By Francis P. Sempa.
When James Burnham formally left the Socialist Workers Party in 1940 (intellectually, he had left it the year before), he did not immediately embrace the conservatism of his American Mercury, The Freeman, and National Review years. Burnham instead became a liberal anti-communist and joined the writers at Partisan Review, which at the time was one of the world’s highbrow intellectual journals. Partisan Review featured writers such as Philip Rahv and William Phillips (its two founding editors), Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, T. S. Eliot, Clement Greenberg, Dwight McDonald, Franz Kafka, Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, and many others.
Burnham’s years at Partisan Review spanned the time period between 1938 and 1953—the years of World War II and the early Cold War. It was during this time that Burnham developed a “science of power” and wrote some of the most important articles and books of the 20th century, though some are long forgotten. He began this period writing socio-political works, still evidencing the influence of Marxism on his political thought. He finished this period by becoming the West’s most important Cold War observer and analyst, including working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, consulting with the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after the war, and devising a general strategy for winning the Cold War that the Reagan administration implemented in the 1980s to undermine the Soviet empire.
Burnham broke with Partisan Review in September 1953 over the issue of “McCarthyism.” In his resignation letter, Burnham explained that he was neither “pro-McCarthy” nor “anti-McCarthy,” and that while he disapproved of some of McCarthy’s actions and methods, he agreed with many things McCarthy had done and some of his methods. “McCarthyism,” he wrote, was “an invention of . . . Communist tacticians” and was being used as “diversionary semantics” to undermine congressional investigations of communist infiltration of our government and society. A year later, Burnham wrote The Web of Subversion, a highly detailed account of what had been revealed about domestic communism in congressional hearings and by communist defectors such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. By that time, Burnham’s work was appearing in conservative journals such as The American Mercury and The Freeman. In 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr., recruited Burnham to be a founding editor of National Review, and Burnham edited and wrote for that journal until sidelined by a stroke in 1978.
But it was during the Partisan Review years that Burnham honed the analytical skills and political acumen that eventually made him the West’s greatest intellectual Cold Warrior. He announced his break with Marxism (of the Trotskyite variety) by proclaiming that the Marxist ideology was incompatible with freedom and democracy. Marx’s economic and historical theories, he wrote, have been disproved by events. Marxism had devolved into Stalinism which, he wrote, “must be understood as one manifestation of the same general historical forces of which fascism is another manifestation.” He expressed some doubt as to whether Leninism and Trotskyism were simply different shades of Stalinism, but he was sure that they were “incompatible with genuine scientific method and genuine democracy.” Burnham sensed a “new form of exploitive society” that he called “managerial society.”
In his book The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, William Phillips fondly remembered Burnham at Partisan Review. Burnham, he wrote, “bore the stamp of the gentleman in his bearing,” and appeared somewhat “shy and diffident.” Burnham’s mind was “nothing if not logical,” but Phillips thought that “he was too sweeping and schematic in his tendency to extend an intellectual formula into a prophecy of things to come.”
Burnham’s sweeping and schematic thought was on display in the two books that he wrote during the Second World War—The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. In The Managerial Revolution (1941), Burnham wrote about the emergence of a new class of “managers” throughout the world. The managerial elite in all countries, including the United States under the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt, Burnham explained, vastly expanded the “scope of activities of the state” and consequently the power of the managers to control the “most important economic, social, political, and cultural institutions of society.” The managers, he wrote, will try “to increase their relative power and privilege” over the citizens they rule.
During World War II, the managerial elite of the great powers were struggling for global hegemony. Burnham predicted that the outcome of the war would result in the emergence of “super-states,” one of which would be the United States. Burnham’s geopolitical analysis emphasized the importance of geography, industrial power, and military power. His general vision of a postwar struggle for power among “super-states” (though he underestimated Soviet power and endurance) was prophetic. He was influenced by the geopolitical writings of Britain’s Sir Halford Mackinder and America’s Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman.
But the key to Burnham’s political thought was a group of writers he called “the Machiavellians” in his book by that name that appeared in 1943. In some ways The Machiavellians was a sequel to The Managerial Revolution. It used the socio-political thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels, and Vilfredo Pareto to describe how the world’s managerial elite would achieve, maintain, and increase their power. All politics, he wrote, was a struggle for power. Elites rule by force and fraud. Democracy is a myth. All governments were oligarchical in their structure of power. Constitutions, laws, regulations and other parchment do not check or restrain governmental power. Only power restrains power. Only strong political opposition to those who hold state power can preserve some freedom for the citizens.
