Two protesters kiss during anti-government demonstrations in Belarus. August 16, 2020. Photo: Naphanya /

Love: a counterpower to capital worthy of its name

  • January 30, 2021

Care & Community

It is time for those who aspire to love — which is to say everyone everywhere — to finally see the communism of their aspiration.

In The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value (AK Press, 2020), I define love as an activity, as something we do, not something we get or give like a commodity. We practice love as an active form of human relations that is not governed by money. Love is not a capitalist exchange relation. It is our active participation in the various “becomings” of other people, such as in the ways we participate in our children’s, friends’ or partners’ becoming what they are able, and would like to become, but not yet are.

Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s “The Communism of Love” is out now from AK Press.

I define communism not as a form of government, but instead — following Marx’s original definition — as an active abolitionist opposition to the existing world. Communism is a form of life, not a form of government. It is an effort to overthrow the rule of exchange value and to insist on other values. I understand communism as a movement towards new human relations, not something carried out through the state.

The question of love must also be considered as a question of movements. How does love move people, and what does it move people to do? In what follows, I shall explore some of what love has to do with revolutionary struggles and movements.

Movements of Love

Love relations, wherever we make them, are part of the amelioration of alienation. That is why, even though experiences of love are often unpredictable and disconcerting, humans still aspire to love. New love, whether of new friends, one’s children, or of a lover, can uproot our being-in-the-world, our sense of self, and break the established order of life. It is an irruption and interruption, but nonetheless welcome.

The defining notion of love, according to Alain Badiou in In Praise of Love, is the idea of a world seen from the perspective of two (not one): love is a way of looking at things from an enlarged point of view that expands beyond your own. Love is an experience in which one can “construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of [their] mere impulse to survive or reaffirm [their] own identity.” Badiou understands love as a movement of individuals away from self-interest; a movement that is necessary for seeing what is possible in the world, what a different world may look like.

Because of this, we might expect Badiou to connect love to politics, but he rejects any politics of love:

I don’t think that you can mix up love and politics. In my opinion, the “politics of love” is a meaningless expression. I think that when you begin to say “Love one another,” that can lead to a kind of ethics, but not to any kind of politics. Principally because there are people in politics one doesn’t love… A real enemy is not someone you are resigned to see take power periodically because lots of people voted for him. That is a person you are annoyed to see as head of State because you would have preferred his adversary. And you will wait your turn, for five or ten years or more. An enemy is something else: an individual you won’t tolerate taking decisions on anything that impacts on yourself.

It is true that Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have tried to construct a politics of love by way of admonishing people to love their enemies, such as in King’s famous “Loving Your Enemies.” If discussing a politics of love means that we have to invoke the platitudes of a sentimental and religious discourse, then we would have to agree with Badiou. However, love does not demand that we love our enemies. It is possible to express a hatred of an enemy grounded in love. Hatred and love are not opposites. The true opposites of love are narrow self-interest and passive indifference.

Badiou’s position is a result of the common error of seeing hatred as alien to love. His opposition to any politics of love is clearest when he says: “The issue of the enemy is completely foreign to the question of love. In love, you can find hurdles… but there are in fact, no enemies.” Badiou claims that politics requires enemies and that, because there are no enemies in love, politics and love cannot be combined. Yet a person whose beloved is killed in Auschwitz may feel a hatred mobilized by love. We might even say in certain cases that if I do not love you, then I cannot hate your enemy.

Ultimately, Badiou insists on love as a movement from one to two, yet sees little sense in speaking about love at a social or political level. But we should not leave love locked up in the private affairs of romantic couples and their families. Love can come out into the world with us, and in various ways, participate in our movements.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have understood this point better than Badiou. In Commonwealth they say: “Love is a means to escape the solitude of individualism but not, as contemporary ideology tells us, only to be isolated again in the private life of the couple or the family.” They claim that love is at the heart of any radical and revolutionary theory, even when theorists are afraid to say so.

In Assembly, Hardt and Negri think through the meanings and insights of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and insurrections in Argentina and Spain. Movements of love express the disaffections of those singled out and targeted by racism, sexism, or by other capitalist tendencies of exclusion and exploitation. However, while love may motivate some of what happens in an uprising, it is not necessarily the defining power of every revolt. Love moves some things, but not everything. It is neither omnipotent nor infallible.

Insurgent Love

Raya Dunayevskaya was a great revolutionary on a quest for universality. What I appreciate most in Dunayevskaya’s writing is her consistent attention to the struggles of oppressed people in the United States and around the world. She theorizes from the bottom up and claims that the most important insights come out of revolutionary movements. Therefore, we should participate in and study such struggles, and learn from them.

