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Marxist Love: Why tenderness is a political act

Şeyda Kurt spoke about Radical Tenderness and whether love is possible under capitalism

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Seyda Kurt is a journalist, curator and author who wrote the book Radical Tenderness

In your book, you ask Karl Marx what romantic and family relationships will look like after the communist revolution…

Oh God, I can’t remember exactly what Marx says when he answers this question! In my interview with Marx, he is like: why are you asking me so many questions? Here I am, chilling out in Heaven, and you’re getting at me with all these relationship self-help questions! This is what I imagine Marx is like. This old guy who wants to enjoy his retirement – but we just won’t leave him alone!

But as far as I’m concerned, after the communist revolution, I really hope that we’ll live in the kind of society where caring for each other is seen as a political act. Caring for each other as human beings. I dream of a world where our society is set up – the way we work, the way we make money – so that we will have enough time to be there for each other. And you know, I really think things can get a lot better than the way they are right now.

Right now I feel like love between a man and a woman – especially if kids are involved – is basically impossible. I don’t really think there are many heterosexual relationships that are not abusive. And it’s not because men are abusive, per se, but just that the power men have over women leads to abuse.

I know what you mean, and I really think you’re making a good point. That’s why I wrote this book. I wanted to analyse capitalism, racism and colonialism – they exist and they don’t suddenly stop existing just because we’re in relationships.

So you think these oppressive structures influence our relationships?

It’s not only that capitalism, racism and colonialism influence our relationships. It’s that our relationships, these relationships we enter into, are the product of these structures! And these relationships can even support and strengthen these oppressive structures! It’s so tempting to think that outside of our relationship the world is totally shitty – there’s racism and sexism, etc. But inside our relationship, here at home, everything is nice, everything is hunky-dory.

So you know, on the one hand, I think I agree with you. But I think you need to go a step further. You need to define what love actually is. I don’t believe in this metaphysical, perfect version of love. I believe that love, a relationship between two people, can always have the potential to be violent or abusive – especially because of the way our society is organised. So the way we interact with each other in these romantic relationships can be a form of resistance. But what I don’t think we should do is have the aim of having perfectly equal relationships.


No, I don’t believe a perfectly equal relationship is possible!

Your book really tries to answer the question: is love a form of unpaid labour?

Yeah, this is a question which is really interesting to me. I talk about the protagonist of a Turkish film, Selvi Boylum Al Yazmim, who is always asking herself the question: what is love? At the end of the film, she decides: love is work. So now we’re back to Marx again. Because if love is labour, and labour alienates us, then does that mean love has to alienate us too?

But also the definition of love as work is important in other contexts too: in the context of the unpaid care labour that mothers and other caregivers provide for their children or other family members. You know marxist feminists have been thinking about this topic since the 1970s – that was when people started to say, “You call it love, we call it unpaid housework!”

People started noticing that this concept of romantic love was being used to disguise the truth about exploitation and unpaid labour. Silvia Federici, for example, had a lot to say about this topic.

You’re a huge Marx fan, but do you agree that Marx had a blind spot as far as the oppression of the housewife goes?

If we listen to Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists, yes. Although I have to say that this is the kind of thing that really annoys Marx fanboys. Recently, I was in a podcast with two young guys and I noticed they were really pissed off with me because I dared to criticise Marx!

I was a bit surprised, because you know, I became politicised through Marx, he is one of the most important thinkers in the world, for me, personally, and yet still, because of my feminist perspective I have to have a certain distance to him… He’s not God. And then that one guy said to me, “I think it’s really dumb, criticising Marx for all the things he didn’t mention, because Marx gifted us a beautiful theory, and we can use this theory and then add our own ideas to it”. That’s totally true!

But at the same time, Karl Marx, in his theory of oppression, didn’t think far enough as far as women are concerned. He didn’t notice that in the chain of oppression, the housewife is standing pretty far at the back, you know? Only the salaried worker gets paid for his work! But his housewife, who is also working all day long, and doing work that is really fundamental for capital- ism, by the way, because this is the only way new workers will be produced, right, her work is not paid – it’s not even seen!

In your book, you have Marx say that he does the washing up – I think he even uses the hashtag #notallmen – but I don’t think he did, at all. I think he let his wife, Jenny, do all the unpaid care work, type up his notes, and had a great old life. That’s why he had a blind spot! Because he wrote those books and articles and essays on the back of Jenny’s unpaid labour.

Probably…maybe? I think you’re probably right. Like, he didn’t just have his wife, Jenny, they had lots of daughters, and there was also a housekeeper. I think, in all probability, that Marx never once in his whole life did the dishes!

Have you ever been to Chemnitz, the old Karl-Marx-Stadt of East Germany? I have, and when I walked past that big Karl Marx head with a Starbucks coffee cup in my hand, I felt he was shooting me angry looks – like you ungrateful wench, I have given you so much and look what you have done for me!

I don’t know if he thinks that! I am not so sure he’s disappointed in us. You know he played on the stock market? And you know, as well, Marx didn’t believe we had to become better people as individuals. He wanted the system to be better. It’s like with my book – I’m not fighting for people to be kinder and more tender with one another on an individual level.

I want a new system that makes it possible to have kinder, more tender relationships. So what I am saying is Marx wouldn’t be disappointed in you! For drinking Starbucks. Or in us, even. In us humans. Even though the kids are voting FDP, I think he’d be a bit proud of us. We have made some progress you know!

These are kind of depressing times to be a socialist with FDP winning a huge amount of votes amongst first-time voters – even those with a so-called “Migrationshintergrund!”

Yeah, a few weeks ago, when these statistics came out – young people vote FDP – I was so shocked: like, what the fuck? Who are these people? How were they raised? And then I talked to a teenage relative – he’s a totally cool guy you know – and suddenly he’s coming out with “I like the FDP, I find Elon Musk cool!” and my jaw fell to the floor!

I don’t know if they really understand the issues. Sometimes [Musk] sounds like he’s coming out with socialist ideas. Or all those Silicon Valley people! They talk about a post-capitalist society but I don’t think they mean the same thing as we do. And I think young people are just confused to be honest. Well, that’s how I explain it to myself!

Sometimes I think we need to make a kind of trendy modern FDP-style party, aimed at non-white kids – and secretly, when we get into power, we’ll do loads of socialism.

Yeah, I mean, I think in terms of non-white Germans and socialism, there’s a lot of factors at play here. Just because you have experienced exploitation – or even violence – yourself, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will fight oppression. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will become political!

There are actually quite a few non-white people who will join in with neoliberal policies. Because they profit from them. There are even people who might join in with racist policies if it benefits them. People who think: the main thing is that I advance in my career, in my life, all that matters is that I become a “role-model migrant”. And you know, one of the biggest far right organisations in Germany is actually a Turkish organisation, the Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar).

This has to play a role, right? Just because you are affected by racism, that doesn’t make you left-wing.

So, if Marx showed up today, do you really think he’d be proud of us? What for?

I think Marx would be a bit proud of us if he could see us now. That people are still fighting, still taking part in projects, still trying to build a better future. But I think most of all he probably just wants to be left in peace, to enjoy his red wine, and enjoy his retirement. It’s on us to finish off his project now!


Şeyda Kurt’s bestselling debut non fiction Radikale Zärtlichkeit. Warum Liebe politisch ist (Radical Tenderness. Why Love is Political) explores the meaning of love at the intersection of patriarchy, racism and capitalism. It was published by HarperCollins in April 2021.