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.
Working a familial metaphor, he claimed going to war offers an opportunity for “regression to infantile attitudes,” as in people’s reactions to (even imagined) attack or to insults (real or perceived) hurled at one’s country, which encourages one to “draw closer to the herd for protection,” thereby strengthening (the organization of) the State.
But that very organization drives those who comprise it “in that detour to suicide, as Nietzsche calls war,” Bourne explained.
Immortalized as the apotheosis of a principled anti-war critic from the 1960s onward, many have since tried to resurrect his reputation, but not always in ways truest to the spirit of his philosophy.
Perhaps owing to Bourne’s appreciation of Nietzsche, writers in the 1990s interested in a postmodern, genealogical approach to scholarship who, according to Christopher Phelps, displayed disconcertingly little concern for historical context and meaning, turned to Bourne for inspiration. Phelps criticized the tendency in their postmodern readings to downplay Bourne’s political and intellectual engagement. Additionally, those who self-identify with the “libertarian” tradition have claimed Bourne as their own, but their conceptions of liberty and freedom seem to differ in several important respects from the prophetic philosophy and related values Bourne affirmed.
With that analysis, Bourne shines a light on those dark parts of the unconscious and on our inner drives—and, perhaps more so than Nietzsche, he underscores the self-destructive and paradoxical way in which our individual will comes to serve the function of the organized herd, the State.
Bourne is equally attentive to the role the State plays in reproducing class society.
Stricken by the influenza epidemic that had spread across the world in the wake of the First World War—the military conflagration that ironically both ruined his “reputation and elicited prophetic words that have the greatest claim on our imaginations today”—Randolph S.
Bourne died on a dreary December day in 1918. Dead at 32, Bourne left behind a legacy of social and cultural criticism and a body of work—some of it unfinished—that, given its manifold interpretations, entreats us to revisit what he wrote and the spirit behind it, a century after his death.