QOTD (2009-06-19)

This entire essay by Christopher Hayes of The Nation fame, titled “In Search of Solidarity.” It’s all so wonderfully written that I almost can’t bear to select an excerpt, but I’ll settle for the bit that resonated most with me personally:

In the mid-19th century, solidarité crossed both the English Channel and the Atlantic. Sven-Eric Liedman, a professor of intellectual history at Sweden’s Göteborg University, writes that Americans were skeptical of the French import: In 1844, one American complained of “the uncouth French word, solidarité, now coming in such use.” While the word never quite gained the same cachet it had (and continues to have) in Europe, the American left quickly adopted it. Solidarity was the name of an early anarchist journal. Eugene Debs said solidarity was “a fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper.” And, in 1915, Ralph Chaplin of the Industrial Workers of the World wrote the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Solidarity in the political vocabulary of the American left became class solidarity, workers’ solidarity, the banding together of laborers against bosses. But it possessed more than rhetorical resonance, it was also the foundation of the labor movement’s most potent tool: the strike. Only if workers stuck together under incredible pressures–violent intimidation from Pinkerton thugs and national guardsmen with rifles–could a strike be successful. In the 1880s and 1890s, as members of the Knights of Labor struck across the country for an eight-hour day, its motto was: “An injury to one is the concern of all.”

Years later, the United Auto Workers, born of a series of dramatic sit-down strikes in the 1930s, named its headquarters Solidarity House, its publication Solidarity; at its 1970 convention Walter Reuther told the delegates: “We have taken on the most powerful corporations in the world and despite their power and their great wealth, we have always prevailed, because … there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”

“Solidarity Forever” is one of the songs that remains most important in my life. Hayes’ whole essay is wonderful, speaking to a key part of American history that doesn’t often get highlighted in the conventional narratives, but when I first read the piece this morning, I saw the words “Solidarity Forever” leap out at me and it was incredible just to have the flash of realization that I am not the only person who imbues labor lore with incredible significance.

I can’t speak for Hayes, but it’s this sort of (wonderfully-written) slice of America and its history that makes me feel most connected to the country where I’ve spent my life. But even if you’re not American, even if labor isn’t your thing, go read the essay. It’s brilliant.

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