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The Optimism-Pessimism Binary: Getting Straw-Personed By Kasama

Apparently the folks at Kasama Project posted one of my earlier analyses of Egypt today and one of their writers, Mike Ely, in his own analysis of the Egyptian intifada, responded to some of its points.  I like Mike Ely's analysis.  In fact I agree with many of the points he makes, which are supposedly in contradiction of my analysis, because his response tends to straw-person my position.  For example, he accuses this analysis of "deep pessimism about immediate outcomes" and "binary thinking" both of which are entirely absent from my position.

I do not believe this is an intentional straw-personing of my position (because, after all, why would Kasama bother to post my article on their site in the first place), but the result of both a hasty reading and my hasty writing.  If I had written my position as an academic paper rather than a hastily cobbled together blog entry (a problem with many of my entries since this blog serves as an outlet for immediate reflections rather than long and onerous papers) perhaps it would be less prone to misreadings.  I am aware of my limitations and the fact that I'm not a chic, nor always rigorous, thinker.  And yet the analysis debated by Ely does not exist in a vacuum: it is the first of three entries on Egypt/Tunisia, and the other two clarify my position––one written on February 13th, and the other written yesterday (a day before the Kasama posting and response), neither of which are mentioned in Ely's response.  In the second entry I explain how my initial position has been misread and clarify the grounds of what I'm debating  (I think it doesn't have to be misread, but I think it's often misread because of the emotion and excitement surrounding the middle east intifadas––excitement that I also feel).  And the third entry, while still reasserting and clarifying the position of the first and second, represents the excitement I have felt about these intifadas from the very beginning.

Granted, I wrote something about these revolutions "at best" leading only to reform but, and this is the problem of how I write this blog [and a problem that will probably affect this entry], I sometimes don't define my terms.  Later I would write about the concept of "revolution" in the context of Egypt, for example, but here I used it in the sense everyone was using it at the time––a sense that annoyed me, but that I reproduced nonetheless.  As for these revolutions "at best" leading only to reform, I meant that the uprisings themselves would not result in the sudden emergence of socialism: this was my point, and a point aimed at comrades and fellow travelers living in my social context (who I will discuss below).

In fact, the reason I did not write about Tunisia and then Egypt back when the explosive uprisings happened was because I felt that my excitement outweighed critical engagement: close friends and comrades were starting solidarity groups that I was (and still am) supporting, I couldn't wait to see Mubarak toppled (and am still happy and elated that he was), and I did not want to either be overly optimistic or deeply pessimistic, i.e. neither one position or the other––not "binary."

In general my position is an excited support of what is happening coupled with sober thinking.  Maybe Ely doesn't understand the context of Toronto, Canada, but the leftwing scene here is not one of deep pessimism.  Maybe the Kasama folks are overly familiar with grumpity comrades who naysay every uprising, which I suppose makes sense in a less socially democratic capitalist context, but the left activists in my context are afflicted with the opposite emotion: uncritical elation.  There are the "socialism from below" folks, guided by David McNally's Another World Is Possible, the autonomist marxists, and the undergraduate "anarchists" (in scare-quotes because they usually just define as "anarchist" because they don't know what else to define as), who think the revolution is coming with every anti-G20 demonstration.  (This general attitude, I should point out, prompted an older entry about the G20 and internationalism, that was even more slap-shod than my first article about Egypt and Tunisia.  Of course, since I participated with great excitement in the G20 demos, and defended the sometimes spontaneous "violence" on the part of the protestors, my initial critique should also be read in the context of this entry regarding the RCP(Canada)'s analysis of the G20 demonstrations.)

In any case, activists in social democratic capitalist Canada, specifically Toronto, are bizarrely optimistic whenever "socialism from below" (a school of theory that is not the same as the mass-line and that is some post-Trotskyist position only Canadian marxists take seriously) happens around the globe.  They think the world revolution is coming every year and then, as soon as the next popular uprising happens, quickly forget about the previous uprisings they supported.  My position was to tackle this unsober and uncritical attitude, along with attitude that attacks anyone for wanting to critique the possibilities and limitations of these movements.

Personally I do believe, along with Mike Ely, that often far-sighted movements emerge from these eruptions.  In fact, I pointed out in the debates in the comments section of the first post, and the last point on the second post, that one of the "exciting possibilities" of these uprisings is the emergence of new revolutionary structures.  My point was only (and I re-emphasized this in the second post so that there was no misunderstanding) that spontaneity has limits, that these limits have been proved historically, that these aren't revolutions in the mode of production that will lead immediately to socialism (this is actually what some of my friends and comrades have been saying!) without a movement structured around that demand, and that it's naive to ignore history.  I don't think Ely would disagree with these points, in fact I think he agrees with them implicitly in his post, but he strangely attributes a different logic to me because of some of my rhetorical questioning.  Granted this rhetoric demonstrates my lack of rigor in that post, but if read in context of the other two posts it should make more sense.

