James Burnham: A Visionary Like No Other

by Matthew Continetti

The longtime NR senior editor’s penetrating intellect is still something to be admired and emulated.

Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from one that ran in the March 23, 2015, issue of NR.

One evening in February 1963, inside Firestone Library on the campus of Princeton University, the Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism was called to order. Authors under discussion included John Dewey, Karl Marx, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Michael Oakeshott. The instructor was James Burnham, a senior editor of National Review. His topic: “Liberalism as the Ideology of Western Suicide.”

The seminar was not recorded. But Burnham turned the material into Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, published the following year and now reissued by Encounter Books in association with the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. Lengthy and sometimes dated, Burnham’s treatise is nonetheless worth revisiting, not only for its cutting analysis, but also because it introduces the reader to the cold and breathtaking precision of its author’s intellect. For the stoic, detached, empirical, hard-boiled, penetrating, realist mind of James Burnham is something to behold, to admire, to emulate.

Burnham was a seer, an unblinking observer who dismissed abstraction and cant in his search for objective, prophetic truth. “With no real counterparts among American political thinkers,” wrote his biographer Daniel Kelly, “he is hard to classify.” Yet the education of this unconventional thinker was typical for a member of his class. Born to a prosperous family in Chicago in 1905, Burnham attended Catholic boarding school, Princeton, and Oxford before accepting a professorship of philosophy at NYU in 1929. He specialized in aesthetics.

The temper of his intellect was fixed even if his political beliefs were not. “Burnham,” recalled Sidney Hook in his memoir Out of Step (1987), “had come to New York University a very strong Catholic churchman, who dismissed Catholic dogmas as myths if taken literally but who argued that beliefs in these myths were essential to insure the social stability threatened by man’s ineradicable natural evil. His social absolutism remained even when he became converted to a form of communism.” Indeed, this “social absolutism” outlasted Burnham’s Communism.

Like other New York intellectuals, Burnham wedded left-wing politics to a taste for modernist art and literature. He wrote for Partisan Review and other little magazines. He joined a Trotskyist faction opposed to Stalin — and debated socialism and war with no less an authority than Trotsky himself. But the Hitler–Stalin Pact of 1939 shattered his socialist faith.

The similarities between Hitler and Stalin inspired Burnham’s first book, The Managerial Revolution (1941). Its subtitle, in oracular prose, promised an explanation of “what is happening in the world.” What was happening, Burnham said, was the displacement of both capitalism and socialism by an authoritarian system of technocratic managers.


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Over the next decade Burnham was at times an aesthete, a Trotskyist, a cynic, an employee of the forerunner to the CIA, and finally a founder of the conservative movement. In 1943 he published The Machiavellians, a study of the Italian school of elite theory. The book is a series of close readings not only of Machiavelli but also of forgotten thinkers such as Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Georges Sorel.

The theme of The Machiavellians is the irrationality of ideologies and the pretense of democracy. Elites rule in every society and in every state, Burnham said, and “the primary object, in practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege. There are no exceptions.”

In 1947 came The Struggle for the World. “The United States has made the irreversible jump into world affairs,” Burnham argued. “It is committed everywhere, on every continent, in every major field of social action, and it can never again withdraw.” Opposing the United States was the Soviet Union, the leader of world Communism, which aspired to global conquest.

Only by an anti-totalitarian policy of confrontation and rollback, Burnham said, would freedom and Western civilization be preserved. Yet he doubted that America was capable of the task. “History offers each of its great challenges only once,” Burnham wrote. “After only one failure, or one refusal, the offer is withdrawn.”

Burnham’s anti-utopianism, his realpolitik, his dispassionate outlook, his matter-of-fact prose, his fascination with the operations of power, and his study of the manipulation of society by its ruling classes made his work the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism.

Writers such as Hook, Lionel Trilling, and Dwight Macdonald responded to Burnham’s analysis critically while recognizing its audacity and power. “The immense significance of Burnham’s approach is potential,” wrote a 23-year-old Irving Kristol of The Machiavellians. “We can ignore it only at the risk of being disarmed by the future course of events.”

It was George Orwell who became Burnham’s most famous interlocutor. “Burnham has real intellectual courage,” Orwell wrote in a review of The Struggle for the World, “and writes about real issues.” But Orwell could not embrace Burnham’s thought without qualification: The American, he wrote, was too deterministic, reductive, and catastrophic in his pronouncements. “The tendency of writers like Burnham, whose key concept is ‘realism,’ is to overrate the part played in human affairs by sheer force,” Orwell said. However, despite this objection and others, Burnham’s dark vision fascinated Orwell to such an extent that he incorporated it into Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By the early 1950s Burnham’s departure from liberalism had become irreparable. He did not rule out the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, he warned of a “fifth column” of Soviet infiltrators operating in the West, he dismissed pieties involving the ballot box, equality, education, and free speech, and his attitude toward Joseph McCarthy was much too ambivalent for the bourgeois liberals within his social circle. So he left.

