Skip to content

The transformative power of solidarity

A review of Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor, Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea

Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea

by Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor

Pantheon, 2024

Neoliberalism has done a number on us. Collective working class cultural values built up over the 19th and 20th centuries eroded badly in our era—and in some ways that’s accelerating. More than that, truly ancient patterns of cooperativeness aren’t immune to the competitive-individualist solvent. Free-market theorist Friedrich Hayek considered human solidarity itself a progress-limiting holdover, “an instinct which we have inherited from tribal society.” Today tech capitalists take it as their mission to replace all such holdovers with the digital cash nexus, and all too often they succeed.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor’s timely book rescues the left’s fundamental concept, solidarity. As they note, “there is a scarcity of historical and theoretical writing on the subject.” It is necessary as a cure for our metastasizing social pathologies. It is the cultural ethos of a socialist future. And it’s the key notion framing today’s needed strategies of class struggle by and for workers.

Hunt and Taylor met as activists in Occupy Wall Street. Hunt, rebellious heir to the ultra-conservative donor J. L. Hunt’s family fortune, organized in support of Occupy and went on to found Way to Win, an electoral donor network that organized the youth vote to help flip Georgia and Arizona in 2022. Taylor founded the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union that has organized a debt strike and helped press student debt forgiveness onto the national agenda.

Solidarity is an informative book that begins a much-needed discussion for everyone on the Left. The book traces the word solidarity to ancient Rome (actually Byzantium). There it referred to farmers who obtained loans collectively, holding them “in solidarity” so that if one were unable to pay their share, the others would cover it. Debt proves a surprisingly central idea in the history of solidarity.

In the 19th century Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, theorized that solidarity flows naturally from the division of labor of modern society. He claimed this division creates materially based feelings of interdependence. Furthermore, despite diverse occupations, “difference…can be a cause of mutual attraction” (p. 12). This is important to the authors, because “though Durkheim did not share our focus on the transformative power of solidarity, we believe this insight is key: solidarity does not depend on sameness” (p. 12). Later Durkheim emphasized that the organic growth of the necessary social glue of solidarity he described needs the addition of rituals and beliefs intentionally cultivating it.

At the same time militant workers’ movements produced a notion of solidarity as a means to build power for the purpose of class struggle. The authors credit this working class solidarity with a “transformative” power capable of winning social justice. In this sense they side with Marx over Durkheim. But they also dispute Engels’ claim that “‘the simple feeling of class solidarity, based on an insight into the sameness of class position, is sufficient…to create…one large and cohesive proletariat party” (p. xvi). Thus they aim to take from both Marx and Engels’ class struggle perspective on solidarity, and Durkheim’s emphasis on the need to cultivate it.

The authors feature the ideas of late 19th century reformists Leon Bourgeois, Leon Duguit, and Pierre Leroux, who developed a philosophy and political practice called solidarism. For them, solidarity was based on mutual indebtedness: present generations stand in debt to their ancestors, members of inevitably interdependent societies stand in debt to each other. The solidarists believed private ownership of the productive forces could be reconciled with social cohesion and justice through “ensuring social security and public health; providing for full employment for the able-bodied, and for public assistance for those in need;…and progressive taxation”  (p. 15). They enacted several programs in France before World War I. After the War Bourgeois went on to bring his theories to the League of Nations and International Labor Organization.

Hunt and Taylor suggest a necessary complementarity between the transformative power-building solidarity of the workers’ movement, and the solidarists’ philosophy of interdependence, mutual debt, and reparative justice. But they miss that workers’ struggle has its own philosophical implications. Workers are a collective class, only able to take over the means of production together (you can’t divide up a factory, hospital, etc.). And our class can only maintain our rule cooperatively—economic competition between worker-owned businesses would tend toward the return of classes within and between them. These and other conditions of workers’ solidarity make it about more than just building power—it necessarily involves building a culture of cooperation. Hunt and Taylor are correct, however, to emphasize that such a culture requires conscious cultivation. So some of Durkheim and the solidarists’ ideas, removed from their class-collaborationist standpoint, may indeed be useful to revolutionary workers (along with the writings of Antonio Gramsci and Amilcar Cabral, among others).

