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JAMES BURNHAM, by Samuel Francis
, March 27, 2004
By Samuel Francis
Available from News Weekly Books for $19.95 plus p&hJames Burnham was one of the most original and influential political theorists and economists during a time when there were many talented and acute thinkers all trying to explain the momentous changes occurring in the world - changes which ran right through the 20th Century.
Burnham is one of the few whose ideas, then so influential and now so relevant, deserve as much attention as when he first set them out.Changed views
He started as a militant Trotskyist, as did so many other bright young Americans of that time, around the Depression and what followed. But he changed and moved over the years to his final role as "leading intellectual defender of the West".
His considerable knowledge of Marxism, Communism and of the Soviet version in particular, superior to most still on the Left, not only made him anti-Communist but a formidable intellectual opponent.
But Burnham's reputation is not ultimately based upon his prescient and, in his earlier years, courageous anti-communism.
His seminal work, The Managerial Revolution
(1941) has influenced us all. His thesis, that a new managerial class was already arriving, taking over corporations and public bodies alike and, in the process, splitting off those who "owned" them from those who controlled them and that these managerial types would soon be doing the same for political and social movements and state-owned institutions ... is a lot more familiar to us now. But they were propositions hotly contested at the time.
Privileged access to the social product was one test of who actually rules, as was "who takes the key decisions" as to the running of things. It made the so-called conceptual gulf between capitalism and private ownership on the one hand, and socialism and its institutions on the other, not a gap at all. In theory, but not in practice.
There is much, much more besides in this book.
Burnham was talking of the New Class long before most people and pointing to its totalitarian and anti-democratic tendencies.
Orwell, also a Trotskyite early on, understood his message and was duly influenced. The American's understanding of bureaucracy and its pervasive invasion of more and more parts of life added to the earlier great studies of bureaucracy by Max Weber.
In 1943, to explain the moral position he held, Burnham wrote The Machiavellians
. This, for me, is his most important contribution for he produces a series of studies of Machiavelli and three Italian political sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th century, Mosca, Michels and Pareto, plus the Frenchman, Georges Sorel.
The Italians believed that all societies were controlled by elites - different things from social classes: that every large group, or group in competition with others, had elites. Often, had to have them. Unions, churches, sporting clubs, parties - whatever - were all in fact run and ultimately ruled by elites. It was fashionable for elitists to deny that they were an elite and mandatory for democratic elites to deny that they were.
Democratic elitists usually lead the charge in disavowing what these Italian philosophers say is a natural, inevitable feature of group existence - just as is the human search for power and control.
Their main interest was in studying how these elites varied according to the social forces which made up a particular society; what kind of people were suitable for one kind of elite and not another; how elites circulated, rose and fell.
They insinuated that democracy - certainly in the sense of participatory or representative democracy - was an illusion; as was, equally, socialism with its talk of the masses ruling, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state and instead, "the administration of things in place of the government of people" (as Lenin said). All illusions, said the elitists. As to anarchism or libertarianism - an invitation to chaos and a reversion to barbarism. Clockwork Orange
Burnham agreed and summarised thus: The primary object in practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interests, maintain their own power and privilege:
"Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders 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."
So not surprisingly, he then wrote The Struggle for the West
(1947) analysing the Soviet Union and predicting the Cold War. Then The Suicide of the West
(1964) concerning the blindness of Western liberals to those forces threatening the Western world and his own defence of Western values and how Western liberals were despising and betraying their own values.
In all of this only the enemies of the West have changed: its betrayers have not.
Samuel Francis has done splendidly in summarising, so clearly, this complex and radical thinker, as Burnham had done for his predecessors. A riveting study.