War is the Health of the State
Saturday, Aug 28, 2010
Randolph Bourne wrote The State during World War I. He discusses the role of war in history and the squashing of speech in the United States (the Espionage Act of 1917 convicted [hundreds of people](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espionage_Act_of_1917#Enforcement_of_the_act) for up to 20 to 25 years for simply speaking against military recruitment, most famously [Eugene Debs](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_V._Debs)). The Espionage Act still exists and its use was [threatened](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/21/AR2006052100348.html) by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales against New York Times journalists in 2006.
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. The classes upon whom the amateur work of coercion falls are unwearied in their zeal, but often their agitation, instead of converting merely serves to stiffen their resistance. Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical. But in general, the nation in wartime 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. Other values such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State, are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.
We are a part of Country, for better or for worse. We have arrived in it through the operation of physiological laws, and not in any way through our own choice. By the time we have reached what are called years of discretion, its influences have molded our habits, our values, our ways of thinking, so that however aware we may become, we never really lose the stamp of our civilization, or could be mistaken for the child of any other country. Our feeling for our fellow countrymen is one of similarity or of mere acquaintance. We may be intensely proud of and congenial to our particular network of civilization, or we may detest most of its qualities and rage at its defects. This does not alter the fact that we are inextricably bound up in it. The Country, as an inescapable group into which we are born, and which makes us its particular kind of a citizen of the world, seems to be a fundamental fact of our consciousness, an irreducible minimum of social feeling... Country is a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition: it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects. And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State, and as we grow up we learn to mingle the two feelings into a hopeless confusion.
Government on the other hand is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities.
Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war is essentially the health of the State. The ideal of the State is that within its territory its power and influence should be universal. As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of man, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation. Its idealism is a rich blood flowing to all the members of the body politic. And it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels of the herd, and to its remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become—the inexorable arbiter and determinant of mens' businesses and attitudes and opinions. The slack is taken up, the cross-currents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, towards the great end, towards that peacefulness of being at war, of which L. P. Jacks has spoken so unforgettably.
For these secular goods, connected with the enhancement of life, the education of men and the use of the intelligence to realize reason and beauty in the nation’s communal living, are alien to our traditional ideal of the State. The State is intimately connected with war, for it is the organization of the collective community when it acts in a political manner, and to act in a political manner towards a rival group has meant, throughout all history-- war.
The herd is in fact the original unit, and only as it was differentiated did personal individuality develop. All the most primitive tribes of men are shown to live in very complex but very rigid social organization where opportunity for individuation is scarcely given. These tribes remain strictly organized herds, and the difference between them and the modern State is one of degree of sophistication and variety of organization, and not of kind.
Psychologists recognize the gregarious impulse as one of the strongest primitive pulls which keeps together the herds of the different species of higher animals. Mankind is no exception. Our pugnacious evolutionary history has prevented the impulse from ever dying out. This gregarious impulse is the tendency to imitate, to conform, to coalesce together, and is most powerful when the herd believes itself threatened with attack. Animals crowd together for protection, and men become most conscious of their collectivity at the threat of war. Consciousness of collectivity brings confidence and a feeling of massed strength, which in turn arouses pugnacity and the battle is on. In civilized man, the gregarious impulse acts not only to produce concerted action for defense, but also to produce identity of opinion. Since thought is a form of behavior, the gregarious impulse floods up into its realms and demands that sense of uniform thought which wartime produces so successfully. And it is in this flooding of the conscious life of society that gregariousness works its havoc.
The question of whether the American nation would act like an enlightened democracy going to war for the sake of high ideals, or like a State-obsessed herd, has been decisively answered. The record is written and cannot be erased. History will decide whether the terrorization of opinion, and the regimentation of life was justified under the most idealistic of democratic administrations. It will see that when the American nation had ostensibly a chance to conduct a gallant war, with scrupulous regard to the safety of democratic values at home, it chose rather to adopt all the most obnoxious and coercive techniques of the enemy and of the other countries at war, and to rival in intimidation and ferocity of punishment the worst governmental systems of the age.
