On ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”


This is a companion piece to my column in Red Pepper, which chronicles the hopes and frustrations of the revolutionary year of 1792.]

In the voluminous writings he composed during his eleven years imprisonment under the fascist regime, Antonio Gramsci repeatedly cites the aphorism, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (which he ascribed to the novelist Romain Rolland). In one of his letters, he expanded the idea: “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned … I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” In the context of Gramsci’s life and work, the phrase had a particular resonance. He was suffering isolation and deprivation in prison, from which he had no hope of release. The left, and with it, for Gramsci, the prospects for humanity, had suffered terrible reverses. In these conditions the aphorism was a formula for survival. It also has to be seen in relation to the major concerns of his prison writings: the connection between theory and practise, the role of intellectuals, the dialectic of subjective and objective factors.

The phrase has long appealed to activists, who recognise in it something true to their own experience and find it sustaining. It’s a powerful warning against wishful thinking, like Amilcar Cabral’s command to “Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” And at the same time it’s a counsel against resignation. It proposes a determined, open-eyed engagement with history, something we’d all aspire to.

But presented baldly as it often is, as a complete answer to a persistent question, I’ve found it increasingly problematic. I’m not sure that either “will” or “intellect”, “optimism” or “pessimism” represent the realities of our situation, or are categories that can do the work the aphorism assigns to them.

Left activism surely calls for a relationship between “intellect” and “will”, not their separation into opposing camps. In any case, they never exist independently of each other and at times can infect and distort each other. I think everyone on the left knows that an unbending optimism of the will can corrupt or compromise intellectual clarity. And no one should pretend that relentless pessimism of the intellect is not debilitating.

“Optimism of the will”, as a duty, turns us into divided people. It’s one of those impossible, unreal injunctions, like “live every day to the fullest” or “always look at the glass half full instead of half-empty”. It’s a recipe for denial, with all the neuroses that accompany it. If optimism is made compulsory the danger is it becomes compulsive. It breeds a voluntarism that is compelled to exclude unwelcome thoughts or feelings.

Where is the logic of optimism if there are no rational grounds for it? If there really is no chance of effecting change, then why bother with activism? Is it self-vindicating, something pursued for its own sake, or is it goal-orientated? We’re often reassured that “the process” is what matters. And yet essential to that process is “keeping your eyes on the prize”. How is that possible if you’ve decided the prize is an illusion?

And what is “will”? It’s not passion or emotion but is clearly grounded in them. It’s presented as a faculty of consciousness, as consciousness imposing itself over habit or environment, as a mastery of self and circumstances. But can “will” ever be entirely an entity of consciousness? Its sources lie in the sub-conscious. And in reality, as any therapist will tell you, “will power” or “mastering the self” requires recognition of precisely that sub-conscious grounding, and indeed of the illusions of “mastery” and “will”.

Pessimism of the intellect, as a principle, can be as distortive in its way as wishful thinking. It is as irrational to deny possibilities, to foreclose developments, as it is to imagine they exist where they do not. There is of course the pessimism of the intellect of the right, which discounts human capacities and sees capitalism as the end of history. That is most definitely not what Gramsci was talking about. But on the left, pessimism of the intellect sometimes takes on a pseudo-authority, it becomes exactly what Gramsci warned against, a form of self-protective “disillusionment”, that preserves itself and its authority by not investing in immediate or medium term hopes.

Over the years, in the wake of defeats or disappointments, I’ve been told by “wise men” of the left that of course it was inevitable. With professorial condescension, they’ve informed me that given the balance of forces, etc. it could have only worked out this way and it was naive to think otherwise. These days I see that posture as a defence mechanism, a way of denying pain or despair or frustration – and sometimes a way of imposing a personal superiority by claiming to embody objectivity and historical acuity. To make hope real, to exercise an optimism of the will, you have to invest in it: your time, your energy, your sense of self and your role in the world. Without that, movements cannot move.

In light of these considerations, how does the aphorism apply to our current situation? Looking to the future, there seem extensive grounds for pessimism. It’s more than possible that capitalism will resolve its current crisis at the expense of the working class and to its own historic advantage. It will unburden itself of past compromises. Levels of social support of all kinds will be reduced. Much of the workforce will be casualised and outsourced. Struggles for social justice will then have to be waged from the lower, weaker ground created by these defeats. In Britain, the NHS will be dismantled and not reassembled by a future Labour government.

