Joseph Hansen

Evolution of a Renegade

(September 1947)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.8 No.8, September-October 1947, pp.246-249.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

James Burnham’s book The Struggle for the World [1] has not yet lost its vogue among Wall Street’s propagandists. The warmongers continue to quote from it and the author still enjoys wide prestige in their circles as an anti-communist specialist. He is sought as a speaker, has appeared on the radio, and received honorable mention in a recent report made public by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Yet this current idol of reaction was, before the war, a fellow-traveler of the proletarian party and an advocate of socialism. What brought about this remarkable metamorphosis? What impelled Burnham to switch allegiance from the revolutionary vanguard of the American working class to the shock forces of reaction?

The answer to these questions has a general interest transcending Burnham’s fate as an individual; since what we have here is a representative of a political type – a type generated in the decline of the capitalist system, a type common enough in Europe’s political cesspools but somewhat rarer in America, at least in its full blown form up to now.

As a Princeton graduate in 1927, the 22-year-old Burnham had one quality that promised him an ambitious career in the Coolidge-Hoover era of a car in every garage and two chickens in every pot. He had a flare for logical thinking as it is commonly understood among academic circles. He could tell that “A” equals “A.” He recognized with equal facility that “A” is not “not-A.” He likewise grasped without any trouble that “A” either equals “B” or it doesn’t equal “B.” Utilizing these useful propositions as a general guide in thinking out problems, he demonstrated sufficient scholastic ability to merit a summa cum laude from Princeton.

With stubborn energy and good family connections, there was no doubt about his brilliant prospects. But 1929, the year he finished studying at Oxford and “traveling extensively on the Continent,” was also the year the stock market happened to crash. That event, ushering in the great depression of the Thirties, destined Burnham to move far out of what would otherwise have been his normal trajectory to prominence.

The snug world of Hoover, the promiser of automobiles and chickens, suddenly vanished. The post-1929 Wall Street no longer equalled the pre-1929 Wall Street. Instead of a mighty citadel of invincible power, it was suddenly exposed as a shabby, weak, apologetic and thoroughly frightened little clique of flabby old men.

A logician, using the materialist dialectic as his guide in thinking, could point to this change as a concrete illustration of the general proposition that “A” equals “A” only within certain limits. The system of logic followed by Burnham is not so flexible or scientific. If you discover that the second “A” is no longer equal to the first, then according to that system there must have been some gross error in your original generalization. You were mistaken in your first estimate and have to re-evaluate it to get the two sides of the “A” equation back into perfect alignment.

As sullen masses of millions of jobless began to collect in America’s great cities, youthful Burnham lost his awe and respect for the capitalist class. The weakening of its political power, a consequence of its undermined economic position,, destroyed its attraction for the ambitious young professor, now on the faculty of New York University. And not alone for him. The entire petty bourgeoisie circled aimlessly like moths after a light has been extinguished. Burnham acted simply in accordance with a general law of politics: that the petty bourgeoisie, incapable of developing as an independent force, faces in the direction of greatest political power. In “normal” times this is the big bourgeoisie. But in crises, when the big bourgeoisie loses its attraction, the petty bourgeoisie turns away.

In the epoch of capitalist decline, the other great social pole is the working class. Its way of solving the economic, social and political crisis is to set out to establish a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government and build a socialist society. Consequently every independent move it makes in this political direction increases its power potential and therefore its attraction for the petty bourgeoisie.

The operation of this political law was reflected with extraordinary fidelity in Burnham’s evolution. As unemployed demonstrations mounted, the veterans of World War I marched on Washington, and the ideas of communism increased in popularity, Burnham turned more and more in the direction of the working class. He glimpsed the possibility of a new world.

A whole group of intellectuals and advanced workers were following this same road at that time. Most of them entered the Stalinist party. Some found their way directly to Trotskyism. Those associated with Burnham eventually organized themselves in the American Workers Party.

As the working class began to move on a mass scale throughout America, this party likewise shifted toward the left. Its fusion with the Trotskyist movement coincided with the first signs of the upsurge in the labor movement that later culminated in formation of the CIO.

It was in this early period that Burnham showed his greatest promise. He developed as a propagandist, displaying considerable ability at taking the ideas of others and expounding them. But at the same time his limitations were likewise considerable.

Although he had written a college textbook on the elements of logic, he never grasped – apparently never studied – the dialectic method. He was content to place the primitive method of formal logic that had won him summa cum laude at Princeton at the service of the movement. Since it had taken him through school successfully and landed him a sinecure at NYU, it appeared sufficient.

But without the more developed method of dialectical thinking he could not gain a profound understanding of the basic principles of scientific socialism. He could not free his thought from the sticky bonds of his class origin. In addition he suffered from a serious character flaw – a kind of negativism toward people of greater experience than he in the class struggle. He did not take kindly to proletarian revolutionists attempting to pass on to him some of the experience they had gained in decades of working-class battles.

