Sunday, March 02, 2008

Randolph Bourne - a first encounter

The Old Whig put the challenge before me – “What do you think of Randolph Bourne?” and as most of you will know that is a challenge I can just not turn down.

So to start with my immediate response to Al – in effect “Charmin’ fellah!! Never met him in me life!” but that was said in a slightly more respectful tone it bein’ TOW’s page and not my own and included recognition that I had heard of, but not read, “War is the Health of the State.”.

So I set out on a crash course in “War is the Health of the Nation” (WITHON) with intent.

The fundamental premise of WITHON has to be considered in the light of its creation – the end of the first war that the US had committed itself to outside of its own territory, the first time the US had fought an enemy on foreign soil, and the first time that the US had combined with allies as an equal. That also signalled the beginning of the end of US isolationism. Even though the period 1918 to 1941 was still dominated by the desire to stand apart and not be involved the US participation in such international movements as League of Nations was unprecedented.

As Bourne sets out he acknowledges that WW1 changed in a very direct manner the relationship between citizen and State with the fundamental premise that that relationship is largely dormant in times of peace –
To most Americans of the classes which consider themselves significant the war [World War I] brought a sense of the sanctity of the State which, if they had had time to think about it, would have seemed a sudden and surprising alteration in their habits of thought. In times of peace, we usually ignore the State in favor of partisan political controversies, or personal struggles for office, or the pursuit of party policies.

There is one important limitation to his scope in that first sentence – “of the classes which consider themselves significant” - and that, for me at least, is a fundamental to his audience. Remember here that in 1918 a significant part of the US population were disenfranchised. It was not until the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment (in 1920) that national universal suffrage became a fact in the US.

I have no doubt, therefore, that Bourne would not have included women, or for that matter African American, First Nation, and other minorities, amongst the “classes which consider themselves significant”. In reality, the only group that one could fit to that description at the time would these days be considered well above the middle class – remembering here that the “middle class” as an identifiable component of modern nations is a comparatively recent phenomenen - a rich and powerful male dominated elite.

The second thing to bear in mind is that Bourne passionately opposed US involvement in the war in Europe.

The third is his distinction between “state” and “government” –
The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. ... The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State. In one case it is the drama of the pioneering conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth and the ways in which it was used, of the enterprise of education, and the carrying out of spiritual ideals, of the struggle of economic classes. But as a State, its history is that of playing a part in the world, making war, obstructing international trade, preventing itself from being split to pieces, punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for all.

Government on the other hand is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as 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. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. 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.

At that point it is very interesting to look back at his writings and the quite frighteningly accurate predictions he makes about the response of American people to government, the State and to war.

Examples –

... 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.
Now this feeling for country is essentially noncompetitive; we think of our own people merely as living on the earth’s surface along with other groups, pleasant or objectionable as they may be, but fundamentally as sharing the earth with them.
Minority opinion, which in times of peace, was only irritating and could not be dealt with by law unless it was conjoined with actual crime, becomes, with the outbreak of war, a case for outlawry. [Remember the hue and cry from some people when the MSM was not fully supportive of the War in Iraq?]
The rage for loyal conformity works impartially, and often in diametric opposition to other orthodoxies and traditional conformities, or even ideals. The triumphant orthodoxy of the State is shown at its apex perhaps when Christian preachers lose their pulpits for taking in more or less literal terms the Sermon on the Mount, and Christian zealots are sent to prison for twenty years for distributing tracts which argue that war is unscriptural.
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 last 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 throws himself wholeheartedly into the cause of war. The impeding distinction between society and the individual is almost blotted out.
From this point of view, war can be called almost an upper-class sport. The novel interests and excitements it provides, the inflations of power, the satisfaction it gives to those very tenacious human impulses — gregariousness and parent-regression — endow it with all the qualities of a luxurious collective game which is felt intensely just in proportion to the sense of significant rule the person has in the class division of his society. A country at war — particularly our own country at war — does not act as a purely homogeneous herd. The significant classes have all the herd-feeling in all its primitive intensity, but there are barriers, or at least differentials of intensity, so that this feeling does not flow freely without impediment throughout the entire nation. A modern country represents a long historical and social process of disaggregation of the herd. The nation at peace is not a group, it is a network of myriads of groups representing the cooperation and similar feeling of men on all sorts of planes and in all sorts of human interests and enterprises. In every modern industrial country, there are parallel planes of economic classes with divergent attitudes and institutions and interests — bourgeois and proletariat, with their many subdivisions according to power and function, and even their interweaving, such as those more highly skilled workers who habitually identify themselves with the owning and the significant classes and strive to raise themselves to the bourgeois level, imitating their cultural standards and manners. Then there are religious groups with a certain definite, though weakening sense of kinship, and there are the powerful ethnic groups which behave almost as cultural colonies in the New World, clinging tenaciously to language and historical tradition, though their herdishness is usually founded on cultural rather than State symbols. There are even certain vague sectional groupings. All these small sects, political parties, classes, levels, interests, may act as foci for herd-feelings. They intersect and interweave, and the same person may be a member of several different groups lying at different planes. Different occasions will set off his herd-feeling in one direction or another. In a religious crisis he will be intensely conscious of the necessity that his sect (or sub-herd) may prevail, in a political campaign, that his party shall triumph.

