Pessimism of the Will

A page from a 1945 Italian Communist Party pamphlet, with the caption: “The red guards of Fiat greet Gramsci.” (Image provided by Paul Saba)

In April 1920, Italy was in crisis. The previous month at the Fiat auto factory in Turin, management had set back the clock hands of the factory for daylight saving’s time, without asking permission from the democratic workers’ councils that had been spreading throughout Italy’s factories. A chain of work stoppages had popped up in protest. But as tense negotiations continued, with a massive lockout by management, it became clear that what was really at stake was the existence of the factory councils themselves. 1 The whole city entered into a general strike in defense of the councils, which Antonio Gramsci would hail later that year in a report for the Comintern as “a great event, not only in the history of the Italian working class but also in the history of the European and world proletariat,” because “for the first time a proletariat was seen to take up the fight for the control of production without being forced into this struggle by unemployment and hunger.” 2

This was a peak moment in Italy’s biennio rosso, the “two red years” of 1919-1920, which saw not only mass strikes but also occupations of factories by the workers’ councils, which experimented with self-management of production. Rising during the red years, L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), both a newspaper and a political tendency which Gramsci helped found in Turin within the Italian Socialist Party, reflected on the greater meaning of these struggles. In the pages of L’Ordine Nuovo Gramsci introduced a phrase he would repeat throughout his life: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” 3

The L’Ordine Nuovo tendency based itself on the model of the Russian Revolution, and saw the factory councils — which Gramsci understood to be the equivalent of the Russian “soviets” — as the foundation of the coming revolution, and the workers’ state which that revolution would establish. After the bureaucracies of the Socialist Party and its affiliated union, the General Confederation of Labor, obstructed the further development of the general strike in a revolutionary direction, a contradiction which would resurge around the factory occupations in the fall, Gramsci’s tendency, along with other elements on the left of the party, split off to found the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. In reaction to the upheaval of these struggles and their emancipatory possibility, fascist violence intensified, leading to the ascendancy of Benito Mussolini. The fascist regime outlawed the Communist Party, and in 1926 Gramsci was imprisoned. He would die in prison in 1937.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” has become one of the classic clichés of politics. It is supposed to suggest that one should have clear-eyed recognition of how bad things are, without losing hope; it means the conscious volition for changing the world nevertheless.

Nevertheless, it might be wise to be somewhat suspicious of a slogan which seems so reassuring, applicable to every context without modification. That it is attributed to Gramsci does not really help matters. Due perhaps to the difficulty and complexity of Gramsci’s writings, often attributed to the need to write esoterically under the watchful eye of the fascist prison censor, contemporary commentators have sometimes appropriated them in a vague and decontextualized manner. It is common to see Gramsci invoked to advocate gradualist programs of reform, with the language of “war of position,” or to see him turned into a cultural critic who advocated building “counter-hegemony” in the academy — his ardent enthusiasm for the insurrection of the workers’ councils seems to drop out of the picture.

These days we need to cheer ourselves up, but without pretending that coronavirus and climate change aren’t real. As Fiat workers today go on strike over the safety risks of coronavirus, compelling management to shut down the plants in Italy and North America, what better authority than Gramsci, martyred by fascism and writing between two devastating world wars, to lend his approval to our desperate bid for optimism?

Removed from the very specific context in which he initially wrote these words, however, and the very different contexts in which he would later repeat them, this motto resembles nothing more than a poster on the wall of a middle-school classroom.


The line is not originally Gramsci’s; he drew it from the French left-wing writer Romain Rolland (who would later campaign for Gramsci’s release from prison), in a 1920 review of Raymond Lefebvre’s novel The Sacrifice of Abraham. 4 Gramsci first used the phrase in his “Address to the Anarchists,” published in L’Ordine Nuovo in April 1920, just as the situation in Turin was accelerating towards the general strike.

It must be noted from the outset that anarchists had played an absolutely fundamental role in the organization of the strikes and councils, and had produced some of the movement’s most effective and dedicated militants. 5 In making his case for the superiority of Marxist theory, then, Gramsci had to bend the stick rather far. Anarchism, he argued, in its abstract opposition to the state, failed to grasp that true freedom for the workers would only come from the establishment of a workers’ state, the determinate form of human action which had been demonstrated and guaranteed by the Russian Revolution. He introduced the slogan “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” specifically to sum up “the socialist conception of the revolutionary process.” 6 According to the anarchists, Marx’s “pessimism of the intellect” saw the conditions of workers as so miserable that the only possible change would come through an authoritarian dictatorship; but Gramsci replied that “socialist pessimism” had been confirmed by the horrors of the First World War and the extreme poverty and oppression that followed. The proletariat was geographically dispersed and disempowered by its deprivation, and formed unions and cooperatives out of sheer necessity, not as free political action. Its activity was totally determined by the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist state. It was thus was purely an illusion, he concluded, to expect these oppressed and subjugated masses to “express their own autonomous historical will.” 7

In other words, the pessimism of the intellect demonstrated not just that the situation was bad, but that the basis for revolutionary action did not already exist. It could only be brought about by “a highly organized and disciplined party that can act as a spur to revolutionary creativity.” 8 The optimism of the will, then, was not merely the belief that it was possible that things could get better, but the very specific and concrete form of action which was the vanguard party and its mission of establishing a workers’ state.

