James Burnham’s Machiavellians

18 September 2020


James Burnham’s revival is well underway across the American Right. Although few of his works are still in print today, the neoconservative commentator and American Cold Warrior is certainly enjoying what Hugo Drochon describes as “a mini-Renaissance in the era of Donald Trump.” Laudatory commentaries on Burnham’s writings appear in established conservative journals as well as new periodicals like American Affairs. At the same time, some of Burnham’s most vocal proponents are leading figures of the neo-reactionary “dark enlightenment.” What inspires many on the Right—and even some on the Left—to return to Burnham’s most popular works such as The Managerial Revolution (1941), The Machiavellians (1943), and The Suicide of the West (1964) is Burnham’s reputation for clairvoyance. Praise for his exacting realism, or what he described as the politics of “reality” rather than “wish,” gives way to enthusiasm for Burnham’s prophetic vision of a world controlled by a “managerial elite.”


Julius Krein, the founding editor of American Affairs, for instance, claims Burnham’s writings are “uncannily prescient.” In offering insights on elites, the workings of power, and liberalism’s failings, the prudent American theorist, who moved from “the old Left” of the 1930s to “the new Right” of the 1950s, teaches forgotten wisdoms on the nature of political power and its exercise. Reading Burnham today, Krein suggests, can help us grapple with times of populism and political realignment, all while acknowledging the persistence of elite power in the emerging order. 


But while Burnham’s works certainly invite an intellectual reckoning with the role that political, economic and cultural elites play in our politics, the apocalyptic rhetoric underlying his works and the history of their reception is frequently overlooked in the recent panegyrics devoted to Burnham. In many of his works, Burnham presents himself as a political visionary and part of an intellectual tradition—colloquially called “Machiavellian” or “realist”—that sought to separate moral judgments from political analysis. Burnham was someone who had the fortitude to see the world as it was, rather than as he wished it to be


In Burnham’s “Machiavellian period” of the early 1940s, in which he wrote The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians, his rhetoric is vehemently anti-utopian. He writes as a rational, modern scientific man reconciled to the harsh “facts” of political life—what fellow neoconservative Irving Kristol described as a liberal idealist mugged by reality. “Facts” were what Burnham claimed oriented his theories. In many respects, he saw himself as America’s twentieth-century Machiavelli. His works, like the Florentine secretary’s Prince, sought to go to “the effectual truth of the thing” rather than the “imagination” of it. However, in developing his supposedly “scientific” theory of the “managerial revolution,” Burnham never freed himself from the trappings of millenarian political theologies and the apocalyptic rhetoric which often accompanies secular prophecy. 


In many ways, the revival of Burnham’s works today demonstrates an American attraction to meta-narratives on the philosophy of history—grand tales about looming corruption and future subjugation. Burnham thus serves as a political writer who appeals to realist, scientific, and anti-utopian rhetoric—while satisfying a desire for providentialism. It is no surprise, then, to see Burnham’s reputation for clairvoyance promoted by those now seeking to rehabilitate his intellectual and political legacy.


Born in Chicago in 1905, James Burnham led a privileged American life. As the son of a wealthy railroad executive, the young Burnham received his education in philosophy and aesthetics from Princeton and Baliol College, Oxford before moving to New York in 1930 for a teaching position at NYU. Once in New York, he founded a small journal and ingratiated himself amongst New York intellectuals. Teaching alongside Sidney Hook, Burnham was introduced to the Trotskyist movement and became enamored with “the Old Man” after reading his multi-volume History of the Russian Revolution. Endorsing revolutionary communism in the spring of 1932, Burnham worked to form the American Worker’s Party in 1933 and frequently penned polemics in New International and Partisan Review


What drew Burnham to Trotskyism was its millenarian prophesy of a socialist future, proven through rigorous dialectical logic. International socialism’s shift toward Trotskyism seemed to promise spiritual and political salvation, all while explaining the scientific movement of history. However, the late 1930s shook Burnham’s certainty in this newfound political theology. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland and Finland in 1939, Burnham could no longer accept the classification of Stalinist Russia as a “working class state” or a “degenerated workers state.” Nor did he remain convinced that the proletarian revolution would inevitably triumph. In fact, he admitted to being “seduced” by the Marxist philosophy of history. It was Trotsky’s “style” that won him over, rather than the “science” of his theories. Although captivated by the ideal of revolutionary socialism, Burnham claimed the grounds of his original commitments to Trotskyism were “rational and pragmatic, not spiritual.” “God had not failed, so far as I was concerned,” he later told Brian Cozier.


In his two books of the early 1940s, The Managerial Revolution (1941) and The Machiavellians (1943), Burnham described what he believed to be “happening in the world” through a novel revolutionary theory. Now lacking faith in the inevitable triumph of socialism over capitalism, he argued “managerialism” was overtaking the globe and producing a new “exploitative society.” In this alternative account, exploitation was a permanent fact of political life—not something that could be overcome by technological or political developments. The new class of exploiters were the “managers” who directed both material and ideological production in modern mass societies like Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and even Roosevelt’s New Deal America. Burnham did not abandon his Marxist analysis in crafting his revolutionary theory; instead, he reworked its political conclusions. The future of political power now lay in the hands of the pernicious “managers,” not feudal lords or capitalists. 