Hunt and Taylor envision a society of cross-class harmony, and they stress the value “class traitors” (p. 178)—like Hunt—can bring to movements of workers and the poor. But they sharply differentiate solidarity from charity. “Benevolence, altruism, deference, allyship, and charity…place the onus on individual action…and harness pity or guilt.” (p. xx) Charity enables corporate whitewashing. Controlled by benefactors who place conditions on their aid, charity “is a form of domination” (p. 136). The authors expose, with the benefit of Hunt’s inside view, the way charitable foundations exist more as tax shelters than effective philanthropic vehicles. And their takedowns of the Gates Foundation and Mahatma Gandhi are essential reading.

Substantial space is also devoted to how to allegedly do “philanthropy-in-solidarity.” (p. 167) “At this point in history, philanthropic support can play a role in this urgent project (of changing systems)” (p. 166). and furthermore “organizers cannot do their work without financial support” (p. 167). They admit that even in the best case the philanthropic/charitable relationship is “fundamentally broken and arbitrary” (p. 166). So they offer strained historical models, like revolutionary abolitionist John Brown’s “Secret Six” wealthy donors. But this wasn’t philanthropy, merely fundraising. The Secret Six placed no conditions on their donations and had no means of monitoring which guns Brown bought with their contributions. They highlight Farhad Ebrahimi’s self-liquidating Chorus Foundation as a positive philanthropy. And they advocate long-term funding, with conditions defined by recipients rather than donors: “the young person of wealth can put themselves at the service of those who are closer to the ground” (p. 174).  Good ideas perhaps, and Hunt and Taylor are careful to keep skepticism in the foreground here.

Is solidarity the self-change that results from collective struggle or the product of pre-existing social conditions? Hunt and Taylor emphasize the latter. Redistributive social programs like the British National Health Service create “policy feedback loops” (p. 218)—beneficiaries have better lives, creating a more solidaristic consciousness, and political constituencies for further redistribution.

The book mentions an array of progressive programs, many of which can give left activists ideas for demands and campaigns today—public banks, cooperative utilities and dispensaries, social housing, worker and union ownership schemes, maximum wage laws, and climate jobs programs. They encourage unions, cooperatives, and mutual aid projects but argue (with justice) that “any real solution would require the support of the whole society…the state would need to play a central role” (p. 21).

Their program for the “solidarity state,” as they call it, goes a step further, invoking the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty slogan “‘maximum feasible participation of the poor’.”  (p. 196) The Black Panther Party and Welfare Rights Organization, they remind us, have their roots in Federal Community Action Programs from the mid-1960s. These autonomous self-managed government programs hired youth organizers, many of whom were leftists. The Office of Economic Opportunity provided Federal money for tenant organizing, funding rent strikes and demonstrations to bail out arrested activists in New York. In New Mexico indigenous youth took these jobs and organized on a radical basis. As Hunt and Taylor see it, “a solidarity state must create…formations that enable regular people to come together and challenge authority, whether held by corporations or the government.” They call this “countervailing power” (p. 201).

This is great, largely forgotten history, for which we can be grateful to the authors. But the outcome of 20th century welfarism, from the relatively expansive Swedish social democracy to the more limited New Deal of the US, suggests limits to this framework. As the authors note, only a “militant labor movement…inflicting real costs on bosses and investors through thousands of work stoppages” (p. 66) made the New Deal possible. As they also note, these programs have been largely or wholly rolled back everywhere in the neoliberal era. One can agree that welfarism created a more solidaristic consciousness in its generational beneficiaries. But this never outweighed the overall individualistic social conditioning of societies with private ownership of the means of production. For solidarity to win out in mass psychology, workers and the oppressed must collectively rule our own lives from the top to the bottom of society, with workers’ control of production, housing cooperatives, self-policing communities, democratic economic planning, and more.

In the long run the ruling class counteroffensive succeeded beyond the imaginings of those who lived through the welfarist golden years. What appeared to be permanent advances toward solidarity ended up not so. As for the “countervailing power” of the War on Poverty left wing of the welfare state, it was small and quickly dismantled, having provoked a furious response. This is not to argue that any of these reforms were futile. Just that if they remain a destination rather than a stepping stone to overthrowing a system based on private profit and replacing it with one truly built on solidarity and numan need, such advances cannot last.

