Happy Birthday Randolph Bourne

Randolph Bourne entered this world, on this day 122 years ago, the victim of a mishap caused by someone who didn’t know how to use forceps: his face was badly deformed for life. Stacking the deck against him even higher, at age 8 he came down with tuberculosis, one result of which was a hunched back.

Yet he went on to become one of the foremost writers of his day, the epitome of what today would be considered a very old-fashioned variety of American liberalism that was at once libertarian in its impulses and cosmopolitan in its style. He famously took on the evil John Dewey, his former professor, when that overrated philosopher of “pragmatism” took the pragmatic way out and cheered on World War I – that most unforgivably destructive and unnecessary war. In “War and the Intellectuals,” he described a scene that should be readily familiar to those of us who opposed the Iraq war, and the very idea of a generations-long “war on terrorism,” from the very beginning:

“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 posture. 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! A calm moral verdict, arrived at after a penetrating study of inexorable facts! Sluggish masses, too remote from the world-conflict to be stirred, too lacking in intellect to perceive their danger! An alert intellectual class, saving the people in spite of themselves, biding their time with Fabian strategy until the nation could be moved into war without serious resistance! An intellectual class, gently guiding a nation through sheer force of ideas into what the other nations entered only through predatory craft or popular hysteria or militarist madness! A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world! This is the picture which the more self-conscious intellectuals have formed of themselves, and which they are slowly impressing upon a population which is being led no man knows whither by an indubitably intellectualized President.”

Except for the part about the “intellectualized President,” this perfectly describes the run up to the Iraq war, and the triumphalism of the neocons as they wrote speeches for the Dumbest President, Ever touting the imminence of a US-led “global democratic revolution.” If Hell is an endlessly repeated loop, then we’ve been living in it since 1917.

We named our sponsoring organization, the Randolph Bourne Institute, after him because of his famous utterance: “War is the health of the State.” It is the measure of how far authentic American liberalism has fallen that this phrase, spoken or written in a modern context, means something quite different from what Bourne was saying. To the modern “liberal,” the State is a Good Thing, it’s our great friend, and not to be feared but warmly embraced. However, for Bourne and his fellow liberals at the turn of the last century, there was no deadlier embrace. When he wrote that “war is the health of the State” he meant that in wartime government would grow into an overweening tyrant, revealing its true and essential nature as an engine of pure coercion.

He came deformed into this world, and spent his life crusading to correct the social and political deformations brought on by all States everywhere in their constant lust for expansion and plunder. No, he wasn’t a libertarian: he was, instead, a very brave and principled public intellectual, who wasn’t afraid to swim against the tide.

Seletected writings of Randolph Bourne

Randolph Bourne’s America (at Colombia University)

Read Jeff Riggenbach’s biography of Bourne

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