For these reasons Christopher Hitchens would later name Burnham “the real intellectual founder of the neoconservative movement and the original proselytizer, in America, of the theory of ‘totalitarianism.’” Burnham, Hitchens observed, “was the first important Marxist to defect all the way over to the right.” He wasn’t an outcast. He was a pioneer.

The defection was finalized when Burnham agreed to join William F. Buckley Jr. in the creation of National Review in 1955. A quarter century later, Buckley would say of Burnham, “Beyond any question, he has been the dominant intellectual influence in the development of this journal.”

At NR, Burnham was the first person to speak at editorial meetings. He wrote a regular column on foreign affairs, penned numerous unsigned editorials and items for “The Week,” edited the biweekly National Review Bulletin newsletter, and was understood to be in charge of the magazine whenever Buckley was traveling, which was often.

He also wrote numerous letters and memos on internal strategy and management. As Buckley put it, “he devoted, over a period of 23 years, more time and thought to more problems, major and minor, than would seem possible for an editor resident in Kent, Connecticut, who came to New York only two days a week.”

The early days of this magazine were filled with ideological and personal battles. Burnham clashed repeatedly with fellow editors Willi Schlamm, Bill Rickenbacker, and Frank Meyer, and with publisher William Rusher. On questions of management Buckley sided with his mentor, but he did not share all of Burnham’s positions. Meyer, for example, referred to Burnham as a “left-deviationist” for his reluctance to embrace Barry Goldwater and his support for Medicare on prudential grounds.

Burnham also sought, over the objections of some of the other editors, to endow National Review with a sense of maturity, ecumenism, and acceptance of American culture that he believed it on occasion lacked. He did not always succeed. However, so devoted was he to this new project that he produced just one major work in the 1950s: Congress and the American Tradition (1959), the result of four years of research into the relationship between Congress and the presidency.

What Burnham identified in this book was a dramatic modification of the way Americans understood democracy. The constitutional system designed by the Founders established Congress as the first branch of government, the mediating institution between the people and the state bureaucracy under the chief executive. Beginning in the 19th century, however, and accelerating under Wilson and FDR, the executive branch acted not with reference to the Constitution but in the name of “the people.” Congress lost its primacy, its powers, and its prestige. Government was no longer constitutionalist. It was Caesarist.

Invocations of “the people” were a mask for the interests of the rulers. “The changing balance,” noted Daniel Kelly, “reflected a long-term trend, the managerial revolution, which meant government by executive fiat and the development of a potentially totalitarian welfare state.” Democracy was understood not as a republican system of checks and balances but as the struggle for resources and for status between client groups of the government. Even the president, “more creature than creator,” was less in control than the managers were.

Congress retained its ability to conduct investigations as well as its power of saying “No.” But the new understanding of democracy had reduced dramatically the importance of the House and the Senate. And this new understanding was itself the by-product of changes in the ideology of the ruling class. Where classical liberalism saw the state as the opponent of liberty, the new liberalism, Burnham observed, saw popular democracy as the “promising Angel,” the economic and social benefactor of all. “We must reverse the perspective,” wrote John Dewey, “and see that socialized economy is the means of free individual development at the end.”

Burnham’s investigation into the premises, causes, and consequences of this ideological shift led to Suicide of the West. He begins with a map. “In a.d. 1914 the domain of Western civilization was, or very nearly was, the world.” By the time of writing, however, that domain had contracted to the United States, Western Europe, and the remains of the British Commonwealth. “Liberalism,” Burnham writes, “has come to be the typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; that liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.”

What is liberalism? Burnham identifies 19 of its assumptions. His list (found on pages 134 to 142 of this edition) is still relevant. But it is with the ideological character of liberalism that Burnham is most concerned. He is uninterested in refuting liberalism — indeed, he does not believe such a refutation possible. “The question of the truth or falsity of an ideology is in any case of minor importance,” he writes. “Human beings believe an ideology, as a rule, not because they are convinced rationally that it is true but because it satisfies psychological and social needs and serves, or seems to serve, individual or group interests.”

Guilt is the psychological need satisfied by liberalism. Not only is man a fallen creature, according to Burnham; man is conscious of his fallen nature. And such awareness produces in him existential dread, unease about the world, a restlessness that manifests itself in enthusiastic activity. What soothes this dread for most people in most places at most times is religion. Christianity, for instance, “faces the reality of guilt, provides an adequate explanation of it, and offers a resolution of the anxiety to which it inevitably gives rise.”

