top of page

The Limits of Hope: The Power of Determination

Hope and resilience: “Keep the Fire burning ….”

Recently I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Search Foundation Members’ Forum for Thomas Mayo’s keynote address. Thomas is widely known for his sterling co-leadership of the YES campaign in last year’s Referendum. That included 6 years of travelling Australia with the Uluru Statement canvas teaching Australians about the meaning of Uluru and constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous peoples.


Thomas’ speech explored the significance and potential of the losing campaign for a YES vote. He referred to the vicious, racist personal attacks unleashed on indigenous leaders, including himself and his family, He drew upon material he is finalizing for his new book to be published in a few months that outlines ideas and proposals for a new phase of the struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) liberation.


In the meantime, he urged his audience to focus on NAIDOC week for acts of continuing solidarity that help strengthen the struggles of ATSI people. When his book and the recording of Thomas’ address are available a broader audience can make their own judgements.


For the first half, Thomas emphasized the vital ingredient of “hope” in the ongoing struggle to generate a new momentum of struggle by and in solidarity with ATSI people.


However, perhaps the most important moment came when he shifted the thematic focus from “hope” to resilience”.  His remarks about resilience and its interaction with hope are worth close attention and, I suggest, a deeper dive. 


What follows are some observations and reflections in that vein.

The hope mantra.

Hope is necessary in any struggle of the people for a better deal (no matter how that is defined), in the face of the opposition to it.


But is there a limit to hope? And, thus, is there a “something” about a winning struggle that is more important?


I suggest the level, extent, and intensity of determination is that thing. Determination is more than hope because it carries hope.


My worry about the “hope” element has been niggling for a long time because in union discussions about struggles and tactics hope has become a sort of mantra. Every labour, environmental and feminist activist - it seems - emphasizes hope in their writing, speeches and conversations. As an unquestioned mantra, it creates an excuse for a struggle that is not going anywhere. At the same time determination is constrained and sporadic.


Thomas’ remarks about resilience stirred a better way of defining the “spirit” of a strategy that pursues a better deal, no matter how defined. It takes us to determination. Hope is not as important as determination in developing the strategy that must counter and at some time defeat “the other side” that has, at least for a time, so much more power, for victory to be realized, and then defended. Because after victory the other side’s power will come again.


Serious thinking suggests ways of understanding the limits of hope and the momentum of determination.


Hope is a “maybe” and implies waiting for something to come about. It suggests, in waiting for something, that "the something" to be realised will be done for us and to us.  We wait patiently for "the something" to be delivered to us, yearning for it in a static sense. 


Determination is a “will be”.  Together, we will make sure this happens proactively. No matter what, especially in setbacks, we will continue to stay stuck-in, we will defy doubt and uncertainty and find new clarity and energy about our purpose and our struggle.


Waiting with hope can be infected by pessimism and doubt and, at some point, become forlorn. Determination is the antidote and the catalyst to defy the doubt.


Optimism is connected to determination and becomes real. The optimism of hope is abstract, and ideal.


The optimism of determination is both real and dynamic because it begets action: does not wait for it. The determination level creates and consolidates optimism and, simultaneously, is maintained by it. 


Gramsci, the great Italian communist, grappled with some of this in his long fascist prison years, during which he formed the aphorism: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” as an essential in the world outlook of working-class activism (praxis).


Determination implies continual, proactive intent. It defies the “forlorn”, the waning of hope; it requires defiance, an attitude that fills action - including breaking the other side’s rules - with deliberate intent to win against the forces that stand in our way. As such, it is a state of mind that nourishes material deeds; that enable working-class potential to be realised. 


Hope is not a strategy, nor can it be a prime element in a strategy, in which the “other side” has such significant power, that ultimately brings achievement and victory, and protects the victory after it has been achieved.


In determination, we are talking about the spirit of the people in a struggle, but not in a religious sense. The spirit of people in the struggle against powerful and ruthless forces who do not like that struggle. It is a conjoining of some or all of collective focus, yearning, drive, action, engagement, spontaneity, joy, deliberation, outrage, insistence, continuity, defiance, satisfaction, and a sort of humanism … respect and admiration for each other in the struggle or on the verge of being so. As an essential element of strategy, can it be cultivated and and howappeared?


