Randolph Bourne

Randolph Bourne

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Randolph Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey on 30th May 1886. Bourne was badly disfigured and a hunchback since birth. His biographer, Casey Nelson Blake, has pointed out: "A forceps delivery permanently disfigured his face; spinal tuberculosis in infancy left him a hunchbacked dwarf." Bourne had a troubled childhood and his father eventually abandoned the family after years of alcoholism and financial problems.

Bourne was unable to go to university for financial reasons. As Jeff Riggenbach has pointed out: "But he was broke. He could barely afford books, and his mother needed help with her living expenses. He went to work and stayed there for six years. He knew his way around a piano, so he took jobs as a piano teacher, piano tuner, and piano player (accompanying singers in a recording studio in Carnegie Hall). He cut piano rolls. He was also highly literate, so, between musical gigs, he took in proofreading and even did secretarial work."

Bourne entered Columbia University in 1909. Over the next few years he was deeply influenced by the works of Karl Marx, Henry George, Walt Whitman, Charles Beard and John Dewey. He joined the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an organization established by Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism." Other members included Norman Thomas, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes.

Bourne's first articles were first published in the Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote for the New Republic and The Masses. This brought him into contact with other left-wing radicals such as Max Eastman, who described Bourne as: "A hunchback with twisted face and ears, a bulblike body on spindly legs, and yet hands with which he could play Brahms melodies on the piano with such delicacy as brought tears both of joy and pity to one's eyes. He had a powerful mind, philosophic erudition, a commanding prose style, and the courage of a giant."

Floyd Dell later recalled: "Randolph Bourne's friends were used to his appearance, and forgot about it, thinking of his beautiful mind; but at first sight he was very startling. He had been born dreadfully misshapen, with a crooked back and a grotesque face, out of which only his eyes shone with the beauty of his soul. He forgot this outward aspect, or succeeded in pretending to himself that it did not exist; he hated to be treated as any other than a wholly robust and ordinary person, and if anyone took his arm in going across the street, the touch would be shaken off fiercely."

In his literary criticism, Bourne argued for a socially responsible fiction and helped to influence the work of novelists such as Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell and Theodore Dreiser. Bourne also wrote several books on education including Youth and Life (1913), The Gary Schools (1916) and Education and Living (1917). Casey Nelson Blake has argued that these books established Bourne as "an early interpreter of twentieth-century cultural radicalism".

A pacifist, Bourne was one of the main figures in the movement against the involvement of the United States in the First World War in 1917. Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, argued that "Randolph Bourne was the most stalwart of these publicists (against the First World War)". Bourne was especially upset by John Dewey decision to support the war. This resulted in a savage attack on Dewey in Seven Arts. These anti-war journals were forced to close-down as a result of the Espionage Act. Bourne wrote: "I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times. The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable."

When the Armistice came at last in November 1918, Bourne wrote his mother, hoping that "now that the war is over, people can speak freely and we can dare to think. It's like coming out of a nightmare." This was not to be as Randolph Bourne died of influenza on 22nd December, 1918.

One of my most-loved war-time friends was Randolph Bourne. He had, as I think, the best intellect of any of the younger group in America; a mind always clear, poised and just upon the issues about which the rest of us wavered or went to emotional extremes. He had written a book on the newer education; and now he was one of the very tiny anti-war group, at a time when even Professor Dewey had fallen headlong into militant patriotism and was "doing his bit" by attacking the meagre handful of brave conscientious objectors in the pages of the New Republic week after week in the name of Pragmatism. I remember that, because it was my indignation against Professor Dewey and my description of Pragmatism as "convenient surrender of principles to force majeure", at some Village party, which made Randolph Bourne my friend. He had been associated with Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Louis Untermeyer, James Oppenheim and Paul Rosenfeld in the editorship of the Seven Arts, until its subsidy was withdrawn because of its anti-war attitude. Then he found it almost impossible to get any of his writing published in any of the supposedly liberal weeklies. It was in the latter part of 1917 and through 1918 that I knew him.

He seemed to like, and even to envy, the intemperate and blasting way in which I expressed my opinions in private conversation, just as I envied the temperateness and justice of his writing. In talk, each of us had a good deal of sardonic wit, which we heartily enjoyed in each other. Upon one occasion Randolph took me around to call upon Waldo Frank, who was working on a novel, and teased him to read aloud a page or two, hoping to engage Waldo Frank and me in a literary argument. The novel was modernist in style, and I asked him why he did this and that, because I didn't know, but our discussion was amiable enough. Waldo gently said to me: "I should think you would want to write in the experimental modern way, and not in the old, formal Victorian way," or something to that effect; and I, thinking of my unfinished novel, said: "By the time you have triumphantly demonstrated the virtues of the new way of writing novels, I hope to have learned the old-fashioned way of writing them." But upon other occasions, with a better opportunity, Randolph succeeded in, evoking the argumentative fireworks he had been hoping for, which he relished with a huge, diabolical grin.

Randolph Bourne's friends were used to his appearance, and forgot about it, thinking of his beautiful mind; but at first sight he was very startling. He forgot this outward aspect, or succeeded in pretending to himself that it did not exist; he hated to be treated as any other than a wholly robust and ordinary person, and if anyone took his arm in going across the street, the touch would be shaken off fiercely. He intended to be a conscientious objector, and was prepared to face any ordeals which might ensue; prison, to be sure, and being mobbed, was an everyday possibility in the lives of any of us, but no one of Randolph's friends dared to remind him that he could not pass the physical examination when he was called up for service, and would be exempted from military duty. He lived within some kind of protective illusion in that respect; no one would have been so cruel as to remind him of what he had succeeded in ignoring. And concerning this I have a painful memory, which it will ease my mind to tell.-I had written a short autobiographical novel, afterwards destroyed because it was too literal for publication, about life in Chicago; Randolph Bourne read it, and was enthusiastic about it, though he said, "It is not Chicago, it is the Bagdad of Haroun al Raschid." I told him of my unfinished novel, Moon-Calf, and he wanted to read that. Some friends suggested that he read some of it aloud to the group, and he agreed. On that evening, then, he took my manuscript, and in his beautiful voice read aloud the early chapters of my book. It was an occasion such as makes a young author happy, for Randolph Bourne, in whose judgment I had the greatest confidence, showed approval of all he was reading...

Randolph Bourne died in December, 1918, of pneumonia, leaving only a fragment of his book on The State; and America lost one of its most greatly gifted minds, imprisoned in that frail and pitiful body.

Randolph Bourne was the most stalwart of these publicists (against the First World War), a hunchback with twisted face and ears, a bulblike body on spindly legs, and yet hands with which he could play Brahms melodies on the piano with such delicacy as brought tears both of joy and pity to one's eyes. He had a powerful mind, philosophic erudition, a commanding prose style, and the courage of a giant.

Randolph Bourne - History

Pro-war statements and speeches—as well as more coercive measures—gradually captured American public discourse in 1917. Fairly quickly, those who rejected the rationales for United States participation in the war found themselves increasingly isolated. Liberals, intellectuals, and even many socialists soon supported American intervention. A youthful critic in his twenties, Randolph Bourne wrote a bitter essay in the intellectual magazine Seven Arts, lambasting his fellow intellectuals for lining up so readily behind the war effort.

To those of us who still retain an irreconcilable animus against war, it has been a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which the American intellectuals have thrown their support to the use of war-technique in the crisis in which America found herself. Socialists, college professors, publicists, new-republicans, practitioners of literature, have vied with each other in confirming with their intellectual faith the collapse of neutrality and the riveting of the war-mind on a hundred million more of the world’s people. And the intellectuals are not content with confirming our belligerent gesture. They are now complacently asserting that it was they who effectively willed it, against the hesitation and dim perceptions of the American democratic masses. A war made deliberately by the intellectuals! . . .

Those intellectuals who have felt themselves totally out of sympathy with this drag toward war will seek some explanation for this joyful leadership. They will want to understand this willingness of the American intellect to open the sluices and flood us with the sewage of the war spirit. We cannot forget the virtuous horror and stupefaction which filled our college professors when they read the famous manifesto of their ninety-three German colleagues in defense of their war. To the American academic mind of 1914 defense of war was inconceivable. . . . They would have thought anyone mad who talked of shipping American men by the hundreds of thousands—conscripts—to die on the fields of France. Such a spiritual change seems catastrophic when we shoot our minds back to those days when neutrality was a proud thing. But the intellectual progress has been so gradual that the country retains little sense of the irony. The war sentiment, begun so gradually but so perseveringly by the preparedness advocates who came from the ranks of big business, caught hold of one after another of the intellectual groups. With the aid of [Theodore] Roosevelt the murmurs became a monotonous chant and finally a chorus so mighty that to be out of it was at first to be disreputable and finally almost obscene. And slowly a strident rant was worked up against Germany which compared very creditably with the German fulminations against the greedy power of England. The nerve of the war-feeling centered, of course, in the richer and older classes of the Atlantic seaboard and was keenest where there were French or English business and particularly social connections. The sentiment then spread over the country as a class-phenomenon, touching everywhere those upper-class elements in each section who identified themselves with this Eastern ruling group. It must never be forgotten that in every community it was the least liberal and least democratic elements among whom the preparedness and later the war sentiment was found. The farmers were apathetic, the small businessmen and workingman are still apathetic towards the war. The election was a vote of confidence of these latter classes in a President who would keep the faith of neutrality. The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy has been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy. No one is left to point out the undemocratic nature of this war-liberalism. In a time of faith skepticism is the most intolerable of all insults.

Our intellectual class might have been occupied during the last two years of war in studying and clarifying the ideals and aspirations of the American democracy, in discovering a true Americanism which would not have been merely nebulous but might have federated the different ethnic groups and traditions. They might have spent the time in endeavoring to clear the public mind of the cant of war, to get rid of old mystical notions that clog our thinking. We might have used the time for a great wave of education, for setting our house in spiritual order. We could at least have set the problem before ourselves. If our intellectuals were going to lead the administration, they might conceivably have tried to find some way of securing peace by making neutrality effective. They might have turned their intellectual energy not to the problem of jockeying the nation into war but to the problem of using our vast neutral power to attain democratic ends for the rest of the world and ourselves without the use of the malevolent technique of war. They might have failed. The point is that they scarcely tried. The time was spent not in clarification and education but in a mulling over of nebulous ideals of democracy and liberalism and civilization, which had never meant anything fruitful to those ruling classes who now so glibly used them, and in giving free rein to the elementary instinct of self-defense. The whole era has been spiritually wasted. The outstanding feature has been not its Americanism but its intense colonialism. The offense of our intellectuals was not so much that they were colonial—for what could we expect of a nation composed of so many national elements?—but that it was so one-sidedly and partisanly colonial. The official reputable expression of the intellectual class has been that of the English colonial. Certain portions of it have been even more loyalist than the King, more British even than Australia. Other colonial attitudes have been vulgar. The colonialism of the other American stocks was denied a hearing from the start. America might have been made a meeting-ground for the different national attitudes. An intellectual class, cultural colonists of the different European nations, might have threshed out the issues here as they could not be threshed out in Europe. Instead of this, the English colonials in university and press took command at the start, and we became an intellectual Hungary where thought was subject to an effective process of Magyarization [i.e., making diverse peoples into Hungarians or Magyars]. The reputable opinion of the American intellectuals became more and more either what could be read pleasantly in London or what was written in an earnest effort to put Englishmen straight on their war-aims and war-technique. This Magyarization of thought produced as a counterreaction a peculiarly offensive and inept German apologetic, and the two partisans divided the field between them. The great masses, the other ethnic groups, were inarticulate. American public opinion was almost as little prepared for war in 1917 as it was in 1914. . . .