You can see in Burnham’s early writing for Partisan Review the seeds of both The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. He started reviewing books for Partisan Review in 1938, when he had not completely broken with Marxism and revolutionary politics. In his early reviews, he criticized writers who attempted to hide their political agendas behind literary criticism. He accused Stalinists of using “dialectical materialism” as a “smokescreen” to justify their political actions. And he subjected the political theories advanced by leftist writers to a sturdy and exacting empiricism. In one review, he also suggested that what he called the “New Dealism” of the Roosevelt administration was a manifestation of the rise of a new elite class—foreshadowing his theory of managerialism.
The United States’s involvement in the Second World War turned Burnham’s attention to global geopolitics. He studied the works of Mackinder and Mahan, particularly Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality (originally published in 1919 with a new edition in 1942) and Spykman’s America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942). The outbreak of war rekindled interest in Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory which appeared to be prophetic as Germany and Soviet Russia engaged in a titanic struggle for mastery in Eurasia. LIFE magazine noted that Hitler’s plan of conquest had much in common with the geopolitical musings of Karl Haushofer, a retired German general and intellectual admirer of Mackinder. Hitler met Haushofer through their common friend Rudolf Hess in the 1920s.
The postwar struggle for power among “super-states” envisioned by Burnham in The Managerial Revolution became a little clearer as the war wound down. In the summer of 1944, Burnham wrote an article in Partisan Review titled “The Sixth Turn of the Communist Screw.” Burnham listed the previous five “turns” as follows: “(1) War Communism, 1918-21; (2) the NEP [New Economic Policy], 1921-28; (3) the Third Period, 1928-35; (4) the Popular Front, 1935-39; (5) the Hitler Pact, 1939-41.” He called the sixth turn the “Tehran Period,” named after the site of the wartime summit meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. All six turns witnessed “the growth and increasing consolidation of the new Soviet ruling class, a class in which the bureaucracy, the army hierarchy, and the managers fuse into a great social grouping with its roots firmly in the economy through its extension as the managerial personnel of the nationalized industry and collectivised agricultural.”
Burnham, who was secretly working for the OSS and who had submitted an analysis of Soviet postwar goals to his superiors in Washington, wrote in this article that the Soviet goal in the current Tehran Period was to end the war “in de facto Stalinist domination of the [European] Continent.” As evidence, Burnham pointed to the communist-led mutiny in the Greek army and navy in May 1944, which he noted effectively pitted the Soviet Union against Great Britain, who were supposedly wartime allies, and “anti-Western agitation in Chiang Kai-shek’s China.” Burnham wrote this in the summer of 1944, when the Soviet Union was still being praised as our gallant ally in the war and while we continued to pour Lend-Lease material into Stalin’s war machine. In Burnham’s then classified OSS paper that he submitted in the spring of 1944 (the substance of which later publicly appeared in the first section of his book The Struggle for the World in 1947), he concluded that a new war between the Soviet communist enterprise and the West had already begun even before the Second World War ended.
Also in 1944, Burnham participated in a debate with Ely Culbertson that was published in the American Economic Foundation’s “Wake Up America” syndication. Burnham contended that the Soviet Union hopes not only to dominate Eastern Europe after the war, but all of Europe. If that happened, he wrote, the Soviet Union will have a huge economic and territorial base to wage economic warfare against the West; the peoples of Europe will be subjected to Stalin’s totalitarian rule “which in no essential respects differs from Hitler’s”; and the “international balance of power” would shift in the Soviet’s favor. And Burnham stated that the Roosevelt administration did not understand any of this.
In September 1944, Burnham wrote an article in The Commonweal in which he explained that Stalin’s goal was to make Eurasia an “impregnable fortress,” and Germany was the key to domination of Eurasia. Stalin understood that this goal could be achieved by forces on the ground. Like Churchill, Stalin knew that it mattered where the allied armies met up in Europe. Burnham wrote that the fate of Europe, Eurasia, and the world was at stake.
In early 1945, Burnham’s article “Lenin’s Heir” appeared in Partisan Review. It was one of the most important articles that he ever wrote. Had Western leaders paid attention to it, the Cold War may have ended earlier. Some readers mistook the article as praise for Stalin. “Lenin’s Heir” was a public warning issued perhaps because his OSS paper was being ignored by the Roosevelt administration. Stalin and the communist enterprise, he wrote, had seized the global political initiative, while Western leaders reacted. He was always at least one step ahead of Western leaders in Eastern Europe and in East Asia.
