Cracks in the Inexorable:

Bourne and Addams on Pacifists During Wartime


traditional paper (under 3500 words of text)

There is general consensus that Randolph Bourne was right in his criticism of Dewey’s support for US participation in World War One. Bourne’s central argument against Dewey was that war is inexorable.  War cannot be controlled; pragmatist method becomes inoperable. Jane Addams largely agreed with Bourne, but would question his claim that war’s inexorability is absolute. I will use Addams’s participation with the US Food Administration to show cracks in the inexorability of war and also to raise questions about the pragmatist grounding of Bourne’s attack on Dewey.




Cracks in the Inexorable:

Bourne and Addams on Pacifists During Wartime

            Much has been written on Randolph Bourne’s criticisms of Dewey’s support for the United States’ participation in World War One.  Dewey agreed with President Wilson that entering the war provided an opportunity to reconstruct the international order along democratic lines.[i]  Bourne’s central argument against Dewey was that war is inexorable.  War cannot be controlled, and thus is one arena in which pragmatist method is inoperable.[ii]  The general consensus is that Bourne was right, Dewey was wrong.  Dewey admitted as much in the years between the World Wars.[iii]  Addams largely agreed with Bourne, but would question his claim that war’s inexorability is absolute, leaving the pacifist with no options but to capitulate or remain quiet.[iv]  I will use Addams’s participation with the United States Food Administration to show cracks in the inexorability of war and also to raise questions about the pragmatist grounding of Bourne’s attack on Dewey.

I. Bourne and Addams on War’s Inexorability

            War is inexorable,” Bourne proclaimed repeatedly.  Neither the ends of war nor the means to achieve them can be guided by creative intelligence.[v]   Bourne charts how in less than ten weeks, Wilson’s initial stated aim of a negotiated peace without victory, was replaced by demands to “conquer or submit.”[vi]  Bourne observes that in war, events overtake ideals, until there is “but one end—victory; and but one means—the organization of all the resources of the nation into a conventional war technique.”[vii]  Addams agrees with Bourne that there can be no pragmatist justification for US participation in the war. Commenting on Bourne’s essay, “War and the Intellectuals,” she writes,  “It was hard for some of us to understand upon what experience this pathetic belief in the regenerative results of war could be founded.”  She sent Bourne a letter congratulating him on the essay, and asked for permission to send reprints to members of the Woman’s Peace Party.[viii]  Addams’s skepticism about war’s regenerative potential comes from the heart of her conception of democracy as comprised of processes of obtaining inner consent, processes that must be based on understanding and fellowship. These processes are “violently interrupted and thrown back in war time.”[ix]  Bourne writes of “war in the interest of democracy” as a reversion to “more primitive ways of thinking.”[x]  Addams directs the same sentiment at Wilson, asking, “Was not war in the interest of democracy for the salvation of civilization a contradiction of terms?”[xi]

II. Addams’s Participation in the United States Food Administration; Bourne’s Likely Critique

            Once the US entered the war, Addams was silenced by the Espionage Act, by government surveillance, and by press antagonism.  She welcomed the chance to speak under the auspices of the United States Food Administration, directed by Herbert Hoover. It gave her an “anodyne of work” through which to counteract her forced inactivity without participating directly in military relief organizations.[xii]

            During the first 2 ½ years of the war, Hoover founded and directed the Commission for Relief in Belgium, delivering over 2 ½ million tons of food to nine million civilians made hungry by Germany’s occupation of Belgium and Northern France.  When the US entered the war President Wilson gave Hoover virtual control of American food production and distribution.  His charge was to stabilize US food markets and to encourage food conservation on a massive scale, so that the surplus could be shipped to hungry civilians among European Allies. Hoover realized that women’s participation was crucial, as they prepared food for the nation’s 22 million households, and so launched a massive marketing campaign to enlist their help.[xiii]  As part of this program, Addams gave many speeches around the country encouraging food conservation.  She particularly enjoyed meeting with women’s groups, finding this work “both an outlet and a comfort to me.”[xiv]

