Skip to main content

Against Revolutionary Pessimism and Optimism: Revolutionary Realism

A certain revolutionary pessimism has been enshrined, particularly in the imperialist metropoles, since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the victorious pronouncement that capitalism was "the end of history." Even before the rise of the so-called "new world order" this pessimism was becoming normative amongst an academic left jaded with "Stalinism", convinced that barbarism was defeating socialism. We can locate its precedent, for example, in the work of the Frankfurt School where human civilization is perceived (according to the most bleak reading of Adorno and Marcuse) as being attuned to its death drive, where Benjamin's "angel of history" metaphor is blasted from its essay in order to fixate upon the long catastrophe of human history.

Such an attitude, it needs to be said, makes visceral sense. When faced with all the failures of past communist movements, the collapse and fragmentation of a worldwide movement that challenged capitalism, and the eventual rise of neoliberal hegemony without the same kind of unified international communism that represented a counter-hegemony, pessimism and cynicism make sense. Especially at the centres of capitalism where anti-systemic movements have been pacified; in such contexts a naive revolutionary optimism should be perceived as myopic.

At the same time, however, revolutionary pessimism is precisely the kind of attitude that works for capitalism and is thus a symptom of its "end of history" hegemony. Part of becoming a capitalist subject is to be socialized into believing: a) that the failures of past anti-capitalist movements are more meaningful than the successes (and let's not try to draw any productive lessons out of these failures!); b) since capitalism's victory over reality is total there is no hope and thus the "proper" anti-capitalist attitude is one of cynicism, a retreat into intellectual spaces of pessimistic critique, an acceptance that things are and will be for a long time bleak. The movementist pseudo-solution to this problem can temporarily produce brief spurts of optimistic energy but these quickly invert to their ab-movementist inversion: unable to accept communism because of its "failures", but now faced with new failures because of the movementist strategy, an anti-capitalist nihilism appears to be the only solution.

Jodi Dean has written about a general "melancholia" that the contemporary left––again, particularly the left in the global metropoles (this emphasis is important)––has absorbed that determines its wariness about communism and communist conventions such as "the party". Since the would-be anti-capitalist subject is also a capitalist subject insofar as they have been socialized (subjectivized) according to capitalist ideology, their anti-capitalism is at first stymied by the "end of history" hegemony. The only meaningful rejection appears to be a melancholic cynicism: reality is shit but there's little hope in changing it, all past attempts (because they failed) must have also been shit, let us meditate on the bleakness.

What should be obvious from this conceptualization of revolutionary pessimism is that it is precisely the only option of anti-capitalist subjectivity that capitalist ideological hegemony affords. Pessimism and cynicism is indeed the de facto norm of the anti-capitalist attitude, what every jaded leftist in graduate school adopts as a "clever" and "critical" position…because lord knows we don't want to look like those starry eyed paper-pushers who are still under the impression that their sect is going to lead the revolution tomorrow! It is in fact a safe position, both for capitalism and the would-be anti-capitalist subject: for the former it polices anti-capitalist agitation, making sure that potential revolutionaries remain suspicious of any and every germinal revolutionary movement; for the latter it allows one to keep their cliched cake and eat it too––you can be respectable and keep your revolutionary cred.

Despite the obvious source of this attitude revolutionary pessimism remains strong. What is entirely weird about its strength is that its advocates seem to be unaware of the normativity of this attitude; the common belief is that this pessimism is radically different, subversive, challenging, etc. when it is anything but. Perhaps it is a challenging attitude for those who have adopted it after being revolutionary optimists, and thus remains challenging for those who are still revolutionary optimists, who are under the strange impression that everything is on the up-and-up for socialist organizing, that their sect will lead an insurrection in the near future, or whatever delusions they use to get out on the street corners and sell their papers. The actual fact of the matter, however, is that these revolutionary optimists are a minority; the pessimists are the norm.

The editorial collective behind Salvage is paradigmatic of a revolutionary pessimism that imagines it is an exception to the norm when in fact it is the norm. To be clear, I enjoy Salvage and am in fact appreciate of many of its interventions. To be even clearer, I think that it is an amazing critical project insofar as it attempts to aestheticize communism in a manner that escapes the typically boring strategies of the mainstream left: the journal is accessible without being asinine, is formally challenging without being opaque, and tries to rebrand communism without a total and incoherent reinvention. At the same time it has internalized the "end of history" attitude of pessimism and has presented this as a unique position when it should know better. (Maybe this is because of its post-Trotskyist ethos, the fact that its editorial collective appears to be ex-SWP members, with little understanding of third world communist sequences outside of those they can bash into some kind of Trotskyish framework.)

