The Handicapped Randolph Bourne Essay

In so doing his spirit may, in a sense, be reborn and better guide us through some of the thornier issues still facing society a century after his death.

“War is the health of the state,” Bourne wrote in a posthumously published, unpolished manuscript.[13] Put another way, “the very thought and almost necessity of war is bound up with the ideal of the State.”[14] For Bourne, “The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized.”[15] The definition suggests interstate conflict is central to the state’s primary function.

Although a botched forceps delivery at birth mangled his face and left one of his ears torn, and even as the spinal tuberculosis he contracted while very young left him with a hunchback and kept him short of stature,[3] his intrepidity and moral integrity made the man larger than life long after he passed.

“If any man has a ghost,” John Dos Passos memorably affirmed, “Bourne has a ghost.”[4] Toward the end of his life, Bourne became persona non grata at the , the progressive magazine that previously employed him, and among respected liberal intellectuals who championed Woodrow Wilson’s war-making idealism.

As if presciently responding to the previously cited claims Dewey would publish years later, Bourne insisted the State “can only be understood by tracing its historical origin,” adding that the State “is not the national and intelligent product of modem men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property and opinion.

It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end.Vincent Millay its lyric poet, Eugene O’Neill its dramatist, Sinclair Lewis its satirist, Van Wyck Brooks its critic.”[12] With the remainder of this essay, I hope to give Bourne’s ideas a new lease on life by stressing some of his (partially) neglected philosophical underpinnings.By focusing on his criticism of war in relation to the State, his expansive idea of democracy, and his personal experience of love discussed vis-à-vis his notion of a Beloved Community, I aim to outline the bedrock of his philosophy while challenging some of the assumptions about and popular interpretations of his work.Excerpt from: The Handicapped The deformed man is always conscious that the world does not expect very much from him.And it takes him a long time to see in this a challenge instead of a firm pressing down to a low level of accomplishment....They chaffed at Bourne’s outspoken critique of US involvement in World War I.John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher Bourne once admired, apparently got Bourne booted off the editorial board of the , an alternative weekly he was writing for, after Bourne explicitly rebuked Dewey’s endorsement of Wilson’s wartime agenda.[5] Bourne also seems to have suspected Dewey of tipping off government officials who Bourne believed had been asking around about his loyalties at the offices of the .[6] Bourne is no longer anathema to intellectuals, as he was in his day.Referring to early twentieth-century ruling classes in the United States who feared they were losing control of the state as “annoyed” and “bewildered,” he acknowledged they had little to fear; they inherited that “political system which had been founded in the interests of property by their own spiritual and economic ancestors,” he wrote.[24] He reexamined the outcome of the American Revolution and the ideology surrounding it, suggesting the erstwhile colonists “merely exchanged a system run in the interest of the overseas trade of English wealth for a system run in the interest of New England and Philadelphia merchanthood, and later of Southern slavocracy.”[25] Once the State starts to function, he surmised, it “becomes an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class.”[26] Rulers, Bourne claimed, capitalize on reverence produced by the State and wield it to protect their privileges.The ruling class can remain in power because people have the impression that in obeying and serving the rulers they are obeying and serving “society, the nation, the great collectivity of all of us.”[27] With the extreme repression against dissidents during World War I no doubt at the forefront of his mind,[28] Bourne highlighted how a state engaged in foreign war also tends to wage another form of war against its domestic population.Working a familial metaphor, he claimed going to war offers an opportunity for “regression to infantile attitudes,” as in people’s reactions to (even imagined) attack or to insults (real or perceived) hurled at one’s country, which encourages one to “draw closer to the herd for protection,”[18] thereby strengthening (the organization of) the State.But that very organization drives those who comprise it “in that detour to suicide, as Nietzsche calls war,”[19] Bourne explained.


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