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Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. [From Romain Rolland's Review of Raymond Lefebvre's Le Sacrifice d'Abraham]
This phrase isn't my own; it's from the pen of French writer Romain Rolland. But people credit me with having said it all the time—so frequently, in fact, that I might as well have said it myself.
Here's what I take it to mean: we have to be realistic—brutally honest with ourselves—when it comes to our chances for making change. Only in this way will it be possible to make change in reality, and not just in our wild, wishful dreams.
The flipside of this realism, though, is a radical optimism that refuses to admit defeat and insists that change for the better is a real possibility for us. This means it's our job to bring about change; we're not off the hook just because we see how difficult this task is. On the contrary, seeing the task's difficulty is the beginning of our work, not the end.
[A]ll men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals. [From Selections from Prison Notebooks]
This is me at my best, if I may say so. I define intellectuals as people who fulfill a particular function in society, rather than people with a particular set of gifts. And this definition begins to get at the importance I give to education in my work.
Education, in the right hands, it is what enables counter-hegemonic thought to become common sense. It is a key instrument for shifting people's ways of seeing the world and experiencing their exploitation, or their privilege, as historically accidental rather than necessary—and therefore as liable to change.
When I say that "all men"—by which I mean all people—"are intellectuals," what I mean is that everyone should receive an education, even people who will end up working in factories or on farms. No one should be duped into thinking that being exploited is necessary, that it's just the way things are and can't be changed.
By the same account, intellectuals should not confine themselves to ivory towers, and they should not be satisfied addressing just each other. They should work—in a non-condescending way—to open their thought to others who aren't functioning as intellectuals in society, but who are potential intellectuals, all the same, and who are capable of understanding much more than they're given credit for.
If our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals… from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome. [From Selections from Prison Notebooks]
There you have it, folks: that's "our aim" in a nutshell. Here, I spell out my goal of producing an intellectual who's a member of (organic to) the ruled, rather than to the ruling, classes.
I also acknowledge that this is a tall, tall order.
What's so tall about it? Well, when I say the ruled haven't historically been given the "appropriate attitudes," I don't just mean that they have what you might call an attitude problem. I mean that there are basic skills—including study skills—that the subaltern has not been taught.
So, if we want to turn formerly dominated and exploited people into functioning intellectuals, we need to first provide them with the tools necessary to succeed. This is why, atypically for a Marxist, I came out in favor of old-school subjects like logic and Latin. That's because those subjects, in my view, provide some basic tools without which it's hard to stay in school, let alone govern.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. [From Selections from Prison Notebooks]
The new and more just world order—which was supposed to pave the way for the dictatorship of the proletariat and for even better futures after that—was having a hard time getting itself born in my day. If you ask me, it's still having a lot of trouble, because elites try everything in their power to prevent wealth from being redistributed and true democracy from being realized.
And yet there's something death-bound and sickly about these same elites. There's only so much they can do to stop change from taking place. After a while, it's just going to happen, because people will be educated enough not to accept the domination of the elites anymore.
My work charts the difficult birth of the new amid the death throes of the old. But it also keeps constantly in view the forces that try to block the new and revive the old. These forces, it seems to me, are still around, and the new is still struggling everywhere.