Bourne Yet Again: Errors of Genealogy

Christopher Phelps

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998]

Christopher Phelps author of Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist (Cornell University Press), is Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press.

WHO CAN DENY THE ATTRACTIVENESS of Randolph Silliman Bourne? A rebel vindicated in defeat, he was the martyr of a society whose superficial love for the maverick is exceeded only by its habitual discouragement of genuine independence of spirit. An elegant refuter of "pragmatic" pretensions in those who believed that the state, even in a time of unleashed militarism, could be tamed simply by their own moral presence in the corridors of power, Bourne held fast to principle as his erstwhile colleagues at The New Republic accommodated the imperialist carnage of the First World War. When, in 1918, at age 32, he died of influenza -- at the very moment he had been condemned to irrelevance by the intellectual establishment of his day -- his memory was forever seared at a youthful, romantic hour of desperate principle.

Bourne's legend has inspired generations of radicals since, for few 20th-century American dissenters have been so virtuous and yet suffered the wrath of their targets as greatly as Bourne did. By 1917, The New Republic stopped publishing his political pieces. The Seven Arts, a literary "little magazine" Bourne helped to found, collapsed when its financial angel refused further support because of Bourne's anti-war articles. His "pagan" allies at The Masses were defeated when their access to the mails was obstructed by the Wilson administration. "I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times, except perhaps with the Bolsheviki," he wrote to a friend. "The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable. If I start out to write on public matters I discover that my ideas are seditious, and if I start to write a novel I discover that my outlook is immoral if not obscene. What then is a literary man to do if he has to make his living by a pen?"1

Here was genuine quandary, not maudlin self-pity. Even at the Dial, Bourne's last hope among literary magazines, he was stripped from editorial power in 1918 -- the result of an uncharacteristically underhanded intervention by his former mentor John Dewey, one of the objects of Bourne's disillusioned anti-war pen. Just a few weeks later, Bourne was dead, destined to remain forever the intransigent, defiant outcast, forever young, forever the halfway revolutionary socialist with anarchist leanings. ("War is the health of the State," runs that famous refrain from the unpublished, discarded manuscript rescued from his wastebasket at his death.) His oeuvre spanned less than a decade, but it was brilliant. While all around him Socialist and liberal intellectuals backslid, Bourne remained staunch against the wartime storm of xenophobia, militarism, and suppression. As a literary radical, he gave voice in stirring essays to the values of aesthetic beauty, cultural democracy, and personal friendship, ideals that many since have considered in poignant contrast to his own misshapen face and hunchbacked body. Bourne was that rarity: the authentic tragic hero.

In the 1960s, Bourne was often reclaimed as a neglected kindred spirit by radicals who disdained the "Old Left" of the 1930s and 1940s, which they thought had ignored him. But that was presumption bred of partial amnesia, for the resurgence of radicalism during the Depression and the looming Second World War had brought its own variety of rekindled enthusiasm for Bourne -- in certain influential thinkers, if not the whole of the left. Dwight Macdonald, another irrepressible iconoclast, became fond of Bourne during the Second World War, appreciating his germinal insight into the paradox that technocratic accomplishment could produce ever more grandiose machineries of barbarism, culminating in Dachau and Hiroshima. But Bourne's appeal for Macdonald, as for others, was never strictly political. Bourne's vision of aesthetic fulfillment and cultural liberation, his celebration of the restless, idiosyncratic "malcontent," his joining of art to values and politics to culture -- in sum the vibrant spirit of Bourne's project -- was always of equal allure to his anti-war stance. Alfred Kazin, in one of his several memoirs, remembers,

When I read Randolph Bourne and the young Van Wyck Brooks of America's Coming of Age, I could not feel that 1938 was so far from 1912. . . . Like so many literary radicals who were becoming interested in American literature, I thought I could see across the wasteland of the Twenties to our real literary brethren in the utopians and Socialist bohemians of 1912. . . .We were in revolution, prodigiously on the move again, as in that glorious season before the First World War, whose greatest spirits everywhere had been literary radicals, the avant-garde in every department of life.