For war is a complicated way in which a nation acts, and it acts so out of a spiritual compulsion which pushes it on perhaps against all its interests, all its real desires, and all its real sense of values. It is States that make wars and not nations, and the very thought and almost necessity of war is bound up with the ideal of the State. Not for centuries have nations made war; in fact the only historical example of nations making war is the great barbarian invasions into Southern Europe, invasions of Russia from the East, and perhaps the sweep of Islam through Northern Africa into Europe after Mohammed’s death. And the motivations for such wars were either the restless expansion of migratory tribes or the flame of religious fanaticism. Perhaps these great movements could scarcely be called wars at all, for war implies an organized people drilled and led; in fact, it necessitates the State. Ever since Europe has had any such organization, such huge conflicts between nations—nations, that is, as cultural groups—have been unthinkable. It is preposterous to assume that for centuries in Europe there would have been any possibility of a people en masse—with their own leaders, and not with the leaders of their duly constituted State—rising up and overflowing their borders in a war raid upon a neighboring people. But war, as such, cannot occur except in a system of competing States, which have relations with each other through the channels of diplomacy.
War is a function of this system of States, and could not occur except in such a system. Nations organized for internal administration, nations organized as a federation of free communities, nations organized in any way except that of a political centralization of a dynasty or the reformed descendant of a dynasty, could not possibly make war upon each other. They would not only have no motive for conflict, but they would be unable to muster the concentrated force to make war effective. There might be all sorts of amateur marauding, there might be guerrilla expeditions of group against group, but there could not be that terrible war en masse of the national state, that exploitation of the nation in the interests of the State, that abuse of the national life and resource in the frenzied mutual suicide which is modern war.
It cannot be too firmly realized that war is a function of States and not of nations, indeed that it is the chief function of States. War is a very artificial thing. It is not the naive spontaneous outburst of herd pugnacity; it is no more primary than is formal religion. 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. We cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. And we cannot expect, or take measures to ensure, that this war is a war to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end the State in its traditional form. 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. If the State’s chief function is war, then the State must suck out of the nation a large part of its energy for 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 very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing process of the national life.
If the demand for military organization and a military establishment seems to come not from the officers of the State but from the public, it is only that it comes from the State-obsessed portion of the public, those groups which feel most keenly the State ideal. And in this country we have had evidence all too indubitable about how powerless the pacifically minded officers of the State may be in the face of a State-obsession of the significant classes. If a powerful section of the significant classes feels more intensely the attitudes of the State, then they will most infallibly mold the Government in time to their wishes, bring it back to act as the embodiment of the State which it pretends to be. In every country we have seen groups that were more loyal than the King—more patriotic than the Government—the Ulsterites in Great Britain, the Junkers in Prussia, l’Action Francaise in France, our patrioteers in America. These groups exist to keep the steering wheel of the State straight, and they prevent the nation from ever veering very far from the State ideal.
By an ingenious mixture of cajolery, agitation, intimidation, the herd is licked into shape, into an effective mechanical unity, if not into a spiritual whole. Men are told simultaneously that they will enter the military establishment of their own volition, as their splendid sacrifice for their country’s welfare, and that if they do not enter they will be hunted down and punished with the most horrid penalties; and under a most indescribable confusion of democratic pride and personal fear they submit to the destruction of their livelihood if not their lives, in a way that would formerly have seemed to them so obnoxious as to be incredible.
