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Solidarity is Not a Liberal Value

Feminism and collective struggle

On January 20, 2018, at the end of the Pioneer Valley’s Women’s March in Northampton, Massachusetts hundreds stood gathered in front of the imposing, castle-like City Hall. We were children, women, and men, trans and non-gender conforming people. We were black, white, and brown, gay and straight. We were rich and poor and middle class, farmers and thinkers and workers of all kinds and we stood in front of City Hall and listened.

We listened, that afternoon, to the passionate, sophisticated voices of a number of activists, who took up a range of issues: from the horrific presidency of Donald Trump to the inability of the Democratic Party to do much to stop him; from climate change to the persecution and prosecution of undocumented people. One of the final speakers, while discussing how people in the local community were working to defend the undocumented from arrest and summary deportation, was particularly radical and inspiring. She called for the gathered crowd to continue to work together in solidarity to openly and aggressively defend “liberal values.” It was this phrase that struck me — Liberal values. Because to me, what she was describing were not, in fact, liberal values at all.

It took me some time to figure out why I was so discomfited by the association. But after some reflection on the liberal political theoretical tradition (which is one way to describe my profession, I suppose) my discomfort with associating solidaristic, collective, community action with liberalism became clearer; the significance hit me harder. It is, I realized, why I consider myself a socialist and not a liberal.


There are undoubtedly thousands, if not millions, of people out there who consider themselves liberal who oppose President Trump and the far-right Republican agenda of mass deportation. [1] My hope is that this essay will lead some of these liberals, many of whom already value solidarity and democratic organizing, to question why it is they consider themselves liberal; why it is they look towards that tradition, as opposed to another: namely, the socialist tradition.

It might seem like I am making a prosaic point here — after all, isn’t protecting the human rights of individuals a classic liberal value? Indeed it is. But what is not a liberal value is the means by which that protection and resistance should be carried out. And the means suggested by the Women’s March speaker are not liberal values. Democratic, solidaristic resistance is not a liberal value.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that solidarity and collective resistance are inconsistent with liberal values — but the fact remains that they themselves are not liberal values. One could put together different, intellectually serious lists of liberal values and come up with different principles with differing interpretations of what those principles look like in practice. Individual liberties (e.g., freedom of speech, conscience, religion, etc.), personal conception of the good life, private property, and equal treatment under the law would undoubtedly make most lists of liberal values. While there is much disagreement within the liberal tradition regarding what these principles mean in practice, radically democratic, solidaristic organizing and resistance to injustice would be unlikely to appear on any such list. [2]

The key to understanding the difference I am pointing to is this: Liberals treat solidarity merely as a means, not as an end. The liberal tradition, when it places any value on solidarity at all, treats solidaristic collective organizing and resistance only as either tactics or strategy. For example, if liberals can defend individual human rights simply through voting or passing laws they will — whether this is done more or less democratically or not. And this is perfectly consistent with liberal values. Solidarity and collective action are purely instrumental for liberals.

Solidarity as both a means and an end is not a liberal value but a socialist one. It is the broad tent of far left (non-authoritarian) socialist traditions which value solidarity. [3] To be sure, like liberals, socialists also treat solidarity, organizing, and democratic collective action as instruments — as tactics, as a strategy for winning political power. But for socialists these are not only means. For socialists, solidarity is both the means and the goal of winning political power. This means that political power without democratic solidarity is not only undesirable, it is illegitimate. It is a kind of political power not worth having. Political power is the tool, and for socialists it is only worth exercising if it is accomplished through, and in the interests of, the masses; the people — especially those who have been and continue to be exploited and oppressed, silenced and ignored. Solidarity means empathy, sympathy, compassion, and shared struggle. Solidarity is knowing that, although we are distinct biological entities with important personal differences, we are also in this together — and we will embrace and appreciate the differences among us through shared struggle or we will fail. I won’t fail. You won’t fail. We will fail.

Why does this kind of conceptual distinction matter? Why should anyone care that a dynamic and, otherwise, insightful speaker at a local Women’s March treated solidarity and radical organizing as liberal values? In all honesty, the conceptual distinction is relatively unimportant compared to what this distinction means in practice, or, better, to what it means about the selection of which political tradition, which historical example, people might look to for lessons and inspiration. In other words, the distinction matters because it shapes how we should understand what success even means. It shapes what progress look like, and this despite whatever very real failures exist in a particular tradition’s past. It is the present and future that truly matter, and we need to look towards value systems that are genuinely empowering; empowerment rooted in an egalitarian solidarity that embraces both optimistic idealism and pessimistic practicality.