It was, though, in literature itself that Bourne appeared most unforgettably, in a haunting stanza from 1919 (1932), centerpiece of the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos:

This little sparrowlike man,
tiny twisted bit of flesh in a black cape,
always in pain and ailing,
put a pebble in his sling,
and hit Goliath squarely in the forehead with it.
. . . If any man has a ghost,
Bourne has a ghost,
a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak
hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets
still left in downtown New York,
crying out in a shrill soundless giggle:
War is the health of the State.

Bourne's prestige among Depression-era revolutionists had been greater than radicals of the next generation tended to imagine.2

But by staking an ancestral claim to Bourne, the New Left did nonetheless emphasize aspects of his thought that had generally fallen out of vogue with the dissolution of the Greenwich Village avant garde after 1919. The 60s attraction to cultural revolution, feminism, and libidinal outpourings was not so distant in impulse from the "free love" bohemia of Bourne's time. And Bourne's moral protest against a war justified and planned by sophisticated liberals found special resonance as the Vietnam War escalated. Two new collections of Bourne's essays appeared in 1964 and 1965. And in 1969, Noam Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins, which featured his influential essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," quoted Bourne approvingly against those whose elite stature and ideological "pragmatism" had led them to cut corners on the intellectual's purported commitment to truth.3

SINCE NOW WE INHABIT THE ALLEGEDLY POSTMODERN MOMENT, it was only a matter of time before the present-day incarnation of cultural radicalism would stake its claim to the Bourne legend. So it has. This latest, and most curious, phase in the history of Bourne appreciation was launched in 1992, when literary historian Ross Posnock published an article in one of postmodernism's academic house organs, boundary 2. "The Politics of Nonidentity: A Genealogy" convenes a most surprising group -- Bourne, John Dewey, Theodor Adorno, Henry James, and Michel Foucault -- and finds in them a compatibility previously unrecognized. Although most readers have taken these five to be devoted to very different perspectives, they actually share, Posnock contends, "a certain style of cultural and political inquiry, whose guiding value is nonidentity and whose philosophical orientation is a pragmatic emphasis on creative, experimental action produced by historically embedded subjects."4

Posnock describes his method as "genealogy" and "theoretical confrontation," terms borrowed from Michel Foucault and John Diggins, respectively. At one level, the approach is surely devoid of controversy. No one disputes that cross-examination of divergent thinkers, however wide the chronological or ideological distance between them, is potentially beneficial. In embracing "genealogy," however, Posnock self-declaredly disregards longstanding norms of comparative intellectual history, painted by him with broad brush as "the reigning methodology of contextualism" (34). This blithe disregard for history is what enables Posnock to recast Bourne as a postmodern theorist.

Does the genealogical maneuver, with its repudiation of contextualism, produce new insights about familiar texts in American intellectual history? Does Posnock's ensemble actually share the trait of "nonidentity"? Quite the contrary: a desire to escape the chains of contextuality leads Posnock to dispense with useful historiographical conventions that are neither repressive nor arbitrary. Since history is inescapably contextual, Posnock is often prompted to provide background on his key figures. In those moments, Posnock's amalgamation of James, Bourne, Dewey, Adorno and Foucault seems not simply an "admittedly improbable lineage," as he puts it, but a contrivance that strains credulity. Although Posnock alludes briefly to "unbridgeable differences too numerous to mention" (35) between his selected subjects, "genealogy" permits him to render them compatible. Here, to rework the postmodern metaphor, is a lineage for which not even the best family historian could find documentation down at the Intellectual County Court House.

