The Revolutionary Love Movement: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

– Che

For centuries, love has been a revolutionary force in the lives of individual human beings and societies, too. Now, there’s also something called “revolutionary love,” though you won’t find that variety on the Wikipedia page for love, which lists “conjugal love,” “free love,” “platonic love” and more. Now, there’s also a contemporary “revolutionary love movement” that’s driven in part by the recent explosions of hate that come from the alt-right and from enclaves of white power, but that are not limited to one single ethnic group, gender or social class.

If love and revolution are both potent forces, each in their own right, think how alluring they have been together, and how many romantics, from the English poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the dashing reporter and bohemian, John Reed, have been swept away by them, sometimes to their deaths. Shelley died at 30, Reed at 32 and Che at 39. Love and revolution take a heavy toll.

One might say that there’s a worldwide epidemic of hatred that targets Moslems, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists and agnostics and that finds expression in hate crimes, hate speech, racism, bigotry and some nationalisms.

Michael Lerner, a kind of maverick Berkeley rabbi, has recently written and published a manifesto titled Revolutionary Love in which he calls for the creation of a “Love and Justice Party,” the “globalization of generosity” and the formation of a “ post-socialist”and a “Caring Society.” Yeah, he’s a latter-day Utopian who tells his followers not to be realistic.

Lerner describes the world he wants to create “post socialist,” rather than “democratic socialist,” or just plain “socialist” because in his view, “societies that called themselves socialist democracies in Europe often ended up either susceptive to authoritarian leaders or to bureaucratic governments.” Too bad he ignores the positive achievements of socialist movements and socialist activists around the world. Lerner adds that the movement to which he aims to give birth “must differentiate ourselves by calling ourselves post-socialist or love socialists.” That’s a new term, too: “love socialists,” though many American socialists like Eugene Debs, thought they were in love with humanity.

Lerner seems to understand how fraught with difficulties the potent word “love” can be. In Revolutionary Love he writes that in the 1960s he “hated being told by rock stars at anti-war rallies, ‘ love all of you.’” How curious that he moves almost unconsciously from his endorsement of “love” to his recollection of how much he “hated” the self-defined apostles of love. By 1975 when Captain and Tennille came along with “Love Will Keep Us Together” love lyrics had been thoroughly overused and abused.

The love apostles were everywhere in the 1960s. “Love is all you need” the Beatles sang and a generation echoed their words. The Youngbloods chimed in with ”Try to love one another right now.” At least Roxy Music pointed to the dark side in “Love is the Drug” which tells a story of addictive lovers.

Lerner was not the first to be troubled by the indiscriminate use of the word “love.” Frederick Engels, Karl Marx comrade and co-author of The Communist Manifesto, noted in 1884 in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, “civilization covers the evils it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to excuse them, or deny their existence.”

That’s a harsh condemnation, though one can find examples of what he had in mind in Victorian England, near the height of the British Empire, when love was used to sell products like chocolates and especially on and around Valentine’s Day. One savvy manufacturer, inserted chocolates into boxes shaped like hearts. The idea being that if you love someone you purchased chocolates and gave them as a gift to someone to prove your affections.

Today, hearts and heart-shaped boxes, along with American flags are on products in malls and supermarkets here and everywhere that goods manufactured in the U.S. are sold. Do advertisers think that consumers will he persuaded to buy chocolates, soaps, perfumes, shaving creams and more because they have hearts and flags and the word love on the packaging? “Love—It’s What Makes a Subaru a Subaru” helps sell millions of cars.

In the 1960s, advertisers discovered that Americans would buy products and support causes if the words “revolution” and “revolutionary” were attached to them. We had “the revolution in underarm deodorant,” the “Dodge Revolution” and in the 1980s, to top it off, “The Reagan Revolution.”  That was a major turnaround.

For decades, the words “revolution” and “revolutionary” had negative connotations. In the 1950s, a revolutionay was almost as bad as a terrorist. A revolutionary wanted to tear down and destroy, and not be constructive. Now at the end of the 2010s, and the start of the 2020s, love and revolution have been linked as never before, and not only by rabbi Michael Lerner and his Berkeley congregation.

Dozens of distinguished religious and political figures, as well as artists, have recently signed a “Declaration of Love” that has echoes of the Declaration of Independence and that’s separate from Lerner and his cause. Apparently it’s an idea whose time has come. “The Revolutionary Love Project,” which was founded by Valerie Kaur and that’s based at the University of Southern California, has posted the Declaration of Love on its website and a definition: “Love is not just a feeling but a form of sweet love.” Yeah, it’s hard work to love someone or something. Those who have signed the declaration include the usual suspects: Elizabeth Warren, Van Jones, Eve Ensler, Ani DiFranco, Jane Fonda and half-a-dozen U.S. rabbis, both men and women. Lerner isn’t one of them.

Warren and Company profess their love “for all who are in harm’s way,” including “refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, queer and trans people, Black people, Latinx people, the indigenous, the disabled, women and girls, working-class people and poor people.”

Are we supposed to love all poor people and all queers and refugees? In a world of climate change, rising ocean levels, air pollution and toxic chemicals in foods and elsewhere, is there anyone not in “harm’s way?” Is one to express revolutionary love for all these people by sending chocolates, greeting cards, Christmas presents, and voting for candidates for the presidency like Warren?

With all the talk about “revolutionary love” in the age of global rage, it’s surprising that no one has quoted Che Guevara who proclaimed, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Che, the guerrilla, was also a romantic and an adventurer who went on the road in Latin America and wrote about his experiences in Motorcycle Diaries. Later, he wanted to force the U.S. to overextend itself militarily, and for guerrillas to cut off its tentacles and bleed it to death. From the point of view of the 21st century that seems delusional, but it didn’t seem that way in the mid-1960s. Che: live like him! Now his name and his likeness are used to sell all kinds of commodities. I happen to have a cigarette box with Che’s image and signature and the words, in Spanish, “20 cigarrillos rubios con filtro” and “Prohida la venta a menores de 18 años.”

Che’s life, legend, marriages, to Hilda Gadea and Aleida March, and his five children, complicate the web of love and revolution. “May our children be like Che,” Fidel Castro said on the day he announced Che death in Bolivia. We might amend his comment and say, “the true human being ought to be guided by great feelings of love.” Still, I’ve always thought that a little class hatred went a long way. If you’re going to build a barricade and overthrow the state, anger can be a very useful tool.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.