Richard Gilman-Opalsky is a radical on the prairie. He came to teach at University of Illinois Springfield from New York City, where he earned a Ph.D. from The New School. He said upon graduating, he realized most universities were not keen on hiring political theorists and philosophers, and were "even less interested" in hiring ones interested in criticizing capitalism while exploring social movements, radical politics and revolution. Gilman-Opalsky has been in Springfield since 2006, when he started a position at UIS where he can research and teach his interests. He said Springfield is "one of the very few places in all of North America that wanted me as I was."
His new book, published late last year by AK Press, is titled The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value. It explores the "meanings and powers of love from Ancient Greece to the present" and in it, Gilman-Opalsky "argues that what is called 'love' by the best thinkers to have approached the subject is in fact the beating heart of communism – that is, communism as a human aspiration and a form of life, not as a form of government," according to the book's back cover.
We asked the professor of political theory and philosophy to break down some of these heady, controversial themes for us at a time when love is in the air, and echoes of the Red Scare are alive and well. The following interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.
Why write about love? And how do you define it?
As an author and a philosopher, I try to think and speak about what love does in the world, for real people. I know that love is widely regarded as a great power in human affairs, as a universal positive force. Everybody wants to experience it, yet it's a bit scary to say what love is and what it means. That drew me to it, because my whole career as a writer has been one of gravitating towards subjects that frighten me.
The way I define love in the book is that it is not something that we get or give, like private property. Rather, it is an active way of relating to other people. So, if you think about how to define love in a romantic relationship, or in relation to a brother or a sister, or a mother or a child, or between friends – it manifests as our active participation in the other person's becoming what they want to be, or what they could be and should be.
This participation in the becoming of another person is not limited to interpersonal relationships. It also extends out into social movements and political struggles, where people participate in society becoming something that it is not yet. For example, in the fight to abolish white supremacy or abolish sexism, we want to create the world that we know we should have, but that we do not yet have.
Why communism – a scary word by many accounts – and what sort of communism are you talking about here?
My approach to the idea of the word of communism is to explore whether it offers something that is appealing, useful and perhaps necessary. If it does, then we should not abandon good words and ideas just because they are misunderstood and vilified.
In my work, and in my research, I find the word and idea of communism is a very important and useful idea that we still need to think about. The way I think about communism is not a form of government. It refers to active relationships that challenge or oppose other forms of human relations. In the amount of time that Karl Marx spent thinking about human relations and the exploitation in everyday life of regular, working-class people, his attention to government was minor. He did think a lot about "Gemeinwesen" – a German word for the nature of human community. The word communism shares the same root: communities.
Marx's major interest in thinking about communism was about creating a kind of society that we don't yet have, but should have. The community, basically, is blown apart in the historical development of capitalism. For Marx, the project of communism is the revolt of the community against that which harms it, against a system that ruthlessly pits us against each other in a competitive framework of self-interest. So, I understand a sort of communism that searches for a healthy community.
How do you show people you love them in ways that align with your philosophy? Is there room for flowers and chocolates and general tradition?
My partner prefers coffee to flowers. So, I have vowed to make her coffee every morning until the first of us dies. And you might say that's romantic in a conventional way of some kind. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with flowers, chocolate or cards. My work is really not about excluding the conventional ways that people practice love in their lives, but it is against reducing love to only those most conventional expressions.
Contact Rachel Otwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.