By Francis P. Sempa
James Burnham (1905–1987), who became a leading anti-communist and prominent intellectual figure in American conservatism, began his professional intellectual career as a Marxist. His early writings appeared in leading Marxist and socialist publications in the 1930s, such as Symposium, New Masses, The New Militant, Socialist Appeal, and The New International. In them, Burnham combined the intellectual rigor, cogent analysis, and independent thought that served him well throughout his professional career. Burnham’s Marxist years laid the foundation for the intellectual approach he used in his two most fundamental books The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians, and those two books are the keys to everything Burnham wrote thereafter.
After graduating first in his class at Princeton in 1927, Burnham earned a Master’s degree in English Literature from Balliol College, Oxford. He subsequently accepted a teaching position at New York University and began co-editing Symposium. In July 1932, his favorable review in Symposium of Leon Trotsky’s first volume of the History of the Russian Revolution was, according to his biographer Daniel Kelly, the “first public sign that Burnham was warming to Marxism.” Writing in New Masses, Burnham praised Lenin as “the chief historical figure of our time, and probably the chief political leader of all time.”
In the depths of the Great Depression, Burnham viewed Marxism as a solution to the flawed capitalist system. He helped form the American Workers Party that later evolved into the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite political organization. Throughout his Marxist years, according to historian John Patrick Diggins, Burnham repeatedly “expressed doubts about … communism.” He was fundamentally an empiricist, not a utopian ideologue. And he continued to write, honing those skills that would one day make him a leading geopolitical strategist and the intellectual architect of the West’s Cold War victory over Soviet communism.
Burnham believed in dealing with the world as it is. Facts, not abstractions, must guide Marxist analysis of political programs. In the mid-1930s, Burnham highlighted what he called the “contradictions” between the “surface and the substance” of FDR’s New Deal. Capitalism, Burnham wrote, was declining, but social democracy was not the intended outcome of FDR’s policies; instead, the administration concentrated government power in the Executive branch, with Congress delegating more and more of its power to the President, preparing the way for Fascism, where “the state becomes increasingly and more directly involved in the basic economic structure of the country.” This had already happened in varying degrees in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. It was now happening in the United States, and this objective political reality would later form the basis of his global analysis in The Managerial Revolution.
When Burnham turned his eyes to global issues in early 1935 in a series of articles in The New Militant, he foresaw an approaching war that “threatens not merely suffering and death to vast millions, but the actual destruction of human civilization.” He wrote that war was caused by capitalist expansion and exploitation. He predicted a “world-wide war of the imperialist nations among themselves.”
Burnham ridiculed the notion that the World Court or League of Nations or international treaties or arms limitation pacts would bring peace. Such institutions, he wrote, are “stamping grounds where the great powers can jockey for the most advantageous position for the start of open conflict.” The League of Nations will keep the peace, he predicted, “as long as peace is to the interests of the powers that control the League.” Marxists must not be pacifists, Burnham explained, but should transform capitalist war into a “class war” for the overthrow of capitalist states.
In the July 1935 issue of The New International, Burnham envisioned the coming of a war “far greater and more deadly than the last.” He sensed that the “imperialist tensions [were] more taut even than in 1914.” Burnham wrote about the difference between the real and formal meanings of words and slogans, an approach that he would use in his book The Machiavellians, and in all of his writings on politics. “Slogans,” he explained, “are always historically meaningless when taken in the abstract; it is not until we examine their specific content in particular policies and actions that we can estimate their role.” The slogan “Against War and Fascism,” for example, could mean pacifism or siding with capitalist powers against the Fascists, and either outcome would be a defeat for the revolutionary working class. Similarly, the slogan “Defend the Soviet Union” could mean support of Stalinism or “national Bolshevism” and those capitalist countries that ally with Stalin instead of supporting the international working class. Stalin, Burnham believed, had betrayed the international working class, and “will end by plunging [the Soviet Union] into the abyss.” Those two slogans, Burnham concluded, are “being manipulated to prepare [the working class] for capitulation to the next war.”
In the October 1935 issue of The New International, Burnham joined Max Shachtman in attacking Stalin and Stalinism by exposing the brutality of the Gulag. The conditions under which Stalin keeps prisoners and exiles, they wrote, “are almost beyond description.” Soviet prisons and places of exile were located in “the most god-forsaken wastes of the Arctic” and the treatment of prisoners is “brutal in the extreme.” Stalin aims, they wrote, “at the complete physical annihilation” of the regime’s opponents. Three years later in an article in Socialist Appeal, Burnham condemned the Stalinist show trials, which he called “integral to Stalinism.” Burnham’s anti-Stalinism was a product of his loyalty to Trotsky and his commitment to international communism, but already the seeds of his more general anti-communism had been planted.
In 1936, Burnham wrote a lengthy pamphlet entitled “War and the Workers” that was published by the Socialist Workers Party. He began this article, like he began The Struggle for the World eleven years later, by stating that a war had begun: Italians attacked Ethiopia; British warships concentrated in the Mediterranean; Japan moved against China; the U.S. conducted war exercises in the Pacific; Germany constructed planes and submarines; and France built fortresses along the German border.
