The Life of James Burnham: From Trotskyism to Italian Fascism to the Father of Neo-Conservatism

By Cynthia Chung | Strategic Culture

It is understandably the source of some confusion as to how a former high-level Trotskyist became the founder of the neo-conservative movement.

[The following is from one of the chapters from my newly published book “The Empire on Which the Black Sun Never Set: The Birth of International Fascism and Anglo-American Foreign Policy” which will be made freely available as a three part series published via SCF.]

It is understandably the source of some confusion as to how a former high-level Trotskyist became the founder of the neo-conservative movement; with the Trotskyists calling him a traitor to his kind, and the neo-conservatives describing it as an almost road to Damascus conversion in ideology. However, the truth of the matter is that it is neither.

That is, James Burnham never changed his beliefs and convictions at any point during his journey through Trotskyism, OSS/CIA intelligence to neo-conservatism, although he may have backstabbed many along the way. He was also a key member of the Office for Policy Coordination (OPC) Psychological Warfare branch and participated in Operation Gladio through this function, including his work with the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). This chapter will discuss the relevance of these anomalies and how all these seemingly contradictory brandings were in fact consistent with the particular assignment Burnham had devoted his life to.

A detailed study of James Burnham’s ideology and career are of importance due to what they so transparently reflect as a conscious policy that came from the corridors of British and American intelligence, which is essential to understanding the times we find ourselves presently living in.

The Strange Case and Many Faces of James Burnham

“[James Burnham is] the real intellectual founder of the neoconservative movement and the original proselytizer, in America, of the theory of ‘totalitarianism’.”

– Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument: Essay and Minority Reports [1]

James Burnham was born in 1905 in Chicago, Illinois and raised Roman Catholic. He would graduate from Princeton in 1927, followed by the Balliol College, Oxford University in 1929. At Balliol, considered to be the most prestigious college at Oxford, Martin D’Arcy, a Jesuit, would become Burnham’s mentor.[2] Oddly it was during this period with Martin D’Arcy at the Jesuit House of Oxford Campion Hall that Burnham would become an atheist and leave the Catholic Church.[3] [4] Throughout his entire life, Burnham would remain close and well-connected to a large number of his Princeton peers, many of whom went on to study at Oxford alongside him. This network was the most consistent thing in his life and throughout his many transitions of ‘faces.’

Another rare consistency in Burnham’s life was the heavy influence of T.S. Eliot’s writings and philosophy, which had, in turn been heavily influenced by the French writer Charles Maurras, leader of L’Action Francaise, a monarchist movement that was also pro-Vichy government, and who collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Maurras stood for royalism against republicanism in politics, classicism against romanticism in the arts, and though an atheist, stood for Catholicism seeing the Church as having “instilled the Roman principles of authority, hierarchy, and discipline in a once romantic early Christianity, a bulwark of order in the decaying modern world.”[5] “Classique, Catholique, Monarchique” was how the Nouvelle Francaise summed up Maurras’s outlook.[6] T.S. Eliot had incorporated this philosophy of Maurras into his core, and in his 1928 essay collection For Lancelot Andrews, he described himself as a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.”[7] Through Eliot’s version of the formula, the Maurrassian creed had made its way to Burnham.

While still studying at Oxford, Burnham had made plans to launch a literary-philosophical journal called Symposium with his former Princeton teacher Philip Wheelwright. In 1929, after graduating from Oxford, Burnham joined Wheelwright as a professor of philosophy at New York University (NYU). Wheelwright was largely responsible for acquiring and maintaining Burnham’s position at NYU.[8] It was during this period that Burnham met Sidney Hook, who was also a professor in philosophy at NYU, and who also became a mentor of sorts, managing somehow Burnham’s conversion to Marxism. Sidney Hook in turn had been mentored by Morris Raphael Cohen[9] at City College and John Dewey while a student at Columbia University. Cohen was an outright Marxist, while Dewey you could say was a ‘dabbler’ and ‘sympathetic’ to the cause and acted as chairman of the liberal-socialist League for Independent Political Action (LIPA), otherwise known as the ‘Dewey League’.

Both Cohen and Dewey would find themselves the mentors, or at least major influencers, of almost every eminent American Trotskyist that moved on to have a distinguished career after their ‘phase’ of Trotskyism had come to an end. These post-Trotsky careers were often shaped by rabid right-wing anticommunism. It would thus be a stretch to call such a phenomenon a mere coincidence. Hook was asked to help find writers for the Symposium, and thus Cohen and Dewey were the first writing contributors to the newly launched journal in 1930.

The union of these minds was odd to say the least. Burnham, not yet a Marxist, in April 1931 published in the Symposium a denouncement of Marxism as a “dogmatic materialism perhaps the most degrading ideology that has ever been imposed on a large section of mankind.”[10] This was not a surprising remark from Burnham having an Eliot-Maurrassian creed.

