Understanding Solidarity as an Emotion

Over 14 days in March and April, academics and professional staff at over 60 universities across the UK went on strike in defence of a decent pension. In teach-outs and twitter threads academics addressed a whole host of questions relating to pensions, striking, politics and education. In this blog, Thomas Dixon examines ways in which we might think of solidarity as an emotion. You can read the original storify, first created on 8 March, here.


I would have been lecturing on the histories of love and friendship this morning for my new History of Emotions module. Instead, I will be thinking about the history of ‘solidarity’ as an emotion.

The term ‘solidarity’ entered the English language (from French, bien sur) in the 1840s. You can see the relative frequency of the terms ‘solidarity’, ‘communism’, ‘socialism’, and ‘trade unionism’ in the English corpus of Google Books between 1800 and 2000 here.

‘Solidarity’ was still a neologism when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it to describe the nature of the English people in his book English Traits (1856):

One secret of their power is their mutual good understanding … An electric touch by any of their national ideas, melts them into one family and brings the hoards of power which their individuality is always hiving, into use and play for all … Is it the smallness of the country, or is it the pride and affection of race, — they have solidarity, or responsibleness, and trust in each other.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has for ‘solidarity’:

The fact or quality, on the part of communities, etc., of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations; spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members.

The French origin of the word is frequently referred to during the period of its introduction … also English rendering of Polish Solidarność, the name of an independent trade-union movement in Poland, registered in September 1980; banned in 1982.

The OED might want to revise its date of 1841 for the earliest use of ‘solidarity’ in English though: a quick search in 19th-century newspapers shows uses in 1817 and 1824.1

So, is ‘solidarity’ an emotion? Is striking an act of love? As with ‘altruism’, ‘socialism’ and many other affective political terms, it depends on drawing a boundary somewhere to define who shares enough sympathies and interests to fall within the circle of affection.

According to some early users of the term, ‘solidarity’ named a universal shared sympathy among all individuals and all nations. For instance, in an 1842 book by Hugh Doherty about the French socialist Charles Fourier’s theory of the passions:

A nation is but a simply member of humanity, and so long as any other nation is suffering under the evils of ignorance, privation, and depravity, the whole body of the human race is more or less affected by the individual affliction. There is an inevitable solidarity, or mutual and collective responsibility, between all the nations of the earth, and all the individuals of each nation. If one country is infected with a pestilential disease, all the others are exposed to the dangers of contagion; if neighbouring states are allowed to remain in poverty, under the illusions of military glory, they will, sooner or later, conquer and spoliate their opulent neighbours.

That extract was approvingly quoted in a newspaper called The Odd Fellow – published by one of the ‘Friendly Societies’ set up to foster cooperation and mutual aid. Which brings me back to the lecture I should have been giving about the histories of love and friendship.

And before this becomes too much like actually giving my lecture may I recommend this episode of “Five Hundred Years of Friendship” about “Felons and Oddfellows”.

Thomas Dixon is Professor of History and Director, Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London.

1. The OED replied:

Thank you so much for this heads-up. We have now noted the 1817 example in the Morning Chronicle in our files, for consideration when the entry comes up for revision.