Prophets of Doom


THE social historians whose business it is to record interesting phenomena have thus far failed to record one of the most interesting phenomena of our time. I refer to the fact that the generation to which I belong — the generation of men and women now in middle life — has produced prophets. Nothing about the time we live in is more remarkable than the number of middle-aged men and women who are familiar with the shape of the future and willing to share their familiarity with others. There are those who have divined that the true index of the future is the violence and brutality and obscurantism which are now sweeping over the world, and who have prophesied, therefore, that if we attempt to oppose this brutality and violence we shall have our labor for our pains. There are others who come to the same conclusion by the use of a somewhat more scientific vocabulary, speaking of historical imperatives and prophesying that the violence of this time will take its course as the violence of the French Revolution took its course and that nothing we can do or fail to do will change the outcome. There are still others who prophesy in the vocabulary of the military expert, foretelling inevitable humiliation and defeat to all who attempt to lift a hand in their own defense. There are also the realists, — those who speak in the rôle of the old soldiers, plucking at our sleeves and telling us we were tricked into the last war by the talk of democracy, — prophesying that if we listen to the talk about democracy again we shall be tricked again.

The content of the talk is familiar enough — so familiar indeed that it has aroused a chorus of replies, some of them angry, some of them pungent, some of them salty, some of them wise. But it is not the content of the talk which signifies so much as the fact that the talk takes place. What is truly interesting is the fact, first, that prophecies are heard in the world again; second, that they are prophecies, for the greater part, of despair; and, third, that the prophets who emit them are almost without exception members of one generation.

The first observation is perhaps the most curious. Prophets have been infrequent in recent centuries, and the sudden appearance of numbers of them in the time in which we live, foretelling the future to the young and informing them of the disasters which will inevitably follow certain actions, is a curious phenomenon.

The second observation, however, has interest also. It is the observation that all these prophecies are prophecies of defeat, prophecies of negation, prophecies not of the things which men can do but of the things which men cannot do. This too is unusual. Prophets have prophesied disaster before this, but rarely as consistently or in such numbers, and rarely in terms of impotence and failure so complete.

The third observation is less dramatic, but no less interesting. It is that these prophetic voices are not, as was the case in antiquity, the voices of old men and women, but of men and women in middle life — men and women of the generation which knew in its childhood or its youth the other war and which came to consciousness of the world and of itself in the years between. It was not common among any ancient people that men and women in the full strength of their middle years prophesied publicly and always of disaster and defeat.

Why do these men and women prophesy, and why, if they must foretell the future to us, do they tell it in these terms? Is it because they possess a knowledge of the future not possessed by other men? Or is there a different reason? And if there is a different reason is it a reason which has to do with the fact that the speakers are men all of one generation — the generation of men now in middle life?

The answer, I think, is not too difficult. Prophets appear only among those who know, or who think they know, that the pattern of life is determined beforehand and who know, or who think they know, that they are privy to its determination. The generation to which I belong believes, as all who have read its books are aware, in a predetermined pattern of life. It is our conviction — explicitly stated in our histories, our political commentaries, and our studies in economics, implicitly stated in our novels and our poetry — that the pattern of life is determined by Economic Law or Historical Necessity or Psychological Compulsion, and that we are, or by taking thought can make ourselves, privy to these laws and these necessities. My generation not only believes in a predetermined pattern of life: we believe in it to a degree unknown in Western civilization for centuries.

It is probable, therefore, that it is not because they have been touched by a god’s breath or because they have beheld visions at night, but for a simpler reason, that these prophets prophesy: they prophesy because they belong to a generation which, whether it so admits or not, believes and has believed for years in Fate, and because, therefore, prophecy is natural to them.


Why these prophets prophesy in the language of impotence and defeat is, however, a more complicated question and one which requires for its understanding a more extended discussion of the relation between my generation and the notion of fate. The fact that men of a given time believe in a predetermined pattern of life does not necessarily mean that they are fatalists or that their prophecies must take fatalistic form. The Greeks, for example, were believers in fate and producers of prophecies, but not of prophecies like these. For the Greeks conceived of fate, not as a predetermined pattern controlling the whole of life and controlling therefore the will and acts of men, but as a divine intervention capable of cutting across the acts of men at unexpected moments.

Fate, to the Greeks, was a force to be reckoned with, a force to be respected, even a force to be feared. But fate was never an inevitable pattern to which history and all men’s hopes must be resigned. Odysseus, most Greek of all Greek heroes, outwitted the implacable will where he could, and it is the chorus of Sophocles in the Antigone which says ‘Many wonders there are, but nothing more wonderful than man.’ A man among the Greeks was not relieved of the necessity of choice or of the responsibility for choosing because an unalterable will had already chosen in his stead. Nor was it either honorable or admirable for a man among the Greeks to accept, and to admit that he accepted, the domination of his world by forces beyond his power to control, fitting his life to their patterns and living at their will. The Fates were not an inevitable force, but a three-named god; and with a god, with God’s help, a man could struggle, surrendering only when he had no choice but to surrender.

