A Century of Disappointment

In her new book Political Disappointment, Sara Marcus excavates historical responses to political loss that might help us hold on to our radical aspirations.

Ari M. Brostoff
July 21, 2023

In his epochal 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, the scholar and political leader W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Du Bois noted that for those living under slavery, emancipation appeared as “one divine event” signaling “the end of all doubt and disappointment.” Yet the end of slavery did not in fact bring about true emancipation. Instead, Reconstruction—a project that endeavored to fulfill freedom’s promise by transforming the United States into a multiracial democracy—was violently cut short and replaced with the terrors of the Jim Crow regime. After the failure of Reconstruction, Du Bois wrote, a “deep disappointment” settled over his people.

The literary critic and music writer Sara Marcus takes Du Bois’s reflections as her point of departure for Political Disappointment, a study published this spring. For Marcus, the kind of disappointment Du Bois diagnosed—which she describes as “a longing for fundamental change that outlasts a historical moment when it might have been fulfilled”—was the dominant political experience of the 20th century, from the post-Reconstruction period to the communist organizing of the 1930s to the AIDS epidemic. Tracing this feeling through social movement archives, literature, and music (her first book, Girls to the Front, was a history of the Riot Grrrl movement), Marcus considers what it means for people and struggles to undergo losses that are often crushing but never final. By allowing ourselves to feel disappointment, she suggests, we can hold on to the objects of our aspirations and reframe our losses as openings for solidarity.

I spoke with Marcus about the differences between disappointment and disillusionment, the role of Black study in excavating political disappointment, and the structuring place of disappointment in the Jewish historical imagination. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Brostoff: Early in the book, you write that disappointment is the defining political feeling of the US in the 20th century, particularly among those seeking fundamental change. But it seems to me that one could make a case that disappointment is the dominant political affect of all history. Why do you focus on the 20th century US in particular?

Sara Marcus: I don’t know if I would agree with you that disappointment predominates across all history. I think it is certainly a defining feature of the history of European presence in the New World, whether we’re talking about the theft of land and forced relocation of Indigenous peoples, or Puritan settlers’ laments that their children are straying from the straight and narrow, or the way slavery undermined American ideals of liberty and equality from the moment they were articulated.

But I start my book in the aftermath of Reconstruction because it was then, in the wake of the Civil War, that the US had the opportunity to remake itself as a multiracial democracy. A new political order was in formation, but was then deliberately unraveled with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, followed by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act and the advent of Jim Crow legislation. Once these democratic possibilities were closed down, disappointment entered this country’s civic life in a newly intense way.

The history of Reconstruction reverberated throughout the 20th century. There has been a recurrent hope that the American project could take a dimensional leap and become a better version of itself—and that hope has been disappointed again and again, to the point where today, even on the left, it’s rare to find people aiming for that kind of wholesale transformation anymore. Now the question is more, “Can we stop this reality from becoming any more of a life-denying hellscape than it already is?”

AB: How formulations of political disappointment change over time is a central question for your project—you write that it also emerged from your own organizing experiences in the early 2000s. Can you say more about how the thinking behind your book took shape?

SM: I was in college in the ’90s, when—precisely because of communism’s defeat in Europe—the Cold War-era shame lifted and it suddenly became acceptable to ask, “What was American communism about?” I was reading a lot about 1930s communist literary culture in the US and was fascinated by the way radical writers in that time had utter confidence that revolution was around the corner. At the same time, there was this idea that we were on this long slide down from the ’60s and the radical possibility that period had contained. So I came to understand the ’30s and the ’60s as this pair of summits in leftist history, following which there had been a drastic decline.

After reading a lot more, however, I came to believe that Reconstruction was more important than either of these two periods because of how attainable enormous changes had been in that moment: The Constitution had actually been amended, Black people had been elected to Congress in considerable numbers, and so forth. The engineered failure of that moment to lastingly transform this country was dramatic and defining. This hadn’t been clear to me earlier, maybe because of the relative whiteness of the activist contexts I inhabited, or because of the length of time that had elapsed since Reconstruction. But once I started to really think about political disappointment for this project, I realized that Reconstruction kicked off so much of what I was interested in.

AB: Why opt for defining political disappointment when there’s such a rich scholarship of mourning, grief, and melancholia as they relate to political loss on the left? I’m thinking, for instance, of the many writers who have taken up Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy in an attempt to understand the left’s emotional state.

SM: The main reason I argue for thinking about disappointment as opposed to mourning, grief, and melancholia is that these three experiences draw their significance and power from their relationship to death. So to use these terms to refer to political loss is to treat that loss as absolute and final. But this doesn’t actually match what we understand about how history unfolds: It doesn’t move in a smooth upward or downward direction, and when things change, they don’t then become ossified in the newly changed circumstance. Change continues. Emotional lenses like “defeat” and “grief” predetermine the nature of political nonfulfillment, when those very questions about loss—How irrevocable is the loss? What is its temporality? Is the lost object gone forever?—should actually be open for discussion.

AB: What do you see as the difference between disappointment and disillusionment? And where does disavowal, which you also discuss, come in?

SM: In a situation of disillusionment, you no longer hold the beliefs you once did, which are implied to be illusory and mistaken. Disappointment doesn’t involve value judgments like that. As for disavowal, there is a long history of leftists or former leftists disavowing political commitments that didn’t bear fruit. For me, having grown up during and just after the Cold War, it was commonplace to see people who had been connected to the US left writing about the error of their ways. The rise of neoconservatism in the ’80s was driven by former liberals and leftists talking about how wrong they’d been before.

