Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Solidarity: The History of a Powerful Idea and how it can Shape Philanthropic Practice

Editors’ Note: Activist Leah Hunt-Hendrix discusses the history of the idea of “solidarity” and how it has shaped her own philanthropic projects, including the Solidaire funders’ network. 

The words we use matter.  When we employ terms like “altruism” or “effective” or “venture” we are locating ourselves in specific schools of thought, which include ideas about good and bad, right and wrong, and how change happens.  Several years ago, as a graduate student, I noticed that the term “solidarity” was often used among activists on the ground but very seldom interrogated in political theory.  When, after finishing my PhD, I began working in philanthropy, again I noted that the term seemed to be missing from the discourse.  It was almost as if these worlds operated with different vocabularies, which pointed to the different ends and means they promoted.  It seemed to me, however, that given that the world of philanthropy has significant impact on what is possible for the world of activism and non-profits, translation was essential.

So what is being conveyed by the idea of solidarity?  And when activists say, “we don’t want your charity, we want your solidarity,” what does that really look like?  Stepping back even further, where does the idea of solidarity come from?

“Solidarity,” as a political concept, actually has relatively recent origins compared to ideas such as justice and equality: the term appeared in political discourse only in the 1800s. Contemporaries wondered what the term’s emergence portended. A French politician and writer, Leon Bourgeois, asked, “Is ‘solidarity’ simply a new term for the old concept of fraternity, or is it an entirely new idea?”  For several decades European political theorists had been exploring the question of what would hold society together “without God and King” – that is, after the overthrow of monarchy, and the newly established freedom of religion, what creates the bond of citizens?  Fraternity invoked the idea of a blood bond of brothers, but in a multicultural pluralistic society, that sense of comradery would need to be established on new grounds.  “Solidarity” could become the new value and guiding light.

By the end of the 1800s, Emile Durkheim, one of the first great sociologists, defined two types of solidarity: mechanical and organic.  Mechanical solidarity was created out of a kind of sameness.  Organic solidarity was more complex and was a characteristic of modern societies with a division of labor.  It was based not on a sense of sameness, but on a sense of interdependence. And it is this insight that lays the groundwork for a theory or worldview based on the principle of solidarity.  Solidarity is not just a synonym of fraternity, based on blood bonds; it is not unity, based on sameness.  It is actually a process of finding commonality in difference.

The classic example of solidarity – and the movement that adopted the term even in song! – is the labor movement.  Throughout the 1800s, individuals who saw themselves as cobblers or carpenters began to understand themselves under a new, bigger collective banner: workers.  This new identity supported the creation of new institutions which were far larger in size than the previous guilds had been – and with these new institutions, working class people could exert their collective power.  By constructing a new identity and developing a sense of solidarity, workers could challenge their employers, fight for new laws and higher wages, shift the balance of power and transform their conditions.  But as historian E.P. Thompson noted, in his classic The Making of the English Working Class, this new identity was not given: it had to be made.

By the mid-1900s, the term “solidarity” had become frequently employed in the context of international, independence, and anti-imperialist struggles.  Central American solidarity movements, for example, organized attention around the role of the U.S. in supporting dictatorships, taking stands against the meddling of major world powers in other countries’ domestic affairs.  These movements invited individuals from around the world to participate in efforts of local communities as they struggled for self-determination.  The argument for solidarity in these cases was complex: why should someone living in Kansas care about what’s happening in El Salvador?  But while one might not personally be experiencing harm, the involvement of one’s government in the lives of other nations indicated that there was an element of responsibility and interconnection. Because perhaps your privileges have been paid for by others’ losses. Because the wealth of some nations was built through the enslavement of others.  Because, through trade and exchange and war, our economies tie us together.  Because we are not isolated from one another, but are part of webs of activity, with widespread effects.  The cry for solidarity is an invitation to see one’s own story as bound up in the story of others.

In 2012, I helped co-found a new donor community called Solidaire, in which we tried to live out this orientation in the field of philanthropy.  The history of philanthropy includes decades of discussions about power and privilege.  We were by no means original in broaching the question of how philanthropy could work in better partnership with organizers on the ground.  The Haymarket People’s Fund, and the community foundations that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, led the charge for a new form of social justice philanthropy, in which activists shared decision-making power with people with wealth.  This era witnessed increased attention to how power was concentrated through the very processes of philanthropy, which is often palliative rather than addressing the roots of social problems.  And so, these foundations set out to try a new way of redistributing wealth, giving away not only financial resources but power itself.

What these community-focused foundations recognized is that benevolence is not enough: there needs to be a recognition of the agency of individuals and communities to make decisions for themselves.  We started Solidaire with a similar recognition of the centrality of agency, but we added on a few additional elements.

