Empathy and Solidarity


Quarto Stato, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo

By Duncan Riley



For all those interested in the role education can play in provoking social transformation, the distinction between empathy and solidarity is of key importance. Empathy, arising in reaction to the suffering of others, is a passive sympathy for the suffering of others, a recognition of other human’s pain but not an understanding of its causes or its relation to the broader injustices that characterize contemporary society. Empathy, as such, can produce well-wishes, prayers, and charity, but it cannot produce action against the systems of oppression that produce suffering. On the other hand, solidarity, though it has empathy for a foundation, can only grow out of an understanding of how the suffering of others is fundamentally linked to one’s own suffering, and is consequently a necessarily active instinct. For, once the individual recognizes that others’ suffering is not alien to their own life but rather a reflection of it, the only conclusion which they can arrive at is to act, in whatever ways available to them, in order to put an end to human suffering once and for all. Consequently, any educational project which seeks to be revolutionary, which seeks not just to inform but to empower, must seek to encourage not empathy, but solidarity.

Integral to our understanding of solidarity is our recognition that people’s political and social conceptions grow primarily out of their lived experience. Indeed, the history of the working-class movement is rife with demonstrations of this key phenomena. When Zapata and the campesinos of Morelos first formulated their now famous demand for “tierra y libertad,” land and liberty, it was based not so much on theoretical concerns, but on the daily experience of exploitation and oppression on the haciendas. It equally found a concrete basis in the collective memory of the ejido system of communal agriculture and long-standing traditions of resistance and rebellion that campesinos had developed over the preceding centuries. As such, both the campesino’s critique of the oppressive nature of the economic order and their propositions for a more just one developed out of their quotidian experience of injustice and their local traditions. Thus, when the Zapatista movement came into contact with Ricardo Flores Magón’s anarchist Mexican Liberal Party, which had arrived at many of the same conclusions and given them a philosophical formulation, it was not as a meeting of students with teachers but of relative equals, from which developed dialogue rather than hierarchy.

The history of the labor movement is equally demonstrative of the key role personal experience plays in provoking revolutionary action. When the workers of the San Ildefonso textile factory in Mexico City went on strike in 1865, they did not need a philosopher to inform them that the 12-18 hour work days and low pay they were subjected to constituted an assault both upon their own dignity and the dignity of labor. Indeed, it was the workers themselves, in response to an existence that made them little more than extensions of the machines they operated, who affiliated themselves to the nascent mutual aid societies then developing in Mexico and organized the strike.[1] Historically then, action has generally grown out of individuals’ and groups’ collective experience of oppression, and action in turn serves to generate new philosophical understandings of the root causes of oppression among the participants. Thus, concepts like liberty and injustice are understood not through words on the page but through the instinctive and unceasing revolt of the oppressed against all that seeks to deny their humanity.

Solidarity then, being an instinct towards action, must equally grow out of personal experience. This is not to say, of course, that historical and philosophical education play no role in increasing peoples’ sense of solidarity, simply that historical facts must always be made relatable to personal facts. Let us take, for example, the war between the United States and Iran that currently looms over our heads. Any educational event designed to illuminate the context behind the present situation, must, of course, explain the history of Anglo-American imperialism in Iran, highlighting how events like the 1953 coup d’état against Mohammed Mossaddegh and the United States’ support for the murderous regime of the Shah set the stage for the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Equally, it would have to highlight the effect that sanctions, and other imperialist interventions, have on the Iranian people. But, analysis must go beyond geopolitics and history, and touch upon the daily experiences of the Iranian people, how it was lack of economic opportunity, exploitative and alienating work conditions, and opposition to state repression that brought thousands of Iranian’s to the streets in 1979, and that still bring students, workers, and the women’s movement to the streets today.[2] Working people, no matter their nationality, can understand these basic, material concerns, and it is on this basis that true solidarity can be constructed. Once workers everywhere realize that Iranians, in fighting for the right to live life in peace and dignity, are fighting for their own freedom as well, they will act, not just to win justice for themselves or Iranians, but for all humanity.

Of course, there are many ways to act, and we must recognize this. The most vital and powerful actions are collective, as strikes, marches, and occupations unite masses of people in defiance of injustice, directly challenging the social system and thus constituting the most clear and powerful demonstration of solidarity. Yet, actions that are carried out on a small-group or individual level also have their place. Conversing with friends and coworkers about contemporary and historical social struggle, analyzing and rejecting injustice as it manifests itself in our daily lives, and most importantly refusing to allow ourselves to be separated from  the struggles of our time, all of these actions can contribute to preserving the dignity within all of us that refuses to be subjugated. Indeed, every act of love and solidarity, no matter how small, creates hope, and without hope there can be no revolution.



[1] Roberto E. Moreno, “En 1865 se registra la primera huelga de la que se tiene registro en México,” (La crónica de hoy, April 26, 2003, http://www.cronica.com.mx/notas/2003/61544.html).

[2] Arya Zahedi, “Anti-Imperialism and the Iranian Revolution,” (libcom.org, August 23, 2011. https://libcom.org/library/anti-imperialism-iranian-revolution?fbclid=IwAR2MFK9ce4DxPxVOsTLJXktJMLTaCu-o1FOeEJgvxjrneMclnrXs12TGRvA).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s