Gramsci, in other words, was operating squarely within the Leninist problematic. We are past the point today of the forced choice between caricaturing this problematic or dogmatically asserting its supremacy. Rather, we can try to situate it historically and understand its validity and limits. As Christine Buci-Glucksmann writes in her classic study, Gramsci and the State, emphasizing the character of Gramsci’s thought as a “continuation of Leninism, in different historical conditions and with different historical circumstances”: “to continue Lenin means a productive and creative relationship that can never be exhausted in the mere application of Leninism by studious pupils, but involves its translation and development. This nuance is of capital importance, underlining the fact that the only ‘orthodoxy’ permissible is that of the revolution.” 9

In 1902 with What Is to Be Done? V.I. Lenin repeated, for Russian conditions, the orthodoxy of the German Social Democratic Party. According to this orthodoxy, left to their own devices workers would only engage in the immediate, everyday struggles to better their conditions. The consciousness that this class struggle had to be taken further, to the level of the conquest of political power, would have to be introduced from the outside, by intellectuals. Politics would come not from spontaneous action by workers but the organization of a vanguard party of revolutionaries.

Lenin’s articulation of this thesis was divisive, to say the least. The orthodox theory saw this process as happening by virtue of historical laws, drawing more and more people into the industrial working class, gathering them into unions, and eventually allowing them to achieve a majority in parliament. Lenin’s writings from What Is to Be Done? to The State and Revolution in 1917 show him formulating a conception of politics which could not be reduced to historical laws. Lenin advanced the thesis that politics is not just always there, but develops under specific conditions. As Gramsci said in his early, “voluntarist” text “The Revolution Against ‘Capital,’” this constituted a refutation of the reigning mechanistic interpretation of Marxism, which, “contaminated by positivist and naturalist encrustations,” insisted that “events should follow a pre-determined course.” The Bolshevik revolution, Gramsci argued, demonstrated the necessity of “active agents” of politics, “to ensure that events should not stagnate, that the drive to the future should not come to a halt.” 10

The first Leninist condition of politics was the vanguard party, that group of dedicated militants which would erase the distinction between intellectuals and workers in a collective leadership. The party would be capable of recognizing the revolutionary potential of spontaneous movements, and could bring them the socialist consciousness which would realize this potential. But by 1917, Lenin came to see the party as existing alongside another site of politics: the soviet. Anticipating Gramsci’s account of the political role of knowledge, we can say that this new site of politics went beyond the restricted intelligence of the militants who composed the vanguard party to the mass intelligence of the radically democratic councils, the soviets. The orthodox theory had sought to enter the parliamentary state and use it as an instrument for the interests of the working class. In Lenin’s vision the soviets would actually take the place of the previously existing state, allowing ordinary people to participate in the administration of society. The soviet would be the form of genuine self-governance, a higher form of democracy than every previously existing form of a parliamentary democracy.

What happened instead is that the centralized authority of the party became the state, and subordinated the mass intelligence of the soviets to the principle that only the party thinks. Lenin, in the paradoxical position of state revolutionary, called for a society in which “every cook can govern” (to adopt C.LR. James’s optimistic rendering of Lenin’s phrase), but in practice it was the party-state which reigned.

For the remainder of the twentieth century emancipatory politics would have to refer to this exemplary instance in which bourgeois political power was overturned by the party becoming the state. Leninism was a moment in the history of emancipatory politics, but over the course of its history it found itself running up against the limits of the party-state; we are still in search of an emancipatory politics which goes beyond the party-state.

Today Gramsci’s motto is widely repeated, but it appears to have become completely detached from the underlying strategic and organizational questions that framed Gramsci’s use of the phrase in L’Ordine Nuovo, where it was repeated a few times with consistent reference to the problems of party organization. 11 When Gramsci first invoked “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” in 1920, in Russia the party had already displaced the mass intelligence of the councils. Gramsci’s enthusiasm for the councils alongside his insistence on the rigidity of the vanguard party — the latter coming increasingly to displace the former in his thinking between the defeats in Turin and the formation of the Communist Party — registered a dilemma which he would later revisit and clarify in his Prison Notebooks. 12

What makes Gramsci so confounding to read and allows his writing to be so easily appropriated in irreconcilable ways is also potentially a source of great insight, if we understand the tensions in his thinking as aspects of a contradictory reality rather than merely extrinsic obstacles to interpretation. To understand Gramsci’s later deployment of the slogan, we will have to investigate the relevant concepts of the Prison Notebooks, informed by scholarship drawing on the critical edition; and to interpret what is theoretically and politically at stake in Gramsci’s evolving conceptions of pessimism and optimism, we have to examine the categories of “intellect” and “will” to which they are attached.