            Was this work consistent with pragmatist pacifism?  We can take Bourne’s criticisms of Dewey and direct them against Addams, although on smaller scale.  To Dewey’s recommendation that conscientious objectors find alternative means for seeking peace, Bourne responds rhetorically, “Will (Dewey) 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?”[xv]  Bourne could argue that the Food Administration was a “social mechanism” contributing to “the war technique.”  It was developed expressly in wartime; its stated purposes and propaganda were full of war’s imagery.  “Food Will Win the War” was the Food Administration’s slogan; its posters proclaimed that “Food is Ammunition: Don’t Waste It” and “Every Garden a Munitions Plant.”[xvi]  Bourne could ask how Addams, working through an agency expressly designed as a tool of war, could possibly use her speeches toward the end of peaceful, democratic internationalism. Bourne states the case starkly: a pacifist’s only alternatives are to obey, to resist, or to remain quiet.  If one obeys, one’s voice is silenced.  If one resists, one is charged with disloyalty, and thus is silenced.  He ends the essay by asking, “Can one do more than wait and hope for wisdom when the world becomes pragmatic and flexible again?”[xvii] War’s inexorability is absolute; one cannot turn the machinery of war to good account.

            I claim that Addams’s work for the Food Administration can be defended on pragmatist grounds, and that it points to a crack in the inexorable.  To show this, I will first briefly summarize the speech Addams gave at the Biennial Convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in May 1918,[xviii] and then explain how Addams through this and many similar speeches was doing democratic, pacifist and pragmatist work during wartime.

            While given under the auspices of the Food Administration, the content of Addams’s speeches was in fact, subversive of war.  Drawing on Hoover’s assessment that “the situation is more than war, it is a problem of humanity,” Addams showed how addressing this “problem of humanity” could be a step toward an international, humanitarian ethic. She gave her audience a way to reconstruct their experiences with food conservation, and so to interpret these efforts, not as acts of war-patriotism against the enemy, but as contributions to building an international community, bound together by humanitarian commitments and care.  Acknowledging how hard it is to change a family’s food habits, Addams told the audience, “A great world purpose cannot be achieved without our participation founded upon an intelligent understanding—and upon the widest sympathy.  At the same time the demand can be met only if it is attached to our domestic routine, its very success depending upon a conscious change and modification of our daily habits.”[xix]  She asked audience members to make a synthesis, using their intellectual and affective resources, in joining together household obligations with international needs. This was a large challenge, involving much constructive work beyond having “wheatless Mondays” and “meatless Tuesdays.”[xx]

            Addams gave her audience two contexts for making this synthesis, one concrete and current, the other historical.  First, she conveyed extensive, precise details of the situation in Europe: fields destroyed in France, population dislocation in Romania, and famine in Russia, along with thoroughly disrupted transportation networks. Her only reference to the Central Powers was to the hungry people there. She gave concrete examples of what American women were already doing to increase the available food supply.[xxi]  That is, she gave audience members the information they needed to foster sympathetic connections with those starving in Europe, and by their food conservation activities, insert themselves as participants in an international, humanitarian community.

            Addams, who constructed her speeches carefully in terms of her specific audiences, also gave a wider historical frame.  Drawing on the women’s clubs’ practice of studying texts from a range of disciplines, Addams placed their food conservation efforts within the context of then current scholarship on woman’s historical relation to food.  She referred to Frazer’s Golden Bough, with its collection of myths of the Corn Mother, the Rice Mother, and others from around the world that associated women with agriculture.  She discussed anthropological theories that credited women as the first agriculturalists, responsible for the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled communities, to ensure a more stable food supply.[xxii] She encouraged her audience to understand their own food conservation efforts as embedded within this larger historical sweep of ethical obligation.

            Addams framed her work with the Food Administration in terms of the tension between the fighting instinct and instincts of compassion and pity for the helpless, instincts she said are present in every individual. Psychologists at the time often explained human behavior in terms of adjusting tensions among various instincts. The war had exaggerated the pugnacious instinct, and so the social instincts needed to be strengthened to counterbalance it.   Addams hoped that her work with her audiences would bring countervailing instincts of pity and gregariousness to the fore. Anthropologists claimed these social instincts were much older, and thus more deeply embedded in the human psyche than the fighting instinct.[xxiii] 

            At the end of the speech Addams suggested one way that the audience members’ efforts might become part of a peaceful, international order.  It was true that Hoover developed his food programs in response to the war, but in doing so, food production and distribution had in fact shifted from a market driven, commercial basis, to a humanitarian basis.  Addams noted, “Commercial competition has been suppressed, not in response to any theory, but because it could not be trusted to feed the feeble and helpless.” To the extent that this was being done among the Allied nations, Addams asserted, “A new internationalism is being established day by day.”[xxiv] Addams expressed her hope that this already existing international machinery would be expanded at war’s end to include all hungry people, regardless of their nationality.