However representative of the people Parliaments and Congresses may be in all that concerns the internal administration of a country’s political affairs, in international relations it has never been possible to maintain that the popular body acted except as a wholly mechanical ratifier of the Executive’s will. The formality by which Parliaments and Congresses declare war is the merest technicality. Before such a declaration can take place, the country will have been brought to the very brink of war by the foreign policy of the Executive. A long series of steps on the downward path, each one more fatally committing the unsuspecting country to a warlike course of action will have been taken without either the people or its representatives being consulted or expressing its feeling. When the declaration of war is finally demanded by the Executive, the Parliament or Congress could not refuse it without reversing the course of history, without repudiating what has been representing itself in the eyes of the other states as the symbol and interpreter of the nation’s will and animus. To repudiate an Executive at that time would be to publish to the entire world the evidence that the country had been grossly deceived by its own Government, that the country with an almost criminal carelessness had allowed its Government to commit it to gigantic national enterprises in which it had no heart. In such a crisis, even a Parliament which in the most democratic States represents the common man and not the significant classes who most strongly cherish the State ideal, will cheerfully sustain the foreign policy which it understands even less than it would care for if it understood, and will vote almost unanimously for an incalculable war, in which the nation may be brought well nigh to ruin.
All of which goes to show that the State represents all the autocratic, arbitrary, coercive, belligerent forces within a social group, it is a sort of nexus of everything most distasteful to the modern free creative spirit, the feeling for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 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.
In foreign policy, the State is most itself. States, with reference to each other, may be said to be in a continual state of latent war. The armed truce, a phrase so familiar before 1914, was an accurate description of the normal relation of States when they are not at war. Indeed, 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. If diplomacy had been a moral equivalent for war, a higher stage in human progress, an inestimable means of making words prevail instead of blows, militarism would have broken down and given place to it. But since it is a mere temporary substitute, a mere appearance of war’s energy under another form, a surrogate effect is almost exactly proportioned to the armed force behind it. When it fails, the recourse is immediate to the military technique whose thinly veiled arm it has been. A diplomacy that was the agency of popular democratic forces in their non-State manifestations would be no diplomacy at all. It would be no better than the Railway or Education commissions that are sent from one country to another with rational constructive purpose. The State, acting as a diplomatic-military ideal, is eternally at war. Just as it must act arbitrarily and autocratically in time of war, it must act in time of peace in this particular role where it acts as a unit.
What is the State essentially? The more closely we examine it, the more mystical and personal it becomes. On the Nation we can put our hand as a definite social group, with attitudes and qualities exact enough to mean something. On the Government we can put our hand as a certain organization of ruling functions, the machinery of lawmaking and law-enforcing. The Administration is a recognizable group of political functionaries, temporarily in charge of the government. But the State stands as an idea behind them all, eternal, sanctified, and from it Government and Administration conceive themselves to have the breath of life. Even the nation, especially in times of war—or at least, its significant classes—considers that it derives its authority and its purpose from the idea of the State. Nation and State are scarcely differentiated, and the concrete, practical, apparent facts are sunk in the symbol. We reverence not our country but the flag. We may criticize ever so severely our country, but we are disrespectful to the flag at our peril. It is the flag and the uniform that make men’s heart beat high and fill them with noble emotions, not the thought of and pious hopes for America as a free and enlightened nation.
The flag is most intimately connected with military achievement, military memory. It represents the country not in its intensive life, but in its far-flung challenge to the world. The flag is primarily the banner of war; it is allied with patriotic anthem and holiday. It recalls old martial memories. A nation’s patriotic history is solely the history of its wars, that is, of the State in its health and glorious functioning.