A recurring theme in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks is that all people are “philosophers,” or “intellectuals,” even though the division of manual and intellectual labor in society makes it such that only small groups of people are recognized as being capable of thought. 13 For the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, as long as this division existed, the task of those socially recognized as intellectuals would be to build a revolutionary culture and assume a revolutionary leadership: “there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.” 14

Yet at the same time, the role of political organizations would also be to cultivate mass “intellectualities.” 15 This peculiar term, which appears to be suspended between “intelligence” and “intelligentsia” in prevailing translations, throws the relation between the two into question. But despite its seeming obscurity, as Panagiotis Sotiris argues in a brilliant commentary, the notion of “intellectuality” refers us to very concrete “questions referring to organization and its role in the transformation of modes of thinking, in the confrontation with antagonistic ideologies, in the articulation of learning practices.” It refers us to the problems of the production of knowledge involved in the “elaboration of strategies.” 16

Gramsci’s conception of mass intellectualities reframes the question of political leadership. To follow another line of his reasoning in the Prison Notebooks, the fact that there are leaders and led is an inescapable fact of politics; but the question is whether leadership is oriented towards preserving this distinction for eternity, or generating “the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary.” 17 This is why, for Gramsci, “for a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world, is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and ‘original’ than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.” 18

We have to distinguish Gramsci’s approach from those ideologies of so-called “Western Marxism” which revolve around consciousness. As Buci-Glucksmann points out, for these ideologies the intellectual’s “specific function” is to give the working class “its homogeneity, unity, and vision of the world.” In contrast, Gramsci’s “refusal of a potential dissociation between philosophical class consciousness and its real agent, the proletariat, rules out any problematic of the intellectuals that would transform them into the depositories of class consciousness (as in the young Lukács) or into guarantors of the critique of the capitalist mode of production.” This is why, she elaborates, for Gramsci it is not “the intellectuals as such who enable a subaltern class to become a leading and ruling class, a hegemonic class.” Rather, “this function is performed by the modern Prince, the vanguard political party as the basis from which the intellectual function has to be considered afresh, together with the relationship between research and politics, and their reciprocal tension.” 19

As Peter Thomas points out in his detailed and rigorous study of the Prison Notebooks, The Gramscian Moment, this was already what was at stake in the biennio rosso. L’Ordine Nuovo was “a paradigmatic experiment of young intellectuals who sought to redefine their relationship with the working class in active, paedagogical terms—a relationship in which they were more often the ‘educated’ than the ‘educator.’” 20

In his 1930 reflections in prison on the Turin experience, Gramsci responded to accusations that the movement was “spontaneist.” He replied by insisting on “the creativity and soundness of the leadership that the movement acquired.” It was not an “abstract” leadership, and “did not consist in the mechanical repetition of scientific or theoretical formulas.” Crucially, “it did not confuse politics — real action — with theoretical disquisi­tion.” Rather, the leadership of the Turin movement “devoted itself to real people in specific historical relations, with specific sentiments, ways of life, fragments of worldviews, etc., that were outcomes of the ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given environment of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ gathering of disparate social elements within that same environ­ment.” This “spontaneity,” Gramsci argued, “was educated, it was given a direction.” The education and direction of movement sought “to unify it by means of modern theory,” but it did so “in a living, historically effective manner.” By speaking of the “spontaneity” of the movement, its leaders emphasized its historically necessary character, and “gave the masses a ‘theoretical’ consciousness of themselves as cre­ators of historical and institutional values, as founders of states.” 21

Gramsci displaced the question of consciousness towards that of knowledge, and its material constitution in organizational forms. This is the originality of his reading of Lenin, which, Buci-Glucksmann emphasizes, he describes as “gnoseological.” 22 Thomas contrasts this explicitly to “epistemology,” which would be the abstract problem of the production of knowledge. “Gnoseology,” as Gramsci uses it, “refers more generally to the effective reality [Wirklichkeit] of human relations of knowledge.” 23

Gramsci’s reinterpretation of Leninism in terms of the effective reality of human relations of knowledge structures his understanding of the politics of the intellect. At a methodological level, Gramsci scrutinized the classical Marxist claim that people “acquire consciousness of structural conflicts on the level of ideologies.” This should be understood, he argued, “as an affirmation of gnoseological and not simply psychological and moral value.” Lenin’s “greatest theoretical contribution” to Marxism — the “theoretical-practical principle of hegemony” — had a “gnoseological significance.” Lenin, Gramsci wrote, “advanced philosophy as philosophy in so far as he advanced political doctrine and practice.” He located knowledge in what Gramsci called a “hegemonic apparatus,” which, “in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of forms of consciousness and of methods of knowledge: it is a fact of knowledge, a philosophical fact.” 24

By embedding knowledge in the concept of the “hegemonic apparatus,” Buci-Glucksmann argues, Gramsci clearly differentiated the theory of hegemony from a pure theory of consciousness or culture. He underscored its material reality “as a complex set of institutions, ideologies, practices and agents (including the ‘intellectuals’).” This was not, however, the same thing as a liberal study of static institutions, “for the hegemonic apparatus is intersected by the primacy of the class struggle.” 25

Elaborating on this point, Thomas adds that “a class’s hegemonic apparatus is the wide-ranging series of articulated institutions (understood in the broadest sense) and practices — from newspapers to educational organisations to political parties — by means of which a class and its allies engage their opponents in a struggle for political power.” In the specific relations of force between classes, “a class’s potential for political power therefore depends upon its ability to find the institutional forms adequate to the differentia specifica of its own particular hegemonic project.” 26

