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Randolph Bourne: Conscience and Intelligence in War


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Randolph Bourne: Selections on war


Randolph Bourne
Conscience and Intelligence in War (1917)


Italics added

The merely “conscientious objector” has absorbed too much attention from those who are concerned about understanding the non-popularity of our participation in the war. Not all the pacifist feeling has had an evangelical color. There is an element of anti-war sentiment which has tried to be realistic, and does not hope to defeat war merely by not doing something. Though events have been manipulated against it, this element neither welcomes martyrdom nor hopes to be saved for its amiable sentiments. And it is just this attitude, far more significantly “American” than “conscientious objection,” that John Dewey has ignored in his recent article on “Conscience and Compulsion.” The result has been to apply his pragmatic philosophy in its least convincing form.

His criticism is of the merely good and merely conscientious souls whose moral training has emphasized sentiments rather than specific purposes, and who are always found helpless before the coercion of events. His argument follows the well-known lines of his instrumental use of the intelligence for the realization of conscious social purpose. The conscience, he implies, is balked by an unpleasant situation, is futile unless it attaches itself to forces moving in another, and more desirable, direction. Dissatisfied with the given means or end, one chooses another alternative, either a new end to which the means may be shaped, or a new means to effect the desired end. But in applying this theory to the war situation, does not the philosopher ignore the fact that it is exactly in war that alternatives are rigorously limited? Is not war perhaps the one social absolute, the one situation where the choice of ends ceases to function? Obviously in a world of choice one may hope intelligently to select and manipulate some social mechanism by which a desired social arrangement may be brought about. But war always comes to seem just that urgent, inevitable crisis of the nation’s life where everything must be yielded to one purpose. For a few months, the public may retain the illusion of freedom, of mastery over social forces. But as war continues, there comes the deep popular recognition that there is now but one end – victory; and but one means – the organization of all the resources of the nation into a conventional war technique. “Peace without victory” becomes a logical and biological contradiction. Belligerent peoples will have long ago realized that war is its own end, and that, to paraphrase a popular ditty, they fight because they fight because they fight. This was the real basis of the opposition to the President’s gesture for peace – the realization that though America might still be living in a pragmatic world, war had made Europe a realm of the absolute. And in our own country, war had not been with us for ten weeks before “peace without victory” changed officially into “conquer or submit.”

In wartime, there is literally no other end but war, and the objector, therefore, lives no longer with a choice of alternatives. The pacifist conscience attaches itself to no end because no end exists which connects with its desires. Plans and programs may exist which have not to do with war, but they exist only in the realm of fantasy, not in the realm of practical politics. Peace comes through victory or exhaustion, and not through creative intelligence. The appeal to force removes everything automatically to a non-intelligent sphere of thinking and acting. Mr. Dewey is depressed at the number of conscientious young men who exchanged their “Thou shalt not kill” into an “Obey the law,” though they saw the situation exactly as before. But his depression is due only to that inexorability which every pragmatist must resent. It is not just to be depressed at their poverty of imagination. For he is dealing with precisely the one situation in which his philosophy will no longer work. He implies that there was some way by which conscience could operate very differently from that whose main concern is to “remain itself unspotted from within.” Well, in what way? Where does one find “forces moving in another direction”? One may find forces moving against the war, resisting the organization for war, agitating for a speedy peace. But such forces are not merely alternative social policies. They are not morally equivalent to the policy of war. They have the unique quality of disloyalty. They challenge the entire force of the nation. As soon as they threaten to become at all effective, they are automatically crushed out, under even the most democratic of governments. Never has a government in wartime been known to refuse the use of relentless coercion against “forces moving in another direction.” The attaching of one’s conscience to any such forces is infallibly taken to be the allying of oneself with the disloyal, and the inadvertent aiding of the nation’s enemies. There is, of course, the alternative of revolution, which would have much the same effect as disloyalty. Does Mr. Dewey mean to urge the “conscientious objector” to take to disloyalty or revolution in his efforts to attach his conscience, to intelligent alternatives? And if not, will he tell us what social mechanism he knows of that is considered relevant or even permissible in wartime that does not contribute to the war technique? One resists or one obeys. If one resists, one is martyred or coerced. If one obeys, the effect is just as if one accepted the war.

