In 1983, Ronald Reagan, who presided over the Wests victory in the Cold War, presented the United Statess highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to James Burnham, who had envisioned a strategy for that victory nearly forty years before. . . .
Often we remark that the convert exhibits an unusually devoted commitment to his or her new cause. Such evidently was the case with the subject of this essay. Remembered as an anticommunist American intellectual and dedicated foe of the Soviet Union, university professor James Burnham started his career at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The author, who recently wrote an appreciation of Halford Mackinders world view for this journal (Winter 2000), assesses Burnhams scholarly approach to Cold War strategy as set forth over some three decades. ~ Ed.
|DURING THE EARLY post-Second World War years, James Burnham, a leading American Trotskyite in the 1930s, emerged as a chief critic of the policy of containment as articulated by the Department of States policy planning chief, George F. Kennan, and implemented by the Truman Administration. At this time, Burnham was a prominent liberal anticommunist associated with the journal Partisan Review who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war. In three books written between 1947 and 1952, and in hundreds of articles written over a twenty-five-year period for the conservative magazine National Review, Burnham criticized containment from the ideological Right, arguing for a more aggressive strategy to undermine Soviet power. That strategy, which Burnham called liberation and others called rollback, was widely ridiculed at the time and subsequently, even though, ironically, Kennan in his memoirs termed it persuasive.1 Decades later, however, the Reagan Administrations confrontational style and offense-oriented policies during the 1980s, an approach which arguably resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, can be said to have vindicated Burnhams strategic views.|
Burnham was born in Chicago in 1905. His father, Claude George Burnham, who emigrated as a child to the United States from England, was an executive with the Burlington Railroad. James attended Princeton University where he studied English literature and philosophy, and graduated first in his class, delivering his valedictory address in Latin. Burnham earned a masters degree at Balliol College, Oxford University, in 1929; later that year he accepted a teaching position in the philosophy department of New York University. He remained on the faculty of NYU until 1953.
From 1930-1933, Burnham co-edited (with Philip Wheelwright) Symposium, a review devoted to literary and philosophical criticism. In 1932, he and Wheelwright wrote a textbook entitled Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. During his editorship of Symposium, Burnham became acquainted with Sidney Hook, a colleague in the Philosophy Department at NYU. According to Hook, their relationship became quite friendly when Symposium published Hooks essay Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx. Burnhams articles in Symposium impressed Hook and other readers, including Soviet exile Leon Trotsky.
During the 1930s, with the country in the throes of a great economic depression, Burnham joined the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement. He had read Marx and Engels while living in France in 1930, and was later greatly impressed by Trotskys History of the Russian Revolution. His move to the far left, however, was not without detours along the way. For example, in the April 1933 issue of Symposium, Burnham described the communist party as ridiculously utopian and barbaric. John P. Diggins, one of Burnhams biographers, believes that three principal factors persuaded Burnham to join the communist movement: an article by Sidney Hook on Marx; Adolf Berles and Gardiner Meanss book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property; and Burnhams tour of the country in the summer of 1933 where, in Digginss words, he encountered the first stirrings of an authentic class struggle.
In 1933, Burnham helped Hook, A.J. Muste, and J.B.S. Hardman organize the American Workers Party. The next year, the party merged with the Trotskyite Communist League of America to form the Socialist Workers Party. Burnham, according to Hook, emerged as the Partys most admired and most distinguished intellectual figure. Samuel Francis, another Burnham biographer, notes that during that time Burnham was considered a leading spokesman of the Trotskyite branch of the international communist movement. Diggins goes further, describing Burnham as Trotskys chief spokesman within American intellectual circles. Burnham became an editor of the Partys monthly journal, New International, wherein he defended Trotsky from Stalinist verbal attacks. Initially, Burnham viewed Stalinism as an aberration of Bolshevism. He saw Trotsky as Lenins true heir, and Trotskyism as the fulfillment of the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution. After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in August 1939, however, Burnham began distancing himself from Trotsky (who defended the pact). In May 1940 Burnham resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, ended his involvement in the international communist movement, and began to write regularly for Partisan Review, the leading journal of the non-communist left.2
Burnham emerged as a Cold War strategist in 1944 upon writing an analysis of Soviet post-war goals for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. The seeds of his intellectual evolution from Trotskyite to anticommunist cold warrior were planted during the time period between his break with communism and the beginning of the Cold War. It was then that Burnham formulated his science of politics and began viewing the world through a geopolitical prism. This intellectual evolution began in 1941 with the publication of his The Managerial Revolution, a study in which he theorized that the world was witnessing the emergence of a new ruling class, the managers, who would soon replace the rule of capitalists and communists alike. The book was an instant best-seller and was translated into most major foreign languages. It received critical acclaim from the New York Times, Time, The New Leader, Saturday Review, and leading opinion-makers of the day. John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that The Managerial Revolution was widely read and discussed among policymakers in Washington in 1941. William Barrett remembered it as an original and brilliant book when it appeared which anticipated by a good number of years the discovery of the New Class.3
The Managerial Revolution is mostly remembered as a political and socioeconomic work, which in part it was. What is often overlooked, or at least understated, is that the study was Burnhams first intellectual foray into global geopolitics. In it he sketched an emerging post-war world divided into three strategic centers for world control:
Geography, he explained, gives certain advantages to each of the contestants in certain areas: to the United States in the northern two-thirds of the two Americas; to the European center in Europe, the northern half of Africa and western Asia; to the Asiatic center in most of the rest of Asia and the islands nearby.
The Machiavellians is the most complete exposition of Burnhams approach to the study and analysis of politics. Samuel Francis judges it to be his "most important book, and opines that virtually all of Burnhams writing since The Machiavellians must be understood in reference to it. Brian Crozier agrees, calling The Machiavellians the most fundamental of Burnhams books, and the key to everything he wrote subsequently." Joseph Sobran calls the book the key to Burnhams thought. John B. Judis believes that Burnhams approach to analyzing power politics as set forth in The Machiavellians informed his tactical understanding of the Cold War
Burnhams OSS study perceptively identified the post-war geopolitical structure that was then emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. It did so a full two years before George Kennan wrote his Long Telegram from Moscow and Winston Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri. It even predated Kennans lesser-known papers, RussiaSeven Years Later (September 1944) and Russias International Position At the Close of the War With Germany (May 1945), that predicted future difficulties between the United States and Soviet Union. No one foresaw or recognized the emergence of the Cold War more accurately, more comprehensively, or earlier than James Burnham.14
(This article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two.)
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