The Meanings of Solidarity

By Graham Harrison

I had two brief conversations in the mid 1990s that stick uncomfortably in my mind. One took place at a ‘frontline states’ solidarity meeting, gathering together a mixture of anti-apartheid campaigners and those within the British ‘new left’. The main topic was the war in Angola which was presented as a South African war of aggression against the perceived legitimate Angolan government of the MPLA. A woman asked the panellists about the evidence that the Angolan army had been laying mines in civilian areas, leading to the predictable deaths and injuries of non-combatants. The panellist (who was a leading figure in the Angolan solidarity movement) replied (if memory serves me well) ‘Well, there’s a war on…’

The second meeting was with a Frelimo member in the London offices of the Mozambique Information Agency, a government-run advocacy/propaganda agency that was also very much involved in the Mozambican solidarity actions that roughly mirrored those relating to Angola: South Africa’s war of aggression against radical governments under siege. When I mentioned how Mozambican police had been accused of beating people assembled in opposition party rallies in the recently multi-party Mozambique, I was given the reply (again by memory and probably a paraphrase) ‘you have to bash a few heads together to keep order.’

These vignettes illustrate something that was pervasive – indeed constitutive – of solidarity movements in the UK (and likely elsewhere in the West) in relation to liberation movements in Africa. Solidarity politics in this framing had to negotiate active support for political movements that were themselves prosecuting violence that went beyond what might be portrayed as ‘self-defence’. This directly created a tension between political norms of solidarity and others regarding human rights.

The responses above suggest that one way to negotiate this tension is to downplay violence through references to ‘context’. In light of the sorry denouement of both Angolans and Mozambican liberation politics, this kind of rationalisation does not seem very attractive in hindsight. Especially in regards to Angola, it would seem that the violence of the Angolan state was in fact a core component of its modus operandi, arguably from its coming to power. The relativisation and contextualisation of state violence in the name of solidarity (some violence is worse than others and some violence is partially justified by circumstance) can look very shabby when the object of solidarity gives up the revolutionary ghost.

There are other options. One is to distinguish between liberatory violence and oppressive violence. This might derive from an adaptation of the ‘just war’ tradition which distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate targets, discusses where violence is unavoidable, and considers proportionality. Another approach would be to draw on one reading of Fanon to identify some violence as ‘cleansing’ or a means to shape a new revolutionary identity. It is within these two points of reference that one can see ‘freedom fighter’ imagery in southern Africa that fits with the images of Mao and Che. These negotiations of solidarity and violence are suited to the support of insurgencies rather than incumbent regimes.

A third way to manage the tensions of supporting violence in the name of liberation is to take a utilitarian and consequentialist approach. This means justifying violence in reference to its consequences. Effective violence deployed in the name of the cause. The liberation wars in southern Africa were replete with examples of this: the ‘war of the flea’ might involve the blowing up of infrastructure or the harrying of more remotely-located settler farms. If these actions are perceived to undermine racialised forms of rule, they are worthy of positive judgements.

The utilitarian approach seems more convincing when deployed in support of an insurgency against a more powerful state which is imperialist and racist. Insurgent military actions seem more heroic than state convoys of armoured personnel carriers and the aerial bombardments. But in a situation of incumbency, they look less convincing. The explanatory narratives start to relativise, couch, become more vexed. The violence is less a tenacious endeavour against a more-powerful state and more an exercise in power over others. Support for ‘radical regimes’ in Africa led some to make distinctions between dictatorship, developmental dictatorship and left-developmental dictatorship for example, each qualifier serving to soften anxieties about state coercion. Relatedly, one might also consider a more unsettling possibility which is that political violence by states (however yielded) does, to some extent, create its own justification and even legitimacy. For some, there is nothing like a victory to cover violence in glory.