The totality of Gramsci’s work points us, in other words, to the problem of finding new organizational forms, political parties which are “historical experimenters” with new kinds of knowledge. 27 In this regard Sotiris underscores the Gramscian image of the party as a “laboratory,” rather than “the general staff of the proletarian army.” Gramsci rather points us to “a political process for the production of knowledges, strategies, tactics, and forms of intellectuality.” Thus from Gramsci’s perspective the party is not a predetermined structure which would subordinate various social movements to its authority. It is rather the name for the laboratory in which, as Sotiris puts it, a “plurality of processes, practices, resistances and collectivities” can be unified into a “common hegemonic project,” a project which combines “new and original forms of struggle, of resistance, blockage, reappropriation and emancipation.” This “potential unification requires thinking the party or the organization as a laboratory producing intellectualities, strategies, tactics, but also as a hegemonic practice. It is a constant encounter between practices, experiences and knowledges.” 28

Let us bring this exegetical detour back to Gramsci’s early statement of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” It should be clear that Gramsci was in fact grappling, albeit in a hasty and triumphalist manner, with the tension between the underlying recognition that all people are intellectuals, and the conditions for politics in which those with the social function of intellectuals play a leadership role. The continuity of these questions in Gramsci’s evolving political thought form the essential context for understanding his deployment of pessimism and optimism in the Prison Notebooks, where it is most frequently encountered.


To understand the reappearance of the phrase in the Prison Notebooks, we will turn theoretically from the intellect to the will, which is not only a key axis of the complex development of Gramsci’s thought, but also a pillar of the contemporary repetition of the slogan. Now, it seems, the phrase is meant to discourage us from dreaming of utopias, downplaying defeats, or dismissing dangers. But we would not want to give the impression that this emphasis on a sobering pessimism leads us to quietism and surrender. Optimism of the will then becomes the necessary supplement for something that is missing in the original pessimism; it allows us to be comfortable with pessimism, to disseminate pessimism to those who cling to illusions because they would otherwise be incapable of coping with the hopelessness that pessimism brings.

But this abstract assessment of sentiments rather obscures what was at stake for Gramsci as he repeated the phrase in his Prison Notebooks, where it represented a detailed and systematic reflection on the strategic and organizational questions of his revolutionary experience. The historical background has drastically changed: by 1926 revolutionary politics in Italy had been defeated and fascism had consolidated its rule. In his Prison Notebooks Gramsci was thinking through politics anew. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it, “after the failure of the revolution, and the consolidation of dictatorship, new strength can come only from knowledge.” 29

It was probably one footnote in the standard English volume, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, which popularized the slogan among Anglophone readers in 1971. The context was a discussion of the history of Italian politics and political thought written from 1930-32, in which Gramsci was reflecting on “the effectiveness of the political will” which has “turned to awakening new and original forces rather than merely to calculating on the traditional ones.” 30 His inspiration was Machiavelli, whose fundamental recognition that “politics is an autonomous activity” provided a necessary supplement to Marxism, which in conditions of defeat had the tendency to lapse into a mechanistic economic determinism. In its belief in the inevitable and predetermined coming of revolutionary conditions, this determinism resembled nothing more than a religious fatalism. 31

For Gramsci what was important about Machiavelli was his realization that the historical transformations announced by the Renaissance could not be achieved without the formation of a national state, and some historical agent was required which could represent the “collective will” and achieve this historical task — the Prince. 32 But the Prince was not an already-existing person; in writing The Prince, Machiavelli was trying to call this agent into being. He thus bridged between the preceding tendencies of political thought to either dream of utopias, or engage in disinterested scholarly analysis.

So Machiavelli’s “concrete will” to bring about a new order could not be reduced to utopias and daydreams, as skeptics like his aristocratic associate Guicciardini had charged. The skeptical attitude which dismissed any possibility for historical change had to be distinguished, Gramsci wrote, from a real “pessimism of the intelligence, which can be combined with an optimism of the will in active and realistic politicians.” 33

At this point the editors and translators of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks added a footnote referring to another portion of the notebooks from 1932, an independent fragment on “daydreams and fantasies.” Gramsci wrote that daydreams and fantasies were fundamentally passive, imagining that “something has happened to upset the mechanism of necessity,” and therefore “one’s own initiative has become free.” 34 As a political orientation this was in stark contrast to Machiavelli’s concrete will, which applied itself, he wrote elsewhere, to the “effective reality” and aimed at “the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative.” 35

Here he repeated the decisive phrase: “On the contrary, it is necessary to direct one’s attention violently towards the present as it is, if one wishes to transform it. Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” 36

This language is striking, yet incomprehensible without understanding the way Gramsci was using Machiavelli to elaborate on the problems of revolutionary strategy that had preoccupied him before prison. Machiavelli, embedded in his particular historical moment, represented the formation of a concrete will “in terms of the qualities, characteristics, duties and requirements of a concrete individual.” For Gramsci, the “modern Prince” — which had the historical task of bringing about the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry that would be capable of initiating the process of transition to a workers’ state — could not “be a real person, a concrete individual.” It rather had to be “a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party — the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tending to become universal and total.” 37

Thus for Gramsci the pessimism of the intellect constituted the refusal to conceive of politics in terms of the ahistorical dreams of utopias. This did not mean simply resigning oneself to the equilibrium of the effective reality: optimism of the will was the application of the autonomy of politics to the really existing and operative forces which could bring about a new equilibrium. But this will was not simply a matter of individual determination; it was nothing other than the party, whose organizational processes brought about the formation of a concrete and collective will.

