Love and Socialist Politics

by burtenshaw


The ancient Greeks had three words for what we call “love” in English.

The primary categories were eros or erotic love and philos or affective love, the kind you might have with friends.

But the third category is the most interesting. Agape – meaning transcendental or unconditional love – is the synthesis of these loves, where the concept reaches its apex. It was picked up by the Christians and used to define the aspects of their tradition which flowed from the commandment to “love thy neighbour as yourself”.

In chapter thirteen of the First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul defines agape:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal… Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For the Christians agape was two-sided – the love of God by the people and the love for the people by God. But its character spoke to a social vision of love which transcended the interpersonality of eros and philos.

The love of God was expressed sacrificially – by “giving His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Early Christians saw this sacrificial love as something to be reciprocated and generalised among the people at large. Many advocated its practice in communism – societies of common ownership.

The conservative turn which followed the mainstreaming of Christianity in Europe saw this conception of agape lose its radical edge. Out went the self-sacrificing and unconditional love for the people and its communist politics. Instead the term came to be translated as “charity” and wrapped up in the hierarchic notions the Christian churches have tended to associate with that term. By the 1850s Henry Mayhew would specifically counterpose it to communism – agapism as the “the voluntary sharing of individual possessions” as opposed to “the abolition of all rights to individual property”. Anything more radical than this would be an attempt at immanentising the eschaton.

But, despite this attempt at recupération, agapism remained a radical current in the Christian tradition throughout history – appearing consistently from Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysostom to Gerrard Winstanley and the Levellers and later the nineteenth century Christian socialists and twentieth century liberation theologists.

And it continues today in the black prophetic tradition in the US. Martin Luther King spoke of an agape, a transcendental love that “released life” from its alienated state. The idea that has held sway in popular culture too – from the “catastrophic love” of the blues to Marvin Gaye’s “love that conquers hate”.

Wherever Christ’s teachings have been taken as an invocation to communism you can be sure that the idea of self-sacrificing, transcendental, unconditional love for the people was a motivator.


Given that I’m an atheist and not a Christian this might seem like a strange line of political enquiry. But a radical agape holds relevance for dialectical materialists too. In fact, it is an essential force behind the socialist project.

Loving your enemy is a dangerous game. The class war necessitates a righteous contempt for the bourgeoisie – the exploiters of the masses who, as James the Just said of the rich, “fatten their hearts in a day of slaughter”.

And yet an agape was also found in Robespierre, who was not known for being soft on his enemies. It was a love of the people grounded in a hatred of their oppression and a belief in the potential of humanity to construct a just society once its chains were broken:

“For how long will the rage of despots be called justice, and the people’s justice be called barbarity or rebellion? How tender people are towards oppressors and how inexorable towards the oppressed! Nothing could be more natural: who does not hate crime cannot love virtue!

“One or the other must succumb, however. Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain people. Mercy for scoundrels! No!: mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity!”

Without conceding ground to a love of enemies, there is no substitute for a love in your heart for the people – the working-class, the oppressed, les damnés de la terre. In dark times it is the only sustenance for an optimism of the will.

In its unconditional and transcendental qualities radical agape is a humanist project. It sees prefigurative shadows of the socialist society we want to build in the points of inflection between a compassion that pulls us towards society and a profit system which tears us apart from it.

It holds that the conservative line on human nature – that it is a nasty beast which must be contained and controlled by an enlightened élite or a civilising system – is a cynic’s betrayal. The brutality of the society we live in is instead primarily the fault of systems of oppression which atomise us, exploit us, force us into lives of competition where we are robbed of the opportunity to actualise – as individuals or as humanity. You cannot be truly human in an inhuman world and until we construct a society that transcends the predatory we will always be looking through a mirror darkly.

But also that the reduction of the socialist project to economism is itself a suppression. A break from capitalism cannot come through the working-class pursuing its interests narrowly but must rather have a more radical social vision: it must be imbued with the mission of human emancipation. This is why we make heroes not of those who pursued their own ends, but of those whose love for the people led them to the heights of sacrifice.

So then, on Saint Valentine’s Day, this is proselytising for radical agape – a love for the people and a hatred of their oppression; a love for humanity and a desire for its emancipation; a love that transcends interpersonal relationships; a love that implies a willingness to sacrifice. As Che said, it is impossible to conceive of revolutionaries who lack this quality.

While capital debases love, reduces it to a commodity to be bought and sold, seeks to saturate us all in market relations, dragging them into the spheres of human existence which have held deeper bonds, socialists should proclaim to its negation a love that is insurgent and corrosive of the foundations of capitalism.


In that spirit, I send my love out to you all today. If you’re struggling against oppression, if you’re aiming at justice, if you’re battling with your own humanity, if my own battles with my humanity allow me to, I’ve got your back.

“Sending love out to my block / The struggle never stops”