Since the end of the Cold War, the politics of the West have been characterized by broad consensus. In The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama informs us that, save for a few trifles, politics is over. “Liberal democracy” has triumphed. Although Islamic terrorism has briefly chilled our postlapsarian paradise, the intellectual and political elite agree that the best thing for the Islamic world and everywhere else is the adoption of the same political and economic regimes that prevail in the West. This is freedom, after all.
James Burnham came of age in a West increasingly divided against itself. Murderous ideologies clamored for disciples, and men of an intellectual stripe felt obliged to choose sides. Burnham, born in 1905, studied English letters at Princeton and even studied Old English under J.R.R. Tolkien at Balliol College, Oxford. By 25 he was a full professor at NYU. During the 1930′s he was a leading Trotskyite and a heavyweight in the Socialist Workers Party. He wrote for New International and the Partisan Review, a Marxist literary journal of the anti-Stalinist left.
Toward the end of the decade Burnham argued with Leon Trotsky himself as to the nature of the Soviet State. Trotsky categorized Stalin’s regime as a “workers state” that required unconditional support of socialists. Burnham saw in the Soviet Union the consolidation of power by a “new class” of managers, bureaucrats and the Red Army. By 1941 he had rejected socialism and published The Managerial Revolution. In it Burnham theorized that Marx was wrong and that a communist revolution was not the end of history. Burnham extended his analysis of the “new class” to the rest of the West, seeing in National Socialism, Communism and the New Deal manifestations of the same phenomena: the seizure of cultural, economic and political power by a managerial class. In the United States this managerial class grew with the centralization and expansion of power in the executive branch, as well as the growth of the corporation as the dominant economic unit.
The Managerial Revolution proved to be Burnham’s most influential book. Its vision of a world divided into three superstates influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It became essential reading in business schools for its proposition that the scale and size of mass society made rule by the owner/entrepreneurial class, whose ideology was classical liberalism, impossible. Though wildly off in some specific predictions, the substantive trends in politics and business that it identified proved prophetic, and the book influenced thinkers on all sides of the political spectrum: John Kenneth Galbraith and John Maynard Keynes on the left, and Robert Nisbet, Samuel Francis and Irving Kristol on the right. Burnham’s own thesis about the rise of the managerial class gave him little comfort as he saw in it a threat to liberty, the protection of which remained his essential concern.
In The Machievellians, Defenders of Freedom (1943) Burnham formulated a rational, scientific view of politics. Burnham promoted a tradition of political thought that assumed that men were primarily self-interested and that power was always obtained, exercised and maintained (by force or fraud) by elite minorities. The ideologies of these elites are not rational or verifiable but serve to justify, maintain and expand the power of the elite that espouses them. Burnham wrote:
The Machiavellians are the only ones who have told us the full truth about power . . . the primary object, in practice of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege . . . No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leader nor businessmen, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power… Only power restrains power. . . . When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.
In his essay, “The Other Side of Modernism,” Samuel Francis wrote that “Burnham held to a ‘conflict model’ of society, like that of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Marx,” which is “more distinctly modern than the ‘consensus model’ of most classical and medieval thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato and Aquinas, as well as Burke . . . In the conflict model, consensual elements are at best subordinate, and consensus itself is a product of conflict and eventually of domination by one social force.”
The method of restraining one power by the ambitions of another is of course at the heart of American political theory, especially in the Federalist Papers. But Burnham, building on Gaetano Mosca’s theories of juridical defense, extended the idea of “checks and balances” from the formal structure of government to the real social forces working in the ruling class. Preventing the consolidation of power in one social force leads some powers to restrain others. The result is liberty: the security of private property, freedom of assembly, speech, and religion and a sophisticated cultural life.
The dominance of center-right and -left parties throughout the West today, the political, cultural and military imposition of multiculturalism at home and abroad are, in the Burnhamite view, entirely consistent with the managerial revolution — keeping millions of government and business bureaucrats gainfully employed and fully justified. Opposition to the broad consensus of the omnipotent center is immediately derationalized. Disagreement must be a sign of racism, sexism, homophobia, or religious intolerance (and therefore retrograde).
Burnham provided a conceptual framework for understanding the dominant economic, cultural and political trends of his century and single-handedly imported a tradition of political thought absent in the English-speaking world. He spent over twenty years as Senior Editor and columnist on foreign affairs for National Review. But despite his accomplishments and the tendency of conservatives to enshrine their heroes in the movement Parthenon, Burnham is hardly discussed. Daniel Kelly’s 2002 biography, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World, did not portend a revival in Burnham’s thought, and Burnham’s major works have not been reprinted in decades. He is the lost man of the modern right.
Now that many conservatives are looking again at their movement and asking: Where did it go wrong? How was it so easily co-opted? They should consider reaching into the memory hole where Burnham’s work is waiting, like a stick of dynamite.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire