Review: ‘Revolutionary Love’ by Michael Lerner

Reflections on Michael Lerner’s Revolutionary Love

Philip McKibbin

An earlier version of this review was published on Tikkun.org

When Rabbi Michael Lerner generously invited me to write an article for Tikkun exploring the similarities and differences between our conceptions of loving politics, the first thing that occurred to me is that there are far more similarities than differences.

I came across Lerner’s book, Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, last year at Epsom Library in Auckland, where I live. Our government here in New Zealand – led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – is sometimes held up as an example of caring leadership, but I dearly wish that it would embrace love.

Although Ardern’s government is certainly more caring than the Trump administration was, there are many ways in which it is failing – especially on urgent issues such as child poverty, the climate crisis, and our abuse of non-human animals. When Ardern became Prime Minister in 2017, I was glad, but also wary: it would have been naïve to believe we would achieve a loving society simply by voting in a centre-left government!

Over the last few years, I have been sketching the Politics of Love, a radical vision of politics which reimagines all of our relationships. I understand love as an ‘orientation’. It is a way of relating: to ourselves, each other, non-human animals, and the natural environment. As well as guiding our interpersonal relationships, I believe love can govern the other ways we relate. The Politics of Love is a values-based politics: it mobilises loving values such as compassion, responsibility, and trust, which can guide action and inform policy. It also carries with it commitments to mutuality, anti-exclusive inclusion, non-violence, etc.

Reading Lerner’s book, I felt an affinity between his proposed plan and the vision I have for our world. His ‘manifesto’, which is written for an American audience and is aimed at liberals and progressives in particular, sets out a programme of revolutionary love, imagining how it might be brought about in the United States of America.

Lerner understands that loving politics must be grounded in, and directed toward, action. One of the many things I admire about Revolutionary Love is that it is filled with practical ideas for creating a more caring society – like, for instance, decoupling work from basic survival needs, so that we have more freedom to direct our lives. This proposal – inspired by several months’ work on a kibbutz in Israel – will not simply alleviate poverty, it ‘will also allow workers to stay with jobs that feel meaningful and valuable for their community, even if the firms they work for can no longer afford to pay them.’

Indeed, there are many similarities between the Politics of Love and the ideas Lerner expresses. For example, I agree with his suggestion that transforming our social and economic institutions will not, in itself, be enough to realise loving community. He believes that spirituality is necessary, too – and I think something very similar: if we wish to transform our societies, we should let our highest values lead us. However, I prefer to talk about the importance of cultural change. There are people who, at the first mention of spirituality, will dismiss the notion of loving politics outright – and not without their reasons. I believe it is possible to present the Politics of Love in words that speak clearly to everyone.

Perhaps my favourite part of Lerner’s book is his treatment of human weakness. He says that we should extend our love to those we disagree with, and that this must include those who do very bad things. In my writing, I have argued that we need to have love for ourselves, too, and acknowledge those parts of ourselves that are most difficult to hold. In exploring self-blame, Lerner shares his work at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, explaining the importance of recontextualising our perceived shortcomings:

‘Always, our goal is to steer toward the question “Is it reasonable to say you created this reality?” and some variation of the answer “No. Although we make our own choices, we do so in the midst of social arrangements that we did not choose and which constrained our ability to imagine alternatives.”’

If there is wisdom in his book – and there surely is – it is here that it reveals itself most clearly.

Nonetheless, there are things I would challenge in Lerner’s account of revolutionary love. First, I think releasing a ‘manifesto’ is problematic in the context of loving politics. The word itself is controversial: it is strongly associated with communism, which will make many Americans suspicious of it. However, that is not the thing that concerns me most. If we are successful in realising a loving world, it will be because we create it together – not simply by following a plan, but by co-determining our future. It is very important that the contributions each of us make to loving politics are offered in a spirit of genuine humility. We do not need manifestos written by individuals so much as we need everyone contributing – and it is imperative that the offerings we make inspire collaboration in the truest sense.

(It is worth noting that Lerner is not the only American to have written a ‘manifesto’ for revolutionary love. Sikh activist Valarie Kaur’s book, which was published a few months later, is titled See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.)

The second thing I want to challenge in Lerner’s account is his insistence that we abandon the language of privilege. He believes that we have become preoccupied with ‘political correctness’, and that the way we talk about politics no longer resonates with Americans. The problem, he writes, is ‘identity politics’:

‘[W]hen identity politics are uplifted but the needs of most white working class people, and particularly white working class men, are dismissed as “white privilege or male privilege,” don’t be surprised if many of them turn to the Right, which acknowledges their pain (while blaming it on the liberals and progressives who instead seek to privilege “the most oppressed”). The Right gives expression to the resentment many people feel at the lack of respect they get in their lives and work with the misplaced nectar that blames various groups of historically demeaned Others.’

I agree that the term ‘privilege’ sometimes operates to alienate people who would otherwise see us as supporters, and that some conservatives have taken advantage of this. However, the experiences of people who are disadvantaged cannot be explained exclusively, or even – I would argue – primarily, in terms of class. (I believe the idea that the world’s problems more or less reduce to capitalism and class is misconceived, and that with the same tools – selective logic and clever word-play, we could perform a similar intellectual trick using sex, for example, or species-membership – and possibly much more convincingly!)

Sexism and racism operate in ways that impact people’s lives. It isn’t the case that they simply harm some of us; they also create benefits for others. The correlation between harms and benefits is not always direct, but that does not mean privilege is not real. (A ‘white’ man may not benefit directly from a Black woman being shot and killed by police, but such atrocities result from a system that oppresses Black women in order that ‘white’ men will benefit – with, for example, better experiences in education, more desirable work opportunities, and easier access to healthcare. Even ‘white’ working-class men benefit from white male privilege – by, for example, being shown greater trust by neighbours, shopkeepers, and the police; and by seeing white men being positively represented in the media.) Pretending that privileges do not exist – which is what we do when we refuse to acknowledge them – means that the injustices they arise from, and which they work to uphold, go unaddressed. A solution might be to ensure that when we talk of ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’, we acknowledge that the causes of disadvantage are complex, and that it is possible to experience brutal class oppression, which in itself is extremely difficult, without also experiencing the compounding negative effects of sexism and racism.

We can work to uplift the working class while at the same time acknowledging the reality of white privilege and male privilege. I follow African-American theorist bell hooks, whose writing on love – especially her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love – embraces men, including white men, while challenging us to engage critically with our privilege and work to dismantle what she calls ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’.

The third challenge I would make with respect to Lerner’s account of revolutionary love involves its strong focus on nationalism, and its appeals to American nationalism in particular. Of course, loving politics is – by its very nature – focused on community, and it is important that we work with the communities in front of us. However, our love becomes distorted when it is conceived only, or predominantly, in terms of a specific community. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against this when he spoke of ‘the barbaric consequences of any tribal-centered, national-centered, or racial-centered ethic’. When communities are conceived of in exclusive terms, love is undermined. (It is impossible to affirm nationalism without affirming some form of exclusion: national communities are defined as much by who they exclude – foreigners; those who choose, or are forced, to renounce their citizenship; ‘illegal’ immigrants – as who they include.) Any vision of loving politics that arises within the United States must critically interrogate the notion of American exceptionalism – the idea that the United States is superior to other nations – because as a nation it has been, and continues to be, a harmful force in international politics, with severe consequences for people living in other places.

(It is important to remember that Lerner has subtitled his book ‘A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World’. It should surprise readers, then, that the book is written primarily for Americans – as if Americans alone will heal and transform the world!)

I am wary of offending Americans with this analysis – and of course, that is not my intention. In fact, the Politics of Love owes a tremendous debt to American thinking. Much of the literature on love and politics has been written within the United States, and without the works of thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, bell hooks, and angel Kyodo williams, I would not have been able to sketch the Politics of Love. Nā reira, kei te mihi, kei te mihi, kei te mihi…

It is only fair to point out that Lerner is generally critical of nationalism, even though he sometimes affirms its legitimacy – as when he writes, ‘Nationalist celebrations can be positive if they are done in ways that affirm the particularity of a given people while also affirming and fostering appreciation of all other people on the planet.’ Toward the end of his book, imagining the future in 2140, he suggests that open borders will become the norm and that the very notion of national borders will eventually disappear. This is pragmatic: any talk of dissolving national borders must acknowledge that it will only be accomplished in the long-term.

Still, his treatment of nationalism is problematic. For example, he writes that rather than celebrating Independence Day, Americans could dedicate the fourth of July to ‘Global Interdependence Day’ – ‘a day that balances celebration of what is good in our country with critical reflection on the oppressive practices in our past and present’. Although he outlines some of the ‘horrific acts of violence, theft, and domination’ that were committed in creating the United States of America, including the genocide of Indigenous peoples, he stops short of explicitly addressing the ways in which American nationalism upholds American exceptionalism. The two notions are closely – if not inextricably – connected. It is for this reason that, without a strong critique of American exceptionalism, his proposal that Americans take the fourth of July, a nationalistic holiday, to acknowledge and reflect on our global interconnectedness inadvertently perpetuates that supremacist myth.

Lerner is not the only thinker to make this mistake. In her book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution, Marianne Williamson attempts to summon American nationalism in the service of love. However, without a sufficiently critical analysis of American exceptionalism, and the ways in which it is bound up with American nationalism, her efforts to mobilise nationalist sentiment for revolutionary change undermine love.

The Politics of Love is committed to anti-exclusive inclusion, and as such it works to replace nationalism with a strong sense of global community. This does not mean that it denies our differences, or erases human diversity. Rather, it insists that this diversity can contribute to creating a community in which all of us are equal and each of us has a place. I often describe the Politics of Love as a ‘space’: a round space, within which all of us gather, with our diverse knowledges and histories, to debate and deliberate – and from which we act.

Although I disagree with Lerner on certain points, there are far more on which we agree, and I am grateful for Revolutionary Love.

Perhaps where our views most align is on what Lerner refers to as ‘meaning needs’. In discussing leftist movements of the past, he writes:

‘Historically, socialist and communist movements […] focused almost exclusively on the external realities of life, the economic and political arrangements, ignoring the inner realities, the need to place love, empathy, and genuine caring for each other, for all of humanity, and for the planet at the top of their agenda. They did not recognize the importance of what I call “meaning needs” – being connected to higher values for one’s life than simply satisfying material wants and needs. They did not ask themselves how to shape an economy and political system that embodied and promoted that kind of caring…’

Where Lerner emphasises ‘meaning needs’, I emphasise values – such as humility, respect, and understanding. With different words, we are both exploring ways of ensuring a connection between the lives we live and the things that really matter. By affirming the importance of love and working to give expression to our highest values, we will bring about a better world for everyone, together.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com


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