Solidarity and the idea of a perfect community
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

This text is part of a book Polska Solidarności. Kontrowersje, oblicza, interpretacje, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Kraków 2011.


What was the idea of solidarity that emerged in Poland with such a force in 1980 and 1981? Why following 1989, did it fall into oblivion so quickly instead of laying ground for the new political order? Is it right to think of it as one of many political ideas such as equality, freedom and justice that can be used as the basis upon which to develop a range of institutional solutions, or we should rather approach it in a somewhat different fashion, namely as a concept of a community that is unsuitable to be directly applied to a political order? I have already tried to partially answer those questions by demonstrating the specific meaning of solidarity as an ethical and community-making (religious) idea that is at the same time in a sense radically non-political[1]. In this article, I am not going to address the very content of this idea. Instead, I will use certain examples to picture the whole problem in a somewhat broader context.

Let’s first take a closer look at the word ‘idea’. On the one hand, ‘idea’ is something that reveals a perspective of completeness and perfection: an ideal, a model, an unattainable goal. On the other hand, the word is often used as a synonym for “a concept” meant as a more or less developed intellectual construct that comes up within one’s reflection or discussion. Although the two meanings of the word often coexist and are interconnected in the accounts of reality, including accounts of the political realm, we should make a clear distinction between them. The kind of thinking that looks at the world through the prism of an ideal and the kind of thinking that solves problems and looks for concrete solutions are definitely two different types of reflection.

The tension between the idea meant us an ideal and institutional and legal solutions that stem from it is best evidenced by the words of the very originator of the theory of ideas. In Politeia, Plato presents a concept of a just state based on the principle of maximum unity and simplicity, and since he views private property as a source of inequality, divisions and strife, he recommends that guards of that state should share everything. The problem is that in the last of Plato’s dialogues, The Laws, we can on many occasions learn that the sacred right of property shall be in force in a reasonably organized polis: “Let nobody ever touch or take anything what is not theirs, or use an item that belongs to someone else without owner’s permission.”[2] The following simple principle shall apply to human relationships:

As far as possible, let nobody touch an item that belongs to me or dare move even the smallest item of mine without my prior permission. I shall handle others’ property likewise[3].

How should we construe this striking contradiction? Did the philosopher quite radically change his view of the community towards the end of his life? He by any means did not. This apparent change in his position reflects a different level of thinking: from the realm of ideas, Plato brings us onto the level of concrete political solutions[4]. In stressing the importance of the right of ownership as a fundamental institution of any existing state, Plato does not withdraw his claim that a perfect community in which the distinction between what is mine and yours ceases to apply remains his most desired ideal:

“The best laws,” he claims, “would be where the old saying “friends have everything in common” would materialize across the state and everything would be common. Imagine that the idea of women and children and all property being common property comes true somewhere, now or in future. Imagine that the so-called ownership can be completely rooted out from life everywhere, by using all methods possible, so that, as far as possible, even things that nature make us own come to be, in a way, shared, so that the eyes seem to look together, the ears, hear together, and the hands, make things together. Imagine that everyone would jointly praise and slam the same things, enjoy and be sad about the same things; so that the laws can make the state “a unity” as much as possible. It is hard to express in a way better and more accurate than this what their utmost point of excellence would be. One living in such a state, if gods or the sons of gods inhabit it and live a life like that, can live a joyous life. Therefore, one should not look for a formula for the best state elsewhere, but recognize this as the ideal and make it so as far as possible. The one that we have started to build now will thus approximate that immortal ideal, and will constitute ‘the one’, specifically ‘the one’ of the second order.”[5]

What is then the Platonic ideal of a perfect community? Instead of trying to look within it, as argued by Karl Popper[6], for a prototype of totalitarian unification of everybody and everything, it is worth following the suggestion of the author himself, who, drawing upon Pythagoras’s “friends have all things in common,” shows the ideal of the community against the background of the fundamental and common experience of human friendship. After all, is friendship not underpinned by a profound desire for a complete communion? Friends want to spend time together, share everything with each other, and even their feelings and thoughts grow alike. They are happy and worried about the same things and similarly perceive and judge the world, as if their “eyes looked and their ears heard jointly.” If this ideal unity that each of us longs for and is happy to experience at times could cover all members of the community, then this common and permanent state would be the highest perfection. In such a community, boundaries between individuals would be lifted and would virtually lose their importance.