Disillusionment and disavowal are dead ends for whatever aspiration you held onto. But disappointment might allow you to say, “I’m not embarrassed by my younger self’s commitments. In fact, I might still hold them. But the way they’re able to be alive in my life has changed profoundly due to changing historical circumstances, or because of where my life has taken me.”

AB: So disappointment holds on to the original political goal or desire as an object of aspiration?

SM: This is the interesting thing: The object of aspiration doesn’t necessarily remain static. I realized in the course of working on this book that with disappointment, the object being aspired to often changes even as the aspiration continues. When Du Bois writes that “the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land,” he’s saying that everybody wanted freedom and then freedom came, but it was not what was expected. So people then looked to education, work, and the vote. But he wrote that “freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,” which I read as meaning that there’s a continuity to the seeking, even as the sought-after object goes from being a stable unitary thing to being a more dynamic profusion of objects.

AB: I think of the ability to look at the US from a defamiliarized vantage point—like taking slavery rather than freedom as the country’s founding principle—as part of the provenance of Black study. Is there a specifically Black character to political disappointment in the US context?

SM: It’s not that African Americans have some sort of monopoly over the practice of living amid and theorizing political disappointment. But in a lot of cases, the shortcomings of progress were obvious to African Americans before other people opened their eyes to it. This is why Du Bois writes in a memoir in 1940 that when he went to college in the 1880s and found everybody talking about progress, he might have joined them if he hadn’t known what it was like to be Black.

But also, here I am talking to Jewish Currents about political disappointment! It’s worth pointing out that the whole history of Judaism after 70 CE is about having lost the structure of the Temple and ritualistically voicing a desire to get it back, while at the same time building a completely other structure that’s rhizomatic—iterative, decentered—and incredibly durable and flexible. To continue elaborating that structure while never taking our eyes off the fact of loss, and in fact keeping active a longing for the lost object, grounds Jews in a profoundly generative historical experience of disappointment.

AB: I just realized that when I asked you earlier, “Why focus on the 20th century and not all of history?” my reference point for imagining this historical sweep was Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, who pops up a lot in our writing at Jewish Currents. Maybe it’s really from this particular Jewish Marxist messianist tradition that history itself looks like the history of political disappointment.

SM: In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin says he’s writing about all of history—and of course the Jewish messianic tradition is central there—but it seems clear to me that he’s also very influenced by where he’s at in that moment in 1940, as Hitler marches across Europe. To Benjamin at that point, destruction feels very, very proximate. It makes me tear up to think about what it must have been like to be a Marxist in the 1930s and ’40s, especially in Europe: Seeing the hopes of a new world not only go unfulfilled, but be grotesquely and murderously mocked by what’s happening.

That moment is also what [the left feminist writer] Tillie Olsen’s 1961 story “Tell Me a Riddle” is about, which I talk about in my book. In the story, an old woman who’d been a radical in the early 20th century is dying, rasping out fragments of political oratory and singing bits of this utopian song, until her bitter husband is finally able to crack open his own experience of political loss. But even here, there isn’t really room for soul-searching about, “How could we do it better next time?” but rather “Was all of that work completely useless?”

I wish I could confidently say, “No, it’s definitely not completely useless! You have to keep going.” But I think the framework of disappointment can help us find a way out of polarizing conversations about whether revolution is always just around the corner from the next crisis, or whether, conversely, the very fabric of our reality is so woven out of exclusionary practices that a better world is practically unimaginable.

AB: There’s a moment in the book where you talk about the Jewish left that you came up in, and its melancholic relationship to a vision of interracial political community. It was illuminating to see you write about that disappointment as having a generative quality to it: allowing us new ways of thinking about history, as opposed to being just a self-centered narrative about how the Jews were betrayed by their Black partners in the civil rights struggle. Could you say more about that experience of disappointment?

SM: From many of my earliest political experiences, I imbibed an understanding that multiracial solidarity was not only a dream or a goal but a necessity. Even in the Reform temple in suburban Maryland I grew up attending, there was a distinct sadness at the loss of that solidarity. There was this powerful sense that Jews had been Freedom Riders [activists who traveled by bus to the South to protest segregation], we had been part of a historically significant Black–Jewish alliance, but at some point between the ’60s and the present there had been a traumatic rupture. A certain liberal Jewish self-conception was really affected by that rupture and shaped by a longing for that history.

But there are different ways to approach that longing. Some people felt betrayed by the late-’60s shift at SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights group] from a multiracial model of organizing that incorporated white allies to a model more focused on empowering Black activists, or they felt betrayed by the transition from King’s multiracial “beloved community” to Black Power. If you adopt these postures of woundedness, then any generativity that disappointment might have entailed is dead in the water. But you can also reframe the rupture and be curious about it—you can ask, “What’s our experience of loss? What is the absence that we’re experiencing?” From there, maybe some other kind of conversation can take place. Acknowledging disappointment isn’t only a tool for self-knowledge. It’s also grounds for solidarity. Even if objects and aspirations don’t line up exactly, that experience of loss can be a point of connection.

Ari M. Brostoff is the senior editor of Jewish Currents.