We have had to watch, therefore, in this country the same process which so shocked us abroad—the coalescence of the intellectual classes in support of the military program. In this country, indeed, the socialist intellectuals did not even have the grace of their German brothers to wait for the declaration of war before they broke for cover. And when they declared for war they showed how thin was the intellectual veneer of their socialism. For they called us in terms that might have emanated from any bourgeois journal to defend democracy and civilization, just as if it were not exactly against those very bourgeois democracies and capitalist civilizations that socialists had been fighting for decades. But so subtle is the spiritual chemistry of the “inside” that all this intellectual cohesion—herd-instinct become herd-intellect—which seemed abroad so hysterical and so servile comes to us here in highly rational terms. We go to war to save the world from subjugation! But the German intellectuals went to war to save their culture from barbarization! And the French went to war to save their beautiful France! And the English to save international honor! And Russia, most altruistic and self-sacrificing of all, to save a small State from destruction. Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalizations float like bubbles? The Jew often marvels that his race alone should have been chosen as the true people of the cosmic God. Are not our intellectuals equally fatuous when they tell us that our war of all wars is stainless and thrillingly achieving for good?

An intellectual class that was wholly rational would have called insistently for peace and not for war. For months the crying need has been for a negotiated peace in order to avoid the ruin of a deadlock. Would not the same amount of resolute statesmanship thrown into intervention have secured a peace that would have been a subjugation for neither side? Was the terrific bargaining power of a great neutral ever really used? Our war followed, as all wars follow, a monstrous failure of diplomacy. Shamefacedness should now be our intellectual’s attitude, because the American play for peace was made so little more than a polite play. The intellectuals have still to explain why, willing as they now are to use force to continue the war to absolute exhaustion, they were not willing to use force to coerce the world to a speedy peace. . . .

The results of war on the intellectual class are already apparent. Their thought becomes little more than a description and justification of what is going on. They turn upon any rash one who continues idly to speculate. Once the war is on, the conviction spreads that individual thought is helpless, that the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel. There is no good holding back. We are told to dry our unnoticed and ineffective tears and plunge into the great work. Not only is everyone forced into line but the new certitude becomes idealized. It is a noble realism which opposes itself to futile obstruction and the cowardly refusal to face facts. This realistic boast is so loud and sonorous that one wonders whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not be sometimes a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? The pacifist is roundly scolded for refusing to face the facts and for retiring into his own world of sentimental desire. But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or criticize facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But, if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground. The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.

But the intellectuals whom the crisis has crystallized into an acceptance of war have put themselves into a terrifyingly strategic position. It is only on the craft, in the stream, they say, that one has any chance of controlling the current forces for liberal purposes. If we obstruct, we surrender all power for influence. If we responsibly approve, we then retain our power for guiding. We will be listened to as responsible thinkers, while those who obstructed the coming of war have committed intellectual suicide and shall be cast into outer darkness. Criticism by the ruling powers will only be accepted from those intellectuals who are in sympathy with the general tendency of the war. Well, it is true that they may guide, but if their stream leads to disaster and the frustration of national life, is their guiding any more than a preference whether they shall go over the right-hand or the left-hand side of the precipice? Meanwhile, however, there is comfort on board. Be with us, they call, or be negligible, irrelevant. Dissenters are already excommunicated. Irreconcilable radicals, wringing their hands among the debris, become the most despicable and impotent of men. There seems no choice for the intellectual but to join the mass of acceptance. But again the terrible dilemma arises—either support what is going on, in which case you count for nothing because you are swallowed in the mass and great incalculable forces bear you on, or remain aloof, passively resistant, in which case you count for nothing because you are outside the machinery of reality.

Is there no place left, then, for the intellectual who cannot yet crystallize, who does not dread suspense, and is not yet drugged with fatigue? The American intellectuals, in their preoccupation with reality, seem to have forgotten that the real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany. There is work to be done to prevent this war of ours from passing into popular mythology as a holy crusade. What shall we do with leaders who tell us that we go to war in moral spotlessness or who make “democracy” synonymous with a republican form of government? There is work to be done in still shouting that all the revolutionary by-products will not justify the war or make war anything else than the most noxious complex of all the evils that afflict men. There must be some to find no consolation whatever and some to sneer at those who buy the cheap emotion of sacrifice. There must be some irreconcilables left who will not even accept the war with walrus tears. There must be some to call unceasingly for peace and some to insist that the terms of settlement shall be not only liberal but democratic. There must be some intellectuals who are not willing to use the old discredited counters again and to support a peace which would leave all the old inflammable materials of armament lying about the world. There must still be opposition to any contemplated “liberal” world-order founded on military coalitions. The “irreconcilable” need not be disloyal. He need not even be “impossibilist.” His apathy towards war should take the form of a heightened energy and enthusiasm for the education, the art, the interpretation that make for life in the midst of the world of death. The intellectual who retains his animus against war will push out more boldly than ever to make his case solid against it. The old ideals crumble new ideals must be forged. His mind will continue to roam widely and ceaselessly. The thing he will fear most is premature crystallization. If the American intellectual class rivets itself to a “liberal” philosophy that perpetuates the old errors, there will then be need for “democrats” whose task will be to divide, confuse, disturb, keep the intellectual waters constantly in motion to prevent any such ice from ever forming.

Source: Randolph Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” Seven Arts 2 (1917): 133�.

Literary Work

He was one of the more important of the younger contributors to American magazines on social and political movements and on education. His most important books are "Youth and Life" (1913) and "Education and Living" (1917).

In 1911 he had begun contributing to The Atlantic Monthly, and his first book, "Youth and Life," a volume of essays, appeared in 1913. He was a member of the contributing staff of The New Republic during its first three years later he was a contributing editor of The Seven Arts and The Dial. He had published, in addition to his first collection of essays and a large number of miscellaneous articles and book reviews, two other books, "Education and Living" and "The Gary Schools."

During this time, he was supportive of the work of the Industrial Workers of the World, including their actions at the Paterson strike. He wrote poems, such as "Sabotage", which encouraged rebellion against oppressive businessmen. [5] [6] He also found much agreement with Jean Jacques Rousseau's big government ideal of a General Will. [7] He also lauded the work of Maurice Barrès.

At the time of his death he was engaged on a novel and a study of the political future titled "The State". [8]


His work "Trans-National America" popularized the term Transnationalism, which discusses the assimilation of the immigrant into American life. Assimilation came to be referred to as the "Melting pot" and was a concept that Bourne did not hold in high regard. [9] This work was influenced by Horace Kallen. [10]

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Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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Cataloged Christina Hilton Fenn 04/07/89.

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2013-03-25 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz

2019-02-04 Finding aid updated by Celeste Brewer: related materials and custodial history notes added biographical and scope and content notes revised and Series III added to better distinguish between items created or owned by Bourne, and items created after his death.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers, by Randolph Bourne

Poser of Questions
The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers
by Randolph Bourne
S. A. Russell. 309 pp. $3.75

Randolph Bourne died in 1918, at thirty-two, six weeks after the armistice ending a war he had opposed with bitter determination. He died of influenza. He was not hounded to death&rsquos door, as some of his admirers held and even believed, by the United States government, the Secret Service, George Creel, or vigilantes. John Dos Passos&rsquos memorable portrait of Bourne in his novel 1919, sympathetic as it is, is simply not a portrait of the Bourne who composed during the last year of the war, living more or less in comfort, his most enduring work&mdashthe essay on the state. His death, however, as Dorothy Teall observes, &ldquohad the effect of arresting him in the attitude of his wartime protest,&rdquo as if that had been his battleground. But the stakes of the contest were actually much larger.

Today, hardly anybody knows who he was. When Granville Hicks recently alluded to Bourne in conversation with a New York book editor&mdasha learned young man but one born in the innocent year 1922&mdashthe editor asked simply, &ldquoWho?&rdquo He was a dissenter-at-large, more a Thoreau .than, say, a Debs, assigning to himself the duty to scrutinize, not to join. He was not (despite the title of this excellent new volume) primarily literary. Radical he was, and in his student days a registered Socialist, but his thinking soon went beyond the point where it bore any resemblance to the formal programs of any political party. Bourne wrote diligently on behalf of experimental education, city planning, labor organization, and the tragedy of poverty during those years of optimistic excitement between 1912 and 1916 but when, for example, experimental education threatened to harden into something we may call &ldquoDeweyism,&rdquo he was quick to question whether universal agreement truly resembled the individualism the New Education had earlier celebrated.

He wins, therefore, few friends among the organized. He was never a regular. He equated &ldquodoing good,&rdquo whether the good was projected by left or right, with the arrogance of Puritanism. He would probably have remained, had he lived, as clearly unaffiliated with the alignment of the 1930&rsquos as he had been with the war mood of 1917.

Yet he was no cynic, certainly no admirer of Mencken. He strove, always, toward the formulation of a critique which would prevent the best of intentions from petrifying into dogma, and so it is his restlessness, never his blueprint, which commends him. He is a model of that temperament which cherishes individual identity. His complaint was against the organizational means which obstructed ends, and his haste demanded, as Van Wyck Brooks writes in the introduction to this volume, that &ldquonew and very different American [which] was no academic idea but a necessity so urgent it had begun to be a reality.&rdquo

Physically crippled from birth, Bourne refused to accept the protection of a family only too eager, as he felt, to indulge his misfortune, and fled from Bloomfield, New Jersey. At Columbia University he sacrificed sinecure by raising a cry over the exploitation of campus scrubwomen, and by insisting with vigor that pedantic futility had nothing in common with scholarship. After a year&rsquos travel in Europe he returned in time to contribute to the first volume of the New Republic, and his work for that magazine was his principal support until he broke with it in 1917.

This break, it would at first appear, was over the question of U.S. entry into the war, but in a more accurate sense the question of the war only hastened a rupture which would have come anyway. The New Republic, between 1914 and 1917, under the guidance of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, was an exponent of the ideal of inevitable democratic progress. The age, it thought, was &ldquonew.&rdquo And the magazine declared itself to be &ldquoa journal of opinion which seeks to meet the challenge of a new time.&rdquo The Promise of American Life was Croly&rsquos testament, while Lippmann, in Drift and Mastery, phrased his clear conviction that the former was intolerable, the latter probable.

His break with the magazine signified, really, Bourne&rsquos alienation from the great majority of intellectuals, and he was soon, in Dwight Macdonald&rsquos language, &ldquoreally alone. Sustained by no party comradeship or loyalty to a definite set of political principles, Bourne reacted simply as a thoughtful and humane individual, which makes his stand all the more heroic, in a sense.&rdquo

By the time he wrote the essays in The Seven Arts&mdashthree of which, &ldquoThe War and the Intellectuals,&rdquo &ldquoA War Diary,&rdquo and &ldquoTwilight of Idols,&rdquo are here reprinted for the first time in almost forty years&mdashBourne was reconciling himself to the unhappy view that mass-man may best be likened to a &ldquoherd.&rdquo It was not the current democratic theology, but it was Bourne&rsquos analysis of things, and, just as he had moved to this view from the optimism of 1914, so did he move from here to the equally unhappy conclusion that intellectuals, too, no less than mass-man, were a &ldquoherd.&rdquo They cling, he said, if not to widely popular ideas, to ideas popular among their fellow intellectuals. They thus enjoy exactly that psychological safety non-intellectuals choose above the pursuit of hard or unpleasant truths.

