Optimism and Pessimism

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Optimism and Pessimism


concepts that characterize a system of ideas about the world in terms of the positive or negative attitude expressed in it toward the present and in terms of its expectations for the future. An optimistic or pessimistic attitude is a manifestation of the general spiritual atmosphere of an epoch, especially in periods of social upheaval. In addition, it is a reflection of the mood of social groups and classes, whose ideology expresses their rise to dominance and their intention to reorganize society on a more just basis. Conversely, it may reflect the decadent mood of classes that are leaving the historical arena (the contemporary bourgeoisie, for example).

Optimism and pessimism are a valuational aspect of a perception of the world, in which the world is interpreted only in terms of the proportion in it of good and evil, of justice and injustice, of happiness and misfortune. Optimism and pessismism may be described as general tones and moods that permeate the specific content of an idea but that do not define it rigorously or monosemantically. They may be characteristic of both a firsthand, sensory perception of the world and a world view as a whole. Considered in relation to a sensory perception of the world, optimism is a bright emotional tone, and pessimism a somber tone, in outlooks on life and the future; optimism is a buoyant acceptance of what exists, and pessimism is a mood of despair. In relation to a world view as a whole, optimism or pessimism is a doctrine of the “essence” of the world, in which good and evil are often ontologized and depicted as foundations of the world that are independent of each other, and in which the struggle between good and evil is viewed as the mainspring or meaning of existing phenomena, current events, or history as a whole.

The Marxist world view has nothing in common with these idealistic and metaphysical conceptions of optimism and pessimism. A scientific view of history excludes a valuational interpretation of the development of mankind, in which historical ascendancy is depicted merely as an external manifestation of the struggle between two primordial absolute principles—good and evil. The idea that the world as a whole is “changing for the better” is common sense. The limitation on this change (the final triumph of good over evil) contains a logical contradiction, since good and evil are relational concepts, and the attainment of an ideal state of perfection in the world would signify the end of history.

In reality, the idea of a struggle between good and evil has meaning only for a specific historical moment, and in practice, the triumph of good can only signify the solution of some social problem, the transition from a condition that does not satisfy man to a better future, which is the goal of social action. In the words of V. I. Lenin, “the world does not satisfy man, and man decides to change it by his activity” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 195). In Marxist science the concept of social progress means the historical ascent of social life, of human activity, toward higher forms (more complicated, more universal, freer, more conscious forms). This ascent is measured not by the degree of realization of the eternal essence of man or of the concepts of justice, happiness, and prosperity, defined once and for all, but by the practical fulfillment of the tasks that confront a society at each historical moment (for example, the socialist revolution and building a new society). The upward movement of society is infinite. (Communism is the beginning of real history.) Every step in the ascent of society is related to the preceding one as a solution of its contradictions and collisions—that is, each step is more perfect than its antecedent. In this sense, the Marxist world view is termed optimistic.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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