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.

The War and Randolph Bourne

Bourne of Bloomfield

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?”40 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.”42 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.”43 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.


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

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

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

  4. Bruce Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), p. 24.

  5. “The Social Order of an American Town,” quoted in Clayton, Forgotten Prophet, p. 80.

  6. Randolph Bourne, “This Older Generation,” in his The Radical Will: Selected Writings 1911­1918, ed. Olaf Hansen (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), pp. 162-63. This is the most complete collection of Bourne’s essays and articles (it includes no letters), and I will cite it whenever I can.

  7. Ibid., p. 166.

  8. Randolph Bourne, “A Moral Equivalent for Universal Military Service,” in his History of a Literary Radical, ed. Van Wyck Brooks (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920), pp. 193, 194.

  9. Randolph Bourne, “Youth,” in Radical Will, p. 104.

  10. Bourne, “This Older Generation,” pp. 167—68.

  11. Randolph Bourne, “The Life of Irony,” in Radical Will, pp. 142-43.

  12. Letter to Prudence Winterroud, quoted in Schlissel, ed., World of Randolph Bourne, p. xix.

  13. Randolph Bourne, “Traps for the Unwary,” in Radical Will, p. 483.

  14. Randolph Bourne, “The Art of Theodore Dreiser,” in Radical Will, p. 465.

  15. Randolph Bourne, “Trans-National America,” in Radical Will, pp. 248-64.

  16. Randolph Bourne, “The Jew and Trans-National America,” in his War and the Intellectuals, ed. Carl Resak (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 132.

  17. Bourne, “Trans-National America,” p. 249.

  18. Ibid., p. 255.

  19. Bourne, “Traps for the Unwary,” p. 483.

  20. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 325-26, 328.

  21. Randolph Bourne, “The Price of Radicalism,” in Radical Will, p. 299.

  22. Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are (1894; reprint, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), p. 286.

  23. Bourne, “Traps for the Unwary,” p. 483.

  24. Bourne, “The Life of Irony,” p. 144.

  25. Lasch, New Radicalism, p. 256.

  26. Quoted in Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 273.

  27. Randolph Bourne, “The Collapse of American Strategy,” in Schlissel, ed., World of Randolph Bourne, p. 168.

  28. Randolph Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals” and “A War Diary,” in Radical Will, pp. 313, 327.

  29. Randolph Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” in Radical Will, p. 343.

  30. Bourne, “A War Diary,” p. 324.

  31. Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” p. 307.

  32. Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” p. 342.

  33. Ibid., p. 343.

  34. Ibid., p. 345.

  35. Floyd Dell, quoted in Forcey, Crossroads, p. 275.

  36. Quoted in Clayton, Forgotten Prophet, p. 215.

  37. Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” p. 315.

  38. Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” p. 346.

  39. Bourne, “A War Diary,” p. 329.

  40. Letter to Van Wyck Brooks, in Schlissel, ed., World of Randolph Bourne, p. 320.

  41. Randolph Bourne, “The State,” in Radical Will, pp. 359, 361.

  42. Ibid., p. 365.

  43. Randolph Bourne, “Old Tyrannies,” in Radical Will, p. 171.

  44. Ibid., p. 173.

  45. Letter to Sara Bourne, in Schlissel, ed., World of Randolph Bourne, p. 326.

Source: Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics, 1988


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