As Sotiris writes, Gramsci’s reflection on Machiavelli “encapsulates the necessity of the political party, in opposition to other forms of organization exactly on the basis of a need not only to form a collective will but also to enable it to articulate and execute a political project.” Just as Machiavelli “sought the person that could function as the catalyst for a process of national unification of the fragmented Italian space, and the modern political party,” Gramsci believed that the communist party “should also function in this unifying way, articulating the fragmented and ‘molecular’ practices and aspirations of the subaltern in a common political demand for radical transformation..” Thus Gramsci treated the communist party as “the terrain par excellence for the elaboration of a collective will capable of being the protagonist of a process of social transformation.” 38 But as Thomas points out, while Gramsci saw the political party as “the historically given form in which the decisive elements of organisation, unification and coordination had already begun to occur,” the re-elaboration of this form into a “non-bureaucratic instrument of proletarian hegemony” would require “an ongoing dialectical exchange with the popular initiatives from which the ‘modern Prince’ could emerge and into which it would seek to intervene.” 39

Let us recall that these reflections on the possibility of organization were taking place under conditions of defeat. It is in this context that Gramsci brought the strategic and organizational question of the party towards the problem of politics as an autonomous activity. As Thomas writes, “the ‘modern Prince’ for Gramsci, imprisoned for being a member of a Communist party, was a collective body constituted as an active social relation of knowledge and organisation” which could initiate the formation of a collective will. But “just as its Machiavellian predecessor, Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’ remained no more than a proposal for the future, not a concrete reality, in his time—or in our own.” 40

In this very concrete sense Gramsci is our contemporary. What we miss in reducing “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to a sensibility is the practical importance of Gramsci’s reflections. In the absence of an organizational form which can operate as the organizer of a concrete and collective will, politics has become unavailable to us. To recall Gramsci’s formulation, we require theories and practices of organization which are oriented towards awakening new and original forces, rather than calculating on the traditional ones.


We cannot entirely separate the organizational question of politics as autonomous activity, which runs continuously from L’Ordine Nuovo to the Prison Notebooks, from what we might call the ethical disposition of those who participate in politics. However, these problems of ethics should be distinguished from the psychological and moral level, which is also the level of consciousness, that Gramsci clearly demarcated from the gnoseological. Gramsci’s writings propose new ethical principles, each marked by fundamental lines of demarcation, which appear in passages which were not included in the initial English translation (but made available in the larger edition edited by Pete Buttigieg’s father Joseph), and in his letters.

In a portion of a longer passage from 1929-30, Gramsci wrote that Marx’s “catastrophism” was a valid reaction to “the general optimism of the nineteenth century.” Marx “poured cold water over the enthusiasm with his ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.’” Gramsci criticized the optimistic tendency to imagine utopias, which led people to fantasize about “easy solutions to every problem.” “All the most ridiculous daydreamers,” he wrote, “descend upon the new movements to propagate their tales of hitherto unrecognized genius, thereby casting discredit on them.” Instead, he said, “it is necessary to create sober, patient people who do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and who do not become exuberant with every silliness. Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” 41

In another independent fragment in the notebooks from 1932, titled “Optimism and pessimism,” he noted that “optimism is nothing more than a defense of one’s laziness, one’s irresponsibility, the will to do nothing,” and is therefore “also a form of fatalism and mechanicism.” Optimism meant relying “on factors extraneous to one’s will and activity.” What was necessary instead was a reaction which took “the intelligence for its point of departure.” Gramsci rejected the enthusiasm resulting from the exaltation of factors extraneous from one’s will and activity, which was “is nothing more than the external adoration of fetishes.” And yet, there was also a “justifiable enthusiasm,” which could only be “that which accompanies the intelligent will, intelligent activity, the inventive richness of concrete initiatives which change existing reality.” 42

We cannot avoid noticing that the binary oppositions of the slogan have been displaced. There is an optimism tied to the “will to do nothing,” which is contrasted to an “intelligent will.” A certain kind of “optimism of the will,” then, is not only the counterpart of fatalism and mechanicism, but also a form of utopian daydreaming. This is not simply because pessimism is needed to correct the optimism of the will. The alternative Gramsci actually describes is instead a fusion of intelligence and will, the “intelligent will,” which is accompanied by a justifiable form of “enthusiasm.” With this he recalls the slogan printed in a box under the title from the very first issue of L’Ordine Nuovo: “Educate yourselves because we will need all your intelligence. Rouse yourselves because we will need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we will need all your strength.” 43 Enthusiasm is the first new ethical principle.

In a 1929 letter to his brother Carlo, in which he recalled the experience that both of his brothers had in conditions of war, Gramsci reflected on hardship and deprivation and rejected “those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism.” His state of mind, Gramsci said, “synthesizes these two emotions and overcomes them: I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” He claimed that “in all circumstances” he thought “first of the worst possibility in order to set in motion all the reserves of my will and be in a position to knock down the obstacle.” At the same time, he said, “I have never entertained any illusions and I have never suffered disappointments.” But he did not end by reiterating the slogan. He shifted, instead, to different words: “I have always taken care to arm myself with an unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.” 44

Perhaps between the Prison Notebooks and this letter, the gnoseological level and the psychological and moral level appear to be conflated. Here Gramsci does not appear to be speaking of knowledge which is embedded in the hegemonic apparatus, the organizational level of the formation of the concrete and collective will. Yet these letters cannot be reduced to a mere indication of Gramsci’s psychological and moral state; his personal situation is precisely the historical and political condition of defeat he set out to theorize, defined by the political void that no modern Prince was available to fill. If we rush quickly to conflate the psychological and moral with the gnoseological, we run the risk of abstracting the personal will, in the manner that Gramsci criticized in his notes on daydreams, by detaching it from the organizational processes that can actually form a concrete and collective will.

