The Most Important Word

Today in downtown Chicago, I heard the Reverend William Barber speak.  Barber, the founder of Moral Mondays, follows in a long tradition of black preachers who stand for social, racial, and economic justice; he is an inheritor of the great lineage of Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, who stood by his side as he spit fiery and eloquent words, infused with truly righteous outrage and peppered with quotations from the Bible.  (“Since you are so used to swearing on the Bible, Mr. Congressman, Mr. Senator, Mr. President,” he preached before a roaring crowd, “maybe it’s time someone explained to you what’s in the Bible.”)

Barber represents a distinctively American, and by no means incidentally a distinctively African-American, strain of religion.  It is not a religion to which I subscribe, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel the fire in my belly when he punctuated his speech with the words of an angry God, raining down on the crowd like physical blows — a God who tires of having his name called to defend the most immoral and inhuman behavior, a God who sickens of being asked to provide cover for the predation and exploitation of his most vulnerable creations.  It was one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard in person, and there is one reason I did not reject it because it came from a man of the cloth:  that reason is solidarity.

I will never deny my discomfort with organized religion. I cannot forget or forgive the emotional manipulation to which I was subjected by my own church as a young man; I cannot deny the role that men of the cloth have historically played in seeking to quell agitation and rebellion by promising what the Wobblies astutely called “pie in the sky”.  Rev. Barber invoked the name of Mother Theresa, a woman whose role in alleviating the suffering of the poor is tremendously complex and difficult.  Her legacy is still very much in dispute.  But there is one reason I did not allow my intellectual trepidation with the role of religion in socialism to interfere with the righteous indignation that stiffened my spine, the sense of decency and justice interfered with that tightened my clenched fists, the emotional satisfaction at hearing a great man speak an unashamed truth that brought hot tears to my eyes:  that reason is solidarity.

It’s a word that we on the left use almost reflexively, but from time to time — and there’s no better time than on the one day a year we are permitted to make a public display about caring for the working class — it helps to think about what we really mean.  What we mean when we talk about solidarity is that we truly believe in the earth-shaking power of the poor and disenfranchised; that we are cognizant of and working towards the reality that, however weak and helpless we may be as individual and flawed human beings, we are capable of literally anything if we act together.  What we mean is that there is no army stronger, no idea more persuasive, no law more forceful, no money so valuable than the united power of labor, who can stop the world from turning if it just crosses its arms at the same moment.

I talk a lot about how — very much not in common with a lot of my socialist comrades — I was highly influenced by the leftism of Richard Rorty and the American neo-pragmatists.  For me, socialism is not a theoretical thing; it is a living moment, coursing through the streets like electricity; it is an idea that is dormant in every person’s mind, just awaiting the right spark to wake it up.  And I believe, like Rorty, that we expend a lot of time on theoreticals and potentialities, at the expense of the here and now. We talk about any number of issues of principle and doctrine, wasting our efforts on some imaginary conflict that may never actually happen; we sacrifice solidarity, our most precious resource, on uncomradely suspicions about what our comrades might or might not believe.  Our natural and desirable tendency to question everything leads us down a path of distrust; our forgivable aversion to compromise makes us into absolutists who demand the right answers to the wrong questions.  Rorty taught us to forego abstract principles in favor of concrete goals, to ask not unanswerable metaphysical questions about the nature of humanity but to determine what humans could achieve once they had attained clarity about what problems needed solving.

Perhaps the time will come when socialism has won enough victories to get around to the question of what role religion plays in equality; of exactly where the divide between class issues and issues of race, gender, and identity begins to form; of the utility of full democracy and its limits; and all the other things that keep us forever questioning.  I would sooner lose a leg than stop us from questioning and from always seeking a better way, but I also know that there are times to question and times to just stand and be unmoved.  We have a thousand victories to win before we can start demanding perfection from one another.  We should demand not an empty solidarity of obedience and submission, but an active solidarity of unity with diversity; for it is this solidarity that transforms us from a stumbling collection of victims into a force that can remake the world.

Harry Bridges is one of the people who tried to remake the world.  An immigrant from Australia from a socialist family, he faced constant violent attacks and lifelong attempts to deport him for his efforts organizing California longshoremen, and his marriage to a Japanese-American woman was crucial in challenging American laws against miscegenation.  Bridges wasn’t perfect, but he fought harder against mistreatment by the bosses than most of us ever will, and the title of this year’s Labor Day sermon comes from him:  “The most important word in the language of the working class,” he said, “is solidarity.”  We have innumerable battles ahead of us, and internal problems without end:  but let’s never forget the power of that word.

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