William F. Warde

The Evolution of Randolph Bourne

(Spring 1957)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1957, pp.66-68.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers
by Randolph Bourne
S.A. Russell, Publishers, NY 1957. 309 pp. $3.75.

S.A. Russell has performed a service by republishing this out-of-print selection of Randolph Bourne’s essays. Bourne was one of the most penetrating and incorruptible critics of American life during the First World War period. He was an ardent spokesman for the most sensitive, dissatisfied intellectuals of the younger generation who were in revolt against plutocratic rule and groping toward a better America.

Bourne’s disillusioning experiences with the Progressive movement and especially his awakening to the defects of its major philosophic expression – the pragmatism of John Dewey – led to his transition from liberalism to radicalism. His development contains instructive lessons for the youth of our own day.

Bourne was born in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia in 1913. He spent a year in prewar Europe, observing the most advanced intellectual and political tendencies and meeting some of their leading figures. Upon his return to this country, he earned a precarious livelihood as free-lance journalist in New York City. Gifted and enthusiastic, he dove into the swirling currents of the lively Progressive circles which were seeking to renovate American literature and culture as well as American politics. Unfortunately, Bourne’s life was short; he died in 1918 at the age of 32.

Randolph Bourne’s strong ties with the working people were best expressed in a defense of the striking miners of the Mesabi range in Minnesota and their IWW leadership, which is reprinted in this volume. Here is bow he described his own first contact with exploitation:

“The experience was leaving school to work for a musician who had an ingenious little machine on which he cut perforated music-rolls for the players which were just then becoming popular. His control of the means of production consisted in having the machine in his house, to which I went every morning at eight and stayed till five. He provided the paper and the music and the electric power; I worked as a wage-earner, serving his skill and enterprise. I was on piece-work, and everything suggested to my youthful self that it depended only upon my skill and industry how prosperous I should become.

“But what startled me was my -employer’s lack of care to conceal from me the fact that for every foot of paper which I made he received 15 cents from the manufacturer with whom he had his contract. He paid me five, and while I worked, spent his time composing symphonies in the next room. As long as I was learning the craft, I had no more feeling about our relation than that there was a vague injustice in the air. But when I began to be dangerously clever and my weekly earnings mounted beyond the sum proper for a young person of 18 who was living at home, I felt the hand of economic power. My piece-rate was reduced to four and a half cents.

“My innocence blazed forth in rebellion. If I was worth five cents a foot while I was learning, I was worth more, not less, after I had learned. My master folded his arms. I could stay or go. I was perfectly free. And then fear smote me. This was my only skill, and my timorous experience filled the outside world with horrors.

“I returned cravenly to my bench, and when my employer, flushed with his capitalistic ardor, built another machine and looked about for a young musician to work it, I weakly suggested to an old playmate of mine that he apply for the position.”

This experience with a pigmy employer indelibly stamped the pattern of exploitation by the whole employing class upon Bourne’s consciousness. As a middle-class intellectual, however, he first fixed his hopes for a regenerated America upon education.

John Dewey’s proposed reforms and experiments in progressive education seemed at that time to be the sovereign remedy for social evils. Dewey’s philosophy, he wrote, was regarded “almost as our American religion.” Under this influence, Bourne made his field the social side of literature and his instrument the written word. He sketched portraits of typical personalities and wrote essays on topics of the times for the advanced magazines and literary periodicals. He aimed to become the herald and creator of a liberalized culture freed from conformity to the moneyed powers.

Although Bourne’s drive to stimulate new beginnings in literature, education, politics and sociology was strong and sustained, it was limited to the framework of the Progressive movement. He and his associates looked upon John Dewey as the incarnation of enlightenment and the guardian of democracy, whose ideas and methods were the sole alternative to conservatism. Their trust in his pragmatic philosophy and progressive program was naive and boundless.

With the advent of the First World War, followed by the Russian Revolution, Deweyism and the Progressive movement were put to the supreme test. These two major events shook Bourne’s faith in pragmatism and marked the turning point in his intellectual evolution. From a liberal, he became a radical.

When war engulfed Europe in 1914 and threatened to draw the United Sates into it, liberal intellectuals and pacifist-minded youth looked to Dewey for leadership. Instead of resisting the war hysteria, however, Dewey began as early as 1916 to adjust himself to its approach. Jingo propaganda, spurred from behind the scenes toy the House of Morgan and briefed by the New York Times and other Big Business voices, beat the drums for military preparedness. A training camp to convert business men into big brass was set up at Plattsburgh, New York. Dewey hailed these volunteer officers’ camps as a beneficial form of contemporary education!

This theoretical justification for capitalist military training, in preparation for conscripting the youth, shocked and disgusted the consistent socialists and pacifists, Randolph Bourne among, them. Then came the intervention of the United States into the war. This confronted the Progressives with a major decision. In the ensuing struggle, the ranks of the pragmatists split. The majority of Dewey’s followers, having learned the virtues of middle-class instrumentalism, speedily converted themselves into instruments of the warmakers – with Dewey himself at their head.

Bourne refused to go along. In a famous philippic on War and the Intellectuals, published in June 1917, he flayed the “war-liberals” for this betrayal of their own ideals and of his own generation.

“The war sentiment,” he wrote, ‘‘begun so 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 ... The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy has been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world liberalism and world democracy.”