There exist, said Bourne, fashions in thought, &ldquoherd-intellect,&rdquo and intellectuals frequently cultivate, in their anxiety to wear the fashion, a habit of endorsement. This habit is most pernicious when, as in 1917, the reigning philosophy has been pragmatic, activist, for intellectuals are then instrumentalists, preoccupied by means rather than by ends. Look, said Bourne, at the &ldquoyounger intelligentsia&rdquo of 1917: &ldquoThey have absorbed the secret of scientific method as applied to political administration. They are liberal, enlightened, aware. They are a wholly new force in American life, the product of the swing in the colleges from a training that emphasized classical studies to one that emphasized political and economic values. Practically all this element, one would say, is lined up in service of the war-technique. There seems to have been a peculiar congeniality between the war and these men. It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other. . . . [They] have learned all too literally the instrumental attitude toward life . . . accepting with little question the ends as announced from above. . . . It is now becoming plain that unless you start with the vividest kind of poetic vision, your instrumentalism is likely to land you just where it has landed this younger intelligentsia. . . . You must have your vision and you must have your technique.&rdquo

That which was &ldquobecoming plain&rdquo to Bourne troubles thoughtful Americans of a later decade, seeking a more fruitful alliance between vision and technique. It was one of a number of questions Bourne raised. His singular quality is his remarkable habit of posing questions in advance of fashion.

Parallels In Time A History of Developmental Disabilities

Persons with disabilities became scapegoats during this period. Shifting the focus of the earlier theme of "protecting the deviant" from society, this era became less concerned with persons with disabilities, and more suspicious of people viewed as "different."

The number of people in public institutions continued to rise, averaging approximately 250 persons per institution in 1890 and over 500 per institution by 1905. In a relatively short time, practices regarding persons with disabilities had moved from compassionate education to segregation.

In 1900, there were about 10 private institutions for persons with disabilities by 1923 that number increased to 80. These facilities were referred to as schools, farms, hospitals, institutes, and academies.

Industrial training at the
Rome State School
in New York, ca. 1920


One example of a public institution for persons with disabilities was Rome State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots at Rome, New York. This institution opened in 1894 and provided basic care to persons with disabilities of all ages and both sexes, especially "low-grade" and delinquent cases. People left here were often judged to be the result of the moral failure of their parents.

Overcrowding of institutions worsened as the 20th century proceeded. People could spend their entire day in one room and often slept on the floor.

Industrial training at the Rome State School in New York, ca. 1920

Randolph Bourne, Modernism and The New Woman

The “New Woman” of Modern America rejected what it meant to be a woman in Victorian America. In the 19th century, women were either respectable and devoted to their families or were whores and prostitutes. The overwhelming majority of women got married and chose to live a respectable life. The Victorians thought that women were more religious and moral than men. Women were in charge of leading the moral and religious life of their households. This was the assumption that led to the passage of the 18th and 19th Amendments which established Prohibition and women’s suffrage.

“Two groups of Americans, women and blacks, emerged from the war with heightened expectations and new attitudes toward their place in society. The emancipated woman was the standard-bearer of the modern age. “When the world began to change,” the restlessness of women was the main cause,” observed the writer Hutchins Hapgood. While mainstream feminists fought for the vote, a radical vanguard, the New Women, sought sexual equality with men, including the freedom to love and access to birth control. The war accelerated the triumph of women’s rights, as it did that of Prohibition. “The greatest thing that came out of the war,” said Carrie Chapman Carr, a suffragette leader, “was the emancipation of women, for which no man had fought.”

Writing to a Midwestern friend, Randolph Bourne, who had sympathy for the compromises women made, provided a graphic look at the New Women:

“They are all social workers or magazine writers in a small way. They are decidedly emancipated and advanced, and so thoroughly healthy and zestful, so it seems to my unsophisticated masculine sense. They shock you constantly … They have an amazing combination of wisdom and youthfulness, of humor and ability, and innocence and self-reliance, which absolutely belies everything you will read in the story-books or any other description of womankind. They are, of course, self-supporting and independent and they enjoy the adventure of life the full reliant, audacious way in which they go about makes you wonder if the new woman isn’t to be a very splendid sort of person.”

The “New Woman” has become synonymous with women.

The only reason the 19th Amendment was passed by a Victorian male electorate is because it was assumed at the time that male alcoholism was the social problem and that women were more socially conservative than men and giving them the vote would elevate the manners and morals of society. This gives you a sense of the distance we have traveled over the course of a century.

The “New Woman” was a literary creation of Modernism. This is how the ideal began to emerge in Henrik Ibsen’s play The Doll House (1879):

“HELMER: It’s shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.

NORA: What do you consider my most sacred duties?

HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?

NORA: I have other duties just as sacred.

HELMER: That you have not. What duties could those be?

NORA: Duties to myself.

HELMER: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.

NORA: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books but I can no longer contain myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.”

The Modern aesthetic ideal of self-exploration, self-expression, self-realization and self-fulfillment is a sacred duty on the same level of a woman’s moral and religious obligations to her family. The shift is that the claims of religion and morality have taken a backseat to an aesthetic lifestyle.

This is the philosophy of Oscar Wilde who believed “to become a work of art is the object of living.” It is the philosophy of Charles Baudelaire who believed in seeing beauty in evil. It is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche who believed the art of the higher men was the bridge of the Übermensch and that creative geniuses were held back by the Christian slave morality of the masses. It is the philosophy of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in “The Ten O’Clock.” It is the philosophy of Théophile Gautier who believed in the religion of art. It is the philosophy of Walter Pater and Algernon Swinburne and Henry James and all the other late 19th century aesthetes who diminished the claims of religion and morality over life.

This was also the philosophy of Randolph Bourne, the “New Women” like Margaret Anderson and the first Moderns of the 1910s in America. These people were a radical vanguard who were living in bohemian enclaves in New York City and Chicago where they were experimenting with living out the new ethos of Modernism which they were absorbing from the European avant-garde and H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

“A historical figure as well as a literary phenomenon, the New Woman was named in 1894 in an exchange between ‘Ouida’ (Marie Louise de la Ramée) and Sarah Grand in the pages of the New American Review. The New Woman was a ubiquitous presence in fin-de-siècle literature and journalism concerned with debates about the ‘woman question’, and influenced twentieth-century ideas about feminism and gender. The New Woman novel, with its mapping of female psychological space and emphasis on female consciousness, shaped modernist fiction.

New Women were often political activists as well as writers, and agitated for reform on political and domestic questions. Most New Woman fiction rejects aestheticism in favor of realism it deals with sexuality with a frankness that departed from Victorian codes of propriety and takes up issues such as suffrage, marriage, domestic violence, and the emancipation of women. In its realism, New Woman fiction departs from the aestheticism of the period, although some writers, like George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright), used the techniques of aestheticism to examine women’s experience.”

“When Hutchins Hapgood looked back on the heyday of bohemia, it was the New Woman he cast as the movers of history, standard-bearers of the modernist telos. “When the world began to change, the restlessness of women was the main cause of the development called Greenwich Village, which existed not only in New York but all over the country,” he elegized. Throughout the left intelligentsia, the emancipated woman stood at the symbolic center of a program for cultural regeneration. Her enactment of destiny was considered a historical spectacle: “The awakening and liberation of woman … is not an event in any class or an issue between classes,” proposes the Masses in 1913. “It is an issue for all humanity.” The innovation of the moment benefited all, but they were thought particularly to aid women. Free speech allowed them to break a long taboo against female sexual expression, the new writing invited them to share literary enterprises monopolized by men, and bohemian politics accepted the fundamental premises of women’s rights and expanded on them. Indeed, freedom of thought and action and “the removal of the barriers between the sexes” went hand in hand.

Men like Hapgood, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Randolph Bourne saw themselves as coconspirators of the heroines of the day. In their writings, political pronouncements, and friendships with the opposite sex, they articulated fond expectations of the advantages that would accrue to all – themselves included – from women’s eventual triumph. “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free,” the Masses predicted. This was a distinctly American sensibility it was to prove enormously influential in modern sex relations, more so than the explicit antipathy to women (misogynistic at worst, ill-tempered at best) that wound through high-modernist corridors in Europe. Pound, with his animus toward women editors and patrons, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Marinetti, T.S. Eliot – these men had variegated relations to women artists and subjects, to be sure, but they were given periodically to overt scorn for the modern woman’s quest for self-determination or to muted anxiety that their sex was losing control.

Men of the American cultural left tended rather to extol sexual democracy in the same terms as they extolled the concord of workers and intellectuals. A militant belief in sexual equality was, ostensibly, common ground between men and women, and feminism, like the workers’ commonwealth, would liberate society from a gloomy past. The moderns believed that the crippling conventions of their parents’ generation had set the sexes against each other by segregating people into separate spheres – the female-dominated home, the male-dominated world. Modernity, with its generative powers of communication, would overcome the division and thereby put an end to the ancient battle of the sexes. A third space of reciprocity would nourish transcendent friendships unimaginable to earlier generations, the “true companionship and oneness” of men and women that Emma Goldman preached in her lectures on love. …

Men and women drew sustenance from their faith in the availability for work from in the cities, from anarchist-tinged beliefs in the power of emancipated individuals to transform themselves and others, and from literary representations of New Womanhood. Their promises were not enunciated in tracts or manifestos but, haltingly and fragmentarily, as ethical predispositions: in romantic love, work, political activism, and sociability. In fact, few of these experiments were as successful as their participants billed them. Instead, the structures of sexual modernism proved highly elastic in their ability to accommodate elements of the old sexual hierarchies. The persistence, even the consolidation, of men’s privileges within an egalitarian framework would prove a defining feature of twentieth-century American society. Ironically, despite all their good intentions, the bohemians helped construct the fundamental paradox of a sexual modernism that was also a patriarchal modernization. They were the very first generation to live with the promises and perplexities of what came to be seen, much later, as a great change in the lives of girls and women.

Feminism as a synonym for women’s rights was a coinage of the 1910s, transposed from the French féminisme, a word around since the 1880s. Associated with the newest of New Women, feminism betokened not just a claim to the vote or to making mothers’ roles in society more honored but rather to economic independence, sexual freedom, and psychological exemption from the repressive obligations of wifehood, motherhood, and daughterhood – a jettisoning of family duties for a heightened female individualism. The appearance of the term in the urban lexicon signaled the cohesion of a politics – better yet, a sensibility – of equality distinct from the nineteenth-century tradition, which had consistently stressed women’s roles within the family and marriage and repudiated any idea of women’s sexual desires independent of making babies. Like other specialties of the metropolitan intelligentsia, feminism was new, “so new that it isn’t in the dictionaries yet,” an advocate boasted. The mixture of utopianism and advertising hype – “the stir of new life,” “world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers,” the “complete social revolution” – propelled the term into the limelight. Like so much else that was happening, feminism denoted a world-transforming rupture. “We have grown accustomed … to something or other known as the Woman Movement. That has an old sound – it is old,” another adherent explained. “But feminism!” – that was something different. Magazines buzzed, not just the Masses and the Little Review but the family periodicals, the stodgy Nation, the grave New Republic. “The word is daily in the pages of our newspapers. The doctrine and its corollaries are on every tongue,” marveling the Century in 1914.”