To the Greeks, in short, man was capable of the mastery of the greater part of a human and sunlit world, and only the shadowy edges, the dark depths of unforeseeable mischance, were left to the inscrutable and fatal will. Men could be destroyed and were often destroyed by inconceivable disaster, but they were capable also of compelling the human world — and sometimes the nonhuman. They were capable of victories against odds, achievements in the face of improbabilities: Thermopylæ — Salamis.

Our view of fate — the view entertained by men of my generation — differs, however, in every sense from the Greek. It differs even in the manner in which it was formed. The Greeks learned the will of fate by opposing to it their own wills, determining for themselves, by their own defeats, by their own experience, what limits are placed upon the freedom of men to act and at what point it is seemly and proper for a man to bend his will to that other will. Our generation ascertained the will of fate not by opposing it, not even by yielding to it when we met it, but by searching it out in order that we might yield to it, and by yielding then not only our responsibilities but our will. And the fate which we searched out — the fate of universal economic laws and universal historical necessities — was a fate which accounted not only for the margins of our lives, the twilight of inexplicable event, but for our lives themselves and the entire world in which we lived.

Fate lay across the road by which the Greeks moved to the understanding of their world. We fled to fate — we invented a fate of our own — to escape a world which had grown too large for us, a world too complicated to understand, too huge to know.

The innovations of our period — the steam engine, the plane, the radio, the automobile — did not, as clumsy speakers sometimes say, contract our world. On the contrary, they extended our world, or extended at least our experience of our world, until the physical hearing, the physical sight, and almost the physical presence of an individual man were pushed out to cover an area of which previously he could have had no physical and personal knowledge. This physical extension of a single man’s experience, moreover, was accompanied by no increased extension of his competence to deal with his experience. No innovation in the physical sciences and no triumph of education equipped him to deal either with the larger world he saw and heard himself or with the tangled and complicated world of tangled and complicated social and economic relations which lay beyond his personal experience and behind it.

We became, all of us, huge and unreal shadows of ourselves like the shadows a level autumn sun throws out across a meadow and a hill, to stumble and gesticulate and fade. We seemed suddenly huge and we touched the earth more broadly, but we ourselves were still no larger than we ever were. We realized our smallness, our inadequacy. The thought frightened us, and we accepted willingly and even eagerly the notion of a world directed by historical necessity and economic law. We accepted it, not as the Greeks accepted the existence of the fates, — a power to be reckoned with, a force to be taken into account in the accomplishment of one’s own purposes, — but as the creatures of unalterable law accept the ineluctable necessity of obedience, surrendering to the unopposable will.

The capitalist, who ‘knew’ that the law of supply and demand was a universal law which must inevitably operate sooner or later and to which all social as well as all economic problems could be safely left, took refuge from an insoluble puzzle in a fatalistic reliance upon the will of fate. The pre-fascist revolutionaries, with a fatalism even more naïve, entrusted to the sacred laws of dialectical materialism the labors of a revolution they could not make themselves. And their successors, the fascists, have carried the worship of fate to its last and most devout extreme. The fascists do not even trouble to translate their private destiny into terms of law. To them the sole duty of the individual is to surrender his will to the single will of his leader, who surrenders his will in turn to the mystical pulse of history. And the individual’s sole destiny is to accept the inevitable future as the weeds accept the senseless and inevitable surging of a wave.

But it is not only in our political theories and our historical theories and our economics that the men and women of my generation are fatalists surrendering to the will of fate. We have made the same confession again and again in our literature. The books we have written about ourselves and the world we live in are books which will take their place in the great tradition of such work. The best we have done is work well done indeed — work which will be remembered. But the picture of our world and of ourselves which these books give is nevertheless a picture of a world compelled by forces beyond the control of men — a world in which men at the worst are violated by these forces and at the best are clever victims.

The heroes of the books we write about ourselves are neither heroes nor masters of their fate: the very phrase for us has a romantic, a pretentious, even a silly sound. The heroes of the books we write about ourselves are defeated men whom we pick out for notice because of the manner of their defeat or because of their bravery in accepting it. They are defeated men who have been defeated as the martyrs were defeated, or defeated men who have accepted their defeat with the saving salve of irony, or defeated men who have secretly escaped not only from their defeat but from the world, or defeated men who have revenged themselves on their defeat as a street boy revenges himself upon the streets and buildings of his city.