To Plato, the idea of a perfect community, meaning here virtually a community of divine individuals, the traces of which we can find on the Earth in our experience of friendship, is a model and the ultimate point of reference for all concretely existing communities and visions of political order. It seems, however, that this idea cannot be readily translated into institutions. It is hard not to agree with the argument that the more the citizens are permeated by the spirit of friendship, the more the state becomes a true community. Also, it is hard not to appreciate the ideal stance, whereby one shall approach each community member through the prism of the possibility to have a friendly relationship with them.[7] On the other hand, though, the expectation that the general openness towards others will always get a positive response seems somewhat naive. Obviously, if people were angels, they would not need laws or institutions, and power, if it existed at all, would not necessarily make use of coercion. One law would apply, namely the law of brotherly kindness, laid out in every man’s heart. But as the world of our experience often deviates from this ideal, it is essential to define and protect boundaries in human relationships. Compliance with the law whereby one shall unconditionally respect the property of others, supported by the presence and strength of a system of relevant state institutions, is a prerequisite for peaceful coexistence as part of each concretely existing community. This is a response to the possibility of aggression and conflict, a situation in which people do not treat each other as friends, but, on the contrary, hurt each other. Therefore, the institutions that guard security and peace do not realize or reflect the ideal of the perfect community. They are more of a response to the reality constantly straying from this ideal.

The basis for the Platonic, or even generally Greek, ideal of a community, was its members’ having a relationship of certain equality with each other. The friends were those who were able and ready to fight side by side, putting their lives equally at risk. Another, broader vision of community came with Christianity. Christianity obviously did not reject the value of friendship between equal individuals; instead, it assigned the most significant position to the love of one’s neighbour (“bear one another’s burdens”), whereby unity and community would stand primarily for the care for those who are weak and need help. Irrespective of this difference, the problem of translating the ideal into a concrete effect has always been challenging.

What best evidences that is a story of the first Christian community. As we can read in the Acts of Apostles:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul:  neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common [...]. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet:  and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.[8]

Brought together by the Commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself,” the first Christians sought to create a community modelled after the words and actions of the Lord as precisely as possible. However, as with Plato, the ideal of a perfect community of Christ’s disciples did not entail a denial of fundamental laws and institutions of the outside world. It was more of a call to seek a better life and a stronger community addressed to those who want to volunteer to follow this new path. Importantly, this path is much harder and demanding than the one that sees the only foundation of human relationships in adhering to the negative principle, i.e. the prohibition of hurting others.

While not rejecting the notion of private property, the Christian community was then designed to bring people together at a higher level, at the level of a disinterested mutual gift. A common pool of goods was developed by voluntary transfer of private property to the Christian community in order to support the members who were most in need. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a telling manifestation of that as they get punished for their hypocrisy and lying rather than their unwillingness to part with their property and transfer it to the community:

“But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.[9]

What comes as obvious here is the awareness of the two orders being separate from each other: the ideal order, a community of people who want to follow Jesus Christ as closely as possible; and the concrete order: a community of people far from being perfect, in which the ownership right should be in force.

The question of separation between those two orders is then elaborated by St. Paul in the letter to Romans. Christians, i.e. those who seek to follow the love of God and of their neighbours in their lives, are expected to comply with those in power on Earth and with the laws they adopt. The authorities “are the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”[10] However, true disciples of Christ avoid evil because they are driven by their internal stance, which rules out such actions by principle, rather than out of fear of external punishments. Hence, they are in a way above the earthly law and the Law.

[...] For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.[11]

Again, although everything seems clear and simple at the ideal level, the things get complicated at the concrete level of live. The two realms, justice and love of one’s neighbour, are intertwined and it seems that one cannot be completely separated from the other, and so justice has to be served by the state. Mind you, the first serious conflict in Jerusalem community concerned material matters, namely the distribution of the alms, and resulted in the first Christians having set up a special ‘body’ to manage the property: seven members, including St. Stephen, were appointed to that end. Not only is Christian Church a community of peace-loving people, but, from the very beginning, it has also been an increasingly complex institutional structure. The presence of the institutions seeking to provide order and form to the activities that after all are driven not only by the love of your neighbour demonstrates that the vision of the perfect Christian community under the Church on Earth continues to be just an ideal.

