The Radicalism of Randolph Bourne Introduction by David R. Henderson

Nikhil Pal Singh, a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University, has written, in the New Statesman, an interesting article on Randolph Bourne, an antiwar writer during World War I after whom’s Randolph Bourne Institute is named.

What stands out to this reader is also the reason the Randolph Bourne Institute is named after him: his principled, vocal opposition to America’s involvement in World War I at a time when that meant being critical of his progressive friends, in particular those at The New Republic magazine.

The article mentions one major way in which Bourne differs from many of us who are critical of the U.S. government’s wars. Professor Singh writes, "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." It’s understandable why Bourne thought this way. After all, Congress did follow the Constitution and actually declare war in 1917. But the last time Congress officially declared war was against Romania on June 5, 1942. Yet the executive branch has conducted dozens of wars. I, for one, would welcome a little "constitutional fetishism" because that would mean that Congress would reclaim its rightful role.

While the views of the readers of vary widely, the vast majority of our readers will find something valuable in Professor Singh’s article.

The Radicalism of Randolph Bourne

by Nikhil Pal Singh for the NewStatesmanAmerica

Randolph Bourne lived a short life that began as cruelly as it ended. At his birth in 1886, a traumatic delivery deformed his face; at the age of four a battle with tuberculosis affected his growth and left his back permanently hunched. Raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in a familial milieu characterised by suffocating respectability and downward fortunes, Bourne chafed at the forces and limitations that he felt restraining him. Wryly affirming his distance from the “normal person… of the middle-middle class,” he mused that he must have seemed “very queer out there” in the world. Armed with an ironist’s wit and acid pen, he would soon transform any premature gloominess about his life’s prospects into a startlingly creative vision of personal agency and collective filiation.

In 1911, in one of his earliest published essays, “The Handicapped – By One of Them”, Bourne laid claim to a “philosophy gained through personal disability and failure”. His physical experience, he noted, disposed him against the “cheap optimism of the ordinary professional man” and a “reactionary press and pulpit”, and towards a radicalism of defiance and experimentation.

In his brief, glittering career as a man of letters, Bourne would explore gaps and antinomies – between youth and age, men and women, self-consciousness and social engagement, the uncertain play of culture and the polemical cut of politics. Against the dead weight of American conformism, Bourne sought vitality in fellowship with outsiders: the “despised and ignored… the unpresentable and the unemployable, the incompetent and the ugly, the queer and crotchety people who make up so large a proportion of human folk”.

Read the rest of the article at the NewStatesmanAmerica