The key theme of Posnock's discussion of Adorno, Bourne and Dewey (despite ostensible inclusion of Foucault and James, he says virtually nothing about them) is that their social thought was guided by a "politics of nonidentity" which recasts conventional understandings of what constitutes politically responsible behavior for intellectuals. They share, he writes, "a paradoxical effort that engages in public life and upholds intellectual responsibility while resisting conventional modes of engagement and responsibility. They perceive a most basic convention -- affiliation with a particular political party -- as passive submission to a preordained identity that shields one from the hazards of immersion. Instead, these thinkers articulate a politics by embodying it in a style of practice." (42)

A number of assumptions here are open to question. Eschewing party politics is, for instance, just as "conventional" a form of political practice as joining a party; only a slight majority of U.S. registered voters designates a party affiliation, and only half of registrants now vote. Few, if any, modern parties require of their adherents anything so drastic as "submission to a preordained entity that shields one from the hazards of immersion." Indeed, the absence of principle from major party politics is a decisive contribution both to the longevity of their rule and to chronic electoral alienation. In the Democratic Party, labor and capital, industry and environmentalists, Jesse Jacksons and John Huangs -- all lie down together. None is compelled to sacrifice "identity" (though interest, to revert for a moment to an older and impermissible tongue, is another matter).

Membership in a political party per se is an abstract condition that only partially defines and determines one's politics, but membership in certain parties and causes means something more than membership in others. In organizations of the left, principle (distinguished from both opportunism and "preordained" dogmatism) has typically counted for a great deal more. For this reason, positing non-affiliation as a pure ideal for radical intellectuals seems less an unimpeachable affirmation of independent judgment than yet another case of the disorientation afflicting that section of the cultural left which has neglected political organizing while proclaiming as "radical" a mode of intellectual practice which adds up to little more than writing esoteric articles for journals read exclusively by other academics.

What should most raise concern, intellectually speaking, are the misrepresentations that issue from Posnock's attempt to legitimate through genealogical bricolage his personal fondness for "non-affiliation." Given his desire to articulate a tradition of "nonidentity," it is deeply ironic that Posnock does so by identifying figures whose theoretical projects were, even in their own opinion, incompatible. Prevailing understandings of Adorno are not violated by the assertion that he refrained from direct political engagement. But Posnock wants to have it that Bourne and Dewey, too, "spurn party affiliation." All three, he argues, adopted a distinct style, political but not partisan. They developed, he says, not programs but dispositions, characterized by open-ended flexibility.

Dewey learned to act in such a manner, Posnock believes, after Bourne drove home to him the dangers of political affiliation during their famous rift over the First World War. Bourne is, in this sense, the well-spring of Posnock's "politics of nonidentity." The resultant depiction of Bourne's cultural radicalism is mixed. Posnock astutely describes the role Bourne proposed for the intellectual as malcontent and ironist, a role distinct from the traditional conception of intellectuals as occupants of transcendent moral positions. But Posnock also attributes to Bourne the idea that "neutrality" is "the most effective practice of intellectuals," because "theory or neutrality places one not on the aloof outside but in the turbulent inside" (37). This formulation confuses Bourne's position on the war, a call for U.S. neutrality, with the whole of his intellectual disposition. Bourne's strong condemnation of the war was hardly "a powerful neutrality." Yet Posnock's designation is deliberate, for he wants to have it that Bourne's writings were not really about the war: "Running through his famous cluster of war essays is a powerful critique of pragmatism, which tends to be lost or minimized by commentators who claim that Bourne's primary concern is to articulate a pacifist position. But as the historian Paul Bourke has shown, Bourne's is not a pacifist stance. Indeed, he 'was not talking about the war, at least not in any way that was relevant to the business of prosecuting or ending it.' " (49)

That Bourne was not a pacifist, though he opposed the First World War, is uncontroversial. But Bourne's war essays were not actually about the war? To be sure, their scope also took in more than the war: the moral responsibility and abject capitulation of the intellectuals, the general crisis of American culture, the fissure of pragmatism. But as Macdonald and Chomsky accurately perceived, Bourne's wartime writings constituted an eloquent critique of militaristic barbarism, restating radical fundamentals with brilliant pith. "War is the health of the state": didn't that have anything to do with the First World War?

By making "neutrality" the descriptive term for Bourne's political standpoint we risk obfuscating his relentless engagement. Bourne did not, as dictated by the "politics of non-identity," object to partisanship on behalf of revolutionary organization, as may be seen in his essay "What is Exploitation?" (1916), one of several places where he defended wholeheartedly the revolutionary union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World. Bourne's agony over Dewey's endorsement of the war had nothing to do with "party affiliation." Bourne was simply stunned that his mentor would support a destructive war serving the interests of capital, empire, and reaction.

