The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

Dearly Beloved

The Apostolate of Randolph Bourne

Eugene McCarraher

Illustration of Randolph Bourne by Lyle Hehn; courtesy of the artist.

Randolph Bourne: a case study in two hermeneutics of political imagination.

“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.11xRandolph 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.

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.22xBruce 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.

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