Moreover, I would go on to say that the latter half of Ely's post has always been my exact point––that we do have more responsibility than being simply optimistic or pessimistic.  I believe in sobriety in the face of invective, ahistorical "cheerleading" but I also am not into pointless criticizing.  My critique is structured around the thesis "spontaneity equals socialist revolution" and that we should talk about possible limits to this upsurge, about how we should support an emergent revolutionary politics.  Should we not caution the possibility of counter-revolution in the face of a military coup?  That would seem logic.  Should we support those movements that are emerging from this struggle whose demands go beyond the demands of the movement's current class content?  Definitely.

All of this is to say, however, that I find Ely's response quite odd in that it imagines I was ever arguing that our only choice is to be spontaneists or be pessimists––I was merely arguing that spontaneism was a limited political position because I have comrades who believe that it WILL lead to socialism.  And if Ely read even my second post, where I clarified this position, he would understand that this was point.  And if he read my third, he would see that I was not simply a pessimist.  Maybe I should ask, to play the same binary game, "why do we have to see other comrades' critiques as being either completely pessimistic or completely optimistic?"


  1. I liked all the posts, and never once felt like you were minimizing the struggle of the Egyptian people. Many in the anglophone left on the internet have shown that they either believe that these revolts "WILL lead to socialism" or at the very least seem to be projecting their own hopes onto a struggle that is its own thing. It's best for all of us who aren't on the scene to acknowledge what these revolts are so we can support the revolutionary elements within them while acknowledging that even small reforms are a step in a better direction for the people who are actually doing the struggling and facing the retribution.

  2. Thanks so much! I was a little worried that I was being grossly misunderstood. Ely's comments aside, however, Phoenix Insurgent made a comment under my half-ranty post about "five strange claims" that was an honest and thoughtful intervention. In any case, it's glad to know that I'm not miscommunicating!

  3. I used to check Kasama quite often, but I haven't been to into it lately, so I didn't notice Ely's "response" to you until a mutual comrade of ours pointed it out to me last night.

    I found it very odd, as I've read all three of your posts on the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, and even the first one I found to be quite clear on its points. Oh well, maybe he will realize where he screwed up and will post your reply to him!

  4. Thanks for another vote of clarity... Yeah, I only noticed because I was getting traffic, in the blogpost traffic checker (which I stare at obsessively sometimes), from the Kasama site. I was surprised by the posting (I always figured this was a pretty small-time Canadian blog) and the off-target response.

  5. Comrade J.,

    At no point did I find your posts "binary". In fact, you often pushed me to recognize the potential of these rebellions to create the germ of something bigger. I found your insights to be responsible and measured.

    I share your feelings about a large segment of the Canadian left who, for some reason, think revolution can come from taking to the streets with no clear objective or mass organization. Back in the days when I used to protest (today I believe protesting without a program is just protesting), I was always overwhelmed by the lack of any real cohesion and the disparate groups. It seemed to me that it was like trying to herd cats. In fact, many times,I felt that the "movement" was heavily infiltrated by people who were deliberately trying to avoid revolution (whether they were state or non-state actors).

    So,if anyone is a pessimist, it's me. I come to this site to try and get past that. Your thoughts, especially on this matter, are not binary, they are continuous and very appreciated.


  6. Thanks RRH, I'm glad you liked my insights and enjoy this site. Your comments are also, and have always been, appreciated.

  7. FYI, Mike Ely posted your response to Fritz (Fritz also pasted one of his responses to your article on Kasama) on Kasama along with your first article. Another moderator Tellnolies posted your article on Intellectual Resignation (with no crtiique). It is my belief that the intention of the Kasama folk is to open a dialogue with you, not to straw man you any way, though I can sympathize with your being taken aback to Mike's criticisms and feel your repsonse was clarifying. As an observer friendly to Kasama, I hope the awkwardness of this initial engagement between the two blogs does not hinder the prospect for more comradely interaction as I think yourself (judging from what I have read on this blog) and Kasama are both doing important work.

  8. Thanks... My problem was just that the Kasama posting and response was surprising, that I was unaware that there was dialogue, and that since I really didn't disagree with anything Mike Ely wrote, I was surprised he had responded to that one rather than its connection to the other two posts. Truthfully I'm not upset by Kasama's posting, I just felt that I needed to clarify things here.

    As for the responses by "Fritz" I find them extremely arrogant and anti-dialogue, not to mention bizarrely dogmatic, not at all like Ely's thoughtful (though I felt misdirected) post.


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