Each of these negotiations of solidarity and violence reveal that sovereignty changes the moral and political map of support. This shift is part of the vexed ‘burden’ of statehood which erodes the sense that a movement is ‘fighting the good fight’ and introduces the high-order challenge of institutionalising power before one can consider legitimacy and justice, if only because of the simple fact that the latter two cannot realistically be imagined or achieved in the absence of the former. And, anyone on the Left will already be wearied by the succession of capitulations when liberation or socialist movements take state power. In situations where ‘radical’ states are actually states with some (perhaps a great deal of) radical properties, the question is: to what extent can one explain the apparently authoritarian practices of a remote state that one identifies with in terms of the adverse circumstances that it is faced with?

Answers to this question (there can never be a single answer; this is an intrinsically agonistic question) can be located on a spectrum of political norms generated within Western intellectual solidarity circles more broadly vis a vis African governance. One might start with Tanzania in the early 1970s when the rural villagisation programme led to the closing down of democratically-constituted co-operatives, the compulsory rounding up of peasants, and the installation of labour regimes structured by the state. At the time, discussion about Tanzania’s villagisation revolved around the possibilities for (social) ‘developmental’ outcomes rather than concerns with rights and freedoms. Tanzania was strongly supported by NGOs and Western governments (especially the Non Aligned Movement) and this support (and the intellectual discourses it produced) was based in a usually implicit political position which might be encapsulated as a contract. This contract was between the state (in this case Tanzania) and the NGO or left-leaning Western government in which authoritarian political action would be tolerated inasmuch as it could be connected to developmental outcomes. In Tanzania’s case, the outcomes were first and foremost social provision: communal villages were seen as the geographical fix for a resource-constrained state to provide primary health, education, and support for agriculture. In 1980s Mozambique, a generation of cooperantes supported and worked for a government that swept up thousands of ‘unproductive’ city dwellers and compulsorily relocated them in communal villages.

Beyond 1970s Tanzania and 1980s Mozambique, and moving away from a clear social-democratic position, one can see analogous versions of the same contract, a contract that generates a political solidarity with African states that can ‘produce the developmental goods’. I have heard a former New Labour minister (off the record) explicitly use this argument in regards to present-day Rwanda in a way that recalled to me the relativizing comments made by some anti-apartheid solidarity campaigners: after the genocide and in a region where Burundi and the DRC are neighbours, supporting the Rwandan government seems (awkwardly) reasonable. The difference between 1970s Tanzania and 2000s Rwanda is considerable, but they are both located on a gradient in which a balance is made between an implicit acceptance of state coercion in the name of (expected) developmental outcomes.

I am suggesting that solidarity politics in the West has to negotiate an aporia that derives from the fact that solidarity (especially when used as a political or campaigning norm) is based in notions of moral rightness, but actual practices of solidarity (advocacy through to financial support) require a range of ‘dirtied’ pragmatic kinds of politics in which coercion and violence are to some degree acceptable.

I am not wanting to resolve these issues because, as I have argued, solidarity politics is contentious politics, not amenable to some codification of violence-good and violence-bad. What I am arguing is that solidarity politics is often keen to efface the difficult issue of coercion and violence within the mobilisation of support for struggle and solidarity with certain governments. But the question of violence is an insistent question because it remains a hard fact that, in a world in which direct violence and ‘structural violence’ is exercised upon the poor, dispossessed and powerless with such relentless intensity, it would take the most déclassé and naïve liberalism to eschew the possibility of ‘progressive’ violence entirely. Most forms of oppression will not yield to the pressures of a ‘free press’ or a well-liked Facebook campaign. Unless one wishes to trivialise oppression one should expect resistance to be in part violent and as a result consider openly and with some empathy how a supportive movement relates to that.

*          *

Things are hardly simplified by the fact that Western solidarity politics comes with its own heavy ideological baggage. In a broad historical view, Western solidarity mobilisations have relied upon combinations of cultural norms that derive from socialism, social democracy, liberalism, and Christianity. Jubilee 2000 exemplified a confluence of these norms, for example. And, although solidarity politics explicitly opposes itself to charitable campaigns, an honest view would recognise that there is a powerful ‘we’ and a remote and disempowered ‘they’ in even the most sibling-like solidarity. After all, Western publics can chose their fights; African publics live them.

