Solidarities Across Borders

Solidarities Across Borders

This article is the introduction to a new History Workshop series on Solidarities Across Borders.

What brings people to engage in collective political struggle across long distances, hard borders and perceived boundaries? How might solidarity movements challenge the positions and actions of powerful states and international systems of oppression? What can it mean to be ‘in solidarity’ with a geographically distant cause or liberation struggle? Why do some causes win the support of progressive peoples and movements around the world, while others might not? These are some of the questions I want to pose, draw out and complicate in this History Workshop series.

In recent weeks, solidarities have been ignited across the world by an escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel. Millions of people across the globe have marched, taken direct action and petitioned to condemn the indiscriminate killing of civilians and demand a peace based on justice. These events have refocused attention on the role that Palestine plays as a litmus test of international law and human rights – shining a lens on the (in)ability or (un)willingness of the international community to apply these principles to historical wrongs and contemporary violations wherever they might occur. Why have these principles not applied, many ask, to the Palestinian people historically and now as they face an Israeli assault that UN experts, legal scholars, Palestinian analysts and others have described to varying degrees as genocidal? “There is no safe place in Gaza,” we are reminded, in what has been called the latest episode in over 75 years of attempted ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

‘National March for Palestine – Ceasefire Now!’ London, 11 November 2023. Credit: Jess Hurd.

The mobilisation of a huge and diverse solidarity movement in this moment has also brought forward questions about the role that Palestine plays in a “global architecture of contemporary struggles”: why does the Palestinian cause – arguably more than any other – continue to stand as a symbol of liberation for people around the world? For many, the simple answer lies in the inspiring and steadfast struggle of the Palestinian people against a settler colonial project practicing the modern world’s longest running occupation with a system of apartheid backed by the largest military power in the world. Yet, one could argue there are a multitude of just causes in the world against huge imbalances of power that receive less attention while suffering from similar hypocrisies. Others might therefore explain Palestine’s prominence in global politics and popular movements by virtue of the numerous factors that make the occupied territory a meeting point and a vehicle for a wide range of peoples’ (competing) political and metaphysical projections.

What does it matter to think about answers to such questions in this moment of extreme crisis, when solidarity for so many means doing everything possible to call for a ceasefire and an end to the siege of Gaza? One reason might be that these solidarities remain critically important in putting pressure on political representatives with the power to influence the current situation – and that they have been under attack, facing smears, repression, and criminalisation. Moreover, what some answers to these questions have in common is a tendency to exceptionalise the Palestinian predicament. As Yara Hawari has argued, treating the Palestinian experience as unparalleled can also lead to the exceptionalisation of Israeli settler colonialism and exclude Palestinians from global categories. This not only limits scholarship, but can have political consequences such as facilitating impunity for war crimes.

For these reasons, this current moment of devastation and solidarity must be grounded in the longer global histories of which it is part. This should include a recognition of Britain’s historic role in the colonisation of Palestine and an understanding of the origins of Zionism in late nineteenth-century Europe as both a response to and an expression of European racism. It also means understanding the complex and changing histories of internationalist and transnational solidarity with Palestine – in all their entangled, fractious and transformative aspects. 

Historicising Solidarities

‘Solidarity’ as a concept and social phenomenon has been debated and defined in various ways. We might think of both its intersections with, and distinctions from, strategies of allyship, intersectionality, mutual aid, or humanitarianism. It is not the intention of this series to settle on one definition, but rather to explore the plural meanings of solidarity as it has been practiced by progressive people across borders throughout history. It will focus on forms and visions of solidarity that span the globe, which have often been marginalised by nation-centred histories of the Left and social movements. These solidarities, as David Featherstone has argued, can be thought of as generative relationships and political practices that construct new connections across geographies, expanding collective political imaginations in the process. This series asks questions such as where transnational solidarities come from, how they travel, what forms they take, and how they might reflect, challenge or even transform the power relations of the worlds around them.

Such solidarities across borders have a long history on the Left, based in an understanding that a global system of capital – which creates an interdependence of nations while vaulting national borders – demands interconnected and internationalist organisation if it is to be opposed. What distinguishes these solidarities from those that might take place closer to home is not necessarily their operation on a macro-global scale, but their contestation of divisions imposed by national boundaries. Even as experiences of global power structures vary hugely, solidarities are often constructed around the shared systems of domination which they are positioned against. As such, when thinking about the history of transnational solidarities, Su Lin Lewis reminds us of three major traditions in which they have played a central role: anticolonialism, socialism, and feminism.

Within and beyond these broad traditions, solidarities have been integral to transformative political projects in history – Afro-Asianism, Black internationalism, tricontinentalism, for example – many of which intersected with each other. Yet, as others have noted when studying these projects, shared forms of oppression do not alone mobilise or determine solidarities. Frantz Fanon, writing in 1957 about solidarities between the newly-formed Bandung Group of Afro-Asian nations, argued that “the greatest error would be to wager on some supposed instinctive and spontaneous solidarity. Colonialism, in its most perverse and condemnable aspect, manages to pit men against each other whom everything unites and that a shared oppression degrades.” Reem Abou-El-Fadl offers a similar caution to our approach to studying anticolonial solidarities – in which we should remember that the notion of a common enemy and common experience might be departure points, but they cannot account for the trajectories that might follow. The same applies to anti-capitalism, in which international workers’ solidarity is anything but automatic, and to global feminisms, which are likewise marked by frictions and obstacles as much as shared struggles across borders.

