The essayist and social critic Randolph Bourne is remembered today as a spokesperson for the generation of young intellectuals who came of age in the 1910s, a far-sighted commentator on modern American culture and politics, and a critic of Progressives who supported U.S. policy during World War I. His fiery polemics against his early mentor John Dewey and other prowar thinkers in 1916-17 have made him an iconic figure in the history of American culture and a model of intellectual integrity.
Bourne emerged as a leader in the prewar "Little Renaissance" in arts and culture while still a Columbia undergraduate. His contributions to Columbia Monthly and the Atlantic touched on themes at the heart of that renaissance: modernist art and letters; radical politics; the relationship between personal and public life, and the rebellion of educated young people against Victorian gender roles and the "genteel tradition" in American culture. (A collection of those essays appeared in 1913 as Youth and Life.)
Bourne's face was disfigured at birth by a forceps delivery, and as a child he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him dwarfed and a hunchback. He wrote powerfully of his experience with disability in "The Handicapped-By One of Them", which appeared in the Atlantic in 1911; the essay remains an influential text in disability studies. Likewise, Bourne's 1916 "Trans-national America" stands at the center of contemporary debates about the implications of this country's ethnic diversity for U.S. national identity. In contrast to the "melting-pot ideal," and the ethnic pluralism advocated by Horace Kallen and others, Bourne articulated a "cosmopolitan" ideal that would draw on different ethnic traditions in the service of a democratic culture shared by Americans of various backgrounds.
Bourne's years at Columbia powerfully shaped his positions on American culture, society, and politics. "Trans-national America," in particular, referred to his own contacts with second-generation immigrant students as an undergraduate. In such company, a middle-class refugee from WASP respectability like himself "breathe[d] a larger air." While at Columbia, Bourne absorbed the newest trends in the social sciences - enthusiastic for the ideas of faculty such as Dewey in Philosophy, Franz Boas in Anthropology, and Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson in History. Dewey was an especially powerful influence, inspiring Bourne to champion progressive education.
But Dewey's support for Woodrow Wilson's wartime policy precipitated a break that led Bourne not only to question his mentor's political judgment but the very philosophy of pragmatism itself. Dewey and the other prowar liberals had forsaken their responsibility as intellectuals and moralists, Bourne charged, elevating a fascination with technique over the consideration of values. Pragmatism had facilitated such an intellectual abdication, in Bourne's view, by emphasizing means over ends, and by evading a sober assessment of power and politics during wartime. As a result, Dewey and his colleagues maintained a wistful hope that the war would result in greater democracy, when in fact modern industrial warfare led to the centralization of power in the nation-state and the depoliticization of the populace as a whole. Modern states needed war, Bourne argued; the emergency conditions of mobilization served only undemocratic purposes. The most important civic role intellectuals could play, under such circumstances, was to maintain a critical stance as democrats and "malcontents," challenging their culture's complacency and official creeds.
One of Bourne's great insights into total war, confirmed again and again in subsequent episodes in modern military history, was that a passive citizenry better served the needs of a wartime state than did a hysterical mass of fervent nationalists. In an essay published after his death at age 32 from influenza, Bourne repeated a refrain still associated with his legacy: "War is the health of the State."
Thanks to Professor Casey N. Blake of the Department of History