However, by July 1932, Burnham did a complete about-face and published in the Symposium a glowing review of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, his first review of a political book. Very out of character, Burnham writes with glowing enthusiasm praising Trotsky’s talent as a writer and historian and attributes the book’s brilliance to Trotsky’s use of ‘dialectical materialism’ as his mode of analysis. This was the very thing that Burnham just over a year ago called “the most degrading ideology.”

In the article, Burnham specifically praised Trotsky’s explanation of the Russian Revolution as the result of an interplay between human intention and impersonal historical forces, which prompted the question “why an American social upheaval would also not lead to communism?”[11] There was no clear explanation from Burnham as to what in his understanding of dialectical materialism prompted such an abrupt change within such a short period of time.

Things progressed incredibly rapidly upon Burnham’s writing of this article for the Symposium. The two-year old journal hardly considered a nationally read journal let alone internationally read, somehow got into the very hands of Leon Trotsky, then in exile on the island Prinkipo, just off of Istanbul. Trotsky read the article with evident glee.

It was through Max Eastman that a copy of the Symposium reached Trotsky. Eastman, like Sidney Hook, had earned a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University under the mentorship of John Dewey, graduating in 1911. Eastman and Hook would remain close to Dewey their entire lives. In 1922, Max Eastman travelled to the Soviet Union and remained there for 21 months, beginning a friendship with Leon Trotsky that would last until the latter’s exile in Mexico.

Eastman would also do a complete about-face later in life, becoming a supporter of McCarthyism and a regular contributor to William F. Buckley’s ultra-conservative journal National Review, as would Burnham. Eastman also became a participating member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) which was instituted by the CIA, as would Burnham, and would join the Mount Pelerin Society in the 1950s. Sidney Hook would also become an anticommunist and directly work for the CIA through his co-founding of the ACCF, the American branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) formed in the early 1950s.

Interestingly, in Burnham’s review of Trotsky, though for the most part favourable, he points out Trotsky’s deliberate omissions of important information and misdating several significant quotations in order to strengthen the case he was building against Stalin.[12] It was likely the only honest thing in the article. Trotsky began a correspondence with Burnham, through Eastman, and though annoyed by the accusation which Burnham does not detract, praises the piece nonetheless, later writing “I remember very well how great an impression your article in the Symposium produced upon me at Prinkipo, and with what insistence I asked Max Eastman about you in order to clarify for myself the possibility of further collaboration with you.”[13] Thus, Trotsky was already thinking of collaborating with Burnham at this very early stage. Apparently, a favourable book review in a start-up journal was all that it took to hook Trotsky to Burnham, perhaps with a little cooing in the ear by Eastman.

In 1933, Burnham came close to joining the Communist Party but was put off by the ‘Negro question’ and refused to accept the idea of “self-determination for the Black Belt” in the South, something he would uphold up to his ultra-conservative years at the National Review.[14] Burnham claimed that by Americans adopting this Soviet initiative for self-determination for blacks in Russia, that this was proof of the American Communist Party’s subordination to the USSR, since the ‘Negro question’ in America was incomparable to that of the USSR and that self-determination for blacks in America was simply unacceptable.[15]

Hook had also decided that the Communist Party was “insufficiently Marxist”[16] and broke with communism, urging Burnham to do the same, though Burnham was never really a communist to begin with. Hook and Burnham wanted to create their specific brand of ‘Marxism’ and helped organise the socialist organization, the American Workers Party (AWP) in 1933. This ‘rebranding’ of Marxism[17] would become a mission for both Burnham and Hook, such as the 1938 Toward the Revision of Karl Marx, co-authored by the two.[18]  During this same period, Burnham started writing for Partisan Review, and began to make the case that dialectical philosophy had outlived its usefulness. It now existed solely as a “vestigial remnant” that, like the appendix, was not only useless, but also “liable to dangerous infections.”[19] Thus, what was needed was an intellectual appendectomy and a correct understanding of Marxism, an understanding Burnham and Hook wished to shape.

At the head of the fledgling AWP was A.J. Muste, a Dutch born clergyman who at this point had lost his religion. In November/December 1928, Muste became a member of the newly formed League of Independent Political Action (LIPA), a group of liberals and socialists that was headed by John Dewey which sought the establishment of a new labor-based third party modeled off of Britain’s Labour Party (which was a model created by the Fabian Society[20]). Overlapping this period, in May 1929, Muste launched a new venture called the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) whose aim was to unionize mass production workers and establish a political party akin to Britain’s Labour Party,[21] thus the very same goal as LIPA. They came to be known as the Musteites.

In December 1930, Muste publicly dropped out of the ‘Dewey League’,[22] but as we will soon come to see these sorts of dramatic displays of swapping teams were more-often-than-not for show, since said players always seemed to end up back on the same team in one form or another down the road. Muste took courses in philosophy at Columbia University where he met John Dewey and became a life-long personal friend.[23]

In 1933, the CPLA established itself as the core of the newly formed AWP and is where Hook (another Dewey acolyte) and Burnham enter the scene. It was upon the new formation of the AWP, that the CPLA took a much more radical mission.

