The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Dearly Beloved: The Apostolate of Randolph Bourne

Eugene McCarraher

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

“Do we not want minds with a touch of the apostolic about them and a certain edge?” Randolph Bourne asked readers of The Dial early in the spring of 1918. The question was personal: Bourne had watched in anger and bewilderment as John Dewey, his former mentor, recruited liberals to become enlightened managers in the human machinery of the “war-technique.” Dewey contended that the prosecution of the conflict now known as World War I, however repressive and brutal, would provide an invaluable laboratory for progressive social reconstruction. A few months earlier, Bourne had written a series of essays rebuking the Progressive intelligentsia for their willingness to wallow in the rising and rancid “sewage of the war spirit” and enlist their intellectual talents in the service of corporate business and the military—“the least democratic forces in American life,” he pointedly reminded them.1

Bourne learned swiftly that no good deed goes unpunished; on account of his fiery insolence, editors at formerly friendly journals such as The New Republic shunned him. By the end of the year, he was dead—ostracized, reduced to penury, and eventually claimed by the influenza epidemic that would kill more than fifty million worldwide.2

Had he lived, Bourne would have been the avenging angel of what he called “malcontentedness,” the restive critical spirit that refuses any facile affirmation of or compromise with power. His critical edge has been sharpened and wielded by subsequent generations of malcontents. In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky and other opponents of the Vietnam War revived his indictment of intellectual obeisance to the state and rediscovered his analysis of the “war-technique” and its bland administration of slaughter. More recently, alarmed by the interventionist inclinations of many contemporary liberal intellectuals, Jackson Lears has recalled the antimilitarist Bourne who lamented that the modern “war-technique” stifles dissent, entrenches imperialism, and intensifies nationalist antagonisms.3

This is the Randolph Bourne we know best, the one with “a certain edge”: the incisive critic and indomitable iconoclast, the enemy of falsehood, acquiescence, and evasion, eschewing cant and demolishing the idol of “the State,” the subject of a treatise left unfinished at his death. But there’s also the “apostolic” Bourne, whom we don’t know, or don’t know well enough, or have difficulty fathoming: the Bourne who heralded “the Beloved Community.”

He borrowed this term from fellow pragmatist Josiah Royce, who used it to name the desire for love and justice traversing history—a community, Royce wrote, “metaphysically defensible as an expression of the life and spiritual significance of the whole universe.” As the setting for “the good life of personality,” the Beloved Community marked, for Bourne, a felicitous convergence of personal fulfillment and democratic citizenship, the consummation of the Greenwich Village left’s bohemian marriage of cultural and political radicalism.4

Bourne the iconoclast and Bourne the apostle provide a case study in two hermeneutics of political imagination: the modern hermeneutic of suspicion and critique, epitomized in Marx and Nietzsche, and an ancient hermeneutic of friendship and love, exemplified by Aristotle and Augustine. Like Bourne (by way of Antonio Gramsci), we live in an age when an old order is dying and a new one is struggling to be born; unlike him (and not by way of Gramsci), we dread that it may be little more than a never-ending interregnum of morbid symptoms. Because the symptoms require diagnosis, the edgy hermeneutic of suspicion remains a powerful instrument of political pathology. Bourne’s critique of militarism remains indispensable in an era of permanent but invisible war, and we should amplify and complement his irreverence toward the State with a kindred disenchantment with the Market.

But is “malcontentedness” enough? We need a regeneration of visionary grandeur by “minds with a touch of the apostolic about them” who can conjure a political imagination. True resistance to the cretinous evils of our day requires Bourne’s capacious conception of politics as the quest for a Beloved Community. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a necessary tool, but our politics needs a hermeneutic of love. As Alan Jacobs warns us, “Suspicion elevated to a cardinal principle…is the annulment of hope.”5

Although he was more iconoclast than apostle, Bourne can point us toward a politics of love. We might use what Bourne called “poetic vision” as a point of departure for transfiguring our increasingly malignant political culture. But as Bourne himself realized, a vision can do so only if it is more than poetic; unlike most of his Progressive and bohemian friends, Bourne realized that politics was ontological, even religious, at its deepest foundation.

If Bourne failed in his poetic apostolate, his attempt is nonetheless instructive: The Beloved Community is, in the end, a political sacrament of love. If the people perish where there is no vision, iconoclasm can be complicit in their demise; smashing idols cannot tell us what is worthy of our love, and critique cannot generate desire. Can we even envision a Beloved Community where nothing is lovable, let alone sacred?

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Notes

  1. Randolph S. Bourne, “Traps for the Unwary,” The Dial 64 (March 28, 1918), 279; “The War and the Intellectuals,” in The Radical Will: Selected Writings 1911–1918, ed. Olaf Hansen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), 307, 308, first published 1917.
  2. Bruce Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), is a useful overview of Bourne’s life and work.
  3. Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” in Radical Will, 346–47, first published 1917; Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in American Power and the New Mandarins (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1969), 5–8; Jackson Lears, “Pragmatic Realism and the American Century,” in The Short American Century: A Postmortem, ed. Andrew Bacevich (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 92–96.
  4. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity: Volume I (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001; first published 1913), xxvi; Bourne, “Trans-National America,” in Radical Will, 264, first published 1916; Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1997; first published 1965), 69–103; Casey Nelson Blake, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), see especially 117–19; Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 209–22; Dwight Macdonald, “Randolph Bourne,” politics 1 (March 1944): 35–36; Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009, first published 1952), 263.
  5. Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 90.

Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. He is the author of the forthcoming The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism as the Religion of Modernity.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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