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War and the State: The Legacy of Randolph Bourne


AS I POINTED OUT in last month’s Freedom Daily (“War Is the Health of the State,” March 2002), Randolph Bourne was an American intellectual during the Progressive era who found himself isolated as President Woodrow Wilson conspired to take the United States into World War I. He understood war to be illiberal by its nature, because of the necessary implications it had for the accumulation and exercise of government power. This point is summarized in his immortal adage, “War is the heath of the state.”

In “The War and the Intellectuals” (June 1917), Bourne publicly pondered why self-styled liberal thinkers would be tempted by Wilson’s crusade when it was bound to come to grief. After publication of that essay, Bourne had trouble finding editors and magazines hospitable to his work. Nevertheless, he set to work on a larger piece of writing, titled simply “The State.” When he died in 1918 the essay, alas, was unfinished.

But what a magnificent work he left behind! Reading it closely — savoring it — pays handsome returns. All libertarians would benefit from familiarity with the essay, particularly those — too many, I’m afraid — who let their anti-state guard down when it comes to matters of so-called national security.

Bourne may not have been a pure libertarian, but his name should rank with Bastiat’s, Mencken’s, Nock’s, and Rothbard’s in the pantheon of state dissectors. (These men could be said to be symbolized by Toto in The Wizard of Oz, who pulled aside the curtain to reveal the apparently awesome Oz as a mere mediocrity. Perhaps a “Toto” award would be in order to honor contemporaries who perform the same service.)

Bourne opens his essay by pointing out that in peacetime the government in a republic is nothing very impressive. The out-of-power party routinely denigrates it as, at best, a plaything in the possession of scoundrels and grafters. “Government is obviously composed of common and unsanctified men, and is thus a legitimate object of criticism and even contempt,” Bourne writes.

In a Republic the Government is obeyed grumblingly, because it has no bedazzlements or sanctities to gild it. If you are a good old-fashioned democrat, you rejoice at this fact, you glory in the plainness of a system where every citizen has become a king. If you are more sophisticated you bemoan the passing of dignity and honor from affairs of State. But in practice, the democrat does not in the least treat his elected citizen with the respect due to a king, nor does the sophisticated citizen pay tribute to the dignity even when he finds it. The republican State has almost no trappings to appeal to the common man’s emotions. What it has are of military origin, and in an unmilitary era such as we have passed through since the Civil War, even military trappings have been scarcely seen. In such an era the sense of the State almost fades out of the consciousness of men.

Partisan sniping, then, is almost all anyone who is skeptical about government power can hope for in normal times. It’s as good as it gets. Superficial and unprincipled as it is, without it there’d scarcely be a prominent negative word at all.

But when the government goes to war all that changes: “The State comes into its own again.”

The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war. For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, it is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled towards us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it has a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger rôle in the destiny of the world. The result is that, even in those countries where the business of declaring war is theoretically in the hands of representatives of the people, no legislature has ever been known to decline the request of an Executive, which has conducted all foreign affairs in utter privacy and irresponsibility, that it order the nation into battle.

Here Bourne’s perspicacity is grandly on parade. Toto-like, he exposes the republican dirty big secret: Neither “the people” nor their touted representatives ever decide to go to war. War in a republic is every bit as much the private preserve of the executive as it is in a dictatorship or monarchy.

The Persian Gulf War

Let’s go back to 1990. George Bush I is president of the United State. (That’s no typo.) Iraq occupies Kuwait. The two chambers of the venerable U.S. Congress have scheduled debates on a resolution to authorize the president to use force to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from the pathetic kingdom. Recall how every pundit, anchorman, courtier, and talk-show historian rhapsodized about how this was America’s finest moment. The Question of War was about to be publicly and candidly thrashed out by the People’s Representatives. What an example for the rest of world, where the business of state was none of the people’s business!

There was just one little problem with this glorious picture. It was all balderdash. Long before the “historic deliberation,”

Bush I had already positioned the troops. And the United Nations, the U.S. government’s willing tool, had already set a deadline for the commencement of hostilities.

Under such circumstances, an honest debate was as unlikely as an atheist Pope. Any opposition to war against Iraq was met with the objection that the U.S. Congress could hardly pull the rug out from under the president with the whole world watching.

Bourne would not have been surprised. He wrote,

Good democrats are wont to feel the crucial difference between a State in which the popular Parliament or Congress declares war, and the State in which an absolute monarch or ruling class declares war. But, put to the stern pragmatic test, the difference is not striking. In the freest of republics as well as in the most tyrannical of Empires, all foreign policy, the diplomatic negotiations which produce or forestall war, are equally the private property of the Executive part of the Government, and are equally exposed to no check whatever from popular bodies, or the people voting as a mass themselves. [Emphasis added.]

Later, he continues this line of thought in brilliant manner:

The formality by which Parliaments and Congresses declare war is the merest technicality. Before such a declaration can take place, the country will have been brought to the very brink of war by the foreign policy of the Executive. A long series of steps on the downward path, each one more fatally committing the unsuspecting country to a warlike course of action, will have been taken without either the people or its representatives being consulted or expressing its feeling. When the declaration of war is finally demanded by the Executive, the Parliament or Congress could not refuse it without reversing the course of history, without repudiating what has been representing itself in the eyes of the other States as the symbol and interpreter of the nation’s will and animus. To repudiate an Executive at that time would be to publish to the entire world the evidence that the country had been grossly deceived by its own Government, that the country with an almost criminal carelessness had allowed its Government to commit it to gigantic national enterprises in which it had no heart. In such a crisis, even a Parliament which in the most democratic States represents the common man and not the significant classes who most strongly cherish the State ideal, will cheerfully sustain the foreign policy which it understands even less than it would care for if it understood, and will vote almost unanimously for an incalculable war, in which the nation may be brought well nigh to ruin.

There is much more to Bourne’s essay. Read it! You can find it online. No libertarian should neglect it.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.