Responses to ‘Love and Socialist Politics’.

Partly because I have been trying to come to terms with these ideas myself, here are the responses to Ronán’s post about Love and Socialist Politics for those of you not on Facebook. I think these are really vital ideas for politics in Ireland today. Grab a cup of something hot, put it down and watch it go cold. This is not my (slightly edited) text but that of Kevin Hargaden and Ronán’s replies. Thanks to them both for consenting to have it re-published here. 

Kevin: This is a great read and I don’t want to be too critical. The final turn on how capital debases love is especially good. However there are some almost pedantic points to be made and one massive problem. 

Pedantry Corner:

The Liddell and Scott lexicon gives us four words for love in Greek. The author here has given us φιλία, ἔρως and ἀγάπη but forgot στοργή (storgé). 

CS Lewis’ The Four Loves is a much under-read popular book that treats how these ideas interact with each other in Greek thought. Some people argue that Lewis’ schematizing is too neat, but I think the general thrust of his argument holds. Of course they all mean love so there was overlap in how they were used. How and ever, broadly, on a blog, you can unproblematically claim that for the Greeks, φιλία was the supreme concern and it is in Christianity that ἀγάπη takes centre stage.

So the main problem is as follows:

The blog is to be highly credited for being that rare piece of writing that begins to sense how profoundly radical the New Testament is as a piece of political writing. 

Without getting too far down the theological hole, aligning Robespierre in the text alongside James the Brother of Jesus, the Beloved Apostle and Paul is deeply wrong-headed. The kind of political power that is formed by ἀγάπη-love is the power of Jesus’ incarnation. If God takes on human-form, the humanism of Christianity occupies a space where talk of mercy for some and justice for others gets revealed as the bogus power-play and man-pretending-to-be-God that it is. All are subject to God’s abundant mercy, which on the Cross is the result of God’s perfect judgement. 

So in other words, any attempt to mine the New Testament for a political theology of humanism that doesn’t do business with the long Jewish story of atonement which is transfigured by the claim of Incarnation is going to make… well, a reign of terror. 

This is one of the reasons why churches, when they get political power, so often begin reigns of terror. They themselves, as the author alludes to by his reference to Matthew Henry’s Commentary, have not grappled with how radical the text is.

Fundamentally, I think the author assumes that “love” is a word that has an easily grasped shared meaning. ἀγάπη-love in Christianity, as the author clearly states, has a specific shape. S/he doesn’t go far enough to actually test if they have accurately sketched out that shape. That shape is non-violent, humanistic, and worshipping. The first and the last clause make the middle phrase look very different from plain old Enlightenment emancipation. 

Ronán’s reply to this: My reading of Greek philosophy had only introduced me to those three classifications of love, and they are the ones that appear in my encyclopedia of the ancient Greeks under ‘philosophy of love’. But I see from a quick Google search that Kevin is correct and there’s a fourth – that’s an interesting discovery. I need to read more about storgé. My uneducated guess is that it might fit well into the schematic of love I’m trying to sketch out. At times ‘agape’ has been defined as a familial love. I was defining it as beyond the interpersonal. So it could usefully remove an obstacle to clarity on that point. 

If you have any suggested reading on it Kevin please forward it.

Major problems:

The aim of the blogpost is to clarify a /radical/ agape that fits within the context of socialist politics. It has two segments – before and after the ‘revolution’ image. 

In the first I frame the roots of the concept I’m aiming for within the Christian tradition. I’m borrowing here from Marxist-Humanists like Marshall Berman and CLR James who counterpose their humanism to structuralism, economism and vulgar materialism by engaging in reflection on the history of the philosophy of alienation and placing Marx’s work on the subject within that context. Clearly, Christian theology provides some of the most significant explorations of the question of human alienation. Its reference by materialists should also provoke us to ask deep questions about the boundaries of that materialism. I have never studied theology and had an almost entirely secular upbringing so I can’t engage on theological terms in any great depth. My understandings are based on autodidactism. But from that basis I appreciate Christian agape as transcendent of the interpersonal, and also as you define: non-violent, humanist and worshipping.

In the second segment I was asking, for me as a Marxist-Humanist, what elements of that conception can be a basis for a radical or anti-capitalist agape.

