Pessimism of the Intellect, and the Optimism of the Will

Hugh Rodwell Hugh.Rodwell at
Sun May 26 08:06:36 MDT 1996

From: m-14970 at (Hugh Rodwell)
Subject: Re: Pessimism of the Intellect, and the Optimism of the Will

Joern, supplementing Zeynep, gives us Callinicos in English:

>_Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will_
>"The phrase has its uses, but it is ultimately an undialectical way of
>putting things. It suggests that reality is harsh and unyielding,
>constantly frustrating the 'optimistic' will which, in defiance of reason,
>seeks to transform it. One can respond to reality thus viewed in one of
>two ways - ultra-left voluntarism or reformist adaption, suicide or
>surrender. Marxism is distinguished from other forms of socialism precisely
>by its claim that the possibility of social transformation depends on the
>existence of tendencies in reality itself working towards that
>transformation. The point of socialist organisation is to act on those
>tendencies, identifying in every conjuncture 'What is to be done'.
>Rolland's formula (*) obscures this interaction between Marxist theory
>and social reality, mediated by the revolutionary party."

This makes things even clearer. The key sentence is: 'It suggests that
reality is harsh and unyielding, constantly frustrating the 'optimistic'
will which, in defiance of reason, seeks to transform it.'

There's a term for this kind of perspective: 'objectivism'. Its political
correlative is of course 'subjectivism' ie 'voluntarism', both of which are
born of a fatalist view of reality. The greatest voluntarist of them all
this century was Stalin, with Mao running him a pretty close second.

Now, in many discussions on and off the list, a lot of people scream
'metaphysics' or 'pie in the sky' or some such crud when reference is made
to 'the existence of tendencies in reality itself working towards that
[socialist] transformation'. Like when I bring up Lenin's characterization
(eighty years ago now) of the epoch as one of 'wars, revolutions and the
transition to socialism', say, or point to the many references in Marx
(over a hundred years ago, remember!) to processes within capitalism that
transcend and prefigure socialism in various ways.

Of course, if people actually think that the 'existence' of such tendencies
'in reality' is pure ideological demagoguery, they'll have to keep
insisting on 'rrrevolutionary will' as the only motive force capable of
shifting a capitalist dominance they see as crushingly powerful and growing
stronger all the time. And all the time they'll fear the will won't cut it.

It adds to the heroism of us 'good guys' of course, but it shuts a lot of
ordinary people out who are ready to give history a shove in the right
direction, but not willing to be torn to pieces in glorious, hopeless
martyrdom. Remember, the bourgeoisie needs the working class, it can't
exist without it, whereas we can exist without them. They need us, we don't
need them. So the working class will survive (until barbarism kicks in).

The bourgeoisie, in its death agony, has a much more material basis for its
urgency in fighting us than we have a lot of the time for fighting them --
I mean, there's a historical question mark over their continued existence
as a class *every day*, whereas we are forced into fighting for our
continued existence as individuals whenever this existence is threatened by
unemployment, dangerous practices, bad health and housing, state brutality,
pollution etc.

In the postwar period in key countries in the world imperialist system, a
lot of workers have felt relatively unthreatened by these things,
especially since their political representatives have been pacifying them
with nonsense about harmony of interests and unproblematic linear
development ('better and better every day'). Hence the imbalance in the
struggle, and the unevenness of the flaring up and dying down of
confrontation in the class war.

At the moment, so many individual workers are being threatened on so many
fronts, that a change of attitude is taking place. They are being forced by
objective developments to see their own vulnerability as a direct result of
their class position as workers, shut out from all social production and
consumption except in so far as it is mediated by the none too certain sale
of labour power.

This, I think, is the reality behind Zeynep's observation that 'we've hit
bottom and things are changing worldwide'

As for sobriety, I say to hell with boring pofaced empiricists who see the
organization of the working class as a hopeless mess of invulnerable
counter-revolutionary juggernauts and insignificant left-wing grouplets.
Only by penetrating the surface will we reach the real moving core of our
class's historical development -- and the power of this core will sweep any
number of juggernauts and grouplets with it. The base is where things are
changed, not the superstructure (even if it can help or hinder at times).
And the base is moving.



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