The Handicapped Randolph Bourne Essay

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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.

Although a botched forceps delivery at birth mangled his face and left one of his ears torn, and even as the spinal tuberculosis he contracted while very young left him with a hunchback and kept him short of stature,[3] his intrepidity and moral integrity made the man larger than life long after he passed.

“If any man has a ghost,” John Dos Passos memorably affirmed, “Bourne has a ghost.”[4] Toward the end of his life, Bourne became persona non grata at the , the progressive magazine that previously employed him, and among respected liberal intellectuals who championed Woodrow Wilson’s war-making idealism.

They chaffed at Bourne’s outspoken critique of US involvement in World War I.

John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher Bourne once admired, apparently got Bourne booted off the editorial board of the , an alternative weekly he was writing for, after Bourne explicitly rebuked Dewey’s endorsement of Wilson’s wartime agenda.[5] Bourne also seems to have suspected Dewey of tipping off government officials who Bourne believed had been asking around about his loyalties at the offices of the .[6] Bourne is no longer anathema to intellectuals, as he was in his day.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.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.Immortalized as the apotheosis of a principled anti-war critic from the 1960s onward,[7] many have since tried to resurrect his reputation, but not always in ways truest to the spirit of his philosophy.Perhaps owing to Bourne’s appreciation of Nietzsche,[8] writers in the 1990s interested in a postmodern, genealogical approach to scholarship who, according to Christopher Phelps, displayed disconcertingly little concern for historical context and meaning, turned to Bourne for inspiration.[9] Phelps criticized the tendency in their postmodern readings to downplay Bourne’s political and intellectual engagement.[10] Additionally, those who self-identify with the “libertarian” tradition have claimed Bourne as their own,[11] but their conceptions of liberty and freedom seem to differ in several important respects from the prophetic philosophy and related values Bourne affirmed.For it to fulfill its primary function in the modern interstate system,[16] that “organization of the herd,” in Bourne’s formulation, thus requires and begets conflict (especially of the armed, militarist kind) between other states.As the author explained, “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 toward a rival group has meant, throughout all history—war.”[17] Bourne emphasized the herd-like nature of the State and the related consequences stemming from that organizational .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.


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