You May Not Be Interested in War, But War Is Interested in You

Leon Trotsky? Fannie Hurst? James Burnham? O. H. Steiner? Marshall Berman? Michael Walzer? Donald Barthelme? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several sayings have employed the following templates:

(1) You may not be interested in X, but X is interested in you.
(2) We may not be interested in X, but X is interested in us.
(3) They may not be interested in X, but X is interested in them.
(4) I may not be interested in X, but X is interested in me.

Various terms have been substituted for X including war, politics, dialectics, strategy, and absurdity. I am interested in the version using the word “war” which has often been attributed to the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky who was assassinated in August 1940. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match using “war” located by QI appeared in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio in 1941. The popular author Fannie Hurst used the expression while addressing a “Freedom Day” rally in Cleveland. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“We may not be interested in this war, but it is interested in us. I’m not trying to sell it to you, but no one can evade the fact that we are in the path of the storm. We dare not be disunited when liberty, the most precious jewel in our national strongbox, is at stake.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Leon Trotsky employed the saying about war. QI conjectures that the attribution to Trotsky occurred via a multistep process that began with statements about dialectics.

James Burnham who was a Professor of Philosophy at New York University was a supporter of Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. In February 1940 he published an essay titled “Science and Style: A Reply to Comrade Trotsky” which signaled Burnham’s rejection of dialectical materialism: 2

I do not recognize dialectics, but, as you say, dialectics recognizes me. Evidently, if Cannon has a majority at the Convention, this recognition will be a blow on the head in the form of a resolution adding acceptance of dialectics as part of the programmatic basis of the party . . .

In June 1940 Trotsky penned a letter commenting on Burnham’s viewpoint: 3

Burnham doesn’t recognize dialectics but dialectics does not permit him to escape from its net. He is caught as a fly in a web.

Neither of the two statements above precisely matched the template under examination with the word “dialectics”. Nevertheless, there was a rough similarity.

In November 1941 Fannie Hurst addressed a rally in Cleveland, Ohio and employed an instance of the saying with the word “war” as mentioned previously in this article:

“We may not be interested in this war, but it is interested in us.”

The following week “The Cleveland Plain Dealer” published a letter from O. H. Steiner mentioning the rally and presenting a rephrased version of Hurst’s remark: 4

One of the speakers, Fannie Hurst, appropriately observed “There are people who are not interested in the war. Unfortunately, the war is interested in them.”

In 1963 “The New Yorker” published a piece by postmodern storyteller Donald Barthelme containing an instance using the word “absurdity”: 5

“You may not be interested in absurdity,” she said firmly, “but absurdity is interested in you.”

A separate QI article about the expression using “absurdity” is available here.

In 1970 Marshall Berman, a political scientist at The City College of New York, published “The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society”. The concluding chapter featured an epigraph attributed to Leon Trotsky: 6

You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.
TROTSKY

In 1977 Michael Walzer, a Professor of Government at Harvard University, published “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations” which contained the following passage: 7

War is most often a form of tyranny. It is best described by paraphrasing Trotsky’s aphorism about the dialectic: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Walzer was the general editor of Berman’s 1970 book; hence, he probably saw the quotation about dialectics attributed to Trotsky by Berman. Walzer reformulated the remark to construct a statement about war. He did not directly ascribe the new remark to Trotsky; instead, he called it a paraphrase. QI hypothesizes that the Trotsky attribution of the quotation about war was primarily propagated via the careless reading of Walzer’s book.

In 1979 Gary Thom published “Bringing the Left Back Home: A Critique of American Social Criticism”, and he discussed Berman’s “The Politics of Authenticity”. Thom reprinted the remark attributed to Trotsky by Berman: 8

Therefore it is with considerable unintended irony that he quotes Trotsky with such enthusiasm: “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

In 1983 the collection “Dangers of Deterrence” included an essay by Ken Booth titled “Unilateralism: A Clausewitzian Reform?”. Booth printed the adage about war while stating that it was a paraphrase. The accompanying footnote pointed to Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars”: 9

Unfortunately, the problem of nuclear war will not go away even for those states which may renounce their own nuclear weapons, and try to stop thinking about them. War and the threat of war will remain a kind of tyranny. With this in mind, Michael Walzer brilliantly paraphrased Trotsky’s aphorism about the dialectic: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

In 1985 Gregg Herken’s “Counsels of War” contained the following passage: 10

Most have been drawn to study it less out of what Joseph Conrad termed “the fascination of the abomination” than in the spirit of Leon Trotsky’s grim admonition that “while you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you.”

