The Handicapped Randolph Bourne Essay

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To the point, Bourne’s philosophy as such deserves far more attention.

From what I can gather, plenty of philosophy majors never read him as part of their undergraduate education. As Carl Van Doren, commenting on the younger generation of influential early twentieth-century Americans, notably claimed, “Bourne was its philosopher, John Reed was its hero, Edna St.

For one of his anti-war essays for the , Bourne borrowed the title of a Nietzsche text (minus an article—“the”) and took Dewey to task for his former mentor’s vapid justifications for war.[37] Invoking another prominent American pragmatist, Bourne wondered rhetorically whether William James would “accept the war-situation so easily and complacently,” and he proclaimed “that philosophy of Dewey’s which we had been following so uncritically for so long, breaks down almost noisily when it is used to grind out interpretation for the present crisis.”[38] He rejected the idea, accepted with little scrutiny by many in the Progressive movement, that inherently anti-democratic means—the State’s modus operandi—could be used to consolidate the achievements of democracy, and he held Dewey responsible for popularizing that notion.[39] In a letter to Van Wyck Brooks, Bourne deplored “a liberal war undertaken which could not fail to do more damage to American democracy at home than it could ever do to the enemy abroad.”[40] He deemed Dewey’s defection “typical,” adding that despite “years of eloquent opposition to military conscription,” Dewey accepted militarism “without a quiver or even an explanation of the steps by which his conviction made so momentous a change.”[41] Dewey’s facile shift toward erudite warmongering in the name of democracy, wrapped in foundered nuance as it was, compelled Bourne to call the esteemed pragmatist’s philosophical foundations into question.

“A philosopher who senses so little the sinister forces of war,” Bourne wrote in one essay, “who is so much more concerned over the excesses of the paci­fists than over the excesses of military policy, who can feel only amusement at the idea that any one should try to con­script thought, who assumes that the war-technique can be used without trailing along with it the mob-fanaticisms, the injustices and hatreds, that are organically bound up with it, is speaking to another element of the younger intelligentsia than that to which I belong.”[42] For Dewey to comment “as if war were anything else than such a poison” reveals, Bourne wrote, that his “philosophy has never been con­fronted with the pathless and the inexorable, and that, only dimly feeling the change, it goes ahead acting as if it had not got out of its depth.”[43] As I suggested elsewhere,[44] Bourne and Dewey also arrived at profoundly different perspectives on the State.

In so doing his spirit may, in a sense, be reborn and better guide us through some of the thornier issues still facing society a century after his death.

“War is the health of the state,” Bourne wrote in a posthumously published, unpolished manuscript.[13] Put another way, “the very thought and almost necessity of war is bound up with the ideal of the State.”[14] For Bourne, “The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized.”[15] The definition suggests interstate conflict is central to the state’s primary function.As if presciently responding to the previously cited claims Dewey would publish years later, Bourne insisted the State “can only be understood by tracing its historical origin,” adding that the State “is not the national and intelligent product of modem men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property and opinion.It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end.His critique of the State did not necessarily highlight the institution’s hierarchically controlled monopoly on the use of violence and its claim to legitimate use of penal force; today, with more than two million people in prison in the US,[29] “Incarceration is the health of the state” might be an equally germane axiom.However, Bourne did note a related “conflict within the State” that arises during war: “The pursuit of enemies within outweighs in psychic attractiveness the assault on the enemy without.The whole terrific force of the State is brought to bear against the heretics.”[30] Military violence directed at other nation-states “unifies all the bourgeois elements and the common people, and outlaws the rest.”[31] Bourne and his one-time intellectual mentor, John Dewey, agreed in part on that last point; however, they disagreed sharply about war and the State when it mattered most.As the US military engaged in war abroad—a war that left approximately 10 million civilians and almost 10 million soldiers dead and some 21 million wounded,[32] and that resulted in the death of more than 100,000 Americans[33]—Dewey was writing pieces mildly critical of attacks on anti-war dissent yet sympathetic to the wartime agenda.Vincent Millay its lyric poet, Eugene O’Neill its dramatist, Sinclair Lewis its satirist, Van Wyck Brooks its critic.”[12] With the remainder of this essay, I hope to give Bourne’s ideas a new lease on life by stressing some of his (partially) neglected philosophical underpinnings.By focusing on his criticism of war in relation to the State, his expansive idea of democracy, and his personal experience of love discussed vis-à-vis his notion of a Beloved Community, I aim to outline the bedrock of his philosophy while challenging some of the assumptions about and popular interpretations of his work.Apparently oblivious to the repression already underway, he wrote that he was not terribly “concerned lest liberty of thought and speech seriously suffer among us, certainly not in any lasting way.The fight was carried on against so much greater odds in the past and still made its way, so that I cannot arouse any genuine distress on this score.”[34] He proceeded to spot “something rather funny in the spectacle of ultrasocialists,” who were “crying aloud all the early Victorian political platitudes.”[35] He did call into question “the conscription of mind as a means of promoting social solidarity” (the sort needed for a State to make war); however, Dewey also worried not for “the freedom of those who are attacked, but of those who do the attacking or who sympathize, even passively, with the attack”[36] because, he cautioned, the latter’s intellectual apathy precluded freedom of thought.


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