Randolph Bourne vs The State, H.W. Morton

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“War is the Health of the State”

‘Had Randolph Bourne never written another line he would have earned immortality from those words alone. “War is the health of the State”, he announced, and went on to explain: “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the herd sense.”‘ Morton.

When I came up to uni at the beginning of 1969 I thought I was a Fabian. But after just one meeting of the august Melbourne University Labor Club I was shunted off to the anarchists next door (in Union House) and there I stayed – though a lot of my activity in the anti-war movement of those years was under the banner of SDS*.

I had been introduced to Fabianism by my school librarian at Blackburn South High when we spent a year in Melbourne while dad finished his BA preparatory to becoming a DI (district inspector of schools). For a boy from the bush this was a year of intense stimulation, social and intellectual, maths and chess, politics and religion (atheism), before I returned to the bush, to the mud landscape and mud minds of Colac, for an inadequate matriculation.

Sometime during 1969-71, the years encompassing two highly successful Moratoriums, lots of smaller demos, anti-conscription pamphleteering and my own ‘failure to register’ and subsequent police dodging, I became the proud owner of a handful of Anarchy periodicals and in particular Anarchy 31 and its lead article ‘Randolph Bourne vs the State’ by HW Morton (about whom I can tell you nothing).

So first, let us be clear about “the State”.

The world is regrettably divided into armed and mutually hostile geographic entities which we call “countries”. Coinciding (usually) with a country is a body of people – a “nation” (Presumably because nations and countries don’t always coincide Morton uses “society” for the people in a country).

The “State” is the organizing principle of a Nation and determines how it is governed, how its Government is formed and what form it should take.

To go on to politics, Socialism is the belief that the wealth of a nation should be equitably distributed to all the people of that nation. Anarchists believe that the socialist State can only be preserved by distributing the powers of government to as many people as possible, while Communists believe the opposite. Strangely, both believe in an eventual utopia entirely without government.

Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) wrote The State in New York during the First World War. It was reissued in the early 1960s – hence Morton’s critique in Anarchy 31 – and is now available online. “In its incomplete form the essay defines the State, describes its activities, and discusses its historic evolution.” Morton is critical of Bourne’s analysis of the historical development of the State, and thinks he had not read any anarchist theory. His understanding “could have been considerably enhanced had he studied Kropotkin. Conversely, Kropotkin could have benefitted from reading Bourne on War.” And it is his analysis of the State in relation to War that has most influenced me.

 The nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.

It is this “uniformity of feeling”, intolerance of difference, this “herd feeling” as Bourne inelegantly puts it, which politicians, the class which benefits most from the power of the State, are constantly aspiring to with their confected but often lethal oppositions to Others.

I could go on. I do don’t I? Anzac Day and the glorification of the Military Ideal does that to me. If you’re interested in reading further, both Morton’s and Bourne’s essays are at the links below.

 

H.W. Morton, Randolph Bourne vs The State, Anarchy 31 (Vol 3 No.9) Sept. 1963, Freedom Press, London. here

Randolph Bourne, The State, 1918 here


*Conscription was conducted by a ballot process—the draft. All men were required to register on reaching 20 years of age, but only those whose birthdays were selected in a twice-yearly ballot would be compelled to serve two years in the army and five years in the army reserve. This was the generation entering Australian universities from the mid-1960s.

The Melbourne University Labor Club initially led student opposition to the war and its membership grew until it split in 1968 over the question of whether to be an activist or educative group. From this split new organisations emerged.2 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) established itself in a shared house in Palmerston Street in Carlton which became known as the Centre for Democratic Action. Members of the SDS, Harry Van Moorst and Michael Hamel-Green, explained their philosophy: traditional politics was morally unacceptable and should be replaced by participatory democracy. Collective, decentralised decision-making and direct, non-violent action such as theatre, street demonstrations and leafleting all aimed to empower participants in a new politics.3 In cooperation with the Melbourne University Draft Resisters Union and the Radical Action Movement, SDS urged students to refuse to register for the draft, and led them to declare Union House a place of safety for draft resisters who had gone ‘underground’, hiding from the police.

Suzanne Fairbanks, University of Melbourne archives (here)

5 thoughts on “Randolph Bourne vs The State, H.W. Morton

      • I came from a working-class family, so when I went to college I didn’t really feel like I knew how to find these extracurricular groups of which you speak. Plus, there were about 27,000 students on the campus, so it was easy to get lost in the mix or feel overwhelmed and choose not to do anything at all. I also felt like I had to work while I was in college, and that cut into any time that I might have to get engaged with social movements, something that I regret deeply.

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      • Melanie, I think that’s true of Australian universities now too. But in 1969 the student unions were well resourced – something which later governments run by right wing former student politicians put an end to, to stop student activism – and we were actively encouraged to engage in extra-curricular activities, with the whole of Orientation week to choose who to join. Of course the downside was that I skipped lectures, failed physics and chemistry and had to repeat, and dropped out.

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