Solidarity: From mutual assistance to unilateral assistance

Solidarity: From mutual assistance to unilateral assistance

However, the increasing use of the term for any kind of assistance dilutes it. Therefore, Jan Niklas Rolf traces the genesis of the concept of solidarity.


Solidarity © Jan Niklas Rolf
Solidus (Latin) adj <a, um>
I. dense, massive
II. solid, durable
III. whole, complete


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The concept of solidarity can be traced back to the Latin adjective „solidus,“ which means „tight“ and „firm,“ to which the German adjective „solide“ still bears witness today. In Roman law, solidarity referred to the cohesion within a community and was associated with the idea of liability, according to which the members of a community were responsible for the member who could not pay his debts. It was not until the late 18th century that the concept was detached from its debt-law context.

In Germany, it received its classical expression through the workers‘ movement of the 19th century. The emerging labor force recognized relatively quickly that their common interest in higher wages and shorter working hours could be better realized as a group than individually. Accordingly, solidarity is practiced by those who commit themselves to the union’s undertakings instead of acting as wage depressors or strike breakers. It is no accident that the Polish trade union Solidarność bears the term in its name.

In the welfare state of the 20th century, the nation was increasingly understood as a community of solidarity. National solidarity in Germany manifests itself not only in redistributive measures between citizens (taxes and social security contributions), but also between states (state fiscal equalization and advance sales tax equalization) and entire regions (solidarity pact and solidarity surcharge). In fact, there is no other level at which the principle of solidarity is so institutionalized as at the nation-state level.

In the 21st century, solidarity also seems to have become one of the guiding principles of the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon, adopted in 2007, refers to the concept of solidarity a total of 15 times. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union even contains a solidarity clause that obliges the Union and its member states to provide mutual assistance in the event of a terrorist attack or a natural or man-made disaster.

1. The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity when a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the means at its disposal, including the military means made available to it by the Member States, to

(a) (i) avert terrorist threats within the territory of Member States; (ii) protect democratic institutions and civilian populations from possible terrorist attacks; (iii) in the event of a terrorist attack, assist a Member State at the request of its political authorities within its territory;

(b) in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, to assist a Member State at the request of its political authorities within its territory.

Until the dawn of the 21st century, solidarity was mostly thought of as mutual assistance within a particular group – be it the workforce, the nation, or the European Union. In addition to this horizontal solidarity in the case of equal interests, however, there is increasingly a vertical solidarity in the case of different interests, which focuses less on the members of a particular group than on humanity as a whole. When declarations and resolutions of the United Nations speak of solidarity, they usually do so in the context of unequal North-South relations and in connection with an appeal to the willingness of donor countries to help.

Borderless solidarity instead of nationalism © Jan Niklas Rolf

Consequently, with their demand „Borderless solidarity instead of nationalism“ shown above, the G20 activists not only speak out against one form of solidarity (national solidarity) and for another form of solidarity (transnational solidarity), but also against the classical understanding of solidarity as a mutual obligation to provide assistance and for a redefinition of the term as unilateral assistance. Unless, that is, they understand the world as a single community of fate and interests, which seems to have its justification in times of increasingly visible spillover effects such as the Corona pandemic and climate change.

Jan Niklas Rolf is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Society and Economics at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences. He contributed a chapter on „Cross-border Solidarity“ to the textbook „Culture in International Relations“ published by Springer VS Verlag in 2018.


Jan Niklas Rolf

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