COMRADES: The language of solidarity is a small but radical step we can all take.


Image credit: BBC News

Image credit: BBC News

“Comrades, we must topple this cruel and callous Tory government as soon as we can.”

Speaking at Momentum’s The World Transformed festival in Liverpool yesterday, Laura Smith, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, was addressing how a general election could be achieved through “unity and solidarity” - and, failing that, “we should organise with our brothers and sisters in the trade unions to bring an end to this government with a general strike”.

Separate to her controversial proposals for strike action, Smith utilises language which many would be familiar with. The term “comrade” was first employed as a form of address between reformers and workers during the European revolutions of 1848. After the Russian revolution, the term was employed by communists worldwide.

Ultimately, the use of “comrade” is intended to suggest equality between one another, and its original meanings of “colleague”, “ally”, “mate” or even “fellow soldier” are still relevant - although usage is often overshadowed by its political connotations, usually rooted in negative perceptions of the Soviet regime.

Perhaps this is why it still feels radical to hear this word in popular political dialogue - especially alongside the address of “brothers and sisters”. For almost half a century, the dominant political agenda has been dominated by the lexicon of individualism, in the most Conservative sense.

It was Margaret Thatcher who stated that there was “no such thing as society”. In an interview to Women’s Own magazine, 1987, she determined that issues such as homelessness and unemployment were not the responsibility of the government nor wider society (the latter of which she deems an abstract concept), but instead resulting directly from the actions of the individual. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

The idea of this “obligation”, i.e. to exist as a contributing member of the economy, has infused into the British political narrative, manifesting in a variety of glittering generalities. One version of this is the Christian-centric “hard-working family”, a small translation away from Thatcher’s promotion of the individual, although another value of hers, and inherently Conservative. This has appeared throughout political rhetoric, including that of New Labour; keep your head down, look after your own, work long and hard, and you will be rewarded. Ironic, then, how working “hard” enough (e.g. multiple jobs and long hours) leaves less time to spend with family.

No more did the concept of individualism come in more handy following the 2008 financial crash, when David Cameron imposed a programme of privatisation and austerity. Here the “obligation” was to, once again, knuckle down and get on with things, or “keep calm and carry on”. A falsified, “we’re all in this together” stance.

Of course, we are not all in this together - not when social care, council spending and schools are in crisis as a result of continual cuts. Not when household debt is at an all time high. Not when vital health services are being cut, at the actual risk of life.

And yet this rhetoric endures - in this gig economy, more than ever. We now refer to one another by another c-word: competition. In the subtext of the current Conservative agenda still pervades the notion that these problems are the responsibility of the individual, not the government. This misplaces blame.

How we define ourselves has been shaped by late capitalism and neoliberalism. How can we unpick this dangerous discourse?

Firstly, what does the term, “contributing member of society” mean to you? Is it someone who pays bills, has a job, possibly owns a property, and has a family? Or is it someone who demonstrates compassion for their neighbour, upholding solidarity and advocating for equality?

So to answer my original question, perhaps we could start at language. This is not a call-to-(Comrade) arms, but instead incorporate basic respect for one another, in recognition of each person’s reality - because we don’t exist in a vacuum.