Randolph Bourne: Tribune of Youth

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“That the inertia of the older people is wisdom, and not impotence, is a theory that you will never induce youth to believe for an instant. The stupidity and cruelties of their management of the world fill youth with an intolerant rage.” – Randolph Bourne, 1912
“Young people are key actors in raising awareness and creating innovative solutions. Nowadays, young people are aware of the climate crisis and they are willing to implement their innovative ideas.” – Tahsin, Bangladesh, 2019
“There can be no meaningful social change without the participation and drive of youth. Profound change requires fearlessness and energy, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and perhaps most of all the creativity to reimagine our societies—who we are and how we relate to each other. This creativity, this energy, this courage are especially prevalent among youth, and honestly I think this terrifies the older generations that typically hold power.” – Tendayi Achiume, 2021

Randolph Bourne announced his presence on the scene of American letters as the tribune of American youth. This was entirely new. Today we are used to adults extolling the idealism and activism of youth, but before Bourne was the first commentator to do more than find fault with the next generation.  Instead, he found in them a potential source of society’s salvation: “Youth does not simply repeat the errors and delusions of the past…; it is ever laying the foundations for the future.” [99] For him, the “fire of youth” with its “conflicts and idealisms, questions and ambitions”  was the primer driver of change and social progress. [215] (Bourne wrote these words in the height of the progressive era.)

Bourne was not an unthinking booster for youth, however. He understood that the rising generation, in its apprenticeship to the world, seeks mastery of it, and, eventually, becomes “a part of that very flaming rampart against which” it had previously hurled its slings and arrows. [170] For Bourne, youth was metaphor as well as actuality. It was a state of mind, an approach to the world. While adults have the advantage of experience, Bourne wrote, too often “that experience gets stereotyped; …becomes so conventional as to be practically unconscious.” Instead, he believed, “it is the young people who have all the really valuable experience” because they are the ones “who constantly have to face new situations.” [97] The implied task for his adult readers was to recapture that freshness: to eschew the rational and the orderly, to embrace the struggle and adventure inherent in what he called the experimental life. [149-158]

Every time, today, some expert here or influencer there praises young people for their engagement on the pressing issues of our time–gun control, race relations, climate change–they are tapping into the legacy of Randolph Bourne. It is a legacy that says young people have a special ability to see the world fresh, to imagine something new. They are the best hope to overcome the prejudices that limit the advance of society.  They offer grown-ups crucial insight, on problems big and small, if only older people will listen. Implicit is the conclusion that we adults must attend to our own inner youth.

Unfortunately, by the time Bourne turned the near-middle-age of thirty Western civilization (read: Europe) was tearing itself apart in total war and American progressives, among whom he had felt himself a fellow traveler, were providing intellectual support for “preparedness.” After American entry in 1917, Bourne was struck by disillusionment that haunted him for the rest of his influenza-shortened life.

Six short years earlier, Bourne had explained, somewhat unconvincingly,

What [the younger generation] thinks so wildly now will be orthodox gospel thirty years hence. …That is why it behooves youth not to be less radical, but even more radical, than it naturally would be. It must be…a generation ahead of the times, so that when it comes into control of the world, it will be precisely right and coincident with the times. [99]

By 1918, in an unpublished manuscript appropriately titled, “The Disillusionment,” hope in the meliorations of the younger generation is almost completely absent. He makes a nod to his old formulation, but with a darker tone: “The keynote of social ‘progress’ is not evolution but the overlapping of the generations, with their stains and traces of the past: it is the struggle of the old to conserve, of the new to adapt.” Gone is the faith in youthful radicalism to create a “coincidence” of thought, custom, and needs. Instead, he is forced to concede “the stern truth…that there is no such thing as automatic progress.” [404]

Bourne’s “disillusionment” surely matches our own following the post-Cold War triumphalism of the nineties. The ill-conceived war on terror, the cementing of political polarization, the hardening of legislative gridlock, and the rise of the new authoritarians. Yet his faith in the potential saving power of youth is still with us, pervasive and powerful, if still mainly among the left. Indeed, I suspect that this aspect of Bourne’s legacy will always be with us.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

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