Despite beginning with the oppositions between pessimism and optimism, intellect and will, in this letter Gramsci in fact redirects them towards “perseverance,” a unitary category which is tied not to optimism or pessimism, but to “patience.” In a certain form, Gramsci wrote in a 1930-32 note, perseverance is enabled by the mechanistic philosophy of history: “For those who do not have the initiative in the struggle and for whom, therefore, the struggle ends up being synonymous with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a formidable force of moral resistance, of cohesion, of patient perseverance.” It allows one to say: “I am defeated, but in the long run history is on my side.” In other words, this kind of perseverance is an “‘act of faith’ in the rationality of history transmuted into an impassioned teleology that is a substitute for the ‘predestination,’ ‘providence,’ etc., of religion.” However, Gramsci argued that despite this belief in mechanical determinism, in reality “the will is active; it intervenes directly in the ‘force of circumstances,’ albeit in a more covert and veiled manner.” When those who are accustomed to being defeated become historical protagonists, “the mechanistic conception will sooner or later represent an imminent danger, and there will be a revision of a whole mode of thinking because the mode of existence will have changed.” 45

Revising the note in 1932-33, Gramsci emphasized that it was never really the case that the subaltern was inactive; in fact, “fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position.” This is why it was necessary to “demonstrate the futility of mechanical determinism,” which “as a naïve philosophy of the mass” could be “an intrinsic element of strength,” but would, if “adopted as a thought-out and coherent philosophy on the part of the intellectuals,” become “a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency.” This happens when intellectuals “don’t even expect that the subaltern will become directive and responsible”; but in fact, “some part of even a subaltern mass is always directive and responsible.” 46

Hence perseverance cannot be a political principle if it is attached to future prophesy, but rather embodies the patient capacity to recognize the active will that persists beyond one’s personal psychological and moral state; it requires patience, and also courage. In a 1930-32 notebook entry on “Military and political craft,” Gramsci observed that “staying for a long time in a trench requires ‘courage’ — that is, perseverance in boldness — which can be produced either by ‘terror’ (certain death if one does not stay) or by the conviction that it is necessary (courage).” 47 Perseverance is the second new ethical principle.

Perseverance is irreducible to the level of the individual, because it is at this level that, as Gramsci was ultimately forced to conclude, the dialectic of pessimism and optimism breaks down. In a letter to his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht in 1933, months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany, Gramsci revisited his slogan. “Until a while ago,” he wrote, “I was, so to speak, pessimistic in my intelligence and an optimist in my will.” But he could no longer sustain his synthesis of pessimism and optimism: “Today I no longer think in this way. This does not mean that I’ve decided to surrender, so to speak. But it means that I no longer see any concrete way out and I no longer can count on any reserve of strength to expend that I can draw on.” 48 His body failing him, he saw no escape from his prison cell.

Without an organized, collective body to sustain it, the individual body falters. When the political condition of the party can no longer be taken for granted, and optimism of the will has become a daydream, pessimism of the intellect does not yield knowledge. We are required instead to persevere in the interregnum between the previous moments of emancipatory possibility and the unachieved discovery of a new concrete hegemonic political form.

Both perseverance and enthusiasm have to be separated from mechanicism and fatalism, and refer instead to the concrete will that applies itself to the effective reality. In order to do so, they must be based in the collective body, and not the individual consciousness. As psychological and moral categories, both pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will run counter to the ethical disposition that is articulated in the margins of Gramsci’s text.

Pessimism of the intellect confirms itself in the experience of defeat, severing the personal body from the collective body which is required for us to persevere. Persevering in politics is difficult, and requires a patient and courageous commitment which does not depend on forecasts of the future.

Optimism of the will obscures the problem of organizational forms and forecloses their enthusiastic investigation. It means clinging to traditional forces, rather than creating and organizing new ones, and is thus incompatible with the intelligent will which is defined by enthusiasm for concrete initiatives which can change the existing reality.

Enthusiasm and perseverance emerge as Gramsci’s ethical principles. But now it is time to conclude, by revisiting pessimism and optimism.


I believe that our current moment shows us that Gramsci’s insights are not well represented by the slogan, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In fact, we will better understand our situation if we precisely reverse it.

Optimism of the intellect, because we have to start by recognizing that all people are capable of thought, that they are able to not only form conceptions of the world but also to experiment with new possibilities. There is no emancipatory politics without recognizing this universal capacity for thought.  Gramsci never failed to emphasize two essential points: that all people are philosophers, and that this mass intelligence is the basis for a future society; and that despite the political division between leaders and led, rulers and ruled, it is possible to engage in forms of political action which abolish this distinction rather than preserving it. This is quite distinct from an optimism about the future, regarding which we must pass over in silence. Our optimism of the intellect is the one which says that it is possible for people to govern themselves, and in every act of collective resistance this capacity is confirmed.