Daniel Kelly writes in James Burnham and the Struggle for the World:[24]

“With the onset of the Depression, Muste moved sharply to the left. Dropping the model of a moderate, British-style workers party, he now called for an American radical party that, unlike the merely reformist U.S. Socialist Party, would fight for full-scale social revolution, and unlike the U.S. Communist Party, which was genuinely revolutionary but obedient to Moscow, be ‘rooted in American soil’ and concerned with ‘American conditions and problems.’ To this end he founded the AWP.

…The party platform’s foreign affairs plank was written by Burnham…Should the capitalists start a war, this provision declared, the AWP would act to turn the conflict into a workers’ revolt against the war makers. Similarly, if the USSR came under capitalist attack, the AWP would come to its defense joining with the workers to overthrow the U.S. government. But Burnham also criticized the Soviet policy [under Stalin] of ‘socialism in one country,’ charging it with abandoning the principle of ‘proletarian internationalism’ and the goal of world revolution [launched by Lenin and supported by Trotsky].”

In 1934, the AWP merged with the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) to establish the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). Through the success of the merger, Burnham was promoted to Trotsky’s top lieutenant.[25]

The idea of toppling the U.S. government was not a troubling thing to Burnham, but rather a thought he relished during Roosevelt’s presidency, being an ardent critic of the New Deal.[26] He claimed that Roosevelt was working for big business, the banks, the rich, and the munitions makers. Burnham accused Roosevelt of arming for war “to protect and increase” capitalist profits and to win new opportunities for capitalism; to maintain a capitalist dictatorship. Burnham argued that a true democratic government could only form when the workers had seized everything owed to them.[27] For the next several years, Burnham would continue to make the New Deal his primary target, and Stalin’s USSR came at a close second.[28]

It should have been comical to Burnham’s supposed comrades hearing him speak such words as ‘bourgeoisie,’ since Burnham himself was the very spitting image of what a bourgeoisie looked, talked, and lived like. Throughout Burnham’s seven years as Trotsky’s lieutenant, before he renounced Marxism all together, Burnham never participated in the social aspect of his Trotskyist peers. Aside from a few exceptional instances, his social life remained entirely outside the movement.[29] His old ‘bourgeoisie’ Ivy-League Princeton friends were his social life.

This became such a concern that two peer commanders of Burnham (James Cannon and Max Shachtman) had a discussion with Burnham in January 1938 over the matter. Burnham agreed that Cannon might be right in tracing the growing tension between them to the “contradiction between [Burnham’s] personal life” and his “responsibilities” as a “revolutionary leader.”[30] Burnham was never a full-time member and kept his job at NYU, despite being one of the top commanders of the WPUS.

Shachtman would later comment “All of us – and this went for Cannon and myself in particular – felt that although he [Burnham] was with us…he was not, so to say, of us.”[31] Cannon would write to Trotsky, “Burnham does not feel himself one of us…Party work, for him, is not a vocation but an avocation.”[32] Cannon had observed to Shachtman that Burnham’s very presence seemed “accidental.”[33] Burnham dressed more like a partner in a Wall Street law firm than a Bolshevik revolutionary, “He wore hundred dollar suits” noted Harry Roskolenko.[34] In late 1934, the year of the merger between AWP and the Trotskyist (CLA), Burnham had moved from Greenwich Village to the firmly haute-bourgeoisie Sutton Place. One evening, Shachtman arrived at Burnham’s house for him to review a few papers, only to find Burnham hosting a very posh formal dress dinner party.[35]

Later Burnham would work for the OPC under the directorship of Frank Wisner who had worked as a Wall Street lawyer for the law firm Carter, Ledyard & Milburn and Allen Dulles who worked for the law firm Sullivan Cromwell who served Wall Street’s crème of the crème clientele. Burnham would back Nelson A. Rockefeller’s nomination for president in 1968 and Ronald Reagan as vice-president, and was very pleased when Rockefeller was selected as vice-president (1974-1977) to the Ford Administration.[36] He was also pleased that Henry Kissinger was to serve as Secretary of State (1973-1977) overlapping with Rockefeller’s presence in the Ford Administration.[37]

Burnham was adamantly opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal throughout his entire life. This was a rabid opposition that remained consistent throughout his communist/socialist to neo-conservative/libertarian days. Were Burnham’s reasons for opposing the New Deal genuine or was there a criticism he held that he dared not utter outloud? Roosevelt, unlike Burnham, had actually gone after the big bankers. The Pecora Commission, which began on March 4th, 1932 to investigate the cause of the 1929 Wall Street crash, was given sweeping powers when FDR took office.

