The ideological trajectory followed by the first generation of neoconservatives, from their early fascination with Marxism during the Great Depression to their embrace of Cold War anti-communism and subsequent takeover of the Conservative movement, is by now a well-known chapter in American political history. The life and career of James Burnham followed a similar trajectory, provoking British academic Binoy Kampmark to label Burnham as “the first neoconservative.”
Burnham, however, was a thinker who bore only an incidental resemblance to the neoconservatives. Indeed, Burnham was something of an enigmatic figure within the wider spectrum of the American Right. Most importantly, it is from Burnham that we acquired an understanding of what he termed the “managerial revolution,” a concept that continues to shed a penetrating light on our social and political life today.
A Chicago native, Burnham was born in 1905 to a Catholic family. His father was a railroad executive and immigrant from England. He attended Princeton and Oxford (where he studied under J.R.R. Tolkien), and soon began teaching philosophy at New York University. During the 1930s, Burnham was associated with prominent left-wing figures such as A. J. Muste and Sidney Hook, and became both a proponent of Trotskyism and Leon Trotsky’s personal friend and correspondent.
However, Burnham would eventually break with Trotskyism over the question of the Soviet Union. Trotsky and his leading American followers such as James P. Cannon contended that the USSR under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was a “degenerated workers’ state” that should nevertheless be defended against imperialism. However, Burnham regarded the Soviet Union as a new form of class society with imperialist ambitions of its own, particularly after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, and Soviet incursions into Eastern Europe during the period prior to World War II.
Eventually, Burnham came to reject Marxism altogether, regarding its core philosophy of “dialectical materialism” as untenable. He was briefly employed by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II as a specialist in “political and psychological warfare.” By the late 1940s, Burnham was a staunch proponent of aggressive anti-Communism. During the Cold War era he sought not merely containment of Communism, but a “rolling back” of the influence of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. This agenda would reach political fruition in the 1980s under the Reagan administration.
Burnham was also considered to be one of the key intellectual figures in the postwar conservative movement that emerged in the 1950s under the leadership of William F. Buckley, Jr., and his magazine National Review. Buckley considered Burnham to be one of the movement’s most important intellectuals, and after the death of his own father, Buckley even came to regard Burnham as a father figure.
Even prior to his long association with Buckley, Burnham advocated a unipolar American hegemony, expressing skepticism towards multipolarity, and was especially dubious about peace agreements. At the onset of the Cold War, Burnham even called for the formation of a “World Federation” for the purpose of fighting Communism. In his 1947 book The Struggle for the World he called for “[a] World Federation initiated and led by the United States.” Such a federation, he argued, would be nothing short of a “World Empire” in which the U.S., “with a monopoly of atomic weapons, would hold a preponderance of decisive material power over all the rest of the world.” Clearly, Burnham rejected any notion of a “balance of power.”
Superficial parallels can be identified between Burnham’s outlook and the much later advocacy of “benevolent global hegemony” favored by the neoconservatives following the end of the Cold War. However, upon closer inspection, profound philosophical differences emerge.Throughout his intellectual career following his break with Trotskyism, Burnham was a proponent of pragmatic realism in the Machiavellian tradition. He was far less interested in the use of American power for the purpose of remaking other societies in the image of abstract ideals like “equality” that have become the essence of neoconservative thought.
Burnham’s pragmatism was illustrated by his positions on domestic politics. In 1964, when much of the conservative movement enthusiastically backed Senator Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination, Burnham remained a Rockefeller Republican, believing that Goldwater had no chance of winning a general election and that supporting his candidacy was a waste of effort. Indeed, throughout his life Burnham continued to hold views that were essentially those of a liberal Republican, albeit with a hawkish stance on foreign policy.
Burnham’s most important intellectual contribution was his theory of the “managerial revolution,” first articulated in a 1941 book bearing that name. His primary argument was that classical bourgeois capitalism, which had become dominant in the West in the 19th century, was becoming obsolete in light of subsequent events. The older bourgeoisie was being replaced by a new class of managerial elites, educated technocrats that specialized in the management of large organizations. Within the realm of business, technocrats had largely supplanted the shareholders and the boards of directors as the dominant decision-makers. However, a similar process was taking place in government, labor unions, universities, foundations, and other organizations.
The managerial revolution transcended not merely the differences between the public and private sectors, but also national, cultural, and ideological boundaries, as well as specific forms of government. Burnham believed that a comparable managerial revolution was taking place in both the Western liberal democracies and in totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Arguing against the Marxist view that dominance of the bourgeoisie within classical capitalism would eventually result in revolutions leading to the creation of workers’ states, Burnham instead argued that it was the new managerial elite that were destined to supersede the older bourgeoisie.
In 1943 Burnham published The Machiavellians, which examined the ideas of several Italian theorists of the early 20th century—Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels—along with the French “national syndicalist” Georges Sorel. These thinkers postulated that modern democracy is largely an illusion, and that elites within key political, economic, and cultural institutions continue to hold the reins of power, albeit in a way that allows for superficial opposition in the form of competing electoral parties and a general freedom of the press.
In reality, genuine political conflict occurs within the ranks of existing elites as factional elements attempt to advance their own interests and objectives, and between the governing elites and the non-governing elites that seek to replace them. The masses generally accept the rule of elites based on what Sorel considered to be popular myths that provide a veneer of legitimacy for the elite factions that happen to hold power.
Burnham was concerned with the question of how freedom could be maintained within a political framework where democracy and equality were impossible fantasies. Within the managerial context, he saw three possibilities for the preservation of a relative degree of freedom: the maintenance of a balance of power between different factions within the elite and their contending institutions; the circulation of personnel among the ranks of the elite; and the retention of the trappings of democracy.
Burnham’s ideas on both the managerial revolution and elite theory mirror those of numerous other thinkers who came both before and after him. While Burnham had rejected his earlier Marxism, his thought continued to reflect Marxist influences, particularly the emphasis on economic and technological determinism. However, his recognition of sources of power beyond the strictly economic resembled Max Weber’s earlier criticisms of Marxist economic determinism.
Likewise, Burnham’s suggestion that classical bourgeois capitalism was being replaced by emerging technocratic elites was foreshadowed by Lawrence Dennis’ previous advocacy of an American “fascism,” which amounted to a technocratic collectivist state similar to that of fascism but without the racialist, militarist, or national chauvinist excesses that characterized European fascism. In addition, Burnham’s critique of the Soviet Union as a new form of class domination mirrored that of earlier anarchist and left-communist critics of Bolshevism.
Similar theories have also been developed by a range of subsequent thinkers from the left and right, including C. Wright Mills, Thomas Ferguson, and others. The work of such thinkers has sought to refute the dominant “pluralist” paradigm in American political science, represented by figures ranging from Robert A. Dahl to Seymour Martin Lipset, who argue that American institutions are largely democratic, representative, and competitive in ways that are accessible to many contending interests.
However, the focus of the theorists opposed to the pluralist paradigm has varied considerably in terms of the specific forces that are alleged to be the most influential or dominant within the framework of a liberal democratic state. Burnham’s unique contribution to this body of thought was his emphasis on the managerial class as opposed to, for example, Mills’ emphasis on traditional capitalist elites or Ferguson’s emphasis on investors in political parties and campaigns.
Burnham’s argument that the managerial revolution had replaced classical bourgeois capitalism also generated a response from the neoconservatives, who argued that Burnham’s critique was too radical. For example, Daniel Bell suggested that the rise of the managerial class represented a contradiction within capitalism rather than a replacement of it. Irving Kristol argued that a “new class” had indeed emerged within the context of modern corporate capitalism that was hostile to capitalism itself, or at least hostile to the norms of traditional bourgeois societies. Despite this, in Kristol’s view, capitalism remained capitalism.
In a posthumously published work, Leviathan and Its Enemies, the late paleoconservative scholar Samuel T. Francis expounded on Burnham’s thought. In fact, Francis’s embrace of Burnham’s managerial theory serves to illustrate an essential difference between paleoconservatives and both the “movement conservatives” and neoconservatives. The difference involves the relationship between the array of institutions and organizations that could collectively be referred to as modern American capitalism, on the one hand, and the political right, on the other.
Both movement conservatives and neoconservatives have regarded themselves as defenders of capitalism. The reasons for this affinity have included economic efficiency, anti-socialism, anti-statism, a defense of property rights, and the belief that capitalists are natural allies against the left. Neoconservatives have been more willing to compromise with the welfare state, but have embraced a paradigm that includes paeans to so-called “democratic capitalism,” even if this embrace may have been partly cynical and opportunistic. Irving Kristol, in a candid moment, once admitted that he could give capitalism only “two cheers.”
By contrast, Francis was perhaps the strongest critic of capitalism on the American right. Following Burnham, Francis argued that capitalist corporations were just as much a part of the “managerial elite” as the government bureaucracies, public sector unions, universities, mass media conglomerates, left-leaning mainline churches, liberal political interest groups, and liberal NGOs so commonly reviled by conventional conservatives.
Additionally, Francis argued that the New Left and the New Right (remnants of the old bourgeoisie) had both been unsuccessful in mounting an effective challenge to the managerial regime. Drawing on Burnham’s Marxist-influenced sociology, Francis argued that the classical bourgeoisie was simply outdated and had been superseded by subsequent economic and technological developments. The New Left was easily co-opted and neutralized by the managerial elite because the proponents of the New Left were largely products of the managerial class, and shared its basic values and “cosmopolitan” assumptions. Meanwhile, the New Right was co-opted in a similar fashion because it simply sought to unleash the managerial class in the economic sphere. Hence, the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s—essentially a post-capitalist social and economic order—and its coming to power in the U.S. while masquerading as a conservative counterrevolution.
Indeed, in the 40 years since the Reagan Revolution began, the power and pervasiveness of the managerial elite has become progressively more entrenched in ways that were hardly imaginable in 1980. Meanwhile, the economic values of the New Right have largely served to abet the rise of a corporate class increasingly committed to a leftist cultural regime. The long-term legacy of both the New Left and the New Right has been a convergence of the two forces: the co-opted remnants of the New Left having achieved hegemony in the cultural realm, and the equally co-opted New Right having achieved dominance in the economic realm. The result is a class of corporate capitalist elites that are in many ways the vanguard of the cultural left.
Burnham’s earlier theory is further vindicated by the role of technology in facilitating these developments. In his The New Class Conflict (2014), Joel Kotkin argues that the tech industry has produced a class of oligarchs that is surpassing both Wall Street and traditional industrial corporations as the dominant force among the economic elite. These new techno-oligarchs largely share the cultural values of what Kotkin calls the “new clerisy,” the urban, cosmopolitan professional class and what economist Robert Reich called the “symbolic analysts” involved in journalism, education, public relations, entertainment, law, human resources management, and public administration.
This explains the rise of contemporary “woke capitalism,” even as the disparities between social classes are greater than they have been since the 1920s. Globalization and outsourcing have hollowed out what Francis called the “post-bourgeois proletariat,” which, in the 20th century, encompassed both blue-collar and middle classes.
Another influential work by Burnham, Suicide of the West (1964), merits consideration as well. In that seminal book he argued that liberals lack confidence in their own civilization to such a degree that they are not able to engage in an effective defense of its values against existential threats. Burnham’s arguments were largely in the vein of Robert Frost’s quip that a liberal is someone who is incapable of taking his own side in a fight.
Of course, Burnham was writing during the Cold War, and was dismayed by what he regarded as the liberals’ lack of anti-communist resolve. However, a parallel, and perhaps even more forceful, argument could be made within the context of the present era. Seemingly, contemporary liberals not only lack confidence in their own civilization, but actively work to undermine the heritage of Western civilization in favor of globalism and multiculturalism by expressing a greater fear of “Islamophobia” than of Islamic terrorism, and a greater fear of “xenophobia” than of demographic displacement and cultural dispossession.
Burnham might agree in essence with Kotkin’s argument that the result of the alliance between the techno-oligarchs and the new clerisy has had the effect of producing a static and stratified social order similar to that of pre-modern Europe. Kotkin compares the new clerisy to the First Estate of pre-revolutionary France, the techno-oligarchy and financial elites to the Second Estate, and ordinary citizens to the Third Estate.
While such claims are hyperbolic, they also contain some degree of analogous truth. In the late Middle Ages, European elites had achieved a “transnational” unity. Our emerging Western ruling classes are being amalgamated into a global super class with similar relations to the populations over which they rule. Writing in the 1990s, Francis presciently pointed out that the major political conflicts of the future would be less about partisan differences between the traditional left and right, and more about the wider conflict between managerial elites and ordinary folks.
Francis’ s arguments have been vindicated in recent years by the rise of populist movements on both the left and right, which reject the neoliberal consensus that now defines the establishment. In three of the world’s leading liberal democracies—the U.S., United Kingdom, and France—populist figures from the right and left have gained considerable influence and electoral victories. The examples of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France are illustrative of this trend. However, it remains to be seen whether any of these populists or the movements they represent will be capable of challenging the rule of the managerial elite. Indeed, the managerial revolution identified by James Burnham appears by now to be as deeply entrenched as the medieval Catholic Church. Perhaps only a political cataclysm as far-reaching as the Protestant Reformation will be capable of dislodging it.