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James Burnham (1905–1987)

James Burnham (November 22, 1905 – July 28, 1987) was an American philosopher and political theorist. A radical activist in the 1930s and an important factional leader of the American Trotskyist movement, in later years Burnham left Marxism and turned to the political Right, serving as a public intellectual of the American conservative movement, and producing the work for which he is best known, The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941. Burnham is also remembered as a regular contributor to America's leading conservative publication, National Review, on a variety of topics.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Born in Chicago, Illinois on November 22, 1905,[1] James Burnham was the son of Claude George Burnham, an English immigrant and executive with the Burlington Railroad.[2] James was raised as a Roman Catholic but rejected Catholicism as a college student, professing atheism for much of his life (although returning to the church shortly before his death).[3] He graduated at the top of his class at Princeton University before attending Balliol College, Oxford University, where his professors included J.R.R. Tolkien and Martin D'Arcy. In 1929, he became a professor of philosophy at New York University.[4]

Radical politics[edit | edit source]

In 1933, along with Sidney Hook, Burnham helped to organize the American Workers Party led by the Dutch-born pacifist minister A.J. Muste.[5] Burnham supported the 1934 merger with the Communist League of America which formed the U.S. Workers Party. In 1935 he allied with the Trotskyist wing of that party and favored fusion with the Socialist Party of America. During this period, he became a friend to Leon Trotsky. Writing for The Partisan Review, Burnham was also an important influence on writers such as Dwight MacDonald and Philip Rahv.[6] However, Burnham's engagement with Trotskyism was short-lived: from 1937 a number of disagreements came to the fore.

In 1937 the Trotskyists were expelled from the Socialist Party, an action which led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at the end of the year. Inside the SWP, Burnham allied with Max Shachtman in a faction fight over the position of the SWP's majority faction, led by James P. Cannon and backed by Leon Trotsky, defending the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state against the incursions of imperialism. Shachtman and Burnham, especially after witnessing the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the invasions of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia by Joseph Stalin's regime, as well as the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, came to contend that the USSR was a new form of imperialistic class society and was thus not worthy of even critical support from the socialist movement.

After a protracted discussion inside the SWP, in which the factions argued their case in a series of heated internal discussion bulletins, the special 3rd National Convention of the organization in early April 1940 decided the question in favor of the Cannon majority by a vote of 55–31.[7] Even though the majority sought to avoid a split by offering to continue the debate and to allow proportional representation of the minority on the party's governing National Committee, Shachtman, Burnham, and their supporters resigned from the SWP to launch their own organization, again called the Workers Party.

This break also marked the end of Burnham's participation in the radical movement, however. On May 21, 1940, he addressed a letter to the National Committee of the Workers Party resigning from the organization. In it he made it clear the distance he had moved away from Marxism:

I reject, as you know, the "philosophy of Marxism," dialectical materialism....

The general Marxian theory of "universal history," to the extent that it has any empirical content, seems to me disproved by modern historical and anthropological investigation.

Marxian economics seems to me for the most part either false or obsolete or meaningless in application to contemporary economic phenomena. Those aspects of Marxian economics which retain validity do not seem to me to justify the theoretical structure of the economics.

Not only do I believe it meaningless to say that "socialism is inevitable" and false that socialism is "the only alternative to capitalism"; I consider that on the basis of the evidence now available to us a new form of exploitive society (which I call "managerial society") is not only possible but is a more probable outcome of the present than socialism....

On no ideological, theoretic or political ground, then, can I recognize, or do I feel, any bond or allegiance to the Workers Party (or to any other Marxist party). That is simply the case, and I can no longer pretend about it, either to myself or to others.[8][9]

In 1941, Burnham wrote a book analyzing the development of economics and society as he saw it, called The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World.