Hunt and Taylor argue that solidarity requires a kind of internationalism. They devote their chapter “Solidarity Beyond Borders” to recovering more history leftists should know. At the same time, they ignore some important historical examples of workers’ self-activity.

They mention that the Second International promised to mobilize workers against conflict “only to be dissolved by the nationalist fervor of the First World War” (p.  231). This left Luxemburg (somewhat misleadingly counterposed to Lenin) defeated in her heroic anti-war stand: “in the midst of World War I, dreams of an international working-class movement seemed decidedly moribund” (p. 232). As a result internationalism had its day only after the war, with the League of Nations and International Labor Organization (influenced by the French solidarists) beginning an ostensibly progressive project ultimately sullied by a failure to break with global “racial hierarchy” (p. 233).

But Luxemburg (and Lenin) did not fail at all. Their revolutionary socialist internationalism grew to influence millions of anti-war strikers as the War dragged on. That War was abruptly ended when mass German naval mutinies and insurrectionary strikes overthrew the Kaiser, created workers’ councils positioned to become the basis of a potential workers’ state, and released Luxemburg herself from prison. In this context, Luxemburg and Lenin’s revolutionary anti-colonial politics led to the formation of Communist Parties allied with them across much of what would later be called the Third World.

Hunt and Taylor pick up their story after World War II, when decolonization put Third World solidarity for real self-determination on the table. Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere and Argentine economist Raul Prebisch led a block of 77 “non-aligned” UN countries pressing for a New International Economic Order based on genuine sovereignty and welfarism. Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara “proposed that the indebted countries band together…and refuse to repay” (p. 252). The authors echo Third World Marxists such Walter Rodney in criticizing the limits of left nationalists like Julius Nyerere, who argued in effect “solidarity…is a bond between states; the suffering of people living in those states could be ignored” (p. 246). But, “these internal contradictions were not the cause” (p. 246) of the neoliberal rollback that followed. Instead, “violence did the trick” (p. 247) through right wing coups in the Third World, backed by Washington.

This century Chile and Greece had governments and movements striving, as the authors see it, toward a solidarity state. Chile’s uprising against its neoliberal constitution led to the election of Gabriel Boric and a referendum on a new constitution. The referendum failed because “the far right used an effective playbook of lies and misinformation…aided by multinational social media companies.” “No country is an island; we are all subject to these strategies and the only way forward is…to out-organize our adversaries” (p. 265).

In Greece, Hunt and Taylor point to mutual aid “practiced as a matter of survival…and modeling the kind of state they hoped SYRIZA would create” (p. 266) as part of the organizing wave that brought SYRIZA to power in 2015, but don’t discuss the multiple general strikes that took place there. They explain SYRIZA’s immediate capitulation to the very EU demands for austerity they existed to oppose, saying “no country—especially a small one like Greece—can resist the forces of global capitalism alone” (p. 266). True, but SYRIZA leadership also made compromises that foreclosed other possible avenues for transformation..

The authors’ neglect of the Greek general strikes fits an overall pattern. They praise unions but don’t explore their contradictions, such as that between rank and file and bureaucracy. The US’ World War II union no-strike pledge is disparaged, without mention of the massive wave of wildcats that defied it. Their account of Poland’s Solidarnosc doesn’t see that that union in 1980-81 built an effective dual power, presenting a genuine workers’ government alternative to the rhetorically existing “workers’ state.” And they don’t explore the flood of workers’ self-activity, including the Russian Revolution, that actually did end the First World War.

Hunt and Taylor favor direct action and self-organization. They usefully highlight autonomous movements of poor people. But rank and file self-activity precisely where our class has the most power—in workplace struggles and revolutions anchored by them—gets short shrift. This leaves them with a vision of social change limited to altering the power balance between the classes, not abolishing class, and the hope that poor and working people’s self-organization short of control of the means of production can sustainably hold its own.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at

Avery Wear View All

Avery Wear is a socialist union activist in San Diego, California.