And it is this difference that matters. It matters for the future of feminism and the #MeToo movement especially. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the differences between telling your boss to get his hands off your ass and working together with your fellow employees to fight for democratically-accountable management or democratic unionization. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the difference between having more female CEOs and abolishing CEOs through bottom-up, democratic counter-organizing. The difference between liberal and socialist values is the difference between an individual victim of sexual violence winning a lawsuit against the company that protected her attacker and organizing against the social system that conditions young men to become harassers or rapists and induces their victims to blame themselves. The difference between liberal values and socialist values is the difference between working through Human Resources to have better enforcement of existing anti-harassment policies and organizing against the system which incentivizes companies to pursue cover-ups and settlements as opposed to open accountability — all in the name of profit.


There was a young woman walking near me during much of our march through Northampton on January 20th. She was holding a sign that, on one side, read: “Intersectionality!” The reverse side read: “RACISM is a TOOL of Division created by the 1% #BLM.” The differences between liberal and socialist values are well-captured in this sign. The difference between liberal values and socialist values would be the difference between electing a trans person of color President and mass organizing against the two-party duopoly that activates identity politics every two to four years in order to maintain their plutocratic control of our society. The difference between liberal values and socialist values would be the difference between redistributing wealth and redistributing power and control (over wealth, opportunities, and responsibilities).

This is why, contra Jeffrey Goldfarb’s position in his recent essay here at Public Seminar, we must maintain that socialist values are feminist values and feminist values are socialist values. This doesn’t mean that “we cannot have feminism within capitalism,” but that such feminism should necessarily oppose capitalism. Liberalism and capitalism are intimately connected in valuing individualism above democracy and solidaristic activism. And this lack of value for solidarity and democracy, as means and ends, is why women and trans peopleespecially those of color, continue to experience the most egregious forms of injustice and inequity in their workplaces. Liberalism — and capitalism — have no interest in a democratic, egalitarian workplace.

An effective resistance, one that is also building towards a genuine alternative, needs different values. We need different values — and not liberal ones. Because, although she was wrong to call it liberal, the otherwise inspiriting speaker after the Women’s March was right in this: we do indeed need to work together in solidarity. But not just in it; for it as well.

Dr. Bryant William Sculos holds a PhD in political science, specializing in Critical Theory and global ethics. He is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University, contributing writer for the Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate PowerBryant is also a member of Socialist Alternative-CWI.


[1] An agenda which was, sadly, first aggressively pursued by the liberal president Barack Obama, the so-called “deporter-in-chief”  — though his approach to deportation had specific targeting parameters (focusing primarily on convicted criminals) and with protections for the so-called “Dreamers.”

[2] At least not if we exclude the socialist influence on the more or less liberalized tradition of social democracy, wherein you very well could find solidarity of this sort as a core value. Thinkers who could fit into this social-democratic liberalism include: Eduard Bernstein, John Dewey, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Iris Marion Young, Onora O’Neill, Richard Rorty, David Held, and William Connolly. Even Bernie Sanders could be put on this list.

[3] Including: Marxism, anarchism, anarchocommunism, left libertarianism, ecosocialism, socialist feminism, and even some of the more radical iterations of democratic socialism (which is where some might place some of the aforementioned thinkers such as Bernstein, Habermas, Connolly, and Sanders).

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Bryant William Sculos

  • I am quite sure that for some people, socialist values are feminist values, and feminist values are socialist values, in a certain understanding of the terms, I would include myself. My question is: how do they work with or against people who don’t see it quite that way? I fear making strong distinctions between political projects may be appropriate for academic seminars, but can be enervating in public life and democratic struggles.

    • Bryant W. Sculos

      I agree that there is often a downside to making strong conceptual distinctions beyond the realm of academia, but I tried (perhaps not clearly or deeply enough!) to show how the distinction between thinking of solidarity in liberal terms (as opposed to socialist terms) has practical implications for organizing and achieving progress in-line with feminist concerns. Answering the question of what to do when people disagree that feminist values are socialist values is important. My answer is engaged persuasion. This is not a simple or straightforward process, but it is the hard gritty work of organized activism.

      • CMuir

        As a feminist and a liberal who has lived on both sides of the capitalist fence, I find the quote below, from Rüdiger Danneman’s essay titled “Georg Lukacs’ Theory of Reification and the Idea of Socialism, best captures the problem of solidarity:

        —“A modern socialist understanding of politics, however, cannot ignore the fact that, in a reified world, people existing in reified forms of life are confronted with a process of forming political will in which it is not easy for them to recognize their own requirements and interests, to shape and articulate them in ways that are informed by solidarity. The phenomenon of the ideological crisis of the proletariat is not a Leninist invention, but a result of the inherent obscurity of the capitalist system, and of the profound reification of our thinking and living.”–

        Perhaps this also explains why anyone on the left, in the face of what was at stake, could have voted for anyone other than Hillary Clinton.