Thus he saw the communist society of the future not as a scientist sees it, the stage inevitably bound to arise from capitalism the way a giant California sequoia springs from a tiny cone, but as a worthy moral ideal which a man of good will toward others should espouse. There is nothing wrong about looking at socialism as a fine ideal so long as you understand that it is much more than that. But Burnham never saw it as more than a moral ideal. From the Marxist point of view he was an anachronism, a petty bourgeois socialist of the type Marx and Engels described in the Communist Manifesto 100 years ago.

Among the most steeled, clear-sighted political realists of our time, he was only a misty-minded do-gooder. Faced with the necessity of making a decision that meant breaking with his entire past, Burnham hesitated. To become a professional revolutionist meant leaving his comfortable petty-bourgeois world. It meant hardship and sacrifice. It meant retracing his college years and weeding out the misinformation. It meant learning the difficult method of dialectic thinking, a method he could not seem to grasp with the ease he had displayed in mastering formal logic. What proof did he have of the value of dialectics outside of the assertions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky? He began to wonder about his “ideal” of a communist world. Perhaps it was only a “myth.” “Social man cannot live without great myths.” But can’t a genius like James Burnham live without a myth? “It is perhaps a tribute to man’s moral nature that he so often allows his conscience to blind him to reality.” But shouldn’t a man of James Burnham’s mentality open his eyes to “reality?” (We can get an approximation of his doubts at that time by simply moving back some of the rationalizations he records in his latest book.)

It became obvious to some of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party that all was not well with Burnham. James P. Cannon, for instance, wrote Leon Trotsky, December 16, 1937:

I think he is suffering from the intellectual soul sickness. Who can cure that? If he were completely identified with a group of worker Bolsheviks, and could be brought under the influence of their spirit in day to day struggle, one could have more hope. But there’s the rub. He does not really feel himself to be one of us. Party work, for him, is not a vocation but an avocation. He is not in a position to travel the country, to take part in the action of our comrades in the field, to live with them, and learn from them, and come under their influence in his personal life. His social environment is entirely different. You know very well that the academic world of the real, as well as the pseudo-intellectuals, is weighted down now with the heavy pessimism in general, and with a new skepticism about everything. Without his really comprehending it, Comrade B. himself is affected by this pressure of his daily environment. Combine this with a great tendency on his part to deprecate his party co-workers, and to resist the idea of being influenced or taught anything, even by our international comrades, and you can see the problem doesn’t promise any easy solution. [For complete letter see The Struggle For A Proletarian Party, by James P. Cannon. Pioneer Publishers, 116 University Place, New York.]

The date of this letter should be noted, since it enables us to fit this stage of Burnham’s evolution into the general social setting. The socialist revolution in America did not come as quickly as Burnham might have hoped. After their mighty drive to establish industrial unions, the American workers still had to make the first beginnings of mass organization on the political field. In Europe, meanwhile, the Nazis had consolidated their power and Hitler was putting on political stunts that dazzled the petty bourgeoisie in other lands besides Germany.

In the United States a great bureaucracy was mushrooming in Washington. The New Deal opened up lush careers for a whole galaxy of bright students, ex-radicals and politically ambitious professors. On December 21, Roosevelt delivered his first saber-rattling “quarantine the aggressors” speech, a clear indication of Wall Street’s intention to get out of the economic doldrums by plunging the country into the rapidly advancing war.

To Burnham this politically slow-moving working class no longer appeared to be the same working class he had visualized during the previous years. And since, according to his logic, a politically backward class does not equal a revolutionary class, he began turning more and more away.

As Burnham later admitted in his May 21, 1940, letter of resignation from the Workers Party:

It will be thought and said by many that my present beliefs and the decision which follows from them are a “rationalization” of, on the one side, the pressure of a soft and bourgeois personal environment, and, on the other, the influence of the terrible defeats of labor, and mankind during the past twenty years, and of the war crisis. I should be the last to pretend that any man should be so brash as to imagine that he knows clearly the motives and springs of his own actions.

In November 1937, Burnham’s doubts began to jell. He expressed disagreement with the Trotskyist appraisal of the character of the Soviet Union. Every seasoned revolutionist immediately wrote this down as a qualitative change in Burnham’s development. Not that they believed the Soviet Union cannot or doesn’t change and doesn’t merit constant re-examination, but because Marxist analysis shows it to be a workers’ state – no matter how degenerated – so long as planned economy and the state monopoly of the instruments of production remain. To deny this is to deny the validity of Marxism. Since 1917, doubts on the character of the workers’ state in the absence of destruction of its economic base have registered on the Geiger counter of political radio-activity as dangerous contamination!

The dual character of the bureaucracy – reactionary and progressive – has now ended [wrote Burnham and Carter]. The bureaucracy, taking its actions as a whole, now junctions solely as a reactionary force ... these considerations make it impossible any longer to regard the Soviet Union as a workers’ State in the traditional sense given to this term by Marxism. (Emphasis by Burnham and Carter.)

