Solidarity Activism, Identity Politics and Popular Education

by Tim Anderson

Solidarity movements have proven valuable in struggles for Aboriginal rights, and in neocolonial liberation struggles across the world. Yet time and again the same problems of paternalism and conflict over appropriate support roles arise, fragmenting campaigns and creating confusion. The problem is chronic. Aboriginal activist Gary Foley (1998) has discussed the long history of "white hegemony over our political movement" and refers to Ruth Frankenberg's (1993) argument for the need "to reconceptualise the way in which white activists participate in anti-racist work". This suggests there are important lessons to be learned about how such activism is carried out. And while a range of views have been expressed about the often complex relationships involved, in one sense we are simply talking about the principles of good friendship.

In this paper I want to discuss some issues of solidarity activism in relation to indigenous and neocolonial struggles. I'll look first at the rising value of such civil solidarity, second at the question of identity politics within solidarity movements, and finally at the educational potential of solidarity activism. In the course of this discussion I will be considering such questions as: What part of whose struggle do we own, and where can we participate as full citizens? How do we identify rights within legal constructs? and To what extent can we demand a right that is not our own?

1. The rising value of civil solidarity

Solidarity activism within indigenous and neocolonial struggles is part of broader solidarity activism, and of what has come to be called 'global citizen action'. These particular forms of democratic agitation - democratic politics outside formal representative structures - can occur through "vertical alliances" (local, national, regional), or through "horizontal networks and partnerships", and they may be linked to "participatory forms of research .. analysis .. and learning" (Gaventa 2001: 281-3). However non-indigenous solidarity with indigenous people is distinct from 'common self-interest' solidarity (what might be called a 'balanced horizontal network'), for example within a trade union. Solidarity activism within indigenous and neocolonial struggles typically represents an unbalanced horizontal network, where relatively wealthy 'white' activists are supporting indigenous or colonised peoples engaged primarily in a struggle for self-determination.

This sort of activism is not defined by its tactics (eg. 'non violence', or lobbying) but by its aim - helping friends who have been denied their rights. It is generally focussed on a primary collective right, the right of a people to self-determination, and on the effective enjoyment of that right. These struggles generally make gains only in the long term and involve cultural and institutional shifts - hence the limited relevance of lobbying. However longer term campaigns, for example, developing the concept of indigenous land rights, may include shorter term objectives, such as blocking a uranium mine on indigenous land.

Internationally as well as domestically, solidarity politics has proven itself effective, despite many obstacles. In the case of anti-apartheid and independence struggles in South Africa and East Timor, international solidarity movements seem to have played a greater role (supporting the indigenous movements) than in previous decolonisations. Yet in both these countries there have been significant accommodations with financial and corporate interests, and struggles for economic self-determination persist after political independence (Anderson 2002). The Palestinian struggle for self-determination is informed by this, with some commentators arguing that "solidarity can no longer be sidelined in the Palestinians struggle for liberation. It must lie at the very heart" (Shukrallah 2002).

The struggles which solidarity movements support are those against formal discrimination (eg. apartheid), but also those which address the gaps between formal and effective rights (eg. the practical gap between indigenous land rights, and the special privileges given to mining and pastoral companies). Identifying such deficits contrasts with the liberal inclusive view of rights, which tends to emphasise formal individual rights, and to ignore social disparities. Liberalism in this sense is inherently assimilationist and anti-collective, with damaging implications for indigenous minorities. Economic liberals, for example, typically attempt to reconstruct land rights as individual property rights, and to posit 'reconciliation' as integration, as opposed to support for indigenous people developing the means for collective self-determination.

Social liberals on the other hand (or at least those influenced by social liberal values), may come to solidarity activism with a genuine desire to assist indigenous peoples. However they also bring to the various campaigns the ideological baggage of social liberalism - deference to the authority of liberal institutions, an understanding of 'rights' determined by the 'rule of law', and 'sensible' middle class values. None of this would matter that much if it did not at the same time undermine the necessary corollaries of the principle of self-determination: autonomous development, and indigenous leadership in indigenous affairs. Solidarity activism begins to fall over when the articulate liberal values of white, middle class solidarity activists rise to choke off this indigenous autonomy.

While support for the 'rule of law' can at times reinforce important values (such as equality before the law), slavish deference to the 'rule of law', in many areas of activism, is essentially a conservative force. Legal rights (particularly in a system such as Australia's, with few formal rights guarantees) often depart from the international consensus that is human rights, and so cannot serve as a proper basis for defining the tactics of 'rights activists'. For example, following the success of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, special laws were passed to ban unauthorised tent settlements in the Australian Capital Territory. Aboriginal activists used this as an example to ridicule the liberal argument 'we don't mind if you protest, so long as you stay within the law' (see Cavadini 1972).

2. Identity, solidarity and activism

Tilley (1998: 7) points out that political identities are always "relative and collective", that they alter as networks, opportunities and strategies shift, and that they are validated in practical settings, heavily influenced by the reactions of other parties. In indigenous and neocolonial struggles, where the primary goal is the self-determination of a people, it is critical that solidarity activists reflect on their own political identity, as friends, and allow the voice of indigenous people to rise and make leading decisions. This includes making decisions which solidarity activists believe to be tactically wrong.

Friends must be clear about their role as friends, and about their own political identities. It can be tempting to imagine merging one's identity with a friend, but in a struggle where distinct political identities are involved, this can be a big mistake. In the self-determination struggle of the Aboriginal minority in Australia, non-Aboriginal supporters can never have a "full vote" in the decision making processes of that struggle - for what should be obvious reasons. Supporters can advise and argue, where there is a relationship of trust, but a close relationship should not lead supporters to imagine that it is appropriate for them to have an equal voice, or to make leading decisions. In an indigenous struggle for self-determination, indigenous voices must not only be heard, but must be supported in taking the leading role. In any case, indigenous people will have to live with the consequences of such decisions, and non-indigenous supporters are generally far more able to walk away from these consequences.