"Commitment" would be a far better word than "non-affiliation" to describe Bourne's intellectual disposition. Posnock is correct that Bourne's war essays concern pragmatism, but Bourne did far more than criticize pragmatism's "craving for action" (49). As most intellectual historians now emphasize, the argument of Bourne with Dewey was largely conducted on pragmatist grounds. He invoked the memory of Harvard pragmatist William James, who had opposed imperialism at the turn of the century, to criticize the vulgar subordination of ends to "war-technique" that had overrun the nation. He lambasted Dewey and his New Republic epigones for failing to see that the war did not create new opportunities for intelligent action but rather frustrated intelligence and democracy. Yet Bourne did not back away from political action. He still sought intelligent activity, but he arrived at the discriminating judgment that not every institution or historical event is plastic and open to action. He also, of course, began to argue that pragmatism required correction and supplementation from the spheres of values and poetry, and it is hard to know exactly what course he would have charted in relation to pragmatism had his life not been cut short by influenza.5

Beneath Posnock's "nonidentity" -- the more commonplace term "anti-foundationalism" would suffice just as well -- is the assumption that philosophical repudiation of absolute ontological certainty must involve not just recognition of the contingency of experience but a belief in its arbitrariness. Not only, in Posnock's view, should we "topple the intellectual from a position of privileged moral vision to a far less stable vantage" (67), not only should we renounce the pretense of mastery and certainty, but we should celebrate "impossibility." Here Posnock misses the significance of the pragmatist postulation of the provisionality of understanding, which does not suggest the impossibility of knowledge, let alone salute it. Dewey did not recommend, as Posnock puts it, becoming "splendidly adequate by surrendering the desire to achieve adequacy" (68). Dewey strove insofar as was possible to arrive at provisional truths, while remaining aware of human fallibility and the need to remain open to correction and revision. The desire to achieve adequacy was precisely Dewey's philosophical modus operandi: adequacy supplants the illusion of final certainty.

A celebration of critical intellectual life, despite what Posnock appears to think, does not require withdrawal from politics in the ordinary senses of contest for state power and party affiliation. It does require that politics not be limited to those means. Anti-foundationalism, likewise, may easily be integrated with standard forms of political practice. Bourne and Dewey, properly understood, are proof of that possibility. It would be tragic to transform the legacy of Bourne and Dewey, whose lifelong desire was for cultural reconstruction and democratic renewal, into postmodern irrationalists pursuing a new variant of the old pipe dream of "unaffiliated" intellectuals. Bourne and Dewey should instead show us the possibility of combining a philosophy divested of absolutism with a politics committed to radical social change. Each in his own way had shortcomings, starting most obviously with Dewey's abject failings during the First World War. But theirs was never a politics "nonidentity" burdened by "impossibility." Theirs was a politics of democratic and engaged radicalism, aware of the limitations on human action but searching always for liberatory possibilities.

THE POSTMODERNIST DISDAIN FOR HISTORICAL CONVENTIONS (and in this we may take Posnock's article as an ideal type) inevitably flirts with "impossibility," that is to say, nihilism. As John Bellamy Foster writes, postmodernist skepticism eschews "not only grand historical narratives but also the very idea of meaning in history.... By undermining the very concept of history -- in any meaningful sense beyond mere story-telling -- such theorists have robbed critical analysis of what has always been its most indispensable tool." For precisely this reason, the new vogue for Bourne represents a decided step backward in American cultural criticism, despite its advocates' own conviction that they have discerned a more radical Bourne than any earlier commentator could possibly perceive.6

Perhaps this is the time to specify that "genealogy" is the preferred term used by postmodernists, following Foucault, to describe their renderings of the past shorn of context and "metanarrative" -- a sort of irrationalist makeshift substitute for historical inquiry. It has nothing to do with family history, which remains a legitimate pursuit if attuned to wider vistas. While "genealogy" remains high fashion in some quarters, in intellectual affairs it is not likely to be of enduring significance. Its obsolescence is almost certain, not for the trite reason that theoretical fashions inevitably change but because "genealogy" is a terribly confused concept, more style than method. Either it encourages a fatuous contempt for perfectly legitimate criteria and modes of understanding (such as chronology and context), else, despite the conceit that it occupies a cutting edge, it claims for itself observations about the past that could just as easily be (and often already have been) made from unabashedly historical points of view.