Certainly humanism. But its humanism should be a love of people and the people. A love of humanity (people) but a recognition that it is oppressed, alienated and in need of emancipation. This is rather than a love of every individual or group – which is to embrace the sum of particulars but, by forgiving the oppressors of humanity, betray the universal. And a love of the oppressed (the people) who are the guardians of the flame of humanity. But not a love for social categories of oppression. In this sense I side more with Camilo Torres than Paulo Freire. The bourgeoisie is an oppressive category by definition – there is no other way to conceive of a capitalist class. 

Acknowledging the existence of capitalism tells me that radical agape should not be non-violent. This is not to advocate violence. But the imperative that a love of people and the people holds is that we must bring to an end class society. Class societies are not neutral grounds, however, they are sites of class conflict – initiated from above by those who would take the means of production which are meant to serve human society as a whole into private ownership. Capitalism is a system which advantages the bourgeoisie materially by affording them the social surplus. It necessitates their continuous internal and external competition in the process of the valorisation of capital. And so it cannot be overcome by appealing to their humanity. Rather they must be confronted and defeated. I would prefer for this to be achieved through non-violent means – but the entire edifice of the bourgeois order is based upon the right to violence in protection of their property. If, as has happened consistently throughout history, there is a violent reaction or counter-revolution from above it cannot be met with a willingness to be slaughtered in the name of non-violence.

I would hold the enlightenment line on worshipping too I’m afraid!

But a social love, transcending the interpersonal, that holds in special regards the afflicted is a basis for radical philosophies. And when matched with a love for humanity it is especially corrosive to the continued development of capitalism. Another of Che’s great quotes is that cynicism is capitalism’s chief trade in thought. Cynicism about humanity, predominantly. And so countering that with an optimism about humanity is a powerful thing. But perhaps more pertinent in the neoliberal world, where capital is aggressively driving atomisation, is that social conception of love that transcends the interpersonal.

Thanks for such a considered response to the blog. I think more engagement between socialists and Christians could be productive. Particularly if it could be in shared custody of the project that Paulo Freire outlined – facilitating “the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, to participate in the pedagogy of their liberation.”


And Kevin’s reply: I appreciate the way you have laid out the two-steps of your argument in the blogpost and I reiterate that I am heartened to see that first stage has you engaging with the humanism of the New Testament. As a socialist who is a Christian theologian, I think that Christians should be socialists and that socialists should at least be informed and enthuasiastic about Christ. In a more ecclesial idiom, “Preach it brother!”

The second segment is where I had an initial critique. I think that critique still stands. There are two directions in which that critique operates. Firstly, the New Testament is a set of writings that self-consciously site themselves within the bigger story of the Older Testament. That is inherently the story of a particular people, the Isrealites. It is hard to universalize that story so that it talks uncomplicatedly about “humanity” without making serious mistakes that have dire political consequences. The critique then pivots and goes in a direction that deepens the divide between the agape-narrative and your proposal. If the New Testament is sourced in the Old, the New Testament is centred around a particular individual. Jesus is the beginning and the end of the agape approach, or in the terms of the text itself, the alpha and the omega. 

This critique isn’t some grenade that seeks to explode everything you’ve said. Rather, I just want to suggest that the desire to generalise away from people groups and away from individuals is one that cuts against the grain of the New Testament argument. Theologically, we call this the scandal of Jewish particularity. The agape-love of Jesus, the Trinitarian conception of God, these are things that seem to me to demand an account of persons before classes.

That doesn’t make your reading impossible, but it does make it more difficult. Perhaps my critique is simply a theologian’s quibbles. And I’d rather see people grapple with the politcal potency of Jesus than lay down technical rules or historical qualifications that stifle that conversation. 

I completely agree with you that class society must come to an end and I am a Presbyterian so there isn’t a trace of naive hope in me that if only we appeal to people’s “humanity” that they might put down their violence of capital and inaugurate a utopia of fraternal love. But the political theology of the New Testament insists that the confrontation and defeat that brings about reconciliation is the confrontation with God and his defeat of our disodered desire to rule in his place. I recognise at this point I am preaching, and that therefore I’ve become mute to the political sphere. I at least have the consolation that I see the absurdity of my position. I call people to non-violence even to the point of death out of love for the ones who kill. 

Alongside Freire, I’d encourage you to consider tracking down the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf. He is a student of Moltmann, who did this PhD on Marx. (Latterly he has sold out horrendously and taken a position at Yale…) But back in the late 90s he wrote a book called Exclusion and Embrace which would, if nothing else, show you some of the moves that throwback Christians like myself are compelled to make. 

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