War is the Health of the State

Excerpts from Randolph Bourne’s The State:

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation 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 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.  

War is the health of the State. Only when the State is at war does the modern society function with that unity of sentiment, simple uncritical patriotic devotion, cooperation of services, which have always been the ideal of the State lover. With the ravages of democratic ideas, however, the modern republic cannot go to war under the old conceptions of autocracy and death-dealing belligerency. If a successful animus for war requires a renaissance of State ideals, they can only come back under democratic forms, under this retrospective conviction of democratic control of foreign policy, democratic desire for war, and particularly of this identification of the democracy with the State. 

War is the health of the State and it is during war that one best understands the nature of that institution. If the American democracy during wartime has acted with an almost incredible trueness to form, if it has resurrected with an almost joyful fury the somnolent State, we can only conclude that the tradition from the past has been unbroken, and that the American republic is the direct descendant of the English State. 

And what was the nature of this early English State? It was first of all a medieval absolute monarchy, arising out of the feudal chaos, which had represented the first effort at order after the turbulent assimilation of the invading barbarians by the Christianizing Roman civilization. … The modern State begins when a prince secures almost undisputed sway over fairly homogeneous territory and people and strives to fortify his power and maintain the order that will conduce to the safety and influence of his heirs. The State in its inception is pure and undiluted monarchy; it is armed power, culminating in a single head, bent on one primary object, the reducing to subjection, to unconditional and unqualified loyalty of all the people of a certain territory. This is the primary striving of the State, and it is a striving that the State never loses, through all its myriad transformations. 

… 

The President is an elected king, but the fact that he is elected has proved to be of far less significance in the course of political evolution than the fact that he is pragmatically a king. It was the intention of the founders of the Constitution that he be elected by a small body of notables, representing the ruling propertied classes, who could check him up every four years in a new election. This was no innovation. Kings have often been selected this way in European history, and the Roman Emperor was regularly chosen by election. That the American President’s term was limited merely shows the confidence which the founders felt in the buttressing force of their instrument. His election would never pass out of the hands of the notables, and so the office would be guaranteed to be held by a faithful representative of upper-class demands.

Comments (2) | |