“Feminism” was coined in the 1910s.

“Feminism” was the arrival of the “New Woman” in America from France. It is essentially nothing but Modernism applied to relations between the sexes.

Randolph Bourne was an aesthete who loved Nietzsche. He dreamed of “revitalizing” American culture through the aestheticization of everyday life.

“Bourne was a moral and cultural radical, to be sure. In the era when intellectual production centered on “little magazines,” he and his circle inveighed against sterility in education, the embalmed canon of a “genteel tradition” in letters, and the puritanical and Calvinistic strictures of Victorian culture. Bourne characterized himself as a “literary radical,” and his affection for Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau resonated in the cadences of his prose. Despondent about American shallowness, complacency, and conformity, he touted, in his most heartfelt personal expressions, the romantic ideals of “youth” and “life” as vital resources for the regeneration of democracy. …

Both the Greenwich Village atmosphere of youthful experimentation and revolt and the worldwide workers’ rebellion that exploded toward the end of the second decade of the twentieth century were implicit in Bourne’s refusal to put his finger to the wind before speaking fresh and vital truths. Idealism, aestheticism, feminism, friendship, music, reading, and impassioned discussion were for Bourne social ideals, as reflected in his judgment that all great art was ethical, imbued with religion and politics. When we recapture the Bourne who emphasized “social consciousness,” “human progress,” and “the bringing of a fuller, richer life to more people on this earth” as against “that poisonous counsel of timidity and distrust of human ideals which pours out in steady stream from reactionary press and pulpit” — words that still have bite in our own epoch of Fox News and greed-condoning mega-churches — then we will have gone some way toward ensuring that the ghost of Bourne still giggles down our streets.”

The Moderns liked to emphasize that feminism liberated men too from the expectations of conventional religion and morality. Now everyone could focus on enjoying themselves and developing their own lifestyles.

Randolph Bourne: “War is the Health of the State”

Born some twenty years after Julien Benda, Randolph Bourne published his own attack on the betrayal of the intellectuals in the midst of World War I, a decade before Benda’s Betrayal appeared. He was a clerk avant la lettre, who played the part with splendid vehemence and political recklessness. Benda himself supported the French war effort in 1914 and still justified it in 1927, and this must have made his critique of nationalism a little easier for his fellow citizens to accept. Bourne took a more radical line. Along with a tiny minority of American intellectuals and a small group of American socialists, he defied the war hysteria of 1917 and stood up for the “ideal.” Not, however, for Benda’s ideal: Bourne was an explicit, if peculiar, nationalist and in longing, if not in fact, a member of what he called a “beloved community.” His own romanticism focused more on involvement than detachment. When he denounced the American war, he thought he was defending the “American promise.”

It is true, nonetheless, that if one were to search for an American embodiment of Benda’s “true intellectual,” there is no more likely candidate than Randolph Bourne. Few Americans have set themselves so passionately to be intellectuals, and few have been so faithful to that calling. This description of Bourne is common in the critical literature, and it is commonly made to seem overdetermined—as if the role of “true intellectual” had been physically and socially assigned, even before it was morally chosen. With his twisted face and hunched back, Bourne, on this view, was marked out from infancy as an outsider. Alienated in small-town New Jersey, he went to New York so as to be alienated at large. And there he drifted into what Christopher Lasch has described as the creation of the age, the new class of classless intellectuals. Disconnected from church and sect, without any clear professional standing, living in a social void, Bourne was one of those lonely and alienated figures “predisposed” to criticism and rebellion. 1 Detachment and distance sought him out. Bourne’s self-descriptions match the terms of this account: he was “a lonely spectator,” he wrote in a letter to a friend (July 1915), “reserved from action for contemplation. … I have unsuspected powers of incompatibility with the real world.” 2 If Lasch is right, the powers need not have been entirely unsuspected, for Bourne’s incompatibility was shared with many others, a collective fate rendered more intense and poignant in his case by what Theodore Dreiser called “the fumbling hand of nature.”

Even a collective fate, however, can be differently experienced, differently constructed, by the person whose fate it is. Bourne often presents a more complicated view of his own life. Here, from an earlier letter (March 1913), is an account of ambition and foreboding that adds a second and more interesting dualism to the familiar set-off of action and contemplation:

I want to be a prophet, if only a minor one. I can almost see now that my path in life will be on the outside of things, poking holes in the holy, criticizing the established, satirizing the self-respecting and contented. Never being competent to direct and manage any of the affairs of the world myself, I will be forced to sit. . . in the wilderness howling like a coyote that everything is being run wrong. . . . Between an Ezekiel and an Ishmael, it is a little hard to draw the line I mean, one can start out to be the first and end only by becoming the latter. 3

Ezekiel or Ishmael, prophet or outcast: an easy choice, really, if one is free to choose. One can’t choose to prophesy in the wilderness, however, for a prophet requires an audience he must be heard, whether or not he is honored, in his own country he can’t just howl, he must speak the local language. If he was really isolated and alone, if he really inhabited a social void, only divine intercession could rescue him (as it rescued Ishmael) from oblivion.

But social voids, like black holes, are hypothetical phenomena, and we know enough about Bourne’s early life to exclude the hypothesis. His detachment and his involvement have a history—which begins in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he lived until he was twenty-three. I want to focus on Bourne’s response to the war, but it is his response to Bloomfield that establishes him as a social critic. He is first of all a critic of his own local society, plausibly taken to represent contemporary America he learned his critical principles at home. No one is born critically detached. Bourne’s early life is more familiar and more conventional than one might expect, given his physical appearance. Elected president of his senior class, editor of the school paper, active in his church (the First Presbyterian), assiduous reader in Bloomfield’s free library, he doesn’t seem “predisposed” to rebellion. Perhaps the financial circumstances that prevented his early entrance into college—he had been admitted to Princeton in 1903 but was unable to continue his studies until he won a scholarship at Columbia in 1909— pressed him toward what he called “irony,” his own name for critical­mindedness. For six years, he worked to earn a living, and this experience provided a certain material basis for his later commitment to social democracy. In the beginning, though, “socialism was really applied Christianity.” He learned it, or he first heard himself expounding it, in his Young Men’s Bible Class. 4

In similar fashion, his earliest social criticism is an exposure of small-town hypocrisy. It begins, that is, from the acknowledged principles of the local elite—principles that Bourne never wholly abandoned though he came to interpret them in ways that outraged Bloomfield’s Presbyterian elders. “The social spirit of [the] ruling class,” he wrote in a study of Bloomfield published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1913, “seems to consist in the delusion that its own personal interests are identical with those of the community at large.” 5 A common delusion, and Bourne’s attack upon it has much in common with other attacks written at roughly the same time by other children of the ruling class. His elders claim to serve the community, and the Christian ideal of service is central to their self-understanding. But this ideal is really ideology: the service of the elders is “utterly selfish,” Bourne wrote in another Atlantic Monthly article and went on to explain to the respectable readers of that eminently respectable magazine the radical critique of “doing good”:

What of the person who is done good to? If the feelings of sacrifice and service were in any sense altruistic, the moral enhancement of the receiver would be the object sought. But can it not be said that for every . . . merit secured by an act of sacrifice or service on the part of the doer, there is a corresponding depression on the part of the receiver? 6

A morally serious philanthropy would aim to create a society where philanthropy was unnecessary: “a freely cooperating, freely reciprocating society of equals.” But the ideology of service requires inequality and the practice confirms and upholds it. The ruling class battens off the men and women it serves its self-respect is swollen at their expense. Bourne isn’t writing here from any great distance. What he sees, he sees close up:

How well we know the type of man . . . who has been doing good all his life! How his personality has thriven on it! How he has ceaselessly been storing away moral fat in every cranny of his soul! His goodness has been meat to him. The need and depression of other people has been, all unconsciously, the air which he has breathed. 7

This is indeed the prophetic style, Ezekiel’s, not Ishmael’s (with more than a touch of Nietzsche). Despite the moral anger signaled by those exclamation points, however, Bourne never intended to repudiate the ideal of “service.” In July 1916, writing in The New Republic and worried by the agitation for a warlike “preparedness,”he proposed a “moral equivalent” for military conscription. William James had made a similar argument years before, recognizing the value of collective effort and personal sacrifice. Now Bourne sets the question, “How can we all together serve America by really enhancing her life?” and works out in response the idea of a domestic Peace Corps. I am less interested in the details of the proposal—which reveal Bourne’s commitment to feminism as well as his sensitivity to the concerns of the labor movement—than in the spirit that animates it. The writer now is Randolph Bourne of Greenwich Village, American bohemian and radical, but the spirit belongs to an earlier Bourne, Bourne of Bloomfield and the First Presbyterian Church: “I have a picture of a host of eager youth missionaries swarming over the land.” This is service transformed, because it is genuinely universal and egalitarian, but it is service still: “food inspection, factory inspection, organized relief, the care of dependents, playground service, nursing in hospitals.” 8

“Eager youth missionaries”: if Bourne had ever written about the revolutionary vanguard, that is probably the way he would have described it. He divides the world by generations before he divides it by classes, and he tends to write about generations and classes in the style of a secular evangelism. Since the style is authentic, it is not unattractive. Bourne is the advocate of lift and stir (two of his favorite words, which he regularly uses as nouns)—not conventional Christian uplift but something close enough to that, forward movement, radical agitation, for the sake of a richer culture and a more “experimental” life. He speaks for a new “American newness,” the work of his own generation, which seems in Bourne’s essays to have invented both youthful enthusiasm and radical politics. “It is the glory of the present age that in it one can be young.” 9 His own America is always young, and his early death at thirty-one saved him from having to construct a picture of himself in middle age. As it was, middle age and middle class were conditions that always invited criticism. The two together were represented by Bloomfield’s elders, “the private club of comfortable middle- class families” that was also the “older generation.” How had these people gone wrong? In 1917, Bourne would write about intellectual betrayal in the years before 1917, he wrote repeatedly about the betrayal of the elders. They had turned their backs on the American promise, chosen privilege over passionate commitment. Ambitious intellectuals have no monopoly on treason.

“The town changes from a village to an industrial center . . . the world widens, society expands, formidable crises appear,” and the older generation—the businessmen, lawyers, ministers, and teachers of Bloomfield and a thousand similar places—are “weary, complacent, evasive.” 10 Bourne reads the changes as so many opportunities to realize the American promise. Immigrants arrive, the workers mobilize, women claim their rights. The social classes (generational or economic) to which Bourne’s parents and grandparents belong can only recoil in fear and dislike. It’s not so much that they are cruel except perhaps at the very top of the social hierarchy, they lack the energy for that. They are willfully ignorant, closed off in their minds from both the misery and the hope around them. Bourne appeals to an earlier America, the world of the great-grandfathers—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—and to a future America created by his own contemporaries in the image of the promise: open, vivid, democratic, cooperative.