Those wanting to can follow Bourne’s argument in full. There are quite a few places where WITHON can be read and the copies seem consistent. I am going to leave off the c&p at that point because that last is the revelation of Bourne’s argument and his passion.

I have no doubt that, had Bourne been alive in the 1960’s he would have been at the front of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. I have no doubt that had he been alive in 2006 he would have opposed implacably the war in Iraq.

And at that point, I can not see him as a champion of Libertarianism, or Liberalism, or any other “ism”. He strikes me as a pacifist, a supporter of US non-involvement, and in his own way a patriot of the US. I think that he and I might see eye to eye on many issues to do with government and governance. I similarly think that he would agree with some of the hopes and aspirations that TOW might espouse. But, Al, do not expect that that agreement would be whole-hearted or total. I do not believe that he was any more than a political realist.

The system is not perfect, but it works. Don’t fix it until it is broke.


T. F. Stern said...

This is where political discussions leave me cold. This is similar to my involvement with economic theory. I lack interest at certain levels until a nerve is hit and then I work on that nerve and only until the pain goes away. I leave the deeper stuff to others and only jump in if something jumps up and bites me.

I think I left this comment so you'd know I wasn't ignoring your articles.

The probligo said...

Thanks, TF.

Al knows me well enough to realise that there are some challenges I can just NOT turn down. This was one.

Actually, Bourne sounds like a quite interesting cove - but his politics are a bit dated I suspect and aimed at a far more limited "market" than some might wish.

I wait Al's thoughts with interest.

Dave Justus said...

"And at that point, I can not see him as a champion of Libertarianism, or Liberalism, or any other “ism”."

He was a socialist. And is one of the father's of multiculturalism. And strictly speaking, he wasn't a pacifist either, although he certainly oppossed American involvement in WWI, and would equally have been oppossed to Vietnam and Iraq, he probably wouldn't be oppossed to the violent communist revolutions.

As for the essay, I think that a lot of the points are good ones, although not all of the conclusions presented in it are valid, and many of the assumptions are based upon Bourne's own prejudices rather then and factuality.

Certainly the purpose of the State is violence, and it is the monopoly on legitimate violence that makes a state a state. Bourne goes astray though in presuming that because it was not rationally concieved in this way as a noble purpose, it must be a negative feature. Like many complex phenomena, the Nation/State/Government paradigm resulted from an evolutionary like process, and is more beneficial then not.

I think Bourne also betrays his Marxist tendacies in presuming that because he oppossed the war it is purely an 'elite' thing and that those of the common people who had been seduced and fooled into joining the patriotic fervor. Marxists are always very dismissive of those of the 'proles' that don't toe the line.

I do think though that Bourne's points about the large undercurrents and powerful forces unleashed by war are worthy of note. War is a terrible thing to unleash, both by what it may do directly in other lands, and what it may do indirectly at home. Where perhaps I depart from Bourne though is that while I agree war is a terrible thing, I don't aggre that it is the worst thing.

I would also point out that for every similarity between what Bourne describes and the last few years in America there are even more differences. Certainly there was, and is, a fair amount of dissent and opposition to the war. There was disagreement about that, but not persecution. Indeed, Barack Obama was oppossed to the war in the beginning and was elected to the U.S. Senate less then two years after the war in Iraq commenced and is now a very serious candidate for President. Hardly an environment where opposition to the war is political suicide, if not likely to lead to direct imprisonment.

The probligo said...

Dave, one of the points where he and I would meet is in "multiculturalism".

I agree that Bourne is probably a socialist - that is apparent from some of the language he uses - as in the first para in the c&p sequence I submitted. I do not believe that you could rate him as Marxist or Communist however. He sounds more like a founding member of the NZ Labour Party.

Dave Justus said...

I think he had at least Marxist tendancies. I don't know about his exact politics, but he certainly seems somewhere between NZ Labour Party and Che Guevara.

'Multiculteralism' has a lot of definitions, some of those definitions I agree with, others I don't. At the very least, I hold that individual rights trump 'Multiculteralism' while strong Multiculteralists hold the opposite. For example, 'honor killing' is inexcusable, no matter how culterally signifigant it may be.

I believe that supporting individual rights allows for a great deal of culteral expression and freedom, and welcome others using that freedom and enjoy when I am able to use my freedom to expand on my culteral knowledge, for example comunicating with a crazy New Zealander :)

Putting Multiculteralism ahead of individual rights though, making it the focus and insisting that we have no basis to judge on how another culture treats its individual members is a antithetical to individual rights.

You can get culteral freedom as a result of individual rights, but you can't get individual freedom as a result of culteral rights.