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By Randolph S. Bourne
Edited with an Introduction by Carl Resek
New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964
197 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2014

Carl Resek

Bourne was physically deformed. He was very bright and grew up in a wealthy household. He was accepted into Princeton in 1903, however, the family’s financial situation changed and he wasn’t able to attend. Finally in 1909 he went to Columbia.

Resek says he was perhaps “. . . the intellectual hero of World War I.”

He died in 1918, just after the Armistice. He was victim of the flu epidemic of 1918.

It is important to note carefully the title of this book of essays. This is not primarily an attack on the war. Rather, these essays are aimed at his colleagues in the universities and intellectuals, who, in his view, failed to assess the war with serious intellectual attention and ended up caving into the power elite.

June 1917

Intellectuals in general push:

“A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world.”

He argues that the intellectuals are correct in that it was they and not the masses who clamored for war.

“. . . the war certainly did not spring either from the ideals or the prejudices, from the national ambitions of the American people.”

In 1914 a huge portion of the U.S. intellectual establishment denounced the call of German professors for war, little dreaming that war was possible.

“The war sentiment, begun 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.”

War support was clearly a class matter, the wealthier the earlier they supported preparedness, then war. Soon the intellectuals capitulated.

“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. . . without the use of the malevolent technique of war. The point is that they scarcely tried.”

The problem is WAR, not 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?”

The fundamental issue is to resist war itself, not this war.

July 1947

Bourne put this (somewhat) fictional “friend” forward as

“. . . he seems rather typical of a scattered race of young Americans of today. He does not fall easily into the categories of patriot or cowards which the papers are making so popular. He feels neither patriotism nor fear, only apathy toward the war . . .”

He’s not a coward but resents the war. He was not convinced and wanted not to register, but his conviction was not so strong for him to justify a year in prison just for not registering for the draft.

Yet he’s unlikely to become a “conscience objector” since he is not. He’s rather not convinced of THIS war is his war. Nonetheless, if drafted he may well go.

“He may go silently into the ranks in a mood of cold contempt. His horror of useless sacrifice may make even the bludgeoning of himself seem futile. He may go in the mood of so many young men in other countries, without enthusiasm, without idealism, without hope and without belief, victims of a tragically blind force behind them.”

This essay touched me closely. I recall the early days of the Vietnam War. I was not of risk for the draft. I was married, had three children and was a professor at a university, albeit a young one. But this was a period of serious resistance to the draft and here in St. Louis there was a famous case in the news everyday of a young man from my own neighborhood who was resisting the draft.

Within a couple years we had our fourth son, and began at that time to have them dictate letters to us in which they began at these very early years to indicate they did not embrace the morality of war and were on their way to becoming conscientious objectors. It all came to naught since by the time they were in their late teens the draft had been abolished.

However, the various arguments and attitudes described by Bourne in his essay were so very real for me thinking back on those days of the late 1960s.

August 1917

American policy has clearly shifted from “peace without victory” to “. . . conquest so crushing that Germany will never be feared again.”

“American liberals who urged the nation are therefore suffering the humiliation of seeing their liberal strategy for peace transformed into a strategy for prolonged war.”
. . .
“In the war we are a rudderless nation, to be exploited as the Allies wish. Politically and materially, and toward their aggrandizement, in any direction which they may desire.”

By August of 1917 American support for the war was waning.

“It is pertinent to ask whether the prevailing apathy many not be due to the progressive weakening of the view that our war is being in any way decisive in securing of the values for which we are presumably fighting.”

The U.S. was seeking “. . . a peace without victory. . .” but Germany’s submarine warfare was undermining this hope. This shift in aim is causing the complete collapse of the original aim of American participation.

There would be a much greater hope of the stated American aim by siding with the German Socialists than by dealing on Hindenburg’s clear aim of rejecting any negotiated peace.

Bourne is deeply concerned that the intellectual community has quietly, yet knowingly, shifted away from their initial reasons for support of the war – claiming to support the war only in order to establish a situation of where there was a League of Nations that would FOREVER prevent wars – to a defense of crushing Germany. He argues that this is madness and will lead to continued wars.

September 1917

He argues that by and large the masses will not rise up against the war. They will adjust and do as the government orders.

It’s interesting to me to read his view in this first section, having lived through and participated in the dramatic opposition to the Vietnam War and its bringing the end of conscription for nearly 50 years now.

He argues that production systems will be taken over by government and what people think or believe will not matter.

“We are learning that war doesn’t need enthusiasm, doesn’t need conviction, doesn’t need hope to sustain it. Once maneuvered, provided only that our industrial rulers see that the end of the war will leave American capital in a strategic position for world-enterprises.”

He argues that once government embraces war no resistance can succeed. Again, I think the Vietnam War has changed much of that for many years. Not only is the draft gone (and thus so many ‘volunteer’ soldiers forgotten) but the failure to tax wars allows many to fairly well ignore the war.