Bourne’s “beloved community” was not Bloomfield, but neither was it Greenwich Village he wasn’t a real bohemian. The community he longed for was unrealized but immanent somehow in American life. The sense of this immanence gave his criticism its concreteness and force. He was detached from Bloomfield respectability, but not simply detached, for the promise is available only to participants. In an early essay, “The Life of Irony,” he provided an account of himself as participant, contrasting his own critical style with that of an unnamed opposite, almost certainly H. L. Mencken. Both are judges of their society, but Mencken judges from a distance he is mocking, satirical, brutal, overbearing. Bourne’s ideal critic is very different “judge” is probably not the right word for him:

If the idea of the ironist as judge implies that his attitude is wholly detached, wholly objective, it is an unfortunate metaphor. For he is as much part and parcel of the human show as any of the people he studies. The world is no stage, with the ironist as audience. His own personal reactions with the people about him form all the stuff of his thoughts and judgments. He has a personal interest in the case. . . . If the ironist is destructive, it is his own world that he is destroying if he is critical, it is his own world that he is criticizing. 11

Bourne sometimes thought of himself as a “lonely spectator,” but that was not what he meant to be. Distance, he argued, made for cynicism and sourness, and neither of these sat well with his youthful evangelism. “The ironist is a person who counts in the world. . . . His is an insistent personality he is as troublesome as a missionary.” Like “judge,” “missionary” isn’t quite the right word, for a missionary carries his gospel to foreign lands, while irony, as a critical style, works only at home. Bourne did think of himself as a man with a mission—to interpret and defend the newness of America. But he had no gospel to proclaim, at least not in the usual sense of that word. When he left Bloomfield and the First Presbyterian Church, he also gave up the idea of eternal truth. Irony is exposition of another sort. “We may not know much, and can never know the most,” he wrote in a letter of 1913, “but at least we have the positive material of our human experience to interpret … it is only when we try to interpret the world in terms of pure thought that we get into trouble.” 12

Cultural Nationalism

Bourne is a clerk, then, of a special kind. I suspect that it is his commitment to the “positive material” of everyday experience that explains his nationalism. When he traveled in Europe in the year before the war, he found much to admire (especially on the Continent: he seems to have recognized too much of Bloomfield in Britain), but he came home committed to “decolonization.” America must stand on its own, tap its own resources, reclaim its democratic destiny. Like the other young men of The New Republic, he declared himself a cultural nationalist. That didn’t mean that he was prepared to defend the national culture as he found it. What he found at home reeked of sweetness and light, that is to say, of hypocrisy. The surface was too genteel everything interesting and vital was repressed. The actuality of America was rougher, livelier, more obstreperous than the elders could admit.

So the content of cultural nationalism had still to be determined, and Bourne hoped to have—and briefly did have—a voice in that determination. The literary criticism that he wrote for The New Republic and later for Dial should be read in terms of his commitment to a cultural war—in which his central strategy is to outrage his audience and his greatest enemy is an audience too genteel to be outraged. “The literary artist needs protection from the liberal audience that will accept him though he shock them . . . that subtly tame him even while they appreciate.” 13 Bourne championed writers whom he thought untamable, like Theodore Dreiser, “the product of the uncouth forces of small-town life and the vast disorganization of the wider American world.” Dreiser himself is always on display in his novels, Bourne wrote, and the display “is a revelation of the American soul.” Part of the revelation is sexual: “[Dreiser] feels a holy mission to slay the American literary superstition that men and women are not sensual beings.” (Sex, like service, had its evangelists in early twentieth-century America—and has had them ever since.) Part of the revelation is more broadly cultural: “His emphases are those of a new America . . . latently expressive. … For Dreiser is a true hyphenate, a product of that conglomerate Americanism that springs from other roots than the English tradition.” 14 Bourne claims the hyphen for himself too, and so makes cultural nationalism into a defense of a “conglomerate” culture and, as he wrote in one of his finest essays, a “transnational” nation.

Despite his socialist convictions, he was not a nationalist on behalf of the working class or a literary critic in search of proletarian literature. His pro­phetic message is not some updated version of the Abbé Sieyès’s “The third estate is France!” His adherence to the revolt of the masses takes the form of a defense of the great immigration. Bourne’s message is that the “hy­phenates” all of them, are Americans. 15 The generational categories in which he commonly expressed himself fit immigrants better than workers: here were new Americans for the new America. And each group of immigrants brought its own culture, high as well as low, and produced its own intellectuals. Bourne was especially sympathetic to the Jews—not because he had any special feeling for the people of the Lower East Side, rather because he recognized and valued the “clarity of expression . . . radical philosophy . . . masterly fiber of thought” of the Jewish intellectuals he knew: Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Horace Kallen, Morris Cohen. 16 These were the first American products of the great immigration there would be many others like them so long as the new Americans were not forcibly cast in the mold of the elders. It was not the factory system that Bourne feared most it was, in the standard metaphor of his age, the melting pot.

What would America become? Bourne professed not to know. He knew only that it would not become a nation on the European model, with a dominant race imposing its own culture upon minority peoples. His own English-Americans were only one more minority, and they acted against their own deepest values when they urged assimilation upon the other minorities—”as if we wanted Americanization to take place only on our terms, and not by the consent of the governed.” 17 Consent would generate something radically new, a pattern of conflict and coexistence whose richness could only be intimated. Repress the variety, break up the integral culture of the hyphenated groups, and the result would be “tasteless, colorless . . . insipid.” The real alternative to what Kallen called “a nation of nationalities” was a nation without any national character at all. Bourne anticipated later descriptions of mass society when he wrote about the fate of “assimilated” Americans:

They become the flotsam and jetsam of American life, the downward undertow of our civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook, the absence of mind and sincere feeling, which we see in our slovenly towns, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels, and in the vacuous faces of the crowds on the city street . . . the cultural wreckage of our time. 18

This sounds rather like an aristocratic critic of the modern “horde” until we remember that Bourne was writing on behalf of men and women with foreign-sounding names, strange customs, and uncouth ways. He was afraid of such people only when they lost their pride, their sense of self and collective integrity. If he was an aristocrat, he was more than willing to tolerate rival aristocracies he was not looking for submission.

An immigrant society, so long as it avoids the melting pot, will internalize cosmopolitanism. That was Bourne’s vision of America: a great cultural variousness, each immigrant group remaining separate but interacting with the others, the individual members at once Swedes, Italians, Slavs, or Jews— and also Americans. The vision may lack sociological coherence, but it is large, generous, welcoming—and this in an age when many American defenders of “community” were calling for the restraint of immigration and the rapid, if necessary the coercive, assimilation of the immigrants to a uniform Americanism. Bourne, by contrast, never doubted that uniformity was un-American. “Transnational America” was not for him a transcendent ideal it arose out of our national history and our democratic faith. He defended it against his own English-Americans (who did not, he pointed out, adopt the culture of the Indians) as an American democrat.

Service and Solidarity

But what kind of a democrat was it who wrote so harshly about “the flotsam and jetsam of American life . . . the vacuous faces of the crowds”? Bourne was also, even in his earliest essays, a self-conscious intellectual, and he was not unwilling to allow himself “a certain tentative superciliousness towards [the] Demos.” 19 He didn’t stand aloof and apart he was involved in the life he criticized he had a personal interest but his interest was in improvement and not only in connection. Despite his communitarian faith, his style was never sentimental.

Raymond Williams, the British socialist and social critic, has distinguished two different sorts of criticism: one founded on the ideal of service, the other on the ideal of solidarity. The first starts from hierarchy and authority, the second from “mutual responsibility” (“a freely reciprocating society of equals”). 20 Williams prefers solidarity so does Bourne. But the alternatives are too simply drawn. It isn’t difficult to conceive of social critics loyal to a culture or a country or a religion or a class and still forced by the circumstances of their birth and education to work within a hierarchical world. That was Bourne’s fate, as it has been the fate of every one of the critics discussed in this book. Concern, commitment, connection, fellow-feeling— all these are possible in one degree or another. But the demand for a strict solidarity is often an invitation to dishonesty. What could Bourne do? The “orthodox elders of the socialist church”—not entirely unlike the elders of the Presbyterian Church—urged him to put aside his “university knowledge” and to hide his “intellectualism.” “Go down into the labor unions and the socialist locals,” they told him, “and learn of the workingman.” He was not in principle unwilling he had learned a great deal during his own wage­earning years. But now he believed that he had something to teach. “The labor movement in this country needs a philosophy, a literature, a constructive socialist analysis and criticism of industrial relations.” And “the only way by which middle-class radicalism can serve is by being fiercely and concentratedly intellectual.” 21

Bourne wanted to be a critical servant of the labor movement, the new immigrants, the country, and the culture generally. The only legitimate aim of service, however, is to make service superfluous. The good servant aims at a future solidarity. This is his heroism: he deliberately sets out to transform the conditions that give value to his work and importance to himself. Such heroism is not uncommon among twentieth-century radicals, though its sincerity is always in doubt. “The aim of the intelligentsia,” Lenin once wrote, “is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.” 22 Maybe but Lenin’s stronger and more controversial point is that leaders from the intelligentsia are necessary now. “Labor,” Bourne argued in a similar vein in 1916, “will scarcely do this thinking [socialist analysis and criticism] for itself.” But Bourne never aspired to “special leadership” in anything like Lenin’s sense. He marched with the cultural avant-garde, not the political vanguard he made no claim to state power. His view of the intellectual’s vocation was suggested by his evangelical vocabulary: prophet, missionary, apostle—”Do we not want minds with a touch of the apostolic about them?” 23 There is presumption enough in sentences like that, but it isn’t a Leninist presumption. It justifies intellectual intolerance and radical criticism, but not rulership or repression.

The critic is a person “who counts in the world.” But he counts because what he says moves the world in certain ways since he is insistent, questioning, troublesome, involved, he has effects on other people—though sometimes, Bourne acknowledged, “unexpected effects” 24 Even this acknowledgment represents what I think of as the up side of Bourne’s self­understanding, the apostolic buoyancy that marks most of his published work until the war years. His letters suggest the down side: not counting in the world but howling in the wilderness, not Ezekiel but Ishmael. (This second view, it seems to me, involves more pretension than the first.) The shifting placement of the self, first in the world, then in the wilderness, may well reflect the “classlessness” of Bourne and his friends—”the fact of being intellectuals,” as Lasch says, “in a society that had not yet learned to define the intellectual’s place.” 25 But don’t intellectuals characteristically resist such definition? Certainly Bourne would have resisted: what else could it mean to live an “experimental life”? At the same time, experimentation, evangelism too, was in the 1910s a distinctly middle-class activity its sociological location is no problem at all. Bourne was a middle-class radical and never pretended to be anything else. Superciliousness did not come naturally it was a pose adopted for the sake of his mission, the critic’s protective coloration. His more natural style combined diffidence with an intense romanticism. He seems never to have felt, in any case, that nervous defensiveness about his own mental powers, that anxiety with intellectuality, that drove other intellectuals into extreme forms of isolation or commitment. For all the fears that his letters express, Bourne had a remarkably straightforward sense of what he was about. His mission was to oppose the hypocrisies of the elders and the passivity of the people—and his sense of himself, up or down, reflected the relative standing of the opposition in American life (also, obviously, the course of his own career-in-opposition). It was only the war that drove him definitively into the wilderness.