But Salvage glories in the bleak attitude operationalized by the "end of history" narrative without realizing that it is adopting a specific norm. The editorial collective is in fact quite self-righteous about its cynicism, about how the left has become bleak and impoverished, that it believes it can speak in the name of the global left despite being a group of intellectuals in the UK that appear to have come out of the SWP (and thus, let's be honest, with no knowledge of even the UK's anti-revisionist history). In the third issue of the journal the Salvage editors declare that "the Left, yet again, with its usual stunning incompetence and historic inadequacy, has failed in its duty." These proclamations that the left has "yet again… failed in its duty" are precisely the proclamations that are demanded by capitalist ideology. One might as well declare that communism is "good in theory but bad in practice." To treat the history of the left as one long narrative of failure without grasping the moments of success that tell us something about the failures, and to believe that your cynicism somehow renders your criticism accurate, is in fact to embrace capitalist norms. The left has always been incompetent and historically inadequate, capitalist ideology declares: it will always fail in its duty because it has no duty worth recognizing. Outside of the fact that the Salvage editors should not pretend they have the authority to legislate meaning for the left globally (or even historically in the UK considering, again, they appear to lack a perspective outside of the SWP and ex-SWP milieu), their cynicism about the left as a global whole is precisely the kind of cynicism capitalism demands.

Hence, Salvage is yet another example of a revolutionary pessimism that is in fact quite normative and acceptable to the boundaries of capitalism. The valorization of bleakness, cynicism, pessimism, accelerationism––these are all positions that reinforce an "end of history" narrative. Capitalism is the great dystopia, the final armageddon, but there is nothing we can do except complain about the beleaguered left at the centres of world capitalism, ignore the revolutionary movements we can't cognize because they are actually communist (Salvage likes the FSA but doesn't give a shit about the Naxals), and hope for the best.

Now some of my readers, I am sure, are wondering why I'm referring to this pessimism as revolutionary without adding the obligatory pseudo- or ironically scare-quoting "revolutionary". The reason why I have chosen to do so is because I think the impulses behind this attitude are truly revolutionary: those who embrace this position are indeed committed to a revolutionary ethos, believe strongly in the necessity of the overthrow of capitalism, and (if we are to use Salvage as an example) definitely do not endorse a reformist politics. Conversely, revolutionary optimism is another form of myopia: a starry-eyed belief that the revolution is coming no matter what, a refusal to engage with all of the actual failures, a sectarian delusion. Both positions are revolutionary in that they understand that the only solution is a revolutionary overthrow of the current state of affairs; they're problem is that they are simply not realist positions. These are revolutionary deliriums rather than revolutionary realisms.

And a revolutionary realism must first and foremost challenge revolutionary pessimism. This is not to say that it should endorse revolutionary optimism only that the realist position ought to recognize that revolutionary optimism is not a significant problem. Outside of deluded sects who, after the supremacy of the "end of history" narrative, really believes that socialism is ensured, that we're going to have an easy victory, that our history isn't full of failures? The uncritical optimists are in fact a minority and we would be anti-realists if we pretended otherwise. Unfortunately, revolutionary pessimism is precisely this anti-realist position. Salvage, for example, proclaims that "bleak is the new red"… but this is a pathological declaration! In point of fact, "bleak is the old red" considering that it has been the default position since the 1980s with its Frankfurt School antecedents. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the "end of history" ideology and thus endorse every one-dimensional capitulation to cold war narratives about total communist failure.

In this context I want to again promote a communist positionality that is cognizant of both the failures and the successes of our history. That is, a communism that can celebrate its successes, grasp the meaning of its failures, and learn from both. A communism that understands that the road ahead of us is fraught, that we may indeed lose the struggle (a possibility that, yes, is now quite strong), but that if we wallow in our bleakness and accept the "end of history" narrative we will go nowhere.

Capitalism likes to tell its subjects that they should be optimistic about life under capitalism but pessimistic about anything that smells of communism. In order to reject capitalism optimism we must also find a way to reject revolutionary pessimism, since the two go hand in hand, without falling into the equally myopic revolutionary optimism where we imagine the revolution will necessarily happen when it fact it might (tragically) not. That is, where revolutionary pessimism focuses on that part of Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History where the "angel of time" treats history as "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage," we should instead look to this essay's conclusion where Benjamin proclaims that "every second of time [is] the strait gate through which" revolution might manifest.