III. Cracks in the Inexorable: Addams’s response to Bourne

            Addams’s work with the Food Administration can be interpreted as a demonstration that in his analysis of war, Bourne’s pragmatism and his understanding of democracy do not go down deep enough.  Bourne criticizes intellectuals for thinking they could control and direct the war machinery, stating that Dewey and other intellectuals should instead spend their time “in breaking intellectual paths, or giving us shining ideas to which we can attach our faith and conscience.”[xxv]  Bourne’s prescriptions are on the intellectual and policy level. His few references to the rest of the population are to “the herd,” under the influence of “mob psychology.”[xxvi] He does not consider the level of action, of actually working with ordinary people, helping them to reconstruct their experiences toward a democratic peace.

            By speaking to lay audiences around the country, Addams was in effect saying that the grip of mob psychology was not inexorable, but that people whom Bourne scorned as members of the “herd” were capable, even in wartime, of reconstructing their experiences toward peaceful internationalism, and that this was important pragmatist, democratic work to do. Bourne writes, “Mental conflicts end either in a new and higher synthesis or adjustment, or else in a reversion to more primitive ideas.”[xxvii]  Addams could respond that these mental processes continue to play out during wartime, and ordinary people were competent to make these newer syntheses.  In good pragmatist form, Addams invoked the psychological and anthropological knowledge her audience members already had and showed them how to graft new information and new perspectives into their existing stock of knowledge.  In doing this, their sense of self and their motivation to meet world needs could be enlarged.[xxviii]

            Before the war, Addams’s general approach to social reform was to work simultaneously at every level.  She addressed the needs of individuals at Hull House, she collaborated with community organizations, and she worked for legislative and policy changes on the state and national level.  During the European phase of the war, Addams founded the Woman’s Peace Party, a grassroots organization that grew to 40,000 members within the first year.  She also met with European heads of state and with President Wilson, conferring on a plan for continuous mediation during the war.[xxix]  With US entry into the war, these political channels closed, but there was still grassroots work to be done. Addams believed that democratic social change was best accomplished through “lateral progress,” that is, by working through associations and in close cooperation with ordinary people.[xxx] By speaking through the auspices of the Food Administration, Addams was in effect saying that the war had not closed all avenues for lateral progress, but that some cracks in the inexorable remained open. Movement toward a peaceful, democratic internationalism needed to take place within and among common people, as well as among the powerful.  If there was to be a possibility of democratic peace after the war, then creating and strengthening compassionate, transnational bonds, woven into the habits of daily life, was work that merited attention during the war.           

            Addams was well aware that her efforts could be unfruitful.  In typical self-deprecating style, she noted that when the opportunity to work with the Food Administration arose, she “clutched at it with something of the traditional desperation of the drowning man.”[xxxi]  She had responses, but no compelling argument against Bourne’s claim that working through wartime agencies would render her message ineffective.  She acknowledged that the work of the international food organization “might be a new phase of political unification in advance of all former achievements, or it might be one of those shifting alliances merely for war purposes, of which European history affords so many examples.”[xxxii] While she hoped that the Food Administration would be expanded after the war, she knew it could also be dismantled and replaced by purely commercial exchange.  Cracks are not promises; but Addams saw good reason to do more than remain quiet.


IV.  Cracks in Bourne’s pragmatism

            Both Bourne and Addams were “wrenched” by the war, to use Bourne’s term; both suffered from their isolation.[xxxiii]  In spite of the cracks, Addams largely agreed with Bourne that war is inexorable and eliminates the conditions needed for pragmatist verification. I do not know whether Addams ever commented on “Twilight of Idols,” Bourne’s direct attack on Dewey, but I suspect she would have been troubled by Bourne’s self-righteous tone and by his lack of tolerance toward pragmatists who came to different conclusions about the war.  We can craft a likely response from passages in Peace and Bread in Time of War. The comparison isn’t entirely fair: Addams wrote Peace and Bread in 1922, four years after war’s end, when she was a soberly reflective 62 years old.  Bourne was still an impetuous youth when he died at 32 in the 1918 global influenza epidemic. 

