Hope, Despair, Revolution
“Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope” Walter Benjamin
In the time of revolutions, among many other views, two opposing but equally problematic views surface: the optimist position that believes the revolution will bring about a world free of the injustices of the pre-revolution world, and the typical pessimist position that claims it is going to be the same: some people will take power and we will be back to the beginning of the cycle again.
The optimist voice often comes from revolutionaries who are too involved in the revolution to let negative doubts creep into their revolutionary motive and therefore their immediate will to action. It can also come from the supporters of the revolution who are too detached from the ugly stage of the events: of the publicised violence and the chaotic nature of revolution. The actual motive of a revolution, however, comes from a despair that turns against the reality that led to it. Revolution is rooted in despair as much as it is motivated by some sense of hope. Despair and hope immediately imply each other in a dialectical relationship. After a certain point of injustice, the dominant question no longer will be whether a revolution that fixes the world is possible or not. The question will instead be whether there is anything worth being afraid of losing anymore. Marx and Engels put it profoundly when, at the end of their communist manifesto, they state, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” (Marx& Engels 500). By the last sentence, “They have a world to win,” Marx and Engels do not mean that the proletarians will win the world. Rather, they mean, the proletarians can in principle determine the next stage in world’s history by winning a world: a horizon of possibilities in which they can continually actualize their creative will.
Having nothing to lose is the actual creative force that sparks a revolution. I do not need to know what perfect justice would look like in order to reject and rebel against injustice. Hope unlike anything else is present in its very absence. That is to say, a hopeless reality is precisely what gives birth to hope. If there were no oppressed people who live their day to day lives in hopeless and inexcusably cruel realities, we would not need to think or speak of hope in the first place. Besides, no matter how hopeless we feel about changing the world, the moment we become truly aware of the sufferings of others, we have no choice but to change, or perhaps destroy, the existing order. There is a type of revolutionary who starts or joins the revolution not because she believes in the possibility of creating a tolerable world, but because she believes that her reality is not tolerable anymore. Abolishing an unjust world does not have to imply the creation of a just one. Abolishing the existing unjust order is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for creating a just world. Revolutions are unavoidable until the history of absolutism, exploitation, despotism, and domination is undone. We might never reach that point, but we can always step forward.
Then there is the second voice that says, ‘it is pointless: the revolution negates its own principles as soon as it becomes victorious’. The excuses and arguments for this position are too many to be listed here. What I want to attack here is the fashionable intellectual-elitist opinion that pretends to see through history. ‘Why bother if I know the human condition can never be fixed?’ ‘Humans are by nature competitive and power thirsty’ and so on and so forth. It is much easier to be hopeless and passive than to be hopeless and revolutionarily. Moreover, often those who do not believe in justice, for instance economic justice, represent the very forces that make economic justice impossible. Hobbesian-type statements about human nature, like any other form of ideology, are a reflection of certain historical and material conditions of life. Of course, they present their “truth” about “human nature” and “history” as metaphysical truths. Like religions, their claims come from certain material conditions, but want to speak in the name of an all-knowing God. The task of revolution is not only to smash such metaphysical beliefs, but also to destroy the conditions of their production.
The new horizon of possibilities is strongly related to the degree of the destruction of what has constituted the perceived reality thus far, including the standards of evaluating reality and truth. Therefore, the opinions and “truths” of bourgeois intelligentsia are not only unnecessary for progressive revolutionaries, but they are exactly what should be trashed by the revolution. What we need to believe in as revolutionaries is that a different reality will create a different set of truths, that we are what we make of ourselves, that we indeed can reshape our “nature” and our history, and that we can – and should – enlighten the bourgeois intellectuals by introducing them to this new reality in which their truths are no longer true.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.