Post radical years[edit | edit source]

During World War II, Burnham "took a leave" from NYU and went on to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Recommended by George F. Kennan, Burnham was invited to lead the "Political and Psychological Warfare" division of the Office of Policy Coordination, a semi-autonomous part of the agency.[10]

After the war, during the period which came to be known as the "Cold War," he called for an aggressive strategy to undermine the Soviet Union's power. A contributor to The Freeman in the early 1950s, he considered the magazine to be too focused on economic issues, as a matter of emphasis, and it presented a wide range of opinion on the question of how to react to the Soviet threat. In 1955, he helped William F. Buckley to found National Review magazine, which from the start took positions in foreign policy consistent with Burnham's own. Burnham became a lifelong contributor to the journal, and Buckley referred to him as “the number one intellectual influence on National Review since the day of its founding.”[11] His approach to foreign policy has caused some to regard him as the first "neoconservative," although Burnham's ideas have been an important influence on both the paleoconservative and neoconservative factions of the American Right.[12]

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In early November 1978 he suffered a stroke which affected his health and short-term memory.[13] He died of kidney and liver cancer[14] at home in Kent, Connecticut on July 28, 1987.[15] He was buried in Kent on August 1, 1987.[16]

Ideas[edit | edit source]

The Managerial Revolution[edit | edit source]

Burnham's seminal work, The Managerial Revolution, attempted to theorize about the future of world capitalism based upon observations of its development in the interwar period. Burnham argued three possible futures for capitalism: (1) that capitalism was a permanent form of social and economic organization and that it would be continued for a protracted period of time; (2) that capitalism was a temporary form of organization destined by its nature to collapse and be replaced by socialism; (3) that capitalism was a temporary form of organization currently being transformed into some non-socialist future form of society.[17] Burnham argued that since capitalism had a more or less definite beginning, which he dated to approximately the 14th Century, it could not be regarded as an immutable and permanent form.[18] Moreover, Burnham observed that in the last years of previous forms of economic organization, such as those of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, mass unemployment was "a symptom that a given type of social organization is just about finished."[19] The worldwide mass unemployment of the depression era was, for Burnham, indicative that capitalism was itself "not going to continue much longer."[20]


Dust jacket of the 1941 edition of Burnham's seminal work.

Burnham looked around the world for indications of the new form of society which was emerging to replace historic capitalism and saw certain commonalities between the economic formations of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and America under Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal." Burnham argued that over a comparatively short period, which he dated from the first world war, a new society had emerged in which a "social group or class" which Burnham called "managers" had engaged in a "drive for social dominance, for power and privilege, for the position of ruling class."[21] For at least a decade previous to Burnham's book, the idea of a "separation of ownership and control" of the modern corporation had been part of American economic thought, with Burnham citing The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means as an important exposition.[22] Burnham expanded upon this concept, arguing that whether ownership was corporate and private or statist and governmental, the essential demarcation between the ruling elite (executives and managers on the one hand, bureaucrats and functionaries on the other) and the mass of society was not ownership so much as it was control of the means of production.

Burnham emphasized that "New Dealism," as he called it, "is not, let me repeat, a developed, systematized managerial ideology." Still, this ideology had contributed to American capitalism's moving in a "managerial direction":

In its own more confused, less advanced way, New Dealism too has spread abroad the stress on the state as against the individual, planning as against private enterprise, jobs (even if relief jobs) against opportunities, security against initiative, "human rights" against "property rights." There can be no doubt that the psychological effect of New Dealism has been what the capitalists say it has been: to undermine public confidence in capitalist ideas and rights and institutions. Its most distinctive features help to prepare the minds of the masses for the acceptance of the managerial social structure.[23]

In June 1941, a hostile review of The Managerial Revolution by Socialist Workers Party loyalist Joseph Hansen in the SWP's theoretical magazine accused Burnham of having lifted the central ideas of his book "without acknowledging the source" from the Italian Bruno Rizzi and his 1939 book La Bureaucratisation du Monde.[24] Despite certain similarities, there is no evidence Burnham knew of said book beyond Leon Trotsky's brief references to it. Burnham was likely influenced by Rizzi negatively and secondhand, as Trotsky mentioned Rizzi's ideas in his debates with Burnham.[25] Burnham's arguments stemmed partly from the idea of bureaucratic collectivism first introduced to Trotskyism by Yvan Craipeau, but in Burnham's case from a conservative Machiavellian rather than a Marxist viewpoint. This important philosophical difference, explored in greater detail in The Machiavellians, made Burnham's theory distinct from the similar concepts that had been developing in Trotskyist circles in the 1930s.