Randolph Bourne and the Politics of Cultural Radicalism (1997), by political scientist Leslie J. Vaughan, is an occasionally insightful book that is weakened discernibly by its fashionable attachment to "genealogy."7 While capable of neat turns of phrase and occasional creative insights into Bourne's writings, Vaughan, a great admirer of Ross Posnock's boundary 2 article, is blithely inattentive to chronology and context, except where it suits her. Her prejudice against plain historical analysis as unduly constrictive leads to an inflated sense of the value of "genealogy." Consider, for example, this declaration: "Ideas and events that might be considered a failure from a political perspective can from a cultural perspective be recovered as a triumph." (14) Do we need "genealogy" for that? Was not E. P. Thompson, a historical materialist if ever one were, rescuing defeated alternatives from "the enormous condescension of posterity" long before the vogue of the postmodern?

Meanwhile that which is genuinely new in Randolph Bourne and the Politics of Cultural Radicalism is often not as clear or persuasive as the scholarship that preceded it. It is one thing to say that Bourne was not a pacifist, despite his opposition to the First World War -- a point numerous scholars have made. It is quite another to say that he rejected the notion that "one must be pro-war or anti-war; there was no in-between." (56) That odd interpretation invites confusion on the scale of the Posnockian "politics of non-identity." For the historical Bourne there was no "in-between" when it came to pro-war and anti-war positions; without any question whatsoever, he was decidedly anti-war.

Yet for the most part the claims of Randolph Bourne and the Politics of Cultural Radicalism to depart radically from past scholarship is contradicted by Vaughan's tendency to reproduce typical insights of the literature, claiming them as fresh. Vaughan is sometimes subtle and interesting in her exploration of such dimensions of Bourne's thought as youth and generational politics, feminism and the family, outmoded Victorian middle-class norms, and personality and the good life. She maintains that Bourne stood outside of conventional Progressivism. She situates his educational writings as part of his political and cultural criticism. But in none of these points does she hint that all of these arguments, though she presents them at times with unique inflection, are conventional in terms of the existing commentary on Bourne. In her analysis of whether Bourne, in his infamous 1917 debate with John Dewey, actually rejected pragmatism, Vaughan captures well Bourne's ambivalence as he grew ever more disgusted with technocratic liberalism and intellectual capitulation to the war but still continued to be shaped by pragmatist norms of judgment. All of this, however, is accepted in the standard recountings of this set-piece in American intellectual history. In all these matters Vaughan is generally accurate; the complication lies in her claim, by way of "genealogy," to have uncovered new truths.8

One noteworthy exception is Vaughan's welcome attention to Bourne's Nietzscheanism, largely invisible in the standard Bourne commentary despite Bourne's open admiration for Nietzsche. It bears consideration that Vaughan, directly out of her respect for the granddaddy of "genealogists," is the one to bring to our attention that, "For Nietzsche, as for Bourne, it was in the balance between order and artful creation and the vitalism and energy of the pagan that a culture could regenerate itself." (4) Yet while "genealogy" attunes her to this connection above any other Bourne commentator, it also damages her ability to pursue the insight, which fails to rise above the level of mere assertion. Vaughan neither supplies textual analysis of Nietzsche to demonstrate his influence on Bourne nor explores much of Bourne's own specification of his indebtedness to Nietzsche nor pays attention to the political significance of Bourne's looking to a German philosopher for inspiration during the First World War nor shows much interest in the permutation of Nietzsche in Bourne's hands. (After all Bourne remained, quite incongruously for a Nietszchean, a radical democrat in things political and cultural, as Vaughan recognizes but does not explain. Take his extraordinary 1916 essay "Trans-National America," still a vital resource for attempts to imagine a common democratic culture in a nation of diverse national origins and experiences.)

