I never wanted to fall in love. In my home, love made you weak. It made you a victim. Love was conditional, unpredictable, and came with a price. Most of all, love caused pain and suffering. At night, my brother and I would hear the beatings, sometimes even witness it. And, in the morning, mommy got flowers because my step-father “loved” her.
As I grew older, developed politically, and cultivated my feminist consciousness, I realized that patriarchy was imprinted on every conception I had about intimate relationships. As a bi-sexual woman I learned that this was true for me whether I was with men or women. I couldn’t fall in love with a man because to do so was to be dependent and abused. I couldn’t love a woman because that would mean loving the weak. So I swore off love all together. I was going to be a strong, independent, smart and capable woman; and from what I could see “loving” anyone was a liability.
When I first started getting politicized in my late teens, I pictured meeting this beautiful woman who shared my passion for righting the wrongs of the world and was as committed to justice as I was. As I matured, though, it seemed more and more like politics was strangely at odds with my notions of love. I found that getting political with people I really cared about usually resulted in conflict because I couldn’t turn off the “analyze and question everything” switch in my head. And when it came to my political and intellectual relationships, I had a hard time letting my guard down and showing people who I truly was.
For me, politics was all about theory and analysis – heady intellectual stuff. Love and relationships was all about trust and vulnerability – scary emotional stuff. I could handle either one isolated from the other, but I could never do both at the same time. So I resigned myself to the likelihood that I would have to choose one over the other and would probably not find the revolutionary love of my life.
These are the places we started from. Now here we are together writing about love and revolution.
If there are any human universals, love would certainly be chief among them. Yet, when we take a look around the world sometimes it feels like love, for holding such a high place in our imaginations and creative expression, is the least actualized of our ideals. Instead, fear and alienation maintain a stranglehold on humanity as they manifest in various forms of oppression – patriarchy, white supremacy, poverty, heterosexism, imperialism. What’s worse, the very notion of love is often distorted and associated with everything from unhealthy and destructive interpersonal relationships to violent reactionary movements of religious extremism. Not to mention that for our LGBTQ comrades, society has claimed that our expressions of love are immoral, wrong, and even evil. So what then do we, as revolutionaries, make of this thing called love? Do we really have time to be bothered with the trappings of the heart? How does love fit into the picture of that better world we are all imagining and fighting for? More importantly, how does love factor into the fight itself?
A Revolutionary definition of Love
It can be tricky to grab a hold on what love really is. It is easy to get fixated on romanticizations of love and end up missing the boat on the real deal. And it is not uncommon to cling to people or ideas out of fear – fear of being alone, being wrong, or being unimportant – and call it love. But it is important to distinguish love from the emotional highs and lows that we often associate it with. Love itself is not a feeling – it is a way of being and acting and, most importantly, it is a choice. When we choose to come from a place of honesty and humility, we are choosing love. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and trust that it will not be used against us, we are choosing love. It is choosing to be present for ourselves and others and expecting to be held accountable for our actions. It is choosing to have compassion for those who are unable or unwilling to offer us love in return. Love is the choice to walk through our fears and insecurities so that we may reveal our true selves to those around us and be open to receive the true selves of others. From this perspective, love is a framework from which every decision we make is either based in love, or is not.
It is important to establish a definition of love that is action oriented so that we can use it to shape the practice of a revolutionary politic. While we all have visions of a world built on the principles of democracy, equity, and justice, the society around us seldom shows us what these values actually look like. Choosing love allows us to respond to oppression in a way that uplifts our vision of the future and brings forward our own humanity.
Systems of oppression intersect in complex ways and are felt at the individual and community level through various forms of physical, emotional, and psychological pain. Take, for example, the process of gentrification. Capital – in the form of real estate speculation – targets working class and low-income communities in the urban core, removes the existing population, and builds up so called New-Urban “communities” that are consumer driven and designed for the middle class. Working class communities of color are particularly vulnerable both because they lack economic and political power to resist while contending with racialized stereotyping that is used to justify their destruction. The resulting displacement of families and disruption of people’s lives is destructive: psychologically, economically, and politically.
How does one respond to this type of injustice? As conscious organizers we would like our first response to be to organize the community and build power to stop gentrification. From our analysis we understand the need to expand our fight and build the power of the left globally, so that we can replace this racist capitalist system with one that is more just. Easy, right?
The truth is that building class unity and organizing collective power is not often our first reaction to oppression. When we come under attack, it is both common and natural to wall up and protect ourselves. This walling up, or defensiveness does not stagnate action, but it does shape the action we take, it impacts how we build relationships, and can limit the scope and depth of those relationships. Limiting our ability to build healthy relationships in the fight for a better world is like tying one hand behind our back and getting in the ring with heavy weight boxing champ.
Love as a basis for a revolutionary practice and movement is necessary. Because oppression is felt at the individual level, our personal responses to oppression can be a form of individual resistance. As we engage in the broader fight for whole scale societal transformation, we also fight the everyday battles that define our personal transformation. When we base our interactions with comrades, friends, partners, and lovers on love, we are doing more than building healthy interpersonal relationships; we are making the work of movement building possible. In order to come together and stay together to win, we need more than common material interest and political unity. We need loving relationships that are both founded on and help us build trust. Understanding the critical role of love in building movement, it is the responsibility of revolutionaries to model what love looks like. This is especially true when others around us fail to do so. Just as oppression is internalized, reproduced, and enacted by the oppressed, so must we internalize our politics to the extent that the very act of our being becomes revolutionary.
If we accept that we must learn how to build relationships based on vulnerability and shared trust in order to transform society, then it is our most intimate relationships – i.e. with our partners, lovers, and closest friends – that are central to developing a revolutionary practice of love. Because they are closest to us, the ones we love most are also the best positioned to cause us pain. For this reason it can be especially hard to let our guard down and allow ourselves to be open and available. Moreover, if we take the ones we love for granted, our intimate relationships are particularly vulnerable to being turned into places where dynamics of oppression are played out. But when we practice love in a transformative way in our deepest relationships, we both learn more about who we are and are also better able to bring love into relationships that are more strictly political. More importantly, we are also able to build relationships that free us from the oppressive bonds that reinforce this inequitable society. Loving in this way is something we call “Intimate Liberation.”
As revolutionaries we make sacrifices in so many areas of our lives; we must be equally willing to sacrifice the security of our comfort zones. We must be ready to examine how we work and how we relate to each other. We must ask ourselves, “Is the way I treat my loved ones liberating for them? Is it liberating for me?” And then we must ask the same questions directly to our loved ones themselves. If at any point the answer is “no”, then we must be willing to change our behavior. For if we are not committed to Intimate Liberation, then any commitment to societal transformation is empty and hypocritical.
Love for the long haul
The road to victory is long, winding, and unpredictable. If we are to successfully traverse the path of revolution we will have to rely on a whole lot of leaning on each other. None of us has all of the solutions we’re looking for, but together we certainly have some. It takes trust and humility to build the type of unity needed to implement those solutions. Finding the courage to have trust and humility begins with choosing love. The world is a scary place and the reality is that the odds are stacked up against us. But as long as we choose love we will have more than a fighting chance. Our victories may be far and few between, but our defeats will never be permanent and the sparks of our movement will never be suffocated.