John Dos Passos wrote, that if ever a man had a ghost it was Bourne:
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.
Dos Passos, 1919 (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932), pp. 105-106.Order now
When World War I erupted it came as a surprise to the overwhelming majority of American intellectuals. Its barbarity stuck them as anachronistic and they tended to view the conflict as a temporary sidetrack in the march of civilization, an expression of residual animal instincts. The dawn of the Enlightenment and the tremendous progress made in the Nineteenth Century made war seem quite uncharacteristic (in their view) of humanity’s evolving nature.
Of course, they saw themselves as important and instrumental in defining and fine tuning that nature. On the leading edge of political and social brilliance, ivy-league educated, born to lead and with the silver spoon in the mouth to prove it, they were socialists. And when President Woodrow Wilson (who had been re-elected as a peace candidate, under the slogan, “He kept us out of war”) opted to throw the full weight of the country’s resources into the European conflict, they rallied to his support.
Randolph Bourne, who was to die in the flu epidemic shortly after the Armistice, cried out alone against the betrayal of the values of civilization by his fellow writers. He and his magazine paid a heavy price and, of course, he did not live to see the backlash following the war. The damage had been done; the stage was set for the idiocy of the conditions at Versailles, the ascendency of Adolph Hitler, the unimaginable horrors of National Socialism, and the destruction of the cities of Europe within the next thirty years.
Bourne’s articles appeared in a magazine, The Seven Arts. One of his essays, The War and the Intellectuals, appears here. I hope that this may prompt a new generation’s student to pursue further research into the brief life and ideas of a man who, as Dos Passos wrote, does indeed have a ghost.