Pessimism of the Reality, Optimism of the Ideal



José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology

It seems to me that José Vasconcelos has found a formula on pessimism and optimism that not only defines the feeling of the new Ibero-American generation in the face of the contemporary crisis, but also corresponds to the absolute mentality and sensibility of an era in which, despite the thesis of José Ortega y Gasset on the “disenchanted soul” and “the twilight of revolutions,” millions of people are working with mystical courage and a religious passion to create a new world.  “Pessimism of reality, optimism of the ideal,” is Vasconcelos’s formula.

“Do not ever conform, always be above and beyond the moment,” writes Vasconcelos.  “Reject reality and fight to destroy it, not for a lack of faith but by an excess of faith in human capabilities and the firm conviction that evil is never permanent nor justifiable, and that it is always possible and feasible to redeem, purify, improve the collective condition and the private conscience.”

The attitude of people who intend to correct reality is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic.  They are pessimistic in their protest and in their condemnation of the present, but they are optimists in their hope for the future.  All great human ideals have started with a denial, but they also have been an affirmation.  Religions have always perpetually represented this pessimism of reality and optimism of the ideal that this Mexican writer is now preaching to us.

We are not content with mediocrity, let alone do we settle for injustice.  We are often described as pessimistic, but, in truth, pessimism dominates our spirit much less than optimism.  We do not believe that the world should be fatal and eternally as it is.  We believe that it can and should be better.  The optimism we reject is the easy and lazy Panglossian optimism of those who think we live in the best of all possible worlds.


There are two kinds of pessimists, just as there are two kinds of optimists.  The exclusively negative pessimist is limited to gestures of helplessness and hopelessness, the misery of things and the vanity of effort.  That person is nihilistic and melancholy, waiting for the final disappointment.  As Artzibachev said, “The extreme limits.”  Fortunately, this kind of person is not common.  This type belongs to a strange hierarchy of disenchanted intellectuals who are also a product of a period in decline or of a people in collapse.

Among the intellectuals, it is not uncommon that a simulated nihilism is a philosophical excuse for refusing to cooperate in any great effort of renovation or as a means to explain their disdain for any mass work.  But the fictional nihilism of this type of intellectual is not a philosophical attitude.  It is reduced to a hidden and artificial disdain for the great human myths.  It is an unacknowledged nihilism that does not dare to come to the surface of the work or life of a negative intellectual, who approaches this theoretical exercise as a solitary vice.  The intellectual, nihilistic in private, is likely to be a public member of an anti-alcohol league or a protector of animals.  Their nihilism is only intended to guard and defend themselves from the great passions.  In the face of petty ideals, the false nihilist behaves with the most vulgar idealism.


It is with pessimistic and negative spirits of this nature that our optimism of the ideal refuses to let us be confused.  Negative attitudes are absolutely sterile.  Action is made of negations and affirmations.  The new generation in our America and around the world is, above all, a generation that shouts its faith, sings its hope.


A skeptical mood prevails in contemporary Western philosophy.  This philosophical attitude, as its critics so pervasively stress, is a gesture peculiar to a civilization in decline.  Only in a decadent world would a disillusioned sense of life flourish.  But not even this contemporary skepticism or relativism has a relationship, or any affinity, with the cheap and fictitious nihilism of the impotent, nor with the absolute and morbid nihilism of the suicidal madmen of Andreiev and Artzibachev.  Pragmatism, which so effectively moves people to action, is in fact a relativistic and skeptical school.  Hans Vainhingher, the author of Philosophie der Als Ob, has been justifiably classified as a pragmatist.  For this German philosopher, there are no absolute truths.  But there are relative truths that govern people’s lives as if they were absolute.  “Moral principles, just like aesthetic ones, legal criteria, just like those upon which science operates, the very foundations of logic, have no objective existence.  They are our fictitious constructions that serve only as regulatory precepts for our actions, which are conducted as if they were true.”  Thus the Italian philosopher Giuseppe Renssi defines the philosophy of Vainhinger in his Lineamientos de Filosofía escéptica, which, as I see in a bibliographic note in Ortega y Gasset’s journal, has begun to attract interest in Spain and hence in Spanish America.

This philosophy, therefore, does not call us to abandon action.  It only seeks to deny the Absolute.  But it recognizes in human history the relative truth, the temporal myth of each time, the same value and the same effectiveness as an absolute and eternal truth.  This philosophy proclaims and confirms the need of the myth and the usefulness of the faith.  Although it then entertains the thinking that all truths and all fictions, in the final analysis, are equivalent.  Einstein, a relativist, behaves in life as an optimist of the ideal.


The desire to overcome skeptical philosophy burns in the new generation.  It is made in the contemporary chaos from the materials of a new mysticism.  The world in birth will not put its hope where conceited religions placed it.  “The strong strive and struggle,” says Vasconcelos, “in order to anticipate somewhat the work of heaven.”  The new generation wants to be strong.

Mundial, Lima, 21 August 1925

José Carlos Mariátegui is one of Latin America’s most profound and yet overlooked thinkers.  A self-taught journalist, social scientist, and activist from Peru, he was the first to emphasize that those fighting for the revolutionary transformation of society must adapt classical Marxist theory to the particular conditions of Latin America.  He also stressed that indigenous peoples must take an active role in any revolutionary struggle.  This article is an excerpt (p. 395-398, footnotes omitted) from José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (edited and translated by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker), newly published by Monthly Review Press.


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