His critique of the State did not necessarily highlight the institution’s hierarchically controlled monopoly on the use of violence and its claim to legitimate use of penal force; today, with more than two million people in prison in the US, “Incarceration is the health of the state” might be an equally germane axiom.
However, Bourne did note a related “conflict within the State” that arises during war: “The pursuit of enemies within outweighs in psychic attractiveness the assault on the enemy without.
Vincent Millay its lyric poet, Eugene O’Neill its dramatist, Sinclair Lewis its satirist, Van Wyck Brooks its critic.” With the remainder of this essay, I hope to give Bourne’s ideas a new lease on life by stressing some of his (partially) neglected philosophical underpinnings.
By focusing on his criticism of war in relation to the State, his expansive idea of democracy, and his personal experience of love discussed vis-à-vis his notion of a Beloved Community, I aim to outline the bedrock of his philosophy while challenging some of the assumptions about and popular interpretations of his work.
To the point, Bourne’s philosophy as such deserves far more attention.
From what I can gather, plenty of philosophy majors never read him as part of their undergraduate education. As Carl Van Doren, commenting on the younger generation of influential early twentieth-century Americans, notably claimed, “Bourne was its philosopher, John Reed was its hero, Edna St.
The whole terrific force of the State is brought to bear against the heretics.” Military violence directed at other nation-states “unifies all the bourgeois elements and the common people, and outlaws the rest.” Bourne and his one-time intellectual mentor, John Dewey, agreed in part on that last point; however, they disagreed sharply about war and the State when it mattered most.
As the US military engaged in war abroad—a war that left approximately 10 million civilians and almost 10 million soldiers dead and some 21 million wounded, and that resulted in the death of more than 100,000 Americans—Dewey was writing pieces mildly critical of attacks on anti-war dissent yet sympathetic to the wartime agenda.
Some attention is paid to class in the modern-right libertarian tradition that claimed Bourne, but usually in the form of a critique of how state communism generates a ruling elite. For Bourne, it is the governing classes in industry and elected office that enjoy the benefits of rule via the State without “the psychic burden of adulthood.” The state machinery helps recast their “predatory ways” so the actions appear to be in the service of society.
Drawing on Nietzsche once more, while also sort of turning him on his head—using Nietzsche as methodological inspiration, maybe not unlike Marx is said to have done with Hegel—Bourne provided a critical-historical analysis of inbuilt class structure and property relations.