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The radicalism of Randolph Bourne

Bourne’s affinity with outsiders drove his vision of making North America a united states of communities. A century on, his writings have become more relevant than ever

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Randolph Bourne lived a short life that began as cruelly as it ended. At his birth in 1886, a traumatic delivery deformed his face; at the age of four a battle with tuberculosis affected his growth and left his back permanently hunched. Raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in a familial milieu characterised by suffocating respectability and downward fortunes, Bourne chafed at the forces and limitations that he felt restraining him. Wryly affirming his distance from the “normal person… of the middle-middle class,” he mused that he must have seemed “very queer out there” in the world. Armed with an ironist’s wit and acid pen, he would soon transform any premature gloominess about his life’s prospects into a startlingly creative vision of personal agency and collective filiation.

In 1911, in one of his earliest published essays, “The Handicapped – By One of Them”, Bourne laid claim to a “philosophy gained through personal disability and failure”. His physical experience, he noted, disposed him against the “cheap optimism of the ordinary professional man” and a “reactionary press and pulpit”, and towards a radicalism of defiance and experimentation.

In his brief, glittering career as a man of letters, Bourne would explore gaps and antinomies – between youth and age, men and women, self-consciousness and social engagement, the uncertain play of culture and the polemical cut of politics. Against the dead weight of American conformism, Bourne sought vitality in fellowship with outsiders: the “despised and ignored… the unpresentable and the unemployable, the incompetent and the ugly, the queer and crotchety people who make up so large a proportion of human folk”.

Foregoing admission to Princeton due to his poor finances, Bourne found refuge in Greenwich Village, New York, where he made a living doing secretarial work and giving piano lessons. At the age of 23 he enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied with the liberal philosopher John Dewey, whose writings on education and social action proved critically important for him, and with Charles Beard, the great dissenting US historian. Graduating in 1913, Bourne travelled to Europe and was captivated by the social infrastructure and municipal design of continental cities. But even here, he sounded a discordant note: centralised policy and planning may have yielded social cooperation and conscious citizenship, but they suffered from obvious democratic deficits. The outbreak of the First World War – with the almost unanimous assent of Europe’s political parties and classes – was a bitter affirmation of this insight.

Returning to the US in 1914, Bourne found a home at the New Republic, whose founders were attempting to redefine American liberalism along progressive, if not social democratic, lines. Herbert Croly, the magazine’s co-founder (along with the writers Walter Lippmann and Walter Weyl), called their project “the new liberalism”. Dewey, the group’s most talented and creative intellectual, referred to a “renovated liberalism” that would galvanise public action towards addressing large-scale social problems.

These writers, including Bourne, rejected the cramped assumptions of laissez-faire economics and criticised entrenched hierarchies and corruptions of race and region, patronage and patriarchy. They united in the belief that scientific knowledge, public education, organised administration and procedural fairness could improve the daily lives of immigrants and the working poor, challenge corporate monopolies and unequal distribution, and widen the democratic ambit of citizen deliberation.

Bourne was especially attuned to this last aim, and he increasingly sought to identify how to promote a more authentically democratic politics. Bourne reached for what he called “cooperative Americanism”, a type of social action that would militate against “the cruelties and thinness of American civilisation” and the primacy it afforded individualist striving and consumerist desire over meaningful social purpose. He further envisioned a cultural renaissance rooted in the daily struggles of the nation’s staggeringly diverse people, a movement that might prove resistant to the entreaties of “artificial patriotism” stoked by rising warfare states.

Bourne lived at the end of an explosive historical period that began with the end of the US Civil War in 1865 and encompassed mass immigration, overseas expansion, urbanisation, class division, and culminated in the United States becoming the world’s leading industrial power. He insisted that another world was possible; America’s imperfect, underdeveloped, democratic experiment might yet hold the keys to a more just, inclusive, cosmopolitan future.

Bourne never settled well within the new liberalism. The New Republic’s intellectuals lacked his agnosticism, or what he described as an “incorrigible propensity to see the other side”. They proved willing to sacrifice principle for intellectual influence in the halls of power, which Bourne felt was a betrayal of the demos. In his embrace of outsiders, feminists, migrants, socialists and pacifists, he was thus never far from breaking with established order. Like radicals then and since, he was searching for links between social and ideological renovation and collective agency.