There are certain questions we must ask if we are to write textured histories of solidarity that avoid romanticism or a sense of inevitability about past connections. For example, what hierarchies exist within their organisation and vision? How are broadly shared systems of domination experienced differently? What obstacles must be overcome for a common sense of struggle to be created between groups distanced by geography, culture and language?

Questioning Solidarities

Addressing such questions, historians and activists have highlighted changes in international solidarities and their ideological influences over time. For example, there is a widely shared recognition that in the 1980s and 1990s, with the ending of the Cold War, the ‘Global South’ came to be increasingly viewed through a lens of humanitarianism, victimhood and development by some solidarity actors in the ‘Global North’. However, there were also many who resisted this change, whether in literature, medical support or movement alliances that promoted a solidarity based on shared political commitments. The ruptures and continuities of solidarities in history remind us that the legacies of past struggles are not static – memories of these interactions might invite contemporary actors to pick up and revive the dreams and strategies of their predecessors. Changing material conditions and technological infrastructures also gird transnational solidarities – such as air travel, communication systems and funding networks. How are these used (or not) in the service of liberation? Attention to such questions complicates the notion of ‘hierarchies of oppression’ when trying to understand why some struggles might receive more international attention than others.

In answering such questions, historian Mezna Qato reminds us of the need to look at the micro-level of everyday movement work, where contingencies and contentions exist which are often hidden by the macro discourse of unity. Transnational solidarities don’t arrive from the heavens; they are brought to life by the varied people and practices who make them. Such practices are wide-ranging: from picket lines, poster making, boycotts, political delegations, protests, medical aid, lobbying, building institutions, and making revolution. These practices can forge relationships – whether political alliances or radical friendships – that sustain and nourish collective action. Focusing on people, practices and relationships also directs us away from the landmark moments of escalation or mobilisation, to remind us of the ‘in-between’ times, the more granular work of creating space, educating, caring and sometimes simply keeping going.

‘Apartheid – No’ Poster, San Francisco, Wilfred Owen Brigade, 1975. Library of Congress.

In my research, approaching solidarity this way has offered some answers to the question of why Palestinian liberation continues to mobilise such support. The most important of these is the agency of the Palestinian people throughout history in making their collective lives visible against attempts to make them invisible.  This agency has also been constrained and shaped by the shifting structural realities in which the Palestinian national movement has operated. The international solidarity building campaign of the 1960 and 1970s included a wide range of initiatives, such as conferencestravelling art exhibitions, speaking tours and summer camps. It took place in the context of the Palestinian Revolution, when a national representative institution (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) operated amongst dozens of anticolonial liberation movements across Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Within this world, there were people who worked to overcome Palestinians’ exclusion from global categories and so build solidarity with their struggle. One example, from London in 1966, is Erskine Childers, a leading Irish republican and later president, who used his speech at the annual Palestine Day Conference to call out those who would take part in activities “against South African apartheid, against white supremacy in Rhodesia, against what the French were doing to an indigenous people in Algeria… yet treat the Palestinians with considerable irritation because they are not supposed to exist.”

As the world in which solidarity is expressed has changed, so too has the nature of the solidarity movement. This current moment of ‘unprecedented’ solidarity might remind us of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut in 1982. Broadcast to the world on television screens and radio, the attack brought an expansion of solidarity with the Palestinian people and led to criticism of Israel as an aggressor that reached the intellectual mainstream. Yet it also heralded for many the ‘end point’ of that Palestinian Revolution, with the destruction of the PLO’s infrastructure and the beginning of a new era of social and political fragmentation of the Palestinian people. Since then, the international solidarity movement with Palestine has grown exponentially – largely driven by Palestinian civil society organisations leading a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions modelled on that which played a role in ending apartheid in South Africa in 1994. These histories remind us that the surge of solidarity with the Palestinian people has been anything but inevitable – it has been made by people in relation to parallel struggles of liberation, even as the circumstances of those struggles have changed.

For those of us who engage in solidarity as a transformative political practice, there are many statements we reiterate: solidarity is more than a performance, a slogan or a stunt. It is not a one-way relationship or a gift from the privileged to the poor. It is (in theory if not always in practice) an expression of collective struggle, an upholding of universal principles, and an ability to identify, critique and mobilise against oppressive and exploitative power relations wherever they may be. When we make these statements, we are in fact summoning a history of solidarities of the world.  This series intends to explore this tapestry of solidarities in history – critically engaging with the seams that have held them together, and their potential to fray or break, without losing sight of the hopes and visions contained in the political projects to which they are attached.

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