The Origins of the Concept of Solidarity

In the Anglo-Saxon world, the term ‘Solidarity’ is a relatively new kid on the block linguistically, as can be seen from its failure thus far to sprout adjectival or adverbial wings: we do not speak of things as being solidaire or solidatious, nor do we do things solidariously. According to the OED the word is an import from 19th century (and therefore post-revolutionary) France, with a whiff, presumably of liberté, egalité, fraternité, a child of the Enlightenment. Given our empiricist, pragmatic mind-set and the inheritance we have received in British culture from Protestantism – giving priority to the individual rather than the collective, to private rather than to public, to autonomy rather than community – it is not surprising that the word and concept aren’t more deeply embedded in our language or culture.

However, the term, solidarity, isn’t just a new kid on the block linguistically. It’s also something of a Johnny-Come-Lately in theology. A quick check of my own bookshelves reveals that in the ten or so theological and philosophical dictionaries I own, published over the span of the last half-century, there is no entry under ‘solidarity’ before the two most recently published (dating from 1994 and 1996). Nor does the word make it into the index of the Flannery edition of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, or the index of the documents from the Latin American Bishops’ highly significant conference at Puebla in 1979, at which they re-affirmed the Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor’, or even the index of Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, which is widely regarded as the founding text of liberation theology; and all of this despite the central place given to the term in Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio -“Development of the peoples” (1967), where we are told:

“There can be no progress towards the complete development of humankind without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity. … Man must meet man, nation meet nation, as brothers and sisters, as children of God. In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of the human race.” (paragraph 43)

For most Christians, as for the secular media, the theme of solidarity first entered their consciousness in 1980 when an unemployed electrician called Lech Walesa led a strike in the Gdansk shipyard over food price increases and wage controls under the banner of Solidarity (Solidarnosc). Within 18 months that banner had spawned a trade union with ten million members, which ultimately triggered the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

The dribbling paint of the Solidarnosc logo became one of the design icons of the 1980s, even if the concept it represented remained largely unexamined and even if the political movement fizzled out in acrimony and disappointment.