Meanwhile, the hopes of the Arab Spring have been blighted by imperial and sectarian violence. Climate change continues unchecked, as recent news of the accelerating retreat of the Arctic icecap shows, while governments nearly everywhere downgrade the issue and shrug off responsibility. Global crises in both water and food supply are said to be imminent, the result of the pressure of capitalist priorities. Altogether it’s a dismal prospect. It seems all we can hope for is the dubious pleasure of being able to say “we told you so”.

Yet none of this is cast in stone. Probabilities are never certainties. The odds can alter with astonishing speed, depending on the shifting conjunction of variables – among them our own actions, our “will”.

There are other sides of the story, notably in Latin America, where inroads have been made on neo-liberalism with significant benefits for the poor. In Europe, levels of resistance may well rise, including here in Britain, where we’ve only begun to feel the brunt of the cuts. As austerity is seen to fail, more people will seek an alternative. As for the Arab Spring, it is of course far too early to tell. The popular aspirations that entered the political arena, that opened up that arena, are still working themselves out, subject to intense pressures from various directions. The democratic revolutions in Europe of 1848 were mostly unsuccessful or rolled back or co-opted. Nonetheless, the year did mark a leap forward, one which was the indispensable condition for the progress that eventually did take place.

It’s only in our own time that capitalism has fulfilled the destiny Marx ascribed to it, becoming a truly global system and subjecting an ever-wider range of social relations to its imperatives. But at this moment of climax it has imploded. Even as it reaches its global apogee and maximises its penetration, capitalism stands exposed as crisis-prone and anti-social. It no longer even offers the prospects for individual social mobility that have won it such allegiance in the past.

The important break-through of the last few years has been the spread of a critical view of capitalism – a system which for many years we weren’t even allowed to name (as it masked itself behind euphemisms like “the market” or “free enterprise”). It might be said that we have learned to name the system, but not its alternative. As Gramsci said in his Prison Notebooks, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Optimism of the will, the willingness to sacrifice for a larger goal, has been made harder by the collapse of existing alternatives, both Communist and social democratic, as well as by the retreat of liberalism into a capitalist ‘realism’. Utopianism in general, as a mode of thinking, has been banished from mainstream discussion. In this situation we need a kind of ‘optimism of the intellect’: a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now, coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable society, a better human future, which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.

Our hopes lie in the unresolved nature of the present. Life is fluid and contradictory. Any moment contains multiple possibilities, which in turn generate further possibilities. We do not and cannot fully know the whole that is currently evolving, and we have no right to foreclose the future. Had that been done by the radicals of the past – abolitionists, feminists, trades unionists, democrats – we wouldn’t even be talking now. As Blake said, “the ratio of all we know will be different when we know more.” Blanket injunctions either to pessimism or optimism deny the inherently mixed, multi-stranded character of social reality.

The human faculty for cooperation, along with the unalterable facts of human interdependency, remains a perennial source of hope (more important I think than ‘optimism’). History attests to our capacity for creativity and compassion as much as our capacity for destruction and hate. The reality is that value is still created outside the mechanisms of exchange, in relationships and in creative and cooperative acts of all kinds. These are real – in some ways more real than the exchange value worshipped by capitalism – and they permeate our lives and nourish us.

I ask myself how Palestinians address the pessimism / optimism equation. They face as grim a present and as unpromising a future as anyone on the planet. Their long struggle for freedom is for the moment a struggle for survival – against a ruthless opponent backed by the world’s superpower, encumbered with a corrupt and ineffectual official leadership, under daily political, economic and environmental attack. In a way, Palestinians have been living with this for years. Much of Palestinian literature is a record of a struggle against despair and dissolution. Despite everything, they have held to their aspirations, sustaining not just an ‘identity’ but a political project. Their injunction is “Samoud” – steadfastness. Here the present is a moment of duty to past and future, a link between the two. This is an approach we can emulate, remaining “steadfast” in our opposition to the current regime and in our vision of a better future.

In a sense, pessimism of the intellect is always in order because we are up against titanic forces, whose powers, reach, resources dwarf our own. The only things we can match them in are motivation, determination and imagination. Radical politics always involves redefining the possible, freeing it from the circumscription of received ideas. Today that means rejecting the faux-realism which construes the imperatives of capital as supra-human law. It means replacing capitalism’s hubristic claim to be ‘the end of history’ with a revival of Marx’s idea that only with its abolition will we see the beginnings of a truly human history. Without doubt, what we do or don’t do now will shape what others are able to do in the future. In calculating the odds of success, remember Archimedes on the power of the lever: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.”

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