Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

Reviving the motto of the old Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci provides a starting point for tackling the crisis of politics today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

At the Battle of Ideas in London in October, Mick Hume took part in a debate on optimism and pessimism. His opening remarks are published below.

This discussion is entitled ‘The Battle Between Optimism and Pessimism’. Listening to some other debates at the Battle of Ideas, you could be forgiven for thinking that is something of a phoney war. Because it appears there are very few people around who would like to think of themselves as pessimists. This is entirely understandable; if you really couldn’t see a future, you might well choose to be somewhere quiet on your own with a rope this afternoon rather than debating the future at a conference.

But scratch the surface of the debates and many people are more pessimistic than they might like to think. The outlook of various speakers at the Battle of Ideas might be summarised as ‘I’m not a pessimist, but…’. Yes, they will say, I do believe in greater prosperity for all – but economic growth is unsustainable, so that’s not possible. Or yes, I do believe the Third World has the right to enjoy what we have – but the planet’s resources are finite, so they can forget it. This sounds less like optimism than pessimism-in-denial.

This puts me in an unusual position. I am not by nature a happy-clappy optimist. I have previously suggested myself as a panellist on a possible TV show entitled ‘Grumpy Old Marxists’. Yet in these days of widespread fatalism, cynicism and eco-miserabilism, I sometimes catch myself sounding like an optimistic Pollyanna compared to the various voices of doom.

So, for a more balanced approach to questions of optimism and pessimism, may I refer you to another old Marxist, the Italian Antonio Gramsci, who had every right to be grumpy as he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937. Gramsci is not, if truth be told, my favourite old Marxist. In isolation in his prison cell, he came up with some rather misguided ideas. Indeed, if you were ever exposed to the degraded intellectual dross that was long taught as Marxism in British universities – think ‘Cultural Hegemony’ and all that – then Gramsci and his groupies are partly to blame.

For our discussion today, however, I commend to you Gramsci’s great motto: ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.’ That seems to me a good way to look at this problem.

Pessimism of the intellect does not mean always looking for the worst-case scenario, as many tend to do today. It means rather seeing the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be or as others fantasise. It means accepting nothing at face value, doubting all that we are told, and questioning everything, not in the spirit of cynicism but of scepticism.

Pessimism of the intellect means that we do not have to swallow the hype about UK capitalism being in recovery just because somebody has bought a big house in Chelsea, or the opposing hype about a ‘revolution’ starting in France because young people are protesting over pensions. I am all for the youth protesting and rioting, but as I recall when I became a revolutionary student 30 years ago we did not march through the streets shouting, ‘What do we want? Old age pensions! When do we want it? In 40 years time!’.

Equally, pessimism of the intellect means that we do not have to accept unquestioningly any of the doom-mongering scares about how we are all at imminent risk of destruction from the climate, or last year’s flu pandemic that turned out to have killed few more people than the common cold.

But always, pessimism of the intellect needs to be underpinned by optimism of the will. That means a belief in the human capacity to meet new challenges, overcome them and move society forward – not a naive Stalinist ‘Forward ever, backward never’ attitude, but a confidence that man can make his own history, even if not in circumstances of his own choosing.

Optimism of the will need not be some sort of quasi-religious blind faith. It is based instead on historical realities, on the fact that the application of human ingenuity and struggle is what has brought us from the caves to something approaching civilisation, and created a modern world in which people’s lives in almost every corner of the globe are now longer, healthier and wealthier than ever before.

Yet that optimism of the will seems to be in short supply today. Many have lost faith in humanity as a history-making agent. Some of my old friends on the left wasted a lot of time and intellectual energy this year protesting against a visit to Britain by the pope. But I really could not care if some still have faith in the powers of the pope. What concerns me far more is that so few, including the left, appear still to have faith in the power of humanity. It is more than a century since God was declared dead – it is Man who is on the critical list today, at least as a political agent of progressive change.

That underlying lack of conviction, the absence of an optimism of the will, influences how we see ourselves and events every day. It reinforces a lack of validation for the intellect, so that just this week researchers could seriously claim that being liberal-minded is a result of genetic disposition rather than an intellectual achievement. And it influences every aspect of politics, producing a situation where there has been no serious debate about alternatives in the economic crisis and we are all expected to sit around fatalistically awaiting the fall of the accountants’ axe.

It used to be said that politics was the art of the possible. That always struck me as a small-minded and petty view of the political. Yet today it seems things are worse still, and the consensus is that politics is the art of what’s not possible, a listing of all the things that we cannot do and the horizons that must be lowered rather than an inspiration to change things for the better.

We need to reassert an optimism of the will if our pessimism of the intellect is to ask the right questions and hope to come up with some better answers.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. The above article is an edited version of a speech given at the Battle of Ideas festival on 30 October 2010.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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