New Solidarities: After Ideology and Culture, There Is History

by Dan S. Wang

Solidarity is a coming together of atomized causes, interests, and desires that produces both political and subjective impact. A hallmark of solidarity is the extraordinary demonstration of allegiance on the part of individuals and groups to causes not obviously belonging to them. Solidarity is achieved when people redefine and rearrange in common purpose the interests normally assigned and administered by society. But solidarity is phantom-like, materializing only long enough and frequently enough to assert its reality before dissipating. Solidarity never seems to live long before or after short periods of generalized resistance, and never can be grasped and held.  Even when in recession, solidarity remains a promise of strength and for that reason deserves analytical attention. 

The very concept of solidarity - as unity arising out of difference - presupposes a degree of diversity that makes solidarity the exception rather than the rule, especially within segments of the population most likely to benefit from a prolonged and effective resistance. That the capitalist class never speaks of solidarity, but nonetheless acts with a comparatively successful and consistent unity, makes the fleeting nature of radical solidarity a source of disappointment and frustration. And it will remain so, unless radicals choose to regard solidarities as tactical orientations that can be built around whatever resources exist in any given historical situation.  Identifying the resources available now, and differentiating them from those of the past, is the purpose of this essay.  

I believe we may be in or near a time when widespread solidarities can be built and effectively used.  This was not the case twenty or even fifteen years ago, when Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe first offered their influential outline for a reformulated Leftist opposition in Hegemony & Socialist Strategy, in response to what they saw as a splintered post-1968 Left.  They made it a point to note that this was a Left splintered not by sectarianism, but by “a series of positive phenomena” including “the new feminism, the protest movements of ethnic, national and sexual minorities, the anti-institutional ecology struggles waged by marginalized layers of the population, the anti-nuclear movement, the atypical forms of social struggle in countries on the capitalist periphery….”1 

Ten years after these words were written, Zapatista rebels launched their offensive of January 1, 1994. Timed to disrupt the birth of the NAFTA age, they fused in a single, symbolic action critiques of the micropolitical and the macroeconomic. Their chief spokesperson, Subcommandante Marcos, habitually enumerated lengthy chains of constituents in his communiques – the children, the gays, the impoverished, the aged, the artists, the farmers, the birds, the rivers, the unemployed, and so on. Unlike the quotation from Laclau and Mouffe, which speaks of differentiation, Marcos’s inventories unambiguously proclaim solidarity: common cause cemented out of difference.

In the decade since the Chiapas uprising, global resistance movements, especially the ongoing mobilizations opposing deregulated trade and American warmaking, confirm the hopes of the resistance and the suspicions of the capitalist political class: an opposition of convergent causes has re-formed.

While regional or intranational solidarities over the last century and a half have emerged with some regularity, international expressions of radical and progressive solidarity bind together an extremely wide spectrum of interests vastly differentiated by language, national citizenship, material wealth, etc., and for that reason are both less frequent and more convulsive when they do occur. The particular nature of the today’s reformulated solidarities of global reach becomes more apparent if we compare it to earlier moments of international oppositional solidarity. The Popular Front period of the Thirties and the worldwide uprisings that broke in 1968 come to mind most readily.2 Although it is tempting to think of such moments as having been shaped by a standard political template, I believe the Popular Front, the movements of ’68 and today’s counter-globalization movement each bear the features of a different dynamic of coalescence.

The French Revolution, by confronting political actors and interested groups with the problem of political change as a normal occurrence, necessitated the creation of consciously articulated political ideology. To explain how such change is best induced, managed, or retarded is the job of ideology.3 The term “Popular Front” was formally adopted as the name of an official strategy by the Seventh Party Congress of the Communist International in 1935 -- hardly a grassroots expression.  This is not to say that all who identified with the Popular Front were Communists - the strategy at its core was an alliance of anti-fascist forces, revolutionary and non-revolutionary alike.4  In the American scenario, a range of progressives including farm workers, anti-lynching groups, socialists, and a host of intellectuals, joined together with New Deal liberals in identifying as the Popular Front.  But while the tone of the rhetoric could be, and was, adjusted depending on the audience, the basic political vocabulary of movement partisans was an ideological one that privileged a fairly specific agenda, the creation of a welfare state. Though the name suggested an undifferentiated sweep, as a strategy and definition of a movement, the Popular Front constrained a diverse and multitudinous political opposition even as it broadened it.  Except for the few artists, intellectuals, and anarchists who resisted joining the Popular Front - fearing its probable dilution of experimental artistic projects - solidarities based on ideology made sense to many because institutions born of ideology (primarily liberal, but socialist, too) had yet to prove themselves inadequate.  In 1935, the answer was perceived to be largely a matter of adhering to the correct ideology, and what debates existed throughout the Left were mainly along ideological dividing lines, e.g. Stalinist/Trotskyist, liberal /socialist, anarchist/communist, etc.  For a number of years and to a majority of those in the world’s wealthy nations, the welfare state born of the ideology championed by the Popular Front delivered the goods to an acceptable degree.