Origins of “hope” in modern Australian unionism


The “hope” essential appeared in our labour movement through the Organising Works programme of the early 1990s. The Organising Works programme was heavily influenced by organising practitioners from USA's labour movement. Some were obsessed with the organizing culture that came from within a then-failed labour movement.


The conceptual framework for organising became “issue-anger—hope-action”. I remember it well because I was in the thick of it as a union education officer in old and new TUTA and at the ACTU. The “hope” element was seen as positively innovative and, it required a specific approach to how union representatives conducted organising conversations, organising meetings and so on. In turn that required the development of union learning and teaching materials that transformed the word into applied skills, and deepened respect for the power of feeling hopeful. Teaching the “innards” of hope went into the union education curriculum.


Nevertheless, there was something about it that irked me. I remember being frustrated with the waning recognition of Australian on the job and industry-wide organizing that defended and improved industrial award standards. I remember my attempts to explain that to the USA experts and their converted Australians and the generally vacant looks that replied.


“Hope” is not, in my memory and learning, a big deal before the 1990s, at least in an explicit sense. (That requires a deeper dive into the history of “hope” in past struggles). Rather the language of struggle focussed on determination.


Here is one example from my own experience. I was an active participant from the shop floor of a metals jobbing shop in the 35-hour week campaign from about 1978-9 through to the 38-hour standard achieved in 1982-3, along with a wage increase in hostile environment. I said this about that in a short memoir for the SA Labour History Society’s autumn issue of its quarterly journal:

“I remember well big meetings of shops stewards in the AMWU rooms in Sturt Street, in those days always smoke-filled. Horrendous for a dedicated non-smoker like me but loaded with learning and camaraderie, a profound sense of purpose and determination. “Hope” did not come into it. Determination was our “watchword”. One of the issues we had to address was employers and mainstream media’s common question: “Won’t a 35-hour week mean a 5-hour wage cut?” Of course, our answer was, “No, we are fighting for shorter hours with no pay cut. When we win the hourly rate goes up, along with the pay rise we are going for.” Inflation was also rife and we learned to explain how our claims would not cause inflation or make it worse. That’s where union education came in.”

I recall it in speeches at mass meetings and in personal experience. Laurie Carmichael was the leader of that time who always – usually with great effect - sought to raise the level of determination in the spirit of the workers whom he was addressing. (Still, as I write these words my mind jumps to those years and the utterly brilliant BBC TV series “Days of Hope” about the British working-class experience from the First World War to the Depression.)


Raising the level of determination 

I had been learning (and continued to) about the necessity of determination and the associated yearning for something much better by those who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. After dozens of conversations with union activists who came through those years, I am pretty sure the continuing post-war rebuild of the militant union movement in the face of serious opposition depended upon the learning of determination on the battlefront and at home. Associated with that there is the great reservoir of determination required for communist and other left and progressive activism in the years of the Cold War. Dozens of older and veteran CPA-style activists recounted their stories of those years that revealed humour, laughter, courage, clarity and so on, much forged in the Depression and during the war, including direct warfare. Their experiences, with the working class around them, defined the logic for a different society and a yearning for it, the survival of the yearning required reservoirs of resilience and determination.


These days I am learning the long and bitter struggle of Tasmania’s palawa. Constantly, I am struck by the astonishing levels of defiance and determination, and the evolution of their thinking and actions. The relatively new biographies of Trugananner, (and here), Tongerlongeter, and Mannalargenna are filled with it, including the lutruwita version of the aboriginal creation of “Australian” guerrilla warfare. Their hope for the continuity of their “way of life” may have become forlorn, but their sheer determination, intellect and courage laid the foundations for a new continuity in their occupied country that is proudly growing in our times.


The future depends on a more powerful and confrontational working-class intervention against the dynamics of modern Australian and global capitalism. We cannot hope that it will happen. The clues for our “better and different society” do exist in the struggles that abound but lack a shared direction. With greater determination than now exists we can do all of the things to upset the continuity of exploitation, discrimination and other oppressions and create a new momentum in which the majority is the common agent of change, not waiting patiently, expectantly for it to be delivered to them by the heroes of the day.


That’s enough for now. Your thoughts on this are welcome and will help me pin down what I am driving at.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page