“Among the many priests of Jove . . . all passed
muster that could hide Their sloth, avarice, and pride.”
Bruno Rizzi’s La Bureaucratisation du Monde, first published in Paris in 1939 and Part I of which is here translated by Adam Westoby into English for the first time, is the obscure work of an obscure man. A hanger-on of both Communists and fascists, a traveling shoe salesman with little formal education or learning, and a vocal anti-Semite who admired both Adolf Hitler and Leon Trotsky, Bruno Rizzi attracted virtually no serious attention during most of his life and probably deserved less than he received. His book was impounded by French authorities because of its racial slurs, and copies of it have been rare ever since. Its style and contents are not particularly pleasing or original, although some passages are amusing because of the invective that is customary in Marxist polemics. The book created a stir in Trotskyist and dissident Marxist circles in the 1930’s, but it has had little influence on sociological thought since its suppression removed it from the reach of most scholars. Why, then, has it been republished at all?
Rizzi’s book acquired historical value because it played a part in the dispute within the Trotskyite movement over the nature of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It is Rizzi’s argument that what was happening in Western Europe, Russia, and the United States in the 1930’s was indeed the collapse of capitalism and bourgeois society. Unlike most Marxists, however, he argued that what was superseding capitalism was not socialism or the rule of the proletariat but a tertium quid that he identified as “bureaucratic collectivism,” a collectivist economy ruled by an elite of state bureaucrats, technicians, managers, and functionaries. Rizzi regarded this system as the underlying unity beneath the apparent differences separating Soviet, Nazi, and New Deal governments, and he predicted its ultimate worldwide development.
Rizzi’s thesis excited controversy among Trotskyites because it directly challenged Trotsky’s continuing defense of the Soviet Union as a “worker’s state,” despite its “temporary” deformation by Stalin, and because it challenged also the essential points of Marxist theory. If the capitalist era is ending and if it is being succeeded by a new form of class exploitation, then the Marxist prophecy of a classless social order is wrong. If a new form of exploitation arises that is not based on property but on state power, then the Marxist mode of analysis—its claim that property and social and economic class based on property are the sources of exploitation—is also wrong. Trotsky and his circle might have ignored Rizzi’s challenges, but they could not afford to do so. It was obvious to them that something strange was happening in the Soviet Union that neither Marx nor Lenin could explain, and unless Trotsky could reconcile the rise of Stalinism with some version of Marxist predictions and categories, then the whole body of Marxism would, in a matter of time, be discarded.
Trotsky tried to meet Rizzi’s arguments before his murder in August 1940, but the controversy over Rizzi’s book might have ended there. However, in 1941 a former disciple of Trotsky, said by some to be his “most brilliant” follower, published a book that argued a thesis very similar to that of Rizzi and which influenced a generation of intellectuals who, in the wake of Stalin, were beginning to abandon Marxism as a source of theory and action. This former disciple was James Burnham, and the book he published was The Managerial Revolution.
By the 1950’s, when the Hungarian revolution and Milovan Djilas’ The New Class generated renewed interest in the social and political evolution of Communist systems, Rizzi had generally been forgotten. In 1958 an article appeared in France that cited Rizzi, then believed to be dead, as the source of Djilas’ theory. To the astonishment of many, Rizzi turned out to be alive, and he wrote a letter to the editor of the journal where the article about him had appeared in which he bitterly accused Burnham of having plagiarized his ideas. Daniel Bell (a younger member of the Socialist Workers Party at the time that Burnham, Max Schachtman, and others were challenging Trotsky’s interpretation of Stalinism and later a co-worker with Burnham in the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1950’s), gave currency to the charges of Burnham’s plagiarism in The New Leader. The charge was not invented by Rizzi, however, and it has followed Burnham’s reputation like Banquo’s ghost ever since.
It is the great merit of Mr. Westoby’s erudite introduction to his edition of Rizzi that this ghost is finally laid to rest. As Bell acknowledged at the time and as Westoby reaffirms, the idea of a bureaucratic transformation of capitalism was “in the air” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much as were ideas about flying machines and horseless carriages, and who influenced whom is not always easy to discern, nor indeed worth discerning. The Polish anarchist Waclaw Machajski had developed a similar thesis a generation earlier, as had Thorstein Veblen in his The Engineers and the Price System in 1919. The seeds of the idea can be found in Max Weber and Vilfredo Pareto and indeed in Adam Smith and Karl Marx. In the 1930’s A.A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means developed a similar thesis in The Modern Corporation and Private Property, and by the post-World War II era the idea of a managerial revolution, in one form or another, had become a commonplace, though still rejected by Marxists and the political left.
Not only did Burnham not plagiarize Rizzi, it is also probable that Burnham himself influenced the development of Rizzi’s ideas. Westoby points out, for the first time, that in 1937 Burnham published an article under a pseudonym, arguing that the Soviet Union was neither capitalist nor socialist but some other kind of political-economic system, that Trotsky had referred and replied to this article, and that Rizzi, though he was unaware of Burnham’s authorship, was undoubtedly influenced by Burnham’s idea before he wrote The Bureaucratization of the World. Anyone who reads both Rizzi’s book and Burnham’s attentively will see at once that Burnham owed little to the shoe salesman. The Managerial Revolution, despite its flaws, is a far more sophisticated, learned, and closely reasoned work than anything Rizzi wrote. There is no apparent similarity of text or style, and Burnham made use of a number of sociological perspectives, especially those of Pareto and Mosca, besides that of Marx.