Bourne insisted that “the forces that are moving” resided in what would be later called the “grass roots” – among people whose existing relationships with each other were outside, and often in contention with, the state. In Bourne’s view, these societal struggles were best conceived as experiments because they could only be launched without the guarantee of success, and because they frequently confounded “best laid plans”.

His conception of social agency could be vague and ephemeral, seizing as it did on outsider categories such as “youth”, “queer”, and even “malcontent”. He lacked the realist, structural assurance of Marxism that placed organised labour at the centre of struggles for social transformation. But in another way, Bourne was better attuned to the heterogeneous dimensions of social conflict, and to the need for diversity when contesting exploitation and domination.

The fact that the liberals at the New Republic not only assented to the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917 but helped to rationalise its significance broke any lingering faith Bourne had with them. He came to regard the Deweyan renovation of American liberalism as complacent, and “unwilling to disturb dominant arrangements of power, propriety and property”.

Bourne’s opposition to the war quickened these critical perceptions. In “Twilight of Idols” (1917), Bourne argued that Dewey’s piecemeal philosophy was “fine enough for a society at peace, prosperous and with a fund of progressive good will”. But an age facing rapid depletion of “stores of rationality”, and the moral and spiritual “bankruptcy of war-billions”, demanded a more radical approach.

Bourne could least abide the fact that democracy had become only “useful as a call to battle” on behalf of “benevolent imperialisms”. The best and brightest in turn were “sucked into the councils at Washington”, eager to contribute to “an instrumentalism for minor ends” that subordinated knowledge and ethics to perfecting “war-technique”.

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Like our own age, Bourne’s era was marked by rising social contention across multiple fronts. In the early 20th century, this included the women’s suffrage movement, the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, emerging syndicalist and socialist currents within the labour movement, and anti-colonial and revolutionary ferment all over the world, including in Ireland, Russia, India, and south-east Asia. These stirrings occurred alongside the strengthening of reactionary movements such as the Ku Klux Klan that supported racial segregation, eugenics, immigration restriction, anti-sedition laws and the preservation of a “white world order”. Among the things that outraged Bourne about the US entry into the First World War was that it had empowered and strengthened a coercive, “intensely colonial” vision of national cohesion: “Americanisation as Anglo-Saxonism”.

Although Bourne was not attuned to the struggles and sufferings of the descendants of slaves – a major limitation within his body of work – he nevertheless thought that democracy was to be enriched by recognition of differences among the citizenry. Democratic struggles, he argued, involved multiple overlapping and at times fracturing coteries, whose disagreements could get in the way of them pursuing common goals.

Bourne lamented, for example, how antipathy between socialists challenging “industrial serfdom” and feminists challenging women’s subordination prevented the two causes from fusing their otherwise aligned dissent from the established order. He affirmed the inherent political value of the country’s breadth and heterogeneity, how the everyday mixture of peoples, their interactions, exchanges and ordinary conviviality provided an almost natural immunity to “state compulsion” and universalising schemes imposed from above. He celebrated a vision of social expansion that was organic and uncoerced – where diverse peoples voluntarily engaged in collective, democratic experiments in communal self-fashioning.

Bourne sometimes sounds like the founding father James Madison or the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who also viewed territorial expansionism as the essential feature of American liberty. What distinguishes Bourne’s writings from other paeans to settler freedom was his insistence that the real democratic ferment in America was inherent in the country’s “diversity of national and racial characteristics”.

“Transnational America” (1916) is the fullest exposition of Bourne’s notion of “cooperative Americanism” – which imagines the nation as a “beloved community” made up of many constituent communities, whose interactions with one another and the world at large intimated a post-nationalist future. He rejected the idea of the modern nation state as a bulwark of class privilege and racial segregation; a defence of the global colour line. Instead, he envisaged transnational America – a country composed of 30 distinct nationalities – as a model of a cosmopolitan, anti-imperialist way of life: the world’s “first international nation”, realised in “the free and mobile passage of the immigrant between America and his native land”.