At first, though, opposition to the war was the health of Randolph Bourne. Never was his prose so charged, his tone so taut, his arguments so strong, as in the essays that he wrote for Seven Arts between June and October 1917. It is hard to believe that he was as unhappy as he says he was during those months a man must glow, writing like that. But he wasn’t only writing against the war he was also, and more importantly, writing against the intellectuals who supported the war—and these were his friends and teachers. So the pride of opposition was clouded by the sense of loss and betrayal.

“A war made deliberately by the intellectuals!” That was Bourne’s ironic comment on a New Republic editorial of April 1917 boasting that the “influence” of a “numerically insignificant class” had brought about American participation in the war: “college professors, physicians, lawyers, clergymen, and [who else?] writers on magazines and newspapers.” 26 Bourne opposed both American participation and the “influence” of this intellectual class, and it seems clear that he was as outraged by the second as by the first. He sometimes called himself a pacifist, and he has been claimed as a comrade or at least a sympathizer by pacifists ever since, but I can find no evidence in his essays that he was committed to either a religious or a political pacifism. He was never unwilling to contemplate the use of force. His proposal for an “American strategy” in response to German submarine warfare included “the immediate guarantee of food and ships to the menaced nations and . . . the destruction of the attacking submarines.” 27 That sounds like a program for limited naval war it is certainly not a program for neutrality or isolation or nonviolence. But the war that America entered in 1917 was not limited nor did the American entry impose limits on the Allied war effort. If anything, it added a new grandiosity, a set of ultimate aims far beyond anything that military force might accomplish—and for this Bourne blamed the intellectuals. In Benda’s terminology, they “moralized” the war they made the fight against Germany into a cause, hoping to achieve in the maelstrom of global warfare what they had failed to achieve in time of domestic peace. And this improbable hope justified in turn a rush for office that was especially unseemly: for even if the war had been a good one it would still have required a sustained and systematic intellectual critique.

It is interesting to see how the key concepts of Bourne’s earlier essays reappeared in his wartime writing. The culture of prophecy and service, he now argued, had been an insubstantial culture, lacking, for most prophets and servants, both emotional depth and intellectual rigor. It was neither vividly conceived nor concretely enacted. The very superficiality of its American commitments made it available for global adventures. “Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they [the intellectuals] had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest.” Or again: “Too many of these prophets are men who have lived rather briskly among the cruelties and thinnesses of American civilization. . . . Their moral sense has been stirred by what they saw in France and Belgium, but it was a moral sense relatively unpracticed by deep concern and reflection over the inadequacies of American democracy” 28 Bourne never argued that the intellectuals were insufficiently detached. They were insufficiently engaged. They hardly knew the workers or immigrants they pretended to serve. They were not seriously involved in or absorbed by the struggle for democracy they had, consequently, no clear sense of what democracy means. Eager to act, but without any experience of collective action, they made easy recruits to the discipline of war. “They have … no clear philosophy of life except that of intelligent service, the admirable adaptation of means to ends. They are vague about what kind of society they want . . . but they are equipped with all the administrative attitudes and talents necessary to attain it.” Above all, they wanted, as Bourne also wanted, to count in the wider world—and once the war had begun, “the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel.” 29

The focus of Bourne’s anger was narrower than his third person plural pronouns suggest. He meant to include a lot of people, but he spoke directly to a few, his New Republic colleagues and his teachers at Columbia— especially Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Lippmann had gone off to Washington Dewey had written what were for Bourne the most important defenses of the war effort. Lippmann was the chief of those young men “trained up in the pragmatic dispensation,” of whom Bourne wrote that it was “as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.” Dewey was the chief pragmatist. Both Lippmann and Dewey saw in the war an opportunity not only to make the world safe for democracy but also to enhance democracy at home: to turn the federal government into an instrument of democratic transformation and to back up the government with a newly socialized people. Wasn’t this service in the cause of solidarity?

I suspect that Bourne would have supported a genuinely defensive war, fought to protect a threatened community. But a war fought to create a community? This was a desperate act, a naive and willful politics, for war was not a machine that a few intellectuals could control. Its technology was not designed for social service it answered to different purposes it produced different effects. In those first months of fighting, Bourne saw with remarkable prescience what those effects were likely to be. He wrote now as a true prophet—though his growing insistence on the inevitability of everything he foresaw tended to undercut his reason for writing:

War determines its own end—victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end. All governments will act in this way, the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only “liberal” naivete that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. 30

This may not be right in general, but it was right enough in 1917. President Wilson took a divided country into an unnecessary war, and the result was an odd combination of popular apathy and national hysteria, democratic propaganda and brutal repression—a “psychic complex of panic, hatred, rage, class arrogance, and patriotic swagger” that could only issue, in the end, in disillusion and spiritual impoverishment. It was “a war made deliberately by the intellectuals” (that was part of the class arrogance) in the face of “the hesitation and dim perceptions of the American democratic masses.” 31 The search for social solidarity by way of military mobilization was doomed to failure.

The intellectuals had betrayed their true service. In the most powerful of his essays, “Twilight of Idols,” an attack on John Dewey, Bourne blamed the betrayal on “the pragmatic dispensation.” He didn’t offer a philosophical critique of pragmatism he was himself a philosophical pragmatist, committed to the experimental life, sharing the sense of openness, process, participation that pragmatism at its best still stimulates. But this is a sense that needs to be cultivated, tested “inch by inch,” shaped and controlled by intelligence. The mere eagerness for action and effectiveness, the realist’s search for “influence,” is a vulgar pragmatism, a doctrine for bureaucrats and “special leaders.” Even Dewey, Bourne perceptively charged, “somehow retains his sense of being in the controlling class.” (But what does he control?) His disciples were “immensely ready for the executive ordering of events, pitifully unprepared for the intellectual interpretation or the idealistic focusing of ends.” 32

The task of intellectuals is to address the question of ends or values. To be sure, values are not given or known in advance they have to be worked out, as Dewey taught, experimentally. But the relevant experiments are mental before they are practical: “interpretation” and “focusing” precede action, else how would we know what to do? Dewey, Bourne argued, had failed to make this necessary precedence clear he good-naturedly tended to assume that other people had hopes, intentions, political goals, very much like his own. What else could they possibly want? “There was always that unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created” 33 Bourne himself had little to say about the creation of values his own argument began, like all such arguments, sometime after creation, in media res. The point was to attend critically to the values we already have. “Our intellectual class might have been occupied, during the last two years of war, in studying and clarifying the ideals and aspirations of . . . American democracy.” That is from the first of the antiwar essays, published in June 1917 by the time he wrote “Twilight of Idols,” in October, Bourne seemed to feel that clarification was not enough. Intellectuals now must “rage and struggle until new values come out of the travail, and we can see some glimmering of our democratic way.” 34 Even here, however, the commitment to find a democratic way is simply assumed, and the way is still ours, that is, it represented for Bourne a shared vision of the future. So long as he could say “our way,” he believed that he was still serving, for all his rage, the cause of solidarity. He also (still) believed that that cause required a fierce and concentrated intelligence. It wasn’t served by practical service, “a cheerful and brisk setting to work,” unless practical service was intellectually focused on its proper ends.

Liberal intellectuals had enlisted in the war effort, in part, out of fear of being cut off from a great national struggle. To oppose the war meant to howl uselessly in the wilderness. Unprepared for that, they were ready to believe that the long-term effects of the fighting would be good—almost as if they thought that “a war patronized by The New Republic could not but turn out to be a better war than anyone had hoped. “ 35 In any case, they did not want to exclude themselves from its management. How could they serve if they had no hold on the agencies and instruments of service? “We were constantly told by our friends,” wrote Jane Addams years later, “that to stand aside from the war mood of the country was to surrender all possibility of future influence, that we were committing intellectual suicide. “ 36 In response, Bourne charged that the intellectuals had already committed suicide by enlisting in a struggle they could never control. Their claim to political effectiveness was pitiful it was “the least democratic forces in American life” that actually controlled the course of the war, while the intellectuals, from the inside, could not even sustain a liberal critique. Their influence hardly extended to the government’s propaganda, let alone to its conduct of the war. They had even lost the capacity to deplore the domestic repression they once promised to prevent. “Their thought,” Bourne wrote, had become “little more than a description and justification of what is going on.” 37 All that was true enough, as Lippmann and Dewey, the best of the enlisted intellectuals, later admitted. But Bourne’s opposition, like their involvement, had its own costs. Though most of the time he wrote like Ezekiel, he felt more and more like Ishmael, and his last pieces, unpublished at his death, show the marks of his growing desperation.

Distance and Despair

Power may or may not be personally corrupting sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But the pursuit and exercise of power certainly corrupt intellectual life, at least as Bourne conceived intellectual life: a life of irony and criticism, lived fiercely and with concentration. Given their mission, intellectuals have no choice but to stand aside from official positions and official doctrines. So Bourne argued, years before Julien Benda, for a division of labor between value “creators,” “interpreters,” and “emphasizers,” on the one hand, and those other men and women who are in fact “ready” for the executive ordering of events, on the other. But Bourne insisted at the same time that values ought to shape the executive orders: it is the task of American intellectuals to focus political action on democratic ends. They point the way for political leaders—and then they dog their tracks, hunting, not heeling, critical of every false move. Here Bourne was true to his Protestant evangelism he did not believe that the values of the clerk are different from those of the layman. There is only one set of values, captured (for us) in the idea of the American promise. But there are two sets of people: the first interprets the promise the second enacts it.

One promise, just as there is one promised land: intellectuals do not inhabit, either ideally or in practice, a separate realm. “It is his own world that he is criticizing.” The same men and women who stand aside from office seeking must also sustain their democratic connections. But the pressures of the war made this complex positioning increasingly difficult. Pragmatic intellectuals, who tended now to call themselves “realists,” found it hard to stand aside radicals like Bourne found it hard to sustain the connection. Had he been more closely tied to the Socialist party, he might have found some support for his own fierceness. But though his sympathies lay with the socialists, his personal ties were with reformers, liberal nationalists, progressives, Greenwich Village bohemians—not, with rare exceptions, a crowd given to fierceness. In the Seven Arts essays of 1917, Bourne resisted even the thought of his own alienation. He was a “thorough malcontent,” he wrote in “Twilight of Idols,” but not one of that old tribe of malcontents who went off to Europe before the war. He won’t become an expatriate, even when that is possible again he and his friends “are too much entangled emotionally in the possibilities of American life to leave it.” 38 Those were brave words, and the bravest one was “possibilities.” Bourne still believed—or professed to believe—that the intellectual’s mission made sense and for all the bloodiness of the war might give shape and purpose to a life. “The war—or the American promise: one must choose.” 39 But there was still the promise.

The tone of Bourne’s writing changed in 1918, though how definitive the change was remains unclear. Perhaps he preserved some sense of his mission he did, after all, keep on writing. But he was also increasingly skeptical about the “possibilities” of American life—and increasingly bitter in his skepticism. Now, even in his published work, the placement of the intellectual was more and more extreme: he is a “spiritual vagabond,” a “declassed mind,” an “outlaw,” even an “exile” from American life. And in a letter to Van Wyck Brooks (March 1918), Bourne seemed to despair of democracy itself and of the prophet’s commitment to speak to the people: “Why let your voice cry in the wilderness, when a healthy, lusty, and unanimous democracy not only will not hear but is almost as ready to spill your blood as it is to destroy the enemy abroad?󈭼 From the wilderness, indeed, things look different, uglier, more forbidding, than they do when one is standing in settled territory. In Bourne’s last writings, the world he criticized was no longer his own.