The pro-war liberals, along with ex-Socialists, argued that a democratic world and a lasting peace would come out of American participation in the war, provided the intellectuals did not stay on the side lines but flung their full forces into the dogfight. Bourne asked Dewey this pertinent question: “If the war was too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be Weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?” Indeed, as history demonstrated, the war and its aftermath abruptly ended the liberal movements in economics and politics which had prevailed prior to the war.

Bourne foresaw and feared this outcome. He also saw that Dewey’s surrender to the “illiberal cohorts” and his abandonment under stress of the struggle for peace and democracy was not a mere personal dereliction nor an accidental deviation. It was a political conclusion implicit in the theoretical premises and social outlook of the pragmatic position.

Pragmatism, Bourne pointed out, assumed that all people of good will, regardless of their class interests, could work together for the common welfare. But he saw that in the showdown, the predatory aims of the ruling plutocracy overrode the needs and desires of the American people. Profit-making, and war-making to defend the institutions of profit-making, took precedence over the recommendations of the liberals and shoved them aside. “What concerns us here is the relative ease with which the pragmatic intellectuals, with Professor Dewey at the head, have moved out their philosophy, bag and baggage, from education to war,” Bourne exclaimed.

Challenging Dewey and the other prophets of instrumentalist, Bourne demanded that they be precise in their definition of “democracy.”

“Is it the political democracy of a plutocratic America that we are fighting for, or is it the social democracy of the new Russia? Which do our rulers fear more, the menace of Imperial Germany, or the liberating influence of a socialist Russia? In the application of their philosophy and politics, our pragmatists are sliding over the crucial question of ends.”

The prostration of Deweyism before the plutocracy exposed to full view the hitherto concealed weaknesses in the instrumentalist method and views. “What I came to,” Bourne wrote in Twilight of Idols, “is a sense of suddenly finding a philosophy upon which I had relied to carry us through no longer works.” Like do-goodism, pragmatism “cooled off rapidly before it reached the boiling point” in the struggle against capitalist reaction.

Bourne reasoned correctly that there could not be any more definitive condemnation of pragmatism. This philosophy had won so many adherents on the ground that it worked – and worked better – than any other mode of thought available to intelligent Americans. Yet in the life and death questions of imperialist war and social revolution, pragmatism proved itself to be bankrupt. Bourne concluded it had to be repudiated because it failed to pass its own supreme test of application in practice. It stood condemned by its own highest criteria.

Why did Deweyism turn out to be so worthless a pilot in stormy weather – when reliable pilots were most urgently needed? – The answer is that pragmatism slides over the surface of things, ignoring their profound inner contradictions. It is a philosophy that lives from day to day and from hand to mouth. It prospers so long as social conditions change little or only little by little; so long as class relations are in a temporary equilibrium; so long as the political skies are clear and shining.

But when underlying class antagonisms erupt and upset the balance of social forces and conflicts rage, then pragmatism, which bases itself upon social calm and class cooperation, becomes weak and helpless. In the decisive question of war, its proponents are compelled to choose between contending and irreconcilable interests. When the chips are down, the organic conservatism of the middle-class elements displaces its fair-weather liberal mask and draws them into reconciliation with other defenders of the status quo.

Thus, in the hour of supreme danger, instrumentalism discloses its real class character as a liberal extension of bourgeois ideology, just as progressivism turns out to be but a left shadow of capitalist politics. Step by step, the bulk of the pragmatists became willing or unwilling dupes and defenders of the lies and pretentions of the most reactionary forces in American life.

This was the lesson that Randolph Bourne learned, and he learned it the hard way. Once having learned it, however, he felt the need for a more profound and correct philosophical doctrine and for a more realistic program which took into account the real relations of social forces and their movement in modern life. He looked from imperialist United States to revolutionary Russia, from liberalism to socialism, from Dewey to Marx and Lenin. Against Dewey’s call for continued confidence in the democratic aims of America’s plutocracy, enunciated by Wood-row Wilson, he counterposed the accomplishments of the young Russian Revolution:

“(The) young pacifists do not see that democratic peace can come out of the war. They are skeptical of the war professedly for political democracy, because at home they have seen so little democracy where industrial slaves are rampant. They see the inspiring struggle in the international class struggle, not in the struggles of imperialist nations. To Russia, the socialist state, not to America, who has taken a place on the old ground – do they look for realization of their ideal.”

* * *

The problem of the relationship of the writer-intellectual to the socialist movement of the working class is as old as the movement itself. It must be worked out afresh in every country and for every generation, but upon the basis of the experiences of the past. Randolph Bourne was a social critic who used literary criticism as his main vehicle of expression. He sought to inspire a new and better social life for all Americans, first through Progressivism, then through radical socialist ideas. He did not remain aloof from social struggles or political battles but placed his intelligence at the service of the most advanced sector of the labor movement. He gave all he could to promote the cooperation of the two.

Although Bourne, who died young, was unable to continue along his new path, his importance lies in the fact that he turned in the right direction at the right time. Others who came after were to move faster and farther along the road he indicated.

Both his negative conclusion – that Dewey’s instrumentalism and its reliance upon class collaboration as the method of social progress had proved its bankruptcy in practice – and his positive proposal – that the philosophy of socialism and the program of the international class struggle must replace it – should be engraved upon the minds of the present generation. For all this, Randolph Bourne deserves to be remembered with gratitude and his writings to be re-read with care.


Last updated on: 22 April 2009