First, by making “solidarity” the guiding theme, we were recognizing the fact of our interdependence.  Instead of assuming a posture of altruism, we wanted to understand ourselves as part of a thick fabric of social ties, where our well-being was bound together.  Vast inequality has detrimental consequences on everyone involved, and oppression against one part of the social body impacts all parts.  And so our work is not just for others, it is for all of us.

Second, shared decision-making was not the only or even the main way in which solidarity was enacted.  Instead of creating justice through a process of deliberation, we instead sought to build strong relationships with movement leaders so that we could be responsive to their needs.  We were advised by activists and organizers to focus on moving more money, and moving quickly, instead of developing a complex decision-making process that might have the side effect of taking activists away from their work, and the movement more generally.

Finally, the use of the term “movement” signifies a slightly different focus from the more traditional focus on grassroots organizing.  While organizing remains our focus, we also seek to cultivate a studied understanding of how social change happens through mass action.  This involves attention to trigger moments, disruptive action, and the creation of public escalations.  We studied different traditions of organizing: like that of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was based on building local power and community leadership; or the more decentralized disruptive tradition seen at the WTO protests of the 1990s, which brought thousands of people into the streets to express their opposition to corporate globalization.  We explored the role of economic power, cultural power, and political power in shaping social change.  And we looked at the ecosystems of organizations that need to be funded to move an agenda.  However, this study is not meant to position us as the leaders of the movements, but instead to enable us to understand the strategies of those closest to the problems, so that we can be the best possible partners.

This emphasis on movement-building relates to the idea of solidarity in the sense that movements create new kinds of social bonds and new identities.  Occupy created the idea of the 99% standing up against the 1%.  #BlackLivesMatter called on people to identify as anti-racists and explore what that would mean for their daily actions and choices.  Movements call people into new formations, creating new bonds across difference, which can then have the effect of transforming law, policy, and social norms.  Indeed, the creation of collective identities may be the most powerful method of social transformation, because once they are formed, masses of people start to behave in new ways and demand new things.

Emile Durkheim notes that one cannot measure solidarity directly.  We can only see its effects.  Thus, a philanthropy based on metrics and measurements will always overlook this subtle but powerful element of human society.  The challenge ahead, then, is whether alternative traditions of philanthropy can continue to build new methods and mechanisms to strengthen solidarities based on values of justice and equality and interdependence.  If philanthropy can rise to this challenge, we may yet be able to create and sustain new bonds and more forward in stronger relationship.

-Leah Hunt-Hendrix

Leah Hunt-Hendrix is an activist and organizer, dedicated to racial and economic justice.  She co-founded and served as founding Executive Director of Solidaire, a network of philanthropists who are committed to funding social movements.  In 2017, she co-founded Way to Win, a campaign to shift electoral spending to movement organizations.  Leah has a PhD from Princeton University, where she studied religious philosophy and political theory and wrote her dissertation on the history of the concept of solidarity. She has served on numerous boards, and acts as an advisor to her family foundation, the Sister Fund.

4 thoughts on “Solidarity: The History of a Powerful Idea and how it can Shape Philanthropic Practice

  1. Great piece, Leah. I really appreciate the exploration of this topic! For Roman Catholics, the concept of solidarity features prominently in the Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical issued in May of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. The encyclical, also titled “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” forms the fundamental building block of Catholic social teaching, and is essential for Catholics who care about social justice.


    • Absolutely, Aaron! Catholic Social Thought has some of the most profound analyses of solidarity I have found – from 1891 through the twentieth century. Interestingly, Karol Wojtyla, who was elected Pope John Paul II, wrote extensively on solidarity as part of his personalist philosophy, and this in turn had an important influence on the Polish movement, Solidarnosc!


  2. Curiously, Leah Hunt-Hendrix omits the most significant usage of “solidarity” in recent history. “Solidarnosc” — the Polish word for solidarity — was the name chosen, irony intended, by Lech Walesa and his colleagues for their independent labor union, which played a key role in puncturing the pretensions of Marxism not only in Poland but elsewhere in Eastern Europe to embody worker-solidarity and champion “social justice.” The continuing lesson: philanthropists should be cautious about supporting social movements that claim to be advancing progressive ideas — but in reality, are using “solidarity” for just the opposite purpose.


    • Thank you Leslie! What a great point. I think you’re exactly right that the word in itself does not signify the health of a movement and that it can easily be co-opted and misused. Solidarnosc is an important example of the interrogation of communism and the never-ending need to disrupt any system posturing as having achieved some kind of final justice – particularly when that authority is maintained through violence. Thank you for bringing Solidarnosc into the conversation!


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