On Revolutionary Optimism of the Intellect

Leo Panitch


It is impossible to read Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks without appreciating how far he actually transcended the dichotomy between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. He did so precisely by applying his stunningly creative intelligence to what really would need to be involved in the creation of a new type of political party, which in homage to another great Italian political theorist who could also be described as a realist with imagination, he called the ‘modern prince’. In trying to articulate the form of a party capable of navigating a revolutionary transformation in conditions where the state was deeply rooted in society, Gramsci was doing the very opposite of entrusting it to revolutionary will to usher in the spontaneous transformative ‘event’ that is rather in fashion among some radical intellectuals today.

What many intellectuals today may find troubling about optimism of the intellect is the credit they fear it may lend to all that has emanated from the ‘age of reason’, with its universalist claims to truth and its evolutionist proclamations of progress. The abdication of so many left intellectuals from the vocation of telling the truth on these grounds was no doubt partly the result of political and intellectual shortcomings on the traditional left. But they have sometimes only generalized what was wrong with the narrow class struggle perspective that crudely labelled truth either bourgeois or proletarian, applying the same type of dichotomy to race and gender, and indeed to any and all asymmetric relations of power.

But optimism of the intellect does not involve embracing any teleological laws of historical progress. Optimism of the intellect in fact involves being sensitive to contingency in human history, with contradictions and crises not the only variable factors in determining the scope and possibilities of such contingency, but also the capacities of collective human agency as especially crucial variable factors in developing transformative institutional forms. To get to where Marx or Gramsci wanted us to get involves probing the limits of economic and political institutions. And to do this it is also important to pay close attention to such great pessimists of the intelligence as Max Weber on state bureaucracy and Roberto Michels on party oligarchy. This is precisely because we need to identify the actual institutional barriers that lie in the way of replacing the capitalist rationality of market competition with the socialist rationality of collective planning, so we can at least minimize those barriers through articulating the institutional forms that can develop popular capacities for genuinely democratic participation as well as complex representation and administration. The political purpose for this kind of institutionalism is exactly the opposite of validating path dependency, insisting rather on institutional contingency to the end of discovering how to transform institutions in socialist ways.

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