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Bourne Again

In his new book Only a Voice: Essays (Verso, 2023), the critic and essayist George Scialabba brings to our attention the wisdom of two authors who analyzed the dangers of war: Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald. In this week’s column, I’d like to discuss what Scialabba says about them.

Bourne will be a familiar name to many readers owing to Murray Rothbard’s praise of him, but he was not a libertarian. Like John Dewey, he was a Progressive and a pragmatist who looked forward to “scientific management” as the way to solve America’s social problems. Scialabba describes Bourne’s view in this way:

In the experimental, antidogmatic, and—not least important—communal character of scientific practice, pragmatists beheld the image of a possible future. Dewey had shown, Bourne wrote, that the “scientific method is simply a sublimely well-ordered copy of our own best and most fruitful habits of thought.” From this apparently innocuous formulation, Bourne drew a radical (though not fully worked out) conclusion: maximizing the national welfare was a technical problem.

In the phrase “apparently innocuous,” Scialabba has hit upon the key problem with the program of Dewey and Bourne. If you equate the scientific method with what works best in practice, it by no means follows that a planned economy is what should be established, and the same is true for the various other programs the Progressives favored. “Scientific” has become in their usage an empty word of praise, bereft of meaning.

Bourne was not wrong, though, to favor being open-minded, and, unlike his mentor Dewey, he recognized that you could not be open-minded and an avid participant in war. Scialabba observes that “America’s entry into World War I concentrated [Bourne’s] mind wonderfully and provoked the series of furiously eloquent essays for which he is best known today.”

Scialabba succinctly describes Bourne’s most important insights about war.

“The war—or American promise,” he pleaded, “one must choose.” As censorship and irrationalism increased throughout the country, Bourne insisted, nearly alone, that cultural pluralism could not survive national mobilization. War enhances state power and undermines local, decentralized initiative; it makes passivity, apathy, conformism, and cynicism the normal relation between the citizen and the state; paradoxically, modern bureaucratized war makes public-spiritedness superfluous. In Bourne’s memorable phrase: “War is the health of the state.”

Bourne’s argument is interesting. It does not stress war hysteria, the way that people become emotionally involved in fighting the hated enemy, although of course plenty of that existed in World War I. The bigger danger, according to Bourne, is that people tend to follow the dictates of the government blindly. With a centralized bureaucracy in charge of the war, there was no need for the public to suggest ideas independently. Underlying Bourne’s argument there is an implicit tension between the “scientific” planning supported by the Progressive intellectuals including Bourne himself and his advocacy of individual initiative. In a centrally directed economy, there is little or no room for individual initiative.

Why didn’t Dewey, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and other Progressive intellectuals, all friends of Bourne, agree with his warnings about war? The answer does them little credit. They thought that opposing the war would make them lose influence with both the government and the public. Their fear of being marginalized was not mistaken, but to alter your views to gain attention is cynicism at its worst. Scialabba remarks:

All this outraged Bourne, who replied with a combination of penetrating analysis and coruscating sarcasm. In his colleagues’ eagerness to subserve official policy he saw the corruption of pragmatism and, more generally, the proneness of intellectuals to a mystique of “action” and “commitment.” They had supported intervention, he charged, from a “dread of intellectual suspense”—a readiness to minimize their own principled objections to the war for fear of ending up in a posture of futile opposition or of offering an appearance of sentimental idealism. They convinced themselves that power would allow itself to be guided by expertise—their expertise.

Dwight Macdonald is probably best remembered today for his indictment of “middlebrow” culture, but he also made a fundamental point about the nature of war and collective responsibility which has libertarian implications. During World War II, reports of German and Japanese atrocities inflamed public opinion, and many called for collective punishment of the German and Japanese people. Macdonald objected that the notion of “collective responsibility” is abhorrent. People are responsible only for what they themselves do, not for what their governments do. If collective responsibility were to be accepted, the American people would be in a difficult situation. Scialabba notes that in Macdonald’s 1945 essay “The Responsibility of Peoples,”

he asked why, if all Germans were held responsible for Nazi atrocities, all Americans should not be held responsible for Allied atrocities. The latter included the saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities (which took more than a million civilian lives), widespread starvation in “liberated” Europe, bloody repression of the Greek Communist resistance, refusal to allow more than a few European Jews to immigrate to the United States, and the reckless initiation of atomic warfare.

Macdonald’s provocative argument was “a challenge to national chauvinism, a rebuttal of the tacit assumption that the other side’s atrocities somehow extenuate one’s own.”

In what way does Macdonald’s rejection of collective responsibility have libertarian implications? Scialabba’s answer is that accepting people’s collective responsibility for state-mandated crimes rests on viewing people as organically unified by the state, which becomes the “brain” controlling the public’s “body.” If you reject the organic conception, you will wind up with the Austrian and libertarian view that only individuals act. (I say more about collective responsibility in my review of Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans.)

In these days of wars and massacres, we have much to learn from Bourne and Macdonald.

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