The years 1914-1918 must have been lonely for Randolph Bourne. Bourne was a popular writer in Progressive circles, prolifically turning out articles for The New Republic and Seven Arts magazines. But soon the former, along with other publications, lost interest in his writing and the latter ceased operations, leaving Bourne out in the cold.
What happened? Bourne bucked his fellow intellectuals, including his mentor John Dewey, and opposed U.S. entry into World War I. (For a discussion of the origins of the war and U.S. entry, see Ralph Raico's World War I: The Triumph of Statism [pdf].) Bourne stood virtually alone among that group in thinking that participation in the Great War in Europe would be a disastrous error. Before Seven Arts stopped publishing, Bourne had an opportunity to make his views known. His eloquence and logic are worthy of examination.
First, let's see what attracted the Progressives to a war that did not threaten the security of Americans at home, the sort of war America's founders sought isolation from. The so-called liberals around The New Republic, which was founded in 1914, were at first ambivalent about foreign affairs. But as President Woodrow Wilson moved from nominal neutrality to an openly pro-war position (from the start, his tilt toward England was clear), he furnished a rationale that the liberals would embrace: making the world safe for democracy. In intellectual circles the charge to war was led by Herbert Croly, the magazine's editor, who previously was a champion of Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism (Croly's phrase). Croly was one of those thinkers who believed that the Jeffersonian traditions were obsolete in the new twentieth century. On the eve of U.S. entry into the war, he summed up his zeal for government-led collective action by saying, “The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure.” The lives destroyed or permanently mangled in the orgy of violence taking place in Europe were minor consequences compared to the benign effects Croly foresaw for the nation. He was unbothered that there is a very real possibility that the new Army and Navy will be used chiefly for positive and for aggressive as opposed to merely defensive purposes. He perceptively observed that for the United States no sharp line can be drawn between defensive and aggressive armament.
Croly's ally in promoting U.S. entry was John Dewey, pragmatist philosopher, Progressive intellectual, and education theorist. As described by Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. in The Decline of American Liberalism, Dewey scoffed at the older American tradition of avoiding foreign wars, holding, like a good pragmatist, that it “all depends upon the efficient adaptation of means to ends.” He found in the German nation and mind a mysticism and romanticism that would bring them into conflict with America. But he was intent on seeing that participation in the war achieved bigger things than simply a built-up military. “The first means of preparedness that was needed, Dewey decided, was a truly national and compulsory educational system to counteract the provincialism and isolation of American life,” Ekirch writes. Thus for Dewey, preparedness for war was the chance to consolidate government power in order to produce “a unified mind in a crisis like the present.” War was to be a grand government program.
As Wilson moved toward entry into the war, Dewey's intellectualism yielded to what Ekirch calls “an emotional and pseudo-mystical ode to American nationalism.” America was reluctant to get into the war, Dewey said, because “we have not yet found a national mind, a will as to what to be.” The cure for that deficiency was participation in the fight. He chided the peace movement for failing to realize the great opportunity the war offered: “the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war.” He urged liberals to work “to form, at this plastic juncture, the conditions and objects of our entrance.” In other words, if enlightened intellectuals became boosters for American participation, they would have a role in shaping the terms and hence the outcome of that participation. [For the "liberals," war] would have, in Bourne's words, “a world-renovating social purpose” — the statist's dream come true.
Dewey seemed to realize the risks inherent in war fever, but, Ekirch writes, “though he warned against the excesses of war and nationalism, Dewey did not offer any solution as to how the good elements were to be separated from the bad, or as to how the emotional and irrational aspects were to be avoided.”
This was all too much for Randolph Bourne, who wrote several articles protesting the betrayal of liberalism by the intellectuals. (One cannot read Bourne without thinking of Leonard Read's “Conscience on the Battlefield" or the essays in Leviathan at War.) In response to Dewey, he wrote, in "A War Diary" (September 1917): “It is only ‘liberal’ naïveté that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war.” Earlier, in a June article, "The War and the Intellectuals," he rejected Dewey's siren song promising the intellectual class a say in reshaping the nation and the world in return for its war support:
The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground. The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.He rejected the “realist's” claim that opponents of the war would be “excommunicated” and left without influence.
But the intellectuals whom the crisis has crystallized into an acceptance of war have put themselves into a terrifyingly strategic position. It is only on the craft, in the stream, they say, that one has any chance of controlling the current forces for liberal purposes. If we obstruct, we surrender all power for influence. If we responsibly approve, we then retain our power for guiding. We will be listened to as responsible thinkers, while those who obstructed the coming of war have committed intellectual suicide and shall be cast into outer darkness. Criticism by the ruling powers will only be accepted from those intellectuals who are in sympathy with the general tendency of the war. Well, it is true that they may guide, but if their stream leads to a disaster and the frustration of national life, is their guiding any more than a preference whether they shall go over the right-hand or the left-hand side of the precipice? Meanwhile, however, there is comfort on board. Be with us, they call, or be negligible, irrelevant. Dissenters are already excommunicated. Irreconcilable radicals, wringing their hands among the debris, become the most despicable and impotent of men. There seems no choice for the intellectual but to join the mass of acceptance. But again the terrible dilemma arises — either support what is going on, in which case you count for nothing because you are swallowed in the mass and great incalculable forces bear you on, or remain aloof, passively resistant, in which case you count for nothing because you are outside the machinery of reality.For Bourne, the liberals who were thirsting for influence in the halls of power had a memory lapse of catastrophic proportions: “The American intellectuals, in their preoccupation with reality, seem to have forgotten that the real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany. There is work to be done to prevent this war of ours from passing into popular mythology as a holy crusade.”
Bourne, alas, died in 1918, leaving his final work, The State, unfinished.
Randolph Bourne was an individualist social critic, not an economist. He never realized that laissez faire would have gotten him where he wanted to go. But at least he understood what would not produce the freedom and liberalism he cherished. Liberalism, he said, could not be achieved by illiberal means. Ironically, Woodrow Wilson, whose decision to take the country into war helped make the twentieth century the bloody, totalitarian century it became, agreed. He told New York World editor Frank Cobb, “It was just war and there weren't two kinds of it. It required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front. We couldn't fight Germany and maintain the ideas of Government that all thinking men shared.” The Creel Committee propaganda mill; the Espionage Act of 1917; the Sedition Act of 1918, under which Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for a speech opposing the war; and the War Industries Board, which collectivized the economy, would all reveal Wilson — intervener in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and now Europe — as a self-fulfilling prophet.