But modern society, especially educated society, is secular. The religious answer is ignored, regarded as a private affair, attacked and subverted. What is an affluent and credentialed and professional and secular man to do? “Liberalism,” Burnham writes, “permits him to translate his guilt into the egalitarian, anti-discrimination, democratist, peace-seeking liberal principles, and to transform his guilty feeling into” a “passion for reform.”

Liberalism for Burnham is a form of political religion. It responds to the tragic facts of life by denying those facts and substituting myths. “Thanks to the reassuring provisions of the liberal ideology,” he writes, “I can go about my ordinary business and meanwhile take sufficient account of my moral duties by affirming my loyalty to the correct egalitarian principles, voting for the correct candidates, praising the activists and contributing to their defense funds when they get into trouble, and joining promptly in the outcry against reactionaries who pop up now and then in a desperate effort to preserve power and privilege.”

The conscience of a liberal remains the same a half century later. Thin, unprotected, and wracked by guilt, liberalism generates paradoxes and dilemmas with which the liberal cannot cope. “For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this: that the liberal, and the group, nation, or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.”

Whether it is the Soviet Union, Third World insurgents, the criminal underclass, student revolutionaries, Vladimir Putin, the Ayatollah, the Castro brothers, or Hamas, whether it is rioters, drug pushers, or pornographers, liberalism offers reasons to justify, sympathize with, and appease the agents of violence and disorder and decline. Acting like a narcotic, it enables the intellectual “to leave the real world and take refuge in that better world of his ideology where tigers purr like kittens and turn in their claws to the United Nations.” Which is why Burnham called liberalism “suicidal”: It “permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.”

That critics did not treat kindly these pages of vigorous, aggressive, unrelenting prose was in a sense confirmation of Burnham’s thesis that “liberalism is the prevailing American doctrine.” Burnham was dismissed, lampooned, and excoriated in the pages of metropolitan newspapers and fashionable journals such as The New York Review of Books.

He was not misunderstood entirely, however. Sociologist Andrew Hacker’s description of Suicide of the West as a “call for faith and force” was to some extent true: Burnham’s description of liberalism carried within it the implication that a society that protected liberty through the dispersal of power, and maintained order through the use of force, would thrive and grow. Such a society could not be preserved or restored without a conflict between liberals and conservatives that was to some degree a reflection of the conflict between the West and its challengers. “The theme of a ‘struggle for the world,’ whether between communists and anticommunists or some other set of antagonists, formed an enduring leitmotif of Burnham’s thinking,” writes Kelly.

Even Burnham, however, was surprised by the wealth and dynamism and creativity of the vast nation in which he lived. How is it, he wondered in a column written in 1969 at the end of a cross-country journey, “granted all the rude facts of the raging fissures and confrontations, [that] our country does still hold together, continues to be a manifestly going concern?” America “shrugs off the fires of the arsonists, the crime of the cities, and the riots of the youth as a great ship shrugs off waves.”

If the mysterious sources of American tenacity provoked Burnham to reexamine the materialistic foundations of his philosophy, he gave no sign. A student of the Machiavellians, he had a view of mankind that left out the sympathies, affections, benevolent and charitable impulses, and desire for liberty and self-improvement that are difficult to quantify but no less a part of human nature. It is these very qualities that contribute to the unpredictability and endurance of the American spirit and help explain why, despite the unshakeable force of his analysis, many of Burnham’s predictions have not come true.

Burnham’s last years were somber ones. In 1978, poor health removed him from the day-to-day life of National Review. His wife of 49 years, Marcia, died four years later. Burnham died in 1987 at the age of 81: two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, four years before the end of the Soviet Union and the close of the Third World War to which he had devoted his life.

Though world Communism is no longer a fighting faith, America continues to shelter the last best hope for freedom and the traditions of a West beset with Islamic terrorism, a belligerent Russia, and nuclear proliferation. What Burnham called Caesarism is resurgent in the nation’s capital, and a massive inflow of immigration is challenging notions of sovereignty and independence and changing the character of free societies.

Global finance, quantitative easing, Ebola, environmental crusades, the Islamic State, Occupy Wall Street, anonymous hackers, gay marriage, trans rights, Chinese nationalism, oligarchic politics, Twitter mobs and Buzzfeed and Lena Dunham — this world can be a bewildering place. What we are missing is a guide, an analyst, an interrogator, an expositor with the intelligence and skill and courage of James Burnham, the seer of Kent, Connecticut.

— Matthew Continetti is the editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon. This article is adapted from one that ran in the March 23, 2015, issue of National Review.