By 1968, however, the successive failures of governments, school administrations, political parties, and other embodiments of liberal-socialist ideology to live up to their promises was plain for all to see and for the radicals the disillusionment was profound.5 So much so that the worldwide uprisings of that year often targeted those former sources of hope as part of the problem. The Democratic Party was a target in Chicago, as was the Communist bureaucracy in Prague, and the old labor unions in Paris.

Unlike the Thirties, the generalized uprising of ’68 was neither unified nor brought into being by ideology, and yet the movements of that year, as in the Thirties, marshaled large numbers of newly politicized people concerned about a variety of issues across national borders. As ideology came to be treated with suspicion, a new framework through which different insurgent entities could identify each other emerged, with culture as its most significant and effective medium. The mutual identification between struggles was such that North American radicals of the day often spoke simply of “the Movement,” suggesting that the different campaigns visibly formed a single anti-systemic opposition.              Through the signifiers of rebellion found in fashion, music, film, and especially the vernacular languages and media of the new youth subcultures, one local struggle could translate and understand the terms of another. Dress, drugs, music, slang, sexual freedom, and other cultural expressions became a basis on which rebels could identify likely allies.  Solidarities between far-flung campaigns could be articulated and felt without having to agree on the ideological details of a given campaign’s political agenda.  The counter-revolutionary reprisals that followed in the wake of ’68 all but crushed the offensive of the radicals within three or four years. But even apart from the suppressions, the liberating and unifying force of culture proved limited, because culture reproduces as much as it innovates. At the same time, the rapid rise of cultural orthodoxies and the almost instantaneous commodification of the rebellious youth subculture were two factors that circumscribed the primacy of culture as a medium facilitating solidarities. 

If the failures of the welfare state revealed ideology as a house of cards, then the post-’68 assimilation of a worldwide, revolutionary youth subculture exposed the weapon of culture as a double-edged sword. The dynamic of movement coalescence, again, was forced to evolve, and this time toward something neither ideologically nor culturally-based. This rupture, which was as profound as the earlier rejection of ideology, opened the way for a pluralization of the Left and set the stage for our contemporary moment.     Driven on the one hand by an impulse to internally democratize the Left, and on the other by the need to address previously unrecognized external conditions, such as issues of global ecological distress, this pluralization unleashed a swarm of emerging consciousnesses, epistemological positions, and the formation of entirely new political claims and discourses.

The new pluralism demolished History in the singular and released multiple histories in its place, effectively opening up to political struggle the arena of time and memory. After more than three decades of pluralism, the peoples of the world possess a body of documents, anecdotes, originary tales, narratives of self-discovery and self-definition, examples of political action, consciousness-raising, social experimentation, and critique authored by a host of previously unheard voices from the margins. These vast and ever-growing archives, and the radical histories that can be woven out of them, are some of the most promising resources of our time.

The proliferation of histories is emerging as the substance out of which meaningful solidarities are being formed in today’s resistance movements.  In the absence of ideology, historical models become our guides, our inspiration, and our way of sharing.  With an endlessly diversifying field of often mutually unintelligible subcultural codes, histories are what substantiate one group’s claims in the eyes of another.  As actors step forward to produce histories, and then discover that their narratives crisscross those of others, as a collection of fluid, tactical, and often highly labile solidarities. 

* * *

For radical artists and cultural workers, the emergence of memory and history as channels that shape political action presents the question, how best to contribute? Again, it is instructive to look to previous periods of ripening solidarities. In the Thirties, a primary contribution was the putting into partisan, ideology-reinforcing service the artist’s traditional role as image-maker. In the late Sixties and after, an enormous contribution was the expansion of art practice to include the critical examination of host institutions, and an embrace of underground and grassroots media and networks of distribution. 