The most important of these writings is the unfinished essay-treatise, “The State.” Only the beginning of a political theory, “The State” is almost the end of Bourne’s politics. In time of war, he argued, there is nothing that citizens can do. The state at war is the “inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.” And this is the telos of state power: the permanent goal of office-holders is just this “inexorable” determination of their subjects’ lives, fully possibly only when mobilization begins. “War is the health of the state.” Nor do the subjects resist, for war feels like their health too. “The purpose and desire of the collective community live in each person who throws himself wholeheartedly into the cause of war. . . . He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of all his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of opponents or heretics he is invincibly strong.” 41 His personal strength, however, serves only to enhance the power of the state, from which his ideas and emotions alike derive.

Bourne carefully distinguished between the nation and the state—he was still a nationalist—and assigned to the nation all the “life-enhancing forces” that make for industry and culture. But the nation is a complex community, “not a group . . . [but] a network of myriads of groups representing the cooperation and similar feeling of men on all sorts of planes and in all sorts of human interests and enterprises.” It doesn’t provide for its members the immediate reassurance of state power. The nation arises through the “dis­aggregation of the herd”—a long and difficult social process—while the state, especially the state-at-war, re-creates the herd. Only autonomous adults, individuals capable of moral choice and rational cooperation, can sustain the nation, while the state sustains itself by exploiting, as it were, the latent childishness of its subjects—who become in war real children, “obedient, respectful, trustful . . . full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all­power of the adult who takes care of them … in whom they lose their responsibility and anxieties.󈭾 War is the health of the state, but it is the moral death of the people. And yet the people rush headlong to their death, and the intellectuals (so Bourne had already argued), for all their pride and aloofness, join the rush. The psyche craves security “the intellect craves certitude.” War, or at least the idea of war, provides for both.

Bourne’s theory of the disaggregated nation and the herd-state was cobbled together to fit the immediate occasion. The idea of the state as an agency inherently opposed to social differentiation anticipates, perhaps, later theories of totalitarian politics (in which the ideological party/movement plays a similar part). But it is barely developed and virtually without historical reference. The idea of the herd is less interesting and even less developed. Bourne took it over from the popular sociology of his time and used it to castigate a democratic public that had yielded to the hysteria of chauvinism and repression. It is the opposite term to his “beloved community” and appears as immanent now in American life as the other did before the war. What had happened to the world of the great-grandfathers, the democratic promise, transnational America? It hardly seems the case anymore that these have been betrayed by the intellectual “realist” they no longer constitute a presence sufficient for betrayal. The national or transnational community is so dimly seen behind the grandeur of the state-at-war that it can no longer serve as a political ideal or a rallying point. And there was more (and worse) to come. In what must have been the last essay Bourne wrote, scribbled in pencil on the back of the manuscript pages of “The State/’ he described a wholly determined social world in which individuals are, in peace as much as in war, “entirely helpless,” the weapons of criticism entirely impotent. Most men and women “live a life which is little more than a series of quasi-official acts,” while the occasional rebel is immediately crushed. What we take to be our personal choices and decisions merely enact “the codes and institutions of society.󈭿 The essay that his editors named “Old Tyrannies” makes “The State” seem wonderfully robust. It is as if Bourne wrote, a month or so before his final illness, a theoretical obituary: an account of the death, not of the man, but of the mission.

These last writings suggest a connection, to which I drew attention in chapter 1, between distance and determinism. It is only the connected critic who believes in the effectiveness of the critical enterprise—who believes in himself as someone “who counts in the world.” Seen from far enough away, the world simply is what it is, and the lonely spectator doesn’t count at all. Perhaps Bourne thought that he had achieved a kind of scientific detachment at the end, but this is a detachment born of despair. Or should the description be reversed: a despair born of detachment? It doesn’t matter the circle is complete and wholly vicious there is no escape. “We all enter as individuals into an organized herd-whole in which we are as significant as a drop of water in the ocean, and against which we can about as much prevail.” 44

But this isn’t the authentic Bourne, the man who wrote the savage essays of 1917 and obviously meant to prevail if he possibly could. His detached science is a wartime hallucination. When the armistice was celebrated in New York, he wrote to his mother: “Now that the war is over, people can speak freely again and we can dare to think. It’s like coming out of a nightmare.” 45 He died of influenza a few weeks later.

Christoper Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 101, 256.

Letter to Alyse Gregory, quoted in Lillian Schlissel, ed., The World of Randolph Bourne (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1965), p. xxxi.

Letter to Prudence Winterroud, in Schlissel, ed., World of Randolph Bourne, p. 298.

The Evolution of Randolph Bourne

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1957, pp.66-68.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006 This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers
by Randolph Bourne
S.A. Russell, Publishers, NY 1957. 309 pp. $3.75.

S.A. Russell has performed a service by republishing this out-of-print selection of Randolph Bourne’s essays. Bourne was one of the most penetrating and incorruptible critics of American life during the First World War period. He was an ardent spokesman for the most sensitive, dissatisfied intellectuals of the younger generation who were in revolt against plutocratic rule and groping toward a better America.

Bourne’s disillusioning experiences with the Progressive movement and especially his awakening to the defects of its major philosophic expression – the pragmatism of John Dewey – led to his transition from liberalism to radicalism. His development contains instructive lessons for the youth of our own day.

Bourne was born in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia in 1913. He spent a year in prewar Europe, observing the most advanced intellectual and political tendencies and meeting some of their leading figures. Upon his return to this country, he earned a precarious livelihood as free-lance journalist in New York City. Gifted and enthusiastic, he dove into the swirling currents of the lively Progressive circles which were seeking to renovate American literature and culture as well as American politics. Unfortunately, Bourne’s life was short he died in 1918 at the age of 32.

Randolph Bourne’s strong ties with the working people were best expressed in a defense of the striking miners of the Mesabi range in Minnesota and their IWW leadership, which is reprinted in this volume. Here is bow he described his own first contact with exploitation:

“The experience was leaving school to work for a musician who had an ingenious little machine on which he cut perforated music-rolls for the players which were just then becoming popular. His control of the means of production consisted in having the machine in his house, to which I went every morning at eight and stayed till five. He provided the paper and the music and the electric power I worked as a wage-earner, serving his skill and enterprise. I was on piece-work, and everything suggested to my youthful self that it depended only upon my skill and industry how prosperous I should become.

“But what startled me was my -employer’s lack of care to conceal from me the fact that for every foot of paper which I made he received 15 cents from the manufacturer with whom he had his contract. He paid me five, and while I worked, spent his time composing symphonies in the next room. As long as I was learning the craft, I had no more feeling about our relation than that there was a vague injustice in the air. But when I began to be dangerously clever and my weekly earnings mounted beyond the sum proper for a young person of 18 who was living at home, I felt the hand of economic power. My piece-rate was reduced to four and a half cents.

“My innocence blazed forth in rebellion. If I was worth five cents a foot while I was learning, I was worth more, not less, after I had learned. My master folded his arms. I could stay or go. I was perfectly free. And then fear smote me. This was my only skill, and my timorous experience filled the outside world with horrors.

“I returned cravenly to my bench, and when my employer, flushed with his capitalistic ardor, built another machine and looked about for a young musician to work it, I weakly suggested to an old playmate of mine that he apply for the position.”

This experience with a pigmy employer indelibly stamped the pattern of exploitation by the whole employing class upon Bourne’s consciousness. As a middle-class intellectual, however, he first fixed his hopes for a regenerated America upon education.

John Dewey’s proposed reforms and experiments in progressive education seemed at that time to be the sovereign remedy for social evils. Dewey’s philosophy, he wrote, was regarded “almost as our American religion.” Under this influence, Bourne made his field the social side of literature and his instrument the written word. He sketched portraits of typical personalities and wrote essays on topics of the times for the advanced magazines and literary periodicals. He aimed to become the herald and creator of a liberalized culture freed from conformity to the moneyed powers.

Although Bourne’s drive to stimulate new beginnings in literature, education, politics and sociology was strong and sustained, it was limited to the framework of the Progressive movement. He and his associates looked upon John Dewey as the incarnation of enlightenment and the guardian of democracy, whose ideas and methods were the sole alternative to conservatism. Their trust in his pragmatic philosophy and progressive program was naive and boundless.

With the advent of the First World War, followed by the Russian Revolution, Deweyism and the Progressive movement were put to the supreme test. These two major events shook Bourne’s faith in pragmatism and marked the turning point in his intellectual evolution. From a liberal, he became a radical.

When war engulfed Europe in 1914 and threatened to draw the United Sates into it, liberal intellectuals and pacifist-minded youth looked to Dewey for leadership. Instead of resisting the war hysteria, however, Dewey began as early as 1916 to adjust himself to its approach. Jingo propaganda, spurred from behind the scenes toy the House of Morgan and briefed by the New York Times and other Big Business voices, beat the drums for military preparedness. A training camp to convert business men into big brass was set up at Plattsburgh, New York. Dewey hailed these volunteer officers’ camps as a beneficial form of contemporary education!

This theoretical justification for capitalist military training, in preparation for conscripting the youth, shocked and disgusted the consistent socialists and pacifists, Randolph Bourne among, them. Then came the intervention of the United States into the war. This confronted the Progressives with a major decision. In the ensuing struggle, the ranks of the pragmatists split. The majority of Dewey’s followers, having learned the virtues of middle-class instrumentalism, speedily converted themselves into instruments of the warmakers – with Dewey himself at their head.

Bourne refused to go along. In a famous philippic on War and the Intellectuals, published in June 1917, he flayed the “war-liberals” for this betrayal of their own ideals and of his own generation.

“The war sentiment,” he wrote, ‘‘begun so gradually but so perseveringly by the preparedness advocates who came from the ranks of big business, caught hold of one after another of the intellectual groups . The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy has been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world liberalism and world democracy.”

The pro-war liberals, along with ex-Socialists, argued that a democratic world and a lasting peace would come out of American participation in the war, provided the intellectuals did not stay on the side lines but flung their full forces into the dogfight. Bourne asked Dewey this pertinent question: “If the war was too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be Weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?” Indeed, as history demonstrated, the war and its aftermath abruptly ended the liberal movements in economics and politics which had prevailed prior to the war.

Bourne foresaw and feared this outcome. He also saw that Dewey’s surrender to the “illiberal cohorts” and his abandonment under stress of the struggle for peace and democracy was not a mere personal dereliction nor an accidental deviation. It was a political conclusion implicit in the theoretical premises and social outlook of the pragmatic position.

Pragmatism, Bourne pointed out, assumed that all people of good will, regardless of their class interests, could work together for the common welfare. But he saw that in the showdown, the predatory aims of the ruling plutocracy overrode the needs and desires of the American people. Profit-making, and war-making to defend the institutions of profit-making, took precedence over the recommendations of the liberals and shoved them aside. “What concerns us here is the relative ease with which the pragmatic intellectuals, with Professor Dewey at the head, have moved out their philosophy, bag and baggage, from education to war,” Bourne exclaimed.