He attacks, too, literary people who defended the war.

“Minor novelists and minor poets and minor publicists are still coming back from driving ambulances in France to write books that nag our appreciation of the ‘real meaning.’

The war – or American promise: one must choose. One cannot be interested in both. For the effect of the war will be to impoverish American promise.”

September 1915

The key is not to simply reject German Ideals, but to work at and specify our own values and work them out.

“To envisage the good life that we desire for our community and society, and to work towards it with all the intelligence and skill and resources we have – this might be our ideal.”

October 1917

Bourne bemoans the fact that William James is dead and that John Dewey, current leader of Pragmatism, is using that philosophical mantel to support the war. Of Dewey’s view he says:

“Does this easy identification of himself with undemocratically-controlled foreign policy mean that a country is democratic when it accepts what its government does or that war has a narcotic effects on the pragmatic mind?”

What is the “democracy” that America is fighting for is what Bourne is asking.

“Is it the political democracy of plutocratic America that we are fighting for, or is it the social democracy of the new Russia? Which do our rulers really fear more, the menace of Imperial Germany, or the liberating influence of a socialist Russia?”

Bourne is worried that American needs a rebirth of its intellectual bases.

An unfinished essay, published after he had died of flu in 1918

“It is the Government rather than the State with which the politically minded are connected. The State is reduced to a shadowy emblem which comes to consciousness only on occasions of patriotic holiday.”
“Government is obviously composed of common and unsanctified men, and is thus a legitimate object of criticism and even contempt. If your own party is in power, things may be assumed to be moving safely enough; but if the opposition is in, then clearly all safety and honor have fled the State. Yet you do not put it to yourself in quite that way. What you think is only that there are rascals to be turned out of a very practical machinery of offices and functions which you take for granted.”

Later he says:

“The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation.”

It is interesting for me to read this claim when I look back to my early 20s when I was an active member of the political “left” in the U.S. which vehemently protested the Viet Nam War. We were in no way like the people Bourne describes. I am sympathetic that many, certainly, in the time of WWI, did knuckle down as he describes, and similarly with WWII. But in each of those cases there were numbers, who like himself, did protest and resist. I do think I’m particularly blessed to have been living in a time when the nation was at a stage where a much more serious protest movement could exist.

On the other hand, Bourne’s observation that formally declared war does tend to divide the world, in the minds of most people in both nations, into an “us” and “them.” He says that war is:

“It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”

In war it is especially noted the return to familial patterns of safety with such notions as The Father or Motherland to which people retreat. This is seen in the U.S. in Uncle Sam and “. . . the many Mother posters of the Red Cross.”

“A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again. Full of the naïve 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 lost their responsibility and anxieties.”
. . .
“The State is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. Its sovereignty must pervade everyone, and all feeling must be run into the stereotyped forms of Romantic patriotic militarism which is the traditional expression of the State herd-feeling.”
. . .
“Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which States seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by cleverness of wits, the objectives which they would have ‘to gain more clumsily by means of war.’”

Contrary to what most American might imagine, Bourne argues that the concept of the American state is a direct descendant of the British state. He sets out to show that historical kinship, despite the appearances to the contrary, with the American Revolution.

This conflict played itself out in the early notion of a group of federated, but independent colonies, to the notion of a united set of states that could, among other things, deal in a unit fashion with other “states” of the world. This, again, is to imitate the British model.

July 1916

Many “old guard” Americans have disgruntled views that the “melting pot” notion has not worked. They complain of the “new immigrants” not adopting “American” ways.

Bourne counters that what this disgruntled group seems to have in mind is that the new immigrants from various European nations have not “melted” in Angle-Saxon values of early British America.

Bourne argued that a much more genuine “melting” is indeed going on.

“It is just this English-American conservatism that has been our chief obstacle to social advance.”

He believes education, particularly the model of John Dewey, would be a great leveler.

It is not the immigrants who are the problem:

“The truth is that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation that by the ruling class of Angle-Saxon descendants in these American states.”
. . .
“. . . the war has brought out just the degree to which that purpose of ‘Americanizing’ that is ‘Anglo-Saxonizing’ the immigrant has failed.”

Rather, he argues, American nationalism is still being born.

“What we have achieved has been rather a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures from which the sting of devastating competition has been removed.”

It is fascinating that he sees this virtually exclusively in terms of white, male Europeans. In our times we are still struggling desperately to figure the place of blacks, women, gays, Muslims and atheists and the whole mass of the seriously deprived poor.

He does see the modern university to be a serious tool of this movement toward the meaning of “Americanism.” He seems to me correct that the university is one important tool. So is social integration, which is not happening as fully as we might wish.

He also thinks the notion of dual citizenship would help the process.

December 1916

Jews are in a special place in dealing with this notion of assimilation. For most of Europe’s history Jews had to be to a significant degree “other” from the country’s culture – any European country.