What Burnham perceived in the managerial revolution was a shift in what he called the “locus of sovereignty” from those who owned capital to those who were a part of this new managerial class. Administrative bureaus now possessed the sovereign powers to make laws, thus gaining power over parliamentary bodies. In his subsequent work, The Machiavellians, Burnham justified his new revolutionary theory with help from “elite” Italian theorists influenced by the writings of the famous Florentine secretary, Niccolò Machiavelli. Analyzing the works of Gaetano Mosca, George Sorel, Robert Michels, Vilfredo Pareto, and Machiavelli himself, Burnham claimed these “Machiavellians” represented “a distinct tradition of political thought”—a tradition interested in constructing a science of politics and using that science to evaluate political life. With their theories on the circulation of elites, the iron law of oligarchy, and what made for proper readings of history, the Machiavellians lent support to Burnham’s predictions of a new managerial elite coming to rule the globe. They provided what he called “the long re-education” he undertook after seven years as a Trotskyist. Burnham’s Machiavellians taught him that politics could always be reduced to the pursuit of power; behind every appeal to political moralism lurked a devious striving for domination. 


In his post-Trotskyist works, Burnham often presented himself as the American conduit of the Florentine secretary and the philosophical-political tradition his writings inaugurated. For instance, The Managerial Revolution begins with an epigraph from Machiavelli’s “vindication letter,” first published at the end of the first English translation of Machiavelli’s writings in 1615. The letter, dated ten years after the Florentine’s death, was most likely written by James Boovey, though it was often attributed to Henry Neville. The “vindication” is composed as a self-defense against the charges that Machiavelli’s intentions were to “teach princes villainy, and how to enslave.” The letter contends that, far from being a teacher of evil, Machiavelli described the sins of princes so that “mankind will know them, the better to avoid them.” Burnham similarly claimed that many would be resistant to his Machiavellian analysis because it is difficult to face the disconcerting facts about ourselves and the laws of politics. Nevertheless, Burnham sought to communicate these sobering truths about human beings to those who were willing to separate ethics and morality from their political analysis. 


In selecting the vindication letter as the epigraph of The Managerial Revolution, Burnham hoped to join a distinguished group of Machiavellian readers who used the Florentine experience to grapple with the political conditions of their own age. The Machiavellian tradition offered Burnham a new prospect of intellectual and political salvation. While Burnham was one of the Machiavellians’ most enthusiastic exponents, he was not alone in turning to Machiavelli in the early 1940s to wrestle with the issues of political contingency and rapid geo-political developments. The British historian Herbert Butterfield, for example, castigated Machiavelli’s historical consciousness and anti-Christian ethics in The Statecraft of Machiavelli of 1940. Around the same time, the French philosopher Raymond Aron voiced concern over how Machiavellian techniques of wielding power were being exploited by modern totalitarian regimes. 


But even as Burnham boasted his fidelity to objectivity and scientific facts, his works did not escape millenarian rhetoric. Such theological remainders troubled the British novelist George Orwell, who described Burnham’s writings as “full of apocalyptic prophesies” and the work of a man “fascinated by the spectacle of power.” In his essay “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” Orwell critiqued the American writer’s tendency to evaluate power in terms of momentary success and impending political doom. Nineteen Eighty-Four built on this critique of Burnham’s political imagination by featuring key components of Burnham’s managerial thesis. Orwell modeled the political guidebook of “The Party”—The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism—after The Managerial Revolution. In the dystopia, the “super-states” of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia all vie for global domination. Even though Burnham routinely complained of the “plague” of Orwell’s polemical review, the British writer was correct to highlight the apocalyptic dimensions of Burnham’s thought and the distortions it produced in his political predictions. The historian Golo Mann went a step further and observed that Burnham’s writings expressed “a traditional German vice” of excusing evil by appealing to “the inevitable outcome of historical logic.” When reading Burnham’s works of the 1940s today, we must be cautious about Burnham’s vision of inevitability.


Even as Burnham emerged out of his own “Machiavellian moment” of the 1940s and joined William F. Buckley as a founding editor of National Review and an early member of the US national security elite, his reliance on millenarian political rhetoric did not dissipate. In his most famous book, Suicide of the West (1964), Burnham articulated his apocalyptic prophesies in terms of a history of “western suicide,” arguing that the “syndrome” of liberalism was producing debilitating psychological guilt on the American Left. As evidence of this psychological corruption, he cited the liberal community’s enthusiastic embrace of James Baldwin’s literary works—what he described as “the abusive writings of a disoriented Negro homosexual.” The fact that Baldwin was awarded “money, fame and public honor” for his works proved for Burnham that the West was facing an inevitable decline. It is not surprising that some of Burnham’s greatest supporters, such as the paleoconservative Samuel Francis and the neo-reactionary Curtis Yarvin, have ties to the racist Right.


In the midst of today’s Burnham Renaissance, it is important to appreciate how Burnham’s thought is both consciously and unconsciously wedded to a certain Cold War millenarianism. Readers turn to Burnham, in part, because they are told he speaks of a politics rooted in “fact” over utopian wish, but much of his appeal comes by way of totalizing theories of power. Those who claim to be the most hardened realists often reach for political theologies and eschatological schemes to communicate their political ideas. Such metahistorical narratives come with political histories of their own. A return to Burnham, his Machiavellian works, and intellectual traditions requires historical attentiveness. Otherwise, we may easily lose sight of what was happening in Burnham’s world and what is happening in our own.



Photo Credit: The Machiavellians, Gateway Edition (1943); The Managerial Revolution, Pelican Books (1945)



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