The title of this text will most likely get the attention of every ordinary romantic. And, that is not a very difficult thing to do. Romantics like to love – almost everything. They love humanity, they love nature, they love nations and diversity. In short, they love all things ‘abstract.’ They are willing to go quite far and defend the absolute and inalienable right to life of any criminal, mass murderer or genocide planner. They love life in all its complexities; they might even cherish it!
Sounds charming, albeit ridiculously insufficient. Because what an ordinary romantic fails to understand is that, in the heat of his own zealousness, this title is taken ad verbatim from a short and unfinished text by the very young Hegel. But they are not entirely wrong. The young Hegel was fascinated by the ancient Greek polis, and an organic community with its happy and unified life was the form of social organization to be followed by moderns. Bothered by the contradiction between human beings and nature, and among humans themselves, he sought to propose love as a unifying instance. Love is the name of resolving the contradictions. But is that so?
The great shift in Hegel’s thought happened when he abandoned the idealized and romantic image of non-alienated, organic communities of ancient Greece. To return to the his text, it was written in the period of the “primacy” of ‘love over reason.’ This led H.S. Harris to declare the period in question as a “transitional phase in Hegel’s thought.”[i] Harris’s assessment can make sense, if one thinks of Hegel’s concept of the unity of opposites, which culminates in the absolute.
Still, the question remains: what is love?
True union, or love proper, exists only between living beings who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for the other. This genuine love excludes all oppositions. It is not the understanding, whose relations always leave the manifold of related terms as a manifold and whose unity is always a unity of opposites [left as opposites]. It is not reason either, because reason sharply opposes its determining power to what is determined. Love neither restricts nor is restricted; it is not finite at all. It is a feeling, yet not a single feeling [among other single feelings].[ii]
Many commentators have proposed the reading of this text alongside Hegel’s Two Fragments on Love. For instance, for Hegel, “the beloved is not opposed to us, he is one with our essential being; we see only ourselves in him-and yet also he is still not we-a miracle, that we cannot grasp.”[iii] Following this claim, we can perhaps understand Hamacher’s thesis that, in early Hegel, love functions as a unifying instance: “In love what has been separated remains”, but no longer as something separate, but as unified.” Hamacher argues that “separation as separation is only thinkable, is only separation, once it is elevated to the unity of being. Unity is the truth of separation.”[iv]
This conceptualization gets more interesting in Hegel’s late work, namely in Philosophy of Right (which, incidentally, was published exactly 150 years ago this year).
“Love means in general the consciousness of my unity with another, so that I am not isolated on my own, but gain my self-consciousness only through the renunciation of my independent existence and through knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and of the other with me.”[v]
Love has two moments: the first one is the incompleteness of self; that is, one does not want to be “independent in my own right”. The second consists of the fact that I find myself and I gain recognition in another, that is, the beloved. In return, the beloved finds recognition in me. For this reason, love is “the most immense contradiction; the understanding cannot resolve it, because there is nothing more intractable than this punctiliousness of the self-consciousness which is negated and which I ought nevertheless to possess as affirmative. Love is both the production and the resolution of this contradiction.”[vi] But, when it is a resolution, love produces an ethical unity.
Ethical life, love, means precisely the giving up of particular personality, and its extension to universality – so, too, with friendship. In friendship and love I give up my abstract personality and thereby win it back as concrete. The truth of personality is found precisely in winning it back through this immersion, this being immersed in the other.[vii]
Let’s take it from here and proceed to the role love plays in Marxism. In a letter to his wife Jenny von Westphalen, from 21 June 1865, among other things, Karl Marx says:
“The moment you are absent, my love for you shows itself to be what it is, a giant, in which are crowded together all the energy of my spirit and all the character of my heart. It makes me feel like a man again, because I feel a great passion; and the multifariousness, in which study and modern education entangle us, and the skepticism which necessarily makes us find fault with all subjective and objective impressions, all of these are entirely designed to make us all small and weak and whining. But love – not love for the Feuerbach-type of man, not for the metabolism, not for the proletariat – but the love for the beloved and particularly for you, makes a man again a man…”
Marx makes, therefore, a distinction between the love directed at the proletariat as a love that recognizes the “Feuerbach-type” spirit of generic being,[viii] of mankind’s capacity to concretely construct its own essence, and the love “for the beloved”, which, as he adds, “makes a man again a man.” The tension between these two concepts of love—one that leads from the concrete towards the universal (love for the proletariat as a class), and the other that leads from the abstract (a particular person, abstracted from social relations) towards the concrete (“makes a man a man again”)—is not simply a tension between politics and love, but a tension that, in fact, helps shape the very two fields it distinguishes.
It is the proper separation of these spheres that leads thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière and others, to distinguish between a certain fetishization of the working class and a true appreciation of the heterogeneous composition of the proletariat. Rancière would refer to the agents of this fetishization as “the lovers of humanity,”[ix] whereas Lenin called them “pseudo-friends of the proletariat.” In what follows, I will develop the hypothesis that love plays a negative role in Marxism, in the sense that the intimate experience of actual love helps delimit the space of the political in contradistinction to it, and, thereby, challenges the ideological conceptions of political love that cloud true social and political analysis and strategy.
