James Burnham: An Original American Thinker
July 28, 2021, will mark the 34th anniversary of the death of James Burnham, one of the great American thinkers of the 20th century — or, for that matter, any century. Burnham was the author of seminal books on global sociopolitical developments, geopolitics, the Cold War, liberalism, and the power relationships that underlay the American republic. He wrote a regular column for National Review from 1955 to 1978, which one admirer called the "best column on international affairs in contemporary English journalism." Unfortunately, Burnham is largely unknown among younger conservatives. That is something that needs to be remedied.
Burnham studied at Princeton (graduating first in his class) and Balliol College, Oxford, and taught at New York University from 1929 to 1954. In the 1930s, he was a member of the Trotskyite Worker's Party and wrote for The Symposium, The New International, and other left-wing and Marxist journals. He broke with Marxism in 1940 and began writing for Partisan Review, a leading journal of the non-communist left.
In the early 1940s, he wrote two major sociopolitical works — The Managerial Revolution (1941) and The Machiavellians (1943). Young conservatives can learn much from both of these books about how oligarchies and ruling classes wield political power in all countries, including the United States. Burnham's description in The Managerial Revolution of the rising "managerial class" of the 1930s and 1940s is eerily similar to today's ruling class of governmental, corporate, scientific, and Big Tech elites. And his crafting of a "science of power" in The Machiavellians will intellectually arm young conservatives to resist centralized power and those political elites who seek to acquire greater power to rule on behalf of the people.
During the Second World War, Burnham worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he wrote an analysis of Soviet postwar goals that anticipated the Cold War. After the war, he wrote a Cold War trilogy — The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950), and Containment or Liberation? (1952) — that combined an understanding of the goals and methods of communist elites with an analysis of the East-West struggle in its geopolitical and ideological aspects. Today, when the U.S. and the West face another challenge from a Eurasian-based communist giant (China), Burnham's Cold War trilogy offers still relevant geopolitical and ideological analyses that can inform America's strategy for dealing with that threat.
Burnham understood that the communist threat is two-pronged. Communist great powers engage in external aggression but also seek to weaken their adversaries from within. In 1954, Burnham wrote The Web of Subversion, a book that detailed communist infiltration of the United States government in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. This last book, and Burnham's refusal to unequivocally condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations of domestic communists, led to Burnham's final break with American liberals.
Burnham became a founding editor of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s new conservative journal National Review, which debuted in the fall of 1955. He described his regular column — first entitled "The Third World War" and later changed to "The Protracted Conflict" — as "a notebook of running commentary on the events, problems, methods and prospects of the war we are in." In these columns, Burnham analyzed changes in communist leadership, revolts against communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the arms race and efforts at arms control, communist goals and advances in the Third World, the war in Southeast Asia, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon's opening to China, the Middle East conflicts, and so much more.
In 1959, Burnham wrote Congress and the American Tradition. The book is largely forgotten today, but it should be read by all Americans who want to understand the founding principles of our constitutional republic.
Then in 1964, Burnham wrote his last book — Suicide of the West, a brilliant dissection of American liberalism, which Burnham called "the ideology of Western suicide." Burnham did not blame liberalism for what he viewed as America's and the West's global decline — that was caused, he wrote, by the decline of religion and the corrupting effects of affluence. But, Burnham wrote, liberalism served to accompany the West to its decline — it rationalized it, even promoted it. And liberalism was ill-equipped to reverse the decline because it scorned the notion of the superiority of Western civilization. Sound familiar?
It behooves a new generation of conservatives to familiarize itself with Burnham's ideas. The best way to do that is to read Burnham's books and National Review columns (some were collected in 1967 in a book entitled The War We Are In; others can be accessed in libraries). Other sources include Daniel Kelly's excellent biography James Burnham and the Struggle for the World, John Patrick Diggins's Up From Communism, Samuel T. Francis' Power and History, and Kevin Smant's How Great the Triumph. After Burnham's death, National Review devoted an entire issue to his life and work (September 11, 1987 issue). Shorter articles include Brian Crozier's "The Political Thought of James Burnham" in the April 15, 1983 issue of National Review, John O'Sullivan's "Present Before The Creation" in the November 1990 issue of National Review, and my own article "The First Cold Warrior" in the online journal American Diplomacy.
Americans today face an external communist threat from China and a domestic power-grab from a ruling class that seeks to fundamentally transform our society and restrict our fundamental liberties all in the name of "progress" and protecting our health. The elites who promote "defunding" the police, Critical Race Theory, and "wokeism" in our military and other institutions are the new "managerial class." And the Chinese Communist Party presents a geopolitical and ideological threat similar to the one examined in Burnham's Cold War trilogy.
Read Burnham. Read about Burnham. And understand.
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