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Some Final Words on Pessimism

by | January 4, 2016

Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer?
Thomas Merton


We’re not diagnosing cancer because we’re pessimistic – we’re pessimistic because our diagnosis is that this is cancer. Not necessarily terminal – but no cure for cancer comes easily, if at all, and it is incurable if you treat it as if it were a cold.


As many commentators have pointed out, it has become a left cliché to note, after Jameson, that it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Nevertheless, it remains true. Indeed, we may not even need to use our imaginations for very long. A report entitled ‘The State of the Climate’, released on 16 July 2015, from a study which brought together 413 scientists from 58 countries, was categorical in its assertion that climate change has contributed to the rising waters, and that the impact of higher ocean temperatures will be felt for centuries, even if immediate efforts to reduce carbon emissions were undertaken.

In the words of Greg Johnson, oceanographer of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency,

Even if we could freeze the greenhouse its current level, the sea would continue to warm for centuries and millennia; and that warming will cause its expansion and therefore its elevation.

And regardless of the schemes cooked up by geo-engineers who, as Andreas Malm has pointed out, realise it is more realistic to try to change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere than to change our economy and the carbon emissions it produces, climate change is no longer a dreaded outcome to be avoided, but a given.


Two iterations of pessimism are commonly conflated. One is a pessimistic lens through which one looks at the world; the other is the result of what one sees when one looks. These are not coterminous, though they may be co-constitutive.

The first might, in a better context, be termed (critical) realism. But when ‘don’t demoralise the class’ is a common reprimand within activist circles, a more explicit statement of position is necessary. To reclaim something called ‘pessimism’ against such nonsense is to assert that the belief that optimism, in the face of repeated defeat and the scale of the task we face, is in any way motivational or appropriate for those trying to change the world, is delusional.

What one sees reflected back from the world, for analysis, is another thing altogether. The question is, is the situation one about which one can be hopeful? This can’t be an a priori attitude nor affect, but the result of an assessment. We should not confuse the attitude one has and the analysis of the state things are in, though of course each affects the other.*

Activist circles are often guilty on both counts – always already optimistic before analysis, and always concluding that #therearemassiveopportunitiesfortheleft in the terrain they see, no matter what it looks like.


For some there is no difference between accusing pessimists of dereliction because their analysis is wrong, and accusing them of dereliction because they are ‘demoralising’ the class, irrespective of the truth of their claim. For them, optimism is always presumed, regardless of the situation, regardless of the balance of forces, regardless of the world around them. It is always necessary to find a positive spin. It is this attitude that Eagleton aptly describes in his book Hope Without Optimism: ‘Since the truth is often enough unpleasant, it must be trumped by the unflinching will.’

This is a dereliction of duty.

We do not, and should not, do the things we do because we are certain we will win. We can never be certain. We do them – should do them – because we cannot do anything other.


There is no need to fear a pessimism that remains committed to emancipation. Pessimism is not cynicism.† Pessimists may, as Salvage does, simply insist that comrades in that endeavour realise – and act upon the realisation of – just how hard this is going to be.

Having a pessimistic analysis certainly doesn’t mean thinking that good things never happen.

But do not mistake joy for optimism.


Some look to the phenomenal success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, to the sudden emergence of left parliamentary formations across ‘peripheral’ Europe – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal – and conclude that pessimism is ill-founded. But even such successes occur against a background of the historic weakness of the working-class movement, at a time when trade-union density is at an all-time low, at a time when the far Left is fragmented into more groups, with fewer members, than ever before. This is not a time of our strength. We’ve never been weaker, and (therefore) the success of the above is highly embattled, as we have already witnessed with Syriza.


Pessimists shouldn’t be committed to pessimism. On the contrary, they should always be glad to be surprised when good things occur against the odds. It can thus precisely be pessimism that allows joy. Pessimism is not invested nihilism. It is the considered result of an analysis that suggests that the odds are not good. That what is faced is incomparable difficulty, and unless it is faced in the knowledge of how unlikely triumph will be, there is no chance at all.


Pessimism is not the main culprit behind demoralisation. It can only be assumed that those making such proclamations have never experienced the guilt that so many activists silently harbour, about not believing the claims that success is around the next corner – something that they may themselves fervently insist to others – at feeling exhausted and unmoved by the repeated expressions of dire urgency, week after week, at being burnt out by relentless tasks and the moralism that comes with them.

It can only be assumed that such people have never drifted away, or been tempted to, because their heart – heart-broken as it was, still is, at the world – wasn’t in it, no longer convinced of the efficacy of all that unthinking activism.

Bad hope reinforces bad despair.


It is not the duty of leftists to be a comfort blanket in the abyss.

Pessimism is not dereliction of the ‘duty’ of leftists, nor is it ‘irresponsible’ to have such an outlook. It is irresponsible to try to give people the impression that things are fine, are getting better, that we are building strength, numbers, influence, gaining ground, when we are plainly not. As Terry Eagleton puts it,

The card-carrying optimist responds to everything in the same rigorously preprogrammed way, and so eliminates chance and contingency.

It is irresponsible to give the impression of having answers that demonstrably we don’t. Let us commit to asking the questions.


If leftists have any duty, is it not to be honest about their appraisal of the situation, to begin from an honest analysis, to construct a strategy in light of it? Look at the devastation and failed revolution in Syria, at the murders Israel commits with impunity year after year, at the crushing of the Greek attempts to stand up to its creditors, at the water cannons fired at migrants on the Hungarian border while bodies wash up on beaches, and state with conviction that things are getting better.


The Left’s euphoria over Corbyn (and before that, the SNP) is a clear example of mistaking joy for optimism. Everybody was taken by surprise, and overjoyed, by his success. But if one does not admit how bad things have gotten, Corbynmania can be seen straightforwardly as the dawn of a new era that could spark the movement that brings down the government.And it is true that given the situation of recent years, this is a fantastic development. But if one thinks relative to the postwar period and the 1945 government, about which the Left was not starry-eyed at the time, much of the programme on offer from Corbyn and his team constitutes not a huge improvement over traditional left social democracy. And the odds of him getting anywhere close to being able to implement it are vanishingly unlikely.

We are with him as he tries. We are delighted – and surprised – if he succeeds, and ready if he fails.


There is, of course, a danger of bending the stick, becoming rigidly pessimistic, fetishising pessimism tout court in just as evacuated a position as those so eager to accentuate the positive. Salvage is not interested in pessimism for pessimism’s sake, in prolonging our pessimism any longer than is justified by our analysis, and aches for a time when pessimism is no longer necessary.

In recognition of the pulls towards a performed, defensive, cock-swinging pessimism, this will be the last rumination from Salvage’s editors focusing on the topic.

We are more interested in undertaking, and deem it to be more important to undertake, more of the analysis that led us to our current pessimism – and that might even, indeed, lead us away from it – than to spend any more pages discussing its nuances.


Pessimistic is just another word to describe those who fear we might be doomed but are fighting anyway, those who don’t have a lot of hope but plenty of hate and heartache, plenty of yearning for something more, who have no certainty about the way forward except that it cannot be this.


*Many of those who denounce pessimism in public admit behind closed doors that they’re struggling to put a positive spin on a situation. Such an attitude of pas devants les enfants must be eradicated if we are to get anywhere.

†There are plenty of cynics on the current and former left. We do not need any more.