Celebrate Our Namesake’s Birthday: The Brilliance of Randolph Bourne

Today is the 134th anniversary of Randolph Bourne’s birthday. Antiwar.com named its parent institute for this early 20th century antiwar activist. Read Jeff Riggenbach’s biography of Bourne.

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Randolph Bourne (1886–1918)”]

Randolph Bourne was an American intellectual journalist who flourished for a few years in the second decade of the 20th century – in the Teens, the decade that ran from 1910 to 1920. Bourne wrote mostly for magazines during this period. His byline was particularly familiar to readers of The New Republic – until his radically antiwar views on the eve of the US government’s intervention in World War I got him fired.

He moved over to The Seven Arts, a newly launched magazine with a smaller circulation than The New Republic and one less well suited to Bourne’s particular talents and interests, since its primary focus was the arts, rather than social and political issues. He was able to publish only six antiwar articles in The Seven Arts before its doors were closed by an owner fearful of the Wilson administration and its Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to criticize the Constitution, the government, the military, or the flag.

Only a few months after The Seven Arts ceased publication, Randolph Bourne died, a victim of the flu epidemic that killed more than 25 million people in 1918 and 1919, nearly a million of them in the United States. That was 1 percent of the population 90 years ago. One percent of the present US population would be more than 3 million Americans. Imagine what it would be like to live through a flu epidemic that killed more than 3 million people in the space of little more than a year. That’s what it was like for Americans living 90 years ago, at the end of World War I.

Most of the people that flu virus killed have long been forgotten – except, of course, by members of their own families. But Randolph Bourne has not been forgotten, not completely. People are still reading his work. They’re still talking about his ideas and about his memorable phrases. The most famous of these has gradually become so widely quoted in our culture that 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.”

Randolph Silliman Bourne first emerged into the light of day on May 30, 1886 in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a small town fewer than 20 miles from Manhattan. His family was comfortably middle-class, and he was the grandson of a respected Congregational minister. But he seems to have been born unlucky all the same. First, his head and face were deformed at birth in a bungled forceps delivery. Then, at the age of four, after a battle with spinal tuberculosis, he became a hunchback. Then, when he was seven, his parents lost everything in the Panic of 1893, and he and his mother were abandoned by his father and left to live in genteel poverty on the charity of his mother’s prosperous (if somewhat tightfisted) brother. Meanwhile, his growth had been permanently stunted by the spinal tuberculosis of a few years before, so that by the time he graduated from high school at the age of 17, in 1903, he had attained his full adult height of five feet.

Bourne was an exemplary student. His academic record in high school earned him a place in the class of 1907 at Princeton, but by the time he was supposed to appear on campus to register for classes in the fall of 1903, it was evident that he couldn’t afford to attend. He could barely afford books. He was flat broke. And his mother needed his financial help if she was going to go on living the decent, middle-class lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. So Bourne postponed college and went to work. He knew his way around a piano, so for the next six years he worked as a piano teacher, a piano tuner, and a piano player (accompanying singers in a recording studio in Carnegie Hall). He also cut piano rolls. On the side he freelanced for book publishers as a proofreader. Now and then, when musical work was harder to find, he did secretarial work.

By 1909, when he was 23 years old, Bourne had saved enough to cut back on his working hours and try to catch up on the college experience he’d been putting off. He enrolled at Columbia, where he fell under the sway of historian and political scientist Charles Beard and philosopher John Dewey, and began publishing essays in the Dial, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. His first book, Youth and Life, a collection of his magazine essays, was published the year he graduated from Columbia, 1913. And that fall, the now 27-year-old Bourne set out for Europe. In his senior year he had been awarded the Gilder Fellowship for travel abroad, which the historian Louis Filler has called “Columbia’s most distinguished honor” during that period. Bourne spent a year travelling around Europe and pursuing such independent study as interested him.

Then, in August 1914, he returned to America, took up residence in Greenwich Village, and resumed writing for the Dial and the Atlantic Monthly, along with a new, upstart weekly called The New Republic. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Bourne fled Europe in August 1914 than to say that he merely “returned to America” at that time. For it was in late July and early August of 1914 that Europe – virtually all of Europe – embarked upon the conflict we know today as World War I. Bourne opposed this conflict, and he was especially worried that his own country, the United States, would choose to enter it before long.

Bourne wrote about many subjects over the next four years; he wrote enough about education, for example, that he was able to fill two books with his magazine pieces on the subject – The Gary Schools in 1916 and Education and Living in 1917. But his main subject during the last four years of his life was the new world war and the urgent need that the United States stay out of it.