An exercise such as this can be helpful in exploring the consequences for political thinking of distinguishing love from politics. One can take a look at the two main ways, in which this distinction can be blurred: the tendency to infuse love into politics or the inverse movement of politicizing love. The former has historically led to different political concepts of a “love for humanity”—both secular and religious—while the latter emerges mostly as a collateral effect of biopolitics, in which the private matters of one’s life become the site for micropolitical struggles. By analyzing these two “deviations” and criticizing the limits of the two ideologies to which they give rise, one can defend the thesis that the actual experience of love, which runs counter to the tendency to idealize one’s partner, is linked to political thinking only insofar as it also prevents the idealization of the working class and the idealization of the reach of the categories of political analysis, such as oppression, violence and exploitation.
The first and the most common tendency in political thinking is to think that political change stems from a relation to the changed object that is analogous to, or substantially the same as, a love relation. That is, it stems from the assertion that society, or a social group, can be an object of love, just like one would love another person. How is this romantic view of political relations established?
When, in his letter to Jenny, Marx calls this a love for the “Feuerbach-type man,” he gives us an important clue: after all, Feuerbach can be read as an important mediator between Christian religion and secular modern politics. Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity did not imply an abandonment of love for a transcendent entity; it was, rather, a critique of the supernatural character of this object of love. Instead of the love directed at God, at the reified apprehension of man’s creative capacities, Feuerbach posited the love for mankind itself.[x] This “materialist” movement was also mirrored by a critique of Hegel: against Hegel’s “idealist” theory of the concept as the name for the historical excess of men’s productions over their existence, Feuerbach posited that mankind as a species is the natural and real form, in which man contemplates himself as an object. While this turn from the conceptual to the natural presentation of mankind to itself does carry a more immanent-ist tone. Hegel would differentiate the concept of politics that is produced by political history from the concept of love at stake in the history of love.
Slavoj Žižek has argued that the Althusserian thesis of the primacy of class struggle means that “class struggle” is another name for the fact that “society does not exist” – (it does not exist as a positive order of being).”[xi] Marx and Engels make a very similar point in their critique of “critical-utopian socialism and communism.” Their critique was centered on the nature of class struggle, as well as on the communal values that appeal to “everyone.” For the utopian socialists and communists, argue Marx and Engels, “the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”[xii] Class antagonisms do not offer prospects for the emancipation of the proletariat. For the left today, politics and revolution are not on their agenda, as they remain peaceniks. For them, ‘society does exist,’ and they aim to improve the living conditions of all members of society, including those from the most privileged class. Their proposals, which Marx and Engels do enumerate, remain of a “purely Utopian character.”
Although we find in the early works of Marx a critique of the “Feuerbach-type of man” in favor of a materialist conception of the proletariat[xiii] (for example, as he wrote in the first thesis on Feuerbach), within certain strands of Marxism, we re-encounter a certain recuperation of a Feuerbachian “historical love” for those who actively stand for mankind as such. And this brings us to one of the central issues of today’s Marxism, that of the proletarian position in late global capitalism. The proletarian position is not an “objective” position. Against the liberal understanding of the classes, we need to affirm the thesis that the proletarian position is constituted in class struggle, that is to say, the position that is occupied within the class struggle determines the class position. There is no class position outside of the class struggle.
In his now forgotten On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Étienne Balibar makes a crucial remark:
“Marx’s theory is not founded on the definition of some kind of “pure” proletariat (standing against a ‘pure’ bourgeoisie): there is no ‘pure’ proletariat, there is no ‘pure’ revolution and there is no ‘pure’ communism. This theory does not depend on a picture of social classes with the fixed characteristics of a given epoch (the nineteenth century, or the beginning of the twentieth century, etc.).”[xiv]
This is the lesson we need to learn: communists and socialists must cease portraying the proletarians in rosy colors. There is no pure communist position, which allows us to speak for pure proletarians. Rancière’s work on the proletarians shows precisely this, the frustration of the revolutionary communists when they encountered the really existing workers. The latter didn’t fit the idealized conception, this rosy portrayal, of the proletariat. In Lacanian terms, fantasy after all is nothing but a screen that protects us from the barred dimension of the other. There is always a traumatic moment when we realize that the other appears as equally lacking, equally tormented by troubles with enjoyment. The position we need to adopt here is, precisely, that of the workers who consider themselves belonging to the ranks of the proletariat. This moment of declaration, this subjective determination of how the subjects relate to their substance, changes their reality, their behavior, and way of acting towards it.
