Part 5: Core Features of Solidarity - some tensions and issues

The previous parts 1-4 aim at contextualising ‘solidarity’: thinking about it in the context of our everyday lives. Today we look at what some people  suggest are ‘core features’ of solidarity. These take us beyond solidarity as an expression of  charity or altruism, of ‘ally-ship’ or ‘being with’, towards solidarity as a praxis that is a moral obligation beyond social bonds.

Defining solidarity – beyond altruism

Solidarity calls for  a generous disposition: the readiness to respond sympathetically to, or empathise with, a condition afflicting others.  Arnsperger & Varoufakis (2003) usefully distinguish solidarity from altruism:

We believe that solidarity differs from altruism in that, whereas the latter is about treating the interests of other persons as one’s own (or acting as if this were the case), solidarity is about identifying a condition which makes those who ‘suffer’ it worthy of one’s concern independently of (a) who those unfortunates are, (b) whether or not one cares for them personally. Put differently, altruism is a response to others’ needs, interests and character. Solidarity, in contrast, is defined here as a reaction to a condition which afflicts certain ‘others’ independently of their personal or social character.

Solidarity as a disposition means a radical acceptance of the responsibility and moral obligation by all people who wish to be ‘fully human’ in relation to all others, irrespective of who they are: it is an act of love. This sentiment has prompted Gaztambide Fernández(2012)⁠ to suggest that for Paulo Freire,

solidarity entails  the  recognition  that  liberation  is  a  collective  project  that  requires  dialogic  participation and  a  critical  consciousness  of  how  both  oppressor  and  oppressed  are  bound  together  through power relations.

Here, they reiterate Freire’s assertion that oppressors must stop regarding oppressed people as things or objects and regard them as people who have suffered injustices. Instead of offering charity,  they must realise that oppressed people have been robbed of their voice, cheated and exploited and denied human dignity and agency. However, to 'realise' is not enough; as Freire (1970)⁠ stated, to 'affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce’.

Solidarity as interrelational- giving up privilege

If solidarity is a collective project – how is solidarity different from ‘acting in unison’? We may act together with others in order to achieve a particular aim, such as the revoking of a by-law. But solidarity demands a longer, deeper commitment that does not just affect the conditions under which others suffer, but our own lives, too. Kolers (2012)⁠ suggests there are four distinctive aspects of agency in solidarity:

Solidarity-given duties differ markedly from more familiar duties of beneficence, humanity,  and justice; solidarity is durable, but not in the way that loyalty is durable; solidarity entails deference; and solidarity alters agents’ psychological and even physical capacities over time.

‘Deferential’ means one may have to put aside one’s own judgements in favour of someone else’s, if that reflects the collective will and interests. This may result in a loss of privilege for the self  as Kolers warns: ‘In  solidarity one may, as it were, have  an obligation to give oneself an injustice by refusing a deserved benefit simply because others cannot get their deserved benefits.’  ‘Durability’ implies a long-term commitment to particular principles. As we learn through participation in  solidarity action, we improve our own capacity to contribute usefully to the cause – and this, in turn, will motivate us to act more – hence, our lives may be reshaped. Solidarity contains a genuinely moral dimension.

Keep in mind that invocations of ‘solidarity’ can be found amongst both radical and conservative political forces. It is situated in particular historical time, place and space. Differentiate also between solidarity and loyalty: ask yourself whether your solidarity is based on unquestioned / unquestioning loyalty as you submit to the will of leaders. Is the direction of solidarity action still in line with your moral choices – or are you marching in step / behind a banner that spells out a message that has veered from the ‘just causes’ to be addressed?

Finally, if you are working in popular education, what is your role as an animator / facilitator? How do you confront the tension between being guided by the will of the people you align yourself to, and your own agenda?  


Arnsperger, C. & Varoufakis, Y., 2003.  Toward a theory of solidarity. Erkenntnis, 59 (2),pp.157-188.

Freire, P., 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R.A., 2012. Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, 1(1), pp.41–67.

Kolers, A.H., 2012. Dynamics of Solidarity. Journal of Political Philosophy, 20(4), pp.365–383.