Bourne made few friends by adopting this stance. It brought him, as the journalist Ben Reiner later put it, “into sharp conflict with the rising pro-war hysteria that preceded America’s entry into World War I.” In the view of yet another journalistic commentator, Christopher Phelps,

few 20th-century American dissenters have … suffered the wrath of their targets as greatly as Bourne did. By 1917, The New Republic stopped publishing his political pieces. The Seven Arts … collapsed when its financial angel refused further support because of Bourne’s antiwar articles.

According to Reiner, the problem was that once Bourne’s “biting attacks on government repression began to appear in The Seven Arts,” this gave “birth to rumors that the publisher … was supporting a pro-German magazine. She … withdrew her support, which closed the magazine down.”

Nor was the demise of The Seven Arts the end of the punishment Bourne had to bear for speaking his mind. Phelps notes that “even at the Dial … he was stripped from editorial power in 1918 – the result of an uncharacteristically underhanded intervention by his former mentor John Dewey, one of the objects of Bourne’s disillusioned antiwar pen.” Phelps quotes a letter Bourne sent to a friend shortly thereafter, in which he laments that “I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times. … The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable.” The historian Robert Westbrook put the matter as memorably and eloquently as anyone when he said in 2004 that “Bourne disturbed the peace of John Dewey and other intellectuals supporting Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, and they made him pay for it.”

Yet the ruination of his career was far from the only price he had to pay. Westbrook quotes John Dos Passos’s claim, from his novel 1919, that, in addition to his professional setbacks, “friends didn’t like to be seen with Bourne,” and that “his father” – who had walked out of his life a quarter-century before – “wrote him begging him not to disgrace the family name.” A few weeks later, he was dead. Several friends, going through his 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.” For

it cannot be too firmly realized that war is … the chief function of States. … War cannot exist without a military establishment, and a military establishment cannot exist without a State organization. War has an immemorial tradition and heredity only because the State has a long tradition and heredity. But they are inseparably and functionally joined.

Moreover, Bourne argued,

it is not too much to say that the normal relation of States is war. Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which States seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by the cleverness of wits, the objectives which they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war. Diplomacy is used while the States are recuperating from conflicts in which they have exhausted themselves. It is the wheedling and the bargaining of the worn-out bullies as they rise from the ground and slowly restore their strength to begin fighting again.

Randolph Bourne believed that informed citizens needed to realize the implications of what he was saying. For

if the State’s chief function is war, then the State must suck out of the nation a large part of its energy for its purely sterile purposes of defense and aggression. It devotes to waste or to actual destruction as much as it can of the vitality of the nation. No one will deny that war is a vast complex of life-destroying and life-crippling forces. If the State’s chief function is war, then it is chiefly concerned with coordinating and developing the powers and techniques which make for destruction. And this means not only the actual and potential destruction of the enemy, but of the nation at home as well. For the … calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life.

Randolph Bourne believed that “we cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. And we cannot expect … to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end the State in its traditional form.” Bourne had reason to be wary when writing sentences like those in 1918. People were being imprisoned and, in some cases, deported for writing things like that. There was a particular prejudice against anarchists and against people who sounded as though they might be anarchists. Perhaps this is why Bourne added the following caveat to his call for ending the State: “The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation. On the contrary, with the passing of the dominance of the State, the genuine life-enhancing forces of the nation will be liberated.”

Randolph Bourne was an idealist. He hoped for a world free of war, a world in which what he called “the productive and life-enhancing processes” were the dominant processes in our national life. It is appropriate, then, that in the Internet age, he is perhaps best known to the general public, not only for his immortal phrase “War is the health of the State,” but also as the namesake of a nonprofit foundation that runs a popular website. The nonprofit foundation is the Randolph Bourne Institute. And the website is Antiwar.com. The folks who run Antiwar.com would have us believe that their site should not be construed as libertarian in its essence. As Development Director Angela Keaton put it recently, “Antiwar.com is not a libertarian site. Antiwar.com is a foreign policy site operated by libertarians which seeks a broad based coalition in educating about the dangers of Empire.”

I’m inclined to think Randolph Bourne cut through to the heart of the matter more effectively, however, when he wrote that “we cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State.” In effect, you can’t be consistently and intelligently antiwar, unless you’re libertarian. The folks at Antiwar.com are, of course, aware of this. They quote that very same sentence of Bourne’s on the “Who We Are” page on their website and state further that their own “dedication to libertarian principles” is “inspired in large part by the works and example of the late Murray N. Rothbard.” The work that’s being done 24/7 at Antiwar.com not only honors Randolph Bourne’s contribution to the libertarian tradition; it also helps to assure that that tradition will continue and grow.

This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Randolph Bourne (1886–1918).”

Jeff Riggenbach is a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014).

Author: Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach, the author of In Praise of Decadence, is a member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow of the Randolph Bourne Institute. His articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Times, Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty, among other publications.