He claims that more and more cultural alliance and political alliance need not be the same.

“A sort of dual citizenship becomes possible and desirable, if fullest expression be given to those feelings of racial sympathy, similar traditions, cultural distinction, which make peoples cling so fiercely together and sacrifice so much for political unity.”

Nov. 1916

The essence of his position in this very short essay is to argue that exploitation cannot be well understood as this individual, the capitalist, exploiting this other, the individual, the worker.

Rather, he argues it must be understood in terms of classes of unequal power, the capitalist class against the working class.

March 1916

“The labor movement in this country needs a philosophy, a literature, a constructive socialist analysis and criticism of industrial relations.”
. . .
“Intellectual radicalism should not mean repeating stale dogmas of Marxism. It should not mean ‘the study of socialism.’ It had better mean a restless, controversial criticism of current ideas and a hammering out of some clear-sighted philosophy that shall be this pillar of fire.”

July 1916

The nation is considering a national draft in face of the war in Europe. Bourne argues vigorously against this idea, but supports the notion of expanding the idea of compulsory education (which had just recently been enacted) to include vocational training as well.

August 1916

In this very short essay he condemns the tendency of elementary schools toward rigidification. He calls for stimulating environments of learning to open the individual and not to focus on the “class,” but the person.

November 1917

This short essay blasts Columbia University for firing two professors said in the newspapers to be against the war.

Bourne analyzes the university system as behaving more like corporations on the stock market than as a market place of ideas.

April 1917

Another very short essay he attacks the puritanical spirit which celebrates denial and attacks freedom and expressiveness of the full person.

Nov. 1917

In a review of a book of Menken’s essays he applauds his literary abilities and his own instincts on life, but criticizes him for his excessive dogmatism about his own views. He calls Menken a sort of liberal puritan in his bitter attacks on the puritans.

The essay has its humorous and ironic side.

April 1916

This is a review of More’s book Aristocracy and Justice. Bourne explains that More believes that human society, left on its own, tends toward a crude control of the weak by the strong. Order requires some organization and even force.

More holds that “The strong must have the privilege of imposing their will upon those who are inferior to them, but only in a way that at once satisfies the distinctions of reason among the superior, and does not outrage the feelings of the inferior.”

“This requires a natural aristocracy “In a democracy inherited wealth replaces aristocracy.”
. . .
“The dollar must always be more than the man and the right to property more sacred than the right to life.”

Bourne says “such a philosophy is, of course, its own best self-satirization.”

“He assumes the very question he ought to prove – that a ‘natural aristocracy’ of inherited wealth does produce in society that harmony of reason and emotion which is justice.”

Bourne seems to dismiss More’s view as simply intuitively absurd on the surface, much more than he does with any careful arguments. Actually that seems fairly obvious to me as well that More has a hopeless reliance on times past.

July 1915

Bourne is afire with a vehement denunciation of a film which was meant as public entertainment and education. It was a melodrama about a young girl who gets TB, but a new miracle drug cures her. Bourne is incensed that what he sees as a crude sensationalism is used for such purposes.

Ah me, it was clearly a very time-specific essay!

March 1918

Bourne is attacking literary critics in this short essay. He argues that too many contemporary critics are simply old men trying to defend old sentiments. Young readers simply ignore them, which however, has the effect that they continue to rave on and the public seems to have too few young critics emerging upon the scene.

April 1919

In this posthumously published essay we hear the story of the intellectual development of “Miro” whom I assume is Bourne himself. This essay was published in April 1919, thus after Bourne had already died of the flu. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have allowed it to be published since it does seem so autobiographical.

Raised at a time when the cannon of what was worthy of being read were the Greek and Roman classics and a carefully selected group of later English-language writers. Miro excels. He learns Latin and Greek, can read them fluently, and in fact reads and masters a massive list of the “proper” authors. Slowly, however, he comes to feel this is all empty. The literature itself lacks any power in his life and he slowly begins to rebel, discovers other young radicals, and slowly they build and support a new movement, at serious odds with the university curriculum and their former professors.

They embrace and support a modernism where one is reading primarily in his or her native language and reading words that are powerful social criticism as well as decent literature.

What his essay is to the literary world seems to match that of my own years as a professor in an American university followed a very similar path concerning the nature of education. We in the early 1960s moved education from the classical curriculum of ages past to a modern education with enormous emphasis on political, social and artistic revolt toward the meaningful and immediate.

Miro’s revolt changed a good deal about what young intellectuals like Bourne were doing and did later on in their lives, but only minimally changed the university. In our own time we had a short but powerful impact on the nature of the university, but the need of university credentials for certification in technical fields has all but destroyed the revolt of the 1960s and 70s and left the universities to be what they are today, primarily certifiers of workers for their employment.

Alas and alack!

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett