Love in the Movement

Posted February 15, 2008

Hey Lovers and Fighters –

Continuing my tendency to tail respond to the writing of the fine folks over at FRSO/OSCL, some of this is influenced by a west coast Freedom Road comrade, Claire. You can read her article from last year here. Another Oakland (Solidarity) comrade made me promise I’d write some stuff on love and sex and relationships if she reposted something of hers from a few years ago on polyamory. So: here you go, sister!

I should start by letting y’all know where I’m coming from. I’ve lived in Georgia my whole life – an isolating place for any radical, even somebody like myself who’s not marked for even more intense gender or racial persecution. When we’re not talking about movement strategy or the political conjuncture, me and other comrades back home (I’m in NYC for a couple of weeks) spend a lot of time talking about relationships and sex, and how to deal with these realities as feminists, socialists, and anti-racists. In the lonely context of southern revolutionaries, this is an almost utopian conversation.

Second, I’m one of those who thinks the marxist tradition has a crappy track record of dealing with love and sex – going way back to Marx’s crusade against Victoria Woodhull in the First International (her other weird politics aside, advocacy of free love was central to her expulsion.) Aside from Che’s “ridiculous” declaration that revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love, the anarchists and humanist reds have gotten most of the good sound bytes on the topic. Folks, please fill me in if some of Mao’s revolutionary prescriptions could help out my love life…

This oversight flows from an overall avoidance of dealing with “individual” matters, instead boiling everything down to class solidarity and conflict on a “mass” level. As if there’s a clean division between the two. Sorry, but classes are made up of people. I know it’s much easier to throw up your hands and say “well, let’s talk about the materialist roots of the gender division of labor” – which is why Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is all that some of the more orthodox reds have to say about the topic. If you get a microscope and check out any mass movement you’re gonna find that much of the glue holding them together are those icky, intimate interpersonal relationships.

I know this is true from my own experience. I wouldn’t be the revolutionary I am today had I not been “horizontally recruited” into the socialist movement by a lover many years ago. Conversations with veteran comrades confirm that the “come for the sex, stay for the politics” trajectory was even more prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. [Note: this is not an endorsement of the so-called “macktivist” model of organizing – just an acknowledgment of my own path to politics.] Marxists have got a responsibility to continually interrogate this stuff and rescue it from the realm of the “private.” People like talking about sex. If we keep relegating this to a 187 year old bearded dude (forgive me Friedrich… I still love you), we’ll keep ceding ground to the really reactionary perspectives of TV dating shows and those romance novels with glossy embossed covers.

¡Reconocernos en el otro, y comprendernos!
or, What’s Love got to do with it?

I already sorta alluded to Che on the matter, so instead I will share a couple more personal stories. A few years back I got to go to Caracas for the World Festival of Youth & Students. One evening after a few cuba libres, one of the venezolanos and I, frustrated by our limited language skills, attempted to figure out where we were both coming from politically. He finally asked, simply, if I was a socialist – if I believed in revolution. I answered yes, and he tapped his chest and said, in a mixture of English and Spanish: “Comrade, you don’t speak much Spanish. I don’t have much English. But we are really speaking the same language, and it comes through the lips but it really comes from here, the heart.”

My other international travel has been to a youth school of the Fourth International. Judith, a Spanish comrade, sent the participants an email afterwards, in three languages. My favorite part was: “Building and living internationalism, it is not only key as a political project, but also as a personal one… In spite of not knowing each other before this week, and living in different realities, we share similar analysis of reality, proposals and struggles for change, feelings of commitment… We recognize and understand ourselves in each other!”

Love is a great teacher. It’s been through relationships with women that I have come to identify the struggle against patriarchy as my own, relationships with people of color that I have become more conscious about the daily reality of white supremacy and struggles of different oppressed nationalities, relationships with people in general that have helped me generalize to an overall love for humanity. This is true even when in “non-political” relationships.

But I perpetually aspire for the type of “comradely” love Judith describes – which includes a dialectic of identifying and embracing our own humanity through the collective struggle for human liberation – transcends the kind of romanticism we’re taught to pursue by patriarchal capitalism. It escapes from the “economy of scarcity” for affection, which breeds jealousy and competition, by rooting passion for other humans in shared struggle and experience.

Capitalism alienates us from each other, in many ways. The contradiction of our collective interests as a class of workers runs up against our compromised individual attempts to find material and emotional fulfillment. The “solution” that capitalism encourages is to fill this gap with traditional, hetero-patriarchal relationships. That is to say, the work of nurturing that makes up so much of relationships becomes a burden falling on women. During times of social ferment, privatization of care gets challenged – almost out of necessity, since one on one relationships are the building blocks of any social movement. The feeling that anything is possible leads people on a mass level and especially participants in a movement to question all sorts of other hegemonic relationships….

This general tend towards privatization goes beyond the mantra of “individual responsibility.” It also gives us fewer and fewer collective, social spaces to meet our emotional needs. This dynamic has led a lot of our older comrades (broadly speaking), of the ’60s generation, to “settle down” as the left went into crisis/realized that it was in crisis – and continues to do so for people who reach their thirties. So how can we break out of this trend?

