Thursday, October 6, 2011

Randolph Bourne: The War and The Intellectuals

Randolph Bourne was an American journalist. His article The War and The Intellectuals was published in a literary journal called The Seven Arts in June of 1917, a few months after the United States entered the war. In the article, Bourne wrote critically of the intellectual class and their backing of the war.  
 "If our intellectuals were going to lead the administration, they might conceivably have tried to find some way of securing peace by making neutrality effective. They might have turned their intellectual energy not to the problem of jockeying the nation into war, but to the problem of using our vast neutral power to attain democratic ends for the rest of the world and ourselves without the use of the malevolent technique of war. They might have failed. The point is that they scarcely tried."
Bourne felt that the intellectuals of the age should have tried harder to find a solution for the problems in Europe that wouldn't result in war. He thought that American neutrality should have been used to resolve the issues at the root of the war.
 "We go to war to save the world from subjugation! But the German intellectuals went to war to save their culture from barbarization! And the French went to war to save their beautiful France! And the English to save international honor! And Russia, most altruistic and self-sacrificing of all, to save a small State from destruction! Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalizations float like bubbles?"
Bourne disagreed with the "reasons" that America went to war. He saw those reasons as rationalizations and excuses made by intellectuals who were not strong enough to stand up against the tide and push for the unpopular anti-war agenda. He did not think that those excuses would hold up under deeper scrutiny.
"The case of the intellectuals seems, therefore, only very speciously rational. They could have used their energy to force a just peace or at least to devise other means than war for carrying through American policy. They could have used their intellectual energy to ensure that our participation in the war meant the international order which they wish. Intellect was not so used. It was used to lead an apathetic nation into an irresponsible war, without guarantees from those belligerents whose cause we were saving."
Again, Bourne thought that the United States should not have entered the war. He thought that we should have used our distance and neutrality to bring about a peaceful resolution to the war. He did not think that the intellectuals effectively used their intelligence to diplomatically resolve the issues behind the war. 
"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."
 Bourne saw war not as a foregone conclusion, but something to be fought against relentlessly. He understood why so many intellectuals went along with the war. He saw that they thought fighting against it was hopeless and that being for the war would at least keep them free and from being persecuted. But still, he argued against it. He argued that war was not the solution, but the bigger problem. He was disappointed in American intellectuals for going along with the war and he fervently tried to dissuade them from that path.

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