However, two thousand years of the presence and impact of the idea of community, whose fundamental value is the love of your neighbour, has left profound traces in the mental dimension of the Western world. Even when the denial of Christianity became a major part of public opinion, few openly questioned the elementary obligation to care for those who need help. Furthermore, this concern has become, at least at the verbal level, the fundamental component and leitmotif of secular socialist movements and their agendas to reconstruct and overhaul the social life institutions. Paradoxically enough, the idea of solidarity entered public debate thanks to them. When that idea was presented for the first time as an ethical model of an ideal community, it came both with extensive content baggage related to its Christian roots, and the polemical blade turned against the religious dimension of human life that was conditioned by the aura of the then revolutionary era. In the mid-19th century, a group of French socialists, supporters of dechristianization and secularization, chose to replace the concept of love of one’s neighbour, compromised in their view, with the idea of solidarity.[12] One of them, Pierre Leroux, wrote:

I was the first to borrow the term solidarité from the legal language to introduce it into philosophy, that is, according to my concept, into religion: I wanted to replace Christian caritas with human solidarietas [...]. Christianity is the largest religion of the past; there is something bigger than Christianity, though: humanity [...]. With the principle of mutual solidarity, the society of today is capable of organizing the love of your neighbour. The love of your neighbour essentially stands for selfishness. Therefore, from now on, society has a religious principle. The Church may cease to exist.[13]

Following that somewhat surprising and forgotten anti-religious episode, the idea of solidarity was then discussed in the 20th century by the Catholic Church. First, in his encyclical On the Unity of Human Society of 20 October 1939, Pius XII reminded the world of “the bonds of mutual solidarity and love between people, implied, as the necessity, by the common origins of all people and the equality of spiritual nature”[14], thus recognizing human solidarity as the best cure for the threats of the totalitarian world. His successors, however, did not follow this motif, and the very word ‘solidarity’ went on the back burner of the Church’s social teaching for some time.

The rediscovery of the idea of solidarity is associated with John Paul II, who was able to see and reveal the universal sense of solidarity in the motivations and actions of the members of Polish Solidarity movement. The events set off by the strikes of August 1980 and the banner under which they occurred were recognized by the Pope as an attempt at implementing an idea, which, in a new form attractive to the contemporary world, could express the most essential elements of the Christian message. It was not by accident that since autumn 1980 until the final years of his pontificate, John Paul II consistently sought to make solidarity the most important category of the Catholic reflection on society, state and international order.[15] He had important reasons to do that. On the one hand, the message behind the word ‘solidarity’ was widely understood and, being free from the confessional semantic burden, was capable of reaching not only the believers, but also all people of good will. On the other hand, within a Christian and theological dimension, the idea of solidarity shed light on the mystery of the most perfect and united community: the community of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. The perspective of a community emerging here, which we are all invited to as the children of God, and the path that leads to it, revealed to us by Jesus Christ, who carries our burdens in the spirit of love, show the ultimate sense of the idea of solidarity and calls Christians to consistently nurture the common fraternal bond according to this model.[16]

We should not seek concrete proposals regarding any institutions in John Paul II’s teachings, especially corresponding to the idea of solidarity.[17] Even if they do crop up (e.g. trade unions, the right to strike etc.), it is mostly in the context of ethical reflection, a human right to dignity and freedom. The Pope rather seeks to point to the solidary spirit of relationships that can permeate all institutions, the stance that we should take with regard to ourselves, and, above all, being sensitive to the needs of those who are weak and need help, that is, as he puts it, “preference for the poor.”[18] In addition, in saying that any social order “should be realized within the framework of solidarity and freedom, without ever sacrificing either of them under whatever pretext”[19], John Paul II notes that the idea of a perfect community comprises two interconnected yet separate orders.

