Anarchy 31/Randolph Bourne vs. the State

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Randolph Bourne vs. the State


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.”

  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
(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 ab­scrac­tion 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 élitist, 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 us: “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 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.