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Communist love in the time of capitalist doom

Reviews

“This book is about the communism of love. It is, in other words, about the necessarily and irreducibly communist form and content of love.”

So begins this broad-ranging book on a largely neglected topic. Claiming that he is one of about five theorists who “associates love with revolt or finds the former as part of the mobilizing and motivating content of the latter,” Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, also says he is one of only two or three theorists who “think of love as a specifically communist power.”

I do not know if these claims the author makes about himself are true but find them easy enough to believe. We are well trained in our culture not to speak of communism and love in the same breath, or indeed, of any kind of politics and love in the same breath, but Gilman-Opalsky defies this taboo; he cuts through the nonsensical idea of love as necessarily apolitical, and is especially against the idea of love as something to be isolated in the tiny ghetto of the romantic-erotic duo.

The book, published by AK Press late last year, discusses a wide range of writers from Simone Weil to Plato, Karl and Jenny Marx, Rosa Luxemburg (discussing at some length her relationship with her cat, Mimi) Alexandra Kollontai, Erich Fromm, and many others, with an emphasis on what woman writers have said on such matters that men have largely missed.

Key to the whole discussion is the concept of the Gemeinwesen (community, or communal being) which the author discusses at first in connection to Maurice Blanchot, Karl Marx, and the lesser-known Jacques Camatte, but goes on to discuss with regard to numerous other writers as well. Though this book is not excessively long, its inclusion of a broad spectrum of thinkers is one of its strengths.

The Gemeinwesen is counterposed against the idea of the triumphant individual in capitalism. Gilman-Opalsky’s point is not just that community is better than capitalism (and he goes far beyond the banality that we “are all in this together”) but asserts that all that makes life good partakes of this community—on however limited a scale, such as a family, a number of friends or lovers, a political movement, or things not linked by exchange relations—and is inevitably attacked by capital.

In other words, even ardent capitalists, were they to look at what makes their lives worth living, would have to see that they are communists in this limited but important sense. Simply put, love has nothing to do with exchange relations, and it is capitalism’s mission to reduce everything to exchange relations. As Gilman-Opalsky writes:

Human relationality is never governed by the logic of love when it is compatible with master-slave relations. Moreover, all systems of ownership and possession of other human beings—from slavery to patriarchy to capitalism—are irreducibly antagonistic to love. Love is an opposite logic to the various logics of possession and private property, and can be understood and enacted as an antidote to privatization, isolation, and frailty.


Incidentally, Gilman-Opalsky is no apologist for what is popularly referred to as communism (its manifestation in the Soviet Union, for example). “In our study it is clear that when we speak of the communism of love—of communism itself—we are talking about forms of life, not about forms of government,” he writes, continuing:

What is called “love” by the best thinkers who have approached the subject is the beating heart of communism. The love that we have been theorizing tends toward communism in every meaningful way, even if only in miniature. The love that we have been theorizing, which is neither a commodity nor a private property nor a corrupt “love” of only one’s self or one’s “own kind,” tends toward a humanizing sociality, toward the *Gemeinwesen* in and against a world of alienation. If we would speak of a politics of love, we would have to speak of a politics of insurgency against the order of exchange.


For all that the topic is love, this is not a touchy-feely book. There is a bit of an edge to it; an idealism bereft of sentimentality. There is little or nothing, for example, about loving one’s enemies: “[t]here may be no real love for the cop who beats you, and why should there be?” he asks (this is not to say that loving one’s enemies is necessarily sentimental, but one gets the idea). This brings us to a weakness of the book: religious traditions may have a great deal to say about why one should love the cop who beats you, what that might mean (not, by the way, some “blue lives matter” sloganeering) or why you should forgive him. But Gilman-Opalsky’s book spends far too little attention to anything explicitly religious—even by way of rebuttal.

The Communism of Love crosses a lot of borders, shows the connections between things we are taught not to see, but one border it does not cross, unfortunately, is the traditional, tragic, and wholly unnecessary border between religion and the left.

This book covers a topic just begging for a consideration of what religion has to say of the communism of love (liberation theology, for example) but religion, despite a lengthy and interesting discussion of Simone Weil, does not enter into the conversation, getting instead cold-shouldered:

While it is true that Weil remained politically radical after her conversion to Catholicism and mysticism in the late 1930s, she ultimately sought to transcend the existing state of affairs, not to abolish it.Unfortunately, we cannot deal with the problems of the world by way of their mystical transcendence. Or at least I do not think so; and if you think so, you may be reading the wrong book.


On the other hand, maybe this reviewer (who has no problem with the idea of transcendence or of abolishing the existing state of affairs) is not reading the wrong book. Whatever Weil was thinking of by transcendence, I cannot help but think Gilman-Opalsky misses a possibility here. We need not take the highly Platonized Christianity that has long since set its claws in that faith as the final and best version of it by any means. An exploration of just what the transcendental dimension of love would mean in this communist Gemeinwesen context could be extremely fruitful.

The false binary of a “real world” versus “the beyond” may well be problematic for anyone who wants to think deeply in eschatological or revolutionary terms, but it may well be the heart of the matter, the ball which both Platonized Christianity and secular leftism have fumbled. Whatever else love may be—practical, ethical, communal, communist—is it not also mystical?

But for all that, this excellent book, which is “about what to do with a life, what a life is for,” a book whose central concern is “[w]hat does love do here in the world? How is it practiced?” opens wide a door on a topic everyone—religious or not, leftist or not—needs to consider.

J.W. Horton is a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media. He is also an essayist and fiction writer. Visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

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