So the decision on what tactics to pursue in protest actions must be made by those in whose name the action takes place, the decision whether or how impose sanctions or boycotts on governments and companies must be made by the communities directly affected, and the decisions over critical interventions in the internal politics of indigenous peoples, must be made by indigenous peoples. Supporters may decide which indigenous people or which groups they trust, but having made that decision, they must take a 'back seat'.

Is this disempowering for solidarity activists? Not necessarily. A supportive role can help us reflect on and accept our own collective identity, and draw strength from that. The powerful and attractive force of identity politics in self-determination struggles should encourage us to locate and feel secure about who we are, rather than pretend that we have lost ourselves in the identity of our indigenous friends. Knowing who we are and where we come from should enable us to better draw on our own physical and moral resources, and make us more confident and better friends. Further, indigenous people who are intensely focussed on where they come from, are more likely to respect and befriend supporters who are clear and open about where they come from.

It's worth stressing these points, because some solidarity activists engage in the struggle of 'others', as part of a process of losing themselves. They may bring a burst of energy to a campaign, or a movement, but often also a burst of confusion. They often retreat as quickly as they arrived, sometimes having damaged relationships and campaigns. A highly talented (or at least highly confident) solidarity activist, arriving at a campaign without a clear sense of his or her own identity, is likely to dominate and engender paternalism. Gary Foley (1999) writes of the repeated problems of patronising attitudes and paternalism, amongst white solidarity activists who support Aboriginal struggles. But he also writes of the principles for "successful cooperative action ... between Koori [south-eastern Aboriginal] community activists and non-Koori supporters", which have also been in evidence in some local campaigns, but also at least since the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Solidarity activists there "did not seek a say in how the protest was run .. [and] were more aware of the need for Koori people to be determining their own destiny politically, and they were prepared to stand with Koori activists when the crunch came". Foley urges non-Koori supporters to make sure that they join a group that "genuinely supports Koori control of Koori affairs and is in some way affiliated with, or taking guidance from, the local Koori traditional owners and/or local Koori community." (Foley 1999)

Theorists have struggled to define principles of solidarity, discussing combinations of rights and procedures, justice and democracy, reciprocity and autonomy and so on (eg. James 2002: 3-18) . But in most respects the appropriate principles are those of good friendship: involving mutual respect, knowing and recognising who you are, speaking for yourself and supporting your friends' decisions in their own life and self-determination decisions.

3. The Educational Potential of Solidarity Activism

There are a number of educational benefits to participating in solidarity activism. These could be summed up as lessons in self-awareness, rights analysis, practical social democracy and basic good human relations.

To the extent that the intense indigenous focus on identity helps non-indigenous solidarity activists engage in their own processes of self-discovery, this can be a rewarding educational experience. Reflecting on and understanding who we are, where we come from and why we are engaged in such activity can be instructive. Understanding separate but supportive identities, and mutual respect, is an important practical lesson.

Participation in campaigns of civil solidarity can also be a valuable educational experience, in developing an understanding of the relationships between formal and effective rights, and how effective rights are nurtured. Working outside the boundaries of formal, institutional democracy - and through long term campaigns which combine cultural and institutional change, as well as lobbying and conventional politics - helps broaden our understanding of practical social democracy.

The practical lessons in politics through resistance are also generally more profound than engagement in conventional politics. Involvement in broad, brain-storming campaigns and creative demonstrations is certainly a more memorable and usually a more valuable learning experience than letter writing and classroom lectures or discussions. And involvement in indigenous forms of organisation can also be an important cross-cultural learning experience. Indigenous people often develop more intimate, direct and practical social patterns, and more freely mix personal with political relations. Solidarity with the Mexican Zapatistas has been argued to be a "two-way learning process", with northern groups gaining insights into real democracy (Dominick 1999).

Finally, working with indigenous peoples and in cross-cultural groups can deepen our understanding of good friendship, and the relationships between personal and political relationships. Not that every personal relationship must be politicised, but rather that political relationships involve people, and often the very basic needs and aspirations of people, rather than formal and neat processes which can be partitioned off from the rest of our lives.


Anderson, Tim (2002) 'Self-determination after Independence: East Timor and the World Bank', Paper at Islands of the World VII Conference, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, June - online at

Cavadini, Alessandro (1972) 'Ningla A-Na' (Hungry for Our Land), video, AFI, Melbourne

Dominick, Brian (1999) 'Reinventing Solidarity Activism', ZNet,, 19 March

Foley, Gary (1999) 'Whiteness and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination', Gary Foley's Koori History Website,

Foley, Gary (1998) 'The Power of Whiteness', Gary Foley's Koori History Website,

Frankenberg, Ruth (1993) White Women, Race Matters: the social construction of whiteness, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Gaventa, John (2001) 'Global Citizen Action: Lessons and Challenges', in Michael Edwards and John Gaventa (2001) Global Citizen Action, Earthscan, London

James, Paul (2002) 'Principles of solidarity: beyond a postnational imaginary, in James Goodman (ed) (2002) Protest and Globalisation: prospects for transnational solidarity, Pluto, Sydney, 3-18

Shukrallah, Hani (2002) 'Reflections: Solidarity', Al-Ahram,, 2-8 May

Tilly, Charles (1998) 'Political Identities', in Michael P. Hanagan, Leslie Page Moch & Wayne Te Brake (Eds) (1998) Challenging Authority: the historical study of contentious politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 3-16