But pessimism of the will, because we know that the will has to take a material organizational form, and that across the history of revolutionary politics the classical form assumed by the young Gramsci is no longer available to us. We lack the concrete basis for organizations on the model of the twentieth century revolutions, and we know from the history which followed these revolutions that the emancipatory potential of the party seizing the state has been exhausted. Gramsci never abandoned the insight of Lenin that politics develops under conditions and that the political will must take an organizational form. He deepened this line of thought for a situation of defeat in which that organization of wills was not available. He was not afraid to grapple with the problem of the conquest of political power, which still remains with us, but could not have incorporated into his analysis the exhaustion of the party-state and the closure of its emancipatory horizon which frames our present. We are still faced with the necessity of politics as autonomous activity, the formation of concrete and collective wills, but it must take a material form which is adequate to the present. What we need now is not a voluntarist dedication to repeating old models, but laboratories which can observe new forces and experiment with new forms.

Our subjective horizon is the optimism of the intellect; our objective, structuring condition is pessimism of the will. Without optimism of the intellect, we have the party without the people. Without pessimism of the will, we have the illusion of power. Until we recognize this there is no path for action.

Appendix: “Where Is the Socialist Party Going?”

The following unsigned editorial, attributed to Gramsci, appeared in L’Ordine Nuovo on 10 July 1920.

The direct action of the masses can only be eminently destructive. If the masses take up the slogan which leads them to the exercise of control over the public and private activity of the capitalist class, their action can only culminate in the complete destruction of the state machine. The proletariat took up the slogan: it was necessary to control traffic to stop arms and munitions intended for the enemies of the Russian revolution, to stop goods destined for the Hungary of the land magnates, to prevent the movement of troops intending to reactivate the war in the Balkans and in all of Europe; it was inevitable that this would lead all the way to the events of Ancona, to the armed insurrection.

The direct action of the working masses is revolutionary precisely because it is eminently destructive. Since the working class has no power over industrial governance, it is natural that it reveals the acquired economic power in tending towards destroying industrial discipline and all industrial discipline; since the working class occupies the same position in the army as it does in the factory, since in the factory just as in the army the working class must submit to a discipline and a law that it has not contributing to establishing, it is natural that it would tend towards destroying the discipline of the army, and destroying it completely; since the whole bourgeois state apparatus is completely extraneous and hostile to the proletarian masses, it is natural that every revolutionary action to directly control governmental activity would ultimately lead to the complete destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, to the armed insurrection.

The communists are well persuaded that this must happen, that it could not happen any other way; therefore the communists are not afraid of the direct action of the masses and the inevitable destruction that comes with it. One is afraid of the unpredictable and unexpected, not of what is expected as a necessity and which one tries to advance: which we try to advance to be able to dominate the reality which is expected to arise, to ensure that destruction already consciously contains the elements and the will for reconstruction, to ensure that violence is not a sterile outburst of blind fury, but is economic and political power that liberates itself and sets the conditions for its own development.

The slogan for control of governmental activity led to railroad strikes, to general strikes resulting from the railroad strikes, leading to the insurrection of Ancona. Since the General Confederation of Labor (i.e. the acting secretary) has an English gardener’s conception of workers’ control, since the General Confederation of Labor wants well-behaved control, which respects liberty, order, and democracy, the Confederation immediately issued this circular: “For Hungary and for Russia we can only do what we can and not what we might want. It seems to us that the derailing of every railcar, in addition to being practically difficult, would bring consequences (!) and complications (!?!). Your action must therefore be limited to what is possible, to everything that is possible while avoiding complications.” The economy precedes politics; since the reformists and opportunists have the whole mechanism of the Italian labor movement in their hands, the reformists and opportunists have the power of the Socialist Party in their hands, imposing direction and tactics on the Party: the action of the party has collapsed, the mass movements have served the parliamentary group, to allow it to reap victory after victory, they have served to allow the reformist deputies to consolidate their positions and to make easier, and therefore more laden with laurels, a rise to governmental power. So it happens, due to the political incapacity of components of the leadership, that every day the Italian Socialist Party loses more of its strength and its organizational power over the masses, so it happened that the Anarchist Congress of Bologna had such importance for the proletarian masses, so it will happen, if the communist groups do not react energetically, that the party will end up losing every control over the masses, and the latter, having no guide, will in the unfolding of events be driven into a situation worse than that of the masses of Austria and Germany.

We of L’Ordine Nuovo and the Turin socialists in general were presented to the Italian proletariat, after the April movement, as a fanatical, agitated, and undisciplined rabble. Since the leaders of the central offices do not concern themselves with what happens among the industrialists and what happens among the workers, because they see history as unfolding through the operation of ideological abstractions (classes in general, the party in general, humanity in general), and not through the action of real men who are named Peter, Paul, and John and are what they really are, and not through the action of determinate urban and rural communities in space and time, which change (and change rapidly in the current period) with the changing of places and the passing of months and even weeks, these leaders foresee none of this, and end up seeing the tail of the devil in every event, and end up unloading their historical responsibility onto the shoulders of the multiplying undisciplined and anarchoid groups. Meanwhile the Turin socialist section had the merit of formulating an action to take control of the union movement away from the reformists, predicting (easy prediction) that in the final moment the union bosses would have sabotaged the will of the party and of the masses: this action did not have the results it should have had because of the very intervention of… the Party leadership. The Turin section, accused of indiscipline after the April movement, had already before the movement prepared its report to the National Council in which it harshly condemned the leadership for not having devoted any concern to revolutionary organization and the establishment of a strongly centralized and responsible discipline. Unfortunately the report of the Turin section is still relevant; the latest events are the aggravated repetition of the April events in Turin. It has become more relevant than we could have believed, including this paragraph: “The political party of the working class justifies its existence only to the extent that by powerfully centralizing and co-ordinating proletarian action, it counterposes a de facto revolutionary power to the legal power of the bourgeois State and limits its freedom of initiative and manœuvre. If the Party fails to unify and co-ordinate its efforts, and reveals itself as simply a bureaucratic institution, with no soul or will, the working class will instinctively move to form another party and shift its allegiance to the anarchist tendencies, the very ones that bitterly and ceaselessly criticize the centralization and bureaucracy of political parties.” 49