Later writings[edit | edit source]

In a later book, The Machiavellians, he argued and developed his theory that the emerging new élite would better serve its own interests if it retained some democratic trappings—political opposition, a free press, and a controlled "circulation of the élites."

His 1964 book Suicide of the West became a classic text for the post-war conservative movement in U.S. politics, which best expressed Burnham's new interest in traditional moral values, classical liberal economics and anti-communism. In Suicide, he defined liberalism as a "syndrome" rendering liberals ridden with guilt and internal contradictions. The works of James Burnham greatly influenced paleoconservative author Samuel T. Francis, who wrote two books about Burnham, and based his political theories upon the "managerial revolution" and the resulting managerial state.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Manfred Overesch, Friedrich Wilhelm Saal (1986). Chronik deutscher Zeitgeschichte: Politik, Wirtschaft, Kultur, Volume 3, Part 2. Droste. pp. 791. ISBN 3-7700-0719-0. 
  3. Priscilla Buckley, "James Burnham 1905–1987." National Review, July 11, 1987, p. 35.
  4. Roger Kimball, "The Power of James Burnham," The New Criterion, Sept. 2002.
  5. John Patrick Diggins, Up From Communism, 1975, Columbia Univ. Press, pp. 169-170, and "The Cerebral Communist: James Burnham," pp.160-201.
  6. Diggins, Up From Communism, p.180.
  7. James P. Cannon, "The Convention of the Socialist Workers Party," The Fourth International, v. 1, no. 1 (May 1940), p. 16.
  8. James Burnham, "Burnham's Letter of Resignation," The Fourth International, v. 1, no. 4 (August 1940), pp. 106–107.
  9. "James Burnham: Letter of Resignation (1940)" on Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
  10. Roger Kimball, "The Power of James Burnham," The New Criterion, Sept. 2002.
  11. Roger Kimball, "The Power of James Burnham," The New Criterion, Sept. 2002.
  12. Binoy Kampmark, "The First Neo-conservative: James Burnham and the Origins of a Movement," Review of International Studies, 12 Oct. 2010.
  13. Kupferberg, Feiwel (2002). The rise and fall of the German Democratic Republic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers. pp. 60. ISBN 0-7658-0122-1. 
  14. Hart, Jeffrey D. (2005). The making of the American conservative mind: National review and its times. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books. pp. 255. ISBN 1-932236-81-3. 
  15. Francis, Samuel T. (1994). Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism. Univ of Missouri Pr. pp. 129. ISBN 0-8262-0976-9. 
  16. Smant, Kevin J. (1992). How great the triumph: James Burnham, anticommunism, and the conservative movement. Lanham: University Press of America. pp. 152. ISBN 0-8191-8464-0. 
  17. James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. New York: John Day Co., 1941; p. 29.
  18. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 30.
  19. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 31.
  20. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 31.
  21. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 71.
  22. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 88.
  23. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, pp. 201–202.
  24. Joseph Hansen, "Burnham's 'Managerial Revolution,'" The Fourth International, v. 2, no. 5 (June 1941), p. 157.
  25. [1]

Works[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • John P. Diggins, Up From Communism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
  • Samuel Francis, Power and History, The Political Thought of James Burnham. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.
  • Samuel Francis, James Burnham: Thinkers of Our Time. London: Claridge Press, 1999.
  • Benjamin Guy Hoffman, The Political Thought of James Burnham. PhD dissertation. University of Michigan, 1969.
  • Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002.
  • C. Wright Mills and Hans Gerth, "A Marx for the Managers", 1942. Reprinted in Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills edited by Irving Horowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • George Orwell, "Second Thoughts on James Burnham," Polemic, No. 3, May 1946.

External links[edit | edit source]

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