            Addams became inured to scurrilous attacks by the press, but said she found it harder to bear “when enthusiastic and fanatical pacifists openly challenged the honesty and integrity of their former associates who had become convinced of the necessity for the war.”[xxxiv] Noting that pragmatism’s “great teachers” supported the war, Addams grieved over the loss of intellectual and spiritual companionship and longed for reconciliation.[xxxv]  The following passage contains the clue that Addams was talking about more than personal loneliness in these reflections. “We were well aware that the modern liberal having come to conceive truth of a kind which must vindicate itself in practice, finds it hard to hold even a sincere and mature opinion which from the very nature of things can have no justification in works.  The pacifist in war time is literally starved of any gratification of that natural desire to have his own decisions justified by his fellows.”[xxxvi]        I read Addams here as saying that one of the dimensions of war’s inexorability is that pragmatist testing stops, not only for war supporters, but also for pacifists.  Pragmatist verification is a communal enterprise; when the community is rent, no one can test whether war’s inexorability is total, whether quietude is the only option, or whether speeches on behalf of the Food Administration just might contribute to grassroots support toward a peaceful, democratic, international order.  Addams would include Bourne in her conclusion that “in moments of crisis. . . a man’s primary allegiance is to his vision of the truth.”[xxxvii]  However, I suspect that her second allegiance would be to reconciliation, to restore the community within which pragmatist thinking and action are possible, and in which one’s primary allegiance can be affirmed.  The crack in Bourne’s pragmatism was in not seeing this need for reconciliation.

            One of Bourne’s criticisms of Dewey was that younger intellectuals were so taken with pragmatism’s instrumentalism, that they ignored its vision.  Calling on Nietzschean malcontents to mock old values and assert new ones, Bourne observes,  “(Pragmatism) has everything good and wise except the obstreperous vision that would drive and draw all men into it.”[xxxviii] Sympathetic to his general sentiment, Addams would nonetheless find his metaphors misleading.  In Addams’s pragmatist vision, “identification with the common lot” is “the essential idea of Democracy” and “diversified human experience and resultant sympathy” are its “foundation and guarantee.”[xxxix]  The process of obtaining inner consent does not “drive and draw.”  It is not obstreperous.  It is welcoming, fluid, tolerant, and forgiving. It invites participation and then gives people their own time to reconstruct their experiences out of the bits and pieces of experience and wisdom that they have.  Bourne invokes the spirit of William James in his essays, but in this case, Addams exhibited it.[xl]


[i] Dewey, “The Future of Pacifism,” 267-8. For an excellent account of President Wilson’s advocacy for the League of Nations and his decisions regarding US participation in the war, see Thomas Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order.

[ii]  Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 199.

[iii] See Westbrook’s extended and well-documented discussion of Bourne’s criticisms of Dewey, and Dewey’s adoption of pacifism, in John Dewey and American Democracy, 195-212, 260-274.

[iv] Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 201.


[v] See for example, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 198; “War and the Intellectuals,” 3; “A War Diary,” 39; and “Twilight of Idols,” 54.

[vi] Bourne, “The Collapse of American Strategy,” 22-35.


[vii] Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 198.

[viii] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 36-37; Addams, “Letter to Randolph Bourne,” June 30, 1917, JAPM 10:1551.

[ix] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 65.

[x] Bourne, “War and the Intellectuals,” 11.


[xi] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 82.


[xii] See Peace and Bread in Time of War, Chapter Four.  

[xiii] Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918, 4-42.


[xiv] Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography, 330; Addams, “Letter to Judge Lindsey.”


[xv] Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 199.


[xvi] Several internet sites and archives have images of Food Administration posters.  See, for example, and

[xvii] Bourne, “Conscience and Intelligence in War,” 199-200, 201.

[xviii]  Addams, “The World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligation;” “Letter to Arthur Bestor.” The JAPM contains manuscripts of other speeches on behalf of the Food Administration. There is a great deal of overlap among them.  See “Food Conservation.” and  “Conservation of the World’s Food Supply.” Addams also gives an account of her activities with the Food Administration in Peace and Bread in Time of War, Chapter 4.

[xix] Addams, “The World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligation,” JAPM 47:1665.

[xx]  See

[xxi] Addams, “The World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligation.” JAPM 47: 1658-1665.


[xxii] Addams, “The World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligation.” JAPM 47: 1666-68.

[xxiii] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 44. See James’s discussion of instincts in Principles of Psychology, Volume  2, Chapter 24, where he lists pugnacity and sympathy among humans’ many instincts.  See also George Malcolm Stratton, “The Docility of the Fighter” (1916); D.E. Phillips, “The Psychology of War” (1916), and Mary Whiton Calkins, “Militant Pacifism” (1917).

