Randolph Bourne, the antiwar intellectual who contended that “war is the health of the state” was born today, May 30, in 1886.
Bourne’s monograph The State, published posthumously, is available here at Mises.org. Bourne authored several other insightful pieces as well, are are collected in the 1964 collection War and the Intellectuals.
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.