Is Hate Politically Useful?

Şeyda Kurt thinks so.

by Harry Stopes

17 April 2023

Şeyda Kurt. Photo: Harriet Meyer

Love, we are often told, is stronger than hate. Besides being an ugly emotion, the argument goes, hate is no basis for a leftwing politics aiming at justice and equality. It’s divisive, disordered, and destructive. It dismantles bonds rather than building solidarity, and it alienates potential allies.

The German writer Şeyda Kurt makes a rather different case. In her new book Hass: Von der Macht eines widerständigen Gefühls (‘Hate: On the Power of a Defiant Emotion’), Kurt traces the history of hate, its political meanings and potential from a leftwing, anti-racist and feminist perspective. Though Kurt, who was born in Cologne in 1992 to Kurdish-Turkish parents and lives between Cologne and Berlin, is well aware of the dangers of a resurgent far right, this isn’t a book about the right and its many hatreds. 

Instead, she’s interested in hate’s potential as an organising tool for “Black people, racialised people, Jewish people, poor people and workers, queer people, feminised people and people of other marginalised genders. Revolutionaries. Fighters in liberation and class struggles.” In certain contexts and with a strategic perspective, Kurt argues, a shared hatred for a common enemy – an occupying army, a racist government, or an exploitative employer – can give a political movement the intensity and tenacity necessary for a long struggle. ‘Strategic hate,’ as she calls it, can be a method of self-defence and an instrument of liberation.

Harry Stopes spoke to Kurt for Novara Media. 

HS: Your book is about the revolutionary potential of hate. But isn’t hate something oppressive, a weapon for the powerful?

SK: The philosopher Hilge Landweer distinguishes between Verachtung (contempt) and Hass (hate). She argues that contempt fits perfectly into the neoliberal emotional landscape, because it’s a gesture of turning away from, and dehumanising the other person, not taking them seriously. Hate, on the other hand, takes its object very seriously.

In a system of class hierarchies, there’s contempt from above and hatred from below. The ruling class don’t have to take the enemy seriously most of the time – unless the working class organises and strikes. But when you’re an oppressed person, you really have to take your oppression seriously, because otherwise you can’t exist. You can’t survive. For me, it’s precisely the focus on the other that gives hate its transformative potential.

HS: What are your first memories or first experiences of hate?

SK: On the one hand, hatred was omnipresent around me. In my family, everyone hated everyone, so it was just the normal mode of being with each other. Yet hate was also taboo.

As I write in my book, my mother claimed not to feel hate. The word she would use in Turkish is kinci, which means spiteful, or holding a grudge. No one wants to be kinci because it means that you can’t move on. But all the parents I knew were kinci because they were kind of trapped in the trauma of migration, of being exploited in Germany and not being able to defend themselves. But they couldn’t show this openly.

HS: What does this taboo against feeling or expressing hatred mean, politically?

SK: From the perspective of the ruling class, the hatred of oppressed people should not and must not exist, because it can be dangerous to the status quo. For this reason, expressions of hatred are punished.

One way this operates is through the attribution of hatred to oppressed people as an innate feature of their character: the idea that these people are consumed by hatred. This was an important ideology in colonialism in order to dehumanise people, as well as to argue that they’re incapable of enlightenment – something Hegel claimed, for example – or of creating culture.

When this is attributed to you over centuries, when it’s claimed that you’re a person full of hatred and that for this reason you’re not a real person, then you don’t want to prove them right. The hatred is turned inwards, which Franz Fanon also described in Black Skin, White Masks.

And any hint of anger is immediately stigmatised, as, for example, in the trope of the ‘angry Black woman’. Another example is the victims of police violence: whatever they do, they’re always characterised as the aggressor.

HS: In the book, you advocate for something you call ‘strategic hate’, which is a hatred that can be mobilised by oppressed people for social change and for justice. What are the characteristics of such a form of hate?

SK: The first thing that was important for me was to show that this form of hate, felt by the oppressed, already exists and that it has a history and a present. In Germany, this can be seen again and again in the way victims of rightwing terror are treated. The families of the victims of Hanau [an attack by a rightwing extremist who killed ten people in Hanau, near Frankfurt, on 19 February 2020] learned from the relatives of the victims of the terrorist network NSU [National Socialist Underground], which murdered nine migrants over seven years. These victims’ families were suspected and criminalised by German society and the authorities themselves, even though they and activists repeatedly argued publicly it must be rightwing terror. These people were powerless for years (until the terror group exposed itself), trapped between shame and stifled rage.

The relatives of the Hanau victims therefore organised themselves immediately after the attack, with the help of activists, and founded the February 19 Initiative. They make no secret of their anger, and direct it at public events against politicians, whom they demand to fully clarify the details of the attack. [The Arena Bar, one of the venues attacked, had been regularly targeted by police fishing raids. An investigation by Forensic Architecture concluded that the emergency exit at the bar was locked, under pressure from the police – if it had been open, a number of victims might have escaped.] They’ve also inspired a new movement of young migrant struggles – for example, ‘migrantifa’ – who take their hatred of police violence and capitalist exploitation of migrant people to the streets.