The fighting in Ethiopia, he wrote, is the prelude “to the new imperialist world war.” Any peace agreements would only postpone the global conflict. In the coming struggle, he wrote, “the fate of human society will be decided.” The world consisted of six great capitalist powers: the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. Each country, he wrote, is controlled by the “finance-capitalist” class—what he would later call the “managers.” And even Stalin had betrayed the working class in the USSR. “The struggle against imperialist war,” Burnham wrote, “means everywhere the relentless struggle against Stalinism.”
In a September 1937 article in Socialist Appeal, Burnham predicted that the approaching world war would begin without a formal declaration. Japan did not declare war when it invaded Manchuria. Italy did not declare war when it invaded Ethiopia. Outside powers had intervened in Spain without declaring war. And “collective security” was not a peace program, but rather a calculated means to prepare for war under the most favorable conditions. “Collective Security,” he explained, “is a way of cementing military alliances in one of the imperialist coalitions.” It has the advantage, he continued, of “making the members of the opposing coalition appear to be the ‘breakers of the peace,’ thereby permitting the mobilization of popular sentiment against them.”
The United States, he predicted, “will make its bid for domination in world imperialism” in the approaching world struggle. “Because of her geographical and economical situation,” Burnham explained, “the US will not enter at once into the armed struggle. But in the later stages … she will necessarily launch out for world hegemony.” This is a theme he would return to after his break with Marxism in his first geopolitical book, The Managerial Revolution.
In a February 1938 piece in Socialist Appeal, Burnham analyzed the geopolitical evolution of U.S. foreign policy. Initially, geography enabled the new nation to avoid the conflicts of the Old World and engage in continental expansion. The Monroe Doctrine announced a U.S. sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish-American War and the First World War drew the United States “irresistibly into the vortex of world affairs.” Foreign trade and capital markets, Burnham explained, became necessary for the survival of U.S. capitalism. Isolationism, under these circumstances, was an “empty illusion, utterly unrelated to historical and economic reality.”
And in Franklin Roosevelt the U.S. as it approached a world war had “the most daring and brilliant politician whom this country has yet produced.” Burnham called FDR a “close and critical student of international politics.” Roosevelt, Burnham continued, was a bold and imperious leader who was “extraordinarily sensitive to the moods of the masses, and unscrupulous to the last degree in exploiting those moods.”
Roosevelt recognized that “modern capitalism can work only with the extension of the function of the state into wider and wider spheres.” The New Deal was an “ideology” used “to convince the masses that the government … is their government.” Moreover, FDR had implemented policies “deliberately and consciously set toward war, and toward the creation of the most favorable circumstances for the conduct of war.” In fact, Burnham opined, “war is Roosevelt’s solution for the economic crisis.” In other words, war was part of the New Deal. It would save capitalism and serve Roosevelt’s political interests. In later columns, Burnham called it the “War Deal,” and called Roosevelt “the chief War-Monger.”
The coming world war, Burnham wrote in Socialist Appeal, will be “a new world struggle for the re-partition of the world among the major imperialist rivals.” “All the fine moral ideals,” he wrote, “from democracy to religion to national independence, are, for the imperialists, only so much grist to the mills that turn out the cynical demagogy whereby they hope once more to delude the people.”
In July 1939, in a series of articles in Socialist Appeal, Burnham wrote that the coming war would be a total war because “[d]irectly or indirectly, everyone is a part of the war machine.” The war would be fought with “mass armies”conscripted from the ranks of peasants, farmers, and workers. Civilians as well as soldiers would be targeted in the approaching war. Governments would use education and culture for war propaganda. War has become “totalitarian,” he wrote. The resources of entire nations will be devoted to war. Therefore, there should be a “war referendum.” The people should vote whether to go to war. “Let the people decide!,” he concluded.
After the war in Europe began, Burnham wrote that it was not being fought for “democracy” by England and France. In fact, he called it the “war to end democracy.” All nations that fight, including the United States, would become “war dictatorships,” with “regimentation, censorship, [and] abrogation of civil and democratic rights.” After the war, parliamentary democracy is “finished, done.” FDR’s war aim “is to bring the United States into the war in such a way that American imperialism will dictate the war settlement.” And “the reward to the American people for dying in the ‘crusade against Hitler’ abroad: totalitarian dictatorship at home.” Roosevelt was gradually and deceptively taking the country to war against the wishes of the American people.
Burnham broke with Marxism in 1940 and began writing for Partisan Review. During the war, the former anti-war Marxist joined the OSS to assist America’s war effort. But before doing so, he wrote two important books that combined broad sociopolitical observations with grand geopolitical theories.
In The Managerial Revolution, Burnham wrote that all modern nations were moving in the direction of some variant of rule by a managerial elite. He also envisioned that the postwar world would be dominated by a geopolitical clash among “super-states,” and that the United States would be one of those “super-states.”
In The Machiavellians, Burnham formulated a science of power for analyzing politics, borrowing from the insights of Machiavelli, Mosca, Pareto, Michels, and Sorel. All politics was a struggle for power among ruling classes or elites, and freedom and liberty was preserved not by the ruling class but by the opposition to the rulers.
All of Burnham’s subsequent conservative writings, for National Review and otherwise, were influenced by the ideas and approaches of those two books, and those ideas and approaches had their roots in Burnham’s Marxist period.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.