Burnham’s originality consisted in two daring ideas. First, by adapting the idea of Berle and Means that the modern corporation effects a “separation of ownership and control,” a separation between the stockholders (the legal owners of a corporate firm) and its managers, Burnham redefined management to mean those who perform the technical functions of production rather than (as in Berle and Means’s theory) those who have acquired legal control. In Burnham’s view, those who can perform the technical functions can wrest effective control of the corporation away from stockholders, corporate officials, or others legally entitled to exercise control.
Second, using this functional definition of manager, Burnham argued that the bureaucrats of the modern state, as well as the officials of mass labor unions and the other mass organizations of modern society, perform technical functions analogous to those of the corporate managers, that they too are able to usurp control of their organizations and that they all have a common material interest and a common world view. In short, a new managerial class emerges that seizes power in the state and the economy and becomes a new ruling class.
The managers, in Burnham’s theory, make use of collectivist, social engineering ideologies (Marxism, fascism, modern liberalism) to rationalize their power, seek to suppress the institutions and ideas of the traditional bourgeois or entrepreneurial elite, and try to remold society into conformity with their interests and mentality. In international affairs the managerial super-states seek to replace the nationstate with transnational empires and engage in a “struggle for the world,” the first phase of which was World War II and the continuation of which is the “Third World War” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Those who recall Burnham’s articles and columns in National Review from 1956 to 1978 will perhaps recognize some of these themes.
Admittedly, Burnham’s interpretation of current world affairs was badly flawed by the persistence of economic determinism in his mind and by his use of the totalitarian regimes in Russia and Germany as models for all managerial societies, including what was happening in the United States. Despite these conceptual errors, which he later abandoned as his mind matured away from Marxism, Burnham’s essential thesis still explains both how technically specialized bureaucrats, technocrats, and managers have displaced traditional elites in the United States and other developed societies and why this new elite or new class promotes a world view fundamentally hostile to the institutions and values of the traditional West.
Very few of these ideas are present in Rizzi’s meager contribution, or at least in the first part of The Bureaucratization of the World, which is all that is published here, though Rizzi did perceive the fundamental unity of Nazi Germany, Stalinism, and the New Deal. Certainly there is no similarity of the texts of Burnham and Rizzi, and the charge of plagiarism approaches absurdity. I, for one, fail to see how Burnham can be accused of stealing Rizzi’s ideas when Rizzi himself had published his ideas two years before. Rizzi’s ideas had become public property, and no one paid much attention because there just weren’t many ideas there. People did pay attention when Burnham published two years later, because his ideas were far more haunting and compelling. Those who have charged Burnham with plagiarism, one begins to suspect, have acted on ulterior motives, not the least of which may have been a desire to discredit and dismiss the theory of The Managerial Revolution without attending to its merits.
Burnham’s thesis challenges not only Marxist theory by arguing that exploitation would not end with a revolution carried out in the name of Marx but also much of the conventional wisdom of liberals and conservatives alike. It challenges liberal platitudes because it portrays “big government” not as the democratically restrained friend of the common man but as the tool of a self-interested elite of bureaucrats. It challenges conservative platitudes because it portrays “big business” not as a larger version of the entrepreneurial and morally rooted economy of the 19th century but as a form of collectivism, fused with the state, controlled by essentially the same elite, and directed against the social, economic, political, and intellectual fabric of traditional culture. In seeking to protect the business establishment and in encouraging government intervention, conservatives and liberals are merely perpetuating and extending the managerial regime.
Although Burnham did not explicitly develop the implication, his theory of The Managerial Revolution pointed to a populist counterrevolution against the managerial establishment, not the dwindling resistance of a moribund bourgeois class, as the logical challenge, the new antithesis, to the managerial regime. It is no accident that the American and European left, from 1941 to the present day, has been pounding away at the underpinnings of Burnham’s theory. The left, which represents the ideological vanguard of the managerial class, understands a threat when it sees one.
Nor is it surprising that Burnham’s ideas have never excited mainstream American conservatives, who, themselves largely drawn from bourgeois strata, remain enthralled by the fantasy of a restoration of bourgeois society. Except for The Ingersoll Prizes (administered by The Rockford Institute), which honored Burnham in 1983 with The Richard M. Weaver Award, and his circle of friends at National Review, apparently few conservatives remember him or appreciate the major contributions he made to the political thought of the American right. Despite George Orwell’s use of The Managerial Revolution as the basis for 1984 and despite Irving Kristol’s acknowledgment of Burnham’s influence on neoconservative ideas of the “new class,” he remains, in the words of a National Review editorial, a “nonperson.”
The republication of Bruno Rizzi’s “underground classic” will not therefore do much to preserve or “restore” Rizzi’s reputation as a social thinker. More probably it will have much the same effect that the republication of the underground works of the Marquis de Sade had on his legend—to dispel it and expose the basic shallowness of his mind. The renewed interest in Rizzi’s book may, however, serve a better purpose in alerting serious students of modern society to the achievements and insights of another real but neglected prophet.
[The Bureaucratization of the World, by Bruno Rizzi; New York: The Free Press]
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