More recently, Western public cultures have undergone something of a decaying of clear battle lines. Western governments have become astute at incorporating some campaigns into their own public relations machines, something that some campaign organisations have embraced with alacrity. The rise of celebrity politics has led to an increasingly weakened ‘solidarity agency’ in Western publics and injected a not insignificant dose of narcissism and consumer aesthetic into some forms of mobilisation in the name of justice. There are even vulgar ‘campaign’ signs deployed by transnational corporations through the slick branding of Fair Trade, environmental awareness, and corporate social responsibility (currently the world’s second greatest oxymoron after the war on terror).

Within this network of solidarities, by and large, gone are the thorny issues of violence and its (a)morality, and clear battle-lines have been superseded by networks, movements of movements, or ‘multitudes’. Perhaps the main underlying issue now is addressing the fact that African civil society organisations struggle from positions of extreme weakness: defensive, poorly-resourced, dependent on the resources and agendas of outsiders. This condition makes for moderate ambition. It produces a mismatch with the ‘another world is possible’ narrative that has emerged from the post-Porto Alegre world social fora. Indeed, it is noticeable that, beyond South Africa, Africans’ struggles and organisations have thus far not easily fitted into the grand narratives of global social justice.

It is something of a paradox that Africa, a world-region that exhibits so clearly some of the most anti-social and exploitative processes of accumulation, does not figure strongly in global social justice movements that have oriented around worker, peasant, and indigenous people’s resistance in East Asia, South Asia and South America. But the paradox is only apparent, inasmuch as the levels of poverty, brutal dispossession, and the massive livelihood struggles awkwardly captured by the notion of ‘informality’ are all the underlying generators of Africa’s extreme but not exceptional hardship and the besieged nature of its organisations for social justice.

If the evocation nothing about us without us! remains pertinent, a subsidiary question – one that reflects directly back on what one might call the reasonable ambitions a Western solidarity campaign – is: what is it that African campaign organisations declare they are about? This is a prickly question. Please indulge a third vignette. I was having a nice dinner with some activist academics from the University of Dar es Salaam and the conversation touched upon the post-Washington Consensus and its subterfuges. It was, we agreed, a moderate re-packaging of the Washington Consensus through weak or bogus qualifiers such as ‘ownership’ and ‘participation’. But, I asked (aware that I was the Westerner at the table), what are the counter-hegemonies that are being silenced and excluded? What ‘Tanzanian’ or, even more boldly, ‘African’ alternative annunciations are bubbling around, potentially insurgent and disruptive? There was no answer to this question, although it seemed easy to return to topics such as the dominance of Western NGOs in civil society, the presence of expatriates in government, the dominance of the Western media and so on.

I am suggesting that it is difficult to identify a ‘grand narrative’ about African struggle of a kind that generates a clear demand for social justice and which connects reasonably well with a set of political agencies within Africa itself. One can simply ideologically assert a ‘Struggle’ and use forms of deduction and imagination to tie examples together even if it is only this cognitive act that actually connects them. Absent this, solidarity remains a rather trepidatious endeavour, defined as much by desire as it is satiety. I am sure this will be disagreeable to some, but I would insist on the diagnostic question: if my characterisation is wrong, what is the grand narrative generated by a group of organisations that might well be characterised as a social movement?

We can go deeper here, to something which is again a recurring theme in Western agonies concerning Africa campaigning. One response to the ‘where’s the potential social movement?’ question is not to attempt an answer but to reject the question. This would be instead to question the nature of the Western solidarity campaigning ‘gaze’, its seeking of recognisable forms of political activism, its expectations and filterings of African realities. Now, it is certainly the case that there is a great deal of detailed research showing that African associational life is massively vibrant, diverse, and vernacular. Notions of accountability and justice, claims to well-being or protection, appeals to the powerful, are mobilisations of collectivities are all taking place but often through hybrid cultural practices which produce ‘thick’ moral economies less easily retrofitted into a global justice campaigning. The most well-known idiom here is eating: leaders who eat too much and the resentments of those who feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ place at the table. The moral contours of this political idiom are not social justice or even liberal rights-claims even if they might lend themselves to be hybridised as such.