In 1988 Glenn Frankel of the “Washington Post” printed the following: 11

“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” wrote Leon Trotsky. He was referring to the vortex that war inevitably creates, sucking in whole communities and individuals who have thought of themselves as neutrals or noncombatants.

In 1989 activist and sociologist Todd Gitlin published the following in “LA Weekly”: 12

The background rumble of your life has been an East-West confrontation which apparently reduced all choices to two: Us vs. Them. Dwight Macdonald argued in 1940, against Trotsky, that he wasn’t interested in the dialectic; Trotsky wrote back that Macdonald might not be interested in the dialectic but the dialectic was interested in him. Thus too: you may not have been interested in the Cold War but the Cold War has been interested in you.

In 2003 “Collins Dictionary Quotations” included this entry: 13

TROTSKY, Leon (1879-1940)
You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

In conclusion, this article presents only a snapshot of current research on a complex topic. Fannie Hurst is the leading candidate for creator of the expression using the word “war” in 1941. The expression using “dialectic” evolved from the remarks of Leon Trotsky and was placed into template form by Marshall Berman by 1970. Michael Walzer stated in 1977 that the expression using “war” was a paraphrase of Trotsky’s words. Subsequently, the remark was directly credited to Trotsky.

Image Notes: Painting of the Battle at Pons Milvius by Raphael circa 1520. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Jared Morton and Matt Levine whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to the volunteer contributors at Wikiquote.)

Notes:

  1. 1941 November 17, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 6,000 Here Assail Hostage Slayings (Continuation title: 6,000 Hit Strikes In Freedom Rally) by George Z. Griswold, Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1973 Copyright, In Defense of Marxism: The Social and Political Contradictions of the Soviet Union by Leon Trotsky, Title: Science and Style: A Reply to Comrade Trotsky, From: James Burnham, Date: February 1, 1940, Quote Page 193, Pathfinder Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1973 Copyright, In Defense of Marxism: The Social and Political Contradictions of the Soviet Union by Leon Trotsky, Letter to Albert Goldman, Letter from Leon Trotsky, Date: June 5, 1940, Quote Page 180, Pathfinder Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1941 November 23, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: Letters To the Editor, Letter Title: Is City Asleep?, Letter from: O. H. Steiner, Quote Page 23A, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1963 December 28, The New Yorker, Volume 39, A Shower of Gold by Donald Barthelme, Start Page 33, Quote Page 33, Column 2, Published by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive of page scans)
  6. 1972 (1970 Copyright), The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society by Marshall Berman, Series: Studies in Political Theory, General Editor: Michael Walzer, Chapter: Conclusion, (Quotation is a chapter epigraph), Quote Page 311, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 2006 (1977 Copyright), Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations by Michael Walzer, Fourth Edition, Part One: The Moral Reality of War, Chapter 2: The Crime of War, Quote Page 29, Basic Books: A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York. (Verified with scans) (QI has not yet examined the 1977 edition of this book; the 1983 essay by Ken Booth cited the 1980 edition of Walzer’s book and indicated that the quotation was present)
  8. 1979, Bringing the Left Back Home: A Critique of American Social Criticism by Gary Thom, Section: Notes, Quote Page 246, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1983, Dangers of Deterrence: Philosophers on Nuclear Strategy, Edited by Nigel Blake and Kay Pole, Chapter: Unilateralism: A Clausewitzian Reform? by Ken Booth, Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Notes Page 78, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1985, Counsels of War by Gregg Herken, Prologue: Operation Eggnog, Quote Page xv, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1988 March 20, Washington Post, Arab Uprising: Drawing the Populations Into War by Glenn Frankel (Washington Post Foreign Service), Quote Page A1, Column 2 and 3, Washington D.C. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1989 February 3 to 9, LA Weekly, Volume 11, Number 9, New Realities: The New Internationalism by Todd Gitlin, Quote Page 37, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 2003, Collins Dictionary Quotations, Introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, Topic: War, Quote Page 371, HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow, Scotland, U.K. (Verified with scans)