These earlier ways of working still exist, and at times continue to supply tactics of great utility. But revolutionary innovations, such as those made by radical artists in the Thirties and the Sixties, transform conditions to the point of guaranteeing the obsolescence of those innovations. For example, partisan poster making offers only a very selective tactical utility now, as opposed to its widespread effectivity in the Thirties.  It is a mistake to rely exclusively on models that came to practical prominence under very different sociopolitical conditions. Activist art modeled too closely on radical action of an earlier time holds only limited potential.

The area I have in mind is the artist as document-maker, archivist, and historian. Like the making of images and the testing of definitional boundaries, two elements of artistic practice which existed long before political conditions demanded that they be imaginatively politicized and activist, the assembling of an ever-growing archive is an age-old part of artistic practice. Perhaps more than ever, the artist’s relationship to time contains political promise, beginning with the crudest and most literal activity of self-dating completed work. From here we can see that documenting in order to clearly communicate the intentions of a project, the conditions under which it is executed, what the results are and what the other possible outcomes might have been, advances that activity beyond the maintenance of an archive and into the production of histories.

The struggle on the terrain of history is a struggle to define the present’s relationship to the past. There are at least two fronts to that struggle: what the present-past relationship is currently, and what it will be in the future. Artists confronting the current present-past relationship typically target the narrators of official history, meaning the state sanctioned keepers of the history that is transmitted at this moment, such as art museums. Creating work according to the valorized rules of the encyclopedic museum in such a way that the work must be included in the dominant version of art history, while preserving room for some radical content, is one way artists insist that the institutional narrators of history re-write their account. Artists have also begun the process of narrating and distributing unofficial histories independent of, but still in critical relation to, the institutional narrators.6

As for the second front, that of future present-past relationships, the key issue is not only that history is a changeable thing, but that the peoplehood identities of “race” and “nation” which have been so useful to capitalism are founded on very specific historical narratives. Artists who create the material for future historical understanding see that histories of groups are often more powerful than those of individuals. Once the production of social histories becomes the artistic goal, artists inevitably expand their symbolic systems to include areas of real social life -- economic exchange, community governance, energy systems, building architecture. 7

The possibility of contestational history-production grows out of the artist-as-archivist’s recognition that her expectation of a future is a relationship to time and history that itself is a theater deserving of tactical considerations. What is most important is not that one or the other front take priority, but rather that radical artists continue to politically activate their understanding of memory and history, and continue to make that part of their practice known, available, and fearless. By doing so, artists, along with writers, activists, indigenous, feminists, squatters, teachers, craftspeople, bloggers, gardeners, gender benders, naturalists, and countless others who actively contest capital’s triumphalist telling of history, help to outline a usable framework from which new solidarities may emerge, unfiltered by ideology or subculture.


An earlier version of this text was delivered at the Radical Art Caucus session of the College Art Association conference in Seattle 2004.  I thank the chair of that session, Janet Koenig, for her helpful remarks.

1 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy. London: Verso, 1985, p.1

2 “The Thirties” and “The Sixties,” as terms in popular consciousness, have become practically synecdochic with international political upheaval in the modern age.  Theorists like Hardt and Negri also recognize these periods as moments during which “the multitude” revealed itself as a politicized subject.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 394.

3 This nutshell definition is borrowed from Wallerstein, who uses it in many writings.  See: Immanuel Wallerstein, After Liberalism. New York: The New Press, 1995, pp. 74-75.

4 Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 17-19.

5 The Gramscian/Althusserian concept of ideology states that ideologies are not ideas only, but embody themselves in institutions, economies, social rituals, and so forth. Laclau and Mouffe, p. 109.

6 Leon Golub and Kerry James Marshall are examples of artists who added to the historical record by inserting some radical content directly into the stream of the most highly valorized of traditions, Western oil painting.  The Guerilla Girls would be the prime example of those who, when completely shut out of the institutional setting, turned to a grassroots cultural activism, but still produced their critiques self-consciously in relation to the official narrators. 

7 Examples here would be Dan Peterman’s Experimental Station or N55’s Manuals, the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s various efforts, JAM’s Personal Power shoulder bags, and many, many more..  In the sphere of art, I think of those kinds of projects when Hardt and Negri, speaking of the Multitude’s political potential near the end of Empire, declare, “there must be a moment when re-appropriation and self-organization reach a threshold and configure a real event.”  Hardt and Negri, p. 411.