FEW NOW RECALL the Stalinist claim to Bourne contained in the embarrassing attempt by Communist critic Samuel Sillen, shortly after Dewey's death, to enlist Bourne's memory in pro-Soviet polemic. During the First World War, claimed Sillen crudely, Bourne believed "that Dewey was a philosopher of the ruling class and that his instrumentalism was eminently suited for the uses of imperialist warmakers."9

Since the postmodern Bourne is thus hardly the first untenable Bourne -- the Stalinist Bourne takes that cake -- he probably will not be the last. Many Bournes seem our inescapable fate. Why not, then, more worthy ones? Why not an interpretation that resists reducing Bourne's cultural radicalism to any one of its elements -- feminism, celebration of friendship and free personality, revolutionary sympathies, opposition to militarism and war, pragmatism, poetry -- and instead keeps them all in play? Why not one that restores to full view his political understandings of class struggle and arguments for "Socialist Industrial Democracy"? Why not one that takes his opposition to exploitation and capital as just as vital as his opposition to state and war? Perhaps such a new Bourne may arise if a new generation of students, one more attuned to labor conditions and less inclined than the New Left to reject pragmatism out of hand, begins to read Bourne for themselves. Just as the youth of the 1960s found in Bourne a redoubtable libertarian ancestor, a dissident against war and liberal compromise, so students today might find in Bourne much to admire and much contemporary resonance. (Though in the present, pieces like the 1915 New Republic essay "Who Owns the Universities?" are likely to come alive more than the war essays that occasioned prior Bournes.)

We may hope the new generation will not merely admire and lay claim to Bourne, as others have, but will find the courage and spirit to live as Bourne did, to create fresh forms of radical politics and culture, to escape the scholastic slough into which Bourne seems, along with much of cultural studies, to have sunk. Perhaps if we set ourselves to actually practicing cultural criticism and radical politics, rather than supplying pale ruminations on their value, the ghost of Bourne will giggle down our streets again.


  1. Randolph Bourne to Everett Benjamin, November 26,1917, in The World of Randolph Bourne, ed. Lillian Schlissel (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1965): 313. return

  2. Alfred Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989): 136-137; John Dos Passos, 1919 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946): 117, 199. return

  3. Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon, 1969): 5-8. return

  4. Ross Posnock, "The Politics of Nonidentity: A Genealogy," boundary 2 19 (1992): 35. All subsequent page references in parentheses in main body. return

  5. On the Bourne-Dewey debate and pragmatism, see especially Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell, 1991): 196, n. 2; and Casey Blake, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1990): 158. The pragmatist cast of Bourne's criticism of Dewey was even expressed as early as Lillian Schlissel's introduction to The World of Randolph Bourne (New York: Dutton, 1965): xv-xlix. return

  6. John Bellamy Foster, "In Defense of History," in In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, ed. Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (New York: Monthly Review, 1997): 187, 191. return

  7. Leslie J. Vaughan, Randolph Bourne and the Politics of Cultural Radicalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997). Page references in parentheses in text. return

  8. Particularly bothersome is Vaughan's attempts to distance herself through criticism of the prior work of Casey Blake and Christopher Lasch, whose proximity to one another she exaggerates, and whose position -- often exactly the same as hers -- she distorts beyond recognition. From Vaughan's account one might easily believe that Lasch and Blake, both Bourne admirers, scorned him. Her central claim, that Bourne showed the way toward a radical politics of culture, is, for example, precisely what both Lasch and Blake most explored and admired in Bourne, though no one could possibly know that from Vaughan's strange characterizations of their writings. See Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Knopf, 1965), and Casey Blake, Beloved Community. return

  9. Samuel Sillen, "The Challenge of Randolph Bourne," Masses and Mainstream 6 (Dec. 1953): 24-32. Some of Sillen's other points, such as his comparison of Bourne and John Reed, were surprisingly adequate. return

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