There is a great deal to explore between the stultifying formality of cultural relativism and the universalisms of liberalism and social justice. One suspects that more pragmatic, situated, and ‘dialogic’ approaches would repay far better than searches for the universally-agreed code for a global struggle of the kind that was pervasive during the Cold War. Perhaps we ask ourselves in proximate rather than heroic spirit: where do we start?

Graham Harrison is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and is on the editorial board of the Review of African Political Economy.


  1. A wonderful essay – thank you Graham. My answer to the question you pose at the end, ‘where do we start?’ is ‘like this’: recognising publicly how profound the crisis of progressive politics is, perhaps especially in Africa, but also in the whole world. Being open that there isn’t/can’t be/doesn’t need to be a party line for progressives or clear political positions easily read off from our traditions (and indeed that those from our traditions got lots wrong in the past) is a sensible starting point.

    I guess one challenge to the article might be to think about whether it is really *just* in South Africa where contemporary struggles present themselves in a form recognisably concerned with ‘global social justice’. Another might be to think about whether *any* campaigns, anywhere, framed in that way, can be successful as democratic political movements, or whether there is something inherently elitist (reflected in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, in Make Poverty History, even in the Social Forums?) about cloaking political demands in universal or cosmopolitan terms. This of course is a historically specific point. In a period where there is no plausible political agency (in other words no effective mobilized, ‘class conscious’ if you insist, body of people able to win a public contest), isn’t making demands in the name of ’the world’ cynical, at least elitist, maybe even imperialist, in that it reflects the knowledge that you can’t win a democratic argument in your own community and choose to call over their heads to the agency of those best placed to act, or in other words the existing global powers?

  2. Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking piece which teases out the complexities and contradictions connected to solidarity with past and contemporary African struggles. The importance of a situated, dialogical approach to engaging with these movements rather than a universally applied code is recommended as a potential and useful starting point. The dynamics examined by the piece are between external solidarity and internal movements, however another layer of complexity also occurs within the movements themselves. Furthermore the way that violence is framed within these movements and in relation to the solidarity they receive has lasting effects for those involved in them.
    A case in point is the South African post struggle context, where recent historiography is highlighting the implication of the problematic distinction made between the ‘legitimate’ violence of the military liberation movement and the ‘illegitimate’ violence of ordinary militant youth within South Africa’s borders. This characterization has lasting effects in the post-struggle context as there are many experiences, expressions and memories of violence which are denied and split of from the romantic celebratory narrative. This unfortunate after-effect of dichotomizing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence is that the counter-narratives within the liberation movement are silenced and demonized. This example just serves to highlight again the important questions raised by Harrison around how to show solidarity in ways which grapple with the complexities of struggle and violence in a situated and engaged manner.

  3. Thanks for the interesting thoughts. Cultural relativism and universalism may indeed have lost much of the meaning they carried in earlier centuries and past decades. The notion developed by Boas – that each ‘culture’ had to be understood on its own terms – was once a powerful tool in anti-racist struggles, as were the universalist ideas in anti colonial struggles, aimed at the extension of the rights accorded since the enlightenment era to a privileged section of humankind to all. Yet, they have lost their once straightforward meanings, as discussions among anthropologists and philosophers of the left have pointed out. Solidarity does not necessarily have to mean unconditional backing of each and every action. The pitfalls of the latter have become obvious in the liberation struggles of southern Africa and their aftermaths. In the Namibian case, international solidarity movements closed their eyes to the horrendous human rights abuses committed by SWAPO against members of the organisation in exile (and similarly, by the ANC in exile). For a long time at least international solidarity activists and scholars, as much as the internal critical circles kept their mouths shut. Solidarity, ‘real’ solidarity calls on a situational perspective of lived experience, beyond blind support on the one hand, and the traps of pre-framed ideas of what constitutes ‘violence,’ for instance. Solidarity is open to, and engages with new political forms, such as those developed recently by young protest and democracy movements in, among others, South Africa, Namibia and Burkina Faso.


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