The inextricable union of militarism and the State is beautifully shown by those laws which emphasize interference with the Army and Navy as the most culpable of seditious crimes. Pragmatically, a case of capitalistic sabotage, or a strike in war industry would seem to be far more dangerous to the successful prosecution of the war than the isolated and ineffectual efforts of an individual to prevent recruiting. But in the tradition of the State ideal, such industrial interference with national policy is not identified as a crime against the State. It may be grumbled against; it may be seen quite rationally as an impediment of the utmost gravity. But it is not felt in those obscure seats of the herd mind which dictate the identity of crime and fix their proportional punishments. Army and Navy, however, are the very arms of the State; in them flows its most precious lifeblood. To paralyze them is to touch the very State itself. And the majesty of the State is so sacred that even to attempt such a paralysis is a crime equal to a successful strike. The will is deemed sufficient. Even though the individual in his effort to impede recruiting should utterly and lamentably fail, he shall be in no wise spared. Let the wrath of the State descend upon him for his impiety! Even if he does not try any overt action, but merely utters sentiments that may incidentally in the most indirect way cause someone to refrain from enlisting, he is guilty. The guardians of the State do not ask whether any pragmatic effect flowed out of this evil will or desire. It is enough that the will is present. Fifteen or twenty years in prison is not deemed too much for such sacrilege.
The modern State is not the rational and intelligent product of modern men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property, and opinion. It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end. All the idealism with which we have been instructed to endow the State is the fruit of our retrospective imaginations. What it does for us in the way of security and benefit of life, it does incidentally as a by-product and development of its original functions, and not because at any time men or classes in the full possession of their insight and intelligence have desired that it be so. It is very important that we should occasionally lift the incorrigible veil of that ex post facto idealism by which we throw a glamour of rationalization over what is, and pretend in the ecstasies of social conceit that we have personally invented and set up for the glory of God and man the hoary institutions which we see around us. Things are what they are, and come down to us with all their thick encrustations of error and malevolence. Political philosophy can delight us with fantasy and convince us who need illusion to live that the actual is a fair and approximate copy—full of failings, of course, but approximately sound and sincere—of that ideal society which we can imagine ourselves as creating. From this it is a step to the tacit assumption that we have somehow had a hand in its creation and are responsible for its maintenance and sanctity.
Nothing is more obvious, however, than that every one of us comes into society as into something in whose creation we had not the slightest hand. We have not even the advantage of consciousness before we take up our careers on earth. By the time we find ourselves here we are caught in a network of customs and attitudes, the major directions of our desires and interests have been stamped on our minds, and by the time we have emerged from tutelage and reached the years of discretion when we might conceivably throw our influence to the reshaping of social institutions, most of us have been so molded into the society and class we live in that we are scarcely aware of any distinction between ourselves as judging, desiring individuals and our social environment. We have been kneaded so successfully that we approve of what our society approves, desire what our society desires, and add to the group our own passionate inertia against change, against the effort of reason, and the adventure of beauty.
Every one of us, without exception, is born into a society that is given, just as the fauna and flora of our environment are given. Society and its institutions are, to the individual who enters it, as much naturalistic phenomena as is the weather itself. There is, therefore, no natural sanctity in the State any more than there is in the weather. We may bow down before it, just as our ancestors bowed before the sun and moon, but it is only because something in us unregenerate finds satisfaction in such an attitude, not because there is anything inherently reverential in the institution worshiped. Once the State has begun to function, and a large class finds its interest and its expression of power in maintaining the State, this ruling class may compel obedience from any uninterested minority. The State thus becomes an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class. The rulers soon learn to capitalize the reverence which the State produces in the majority, and turn it into a general resistance toward a lessening of their privileges. The sanctity of the State becomes identified with the sanctity of the ruling class, and the latter are permitted to remain in power under the impression that in obeying and serving them, we are obeying and serving society, the nation, the great collectivity of all of us.
The modern democratic state, in this light, is therefore no bright and rational creation of a new day, the political form under which great peoples are to live healthfully and freely in a modern world, but the last decrepit scion of an ancient and hoary stock, which has become so exhausted that it scarcely recognizes its own ancestor, does, in fact, repudiate him while it clings tenaciously to the archaic and irrelevant spirit that made that ancestor powerful, and resists the new bottles for the new wine that its health as a modern society so desperately needs. So sweeping a conclusion might have been doubted concerning the American State had it not been for the war, which has provided a long and beautiful series of examples of the tenacity of the State ideal and its hold on the significant classes of the American nation. 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.