Recall that it was J.P. Morgan that backed an attempted military coup against FDR in 1933 which was thwarted thanks to General Smedley Butler blowing the lid on the treasonous operation.[38]

Looking at Burnham’s career as an ardent anticommunist during the Cold War years, where the former communist went to work for Operation Gladio, it is striking how equally ardent Burnham was that America not enter a war against the fascists during WWII. Burnham was a staunch pacifist up until the bombing of Pearl Harbour, where he did a complete about face and called for full military escalation. However, during his pacifist years he would criticize Roosevelt for abetting an imperialist cause with Britain and France, and his communist ally Stalin.[39] Burnham claimed that Roosevelt was lying to the workers that the main enemy was Hitler, when in fact it was In Which Way to Peace? Bertrand Russell had written: “Having remained a pacifist while the Germans were invading France and Belgium in 1914, I do not see why I should cease to be one if they do it again…’You feel they ought to be stopped.’ I feel that, if we set to work to stop them, we shall, in the process, become exactly like them, and the world will have gained nothing.” [40] Throughout the war, Burnham would downplay or deny the threat of fascism that was coming into full swing in Europe and Japan.

It was in fact, the very same strategy used by British Grand Strategist Bertrand Russell, who was also an adamant pacifist during the war, and even went so far as to instruct the British people not to resist with arms if Hitler were to march into their country.

In Which Way to Peace? Bertrand Russell had written: “Having remained a pacifist while the Germans were invading France and Belgium in 1914, I do not see why I should cease to be one if they do it again…’You feel they ought to be stopped.’ I feel that, if we set to work to stop them, we shall, in the process, become exactly like them, and the world will have gained nothing.” However, during the Cold War years, Russell would take a very different tone, calling for the unilateral atomic bombing of the USSR to rid the world of their ‘threat’ forever.[41]

Burnham would stress in his lectures at NYU, that Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica was among the most important books, if not the most important book, one shall ever read if one is intelligent enough to comprehend its lessons.[42] Bertrand Russell would eventually become, if he had not already, a sort of philosophical godhead for Burnham as we will see shortly.

And curiously, just like Russell, Burnham would only talk about the danger of fascism when it had become clear in the war that Germany was indeed going to lose. This seeming ambivalence to fascism was made further transparent in Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which had a very similar tone in many ways to Bertrand Russell’s The Scientific Outlook, likely not a coincidence…

Burnham would have a similar criticism of Stalin as he did of Roosevelt. The Trotskyists called Stalin’s war strategy the ‘popular front,’ which was meant as a jab for collaborating with non-communists in a joint defense against fascism. This was regarded as a betrayal to the universal workers’ cause, since Stalin was willing to ally himself with Britain and France, who were imperialist powers.[43] Burnham would rarely make note of the imperialism of Italy, Germany and Japan. He would argue that the only way to stop the war (a war against Hitler), was not to fight in it, but rather, was to overthrow the U.S. government. The reasoning being that a government that aids and abets the imperialist cause should be overthrown by the Marxists. Thus, if one were to follow the prescription of Burnham, there was no option for the Marxists in resisting fascism, for if one did so, they would be guilty of colluding with the Western imperialists, and thus deserved to be overthrown![44]

In 1938, Burnham confessed, commenting on a draft article by Hook to be “much troubled in my reflections on the nature of democracy, and its relations to Russia, to socialism and to what is worthwhile in general.[45] Burnham would increasingly move away from his support of a democratic structure. In his The Managerial Revolution, he clearly states his belief that a ‘brand’ of totalitarianism was needed.

Interestingly, it was in reference to Roosevelt that Burnham was most ready to use the term ‘fascist’, describing the New Deal as just “fascism without shirts.”[46] [47]Writing for the Socialist Appeal, for which Burnham resumed his Labor Action column “Their Government” he portrayed the New Deal as a proto-fascist plot to save moribund capitalism from extinction with the domestic goal of a “totalitarian military dictatorship.” From Burnham’s point of view, one must ask themselves, if the German fascists would like to destroy Roosevelt’s government, would Burnham not welcome such a thing?

After the formation of the WPUS in 1934 (with the merger between AWP and the Trotskyist CLA), they quickly set their sights on the Socialist Party, which was deeply divided as to how to respond to the New Deal and thus made them inviting prey. In 1935, the WPUS attempted to do a French Turn on the much larger Socialist Party, however, by 1937, the Trotskyists were expelled, which led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at the end of the year. The success was modest in the number of militant converts they brought with them from the Socialist Party.

That same year the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky was organised by Burnham and Hook, consisting of a group of about 120 intellectuals, for the purpose of vindicating Trotsky against the Soviet Union’s charges of treason. In March 1937, both the Defense Committee and the Commission of Inquiry were chaired by none other than our reoccurring friend, John Dewey. The commission proclaimed that it had cleared Trotsky of all charges made during the Moscow Trials and that Stalin had framed Trotsky.

The Moscow Trials, which occurred between 1936-1938, had concluded that Trotskyist cells were at the heart of a fifth column operation within Russia which were committed to overthrowing Stalin and bringing Russia into a pro-Fascist program.[48] The Dewey Commission was a pseudo-judicial process, which had been clearly set up by American Trotskyists and their sympathizers. It had no power of subpoena, nor official imprimatur from any government. It was more for newspaper headlines than anything else.

