Revolutionary Optimism: Building Hope through Art




I know I’m not the only one who finds things hopeless sometimes. Most of the people I know are much worse off economically than we were three years ago, even if the stock market just keeps soaring. Unionization is skyrocketing but getting a job that pays decently seems harder than ever. Mass extinction and natural disasters are on the rise, ice caps have disappeared, and the climate is warming faster than ever, while our government and tax dollars keep subsidizing fossil fuels and funding the greatest single polluter on earth, the US military. Fascism is rearing its head like it’s 1935. We don’t know if we can pay our rent, keep food on the table, or even get decent healthcare. And our politicians seem less interested in helping than ever. 

Despair can seem tempting. It’s easier to say “there’s nothing we can do” and wallow than to personally and collectively rise to the challenge of making a livable world. But as marxist-leninist youtuber Second Thought says in his primer on revolutionary optimism here, “to a fossil fuel executive or billionaire shareholder, there is no difference between a doomer and a climate denier.” Only someone who believes a better future might be possible can challenge the way things are.

None of us know a better future isn’t possible. Change is inevitable, and the way any given human thinks about the world around us can change every day. Massive societal pivots happen rapidly and political and social scientists consider revolutions and other such uprisings to be very difficult to predict. Even if you believe that without arresting capitalism saving the planet would be impossible, you cannot guarantee that arresting capitalism isn’t within the realm of possibility. The more of us believe a better world is possible, the more likely we are to work together towards a world where we all have true freedom to grow, learn, and build a world of plenty for all. 

Community care, organizing for better material conditions, and working towards a future where everyone is truly free, are antidotes to the tragic isolation and alienation that capitalism has visited on us. They’re also meaningful strategies to build our sense of security and envision how different societal structures might be possible. To engage in this kind of organizing, you need to feed your heart. Good stories and togetherness can do that.

Ursula K. Le Guin is worth repeating here: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” So with that, let me invite you to read some of the books that have given me meaningful hope for the future recently. Solidarity and revolutionary optimism are the remedies to doomerism, and maybe so are good books.

  1. The Murderbot Diaries

Martha Wells’ sci-fi Murderbot Diaries have been my favorite series I’ve read this year. The first book, All Systems Red, finds our main character, a SecUnit that uses it/its pronouns, still on the job, 40,000 hours after hacking its governor module and in theory, freeing itself from servitude to its corporate overlords. Not knowing how to build a life outside of its job, it stays at work, spending most of its time watching entertainment feeds for humans. “Murderbot” is full of humor and joy, as well as cathartic anger. As its title character learns about humanity, and finds more to the universe than corporate dystopia, we get to gallop along for the ride. It’s fast paced, fun, and has wholesome portrayals of queerness, polyamory, found family, and most excitingly for me, a believable if flawed post-capitalist polity. The latter provides a beautiful counterweight to the series’ corporate dystopias.

I find Murderbot fun, exciting, life affirming, and highly relatable. Martha Wells’ SecUnit is mildly autistic-coded, and provides a charmingly grumpy narrative voice. I’ve read the series a few times over now, and I hope you’ll find it as fun and hopeful as I did! 

  1. Pet and Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi is creative, insightful, and moving in their YA novel debuts of Pet and Bitter. Pet is about good and evil. It takes place in a post-revolution North America where depredation, it seems, has been ended. However, all is not well in the town of Lucille. In a story filled with angels and monsters, the protagonist Jam teams up with the otherworldly Pet to hunt one such monster. Life affirming, exciting and fun, Pet shows us that sometimes fresh eyes or a new generation can solve problems that our elders can’t see or seem to ignore. 

Bitter, a prequel, takes place during the revolution that created the world of Pet. Jam’s mother, Bitter, is ready to engage deeply with her art at her exciting new school, after a life in foster care. However, outside her new home, the streets are ringing with protests of the injustice that grip Lucille. Bitter has no interest in being teargassed or risking worse in the protests, but her friends pull her towards the revolution. 

As Bitter struggles to find her place in a changing world, we have the pleasure and privilege of following along. Bitter touched me in a way no other book has – evoked my own complicated emotions while living in Minneapolis during the 2020 uprising after George Floyd’s murder. If you’ve ached to join protests, but struggled to participate for any number of reasons, you might find Bitter moving and meaningful. To top it off, it’s fun! 

  1. Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

Four Lost Cities is a non-fiction book full of history you didn’t get taught in school. Annalee Newitz wanted to write about how cities are the key to a healthy human future; however, she found instead of looking at emerging technologies, she instead kept coming back to ancient technologies. From the neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in modern-day central Turkey, to the medieval megacity of Angkor in modern-day Cambodia, to Roman Pompeii and the indigenous North American metropolis Cahokia, Newitz explores cutting edge research about societies and civilizations sometimes very different from our own. 

Newitz introduces us to the residents, histories, climatic and political struggles of each city, debunking a number of myths thought, taught, and repeated about our collective past. Ancient cities weren’t always hierarchical; cities aren’t really lost or destroyed, but rather decline and are abandoned over centuries; complex human society is adaptive, mutable, and resilient.

Though each city eventually ceases to exist as it did at its peak, the history of the cities are full of lessons and inspiration for an urban future. If you worry that some aspect of our culture is too ossified to allow meaningful change, like the deeply embedded american traits of greed or individualism, this is a great book for you. 

  1. The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

The Terraformers is succinctly described by the publisher as “a science fiction epic for our times and a love letter to our future.” Another distant-future science fiction novel, The Terraformers follows an Environmental Rescue Team technician who was created, like her parents before her, as human property of a corporate terraforming operation, to make the planet of Sask-E habitable and marketable. I came to the novel after enjoying a leftist science fiction panel at WisCon where Newitz described it as her attempt at writing a utopia. Reading about bio-engineered human property, it wasn’t immediately clear to me where the utopia came in. Nevertheless, Ms. Newitz delivered.

The story takes place over centuries, and its themes are sweeping. If you love complex, political, and highly scientific future worlds, this is a good one. It takes a while to really pick up, but by half way through the book, we are following radical, non-homo-sapien but deeply human characters of all shapes and species as they fight the corporate overlords for a stake in the planet they created.

If you’re interested in reading about sapient flying trains, anarchist revolutions, or just imagining what kind of religious or scientific tradition might help us out of the environmental crisis we’ve created for ourselves, this is the book for you! 

I don’t know when I’ll write the next of these columns, but I do hope to keep this up! Have you read a hopeful leftist book recently? Has something else given you hope, joy, and excitement for the future? Write to me at and let me know, and I’ll see about including it in the next column!

Otherwise, if you’re interested in more socialist art, you can find more produced by our very own local friends, neighbors, and comrades at On the Left Bank. OTLB is available online, as well as as a full-color printed zine at Boneshaker Books, Black Garnet Books, Caydence Coffee, Subtext Books, and often other locations! It is also always accepting submissions from any artists and writers who want to submit!

From David A

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