeoisie.

When I enter into an instrumental relationship with others who are in the same situation as me in order to assert my individual interests, that is not solidarity. Solidarity first appears against the option of strikebreaking when I refrain from realising my individual or family interests at the expense of the other strikers. Solidarity is more difficult under conditions of fragmentation, but at the same time, more urgent and appropriate – that is its real territory.

JOA: The ideologies of inequality have a material basis: in the unequal relationships that capitalism establishes between human beings. Whoever lives in Europe or the USA benefits de facto from international relations of exploitation, men benefit from sexist relations, and so on. Is there also a material basis for solidarity?

BA: On an ecological level, the earth is surrounded by a single atmosphere; international relations of exploitation allow capital to play workers off against each other time and again; and the heterosexist matrix forces human beings who play men into an emotionally impoverished and shortened life expectancy. But what is the relationship between self and stranger, between equality and inequality in solidarity? The pursuit of individual interests in an instrumental association with others is not solidarity – there is no invisible hand that magically forms something beautiful out of sheer egoism. But neither is it altruism or paternalism. Sacrificing oneself for others or graciously giving them help does not create a relationship of solidarity. Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas in Mexico once gave a lecture in Spain and donated the fee he received for it to Spanish workers. This was an act of solidarity, which at the same time revealed the essence of solidarity. Equality is not the prerequisite of solidarity, but its goal.

JOA: Okay. But what does that mean practically for working in solidarity?

BA: That the relationships we strive for are not between those in need and those who help, but are rather relationships of cooperation. We can see this, for example, in the Refugee Strike of 2013/14 or in the 2015 summer of migration. Both events brought about a decisive change compared to the situation in Germany in the 1990s. Human beings who have fled to Germany do not appear here as numbers of a media discourse, nor as objects that deserve hatred or help, but as actors. Resistance to deportations is organised out of relationships between comrades, neighbours, colleagues, etc. The danger is the other way around, that concrete sympathy holds sway over solidarity and that appeals against deportation end up touting successful integration.

JOA: Organising solidarity is also a question of resources. Particularly which solidarity should the left invest in?

BA: Perhaps this is a question that should only be discussed in larger and more heterogeneous assemblies. From my limited perspective, there are two dangers that threaten the possibility of left-wing politics: the ecological and the fascist. The former is directly linked to the question of international justice, including struggles against post-colonial rule, the latter to feminist movements that have been able to mobilise most strongly against fascism. Both are connected with arguments about the capitalist economy. The ecological catastrophe can only be prevented by breaking the compulsion to growth intrinsic to capitalism. Fascism can only be stopped by a left-wing offensive, which also means a new class politics. The question of the most important contradiction thus leads into the multiplicity of contradictions and their connection.

JOA: This connection does not arise by itself. How do we organise it?

BA: I suspect that solidarity is always concrete. Solidarity initiatives arise less out of general slogans like ‘Stop Evictions’ and more from stopping the eviction of precisely this vegetable shop or that bakery. Solidarity initiatives are often quite successful in this respect. The second step is to network the initiatives and bring them to a more general level, so to speak. This has also happened more frequently in recent years, albeit perhaps less than would have been possible. I believe that the task of the left here is to develop concrete slogans in which passion can still be heard. In phrases like ‘austerity’ or ‘structural adjustment programmes’, it quickly disappears.

JOA: So, organising through good slogans?

BA: No, relationships of solidarity are of course not organised by slogans…

JOA: Many organisational forms of the left have fallen into disrepute. The avant-garde party à la Lenin has not exactly produced relations of solidarity, but rigidity and subordination. Even the assemblies of 2011 failed. Although they were able to create temporary structures of solidarity with little hierarchical structure, they were unable to do anything against the police (Spain), the military (Egypt) or the austerity dictatorship (Greece). In Spain and Greece, as a result of these experiences, people have again streamed into parties. Now their hopes are disappointed by Syriza and Podemos.

BA: Wait, we have to distinguish between failure and defeat. Lenin’s party was victorious against its opponents, but failed to meet its own demands. What you describe for the anti-authoritarian movements of 2011 is not failure, but defeat. The success of the right is not least a consequence of these defeats. The radical democratic movements lacked not so much emancipatory models as the power to implement them. But they have not disappeared. In the USA, where today more people support socialism than ever before, struggles against debt, against evictions, against racist police violence and against fascists continue. In Greece, the initiatives of the solidarity economy continue to exist even without a large public media presence, and even in Germany and Austria, the solidarity relationships that came together in the summer of migration have not been dissolved. For us, in addition to the question of connection, there is also the question of how this social solidarity can be articulated more strongly politically. It is about an explicitly left framing and agenda setting. Not in the sense of a defence of the status quo, but of its emancipatory overcoming.


Image: Montréal antifascist rally in solidarity with Charlottesville, August 2017 – Gersande La Flèche / twitter

Bini Adamczak

Bini Adamczak is a member of the jour fixe initiative berlin, which is organising a series of events in Berlin on the subject of solidarity for the first half of 2019. She recently published a book by Suhrkamp entitled Beziehungsweise Revolution: 1917, 1968 und kommende. Her book Communism for Kids was translated into English in 2017.

More by Bini Adamczak ›

Jan Ole Arps

Jan Ole Arps is the editor of the monthly ak – analyze & kritik.

More by Jan Ole Arps ›

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