One of the initial members of the Dewey Commission, Carleton Beals, dropped off the Commission when he became convinced that it was pro-Trotsky and not objective. Beals called the Commission hearings “a joke,” with his full statement was published in The New York Times on April 18th, 1937 and a second statement was published by the Saturday Evening Post on June 12th, 1937.[49] The New York Times wrote that Beals, a well known author, did not “consider the proceedings of the commission to be a truly serious investigation of the charges.”[50]

Interestingly, in February 1942, James Burnham, John Dewey and a reactivated A.J. Muste, all anticommunists at this point, were among the over two hundred anticommunist intellectuals who signed a letter to the president of Mexico protesting the “reign of terror” Mexican communists were allegedly conducting against Trotskyists and other anti-Stalin refugees in the country.[51]

In 1937, the ‘Russian question’ had also arisen. The ‘Russian question’ was on whether the USSR was indeed a true workers’ state or had become a fully bureaucratic state under Stalin. Trotsky maintained that the USSR was indeed a true workers’ state, however, Burnham argued the contrary. In From Formula to Reality, Burnham argued that the claim that workers had a duty to defend the USSR had to be qualified. The workers would be justified in defending the USSR if it were attacked by imperialistic powers but not if the USSR was the aggressor.[52] The question was not specified aggressor against whom, a fascist state or non-fascist state, did it matter? Trotsky disagreed but his tone was mild and after his second response, proceeded to allow the newly formed Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) to put it to a vote.

On December 31st, 1937, the SWP was officially launched. It was again Burnham who drafted the Declaration of Principles laying out the conditions for defending the USSR. The membership rejected Burnham’s resolution on the ‘Russian question’ and supported Trotsky’s ‘unconditional defense.’ Burnham would emerge nonetheless, as one of the supreme commanders of the SWP.[53]

Burnham would resurrect the ‘Russian question’ on September 3rd, 1939, two days after the German Nazis invaded Poland and the day after France and Britain declared war, in words but not action, on Germany, and asked for an emergency meeting. At the meeting he again denied that the USSR was a workers’ state and that the USSR would soon enter Poland not to defend the collectivized Soviet economy but for purely “imperialist” reasons. According to Burnham, the SWP’s commitment to ‘unconditional defense’ of the USSR had to be scrapped. As for Poland, “the endless crimes of the Polish landlords, industrialists, politicians, and generals against democracy” made that country also unworthy of SWP support.[54] Interestingly, once again no mention from Burnham of what stance the SWP should take towards Germany, the actual imperialist aggressor. In fact, he was rather stating that no party should act except the Germans to carry forward their agenda. On September 18, Burnham moved that the Polcom (Polish Communist movement) condemn the USSR for waging “a war of imperialist conquest.” The motion was defeated.[55]

Burnham would resign from the SWP in April 1940 and took as many followers as he could with him to form the Workers Party (WP), to supposedly preserve a pure Bolshevism purged of Trotsky’s errors. The split was over the ‘Russian question’. However, less than two months after forming the WP, Burnham would resign, likely disappointed with the number and quality of followers he took with him. So much for the cause of “pure Bolshevism.”

Although Burnham worked six years for the Trotskyists, he renounced both Trotsky and the philosophy of Marxism altogether. It is unlikely that this was an honest change of heart by Burnham, first of all since he was likely never a Marxist to begin with, and secondly there was no reason for his renouncing Marxism from an objective standpoint. It was about power and influence, and Burnham had reached his limit in his power and influence over the Trotskyists. His mission of infiltration had reached an end. The question was, who was Burnham really working for and was Trotsky of any further use to these people?

Perhaps Burnham was aware that the walls were closing in on Trotsky, and that it would only be a matter of six months from Burnham’s renunciation that Trotsky would be assassinated in August 1940, at his compound outside Mexico City. Trotsky would very tellingly write during his last months, “[Burnham] can write and has some formal skill in thinking, not deep, but adroit. He can accept your idea, develop it, write a fine article about it – and then forget it… However, so long as we can use such people, well and good. Mussolini at one time was also ‘good stuff’!”[56] It appears working with the fascists was not entirely verboten for Mr. Trotsky…

In February 1940 Burnham wrote in Science and Style: A Reply to Comrade Trotsky,[57] in which he broke with dialectical materialism, stressing the importance of the work of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s superior approach:

“Do you wish me to prepare a reading list, Comrade Trotsky? It would be long, ranging from the work of the brilliant mathematicians and logicians of the middle of the last century to one climax in the monumental Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead (the historic turning point in modern logic), and then spreading out in many directions – one of the most fruitful represented by the scientists, mathematicians and logicians now cooperating in the new Encyclopedia of Unified Science.”  [The Unified Sciences was a Dewey project.[58]]

He summed up his feelings in a letter of resignation from the Workers Party[59] on May 21st, 1940:

“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, theoretical 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.”

In 1941, Burnham would publish The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, bringing him fame and fortune.

