Randolph Bourne vs. the State

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 20, 2017

"WAR IS THE HEALTH OF THE STATE." Had Randolph Bourne never written another line he would have earned immortality from those words alone. "War is the health of the State," he announced, and went on to explain:

"It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of Government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. Of course the ideal of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never really attained. The classes upon whom the amateur work of coercion falls are unwearied in their zeal, but often their agitation instead of converting, merely serves to stiffen their resistance. Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical. But in general, the nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war."
And that, I think, just about sums it up.

Randolph Bourne, a brilliant cripple, was born in New Jersey in that singularly radical year 1886, and died in New York City in 1918. A graduate of Columbia University, and a member of that nebulous clique of Greenwich Village Bohemians, he was a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Seven Arts and The Dial. Most of his writing, however, would be of little interest to anarchists — I found "The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers" (New York, Russell, 1956) so uniformly innocuous that I didn't even finish it. On the other hand, had this collection included "The State", I would have no complaint, for "The State" is the healthiest of Randolph Bourne.

"The State", an unfinished essay written at the time of World War I, had long been out of print. It has recently been reissued — in time for World War III — by the Greater New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Human Animal, 150 Nassau Street, New York 38, N.Y. It is well worth the $1.00 price despite a rather bizarre format

H. W. MORTON is a New York anarchist who, with Sam Weiner, wrote "Were they way out, way back?" in ANARCHY 19.

(28 inches wide, 8 inches high when open).
In its incomplete form the essay defines the State, describes its activities, and discusses its historic evolution. Since it was never completed, we cannot know what further treatment Bourne had planned. He might or might not have intended to propose methods of abolishing the State and discuss the possibilities of a Stateless society. From the content of the work itself, I would infer not.
He begins with vigour and brilliance:

"Government is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized by a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh."
Then after this beautifully anarchistic beginning, Bourne immediately disappoints us: "And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality." Imagine attacking Government on the basis of practical limitations! I can no more conceive of an anarchist writing that, than of a pacifist complaining that Hydrogen Bombs are no good because they don't work.

However, Bourne immediately redeems himself by pointing out that Government "is by no means identical with" the State. He emphasizes the fact that the State is an abstraction whereas Government is tangible. "That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamour and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities." Here Bourne has put his finger on a critical distinction — one which few people other than anarchists seem to grasp.

Society is the sum total of all the relationships, combinations, associations, institutions, etc. of human beings in an indeterminate territory. The State is an involuntary legal relationship whereby a supreme authority has control over all persons and property in a specifically bounded territory. Government is merely the mechanism of that legal relationship. In other words, Government is an operating body, constituting only part of the overall legal relationship called the State. Similarly the State is but one relationship among all the innumerable relationships which comprise Society. Conversely, Society includes the State; and the State includes the Government. The confusion over the terms, and the temptation to interchange them, arises because Government is the most prominent part of the State, which in turn is the most powerful relationship of Society.

Without a clear understanding of these terms and their exact inter-relationship, anarchist theory becomes incomprehensible. When we anarchists attack the State we don't want to destroy society, injure government employees, or even demolish their office buildings. Contrasting the millennia of society's growth and development without the State to the imminent prospect of universal death with it, we have concluded that the State is but a removable malignant tumour on the body social. Therefore we want to abolish the vicious power arrangement by which we are dominated politically, exploited economically, and jeopardized physically.

For the most part Bourne goes along with us. The following, for example, is fine anarchistic analysis:
"What is the State essentially? The more closely we examine it, the more mystical and personal it becomes. On the Nation we can put our hand as a definite social group, with attitudes and quantities exact enough to mean something. On the Government we can put our hand as a certain organisation of ruling functions, the machinery of law-making and law-enforcing. The Administration is a recognizable group of political functionaries, temporarily in charge of the Government. But the State stands as an idea behind them all, eternal, sanctified, and from it Government and Administration conceive themselves to have the breath of life. Even the nation, especially in times of war — or at least, its significant classes — considers that it derives its authority and its purpose from the idea of the State. Nation and State are scarcely differentiated, and the concrete, practical, apparent facts are sunk in the symbol. We reverence not our country but the flag. We may criticize ever so severely our country, but we are disrespectful to the flag at our peril."

On the other hand some of Bourne's terminology is disturbing: he persistently uses "herd", although he contends that "there is nothing invidious in the use of the term." He also refers occasionally to the "significant classes". Yet he is not necessarily elitist, for it is entirely possible that he is viewing people with sympathy rather than scorn. Thus, although he speaks of the State being "the organisation of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized" and points out how it "becomes an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class," he may be writing more in compassion than contempt. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in view of his opinion that the working classes "live habitually in an industrial serfdom, by which though nominally free, they are in practice as a class bound to a system of a machine-production the implements of which they do not own, and in the distribution of whose product they have not the slightest voice … From such serfdom, military conscription is not so great a change."