It is impossible to close the idea of solidarity within a formula of any institution since the spirit of love, of which solidarity is one of manifestations, “blows where it wills” and cannot be realized under pressure or coercion. This is why all attempts aimed at imposing and forcing solidarity, including the model of “social state,” turn into its caricature and contradiction. In contrast, freedom virtually demands proper institutionalization and clearly delineated boundaries. If our freedom is regulated by long-lasting and fair rules as part of state, the realm of fundamental trust necessary to jointly undertake solidary initiatives can become reinforced. We are willing to carry the burdens of others as long as we believe that the other person really needs help rather than wanting to freeload on us. It is hard to connect with those who blatantly cheats on or uses us. It is even harder when the whole system of institutions discriminates against or even punishes people for solidary actions. And although manifestations of solidarity can occur under any circumstances, including the most oppressive conditions and systems, a system with just laws and institutions governing collective life of free individuals makes a friendly space, in which selfless kindness, that is solidarity and charity, can flourish freely.

At last, it is worth posing this question: has the erosion of the Polish community after 1989 been associated with the crisis of the very idea of solidarity and the sudden disappearance of solidary attitudes, or our biggest problem has been that the institutional space of our freedom was built upon sand rather than the foundation of truth and justice?

[1]     Cf. Zbigniew Stawrowski, Solidarność znaczy więź, Instytut Myśli Józefa Tischnera, Kraków 2010, pp. 87-119.

[2]     Plato, Prawa, translation: Maria Maykowska, PWN Warsaw 1960, p. 437 [884a].

[3]     Ibid, p. 489 [913a].

[4]     Similarly, Aristotle, in his quest for the best political system, follows the provision that “a good legislator and a true statesman should know both the best form of government and the best possible form of it under given circumstances” (Aristotle, Polityka, translation: Ludwik Grzybowski, PWN Warsaw 1964, p. 148) [1288b]).

[5]     Plato, Prawa, op. cit., pp. 196-197 [739b-e].

[6]     „Plato’s programme is not morally superior to totalitarianism, but it is essentially identical to it,” (Karl Popper, Otwarte społeczeństwo i jego wrogowie, translated by Halina Krahelska, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN Warsaw 1993, Vol. I, pp. 109-110; cf. ibid, chapter 6 “Sprawiedliwość totalitarna”, pp. 108-142).

[7]     Plato claims, for instance, that the purpose of the institution of punishment is not only to compensate for wrongs, but also to „provide for the agreement between the wrongdoer and the aggrieved party and restore their friendly relationship” (Plato, Prawa, op. cit., p. 399 [862c]).

[8]     Acts 4:32-35.

[9]     Acts 5, 3-5

[10]    Romans 13,4

[11]    Romans, 13, 8-10

[12]    Cf. Jacek Salij, O solidarności trochę teologicznie, ”Znak” 2000, No. 8 (543), pp. 35-50.

[13]    Pierre Leroux, De l’humanité, as quoted in: Paul Josef Cordes, Communio, Utopia czy program?, translation Bogusław Widła, Warsaw 1996, p. 28n. (cf. Jacek Salij, O solidarności…, op. cit., p. 37).

[14]    Pius XII, an encyclical Summi Pontificatus, 28.

[15]    I have covered this in greater detail in: Zbigniew Stawrowski, Jan Paweł II a solidarność, “Teologia polityczna” 2005/2006, No. 3, pp. 148-163.

[16]    John Paul II points to this profoundly theological meaning of the idea of solidarity, among others, in his encyclical Solicitudo rei socialis (40): “In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.  One's neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit.  One's neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person's sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one's life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). At that point, awareness of the common fatherhood of God, of the brotherhood of all in Christ – "children in the Son" – and of the presence and life-giving action of the Holy Spirit will bring to our vision of the world a new criterion for interpreting it.  Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean by the word "communion." [...]  Solidarity therefore must play its part in the realization of this divine plan, both on the level of individuals and on the level of national and international society.”

[17]    One of his 20th-century predecessors, Pius XI was much more interested in searching for institutionalized forms of social love, which he found mostly in the idea of corporatism. (Cf. Pius XI, encyclical Quadragesimo anno of 1931).

[18]    John Paul II, Solicitudo rei socialis, 42.

[19]    Ibid, 33.

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