Attempts to reinstate the old emphasis on the power of man’s intelligence to control his destiny have not been taken up by American intellectuals, spurred as they are by new worries, seeking as they are for new gods. Suffering the tremors of men who face defeat, they are worried and distraught, some only half aware of their condition, others so painfully aware that they must obscure their knowledge by rationalistic busy-work and many forms of self-deception.
No longer can they read, without smirking or without bitterness, Dewey’s brave words, ‘Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril,’ or Bertrand Russell’s ‘Thought looks into the face of hell and is not afraid,’ much less Marx’s notion that the role of the philosopher was not to interpret but to change the world. Now they hear Charles Péguy: ‘No need to conceal this from ourselves: we are defeated. For ten years, for fifteen years, we have done nothing but lose ground. Today, in the decline, in the decay of political and private morals, literally we are beleagured. We are in a place which is in a state of siege and more than blockaded and all the flat country is in the hands of the enemy.’ What has happened is that the terms of acceptance of American life have been made bleak and superficial at the same time that the terms of revolt have been made vulgar and irrelevant.
C. Wright Mills, White Collar, 1951
Today he would be wrong: they don’t hear anyone but themselves. But there is an appeal to the passage right around now, in its generals rather than its specifics, just as the Pé quote is taken rather out of context. There is nothing ironic about these words except for when they were written, in a period closer in spirit to the early 1990’s than today. So take a slight bit of hope, or at least perspective, from the knowledge that the above will always apply.
Mills’s next step was an embrace of Cuban communist rule, and its motivations are the mirror image of those in the above passage. It’s not a sign of weakness from Mills, but neither is it quite as clear-sighted as it intends to be.
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