Randolph Bourne: War is the Health of the State

Cameron’s attempt to mobilise parliament to support an attack on Syria last week powerfully reminded me of the observations of the American Anarchist intellectual Randolph Bourne. Bourne (1886-1918) was a literary scholar, writing for the journals The Dial, The Seven Arts and The New Republic. In the chapter ‘War is the Health of State’ in his unfinished book, The State, Bourne described the way the state and the ruling classes use war to advance their social and ideological control, establishing a uniformity of opinion and quelling dissenting minorities. He stated

‘War is the health of the State. 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 idea of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never 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. Other values such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.

War – or at least modern war waged by a democratic republic against a powerful enemy – seems to achieve for a nation almost all that the most inflamed political idealist could desire. Citizens are no longer indifferent to their Government, but each cell of the body politic is brimming with life and activity. We are at least on the way to full realization of that collective community in which each individual somehow contains the virtue of the whole. In a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification. The purpose and desire of the collective community live in each person who throw himself whole-heartedly into the cause of war. The impeding distinction between society and the individual is almost blotted out. At war, the individual becomes almost identical with his society. He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of all his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of opponents or heretics he is invincibly strong; he feels behind him all the power of the collective community. The individual as social being in war seems to have achieved almost his apotheosis. Not for any religious impulse could the American nation have been expected to show such devotion en masse, such sacrifice and labour. Certainly not for any secular good, such as universal education or the subjugation of nature, would it have poured forth its treasure and its life, or would it have permitted such stern coercive measures to be taken against it, such as conscripting its money and its men. But for the sake of a war of offensive self-defence, undertaken to support a difficult cause to the slogan of ‘democracy’, it would reach the highest level ever known of collective effort.

For these secular goods, connected with the enhancement of life, the education of man and the use of the intelligence to realize reason and beauty in the nation’s communal living, are alien to our traditional ideal of the State. 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 rivfal group has meant, through all history – war’.

‘A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naïve faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them, imposes his mild but necessary rule upon them and in whom they lose their responsibility and anxieties. In this recrudescence of the child, there is great comfort, and a certain influx of power. On most people the strain of being an independent adult weighs heavily, and upon none more than those members of the significant classes who have had bequeathed to them or have assumed the responsibilities of governing. The State provides the most convenient of symbols under which these classes can retain all the actual pragmatic satisfaction of governing, but can rid themselves of the psychic burden of adulthood. They continue to direct industry and government and all the institutions of society pretty much as before, but in their own conscious eyes and in the eyes of the general public, they are turned from their selfish and predatory ways, and have become loyal servants of society, or something greater than they – the State. The man who moves from the direction of a large business in New York to a post in the war management industrial service in Washington does not apparently alter very much his power or his administrative technique. But psychically, what a transformation has occurred! His is now not only the power but the glory! And his sense of satisfaction is directly proportional not to the genuine amount of personal sacrifice that may be involved in the change but to the extent to which he retains his industrial prerogative and sense of command.

From members of this class a certain insuperable indignation arises if the change from private enterprise to State service involves any real loss of power and personal privilege. If there is to be pragmatic sacrifice, let it be, they feel, on the field of honour, in the traditionally acclaimed deaths by battle, in that detour of suicide, as Nietzsche calls war. The State in wartime supplies satisfaction for this very craving, but its chief value is the opportunity it gives for this regression to infantile attitudes. In your reaction to an imagined attack in 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 shall think, speak, and act together. ~And you fix your adoring gaze upon the State, with a truly filial look, as upon the Father of the flock, the quasi-personal symbol of the strength of the herd, and the leader and determinant of your definite action and ideas’.

Randolph Bourne, ‘War is the Health of the State’, in George Woodcock, ed., The Anarchist Reader (Fontana Press 1977) 98-102.

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3 Responses to “Randolph Bourne: War is the Health of the State”

  1. peteybee Says:

    my 2 cents, ESPECIALLY for the activist readers out there:
    https://spreadanidea.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/the-u-s-and-syria/

  2. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  3. Big Bill Says:

    I quote; ‘A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naïve faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them’. The problem we have here and now is our roles are reversed, it’s the children, overgrown immature and irresponsible public schoolchildren, who are ruling over the adults. We cannot trust them at all, war or no war.

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