The Party lacks organization and propaganda for revolutionary organization, which corresponds to the configuration of the proletarian masses in the factories, in the barracks, in the offices, and is capable of training the masses with every revolutionary leap. The party, insofar as it does not seek to fuse vitally with the proletarian masses, continues to conserve, in its assemblies which meet only occasionally and cannot effectively control the action of the union bosses, the figure of a merely parliamentary party, which is afraid of direct action because it is full of unforeseen events, which is forced to take more steps backwards every day and permit the rebirth of the most pompous and flimsy reformism and the most foolish collaborationist propaganda.

An enormous effort must be made by the communist groups in the Socialist Party, which is what it is, in the final analysis, because Italy is as a whole an economically backward country. The slogan: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” must become the slogan of every communist conscious of the efforts and sacrifices that are demanded of those who voluntarily assume the post of militant in the ranks of the working class.

References   [ + ]

1. Gwynn Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Italian Communism (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 203-8.
2. Antonio Gramsci, “The Turin Communist Movement,” International Gramsci Journal, 2:2 (2017): 40. This is a more accurate version of the text also published in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, ed. Quintin Hoare and trans. John Mathews (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988).
3. The phrasing which appears in the published translations, “pessimism of the intelligence,” is more precise; but the slogan has circulated widely with the word “intellect,” which produces a perhaps more mellifluous sentence. I have simply used them interchangeably.
4. Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, trans. Raymond Rosenthal and ed. Frank Rosengarten (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 300.
5. Williams, Proletarian Order, 28, 193-9.
6. Gramsci, “Address to the Anarchists” in Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 188.
7. Ibid., 189.
8. Ibid., 188.
9. Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, trans. David Fernbach (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), 12.
10. Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 34.
11. See especially “Officialdom” and “Against Pessimism” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), but also the earlier untranslated text “Dove va il Partito socialista?” in L’Ordine Nuovo, 10 July 1920. A translation of this text is included as an appendix.
12. See Williams, Proletarian Order, chs. 9-11.
13. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks [SPN], trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1992), 9, 323. In references to the original Quaderni del carcere [Q], ed. Valentino Gerratana (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), I follow the international convention of giving the notebook number followed by the note number, then the page number: 12§1, 1516; 11§12, 1375. Where applicable I also refer to the three English volumes of the Prison Notebooks [PN], trans. Joseph A. Buttgieg and Antonio Callari and ed. Joseph A. Buttgieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
14. SPN, 334; Q 11§12, 1386.
15. SPN, 335; Q 11§12, 1387. Translation modified.
16. Panagiotis Sotiris, “The Modern Prince as Laboratory of Political Intellectuality,” International Gramsci Journal, 3:2 (2019): 2.
17. SPN, 144; Q 15§4, 1752.
18. SPN, 325; Q11§12, 1378.
19. Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 29, 31.
20. Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony, and Marxism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 408.
21. PN 2, 50; SPN 198; Q 3§48, 330.
22. Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 349.
23. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 97n34.
24. SPN, 365–6; Q 10II§12, 1249-50. Translation modified.
25. Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 48; see also 63-8.
26. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 226-7.
27. SPN, 335; Q 11§12, 1387. Translation modified.
28. Sotiris, “The Modern Prince,” 28, 32, 34.
29. Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 24.
30. SPN, 174; PN 3, 73; Q 6§86, 761.
31. SPN, 168; Q 13§23, 1611-12; see also 9§40, 1120.
32. SPN, 129; Q 13§1, 1558.
33. SPN, 175; PN 3, 73; Q 6§86, 762.
34. SPN, 175; Q 9§60, 1131.
35. SPN, 172; Q 13§16, 1578.
36. SPN, 175; Q 9§60, 1131.
37. SPN, 129; Q 13§1, 1558; see also PN 3, 247; Q 8§21, 951.
38. Sotiris, “Modern Prince,” 19-20.
39. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 437.
40. Ibid., 438.
41. PN 1, 172; Q 1§63, 75; see also Q 28§11, 2331-2.
42. PN 1, 12; Q 9§130, 1191-2.
43. PN 19, 71; Q xlviii.
44. Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, 299; Antonio Gramsci, Lettere dal carcere, ed. Sergio Caprioglio and Elsa Fubini (Turin: Einaudi, 1973), 310.
45. PN, 353; Q 8§205, 1064.
46. SPN, 337; Q 11§1, 1388-9.
47. PN, 236; Q 4§62, 508.
48. Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 2, 299-300; Lettere dal carcere, 785.
49. Gramsci, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party” in Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 193.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).