        • Bryant W. Sculos

          The quote here is excellent. However, I’m not sure I follow the conclusion. It seems like there were a lot of very good (“non-reified”) reasons to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton (especially if the person you voted for wasn’t Trump or Gary Johnson), especially for those on the left (including myself) who very much expected her to win handily and didn’t want her to have a mandate for rationalized neoliberal imperialism that would likely garner far less opposition than we’ve seen against Trump’s (domestic) agenda. Again, I’m not sure if the implication of the conclusion here is trying to get at this same point or a different point that my reply would be a counter to–but I appreciate the comment nonetheless. Thanks!

  • Mitchell

    One person’s solidarity is another person’s groupthink. Empathy cannot necessarily be equated with solidarity any more than spirituality can be equated with organized religion. That’s precisely why the (arguably) liberal values of social democracy remain crucial.

    • Bryant W. Sculos

      Thanks for the comment! There are certainly important distinctions between solidarity and groupthink and solidarity and empathy (though those distinctions were not the focus of this piece). That said, while they are certainly not identical (as you rightly point out) I think empathy and solidarity are somewhat co-constitutive. Empathy is an important motivation for building solidarity and greater, deeper empathy is one of the important outgrowths of building solidarity.

      • Mitchell

        I disagree — but then (following my metaphor), I’m no fan of organized religion (as a path to spirituality), either. Individuals, motivated by empathy, can act together within a liberal polity, but when empathy is reified, it ceases to be empathy.

        • Bryant W. Sculos

          Thanks for the reply and fair enough. You make good points here. I certainly don’t disagree on the dangers of reifying empathy (or any other concept for that matter–though perhaps more so with empathy). That said, there is a difference between reifying empathy (or solidarity) and thinking of these concepts (in practice) as both means and ends, as I suggest in this essay. I also fail to see any necessary connection between thinking about empathy and solidarity within a socialist framework and groupthink. While any organized political or religious entity could be susceptible to devolving into groupthink, there is nothing about socialism that makes it more susceptible to this that any other kind of organizing framework. It is up to all of us as political actors to be cautious and critical of this potential. Also, given that a political tradition like liberalism tends to operate with an arguably reified conception of the individual, there is at least as much danger of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism” emerging as there is for socialism to devolve into the classical bureaucratic collective/state capitalism of countries like the USSR or Cuba. The argument I attempted to put forward here is that there are important political benefits in thinking about solidarity (though I would add empathy too) from a socialist perspective.

          • Mitchell

            Thanks for the thoughtful response! I hadn’t been familiar with Wolin’s concept of “inverted totalitarianism,” and (from what I can quickly gather) he (too) certainly makes some good points. Then again, most recent exercises in “illiberal democracy” (in Eastern Europe, but also in places like Zimbabwe and Venezuela) have tended to stake their claims more on “solidarity” than on liberalism (as a prelude, perhaps, to a more classic form of totalitarianism). You pays your money and you makes your choice. 😉

            FWIW, in the 2016 general election, I cast a write-in vote (in California) for Bernie Sanders. Nonetheless, I wish he hadn’t described himself as a socialist, but as a social democrat (a term that more accurately reflects his actual politics, or at least his proposals). To me, that’s also the nub of the distinction.

          • Bryant W. Sculos

            I agree, even with everything I wrote here, that socialists (and liberals) need to be extremely cautious against the abuses of claims to, or demands of, solidarity, especially when they come from authoritarians or top-down political organizations (and here we see the similarity between your example of Zimbabwe and the DNC’s call for unity around its neoliberal imperialist agenda).

            On the distinction between socialist and social democrat, I think you are right. I also share your wish that he wouldn’t describe himself as a socialist–because he isn’t one! He is either a social democrat or a welfare state liberal. As a socialist, and a political theorist, this conflation drives me nuts! (I was a pretty big supporter of Bernie–and in a lot of ways I still am–but that doesn’t make him a socialist any more than his policies do!)

            Thanks again for the comments!

  • CMuir

    To quote Robert S. Taylor, “Liberalism is a broad church . . . .” (434) And, to your distinctions between liberal and socialist values, I do not see them. The examples you provide as belonging to socialism easily fall under the broader liberal mantel. Would you clarify for me your use of the terms “optimistic idealism” and pessimistic practicality”?

    In your essay, you wrote: “The liberal tradition, when it places any value on solidarity at all, treats solidaristic collective organizing and resistance only as either tactics or strategy.” This point on solidarity in a liberal context being merely “tactics or strategy” brings to mind the essay by Michel de Certeau titled “The Practice of Everyday Life.” In his essay he addresses the binary of oppressed/oppressor with the binary of tactic/strategy respectively. And, is there not, in the case of solidarity success, solardity as a means culminating in a type of solidarity of an end?

    Taylor posits that Liberal Socialism is the most compatible combination of the two even though he ultimately suggests we reject that as well. Would you agree?

    Taylor, Robert S. “Illiberal Socialism.” Social Theory and Practice, vol. 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 433–460. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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