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 history of the State, then, is the effort to maintain these personal prerogatives of power, the effort to convert more and more into stable law the rules of order, the conditions of public vengeance, the distinction between classes, the possession of privilege. It was an effort to convert what was at first arbitrary usurpation, a perfectly apparent use of unjustified force, into the taken for granted and the divinely established. The State moves inevitably along the line from military dictatorship to the divine right of Kings. What had to be at first rawly imposed becomes through social habit to seem the necessary, the inevitable. The modern unquestioning acceptance of the State comes out of long and turbulent centuries when the State was challenged and had to fight its way to prevail. The King’s establishment of personal power—which was the early State—had to contend with the impudence of hostile barons, who saw too clearly the adventitious origin of the monarchy and felt no reason why they should not themselves reign. Feuds between the King and his relatives, quarrels over inheritance, quarrels over the devolution of property, threatened constantly the existence of the new monarchical State. The King’s will to power necessitated for its absolute satisfaction universality of political control in his dominions, just as the Roman Church claimed universality of spiritual control over the whole world. And just as rival popes were the inevitable product of such a pretension of sovereignty, rival kings and princes contended for that dazzling jewel of undisputed power.
The Restoration brought back the old State under a peculiarly frivolous form. The Revolution was the merest change of monarchs at the behest of a Protestant majority which insisted on guarantees against religious relapse. The intrinsic nature of the monarchy as the symbol of the State was not in the least altered. In place of the inept monarch who could not lead the State in person or concentrate in himself the royal prerogatives, a coterie of courtiers managed the State. But their direction was consistently in the interest of the monarch and of the traditional ideal, so that the current of the English State was not broken.
The boasted English Parliament of Lords and commoners possessed at no time any vitality which weakened or threatened to weaken the State ideal. Its original purpose was merely to facilitate the raising of the King’s revenues. The nobles responded better when they seemed to be giving their consent. Their share in actual government was subjective, but the existence of Parliament served to appease any restiveness at the autocracy of the King. The significant classes could scarcely rebel when they had the privilege of giving consent to the King’s measures. There was always outlet for the rebellious spirit of a powerful lord in private revolt against the King. The only Parliament that seriously tried to govern outside of and against the King’s will precipitated a civil war that ended with the effectual submission of Parliament to a more careless and corrupt autocracy than had yet been known. By the time of George III Parliament was moribund, utterly unrepresentative either of the new bourgeois classes or of peasants and laborers, a mere frivolous parody of a legislature, despised both by King and people. The King was most effectively the State and his ministers the Government, which was run in terms of his personal whim, by men whose only interest was personal intrigue. Government had been for long what it has never ceased to be—a series of berths and emoluments in Army, Navy and the different departments of State, for the representatives of the privileged classes.
The American Revolution began with certain latent hopes that it might turn into a genuine break with the State ideal. The Declaration of Independence announced doctrines that were utterly incompatible not only with the century-old conception of the Divine Right of Kings, but also with the Divine Right of the State. If all governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed, and if a people is entitled, at any time that it becomes oppressive, to overthrow it and institute one more nearly conformable to their interests and ideals, the old idea of the sovereignty of the State is destroyed. The State is reduced to the homely work of an instrument for carrying out popular policies. If revolution is justifiable a State may even be criminal sometimes in resisting its own extinction. The sovereignty of the people is no mere phrase. It is a direct challenge to the historic tradition of the State. For it implies that the ultimate sanctity resides not in the State at all or in its agent, the government, but in the nation, that is, in the country viewed as a cultural group and not specifically as a king-dominated herd. The State then becomes a mere instrument, the servant of this popular will, or of the constructive needs of the cultural group. The Revolution had in it, therefore, the makings of a very daring modern experiment—the founding of a free nation which should use the State to effect its vast purposes of subduing a continent just as the colonists’ armies had used arms to detach their society from the irresponsible rule of an overseas king and his frivolous ministers. The history of the State might have ended in 1776 as far as the American colonies were concerned, and the modern nation which is still striving to materialize itself have been born.
