From the April 1984 issue of Chronicles.
On December 8, 1983, James Burnham was presented with the first Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters by The Ingersoll Foundation. Mr. Burnham’s address to those assembled at Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton hotel follows:
I want to begin with a word of thanks to the sponsors of this award, the trustees of the Ingersoll Foundation. It is an honor to be honored in such a fashion, and in the company of such a distinguished man of letters as Jorge Luis Borges.
As you maybe aware, I have not, in any formal sense, put pen to paper for a period of time. But, clearly, the occasion calls for a few words.
Much writing is an exercise in self education. At any rate, that is a fair way to describe most of my work, especially if one starts with The Managerial Revolution. From 1934 until the winter of 1939-40, I was a member of Trotsky’s Fourth International. Like many members of my generation, I had observed that the established capitalist order in nearly every major country had, to a large extent, crumbled, taking with it much of the social and political order. For a number of years I accepted some of the empty ideological mumbo-jumbo that was associated with the Trotskyite movement.
Then, one day, I tried to relate the political formula which I had been manipulating to reality. What, in fact, was the relationship between the Soviet Union and its neighbors? What were the internal dynamics of Soviet society, and what did they have in common with other major powers, such as the United States and Germany? My book, The Managerial Revolution, was an attempt to ask the right questions and deliver an early, partial answer.
With the hindsight of over 40 years, it becomes clear that the early statement of the hypothesis of the managerial revolution was somewhat rigid and doctrinaire. Some of the topical political propositions were wrong or incomplete. But the essential point remains valid, and, indeed, has been reconfirmed: the capitalist system of the 19th century is finished, however much some of our contemporary theoreticians wish to the contrary. But capitalism is not being replaced by socialism of the abstract Marxist ideal, contrary to the confident predictions of its theoreticians.
The challenge, then, for serious students of the real world, is to analyze the precise nature of the historical transition away from 19th-century capitalism, including the organizational forms in which this transition expresses itself. At the same time, there is a responsibility to encourage others to promote those elements in society during this transition that promise at least the minimum of liberty and justice that distinguish human society from a merely animal existence.
In the process of securing these minimum conditions, I have always held, as do the trustees of tonight’s event, that truthfulness and rationality are essential priorities in the discussion of public issues. What this means is that only by renouncing the strait jacket of ideology can we begin to see the world and man. An ideology is a normative commitment posing as science or as a universally valid philosophy. It cannot be refuted by evidence or rational analysis; so long as the commitment holds, it is irrefutable. In this sense,
the ideology of liberalism, as I defined it in the Suicide of the West, is no different from the ideology of the communists. Where the latter has generally been the ideology of an aggressive, expansionist Soviet state, the former has been the ideology of Western suicide.
But the application of truthfulness and rationality to the dissection of ideologies and the promotion of liberty and justice does not mean being confined to a narrowly scientific, quantitative set of instruments. Certainly those who I have called “the defenders of freedom,” the Machiavellians, did not rely upon Gallup polls or electronic computers to gain their extraordinary insights into the nature of the political process. As I observed, a touch playfully, in the opening lines of my book Congress and the American Tradition,” In ancient times, before the illusions of science had corrupted traditional wisdom, the founders of Cities were known to be gods or demigods.”
Truthfulness in the analysis of human history and conduct should make at least a minor allowance for magic, luck, or divine favor. This point is especially relevant to the theory or history of government. Unless there is some acceptance—whether by habit, tradition, or faith—of a principle which completes the justification for government, that government will either collapse or will have to fall back upon force—the ultimate nonrational justification.
Let me conclude by suggesting that there is a fundamental point of intersection between the theory of a just government and much of the underpinning of what we know as Western civilization. Just as there is a necessary nonrational element in the former, so is there a powerful, ordering rational element in Christianity. The start of the Gospel of St. John reads, in English, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The blending of Platonic elements with Christianity is evident, but the process becomes much more so in the Greek text from which the translation is made. In the Greek, “beginning” is not genesus which means a start in time, as used in the first book of the Old Testament, but arkhe which means the beginning not so much at a particular point in time at which things start, but as the foundation principle out of which being comes. ”Word,” of course, comes from the Greek logos, which includes the notion of reason, the inner essence of meaning. Thus, we have the idea that in the beginning, as the foundation principle of the universe, was meaningful reason, and the Word—logos—was with God, the Word was God. That is to say, the universe as conceived by this Gospel is not arbitrary, not a matter of chance or accident, but a reasonable world following a reasoned order with God.
It is this interpretation of the meaning of reality, taken from and developed from the Greek philosophers, that runs through the great tradition of Christianity. It is expressed once more by the greatest of all poets at the height of the Middle Ages, by Dante, when he writes, in The Divine Comedy, “In the great seas of being, all things preserve a mutual order and this it is that maketh the Universe like unto God.”