War Is the Health of the State By Randolph Bourne


Millions of people have heard it, even heard it repeatedly, without ever learning who originally wrote or said it: “War is the health of the State.”

Several friends, going through Randolph Bourne apartment after his death, found an unpublished manuscript in the wastebasket next to his desk. It was entitled The State.

“War is the health of the State,” Randolph Bourne wrote in that discarded essay, which he probably died believing would never see print, “and it is during war that one best understands the nature of that institution.”

Here is how journalist and historian Jeff Riggenbach summarizes Bourne’s book: “In effect, you can’t be consistently and intelligently antiwar, unless you’re libertarian.”

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  • James Smith

    Live blog – War is the health of the State

    Introduction to the live blog – Although the proper title to this essay is ‘The State’, it is often known as ‘War is the health of the state’ after the oft-quoted line within it. It is an interesting proposition that I am pre-disposed to agree with, being as anti-war as I am anti-state. However, I am eager to see how Bourne argues it, as it seems, on the surface, that there are numerous modern states that survive without the need for comprehensive military involvements like the United States apparently does. Although I accept state power is ultimately backed by aggression, is war itself really necessary for its existence? I don’t know if I’m going to get my answer with this particular book, that was published in 1917. Jeff Riggenbach’s summary “In effect, you can’t be consistently and intelligently anti-war, unless you’re libertarian” seems to suggest a slightly different, albeit exciting, thesis. I’m not too familiar with the author so I’m not really sure what to expect, but I am looking forward to diving in.   The State By Randolph Bourne Foreword The foreword, written by Jon Dos Passos, starts with a beautiful biography of Bourne’s life in poem form. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce a reader to an individual’s life. In fact, the whole foreword is grandiloquent in its description of the circumstances in which Bourne was writing. Judging by the way he was treated by nearly everyone around him, being anti-war at this point in history (presumably during the First World War) was apparently as dangerously ‘extreme’ as it gets. He was harangued by espionage services and even arrested. And I think I’m a radical . . . Introduction Michael Grieg provides a brief but good explanation of where Bourne sat within the presiding paradigm – in short, very far away. In a time when the vast majority of ‘respectable’ figures were in favour of ‘the war to end all wars’, Bourne stood nearly alone with the realization that the state can never be an agent of good in the world. When the old liberals, including Bourne’s old teacher John Dewey, gave into crude statism that comes hand-in-hand with war, he held on to his principles. Today he might be called a left-wing anarchist, which is good enough for me. The State OK, Bourne is a very engaging and vociferous writer. This ‘thesis’ section is bringing to mind and reinforcing the point that the American state in particular needs constant war to assert power at home. He anticipates McCarthyism and the War on Terror by many decades – it is during these times of existential ‘threat’ to the mythology of the state (and Bourne makes it understood that the state is actually a kind of mysticism, and that government is merely the meat on the bones of that superstition) that state power has expanded the most, and the vicious collectivist mindset comes to the fore. This comes in the form of aggressive censorship and discrimination. Is Bourne arguing that, without war, the state is essentially irrelevant? War and the Herd Bourne gets close to describing the psychology of a nation under war. He argues that only war has the ability to create a unity of thought and purpose to an otherwise varying populace of unique individuals. It seems to devolve civilization from an array of individual human action to a herd mentality that expects complete homogeny of preference. ‘The state’ is what it serves, but we are fooled into believing that it is for the preservation of the culture or whatever buzz-phrase is popular at the time. I hate the whole enterprise, and I’m at a loss as to how to fight against the mentality, which is still prevalent today. However, I challenge anyone not to be inspired by Bourne’s writing.

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  • Jp Cortez

    War Is the Health of the State

    War Is the Health of the State Kick off the discussion! Questions, comments, observations or elaborations? Either reply here or create a new discussion using the tag Library_war-is-the-health-of-the-state

    Jump to Discussion Post 3 replies