[xxiv] Addams, “The World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligation.” JAPM 47: 1669, 1670.

[xxv] Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 57.

[xxvi] See Bourne, “War and the Intellectuals,” 7; “Below the Battle,” 19; and “Twilight of Idols,” 54.

[xxvii] Bourne, “War and the Intellectuals,” 10.

[xxviii] See James, Pragmatism, 158; also Dewey, Democracy and Education, Chapter 4.

[xxix] Degen, The History of the Woman’s Peace Party, 156; Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 3-16, 35.

[xxx] Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, 68-70.

[xxxi] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 62.

[xxxii] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 67.

[xxxiii] Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 56.  See also Bourne, “The Disillusionment,” 396-407.

[xxxiv] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 43.

[xxxv] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 82.

[xxxvi] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 86. 

[xxxvii] Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 86.

[xxxviii] Bourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 62.

[xxxix] Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics 9, 7.

[xl] James, Pragmatism, 61-62.  In discussing the effects of working together to feed the hungry Addams inserts a quote from James, writing, “As we undertake a mutual task of this sort ‘how our convulsive insistencies, how our antipathies and dreads of each other’ would soften down; what tolerance and good humor, what willingness to live and let live, would inevitable emerge.” In Addams, “Americanization, 195.  The quote is taken from James, “What Makes a Life Significant?” 146. 



Note: Materials by Jane Addams marked as “JAPM” are in the microfilm collection of the Jane Addams Papers. The first number is the reel; the number following the colon is the frame number. In The Jane Addams Papers, 1860-1960, ed. Mary Lynn McCree Bryan. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1984.

Addams, Jane. 1902. Democracy and Social Ethics. Repr., Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

_____. October 16, 1917. “Food Conservation.” TM carbon. JAPM 47: 1567-1585.

_____. post November, 1917. “Conservation of the World’s Food Supply.” TM carbon. JAPM 47: 1586-1606.

_____. December 26, 1917. “Letter to Judge Lindsey.” JAPM 11:554.

_____. April 23, 1918. “Letter to Arthur Bestor.” JAPM 11: 949.

_____. 1918. “World’s Food Supply and Woman’s Obligations.” General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Biennial Convention Official Report. 251-263. JAPM 47: 1657-1670.

_____. 1919. “Americanization.” Addams’s Essays and Speeches on Peace (1899-1935).  Eds. Marilyn Fischer and Judy D. Whipps. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 2003, 189-196.

­­­_____. 1922. Peace and Bread in Time of War. Repr., Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Bourne, Randolph.  June 1917. “War and the Intellectuals.” War and the Intellectuals. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 3-14.

_____. July 1917. “Below the Battle.” War and the Intellectuals. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 15-21.

_____. August 1917. “The Collapse of American Strategy.” War and the Intellectuals. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 22-35.

_____. September 1917. “A War Diary.” War and the Intellectuals. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 36-47.

_____. September 1917. “Conscience and Intelligence in War.” John Dewey: The Political Writings. Eds. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993. 198-201.

_____. October 1917. “Twilight of Idols.” War and the Intellectuals. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 53-64.

_____. undated manuscript. “The Disillusionment.” The Radical Will: Randolph Bourne, Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Ed. Olaf Hansen. New York: Urizen Books, 1977. 396-407.

Calkins, Mary Whiton. (October) 1917. “Militant Pacifism.” International Journal of Ethics. 28:1, pp. 70-79.

Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education. In The Middle Works. Vol. 9.  Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1985.

Dewey, John. 1917. “The Future of Pacifism.” In The Middle Works. Vol. 10. 1916-1917. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1980. 265-270.

James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology. Volume 2. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

_____. 1899. “”What Makes a Life Significant?” in Talks to Teachers. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1962, 130-146.

_____. 1907. Pragmatism. Repr. ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Knock, Thomas J. 1992. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order.  New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Linn, James W. 1935. Jane Addams: A Biography. Repr., Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Nash, George H. 1996. The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Phillips, D.E. December 1916. “The Psychology of War.” The Scientific Monthly. 3:6. pp. 569-578.

Stratton, George Malcolm. April 1916. “The Docility of the Fighter.” International Journal of Ethics. 26:3. pp. 368-376.

Westbrook, Robert B. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.