Anarchists might also be irked by the treatment Bourne accords man's gregarious instinct. Here too, however, he might not be deriding mutual aid so much as complaining of how the State brutalizes it: "In this great herd-machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push towards military unity." I wish I could decide whether his anger is directed solely at the State or if it includes humanity as well, e.g. :

"There is, of course, in the feeling towards the State a large element of pure filial mysticism … A people at War have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them, imposes his mild but necessary rule upon
them …
"In your reaction to an imagined attack on your country or an insult to its Government, you draw closer to the herd for protection, you conform in word and deed, and you insist vehemently that everybody else shall think, speak and act together."

Even if Bourne was closer to Nietzsche than to Bakunin, his criticisms are devastating:
"The State is a jealous god and will brook no rivals. Its sovereignty must pervade everyone and all feeling must be run into the stereotyped forms of romantic patriotic militarism which is the traditional expression of the State herd feeling." …

"The State moves inevitably along the line from military dictatorship to the divine right of Kings. What had to be at first rawly imposed becomes through social habit to seem the necessary, the inevitable." …
"Government [by the time of George III] had been for long what it has never ceased to be — a series of berths and emoluments in Army, Navy, and the different departments of State, for the representatives of the privileged classes."

Judging solely from this essay I surmise that Bourne has never read any of the anarchist theoreticians. or if he did, that not much had rubbed off. (Still, his milieu probably included a few anarchists). Assuming this essay to be an entirely independent creation, it becomes all the more remarkable for its originality and insight. On the other hand much of his brilliance is wasted in exploring ground already covered quite thoroughly by numerous anarchists before him. For 150 years anarchist theoreticians had been building up a vast body of knowledge on the State. No one individual, even one so penetrating as Bourne, could possibly match that century and a half of evolution by himself. Had he taken contemporary anarchist thinking as a point of departure, there is no telling what he might have achieved. For example, his treatment of the State's historic development — the weakest part of the essay — would have been considerably enhanced had he studied Kropotkin. Conversely, Kropotkin could have benefitted from reading Bourne on War:

"The State is intimately connected with war, for it is the organization of the collective community when it acts in a political manner, and to act in a political manner towards a rival group has meant, throughout all history — war …
"It is States that makes wars and not nations, and the very thought and almost necessity of war is bound up with the ideal of the State … for war implies an organized people drilled and led; in fact, it necessitates the State."
War for Bourne is not a continuation of diplomacy — rather, "diplomacy is a disguised war."
“… for the last stronghold of State power is foreign policy. It is in foreign policy that the State acts most concentratedly as the organized herd, acts with fullest sense of aggressive power, acts with freest arbitrariness. In foreign policy, the State is most itself.”

States, with reference to each other, may be said to be in a continual state of latent war. The 'armed truce', a phrase so familiar before 1914, was an accurate description of the normal relation of States when they are not at war. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the normal relations of States is war. Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which States seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by the cleverness of wit, the objectives which they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war. Diplomacy is used while the States are recuperating from conflicts in which they have exhausted themselves. It is the wheedling and the bargaining of the worn-out bullies as they rise from the ground and slowly restore their strength to begin fighting again. If diplomacy had been the moral equivalent for war, a higher stage in human progress, an inestimable means of making words prevail instead of blows, militarism would have broken down and given place to it. But since it is a mere temporary substitute, a mere appearance of war's energy under another form, a surrogate effect is almost exactly proportioned to the armed force behind it. When it fails, the recourse is immediate to the military technique whose thinly veiled arm it has been. A diplomacy that was the agency of popular democratic forces in their non-State manifestations would be no diplomacy at all. It would be no better than the Railway or Education Commissions that are sent from one country to another with rational constructive purpose. The State, acting as a diplomatic-military ideal, is eternally at war …"

"It cannot be too firmly realized that war is a function of States and not of nations, indeed that is the chief function of States. War is a very artificial thing. It is not the naive spontaneous outburst of herd pugnacity; it is no more primary than is formal religion. War cannot exist without a military establishment, and a military establishment cannot exist without a State organization. War has an immemorial tradition and heredity only because the State has a long tradition and heredity. But they are inseparably and functionally joined. We cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. (My emphasis — H.W.M.). And we cannot expect or take measures to insure, that this war is a war to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end that State in its traditional form. The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation. On the contrary, with the passing of the dominance of the State, the genuine life-enhancing forces of the nation will be liberated … For the very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life."

In view of all the above sentiments should we consider Bourne an anarchist, a pacifist, both, or neither? Obviously he had a genuine hatred both of the State and of war, but somehow I get the impression that he was not ready to replace either the former with freedom, or the latter with love.