The typical liberal leftist position – represented, for example, by the German journalist Carolin Emcke, who wrote a book called Against Hate (Gegen den Hass) – is that racialised people who are victims of rightwing terror are objects of hate, because they are dominated by it. And when you’re the object of a feeling, you can’t organise, you can’t be strategic, you can’t resist. My point is that they are the subjects of hate, which means they can develop its potential as a tool of resistance.

HS: There’s a phrase in German: ‘Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen.’ It literally translates as ‘peace, joy, pancakes.’ You write that “few phrases describe the emotional culture of late capitalism better than this triptych”. What does this phrase express for you?

SK: It’s a German idiom that basically describes the kind of cosmetic peace that rules in liberal societies, where violence and hatred are tidied away. This manifests itself in culture and ways of communicating with one another, but also in bigger structural phenomena like the presence of prisons. Prisons are proof that societies don’t want to deal with their problems, or the violence that they produce.

HS: This kind of society insists that political questions should be resolved in the realm of rationality, rather than emotions.

SK: Yes, it’s a core principle of liberal societies that everything must be a matter for debate, like we don’t live in a system of oppression or hierarchies. So in bourgeois society, we have the rational and political on the one hand, and on the other hand the emotional or private. 

For people who are used to this perspective, it’s like, ‘strategic hate or strategic love – that sounds weird.’ Because love or hate, that’s just something which happens – it’s just a natural thing. But from a feminist perspective, we know that emotions are political.

HS: Who or what should we hate: people or systems?

SK: It’s true that in leftist or socialist movements, we aren’t against people, we’re against systems. But at the same time, the systems are made by people. So there’s no universal answer to this question. But I can think of six rules.

Firstly, hating people must always remain the last option. Secondly, the question of who I hate might depend on who I can (or can’t) still expect something from.

HS: What do you mean?

SK: I have a quotation from Jodi Dean in the book where she explains that the mode of expectation is at the core of comradeship, in socialist or communist traditions. When I call you my comrade, I express that I expect something from you.

HS: And I can expect something from you.

SK: Yeah. And at some point, if not now then maybe in five or ten years, we might meet each other behind the same barricade. The third rule is that I should expect something from as many people as possible, but – fourthly – that I’d be well advised to hate those who want to burn down my barricades, or, fifthly, those whose prosperity depends on the fire. Finally, though hating people must always remain the last option, if I do hate, I should put everything into hating as if tomorrow depends on it.

HS: All in.

SK: All in. Yeah.

HS: Does that search for comradeship that you mention, mean #NotAllMen?

SK: It’s complicated, because it always matters the exact question I’m answering. Do all men benefit from patriarchy? Yes. Does that mean that they themselves do not suffer from patriarchy? Not at all. And does it mean that men are always the oppressors? This kind of identity politics thinking loses sight of class relations and class power, and of the fact that gender identities are always related to class struggles.

I quote this French author, Pauline Harmange, who wrote a book called I Hate Men. I wonder with what right she claims, for example, to hate men in the Global South, a geography that is colonised by France until today and exploited for French prosperity; or, I don’t know, exploited migrant men or whoever. If she says no, I don’t hate these men, then the question is, why are they falling out of her category of men?

So, as much as I sympathise with much of her thesis, and also have a great anger at what is happening in the name of masculinity in terms of destruction, violence, and incompetence, it doesn’t follow that there’s a nature of man that is unchangeable, for which I must hate all men. Because that would also mean that I don’t expect much from men – but I expect a lot of them.

HS: You are interested in abolitionist politics, and you write several times in the book that you’re afraid of ‘the policeman in your head’. How can we talk about hate and revenge without expressing ourselves in the language of punishment?

SK: For me, this is a question which must be answered in a collective way. For the book I spoke to women in Rojava about what hate means for them. They told me that hate is important for the movement, for example, in a shared hatred of the Turkish army. But at the same time, they said that hate alone won’t help to create a new society.

So they are dealing with precisely the question you asked: about how to deal with feelings of revenge in a transforming society. Revenge is a very important theme in the Kurdish movement, to mobilise people over centuries and also generations of families. But they’re also establishing a politics of love. They have these commissions for reconciliation, to build a new basis and structure for communication, and a radical democratic mode of living between all the different ethnic and religious communities. I don’t know if the term ‘transformative justice’ is known in Rojava, but I would say that this is how transformative justice could be.

HS: Near the end of the book you write that ultimately we will have ‘either hate or tenderness.’ How can a politics of hate lead us to a world that is more loving?

SK: In a way it’s not that complicated, because if you want another world, if you want a world of tenderness and love, we have to know what we don’t want. And I think hate is a very good compass for what we don’t want for the society we’re building. That’s also why hate is more interesting for me than rage, because rage is something that explodes in one moment, whereas hate is something that’s happening in the background. Hate is, really… the German word is zäh: something tough, stubborn.

We need rage, but we also need practices and political emotions which are zäh because the systems of oppression we are dealing with are also very zäh. Leftist movements a hundred years ago thought: ‘We’ll fight for 20 years, capitalism will soon end, and then comes the revolution.’ Now we know that that doesn’t happen next week, just like the police won’t be abolished next week.

So I think we need political emotions which are really zäh. We need to hate oppression and injustice, as well as to love justice and to know what we’re fighting for.

Harry Stopes is a Berlin-based writer.


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