The Managerial Revolution

“We cannot understand the revolution by restricting our analysis to the war [WWII]; we must understand the war as a phase in the development of the revolution.”

– James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution

In Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), he makes the case that if socialism were possible, it would have occurred as an outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution, but what happened instead was neither a reversion back to a capitalist system nor a transition to a socialist system, but rather a formation of a new organizational structure made up of an elite managerial class, the type of society he believed was in the process of replacing capitalism on a world scale.

The Managerial Revolution was about how a new elite of “managers” (the planners and administrators, organizers and technicians who controlled industry) obeying the “historical law” that “all social or economic groups of any size strive to improve their relative position with respect to power and privilege in society” was replacing the hitherto dominant capitalists as the ruling class. This supplanting of capitalism by managerialism would bring a radical transformation of the economy. Collectivism and central planning would replace private ownership and the free market.

But the managers would go beyond the economic realm to transform political, social, and cultural life as well. An “unlimited” state, “a fused political apparatus” of corporate managers, government bureaucrats, and the military, would come into being, supported by ideologies placing authority and discipline above freedom and private initiative. Probably, this totalitarian system would prove temporary, a phase of the transition to mature managerial rule. But it would be a long, long time before real democracy appeared again, and “drastic convulsions” would occur before it did.

If this sounds very similar in tone to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Bertrand Russell’s The Scientific Outlook, it is because it is, and likely no coincidence either. That is, both The Managerial Revolution and The Brave New World [60] were inspired by the work of Bertrand Russell.

Burnham reasons that just as we observed the transition from a feudal to a capitalist state being inevitable, so too will the transition from a capitalist to managerial state occur. Within this framework, Burnham predicts that ownership rights of production capabilities will no longer be owned by individuals but rather the state or institutions. He writes:[61]

“Effective class domination and privilege does, it is true, require control over the instruments of production; but this need not be exercised through individual private property rights. It can be done through what might be called corporate rights, possessed not by individuals as such but by institutions: as was the case conspicuously with many societies in which a priestly class[62] was dominant…

Burnham proceeds to write:[63]

“If, in a managerial society, no individuals are to hold comparable property rights, how can any group of individuals constitute a ruling class?

The answer is comparatively simple and, as already noted, not without historical analogues. The managers will exercise their control over the instruments of production and gain preference in the distribution of the products, not directly, through property rights vested in them as individuals, but indirectly, through their control of the state which in turn will own and control the instruments of production. The state – that is, the institutions which comprise the state – will, if we wish to put it that way, be the ‘property’ of the managers. And that will be quite enough to place them in the position of the ruling class.”

That is, whoever has control over the industry, the instruments of production, will be effectively, the ruling class. This should shed some light on why the pro-fascists were anti Roosevelt’s New Deal, since this would have made such a takeover of the instruments of production impossible, since such instruments of production would not be for sale in the first place for private ownership to buy up, but would be owned by the government, and thus the people of that nation.

Burnham goes on to explain that the support of the masses is necessary for the success of any revolution. This is why the masses must be led to believe that they will benefit from such a revolution, when in fact it is only to replace one ruling class with another, and nothing changes for the underdog. He explains that this is the case with the dream of a socialist state, that the universal equality promised by socialism is just a fairy tale told to the people so that they fight for the establishment of a new ruling class, then they are told that achieving a socialist state will take many decades, and that essentially, a managerial system must be put in place in the meantime.

Burnham makes the case that this is what happened in both Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia:[64]

“Nevertheless, it may still turn out that the new form of economy will be called ‘socialist.’ In those nations – Russia and Germany – which have advanced furthest toward the new [managerial] economy, ‘socialism’ or ‘national socialism’ is the term ordinarily used. The motivation for this terminology is not, naturally, the wish for scientific clarity but just the opposite. The word ‘socialism’ is used for ideological purposes in order to manipulate the favourable mass emotions attached to the historic socialist ideal of a free, classless, and international society and to hide the fact that the managerial economy is in actuality the basis for a new kind of exploiting, class society.”

In Burnham’s mind, the promises of socialism would be useful, but only as a guise for a totalitarian system. This explains why so many fascist movements labelled themselves as national socialists.

Burnham continues:[65]

“Those Nations – [Bolshevik] Russia, [Nazi] Germany and [Fascist] Italy – which have advanced furthest toward the managerial social structure are all of them, at present, totalitarian dictatorships…what distinguishes totalitarian dictatorship is the number of facets of life subject to the impact of the dictatorial rule. It is not merely political actions, in the narrower sense, that are involved; nearly every side of life, business and art and science and education and religion and recreation and morality are not merely influenced by but directly subjected to the totalitarian regime.”

Burnham would go on to state in his The Managerial Revolution that the Russian Revolution, WWI and its aftermath, the Versailles Treaty gave final proof that capitalist world politics could no longer work and had come to an end. He described WWI as the last war of the capitalists and WWII as the first, but not last war, of the managerial society. Burnham made it clear that many more wars would have to be fought after WWII before a managerial society could finally fully take hold. This ongoing war would lead to the destruction of sovereign nation states, such that only a small number of great nations would survive, culminating into the nuclei of three “super-states.”

