Randolph Silliman Bourne (May 30, 1886 – December 22, 1918) was a progressive writer and “leftist intellectual” born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and a graduate of Columbia University. Bourne is best known for his essays, especially his unfinished work “The State,” discovered after his death. Bourne’s articles appeared in journals including The Seven Arts and The New Republic.
World War I divided American progressives, pitting an anti-war faction, including Bourne and Jane Addams, against a pro-war faction led by the educational theorist John Dewey. Bourne was a student of Dewey at Columbia, but he took issue with Dewey’s idea of using the war as a tool with which to spread democracy. In his pointedly-titled 1918 essay “Twilight of Idols” he invoked the progressive pragmatism of Dewey’s contemporary William James to argue that America was using democracy as an end to justify the war, but that democracy itself was never examined. While he had been a follower of Dewey originally, he felt that Dewey had betrayed his democratic ideals by focusing only on the facade of a democratic government rather than on the ideas behind democracy that Dewey had once professed to respect.
Bourne’s face was deformed at birth by misused forceps, and, at age four, he suffered tuberculosis of the spine, resulting in stunted growth and a hunched back. He chronicled his experiences in his essay titled, “The Handicapped.” Bourne died in the Spanish flu pandemic after the war. His ideas have been influential in the shaping of postmodern ideas of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and recent intellectuals such as David Hollinger have written extensively on Bourne’s ideology.
“ … even in those countries where the business of declaring war is theoretically in the hands of representatives of the people, no legislature has ever been known to decline the request of an Executive, which has conducted all foreign affairs in utter privacy and irresponsibility, that it order the nation into battle.”–War Is the Health of the State
“Country is a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition: it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects. And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State, and as we grow up we learn to mingle the two feelings into a hopeless confusion.”–War Is the Health of the State
Observation: Is it accidental that the attacks on various minorities is as strong and sustained as in our present time during which we have declared an eternal war against terror? Minority opinions can be molded to conform during wartime, but physical traits, such as age, skin color, disabilities, which cannot be changed, may be subject to renewed persecution during war.
An audio podcast lecture describing the life and work of Randolph Bourne can be heard at YouTube: “The Brilliance of Randolph Bourne” Duration (15:50)