Creating nurturing, anti-racist, queer social spaces deserves to be treated as an essential part of the socialist project. How else can we expect to expect to sustain ourselves and develop others into long-term fighters? The emotionally supportive role of mass movements of people always gets ignored when we read about our history. We act like it was solely the insight sharpened through participation and observation of class confrontations that produced leaders. Come on. During a mass upsurge, communists were able to rub shoulders day in and day out with comrades who had similar visions and dreams, and that’s no small thing. So, what do we do in a period of low struggle? How can we create a loving community without further marginalizing ourselves (by distancing ourselves too much from mainstream social spaces)? Important questions along with the big picture strategic stuff….

One more thing. It’s an abstraction to paint a picture of color- and gender- neutral individuals looking for love in all the wrong places. The intense racism, sexism, heteronormativity and other “isms” that have shaped – and been shaped by – capitalism reinforce this isolation and alienation. In a recent Against the Current interview with two veteran Solidarity members, they mention the importance of inter-racial social spaces in the labor and left movements of the 1930s. Conscious smashing of social barriers to human relationships has got to be taken seriously. We all know the Left has a proud tradition of interracial relationships, same-gender love, and so on. But the intersection of racism/anti-racism and relationships on the left is a deep question that – surprise! – most people seem to be scared to talk about. (Up to this point I only have experience with dating women, so I don’t mean to ignore queer issues, but want to stick to personal experience. This also means I cannot speak about the experience of, say, Black-Asian relationships.)

The dynamic of interracial relationships is very specific to the intersecting nationality and gender of the folks involved – and the history of power that surfaces. What do I mean? The dynamic of me, a white guy, dating a Black woman is been different from that of an Asian woman, or a white woman, or a Latina woman – although all have somewhat similar baggage growing out of histories of sexual domination. And for each of these women, there’s a whole other set of baggage. For my Black or Arab or Latino brothers, there’s again, a different dynamic. So it’s highly personal in the way that we relate to histories of imperialism, immigration, slavery, and so forth.

But beyond (or before) the struggle of dealing with that baggage becomes a reality, we also need to discuss where physical, sexual attraction even comes from. I have some things to say about this but am more interested in what y’all have to say…. so: Who do you dig, and why?

Coming soon:

I didn’t even get to talking about sex, but (ha!) it’s certainly on my mind. At the wonderful Socialist Feminist retreat put on by Solidarity’s feminist commission, a few of us sat around one night and talked about sex in the movement. Expect something soon that expands on this entry but is far more racy!


3 responses to “Love in the Movement”

  1. Manju Avatar

    thanks for sharing this, isaac! i love your reflections. looking forward to further discussion.

  2. Mihir Bhonsale Avatar
    Mihir Bhonsale


    This piece comes from the profound depths of the your heart Issac and I appreciate that. Yes, you are true when you say that struggles are built up on one-to-one relationships and further tranform into mass struggles.
    I remebered William Reich when he describes based on his study in Sexual Revolution, how young people get intitiated in the revolutionary movement in a hope of finding partners and their enthusiasm towards the struggle dies down when they find love. Of, course he lived in the early 20th century, but today still this analysis holds ground.
    In the age of hostitlity towards the Socialist dream, there are fewer people who share the same kind of ideas as we all do and hence there is lesser chance for free love to germinate.
    The practice of sexual repression which is even more profound in the Third World including India, where I come from, the Capitalist system allows spaces for a priveleged few. The conditions are worse for all those youngsters who cannot afford to go to spaces of socialisation and find partners. The system makes most of the individuals live in grim helplessness towards especially the young who want to express their sexuality in a revolutionary way.

  3. Maeve66 Avatar

    Far racier, huh, Isaac? You’ve had more than a month… then again, I didn’t fulfill my promise to write in response to this, either.

    Love in the movement, hm? You and I have talked about this. I agree with virtually everything you write, but I haven’t been very lucky with “love in the movement”, whether “the movement” is confined to our own organization (oh, a very bad idea!) or taken at least a little more broadly to mean among revolutionaries more generally, in what social and activist movements exist, etc. Hm. I think I’m batting 50%, which is a pretty crap percentage: one extremely important relationship with a comrade, albeit twenty years ago, and on another continent, and one extremely important relationship… with an active service member of the military with a direct supporting role in the war on Afghanistan. Huzzah.

    Which rather begs the question of what people find hot, huh? I don’t know. Those things get so tangled — between what someone finds hot in the moment or for reasons that are excellent reasons, that do not necessarily involve a long-term paired exclusive dyad, and what someone might want in such a sort of normative committed relationship.

    I had a conversation with a friend last night, not a socialist friend (one who tends to marshal all her reserves to maintain our friendship in electoral years, and this one will be worse than ever if Obama gets the nomination)… and okay, we’re not of the same generation… but it’s still hard to see someone so just plain… shocked at the idea of what she kept calling “casual sex”. It rocks me, a little, that there are still such cultural penalties placed on NOT viewing sex as something so exalted it belongs only as the most intimate of acts committed within the most holy and unassailable of long term relationships.

    I have liked Marge Piercy’s writings on sex and attraction very much, in her fiction. They’re basically hetero, so limited in that way. But she tries for a lot of flex in different ways. I thought her one attempt at writing from the perspective of a lesbian character was not well done — The High Cost of Living/. But in Woman on the Edge of Time and in He, She, and It, I thought there was useful — and enjoyable — stuff. Also Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where her creation of a world of hermaphrodism and the social structures it created was pretty compelling… especially as she kind of drew an emotional connection between male homosocial bonding and its sexual expression which can still be so damn taboo here and now.

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.