Randolph Bourne and the Politics of Cultural Radicalism
Leslie J. Vaughan
In the "little rebellion" that swept New York's Greenwich Village before World War I, few figures stood out more than Randolph Bourne. Hunchbacked and caped—the "little sparrowlike man" of Dos Passos' U.S.A.—Bourne was an essayist and critic most remembered today for his opposition to U.S. military involvement in Europe and his assertion that "war is the health of the state." A frequent contributor to The New Republic, he died in 1918 at the age of 32, arguing that a "military-industrial" complex would continue to shape the policies of the modern liberal state.
Bourne is also recognized as one of the founders of American cultural radicalism, revered in turn by Marxists, anti-fascists, and the New Left. Through his writings, he debated issues that were cultural as well as political from a position he described as "below the battle," rejecting the either/or political options of his day in favor of a viewpoint that argued outside the terms set by the establishment.
“Vaughan sees Bourne and his generation from a fresh perspective, and renders an important service to all students of early-20th-century US history.”
“Vaughan’s impressive scholarship and clear prose make Randolph Bourne a pleasure to read.”
“An important contribution to the study of modern American political thought. Vaughan’s excellent grasp of the workings of psychosocial dynamics at the dawn of the twentieth century, combined with her lucid exposition of the connections and tensions among American liberalism, multiculturalism, aesthetics, and democracy, make her book valuable to both a general audience and specialists in the discipline.”
—American Political Science Review
“Explicates, often brilliantly, the links between Bourne’s cultural and political views. It makes a strong case for his centrality to debates over the meaning of American liberalism.”
—Journal of American Ethnic History
“The extraordinary importance and resonance of Randolph Bourne is brilliantly revealed in this reading of him as living and thinking at the opening of American modernity. By getting closer than any other critic to the historical Bourne, Leslie Vaughan captures the complexity and creativity of his inheritance of progressive rationality and embrace of Nietzschean desire. More clearly and powerfully than anyone else, she elaborates and supports his redefinition of the political, of its relation to the aesthetic, and of the relation of the intellectual to democratic politics. This outstanding book makes Bourne available in a fresh way for our own conversations about liberalism, multiculturalism, and democracy.”
—Thomas Bender, author of New York Intellect and Intellect and Public Life
“By stressing Bourne’s autobiographical writings, his focus on generational politics, and his call for the creation of a new democratic (and ironic) personality to supplant the liberal ideal of character, Vaughan extends the location of American political thought into the complex (and dangerous) terrain of culture and spirit. As a self-styled marginal and outcast, Bourne’s cultural-political vision is a timely reminder that issues of identity and inclusion have long been just beneath the surface of American political discourse. By recovering and synthesizing this vision, Vaughan does both Bourne and contemporary political thinking a notable service.”
—Eldon J. Eisenach, author of The Lost Promise of ProgressivismSee fewer reviews...
In her new study of Bourne's political thought, Leslie Vaughan maintains that this position was not, as others have contended, a retreat from politics but rather a different form of political engagement, freed from the suppositions that impede genuine debate and democratic change. Her analysis challenges previous readings of Bourne's politics, showing that he offered non-statist, neighborhood-based politics in America's modern cities as a practical alternative to involvement in the national state and its militarism.
By demonstrating Bourne's emphasis on politics as local, multi-ethnic, and intergenerational, Vaughan shows that his thought offered a new political discourse and set of cultural possibilities for American society in an era he was the first to label as "post-modern." Returning to the influence of Nietzsche on his thought, she also explores the role Bourne played in the creation of his own myth.
Eighty years later, Bourne can be seen to stand at the cusp of the modern and the post-modern worlds, as he speaks to today's multiculturalist movement. In reexamining Bourne's writings, Vaughan has located the roots of twenthieth-century radical thought while repositioning Bourne at the center of debates about the nature and limits of American liberalism.