Notes on Disillusionment


Decades later Philip Nind remarked that the few months he spent in Lia changed him radically. “I came with very clear ideas of right and wrong,” he said. “The Greek mountains were totally different from anything I had known and I soon realized that politics there had nothing to do with the undergraduate politics I had known at Oxford, gentlemen’s politics. In Lia it was politics tooth and claw, and the blood ran literally. […] I was almost a Marxist myself until I saw Communism put into practice by the andartes in Greece. I left Lia a very disillusioned young man.

--Nicholas Gage, Eleni (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 110.

One striking thing about disillusioned young men is how selective their disillusionment is. If one were entirely ignorant of the record, one might suppose that at the time of Officer Nind’s disillusionment, British colonial policy in India was a gentleman’s politics, one in which blood did not run literally. (Gage informs us that Nind, a former paratrooper, "spoke fluent French and graduated from Oxford University, where he excelled at athletics and became enamored of the political philosophy of Karl Marx.” (Gage, p. 94.)) What might allow an Oxford graduate to ignore "politics tooth and claw" in India, of course, is that British rulers relied on native personnel to do the dirty work for them, just as in Greece the Germans, and later the Yankees, relied on Greeks to do their dirty work. A gentleman’s politics is policy viewed from a finely tuned perspective from which the white gloves of officers white out torrents of blood.

Officer Nind is disillusioned with "Communism put into practice" in the mountains of Greece during the Italian and Nazi occupations of the country. A period of desperate war waged by half-starved guerrillas in isolated mountains, fighting foreign invaders (at one point, fifty battalions of the Wehrmacht) and their local collaborators who were in the process of murdering half a million inhabitants—this amounts to Officer Nind's “Communism put into practice." Thus, Officer Nind and Nicholas Gage have converted an inspiring and ultimately victorious feat of resistance against an unspeakably brutal tyranny into a cautionary tale about the pursuit of utopias.

Compare: “I was almost a republican myself until I saw republicanism put into practice by George Washington at Valley Forge.”

Ten thousand tiny Towers of Babel collapse daily, on schedule. Disillusionment feels like a falling-back, and so it is. But it is a willful falling-back—a falling-back to authorized prejudices.

Like so many other feelings, Officer Nind's disillusionment is at once an effect, an instance, and a cause of bourgeois hegemony. Re-illusionment poses as disillusionment; willfulness poses as passivity; a shift to sanctioned cliches poses as The End of Ideology; a narrowing poses as a broadening; a grabbing-back poses as a relinquishment; an over-fullness appears as an emptiness, and so on.

One can become disappointed with capitalism, of course, just as one can become disappointed with life. But one cannot become thoroughly disillusioned with capitalism; one can only see through the illusion that there is any better alternative to capitalism.

Old Benjamin, George Orwell’s donkey, was not the first farm animal to observe that life is full of disappointments. But Orwell never lived long enough to be disappointed with his own inability to imagine that the Ministry of Truth would one day invoke him, Orwell, to advance Big Brother's agenda. Consider, for example, the 1999 Hollywood version of Animal Farm, directed by John Stephenson: The film ends with a shot of a smiling blonde, blazer-clad family cruising over clover-flocked hills in a sporty white convertible. They are headed towards the animal farm. American rock and roll is playing on the radio, as we hear the canine narrator's voice-over:

The walls have now fallen, the scars have now healed, and life goes on. And what of the future? There are new owners. We will not allow them to make the same mistakes. We will rebuild the farm. And now at last we shall be free.

Like Old Major's Seven Commandments, which were painted on the barn wall and then furtively altered at night, somebody has been tampering with Orwell’s novel.

One does not abandon a belief because it is an illusion; rather, it is an illusion because one has abandoned it. An illusion just is an abandoned belief. One may abandon a belief for any of a number of reasons, some more cogent, good-sensical, and coherent than others. It might be more rewarding to consider how one abandons this or that particular belief.

Disillusionment is only what it is thanks to a larger background of agreement, of assumptions. Cynicism about politics, about all politics in general, is itself an affirmation of the hegemon. The propagation of generalized cynicism has long been a policy goal of the Central Intelligence Agency's dirty wars and their creature Congresses for Cultural Freedom. (Refer to Frances Stonor Saunders' discussion of The God that Failed, in her book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York, The New Press, 1999), pp. 63ff.)

As long as one speaks a language, and as long as one must die, one will labor under illusions. One can fall silent, of course, but one cannot repudiate language. And even if it were possible to banish all illusion, how could one ever be sure that one has done so? That’s the funny thing about illusions: You don’t know you have them.

One cannot doubt everything all at once. But surely not everyone who speaks of disillusionment is speaking of the total extirpation of all illusion. When former “comrades” speak of the God That Failed (circa 1950 or 1956 or 1989 or some date before or since), what they wish to say, it seems, is that they once entertained a certain set of illusions about Marxism, communism, communists, or the Soviet Union that they have since relinquished. But those who are partially disillusioned are still capable of doubting.

Loud, public mea culpas are especially dubious. As the Koestlers, Kolakowskis, and first-generation neo-cons have all demonstrated, one might on balance end up with more illusions after disillusionment.

Today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s illusions. But the grandest illusion is the illusion that now—after spiritual rebirth; after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after abjuring metanarratives--one is finally free of all illusions. We continually see the light and abandon illusions. We pity, we hate, our former comrades; we pity and hate who we were before the terrible epiphany. And we pity who we are now, after relinquishing our youthful illusions.

The passage from youth, of course, is the time for disillusionment: If you are not a socialist in your youth you have no heart; if you are still a socialist after thirty, you have no brain. So many brainless old Yankees repeat this cliché! But do their wives and daughters typically become more conservative with age? And does this homespun wisdom have as much traction in, say, Japan? India? Uruguay? And wouldn't the answers to these questions differ from generation to generation and from place to place, depending on the state of the class struggle there and then?

Why assume that wisdom--the sort of wisdom that decrees that grown-ups abandon all hope for a more egalitarian order--comes with age? What one person calls "accumulation of experience" could just as well be called "indoctrination."

Illussionment as the penitence of a middle-class intelletual, followed ineluctably by the absolution of disillusionment. A generation arrives that is disillusioned with its parents' disillusionment.

Perhaps there is also a wisdom of youth.

Some of us were disillusioned with “actually existing socialism” long before 1991. But after the disillusionment has been registered and mourned, then what? What does a disillusioned man do when tyranny and injustice continue to mount?

Disillusionment is always a beginning, but it does not have to be the beginning of accomodation to hegemony. The question is not whether or not one is disillusioned. The question, rather, is what we do with our disillusionment.


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