Challenging Dewey and the other prophets of instrumentalist, Bourne demanded that they be precise in their definition of “democracy.”

“Is it the political democracy of a plutocratic America that we are fighting for, or is it the social democracy of the new Russia? Which do our rulers fear more, the menace of Imperial Germany, or the liberating influence of a socialist Russia? In the application of their philosophy and politics, our pragmatists are sliding over the crucial question of ends.”

The prostration of Deweyism before the plutocracy exposed to full view the hitherto concealed weaknesses in the instrumentalist method and views. “What I came to,” Bourne wrote in Twilight of Idols, “is a sense of suddenly finding a philosophy upon which I had relied to carry us through no longer works.” Like do-goodism, pragmatism “cooled off rapidly before it reached the boiling point” in the struggle against capitalist reaction.

Bourne reasoned correctly that there could not be any more definitive condemnation of pragmatism. This philosophy had won so many adherents on the ground that it worked – and worked better – than any other mode of thought available to intelligent Americans. Yet in the life and death questions of imperialist war and social revolution, pragmatism proved itself to be bankrupt. Bourne concluded it had to be repudiated because it failed to pass its own supreme test of application in practice. It stood condemned by its own highest criteria.

Why did Deweyism turn out to be so worthless a pilot in stormy weather – when reliable pilots were most urgently needed? – The answer is that pragmatism slides over the surface of things, ignoring their profound inner contradictions. It is a philosophy that lives from day to day and from hand to mouth. It prospers so long as social conditions change little or only little by little so long as class relations are in a temporary equilibrium so long as the political skies are clear and shining.

But when underlying class antagonisms erupt and upset the balance of social forces and conflicts rage, then pragmatism, which bases itself upon social calm and class cooperation, becomes weak and helpless. In the decisive question of war, its proponents are compelled to choose between contending and irreconcilable interests. When the chips are down, the organic conservatism of the middle-class elements displaces its fair-weather liberal mask and draws them into reconciliation with other defenders of the status quo.

Thus, in the hour of supreme danger, instrumentalism discloses its real class character as a liberal extension of bourgeois ideology, just as progressivism turns out to be but a left shadow of capitalist politics. Step by step, the bulk of the pragmatists became willing or unwilling dupes and defenders of the lies and pretentions of the most reactionary forces in American life.

This was the lesson that Randolph Bourne learned, and he learned it the hard way. Once having learned it, however, he felt the need for a more profound and correct philosophical doctrine and for a more realistic program which took into account the real relations of social forces and their movement in modern life. He looked from imperialist United States to revolutionary Russia, from liberalism to socialism, from Dewey to Marx and Lenin. Against Dewey’s call for continued confidence in the democratic aims of America’s plutocracy, enunciated by Wood-row Wilson, he counterposed the accomplishments of the young Russian Revolution:

“(The) young pacifists do not see that democratic peace can come out of the war. They are skeptical of the war professedly for political democracy, because at home they have seen so little democracy where industrial slaves are rampant. They see the inspiring struggle in the international class struggle, not in the struggles of imperialist nations. To Russia, the socialist state, not to America, who has taken a place on the old ground – do they look for realization of their ideal.”

The problem of the relationship of the writer-intellectual to the socialist movement of the working class is as old as the movement itself. It must be worked out afresh in every country and for every generation, but upon the basis of the experiences of the past. Randolph Bourne was a social critic who used literary criticism as his main vehicle of expression. He sought to inspire a new and better social life for all Americans, first through Progressivism, then through radical socialist ideas. He did not remain aloof from social struggles or political battles but placed his intelligence at the service of the most advanced sector of the labor movement. He gave all he could to promote the cooperation of the two.

Although Bourne, who died young, was unable to continue along his new path, his importance lies in the fact that he turned in the right direction at the right time. Others who came after were to move faster and farther along the road he indicated.

Both his negative conclusion – that Dewey’s instrumentalism and its reliance upon class collaboration as the method of social progress had proved its bankruptcy in practice – and his positive proposal – that the philosophy of socialism and the program of the international class struggle must replace it – should be engraved upon the minds of the present generation. For all this, Randolph Bourne deserves to be remembered with gratitude and his writings to be re-read with care.

Randolph Bourne

A very powerful analysis of the genetic link between state and war, and about the exploitation of war by the state in order to bring to the fore the herd instinct of the people. This link state-war is fully in accord with the role and function of the state, being the state "the organization of the entire herd."

This is an extract from Randolph Bourne, The State. For the full text see here.

About Randolph Bourne see also The Randolph Bourne Institute.

War - or at least modern war waged by a democratic republic against a powerful enemy - seems to achieve for a nation almost all that the most inflamed political idealist could desire. Citizens are no longer indifferent to their Government but each cell of the body politic is brimming with life and activity. We are at last on the way to full realization of that collective community in which each individual somehow contains the virtue of the whole. In a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification. The purpose and desire of the collective community live in each person who throws himself whole-heartedly into the cause of war. The impeding distinction between society and the individual is almost blotted out. At war, the individual becomes almost identical with his society. He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of all his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of opponents or heretics he is invincibly strong he feels behind him all the power of the collective community. The individual as social being in war seems to have achieved almost his apotheosis. Not for any religious impulse could the American nation have been expected to show such devotion en masse, such sacrifice and labour. Certainly not for any secular good, such as universal education or the subjugation of nature would it have poured forth its treasure and its life, or would it have permitted such stern coercive measures to be taken against it, such as conscripting its money and its men. But for the sake of a war of offensive self-defence, undertaken to support a difficult cause to the slogan of "democracy", it would reach the highest level ever known of collective effort.

For these secular goods, connected with the enhancement of life, the education of man and the use of the intelligence to realize reason and beauty in the nation's communal living, are alien to our traditional ideal of the State. The State is intimately connected with war, for it is the organization of the collective community when it acts in a political manner, and to act in a political manner towards a rival group has meant, throughout all history - war.

There is nothing invidious in the use of the term "herd", in connection with the State. It is merely an attempt to reduce closer to first principles the nature of this institution in the shadow of which we all live, move and have our being. Ethnologists are generally agreed that human society made its first appearance as the human pack and not as a collection of individuals or of couples. The herd is in fact the original unit, and only as it was differentiated did personal individuality develop. All the most primitive surviving types of men are shown to live in a very complex but very rigid social organization where opportunity for individuation is scarcely given.
These tribes remain strictly organized herds and the difference between them and the modern State is one of degree of sophistication and variety of organization, and not of kind.

Psychologists recognize the gregarious impulse as one of the strongest primitive pulls which keeps together the herds of the different species of higher animals. Mankind is no exception. Our pugnacious evolutionary history has prevented the impulse from ever dying out. This gregarious impulse is the tendency to imitate, to conform, to coalesce together, and is most powerful when the herd believes itself threatened with attack. Animals crowd together for protection, and men become most conscious of their collectivity at the threat of war. Consciousness of collectivity brings confidence and a feeling of massed strength, which in turn arouses pugnacity and the battle is on. In civilized man, the gregarious impulse acts not only to produce concerted action for defence, but also to produce identity of opinion. Since thought is a form of behaviour, the gregarious impulse floods up into its realm and demands that sense of uniform thought which wartime produces so successfully. And it is in this flooding of the conscious life of society that gregariousness works its havoc.

For just as in modern societies the sex-instinct is enormously over-supplied for the requirements of human propagation, so the gregarious impulse is enormously over-supplied for the work of protection which it is called upon to perform. It would be quite enough if we were gregarious enough to enjoy the companionship of others, to be able to co-operate with them, and to feel a slight malaise at solitude. Unfortunately however, this impulse is not content with these reasonable and healthful demands but insists that like-mindedness shall prevail everywhere, in all departments of life. So that all human progress, all novelty, and non-conformity, must be carried against the resistance of this tyrannical herd-instinct which drives the individual into obedience and conformity with the majority. Even in the most modern and enlightened societies this impulse shows little sign of abating. As it is driven by inexorable economic demand out of the sphere of utility, it seems to fasten itself even more fiercely in the realm of feeling and opinion, so that conformity comes to be a thing aggressively desired and demanded.

The gregarious impulse keeps its hold all the more virulently because when the group is in motion or is taking any positive action, this feeling of being with and supported by the collective herd very greatly feeds that will to power, the nourishment of which the individual organism so constantly demands. You feel powerful by conforming, and you feel forlorn and helpless if you are out of the crowd. While even if you do not get any access of power by thinking and feeling just as everybody else in your group does, you get at least the warm feeling of obedience, the soothing irresponsibility of protection.
Joining as it does to these very vigorous tendencies of the individual - the pleasure in power and the pleasure in obedience - this gregarious impulse becomes irresistible in society. War stimulates it to the highest possible degree, sending the influences of its mysterious herd-current with its inflations of power and obedience to the farthest reaches of the society, to every individual and little group that can possibly be affected. An it is these impulses which the State - the organization of the entire herd, the entire collectivity - is founded on and makes use of.

There is, of course, in the feeling toward the State a large element of pure filial mysticism. This sense of insecurity, the desire for protection, sends one's desire back to the father and mother, with whom is associated the earliest feeling of protection. It is not for nothing that one's State is still thought of as Fatherland or Motherland, that one's relation towards it is conceived in terms of family affection. The war has shown that nowhere under the shock of danger have these primitive childlike attitudes failed to assert themselves again, as much in this country as anywhere. If we have not the intense Father-sense of the German who worships his Vaterland, at least in Uncle Sam we have a symbol of protecting, kindly authority, and in the many Mother-posts of the Red Cross, we see how easily in the more tender functions of war services, the ruling organization is conceived in family terms. A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them, imposes his mild but necessary rule upon them and in whom they lose their responsibility and anxieties. In this recrudescence of the child, there is great comfort, and a certain influx of power. On most people the strain of being an independent adult weighs heavily, and upon none more than those members of the significant classes who have had bequeathed to them or have assumed the responsibilities of governing. The State provides the most convenient of symbols under which these classes can retain all the actual pragmatic satisfaction of governing, but can rid themselves of the psychic burden of adulthood. They continue to direct industry and government and all the institutions of society pretty much as before, but in their own conscious eyes and in the eyes of the general public, they are turned from their selfish and predatory ways, and have become loyal servants of society, or something greater than they - the State. The man who moves from the direction of a large business in New York to a post in the war management industrial services in Washington does not apparently alter very much his power or his administrative technique. But psychically, what a transformation has occurred! His is now not only the power but the glory! And his sense of satisfaction is directly proportional not to the genuine amount of personal sacrifice that may be involved in the change but to the extent to which he retains his industrial prerogative and sense of command.

From members of this class a certain insuperable indignation arises if the change from private enterprise to State service involves any real loss of power and personal privilege. If there is to be pragmatic sacrifice, let it be, they feel, on the field of honour, in the traditional acclaimed deaths by battle, in that detour of suicide, as Nietzsche calls war. The State in wartime supplies satisfaction for this very craving, but its chief value is the opportunity it gives for this regression to infantile attitudes. In your reaction to an imagined attack in your country or an insult to its government, you draw closer to the herd for protection, you conform in word and deed, and you insist vehemently that everybody else shall think, speak and act together. And you fix your adoring gaze upon the State, with a truly filial look, as upon the Father of the flock, the quasi-personal symbol of your definite action and ideas.

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