Bourne consciously repudiated a racist conceit that is growing in popularity today: the notion that “ideals like democracy” are “magical qualities inherent in certain peoples”. For conservative reactionaries, such as Bourne’s German contemporary Carl Schmitt, a functioning democracy demanded an identification of ruler and ruled, built on the “eradication of heterogeneity” within the people. Bourne’s cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, was about finding an “impelling, integrating force” that could serve as an alternative to a nation state “integrated by coercion or militarism” – which was precisely what he saw emerging the world over. “Transnational America” was the final burst of Bourne’s search for a realist utopia against the “realism” of his fellow intellectuals at the New Republic.

At a time when racists such as the historian Lothrop Stoddard and the writer Madison Grant warned of “race suicide”, lamented the decline of the West, and pronounced the need for immigration restriction and compulsory Americanisation campaigns, Bourne offered a vision of a nation beyond nationalism. In our own era, racially and ethnically exclusive conceptions of nationhood and visions of international relations as a survivalist struggle are back in vogue, while migrants and minorities are sacrificed on the altar of national status throughout the West. Against this backdrop, Bourne’s vision of transnational America as an alternative to global civil war is resonant.

In the absence of a strong socialist tradition in the US, Bourne was prescient in his belief that new and experimental universal truths were to be forged through the democratic struggles of America’s immigrant and racial outsiders. In 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King sounded like Bourne when he described the US as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence”. King, too, sought to reimagine the nation as a “beloved community,” built on sympathies that were “ecumenical, not sectional”.

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Bourne is someone to think with in these times. Living as we do at the end of capitalism’s generation-long crisis of stagnation, widening inequality, and sharpening international tensions, his writings feel urgent. As he put it in his essay “Youth” (1913), “new movements are born in young minds”. He inverted the cliché that maturity precipitates greater realism: “Old age lives in the delusion that it has improved and rationalised its youthful ideas by experience and stored-up wisdom, when all it has done is to damage them more or less… The tragedy of life is that the world is run by these damaged ideals.” These insights prefigured his own disillusionment with his progressive elders who supported war. In them, he identified one of the most consequential failings of liberal thought, namely an optimistic tendency to view the US as a self-correcting project rather than something in need of radical revision.

Bourne’s eclecticism has allowed him to be appropriated by both the left and by libertarian opponents of the state. In the end, he is probably better understood as a radical democrat, someone who in the face of intolerable injustice chose to “divide, confuse, disturb, keep the intellectual waters constantly in motion”, to throw “sand in the gears of the machinery”. And just as he was an isolated figure at the end of his life, he is still a thinker who none can fully claim. That said, Bourne’s persistent disapproval of the intellectual’s affiliation with power, and his own restless opposition to state violence exercised in the name of the people, could not be more relevant. Bourne’s demand for the “democratic control of foreign policy” also resonates after more than a century of warfare.

Above all, Bourne’s writing reminds us that the modern democratic state exemplified by the US is less the “rational creation of a new day,” than the “decrepit scion” of the plantation patriarch and town capitalist dressed up in glittering generalities of freedom and democracy. We should have never expected, as he put it, that such a system would “crumble before the anger of a few muckrakers, the disillusionment of a few radical sociologists, or the assaults of proletarian minorities”. Bourne concluded that a more concerted assault was in order, one that would begin by restoring the revolutionary impetus of popular sovereignty against constitutional fetishism – setting a “demand for democracy” against the “hidden but genuine permanence of control” that the constitution gave to America’s ruling classes.

Bourne died in 1918, aged 32, during the flu pandemic that took the lives of more than half a million Americans between 1918 and 1920. The weakening of his body matched the collapse of the optimism that had so enlivened his intellect. He was dismayed, even heartbroken, by his country’s entry in 1917 into what he argued was a war of choice, one that made bloodier wars of the future more likely. The First World War fatally altered the liberalism of social reform and democratic purpose that had inspired the founding of the New Republic.

As his colleagues assented to the war, and abandoned him, the once convivial Bourne declared himself a “malcontent”. But as he observed, malcontents have “a tang, a bitterness, an intellectual fibre, a verve”. The paradox of pessimism, Bourne taught, is that it is a sentiment of youth – it is driven by refusal of the “curious paralysis” and “conspiracy of silence” of those accustomed to being in charge, who persistently work to sanctify the status quo. Rather than a sign of defeat, it registers a no less insistent demand for another world. 

Nikhil Pal Singh is professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. His books include “Race and America’s Long War” (University of California Press)

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran