In Memoriam: James Burnham

James Burnham died July 28th, 1987 — nearly three decades ago, and just before the arrival of the current age. Born in a Catholic 1905, he quickly delved into Marxism in his college days. But Kapital couldn’t keep him, and he quit the party in 1940, and the next year wrote his post-Marxist, and criminally underappreciated book, The Managerial Revolution. In brief, the book spelled out how the rulers of our day are not the cliched nobles and aristocrats, nor the triumphed pioneers and businessmen, but the technocrats, the pencil-pushers and the “experts” behind the scenes in our ever more complex society.

That book, popular in its day, put Burnham on the map, and he wrote quite a few books thereafter: The Machiavellians, Congress and the American Tradition, and Suicide of the West to name just three. He became a titan within the burgeoning conservative movement — writing regularly for National Review and The Freeman and reaching prominence enough to be a target of George Orwell’s ire from all the way on the other side of the Atlantic. However, for all his new found glory in William F. Buckley’s posse, Burnham never “purged” his mind of his early influences like Niccolo Machiavelli, Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Gaetano Mosca — thus ensuring that his thinking always remained above the echo chamber of Republican politics.

But not with a bang, but a whimper, did he fall from the limelight. Largely debilitated by a stroke in 1978, he was largely left in the dust by his conservative colleagues, and one by one his books fell out of print. Though a recipient of the Medal of Freedom — from Ronald Reagan no less, today his mentions are few and far between, certainly nothing in comparison to his contemporaries Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers.

All the same, the man was a genius, and hugely influential in the paleoconservative realm, particularly Sam Francis — the intellectual godfather of the Alt Right, who wrote a monograph and countless essays on him. Burnham’s triumph was his ability to draw from his Marxist past to see the sociological realities of economics while simultaneously pondering the spirit and soul of Western Civilization in the classically conservative sense. All with an eye to power too. Burnham knew that no amount of material condition, religious faith, or fervent ideology meant much without power — a harsh reality so many conservatives do their best to wish away.

But don’t take my word for it. Here for the 29 years he’s been gone, are 29 of his sharpest quotes:

  1. Lenin — in spite of a professed belief in a materialist theory of history — didn’t allow himself to be fooled into thinking that physical resources and power were going to decide the twentieth-century destinies of empires and civilizations.

  2. It is false that socialism is “the only alternative” to capitalism. It is false that capitalism will continue. It is false that socialism will replace it.

  3. Since there is nothing in essential human nature to block achievement of the good society, the obstacles thereto must be, and are, extrinsic or external. The principal obstacles are, specifically, as liberalism sees them, two: ignorance — an accidental and remediable, not intrinsic and essential, state of man; and bad social institutions.

  4. If we consider the problem historically, we will recall that for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal ancestors, “the state” meant a non-democratic regime in which such conservative and reactionary forces (according to their listing in the liberal lexicon) as landlords, a hereditary aristocracy, a hereditary monarch, the army and the church had weight much beyond their numerical proportion. This was true of the regime as a whole, and to a large extent even of the parliaments within the regime, which were elected on a limited, manipulated franchise, and wielded in any case only portions of the power. Such a “state” was obviously not a very promising instrument for bringing about the liberties, reforms and general prosperity which the pre-liberals sought; in fact, the active intervention of government could be expected to push, much of the time, in the opposite direction. With the gradual extension of the franchise toward universality and the transfer of sovereignty more and more fully into the hands of elective assemblies and officials, the state could be thought of as changing its character from Bad to Good or at least promising Angel. The “state” came to seem to express more and more, at least more than other institutions, the popular or general will. It was no longer outlandish for liberals to expect their democratic state to do liberalism’s work.

  5. What if the government that truly embodies the democratic will of the people turns out to be a hideous tyranny, and not the free, scientific and open society of John Dewey’s turgid prose? What if his progressively reared children, unhampered by superstition, custom and traditional disciplines but left free to develop their own free natures, turn out to be not liberals but monsters — turn out to be, let us say, the delinquent monsters that today roam the cement jungles of our great cities?

  6. But a renewed conservative movement, incorporating beliefs and a program consonant with the epoch’s issues, challenges, and perils, and able to rally a mass following, has not taken form and is not in sight: a Ronald Reagan might conceivably be elected President, but will not lead a resurgence of the West. The movements outside of the broad liberal-conservative spectrum that exhibit vigor and purpose aim at the destruction, not the renaissance of Western society.

  7. I do not suggest that liberalism is “the cause” of the contraction and possible, on the evidence probable, death of Western civilization. I do not know what the cause is of the West’s extraordinarily rapid decline, which is most profoundly shown by the deepening loss, among the leaders of the West, of confidence in themselves and in the unique quality and value of their own civilization, and by a correlated weakening of the Western will to survive. The cause or causes have something to do, I think, with the decay of religion and with an excess of material luxury; and, I suppose, with getting tired, worn out, as all things temporal do.

  8. For the liberal ideology, the domestic jungles are the merely temporary by-products of a lack of education and faulty social institutions, to be cleared up by urban renewal programs, low rents, high minimum wages and integrated schools — in which regulations forbid physical discipline, expulsion or failing to certify every student to the next higher grade each year.

  9. The backward regions of the equatorial zones are only, for liberalism, enlarged slums that will be put to rights by the standard remedies: education, democracy, and welfare in the special form of foreign aid.

  10. The United States is both offspring and organic part of Western civilization. The religion of the United States, its philosophies, ideals and institutions, its conceptions of man, art, science and technology — the errors and heresies as well as the truths — are all derived from common Western roots, with merely local and secondary variations. The Western heritage is given once and for all, indissolubly; there is no parliament that can authorize the nations of the West to renounce their title, no matter how ardently or basely they may yearn to join an anonymous common humanity. They either remain Western or cease to be. Thus the United States can find its destiny only in and through Western civilization, not outside or against the West.

  11. When the rural population becomes “radical” in large numbers, it does not turn typically to liberalism in the modern sense but to less polished, wilder and more violent doctrines and programs: to cheap money panaceas, rural anarchism, communism, vigilantism, racial and religious “hate” movements, and for that matter fascism.

  12. It makes a certain amount of sense for a Hegelian to speak of the historic guilt of this or that race or empire, or the moral claim of that people; but it makes no logical sense for a liberal to do so.

  13. When the Western liberal’s feeling of guilt and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obsessive, he often develops a generalized hated of Western civilization and of his own country as part of the West. We can frequently sense this hatred in paragraphs of such American magazines as The Nation and Dissent, Britain’s New Statesman, France’s L’Express or Germany’s Der Spiegel.

  14. The liberal community not only flagellates itself with the abusive writings of a disoriented Negro homosexual, but awards him money, fame and public honors. The spokesmen of the Black Muslim can openly preach racial hatred, violence and insurrection to their heart’s content, with never a challenge from police, courts or the self-appointed guardians of civil liberties. The guilt of the liberal is insatiable. He deserves, by his own judgment, to be kicked, slapped and spat on for his infinite crimes. The shooting of a Negro in Mississippi, purportedly the act of a crazed and isolated white man, reverberates from liberal sounding boards into weeks of world headlines; the shooting of white men in Maryland by rioting Negro gangs slides back into an obscure and unread paragraph. The truncheons of hard-pressed police struggling to preserve the minimum elements of public order against unloosed chaos become Satanic pitchforks; the rocks and broken bottles of the mob, angelic swords. The force that blocks an entrance to a factory which a union leadership has declared on strike is a courageous defense of the rights of man; the force that might seek to use that entrance for its intended and lawful purpose is a cowardly blow by the hirelings of the privileged.

  15. The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obligated to try to do something about any and every social problem, to cure every social evil. This feeling, too, is non-rational: the liberal must try to cure the evil even if he has no knowledge of the suitable medicine or, for that matter, of the nature of the disease; he must do something about the social problem even when there is no objective reason to believe that what he does can solve the problem — when, in fact, it may well aggravate the problem instead of solving it.

  16. It has been more than once remarked that modern liberalism, as manifest within the relatively privileged strata of Western society, bears, only lightly concealed, a heavy burden of Guilt. To uncover a layer of guilt inside the liberal breast is not, to be sure, a startling discovery. Guilt seems to be an emotion, feeling, idea, conviction — whatever it is to be called — that is very widely distributed among men. If one were not committed to a denial of any permanent human nature, one might almost conclude that it is part of man’s essence.

  17. No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. 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.

  18. For Nietzsche, the supermen were not the conquerors and rulers, who were in fact often as much slaves of convention and prejudice as the servile masses, but above all the supreme poets and artists, the prophets, and the wilder of the saints…. Supermen are more dangerous than H-bombs. The world can’t digest many of them, but it would be a drearier place if there weren’t any.

  19. The generalized feeling of guilt toward mass wretchedness and oppression is so widespread today and so pervasive a characteristic of public rhetoric that many persons do not realize it to be a rather new arrival in history. Comparatively few people felt this sort of guilt before the present century, and virtually no one before the second half of the eighteenth century, though there has never been any lack of wretched and oppressed in this world. Nor is a feeling of guilt the only motivation there has been and can be for the attempt to improve the condition of the poor. The hardy breed of Calvinist-slanted early bourgeois, or bourgeois-minded, felt plenty of guilt, but none over the poor and wretched who, their doctrine told them convincingly, had only their own shiftlessness and extravagance to blame for their troubles.

  20. The liberal’s feeling of guilt at the condition of the wretched and oppressed is irrational; irrational precisely from the point of view of the liberal ideology itself. According to liberal doctrine, the poverty and oppression are the result of ignorance and faulty institutions handed down from the past; they are none of my doing. Why then should I feel that any guilt attaches to me, individually and personally, because there are poor and the enslaved?

  21. It is not necessary for me to go in person to the slum, jungle, prison, Southern restaurant, state house or voting precinct and there take a direct hand in accomplishing the reform that will unblock the road to peace, justice and well-being. Thanks to the reassuring provisions of liberal ideology, I can go about my ordinary business and meanwhile take sufficient account of my moral duties by affirming my loyalty to the correct egalitarian principles, voting for the correct candidates, praising the activists and contributing to their defense funds when get into trouble, and joining promptly in the outcry against reactionaries, who pop up now and then in a desperate effort to preserve power and privilege.

  22. Americans have not yet learned the tragic lesson that the most powerful cannot be loved—hated, envied, feared, obeyed, respected, even honored perhaps, but not loved.

  23. The principles of an organized society cannot be interpreted in such a way as to make organized society impossible… . Any individual right or freedom is properly extended only to those who accept the fundamental rules of democracy. How … could any society survive which deliberately nursed its own avowed and irreconcilable assassin, and freely exposed its heart to his knife?

  24. Proclaiming a fight against power and privilege, Russia at home drives a great gulf between a stratum of the immensely powerful, the vastly privileged, and the great masses of the people. The only country “with no material foundation for imperialism,” in theory, shows itself in practice, brutally and — for a while at least — successfully imperialistic. The “fatherland of the world’s oppressed” sends tens of thousands to death by the firing squad, puts millions, literally millions, into exile, the concentration camp, and the forced labor battalions, and closes its doors to the refugees from other lands. The one country “genuinely against war” performs the act that starts the second world war. The nation “dedicated to the improvement of labor’s conditions” invents, in Stakhanovism, the most intense form of speedup known. The government which denounced the League of Nations as a “den of brigands” enters the League and becomes its most ardent champion. The state which asked the peoples of the world to form a popular front of democracies to stop aggressors overnight walks from the camp of the democracies to that of their sworn and mortal enemies. And yet, in spite of the reiterated predictions, from friends and enemies, of its quick downfall, the regime has endured, without a break, for more than twenty-three years.

  25. The ideological movement has gone both ways: just as liberalism shifted toward socialism in its doctrine of the state and its economics, so has the reformist or democratic wing of traditional socialism shifted toward liberalism. The two have come close to meeting in the concept of what has come to be called “the Welfare State”; and there they meet up also with still other currents from radicalism, Christian socialism and even “modern,” as it is sometimes designated, conservatism.

  26. From the point of view of the theory of the ruling class, a society is the society of its ruling class. A nation's strength or weakness, its culture, its powers of endurance, its prosperity, its decadence, depend in the first instance upon the nature of its ruling class. More particularly, the way in which to study a nation, to understand it, to predict what will happen to it, requires first of all and primarily an analysis of the ruling class. Political history and political science are thus predominantly the history and science of ruling classes, their origin, development, composition, structure, and changes.

  27. The complex division of labor, the flow of trade and raw materials made possible and demanded by modern technology, were strangled in the network of diverse tariffs, laws, currencies, passports, boundary restrictions, bureaucracies, and independent armies. It has been clear for some while that these were going to be smashed; the only problem was who was going to do it and when.

  28. Everywhere, men will have to line up with one or the other of the super-states of tomorrow. There will not be room for smaller sovereign nations; nor will the less advanced peoples be able to stand up against the might of the metropolitan areas. Of course, polite fictions of independence may be preserved for propaganda purposes; but it is the reality and not the name of sovereignty about which we are talking.

  29. Liberalism is the ideology of western suicide. When once this initial and final sentence is understood, everything about liberalism-the beliefs, emotions and values associated with it, the nature of its enchantment, its practical record, its future falls into place.