Power  /  Biography

The Radicalism of Randolph Bourne

Bourne’s affinity with outsiders drove his vision of making North America a united states of communities. His writings have become more relevant than ever.

... In 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King sounded like Bourne when he described the US as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence”. King, too, sought to reimagine the nation as a “beloved community,” built on sympathies that were “ecumenical, not sectional”. ***

... In 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King sounded like Bourne when he described the US as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence”. King, too, sought to reimagine the nation as a “beloved community,” built on sympathies that were “ecumenical, not sectional”. ***

Bourne is someone to think with in these times. Living as we do at the end of capitalism’s generation-long crisis of stagnation, widening inequality, and sharpening international tensions, his writings feel urgent. As he put it in his essay “Youth” (1913), “new movements are born in young minds”. He inverted the cliché that maturity precipitates greater realism: “Old age lives in the delusion that it has improved and rationalised its youthful ideas by experience and stored-up wisdom, when all it has done is to damage them more or less… The tragedy of life is that the world is run by these damaged ideals.” These insights prefigured his own disillusionment with his progressive elders who supported war. In them, he identified one of the most consequential failings of liberal thought, namely an optimistic tendency to view the US as a self-correcting project rather than something in need of radical revision.

Bourne’s eclecticism has allowed him to be appropriated by both the left and by libertarian opponents of the state. In the end, he is probably better understood as a radical democrat, someone who in the face of intolerable injustice chose to “divide, confuse, disturb, keep the intellectual waters constantly in motion”, to throw “sand in the gears of the machinery”. And just as he was an isolated figure at the end of his life, he is still a thinker who none can fully claim. That said, Bourne’s persistent disapproval of the intellectual’s affiliation with power, and his own restless opposition to state violence exercised in the name of the people, could not be more relevant. Bourne’s demand for the “democratic control of foreign policy” also resonates after more than a century of warfare.

Above all, Bourne’s writing reminds us that the modern democratic state exemplified by the US is less the “rational creation of a new day,” than the “decrepit scion” of the plantation patriarch and town capitalist dressed up in glittering generalities of freedom and democracy. We should have never expected, as he put it, that such a system would “crumble before the anger of a few muckrakers, the disillusionment of a few radical sociologists, or the assaults of proletarian minorities”. Bourne concluded that a more concerted assault was in order, one that would begin by restoring the revolutionary impetus of popular sovereignty against constitutional fetishism – setting a “demand for democracy” against the “hidden but genuine permanence of control” that the constitution gave to America’s ruling classes.

Bourne died in 1918, aged 32, during the flu pandemic that took the lives of more than half a million Americans between 1918 and 1920. The weakening of his body matched the collapse of the optimism that had so enlivened his intellect. He was dismayed, even heartbroken, by his country’s entry in ...