Hope in the Dark

Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

First published during the middle years of the Bush administration, and updated last year, this book attempts two radical means of reframing: first, by noticing the many progressive victories that are often lost amidst a louder narrative of gloom, Solnit makes clear that the work of activists and organizers is both effective and powerful, if often on a time scale that requires patience for us to see. Second, by arguing that hope is a prerequisite of success, she makes the case that even when we are most inclined to despair, we have to choose to hope. This was an especially bracing read after the recent election, and one I expect to return to again and again.

Reading notes

The revolution that counts

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit argues that often the justification for hope is elusive: not that it doesn’t exist, but that it is difficult to spot. As an example:

A month or two before the Bush and Blair administrations began bombing Baghdad, Jonathan Schell published The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. The book eloquently argues for a new idea of change and of power. One of its key recognitions is that the change that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination. Histories usually pick up when the action begins, but Schell quotes John Adams saying that the American Revolution “was in the minds of the people and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities commenced.” And Thomas Jefferson concluded, “This was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”

This means, of course, that the most fundamental change of all, the one from which all else issues, is hardest to track. It means that politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations. It means that the changes that count take place not merely onstage as action but in the minds of those who are again and again pictured only as audience or bystanders. The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden—which is to say that revolution doesn't necessarily look like revolution.

Solnit, Hope in the Dark, page 26

Of course, histories usually start with the action because the action is documentable in ways that imagination is not. But it’s also true that by focusing on the action, we make it even harder to spot the more ethereal imaginative changes whose impact can be greater. And perhaps there’s a lesson there: that we need to learn to attune ourselves to the real revolution.