Dunayevskaya views the revolutionary movements of women, Black people, sexual minorities, impoverished workers and the unemployed as crucial moments in a total struggle against the world as we know it. The distinct struggles of the oppressed are understood as part of a totality guided by a universal humanist sensibility. There must first be total negation, an abolition of what exists, followed by a second negation, which indicates a moment of the positive creation of something new. As Dunayevskaya puts it in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future: “The overthrow, what is called the first negation, is saying ‘no’ to what is. But the second negation, the creation of the new, is harder, because you want to have entirely new human relations.”

Dunayevskaya understood that the revolutionary struggles of women never reduce love to sex. Women’s struggles aim to transform human relations, and not merely sexual relations. Women “categorically refused to remain an appendage to the men. They wished to have not only sexual but human relations with them. They were out searching for a total reorganization of society.” When Dunayevskaya looks at the revolt of women throughout the world, for example in strikes in Portugal and South Africa, in the movement against the Vietnam War, she finds different yet interconnected aspirations there, including opposition to war, demands for workers’ power, for new relations in the home, equality and opposition to patriarchy. Indeed, women wanted “nothing short of the wholeness of the person.”

Revolution involves transformations of the whole person and entire society. To some extent, then, the aspiration to love always participates in and shapes the aspirations of any hopeful struggle. But we should distinguish between revolt and revolution. Revolt is rarely revolutionary. Revolt happens far more frequently and often aspires to revolution. It is often a real effort in a revolutionary direction. However, revolt is not revolution insofar as it does not structurally transform the world as we know it.

Revolts do other things. They express disaffections, new criticisms and imagine possibilities in line with peoples’ real desires. Often, a revolt is an expression of revolutionary disaffection that takes nonrevolutionary form. I am inclined to think of love as closer to revolt than revolution. Even when love does not structurally transform life as we know it, it aspires to a form of social relations that are not (and cannot be) governed by the dictatorship of capital. Love is only there in those human relations outside capitalist exchange relations, in the relationships we value most. If you run to a friend in a time of despair and your “friend” agrees to be there for you in exchange for $15 an hour, what they are telling you is that they are not your friend (and you do not need to be a communist to get the message).

Of the tiny band of thinkers who swim in similar waters, the one who comes closest to my position here is George Katsiaficas in his elaborations on Herbert Marcuse’s concept of eros. Katsiaficas understands riots, revolts and rebellions as the activation of certain feelings of disaffection and hope, as the activation of love and solidarity. In Spontaneous Combustion: The Eros Effect and Global Revolution, Katsiaficas writes: “We need to cultivate our capacities to love and to act in an efficient manner… The eros effect is about people continuously activating their inner desire for freedom, which is the greatest force for liberation on our planet.” The “eros effect” refers to the seemingly contagious geographic spreading of human feeling that one can witness in the passionate expressions of global uprisings of all kinds.

However, the eros effect cannot be continuously activated, not even in the little commune comprised by two lovers. We cannot keep our affection going in energetic movements indefinitely. Human energy can be exhausted and recharged for different causes, but not “kept on” for a lifetime. If we understand love as our active participation in a person’s becoming, and politically, as our active participation in a society becoming what it is not yet (but could be and should be), then we cannot honestly claim that we are always so actively engaged.

Love appears in the final analysis as a power that generates togetherness and courage. The courage is a courage to act in the name of what we deserve, and the togetherness is expressed in collective actions, including but not limited to revolts and rebellions. Love makes commitments and often enters the scene as the substance that gives us the confidence to make commitments we would not make without it. The key is to grasp that while all of this is true in the love relationship of two, or five or more in a family, it applies no less to larger social formations of being-together. Everyone is someone who aspires to love, who wants to experience it, to live it, to know it, to be changed for the better by it.

However, where else do we find the aspiration to experience a different world on Earth? Take a look at what people dare to hope when they gather with indignation in insurgent moments of collective action. When you are in love with another, you have found someone with whom to make common cause for something hopeful on the horizon. Sometimes, we do this with others in the streets, in occupations, strikes and rebellions.

Convinced that love is an immaterial, ineffable, and invisible power, communists, anarchists and so many others have been able to ignore it as a vaporous feeling unfit for militancy! But what is more material than the actual lived experiences that make our lives worth living, than the relationships beyond exchange value that we value most? It is time for those who aspire to love — which is to say everyone everywhere — to finally see the communism of their aspiration.

Why? Because only by doing so can we understand the relation of love to all of the other relations that govern our lives. Only by doing so can we finally see and say that love must be a counterpower to capital to be worthy of its name.

Richard Gilman-Opalsky

Richard Gilman-Opalsky is Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is the author of six books, including The Communism of Love, Specters of Revolt, Precarious Communism and Spectacular Capitalism.

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