I was intrigued by the debate in Crikey last week about the politics of despair. Unfortunately the focus has been on
the big end of politics – the major and not so major parties haggling over the
parliamentary spoils. For these people despair comes when they’re no longer on
the gravy train and can no longer put their hand up for the perks of office. In
short, their misery is not the misery of principle and its narcissistically short
term – alleviated by the sinecures that come after politics, the board
memberships, the inquiries and commissions they get to chair.
What about those of us – political
activists in it for the long haul – outside the mainstream? Stephen Luntz
talked about burn-out being an occupational hazard for environmentalists, but
despair can be a way of life for people on the hard left these days. The point
is not to let it get to you.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci is
often credited with devising the maxim “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of
the will” to describe how a revolutionary should view politics and the progress
of the class struggle.
The phrase can be traced to an editorial
Gramsci wrote for the Italian communist newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo in March 1924: “Our pessimism has
increased, but our motto is still alive and to the point: pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” This was
at a time when the Italian working class was in retreat and the rise of
Mussolini’s fascists just around the corner.
are not that bad for us, the threat of fascism is not staring us in the face,
but there’s plenty to be pessimistic about.
Coalition of the Willing is still in Iraq
and the military commitment there seems to be growing. On the upside, there’s
no end in sight to the insurgency either. We see news this week that the
Taliban is “resurgent” in Afghanistan
and credible estimates from Washington
put the number of homegrown Iraqi insurgents at between 20 and 40 thousand,
dwarfing the so-called foreign fighters who number in the low hundreds.
Why am I
optimistic about this? Primarily because the strength of the resistance to these
illegal occupations is a sign that the empire-building ambitions of Dubya and
his cronies are able to be challenged.
regime has also suffered domestically as a result of its imperial ambitions
getting ahead of its real-politik thinking. The Bush White House is in trouble over
a range of issues and this is likely to shake the confidence of the American
ruling class even further.
On the home front
there’s also plenty to be depressed about – the racial overtones of the
Cronulla riots; ten years of a conservative Howard government; Martin Ferguson’s
craven capitulation to the uranium lobby; Beazley’s prolix doppleganger of
Howard’s ugly rhetoric on Iraq and Afghanistan; the ramped up attacks on
workers’ living standards and right to organise, coupled with the ACTU
leadership’s unwillingness to mount a serious campaign on the streets and in
the workplaces to resist them.
In the limited
view of soft left and liberal (small ‘l’) politics it’s a very pessimistic scene;
relieved only by unreliable and volatile public opinion surveys showing that maybe,
just maybe, the corner has been turned and Labor might stand a ghost of a
chance federally at the next election.
Does this offer a
glimmer of hope, a haven for our optimisim? Well, not really. Intellectually we
know that a Beazley (or anyone else) led Labor government will carry on the
politics of compromise and sell-out. That’s the Labor way, it long ago
abandoned any pretence to being a left-wing party.
So how do I
maintain the optimism of my will in the face of overwhelming evidence that the
hard left is in the political wilderness for the foreseeable future?
I take the long
view. Revolutions do not happen over night and they can not be successfully
prosecuted by a small clique of armed rebels (what we might today call
‘terrorists’). Revolutions occur on long historical cycles, and require the
participation of the politicised and mobilised masses. The only inevitability
is that revolutions are inevitable.
On average in the
past 250 years or so there have been large scale revolutions or volatile political
upswings every 30 to 50 years. If we start with the bourgois revolutions of the
18th and 19th Centuries, then Russia (1905, 1917), the pattern is
The great strike
in Britain (1926); the uprising in Greece in 1945 that wsa put down by British
troops; the nationalist revolutions in the Middle East and Latin America; Hungary
1956; Czechoslovakia and France 1968; the anti-Vietnam and sexual revolutions
of the 1960s (and the campaign to free unionist Clarrie O’Shea from gaol in
1969 in Australia); Chile and Portugal in the 1970s; the Solidarity movement in
Poland in the late 1970s and early ‘80s; the collapse of Stalinist regimes
(note they were not socialist) in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s; Tiananmen
Square in 1989; the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Since the first
Bush presidency we’ve seen the progressive movements pushed back globally, but
there was a small resurgence during the WTO protests in Seattle and then later
The key element
to grasp in this is that the capitalist system is inherently unstable, riven by
contradiction and driven from crisis to crisis by the competition between rival
blocs of capital in alliance with corrupt and undemocratic nation states.
Another of my favourite quotes from Marxism sums it up like this, as a species
we have a choice: socialism or barbarism. Rosa Luxemburg made this observation
during the German uprisings just after the First World War and shortly after
she was murdered by the social democrats. It’s just as true today, and perhaps
We can see this
clearly is the dynamic at play in the world around us The sham of a climate
conference in Sydney this week is evidence that the ruling class does not want
to reduce the toxic emmissions of its industries for the sake of the planet. At
the same time, the military adventurism of the world’s superpowers – a 100 year
global campaign for control of oil and trade routes – is leading us towards
another global catastrophe and a possible nuclear exchange in the Middle East.
pessimistic on a day-to-day level, but I’m optimistic that there will be
another rise in militancy and resistance, perhaps even within the next decade.
At the moment the revolutionary left does not have the resources and the wider
world is too confused and conservative for socialist politics to get
‘traction’, but history tells us that as the crises deepen, the anger of the
masses can be channeled into revolutionary politics.
La lutta continua
– the struggle continues.