Few 20th-century writers have moved so dramatically from the left to the right as James Burnham, and fewer still have articulated so clearly the moral and cultural validity of such a shift. Born in Chicago in 1905 and educated at Princeton and Balliol, Burnham began a 26-year career as a teacher and professor of philosophy at New York University in 1929. Shortly thereafter he became a Trotskyite, joining with Sidney Hook and A.J. Muste in the founding of the American Workers’ Party in 1933 and editing The New International for several years. He never fully accepted the premises of Marxist thought, however, and in 1937 he began a factional dispute with dogmatic Trotskyites, including Trotsky himself, over the responsibility of all true revolutionaries to uphold the Soviet regime. That dispute was finally resolved by Burnham’s turning permanently away from Marxist thought in early 1940. He later explained his decision as a choice between ideology and reality: “For some years I had accepted this empty ideological mumbo-jumbo. Then, one day, I tried to relate the formulas to reality. On such a scrutiny it did not take long for the formulas to evaporate.”
After his repudiation of communism and “socialism in general,” Burnham gave his allegiance to progressive liberalism. In The Managerial Revolution, an instant worldwide best-seller upon its publication in 1941, he argued that the free market of entrepreneurial capitalism was giving way to the managed economy presided over by corporate and government administrators. In part, he saw this as an inevitable development because of the efficiency of the new order in meeting complex modem problems. However, he cautioned that even in America this movement was “in the same direction as Stalinism and Nazism” and could conceivably give rise to similar terror, purges, and mass upheavals.
As a contributing member of the editorial board of Partisan Review, Burnham helped such prominent writers as Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to define liberal orthodoxy during the 40’s and early 50’s. As early as 1943, though, he served notice with the publication of The Machiavellians that he was far more realistic and far less attracted to idealistic rhetoric than were most of his colleagues.
Recognizing communism as a genuine and primary threat to democracy and humane order, in 1947 he published The Struggle for the World, a prognostic announcement of the Cold War. Heartened by the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift, Burnham published The Coming Defeat of Communism in 1950. But he soon realized that he had been overly optimistic and in Containment or Liberation? (1952) he delivered this brilliant but scathing analysis of the inadequacy of the Western response to communism:
If the United States and its allies are serious about containment, they are saying to the Soviet leadership: Move into a new territory outside the recognized boundaries of your sphere. . . and we will resist, even by arms if necessary. Stay at home. . . and we will not interfere in any way. Do what you want with the Poles, Czechs, Rumanians, Balts, Slovaks … Fill your slave-labor camps. Perpetrate your genocides. Organize the industry and manpower of your great sphere into a colossal war-making machine. . . Do all these things freely and without apprehension. So long as you keep the Red Army on your side of the line, we will neither interfere nor intervene.
Not surprisingly, Burnham perceived the kernel of truth within Senator McCarthy’s anticommunist polemics during the early 50’s. When other liberals dismissively labeled everyone seriously concerned about communist subversion a “McCarthyite,” he knew that something had gone wrong. He consequently signaled his final break with left-liberal beliefs by resigning from Partisan Review and by publishing The Web of Subversion (1954), in which he followed irrefutable evidence to the logical conclusion that Soviet agents had penetrated numerous congressional and governmental agencies, including even the White House staff.
Resigning his professorship, he then accepted a position as a founding editor of National Review. There, for more than 20 years, he wrote penetrating critiques of international affairs, while periodically lecturing at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. His insight into domestic institutions produced Congress and the American Tradition in 1959, but his primary concern continued to be with the global threat of communist totalitarianism. Accordingly, he worked closely with the Asian Peoples Anti-Communist League and similar organizations. He was also a director of the Free Europe University and a founder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Burnham was not sanguine about the future, however, so long as liberalism remained culturally ascendant. In his last major book, Suicide of the West (1964), he demonstrated in a remarkable tour de force that liberal misconceptions concerning fundamental human goodness and equality, American guilt and Third World beneficence, can only, in the long run, permit communism to destroy the West. “Liberalism,” he declared, “permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way.”
Fortunately, Burnham’s intellectual efforts have helped to insure that matters will not turn out that way. By dissecting the regnant intellectual myths, he has helped establish a new and more enduring counterfashion in thought, as was appropriately recognized when President Reagan recently awarded him the Medal of Freedom. Quoted and reprinted, his books and articles will long shape the perceptions of intelligent men and women committed to preserving a civilization of social freedoms.