For awhile it seemed almost as if the State was dead. But men who are freed rarely know what to do with their liberty. In each colony that fatal seed of the State had been sown; it could not disappear. Rival prestige and interests began to make themselves felt. Fear of foreign States, economic distress, discord between classes, the inevitable physical exhaustion and prostration of idealism which follows a protracted war—all combined to put the responsible classes of the new States into the mood for a regression to the State ideal. Ostensibly there is no reason why the mere lack of a centralized State should have destroyed the possibility of progress in the new liberated America, provided the inter-state jealousy and rivalry could have been destroyed. But there were no leaders for this anti-State nationalism. The sentiments of the Declaration remained mere sentiments. No constructive political scheme was built on them. The popular elements in the new States had only to show their turbulence; they were given no time to grow. The ambitious leaders of the financial classes got a convention called to discuss the controversies and maladjustments of the States, which were making them clamor for a revision of the Articles of Confederation, and then, by one of the most successful coups d’etat in history, turned their assembly into the manufacture of a new government on the strongest lines of the old State ideal.
This new constitution, manufactured in secret session by the leaders of the propertied and ruling classes, was then submitted to an approval of the electors which only by the most expert manipulation was obtained, but which was sufficient to override the indignant undercurrent of protest from those popular elements who saw the fruits of the Revolution slipping away from them. Universal suffrage would have killed it forever. Had the liberated colonies had the advantage of the French experience before them, the promulgation of the Constitution would undoubtedly have been followed by a new revolution, as very nearly happened later against Washington and the Federalists. But the ironical ineptitude of Fate put the machinery of the new Federalist constitutional government in operation just at the moment that the French Revolution began, and by the time those great waves of Jacobin feeling reached North America, the new Federalist State was firmly enough on its course to weather the gale and the turmoil.
The new State was therefore not the happy political symbol of a united people, who in order to form a more perfect union, etc., but the imposition of a State on a loose and growing nationalism, which was in a condition of unstable equilibrium and needed perhaps only to be fertilized from abroad to develop a genuine political experiment in democracy. The preamble to the Constitution, as was soon shown in the hostile popular vote and later in the revolt against the Federalists, was a pious hope rather than actuality, a blessedness to be realized when by the force of government pressure, the creation of idealism, and mere social habit, the population should be welded and kneaded into a State. That this is what has actually happened, is seen in the fact that the somewhat shockingly undemocratic origins of the American State have been almost completely glossed over and the unveiling is bitterly resented, by none so bitterly as the significant classes who have been most industrious in cultivating patriotic myth and legend. American history, as far as it has entered into the general popular emotion, runs along this line. The Colonies are freed by the Revolution from a tyrannous King and become free and independent States; there follow six years of impotent peace, during which the Colonies quarrel among themselves and reveal the hopeless weakness of the principle under which they are working together; in desperation the people then create a new instrument, and launch a free and democratic republic, which was and remains—especially since it withstood the shock of civil war—the most perfect form of democratic government known to man, perfectly adequate to be promulgated as an example in the twentieth century to all people, and to be spread by propaganda, and, if necessary, the sword, in all unregenerately Imperial regions. Modern historians reveal the avowedly undemocratic personnel and opinions of the Convention. They show that the members not only had an unconscious economic interest but a frank political interest in founding a State which should protect the propertied classes against the hostility of the people. They show how, from one point of view, the new government became almost a mechanism for overcoming the repudiation of debts, for putting back into their place a farmer and small trader class whom the unsettled times of reconstruction had threatened to liberate, for reestablishing on the securest basis of the sanctity of property and the State, their class-supremacy menaced by a democracy that had drunk too deeply at the fount of Revolution. But all this makes little impression on the other legend of the popular mind, because it disturbs the sense of the sanctity of the State and it is this rock to which the herd-wish must cling.