As we have noticed with the above quotes, Burnham puts Bolshevik Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy all in the same category, as all forms of totalitarianism in the form of a managerial system, a system that is inevitable for the future. However, he goes on to say, quite inexplicably, that Russia will be destroyed in this process, thus, it seemed clear to Burnham in 1941 that Germany, the herald of the dawning managerial future would build the European superstate.

Thus, these three “super-states” Burnham predicts will be centered around, an admittedly transformed form of the New Deal for the United States (that is, a Keynesian New Deal[66]), Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan. He goes on to predict that these super-states will never be able to conquer the other and will be engaged in permanent war until some unforeseeable time. He predicts (or relishes) that Russia would be broken in two, with the West being incorporated into the German sphere and the East into the Japanese sphere. Take note that this book was published in 1941, such that Burnham was clearly of the view that Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan would be the victors of WWII.

Burnham states that “sovereignty will be restricted to the few super-states.” This future of ‘forever wars’ amongst a few super-states has obvious remnant influences from Trotsky’s ‘Permanent Revolution’ militant ideology. In fact, Burnham goes so far as to state early on in his book that the managerial revolution is not a prediction of something that will occur in the future, but rather that it is something that has already begun and is in fact, in its final stages of becoming; that it has already successfully implemented itself worldwide and that the battle is essentially over.

Interestingly, Burnham notes that the Western hemisphere will be governed by the United States, who will act as a “receiver” for the bankrupt British Empire. Again, very much in line with what Russell suggested the future of the United States would become as an imperialist force and in relation to Britain.[67]

Burnham creepily writes that many people would view the coming age as tragic, but they would be wrong. For while the future would differ greatly from the past, “if we choose to accept it – and most will accept it, whether or not they choose – there will be some satisfaction in doing so in terms of realities, not illusions.” What was more “tragic” had no meaning in this context, as “tragedy and comedy occur only within the human situation. There is no background against which to judge the human situation as a whole. It is merely what happens to be.” [68]

What a different tone when discussing surrendering to German fascism! Interestingly, just a few years earlier, one of Burnham’s core accusations against Roosevelt was that the president was lying to the American people about the threat of Hitler. Now, Burnham agreed that the influence of Hitler did have a worldwide consequence, but that it was too late to resist. Thus, we might as well accept this to be the new future! Sounds like the lullaby of a spider to the fly caught in its web…

Notes:

[1] Hitchens, Christopher. (1993) For the Sake of Argument: Essay and Minority Reports, pg. 143.
[2] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 79.
[3] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 16.
[4] Interestingly Bertrand Russell, who became Burnham’s philosophical godhead, was also a converted atheist, however that did not stop him from admiring the techniques of the Jesuit Order, as he so favourably discusses in his The Scientific Outlook as methods for desirable educational reforms.
[5] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 33.
[6] Ibid, pg. 33.
[7] Ibid, pg. 33
[8] Ibid.
[9] See From Trotskyism to Radical Positivism: How Albert Wohlstetter Became the Leading Authority on Nuclear Strategy for America. Through A Glass Darkly Substack.
[10] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 33.
[11] Ibid, pg. 34-35.
[12] Ibid, pg. 35.
[13] Leon Trotsky to Burnham. (Dec. 9, 1937) Trotsky Archive, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
[14] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 39.
[15] Ibid, pg. 39.
[16] Ibid, pg. 39.
[17] Recall from Chapter 1 that Georges Sorel (1847-1922) was a collaborator of Charles Maurras’s Action Francaise, which was pro-Vichy government who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Sorel, who started out Marxist, became a supporter of Maurrassian integral nationalism beginning in 1909, and created the ideology Sorelianism, a revisionist interpretation of Marx according to Sorel.
[18] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware.
[19] Burnham to Hook, n.d. 1938, SH, Box 8; James Burnham, “A Belated Dialectician,” a review of The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences, by J.B.S. Haldane, Partisan Review 6 (Spring 1939): pg. 121-123.
[20] See Appendix II for more on the Fabian Society and John Dewey.
[21] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 41.
[22] “Muste Drops Out of Dewey League: Resigns from Executive of Third Party Group,” Revolutionary Age [New York], vol. 2, no. 5 (January 3, 1931), pg. 2.
[23] Hentoff, Nat. (1963) Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste. Macmillan, New York, pg. 38.
[24] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 41-42.
[25] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 47.
[26] See Appendix III for an overview of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
[27] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 43.
[28] Ibid, pg. 52.
[29] Ibid, pg. 68.
[30] Ibid, pg. 70.
[31] Cannon, James. (1943) The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, pg. 28-29.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 70.
[35] Ibid, pg. 71.
[36] Ibid, pg. 250, 317, 342.
[37] Ibid, pg. 342.
[38] Recall Chapter 4.
[39] Ibid, pg. 73
[40] Ibid, pg. 73.
[41] Recall Chapter 3.
[42] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware.
[43] Ibid, pg. 57.
[44] This formula has a great deal of similarity to the Mufti of Jerusalem who also claimed that if the Arabs were for independence they would logically have to side with the Nazis and fight the Western imperialists. These were the more naïve types who were unable to recognise that fascism was inherently imperialistic as was showcased in great detail in Chapter 2.
[45] Burnham to Hook, June 12, 1938, SH, Box 132; ibid, August 2, 1938, SH, Box 8.
[46] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware.
[47] Recall from Chapter 2 that it was in fact the fascists who were anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal and were pro-League of Nations, to which Roosevelt opposed. It is funny how the Nazis criticized Roosevelt as being a ‘Jewish puppet’ and the Trotskyists were calling him a fascist! This is doubly ironic since Trotsky and Burnham would actually be affiliated with working with fascists, more on this shortly.
[48] See Grover Furr’s Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan who researched archival resources that showcase that Trotsky did indeed collaborate with the German and Japanese fascists during the Second World War.
[49] Furr, Grover. (July 2018) The Fraud of the Dewey Commission. Red Star Publishers, pg. 5.
[50] Kluckhohn, Frank L. (April 18, 1937) BEALS QUITS GROUP HEARING TROTSKY; Writer Asserts Proceedings Do Not Constitute a Truly Serious Investigation. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1937/04/18/archives/beals-quits-group-hearing-trotsky-writer-asserts-proceedings-do-not.html. Retrieved October 2022.
[51]Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 115.
[52] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 64.
[53] It was obvious why Trotsky was supportive of the “unconditional defense” of the USSR, since he wished to return to the USSR one day as its leader, and thus could not look like he would abandon it to destruction by outside forces. However, he was not shy to do back-door-dealings with the fascists before and during the war. It was simply not something meant to be ever shared in the public arena (see Grover Furr’s “Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan”). Trotsky did not want to add fuel to the already prevalent image of himself as a fifth columnist, he wanted to be seen as a hero, a saviour to his people.
[54] Kelly, Daniel. (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. ISI Books Wilmington, Delaware, pg. 80.
[55] Ibid, pg. 80.
[56] Ibid.
[57] Burnham, James. (Feb. 1940) A Reply to Comrade Trotsky. Science and Style.
[58] For more on the relevance of Bertrand Russell and John Dewey see Appendix II.
[59] Burnham, James. (May 21, 1940) Letter of Resignation from the Workers Party. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/burnham/1940/05/resignation.htm. Retrieved September 26, 2022.
[60] For more on how Aldous Huxley was influenced by Bertrand Russell refer to my paper Who Will Brave in Huxley’s New World: The War on Science and the 20th Century Descent of Man. Through A Glass Darkly Substack. https://cynthiachung.substack.com/.
[61] Burnham, James. (1941) The Managerial Revolution or What is Happening in the World Now. Putname and Company, Limited, London, pg. 44.
[62] This is most definitely in reference to Bertrand Russell’s The Scientific Outlook who refers to a priestly class, modelled off the Jesuits, for educational reform. It should also be noted that H.G. Wells shared the same views. What Burnham is referring to is the very same “scientific dictatorship” Oswald Mosley was referring to, recall Chapter 1.
[63] Burnham, James. (1941) The Managerial Revolution or What is Happening in the World Now. Putname and Company, Limited, London, pg. 73.
[64] Ibid, pg. 120.
[65] Ibid.
[66] See Appendix III for a comparison of the pro-fascist Keynes’ New Deal vs. the anti-fascist Roosevelt’s New Deal.
[67] Recall Chapter 3.
[68] Burnham, James. (1941) The Managerial Revolution or What is Happening in the World Now. Putname and Company, Limited, London, pg. 96.



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Brian
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Brian
14 days ago

Enlightening post and article. Well done and researched. I’ve read other articles by Chung. She really does her homework. I had never heard of Burnham. He was quite scitzophrenic and all over the place in a political sense. It seems wherever power was is or will be, he wanted them to save him a seat. (Much like the conservative establishment of today).
I was familiar with a few Trotskyist Neocons like Irving Krystol and his son Bill. The CFR packed with Neocons since its inception. The Bushes administrations were bursting at the seams with Burnhamesque insiders and career politicians.
Burnham’s pedigree is no surprise. Oxford University and the connections he made there. The OSS and other Intelligence Agencies. Globalist leanings and no disdain for a Supranational One World government. He reminds me of Dulles brothers in some respects as well. Except he was Catholic and they were Protestant. Insiders and shadow governments allow room for dissent it seems on some things. They know that people aren’t monolithic and at least half will disagree at any given time. So enter the controlled opposition and gatekeepers like the Trotskyist Neocons. Many pretending to be otherwise.
You never heard his name on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. If you did ya might discover some critique like this one. A well deserved one at that.

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