It is commonly said of the literature of my generation that it is realistic, and for this it is much praised. It deserves the praise, I think, but not the reason. Other generations whose writers could claim an equal honesty have presented a world which was at least as real and altogether different. What is true of the characteristic novels of my generation is not that they are realistic in any absolute or universal sense, but that they are realistic from a particular and special point of view. They are realistic from the point of view of the defeated man — the man conquered by forces beyond his power to resist.

They are not so much realists’ novels as they are victims’ novels. The world they describe is the world as the victim sees it. The truth they tell is the victims’ truth, — the truth told behind the hand, the truth discreditable to the teller and the hearer, — the lowdown, the confession, the exposure. The ‘enemy’ of these books also is the victims’ enemy. The human enemy is another man or even many other men: an enemy which can be fought. But the enemy in the books we write about ourselves is something that rises out of the total life of the time like the sour smoke that hangs over a great city, or something that rustles and gibbers and mews in the contemporary psyche, or something sprawled along the whole of history, its tail and huge hind quarters buried in the dark of longpast years. The enemy is ‘ the System,’ or ‘History,’ or ‘Life.’

It is a truth our generation has told as it has never perhaps been told before. But the books in which this truth is told are, nevertheless, books which mean, if they mean anything, that our generation sees the world as the victim sees it, and accepts as unopposable and inescapable the laws which take for us the place of fate.


It is for this reason, then, that the prophecies are the prophecies of impotence and defeat. They are the words of men who speak as prophets, not because they have greater knowledge of the future than other men, but because they belong to a generation which believes that life is determined by a preëxisting pattern. They are words of frustration and defeat because the pattern of life in which their generation believes is a fatalistic pattern, because their generation sees the world as the victims of impersonal and mechanical Laws, Necessities, and Systems see it.

It is for this reason also that we must be warned against these speakers. Those who tell us that we need not make decisions in this desperate time because the laws of history will shape the future in any case, those who tell us that we need not face the fact that Naziism threatens everything we love because Naziism is an agency of the historic process which will determine everything regardless of our acts — those who tell us this are victims speaking consciously as victims in a victim’s words.

Those who tell us that the destroying guns, the ruinous bombs, the lies, the murders, the indiscriminate death and confusion and untruth of the fascist military action are a new, creative, irresistible historic force which we cannot oppose, but can only ride with as the rubbish rides the surf, are victims prophesying with the tongues of victims.

Those who tell us that we cannot defend democracy without losing it because the historic forces and the economic laws will turn it into fascism the moment we attempt to defend it; those who tell us that we cannot win a war against fascism because the military laws won’t let us and that we shall suffer humiliation and disaster if we attempt to defend ourselves while we still can, gaining honor and glory only if we submit — those who tell us this are victims shameless in their impotence as victims.

But it is not only because these speakers speak as victims that we must be warned against them. We must be warned against them for another reason. We must be warned against them because they are not disinterested speakers. Neither they nor any others who continue to accept at this moment of our lives the fatalism of historic necessity, of social and economic determinism — neither they nor any others who doubt the possibility of human action or the freedom of the human will to act — are disinterested speakers. Whether they so realize or not, they have taken sides already in the basic conflict of our time. They are men who would have been obliged to invent a fascist revolution if they had not found one, and nothing they may say in disapproval of the fascist method or the fascist policy will change that fact. They have already made, and willingly made, the one surrender which engenders all the rest.

For the real issue is precisely the issue between those on the one side who believe that it is possible for men to imagine, and in imagination to act, and by action to create the kind of world they wish to live in, — the kind of world in which each man is truly free, — and those on the other side who believe it is not possible for men to create for themselves the world they wish to live in but only possible to accept a world predestined, a world ordered and directed by those who know and can interpret the commands of fate. The real issue is the issue between those on the one side who believe in themselves, and believe in their capacity to act and are willing to accept the responsibility for action, and those on the other who believe there is no room for men to act, and no possibility that men will govern themselves and control their own lives, and who therefore remit to the fates, to the universal laws, the responsibility for action.

Those who continue to believe despite the failure of democracy to accomplish its ideal or even nearly to approach it in any country — those who continue to believe despite the failures of democracy and the successes of the fascist armies — those who continue to believe that man is what the Greeks believed him to be and what the founders of this republic believed him to be, will not accept the prophecies of defeated men. Neither will they accept the prophecies of those who offer to tell them how they can avoid the necessity of decision and of action. For they know, as they know nothing else on earth, that their first duty is to decide, and to decide with individual responsibility, and to decide with full and faithful knowledge of the facts. Only by such decision is government of the people by themselves conceivable.