In the contemporary predicament, we see everywhere a new claim to solidarity. Solidarity with the refugees, especially in Europe, is an excellent example of the romanticizing politics and assuming that a concrete organization can be substituted for an affective relation. One of the ways of appropriating the refugees as objects of love, rather than as political subjects, is by assuming that they need our love and understanding. This is exactly what an idealized use of love in politics always does: it begins from the premise that objectivizing a certain social group is not only acceptable but also required, because this is done with “positive” affects and intentions. However, politically, it has the same outcome: it reduces those social groups, i.e., the refugees, into objects which are to be contemplated lovingly, rather than concretely treating them as subjects (whom we might dislike, or even hate, but this has no political significance at all).
The other form is that of the politicization of love. We can think of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. According to them, the new forms of labor (i.e., immaterial) open up new possibilities for economic self-management, because the mechanisms for any cooperation are included in the very form of immaterial labor itself. If we follow this thesis, we come to the point at which the directly social production, in fact, produces political relations and, as such, it becomes a political production of society itself, because “when the products of labor are not material goods but social relationships, networks of communication, and forms of life, then it becomes clear that economic production immediately implies a kind of political production, or the production of society itself.”[xv]
Following the same logic, a form of life, which is founded on bio-political dogmatism, can be defined as an activity that transforms romantic into political love. According to this logic, politics is everything and everywhere; it has the primacy or the commanding post in all other social relations, which means that we are obliged to treat all other social relations from a political position. Bio-political dogmatism sutures politics to love. Hardt and Negri’s position is exemplary:
“People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude. The modern concept of love is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family. Love has become a strictly private affair. We need a more generous and more unrestrained conception of love. We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions….We need to recover today this material and political sense of love, a love as strong as death. This does not mean you cannot love your spouse, your mother, and your child. It only means that your love does not end there, that love serves as the basis for our political projects in common and the construction of a new society. Without this love, we are nothing.”[xvi]
The first counter-thesis to this position is: love is always a violent act, precisely, because it cuts the individual off from this multitude, always privileging one singular person. Where the political love (for the proletariat, the multitude, etc.) tries to create a balance, true romantic love (for the beloved) introduces a radical imbalance. Consequently, we need to make a clear distinction, as does Badiou when he distinguishes between two generic procedures. This distinction is very important, precisely, because it prevents the suturing of the two. Following Marx, separating the elements of politics and love is essential in fighting both dogmatism and the bio-political paradigms of the present situation. Making such a distinction can keep us from pretending that we could love the proletariat like we love the beloved (which, always leads to the fetishization of the former), as well as from pretending that we can escape from hardships of personal love by appealing to our political principles.
From a communist standpoint, authentic love is not the love for humanity. Political militancy and camaraderie go beyond personal affection: while it is true that a vast majority of the people are uninteresting, stupid, and so on (myself included), it doesn’t mean that they are not political comrades of the Cause. On the other hand, political love, agape, is always the opposite of this. It is not that “I love humanity, proletariat, etc.,” but that, in our universal struggle, we establish solidarity. The common, or even unified front, of all of us fighting against the common enemy is what agape is all about.
Romantic love is always the universality of singulars, which cannot be qualitatively enlarged or expanded. Politics is the opposite: it is the singularity of universality that can never be over-singularized, because this would suspend every claim to justice. As Žižek argues, “justice and love are thus structurally incompatible: justice, not love, has to be blind, it has to disregard the privileged One whom I ‘really understand’. What this means is that the Third is not secondary: it is always-already here, and the primordial ethical obligation is towards this Third who is NOT here in the face to face relationship, the one in shadow, like the absent child of a love-couple.”[xvii]
What this new perspective opens up is in fact a disjunctive alliance between love and politics, for love’s only political struggle is the concrete and singular fight for preventing intimacy—that is, the singular organization of the couple—from being the depository of political ideology. And the only “romantic” struggle in politics is the fight to rid social equality of its dependence on our love for one another. Furthermore, such an alliance shows that, once the ideological bond between love and politics has been undone in philosophy and political theory, it re-emerges in practice, since the critique of love’s over-politization and of politics’ romantization is a task every couple and every political program must accomplish in their own concrete historical situations.
[i] H.S. Harris, Introduction to “Two Fragments”, in: Miscellaneous Writings of G.W.F. Hegel, ed. by J. Stewart (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), p.116
[ii] G.W.F. Hegel, ‘Love’, in: On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, ed. by Friedrich Hegel (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), p.304
[iii] G.W.F. Hegel, “Two Fragments on Love”, p.120
[iv] Werner Hamacher, Pleroma – Reading in Hegel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p.85
[v] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.199
[vii] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Philosophy of Religion. Volume III: The Consummate Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.286
[viii] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Dover Publications, InEc. 2008), p.1
[ix] Jacques Rancière The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), pp.164-191
[x] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, pp.8-9
[xi] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), p.198
[xii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), p.37
[xiii] For example, see his first thesis on Feuerbach, in Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings, p.179
[xiv] Étienne Balibar, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London: New Left Books. 1977), p.79
[xv] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. (New York: Penguin, 2004), p.336
[xvi] Ibid, pp.351-2
[xvii] Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence”. In Slavoj Žižek, Eric Santner, Kenneth Reinhardt, The Neighbour: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.49