It is impossible to predict what would have materialized into a form of society very much modified from the ancient State. All we know is that at a time when the current of political progress was in the direction of agrarian and proletarian democracy, a force hostile to it gripped the nation and imposed upon it a powerful form against which it was never to succeed in doing more than blindly struggle. The liberating virus of the Revolution was definitely expunged, and henceforth if it worked at all it had to work against the State, in opposition to the armed and respectable power of the nation.
The colonies merely exchanged a system run in the interest of the overseas trade of English wealth for a system run in the interest of New England and Philadelphia merchanthood, and later of Southern slavocracy.
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. What he was most obviously to represent was the interests of that body which elected him, and not the mass of the people who were still disenfranchised. For the new State started with no Quixotic belief in universal suffrage. The property qualifications which were in effect in every colony were continued. Government was frankly a function of those who held a concrete interest in the public weal, in the shape of visible property. The responsibility for the security of property rights could safely lie only with those who had something to secure. The stake in the commonwealth which those who held office most possess was obviously larger.
One of the larger errors of political insight which the sage founders of the Constitution committed was to assume that the enfranchised watchdogs of property and the public order would remain a homogeneous class.
By the time the electorate had succeeded in reducing the electoral college to a mere recorder of the popular vote, or in other words, had broadened the class of notables to the whole property-holding electorate, the parties were firmly established to carry on the selective and refining and securing work of the electoral college. The party leadership then became, and has remained ever since, the nucleus of notables who determine the presidency. The electorate having won an apparently democratic victory in the destruction of the notables, finds itself reduced to the role of mere ratification or selection between two or three candidates, in whose choice they have only a nominal share. The electoral college which stood between even the propertied electorate and the executive with the prerogatives of a king, gave place to a body which was just as genuinely a bar to democratic expression, and far less responsible for its acts. The nucleus of party councils which became, after the reduction of the Electoral College, the real choosers of the Presidents, were unofficial, quasi-anonymous, utterly unchecked by the populace whose rulers they chose. More or less self-chosen, or chosen by local groups whom they dominated, they provided a far more secure guarantee that the State should remain in the hands of the ruling classes than the old electoral college. The party councils could be loosely organized entirely outside of the governmental organization, without oversight by the State or check from the electorate. They could be composed of the leaders of the propertied classes themselves or their lieutenants, who could retain their power indefinitely, or at least until they were unseated by rivals within the same charmed domain. They were at least entirely safe from attack by the officially constituted electorate, who, as the party system became more and more firmly established, found they could vote only on slates set up for them by unknown councils behind an imposing and all-powerful Party.
As soon as this system was organized into a hierarchy extending from national down to state and county politics, it became perfectly safe to broaden the electorate. The clamors of the unpropertied or the less propertied to share in the selection of their democratic republican government could be graciously acceded to without endangering in the least the supremacy of those classes which the founders had meant to be supreme. The minority were now even more effectually protected from the majority than under the old system, however indirect the election might be. The electorate was now reduced to a ratifier of slates, both of which were pledged to upper-class domination; the electorate could have the freest, most universal suffrage, for any mass-desire for political change, any determined will to shift the class balance, would be obliged to register itself through the party machinery. It could make no frontal attack on the Government. And the party machinery was directly devised to absorb and neutralize this popular shock, handing out to the disgruntled electorate a disguised stone when it asked for political bread, and effectually smashing any third party which ever avariciously tried to reach government except through the regular two-party system.
The enormous sense of victory which followed the sweeping away of property qualifications of suffrage, the tangible evidence that now every citizen was participating in public affairs, and that the entire manhood democracy was now self-governing, created a mood of political complacency that lasted uninterruptedly into the twentieth century.
The State, Randolph Bourne, 1918, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_State.