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Aug 1, 1975

War and the Intellectuals

Grinder reviews Randolph Bourne.

“War,” Richard Hofstadter wtote, was “the nemesis of the liberal tradition.” Only a decade ago most historians could say that the First World War had been such a nemesis, that it was the most traumatic experience American intellectuals had encountered in this century. That was before the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, the teach-ins, the campus riots, the resistance and the new look at American foreign policy by those historians broadly dubbed “New Left” or “revisionist.”

The verdict of history is not yet in on the effects Vietnam will have on the American intellectual experience. We can speculate about the spinoffs that will occur in the intellectual community. How long will revisionism prosper? How hastily will the intellectuals fill the void left by the Schlesingers and the Rostows and the Bundys? We shall have to wait and see. But for World War I the verdict is in. That experience triggered a revisionist press which helped to buttress American isolationism in the thirties, slowing the path toward war with the Axis. Other intellectuals emigrated to Europe, leaving those opinion moulders at home reexamining their old liberal principles. American liberalism entered World War I leaning toward statism. Many emerged from that experience veering toward libertarianism. Men like H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock and Oswald Garrison Villard were popular champions of individual liberty and dignity. Symbolic of this shift was what happened to Randolph Bourne during the war itself.

Pre-war liberalism, or Progressivism, was grounded in pragmatism, or as John Dewey called it, instrumentalism. One of Dewey’s chief proposals was Progressive education, and a young graduate student of Dewey’s emerged as its most articulate spokesman. His name was Randolph Bourne. Bourne admired pragmatism and the Progressive school-movement because he felt that it would help to bring about his ideal of a democratic America. But Bourne also liked pragmatism because its founder, William James, had expounded the need for a “moral equivalent to war.” Indeed there was possibly no abler spokesman than James amongst the Anti-Imperialist League which had arisen in response to the war with Spain and its sequel, the quelling of the Filipino drive for independence.

Bourne was therefore a pragmatist arid a pacifist, faced with an intellectual climate in which John Dewey himself could argue that pacifists were “moonstruck” moralists and in which the editors of the New Republic, that journal of enlightened liberalism, could argue that they had “adopted one of the most terrible means ever known to man to accomplish one of the greatest ends ever offered to man.” Both Dewey and the editors of the New Republic counselled the pacifists “to undergo a course in severe realism.”

Such arguments were too much for Bourne. When the intellectual community embraced the war aims of the Wilson Administration, Bourne penned in “War and the Intellectuals” that his former colleagues were “not content with confirming our belligerent gesture. They were complacently asserting that it was they who effectively willed it, against the hesitation and the dim perspective of the American democratic masses. A war made deliberately by the intellectuals!”

Bourne’s argument with the others was two-fold. He argued that this war, as all others, could not be mastered and could not bring about a liberal solution, that it would bring undemocratic practices at home and that it could not bring about anything but a Carthagenian peace. These intellectuals had put themselves in the predicament of a “child on the back of a mad elephant.” Bourne hammered home the argument that war was unpragmatic, something one could not master. He wrote that “willing war means willing all the events that are organically bound up with it.” The pacifists opposed a “democratic” war or an “anitseptic” war because “they knew that this was an illusion, and because of the myriad hurts they knew war would do to democracy at home.” Bourne argued that “war determined its own end-victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect… energy from the path of organization to that end.” In “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” (in Randolph Bourne, The History of a Literary Radical and Other Papers) Bourne argued that this situation denied the pacifist any choice. “One resists or one obeys. If one resists, one is martyred or coerced. If one obeys, the effect is just as if one accepted the war. In wartime, then, one’s pragmatic conscience moves in a vacuum… .”

Events were to prove Bourne correct. In America, the democracy was Prussianized. Leaders of the IWW were handed a mass indictment; the editors of the Masses were put on trial; Villard found an issue of the Nation banned from newsstands; even the New Republic was under government surveillance; Espionage and Sedition Laws were enacted; a government propaganda agency, the Creel Committee, was formed; Senator Robert LaFollette was targeted for expulsion from the Senate because of his alleged disloyalty. Was this a product of America’s unfamiliarity with war or was it inherent in the nature of war itself? Bourne argued that it was the latter: “All governments will act in the same way, the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only ‘liberal’ naivete that is shocked by arbitrary coercion and suppression.”

It was little wonder that this officially induced war hysteria propelled Bourne’s animus against the war to its ultimate conclusion, an attack on the concept of the State itself. Bourne was bitter in his condemnation of both the war and the state, so bitter that historian Charles Forcey argued that “the very realism with which Bourne had viewed the causes and consequences of the war drove him to an unrealistic anarchism” In the pamphlet on which he was working when he died, shortly after the Armistice, he chanted his haunting theme: “War is the health of the State.” In this essay he set forth his idea that the State (as distinguished from the nation) sought universal influence over its citizens and that was provided the emergency for this goal. He also expressed his fear that the State sought to sacrifice individual values to the “herd-instinct.” “In general,” wrote Bourne, “the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal… . Other values, such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are almost unanimously subordinated, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.” This climate of the herd mentality was particularly galling to Bourne, the literary radical who had championed a youthful cultural nationalism, a system of compulsory education based on Dewey’s theories of Progressive education. But that was before the war. Dewey had traded universal education for universal military service and had helped to create a situation in which “one’s pragmatic conscience operated in a vacuum.” This situation was “the health of the State,” the State by its very nature being “the organization of the herd.” The values which the “significant classes” tried to subordinate were those he held most dear. Bourne’s Weltanschauung had been smashed by the war. “The State” was an attempt to piece together a new one that could cope with the circumstances he had faced. Where he would have wandered, had he lived beyond the Armistice, beyond Versailles, one cannot say. Suffice it to say that the politicization of this literary radical by World War I reaped a harvest of material for those opposed to that war, to war in general, and to the concept of the State itself. He was often rational, at times metaphorical and even mystical. Still his writing has a lyrical quality about it that makes him memorable. This, plus his untimely death, provided the fuel for his legendary status in the twenties and thirties. Although he wrote of events surrounding the First World War, his analysis is as penetrating now as it was then. Reviewed by R. Dale Grinder/History/LR Price $2.50