|Born||November 22, 1905|
|Died||July 28, 1987 (aged 81)|
|Relatives||David Burnham (brother)|
|School or tradition|
|Institutions||New York University|
|Notable students||Maurice Natanson|
|Notable works||The Managerial Revolution (1941)|
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943)
|Notable ideas||Managerial state|
James Burnham (November 22, 1905 – July 28, 1987) was an American philosopher and political theorist. He chaired the philosophy department at New York University; His first book was An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (1931). Burnham became a prominent Trotskyist activist in the 1930s. He later rejected Marxism and became an even more influential theorist of the right as a leader of the American conservative movement. His book The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, speculated on the future of capitalism. Burnham was an editor and a regular contributor to William F. Buckley's conservative magazine National Review on a variety of topics. He rejected containment of the Soviet Union and called for the rollback of communism worldwide.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 22, 1905, James Burnham was the son of Claude George Burnham, an English immigrant and executive with the Burlington Railroad. 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). 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.
In 1934, he married Marcia Lightner.
In 1933, along with Sidney Hook, Burnham helped to organize the American Workers Party led by the Dutch-born pacifist minister A. J. Muste. Burnham supported the 1934 merger with the Communist League of America which formed the US 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 Partisan Review, Burnham was also an important influence on writers including Dwight Macdonald and Philip Rahv. 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.
In February 1940 he wrote Science and Style: A Reply to Comrade Trotsky, in which he broke with dialectical materialism. In this text he responds to Trotsky's request to draw his attention to "those works which should supplant the system of dialectic materialism for the proletariat" by referring to Principia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead and "the scientists, mathematicians and logicians now cooperating in the new Encyclopedia of Unified Science".
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. 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.
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. The book was included in Life magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924–1944.
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During World War II, Burnham took a leave from NYU 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 semi-autonomous "Political and Psychological Warfare" division of the Office of Policy Coordination.
Subsequently, during the Cold War, he called for an aggressive strategy against the Soviet Union. A contributor to The Freeman in the early 1950s, he considered the magazine too focused on economic issues, though it presented a wide range of opinion on the Soviet threat. In The Struggle for the World (1947), he called for common citizenship between the United States, Great Britain, and the British dominions, as well as a "World Federation" against communism. Burnham thought in terms of a hegemonic world, instead of a balance of power:
A World Federation initiated and led by the United States would be, we have recognized, a World Empire. In this imperial federation, the United States, with a monopoly of atomic weapons, would hold a preponderance of decisive material power over all the rest of the world. In world politics, that is to say, there would not be a balance of power.
In 1955, he helped William F. Buckley Jr. found National Review magazine, which from the start took positions in foreign policy consistent with Burnham's own. In the National Review, he wrote a column titled "Third World War," which referred to the Cold War. 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." 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.
In early November 1978 he suffered a stroke which affected his health and short-term memory. He died of kidney and liver cancer at home in Kent, Connecticut, on July 28, 1987. He was buried in Kent on August 1, 1987.
Burnham's seminal work, The Managerial Revolution (1941), theorized about the future of world capitalism based upon its development in the interwar period. Burnham weighed three possibilities: (1) that capitalism was a permanent form of social and economic organization and would continue indefinitely; (2) that it was temporary and destined by its nature to collapse and be replaced by socialism; (3) that it was currently being transformed into some non-socialist future form of society. Since capitalism had a more or less definite beginning in the 14th century, it could not be regarded as an immutable and permanent form. Moreover, in the last years of previous economic systems 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." The worldwide mass unemployment of the depression era thus indicated that capitalism was itself "not going to continue much longer."
Analyzing the emerging forms of society around the world, Burnham saw certain commonalities between the economic formations of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and America under Roosevelt's New Deal. Burnham argued that in the short period since the First World War, a new society had emerged in which a social group or class of "managers" had waged a "drive for social dominance, for power and privilege, for the position of ruling class." For at least the previous decade, there had grown in America the idea of a "separation of ownership and control" of the modern corporation, notably expounded in The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means. Burnham expanded this concept, arguing that whether ownership was corporate and private or statist and governmental, the essential demarcation between the ruling elite (executives and managers backed by bureaucrats and functionaries) and the mass of society was not ownership so much as 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.
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 surreptitiously lifting the central ideas of his book from the Italian Bruno Rizzi's La Bureaucratisation du Monde (1939). Despite certain similarities, there is no evidence Burnham knew of this book beyond Leon Trotsky's brief references to it in his debates with Burnham. Burnham was influenced by the idea of bureaucratic collectivism of the Trotskyist Yvan Craipeau, but Burnham took a distinct conservative Machiavellian rather than a Marxist viewpoint, an important philosophical difference which Burnham explored in greater detail in The Machiavellians.
In The Machiavellians, he developed his theory that the emerging new élite would prosper better 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 American politics, proclaiming Burnham's new interest in traditional moral values, classical liberal economics and anti-communism. He defined political ideologies as syndromes afflicting their proponents with various internal contradictions. His works 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.
British writer George Orwell was inspired by Burnham's The Managerial Revolution and his explanation of power, which informed Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell noted in 1945, "For Burnham's geographical picture of the new world has turned out to be correct. More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parceled off into three great empires ... " The superpowers of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia in the novel are partly influenced by Burnham's assessment of Roosevelt's America, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as being managerial states. In 1946 Orwell, summarized Burnham's managerial revolution and outlined the geopolitical landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of 'managers'. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new 'managerial' societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom."
While Orwell partly agreed with Burnham's analysis, he never fully accepted Burnham's attitude towards Machiavellian managerial power. This unresolved thought helped to inspire the character of O'Brien, who talks about power and regimes in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
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