The reason for Stalin’s success, Burnham explained, was that he had a “geopolitical vision” that coincided with Mackinder’s previous warnings to Western powers. “Stalin,” Burnham wrote, “has translated into a realistic political perspective the dream of theoretical geopolitics: domination of Eurasia.” Soviet Russia occupies “the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland,” and from that strategic bastion it threatens Western Europe, China, and the Middle East. And the Soviet threat would not end after Stalin because, Burnham wrote, Stalinism is the essence of the Soviet system that Lenin installed after the Bolshevik seizure of power in the fall of 1917. “Stalin is Lenin’s heir,” Burnham wrote. “Stalinism is communism.”
At the time “Lenin’s Heir” appeared, the Roosevelt administration was engaged in the attempted courtship of Stalin (to borrow Robert Nisbet’s phrase). And we now know that the Roosevelt-Truman administration was infested with communist agents, communist sympathizers, and useful idiots in the State Department, the OSS, and the White House staff. It is no wonder that Burnham’s OSS paper hardly made a ripple within our government.
When the United States finally awakened to the communist threat and formulated and implemented the policy of containment, Burnham felt it was not enough to defensively contain Soviet power. Instead, Soviet power had to be weakened, Soviet territorial gains had to be reversed, and the United States and the West needed to develop an offensive policy to undermine Soviet power. That became the subject of Burnham’s next three books: The Struggle for the World, The Coming Defeat of Communism, and Containment or Liberation?, all written during Burnham’s final Partisan Review years.
In those three books, Burnham set forth a comprehensive strategy for winning the Cold War. He called it the policy of Liberation. The United States and the West should go on the offensive, waging economic, subversive, ideological, and political warfare against communism and the Soviet regime. Burnham believed that communism’s greatest weakness was the desire for freedom among the peoples it enslaved. He believed that Soviet control of Eastern Europe was fragile and the Soviet economy was fundamentally unsound. Those weaknesses, he wrote, should be fully exploited. Burnham’s strategy was in essence a forerunner of the Reagan administration’s “we win, they lose” policy in the 1980s. Historian George Nash wrote that Burnham more than anyone else formulated a strategy for victory in the Cold War.
Burnham did not limit his Cold War activities to books and articles. He also helped found and organize (with several of his Partisan Review colleagues and with CIA assistance) the Congress for Cultural Freedom which sought to wage cultural war against communist regimes around the world. The achievements of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Burnham’s role in that effort were examined in Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War.
Burnham began his estrangement from his liberal anti-communist friends at Partisan Review with the appearance of Containment or Liberation?, which many on the left viewed as too confrontational in the nuclear age. But it was the issue of domestic communism that finally caused Burnham and the Partisan Review crowd to part ways. Most Partisan Review writers and editors were appalled by the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy in his efforts to expose communists in the government. Burnham was not so much pro-McCarthy as anti-anti-McCarthy because he viewed communist infiltration of our government and society as a much greater threat than his friends on the left did.
Burnham had written an article for the liberal anti-communist magazine Commentary on the scandal of the Institute for Pacific Relations’ (IPR) support for Asian communists and its ties to the State Department during the Roosevelt-Truman administration, which editors at Commentary refused to publish. So Burnham published it in the conservative magazine The Freeman. He was also writing for The American Mercury, another conservative journal. Meanwhile, he was lecturing on the communist threat at such places as the Naval War College and in Henry Kissinger’s International Seminar at Harvard.
When William Phillips looked back on Burnham’s career, he described Burnham as “one of the casualties of American intellectual life.” Philip Rahv, one of Partisan Review’s founding editors, remarked that when Burnham turned right and left Partisan Review he effectively “committed suicide.”
But those comments from his former colleagues were premature. Burnham went on to write for and edit National Review for 23 years, in the process becoming his generation’s most insightful American commentator on foreign policy issues. In 1983, President Reagan awarded Burnham the Medal of Freedom. A year later, when Partisan Review published its 50th Anniversary edition (edited by William Phillips), none of Burnham’s articles or book reviews appeared, and when Phillips listed the names of some of the journal’s most accomplished writers, Burnham’s name was not there.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. His work has also appeared in The American Spectator, the Claremont Review of Books, and Human Events.
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