Pessimism Is a Luxury We Can't Afford

The fights ahead are daunting—but the world is ours to win.

Dayton Martindale

Illustration by Terry Laban

rev•o•lu• tion•ary op•ti•mism

adjective, noun

1. The belief that a better world is possible through political struggle, and (especially) that participating in the struggle is itself transformational

Pssh. Climate change, genocides, extinctions, rampant homelessness, mass incarceration. And you want me to be optimistic?

There is a difference between optimism” and revolutionary optimism.” Where the optimist says everything will just work out, the revolutionary optimist knows the future is not yet written. In the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark. Bad things happen, but we can make some things better. And, as Solnit writes, action is impossible without hope.”

Can we really make things better? Politicians don’t care what I think.

Those who have the guns and the money … seem invincible,” Howard Zinn concedes in The Optimism of Uncertainty.” But that apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable” — from the overthrow of the Russian tsar to U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. In an oft-quoted speech, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin observed how structures of power only seem permanent from the inside: We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Change is often messy and indirect, Solnit argues. The divine right of kings was cast off in France by the 1789 revolution, but the new government did not last. Still, ideas from this revolution — such as universal primary education — soon spread across Europe. In another example of indirect consequences, Solnit writes, the abolition movement not only ended slavery but gave rise to the feminist movement. The effects of our actions can ripple for generations, even if it seems like your local protest accomplished nothing immediate.

“If I had not hoped, I would not have struggled. And if I had not struggled, I would not have survived Pol Pot.” —An unnamed Cambodian woman, quoted in Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark

But wouldn’t it be nice to accomplish something immediate? 

Of course. In fact, a key part of revolutionary optimism is the belief that participation is meaningful all by itself — that uniting with others, in a culture that wants us atomized, is itself resistance. Being part of something bigger than ourselves is a source of genuine meaning for many. As Zinn notes: To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

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This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For past In These Times coverage of these ideas, see, Praxis Makes Perfect and Terrorist” rhetoric makes us all less safe.

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Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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