⬤ Why is this topic important?
How should white people relate to black people? What does it mean for men to support women’s struggles for equality? How should people who aren’t direct victims of certain forms of oppression relate to others who are? And what about the struggles in which we all have an equal stake? What is the appropriate language to describe relations of solidarity?
Over the past few years the term ‘ally’ has become a popular way of describing the kind of relationship that people possessing certain kinds of privilege ought to have towards those who lack it. A white anti-racist, a feminist man, a cis person who wants to support trans people: all are described as ‘allies’ while ‘allyship’ has become something which we’re encouraged to aspire to, usually for very good reasons.
But in her recent book What White People Can do Next, black feminist Emma Dabiri takes issue with this concept of the ‘white ally’. This isn’t because white people can’t be active participants in anti-racism, but because the way the term has come to be used implies a somewhat impoverished relationship between potential collaborators in a common struggle against racism.
Instead of assuming that racism only affects black people, or that white people should help them merely out of some sort of moral obligation, Dabiri argues for a politics of solidarity, recognising that racism ultimately does harm to all of us. As I often like to put it: racism is bad for everyone even if it is obviously much worse, and bad in very different ways, for black people than for white people. Exactly the same can be said of the variable but shared ways in which men and women are affected by patriarchy.
⬤ Allies or comrades?
In her recent book, Comrade, the American political theorist Jodi Dean also argues against the phraseology of the ‘ally’ and some of its implicit assumptions. Instead Dean argues in favour of a more traditional term, at least for certain sections of the left and the labour movement: ‘comrade’. For her, a comrade is different from an ally, because comrades are supposed to be equal participants in a struggle in which they all have a stake. White people and black people, men and women, can be comrades in shared struggles against racism and patriarchy; whereas the idea of ‘allyship’ tends to imply that men or white people can only be relatively passive supporters of other people’s fights.
Dean makes a very powerful point here, even though there’s no obvious reason why the word ‘ally’ has to be used this way. Both ‘ally’ and ‘comrade’ are originally military terms, and both refer to the idea that people, or entire countries, will fight for each other as as well as for themselves. But Dean is certainly right that the way in which ‘allyship’ has come to be conceived in contemporary jargon doesn’t carry that connotation. Rather, just as Dabiri argues, the concept of ‘allyship’ for Dean tends to assume a situation in which one underprivileged group is engaged in a fight, while another more privileged group cheer them on from the sidelines, perhaps offering some minor assistance occasionally. The further implication is that white people, men, etc. themselves have no real stake in these battles; so there’s nothing significant that women or black people could do that would benefit them.
By contrast, Dean appeals to the ideal of comradeship, which she sees as designating a sense that all these struggles are necessarily shared, and we all have stakes in them to varying degrees. Dean is arguing from a revolutionary communist perspective, which is not dismissive of the need to fight against racism or patriarchy independently of the fight against capitalism, but which places a particular value on class struggle as the route to emancipation for everyone. But her arguments have relevance for anyone concerned with challenging entrenched forms of social and economic inequality. The idea of comradeship invites us to see ourselves as engaged in a common struggle which affects us all. For Dean, the comrade is more than an ‘ally’ and is different from a colleague or a friend: it is not just a collaborator or a well-wisher, nor just someone you work with, nor someone with whom you need an intimate connection to maintain a powerful relationship. It is someone with whom you fight and struggle against a common enemy, even if you know almost nothing about them individually.
⬤ The politics of solidarity
Although Dean is primarily interested in class politics, while Dabiri is mainly interested in the politics of race, it is striking that their conclusions and their objects of critique are so similar. In fact, what they are both pointing towards is the need for a socialist politics of solidarity, a democratic and inclusive politics recognising the shared interests that we all have in overcoming capitalist power, white supremacy, patriarchy and all of their associated effects.
This may all sound very obvious, but in practice, even we on the Labour left have tended to be very bad at articulating a politics which is both inclusive and confrontational, as any such socialist politics must be. Our critics on the right may paint us as wild-eyed revolutionaries, but in fact our rhetoric tends to be apologetic and moralistic in just the ways that Dean and Dabiri urge us to avoid. Our public denunciations of poverty, austerity, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression are too often couched in a moral language, intended to stir the consciences of the public; too rarely do we make any explicit attempt to explain to voters exactly who we think the enemy is, and why it would be in their direct interests to help us defeat them.
In the books I have mentioned, Dean and Dabiri are largely talking about issues that affect the ways in which we on the left talk to and about each other. But as we can see, these issues also have dramatic implications for the way that we present ourselves and our perspectives to the wider public. A politics of comradeship and solidarity doesn’t just imply inclusiveness and mutual support across the labour, socialist, anti-racist and feminist movements. It should also involve explaining to those who are not part of those movements that it would be directly in their interests to join forces with us.
In other words, our politics must involve explaining to the wider public why they should want to be our comrades. This is an entirely different thing from telling them that they ought to support us, simply because we’re the good guys. Solidarity is a beautiful thing: but it’s also the only thing that keeps wages up, the NHS public and racists off our streets. A politics of comradeship should involve communicating that message to those outside our movement, as well as those within it: relentlessly and unequivocally.
Want to learn more?
THE BEST PLACE TO START
What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (Emma Dabiri)
Dabiri’s Sunday Times bestselling book was released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, and is clearly pitched to an audience newly politicised by the wave of protest. But it is also a must read for the socialist left. Is a liberal identity politics enough to end racism? What is the relationship between capitalism and racism? What can we learn from Black Panther Fred Hampton? If these questions interest you, then make sure to pick up a copy.
WHAT TO READ NEXT
Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (Jodi Dean)
Dean argues that allyship is a corrosive ideal that foregrounds the personal journey of the ‘ally’ – ‘educate yourself’, ‘don’t take up so much space in the conversation’ – rather than the wider struggle for a free and equal society. Instead of allies with the oppressed, she says, we should be comrades fighting for a better world together. A great look at the history of the term and why it is still so vital today.
Any British leftist who hasn’t watched ‘Pride’, a film about Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, should drop whatever their doing and go watch it immediately, and have a box of tissues handy. But they should also then listen ASAP to the Working Class History podcast series about the actual history behind the movie, which is honestly even more inspiring than the fictionalised version in the film. In general, the Working Class History podcast is the best source of real-life tales of comradeship and solidarity that I’m aware of.
Comradeship, solidarity and collective struggle have also been major themes of the work of the great Ken Loach. I’d recommend many of his films and TV plays, from ‘The Rank and File’ (about striking glass workers in St Helens) and ‘Days of Hope’ (about the early 20th century labour movement) to ‘Land and Freedom’ (about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War) to ‘Bread and Roses’ (about migrant workers organising in LA in the 1990s).
With The World Transformed festival only weeks away, unfortunately the TWT team didn’t have the capacity to organise a Zoom call with Jeremy Gilbert this month. But there is a good video of Jeremy talking about collective joy and solidarity as part of the ‘Understanding TWT’ series that you can watch here. The participatory Zoom calls will resume with the next issue.
Thank you for reading. Many thanks to Jeremy Gilbert for writing this month’s issue. His most recent book 21st Century Socialism is a must for all 21st Century socialists. He also co-hosts two podcasts: ACFM hosted by Novara Media, and Love is the Message – two brilliant pieces of long-form media on culture and political history. Make sure to check them out.
Any feedback you have on the bulletin and ideas for how we can make it better are much appreciated. Email [email protected] with your thoughts.