In wartime, then, one’s pragmatic conscience moves in a vacuum. There is no leverage to clutch. To a philosopher of the creative intelligence, the fact that war blots out the choice of ends and even of means should be the final argument against its use as a technique for any purpose whatever. War once entered upon, neither means nor ends can really be revised or altered. The acceptance of the war by Mr. Dewey can only be explained by the prevailing sentiment that this was a war in which we had to be. I  have heard him say that it was far better to enter the war intelligently than blindly or hysterically. This is not quite the same as saying that deliberate murder is more creatively intelligent than murder committed in the heat of sudden passion. For what Mr. Dewey meant was probably that if we entered the war intelligently we would choose the ends which the war technique might serve. But is it not a little curious to find the men who thought the war inevitable – “what could we do?” – and who could neither prevent it nor devise an alternative, still confident that they can control its terrible force for beneficent purposes? Having accepted the inevitable of war, one can more easily accept other inevitables.

At the back of Mr. Dewey’s mind was perhaps the hope that the pacifist conscience, though hating war and everything connected with it, might aid this war because of the radical social reforms it was sure to bring. But the same people who thought of this as an end for which the pacifist should be willing to accept the instrument, are now complaining that labor, though it consecrated itself to the nation’s service, is not now receiving the nation’s gratitude; that the war-swollen fortune is sliding free of paying for the war; that education is being impoverished, and national demoralization rather than integration taking place. These ironic frustrations of the social purpose were foreseen by the realistic pacifists. They were the best of reasons for finding an alternative to war. They were the best of motives for not attaching one’s conscience to forces that involved a technique which infallibly trailed along these social evils. Once you accept war, there is no choice but to be shoved along the line of inevitables with which war is organically bound up.

In wartime, therefore, the “forces moving in another direction,” to which Mr. Dewey invites the objecting conscience to attach itself, are illusory. War is just that absolute situation which is its own end and its own means, and which speedily outstrips the power of intelligent and creative control. As long as you are out of war, events remain to some degree malleable. This was the argument for “armed neutrality.” But clamp down the psychic pattern of war on the nation, and you have precipitated an absolute where mastery becomes a mockery. Mere conscientious objection in wartime is not so uncreative or unintelligent as Mr. Dewey represents it. No social machinery exists to make dissent effective. Alternative ends are illusory. You can only accept, or rebel, or remain apathetic. This is not true of other social situations. It is true of war. If you are skeptical of the technique of war, or of the professed aims, a negative attitude is the only possible one. It may not be noble to concentrate on your own integrity, but it is perhaps better than to be a hypocrite or a martyr. And if pragmatists like Mr. Dewey are going to accept “inevitables,” you at least have an equal right to choose what shall seem inevitable to you.

To many pragmatists the impotence of the pacifists in the period preceding the war has been a sore point. They are scolded for their lack of organization and their mere obstructiveness. Actually, they were fertile in constructive suggestions. But no social machinery existed for harnessing their conscience to action. The referendum would have been a slight democratic clutch. It was hooted out of court. Armed neutrality was foozled. The forces that were irresistibly for war had control of the warmaking machinery. The pacifists sounded ridiculous and unreasonable, because the drive was the other way. The war suction had begun. Choices were already abolished, and the most realistic and constructive pacifism in the world would have been helpless.

In all this chain of events, those minds were able to retain a feeling of alternative forces and of free choice which were in sympathy with the announced purpose of the war and not temporarily hostile to its technique. The philosophy of creative intelligence still seemed to be working because there was no need to test its applicability. The dissenter, however, felt cruelly the coercive forces. Suppose I really believe that world peace will more likely come exactly “by not doing something,” by a collusive neglect of imperialistic policy on the new Russian model. Suppose I believe that a federalism of sovereign nations will only mean more competitive wars. What forces are there then to which I can assimilate this war of ours, and so make my intelligence and conscience count for what little they may? Is not Mr. Dewey’s case against the merely passive built on an assumption that if one chose freely one would choose the present inevitable forces? But the mind that is skeptical of these present forces, – is it not thrown back to a choice of resistance or apathy? Can one do more than wait and hope for wisdom when the world becomes pragmatic and flexible again?

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