Trotsky formulated his views on the USSR at that time succinctly as follows:

Stalin overthrown by the workers – that’s a great step forward towards socialism. Stalin crushed by the imperialists – that’s the counter-revolution triumphant. That is the precise sense of our defense of the USSR. On a world scale, analogous, from the point of view, to that of our defense of democracy on a national scale.

Burnham’s formula, it will be observed, ruled out the basic elements of contradiction seen by Trotsky, the materialist dialectician. Burnham, without adding anything new to previous information or analysis of the state character of the USSR, put the bureaucracy in one pigeon-hole under the label: “Reaction” equals “Reaction.” Thus he filled the abstract category in accordance with the pattern guiding his thinking that says “A” equals “A.” And he put the Soviet Union in another pigeon-hole under the label: “A Workers’ State,” does not equal “Not-A-Workers’ State,” in accordance with the specification in his mental blueprint that says “A” does not equal “not-A.”

Soothing as such a gray classification of black and white might be to nerves in the campus circles where Burnham felt at home, it destroyed the possibility of correctly interpreting developments affecting the Soviet Union and of adequately solving the political problems arising from those developments.

At that time Burnham made no public attempt to analyze the character of the Soviet Union, and he still continued to advocate its defense against imperialist attack. Though he had reached dangerous disagreement with Marxism on the class character of the Soviet Union, he still did not contest the political conclusions of the Trotskyist movement.

This, however, was a highly unstable position. The lack of consistency lay on Burnham’s side. Given his strong compulsion to act on the conclusions of his method, it was only a question of time until he arrived at political opinions in complete opposition to those he still clung to. If he continued to accumulate conviction on the correctness of his sociological analysis of the Soviet Union, a qualitative change was bound to occur in his political views. Such a course seemed quite likely, for Burnham lived his emotional life in petty bourgeois circles, subject to all the pressures of that unhealthy environment.

In 1939 when the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed and World War II broke out, Burnham began moving. Rejecting defense of the Soviet Union, he ran up the flag of revolt against Marxism. The debate that followed has become historic. Leon Trotsky led the majority of the Socialist Workers Party in defense of dialectical materialism, its application to the class analysis of the state and to the principles of party organization. Burnham headed the minority in a bitter attack on these foundations of the Trotskyist movement.

Burnham presented no original views whatsoever on the theoretical field. He simply repeated the contentions of Max Eastman and Sydney Hook that dialectical materialism is a vestige of religion in Marxism, deriving from Hegelian metaphysics, that should be abandoned in favor of a “common sense” approach.

Defeated in convention, the minority split and set up the rival Workers Party. Burnham, however, had caught his train and saw no reason for wasting time at a whistle stop. Continuing along the road indicated by his logical method, he split from the petty bourgeois group he had led out of the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party. Obviously he was on his way toward the camp of the big bourgeoisie.

To Marxists it was clear what had led to this particular qualitative change in Burnham’s political position at this particular time. The state power of the capitalist class reached its highest peak with the outbreak of war. The masses were temporarily disoriented and confused by the war, its outpouring of propaganda and disruption of normal life. The trade union bureaucracy further disoriented the workers, joining in pounding the war drums and insisting on “sacrifices” by the workers. At the same time the capitalists brought the full weight of government power to suppress isolated actions of workers dissatisfied over such items as the “no strike” pledge and “equality of sacrifice” where only the workers sacrificed.

The imprint of Burnham’s stay in the Marxist movement was still visible for a time, although purely in a negative way. [2] The capitalist class remained unsatisfactory to the newly-hatched renegade and its demonstration of political power too weak to overcome the tag ends of his former antipathy. Thus in his book The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, he declared:

Modern total war is not profitable for capitalism, and consequently capitalism cannot adequately fight it ... Nor can arming (not merely the building of armaments, but their coordinated use) be adequately done under capitalist institutions. Adequate arming – that is, adequate, for the tasks imposed, against rival arming – also is no longer profitable to capitalism. This, as I have noted, has been shown by the examples of France and England, who were not able to arm adequately – though they certainly realized what was at stake – under their capitalist institutions. It is being discovered by the United States during the course of the experiences of the Second World War. The armament program. just doesn’t seem to get going properly. (Burnham’s emphasis.)

This flawless gem of analysis is a typical product from Burnham’s logical workshop. The professor simply did not observe that the American capitalists had not yet finished converting over to war production and expanding the industrial plant. After completing this preliminary operation, they didn’t do badly – above all in their balance sheet on profits.

Trotsky, using the dialectic method, predicted in 1934, a full 7 years before Burnham’s book appeared: “History is taking mankind directly into the volcanic eruption of American imperialism.” Trotsky, it can be seen today, didn’t do so badly with this prediction. His method stood the test of time.

Although he had rejected Marxism, Burnham did not as yet appear capable of acknowledging to himself that what he was really hunting for was Wall Street’s apron strings. And so he constructed the elaborate rationalization I have already mentioned. According to him, a new class was surging toward power throughout the world – the “managerial class.” They had already conquered power in Germany, Italy and Russia, where this new class was variously known as Nazis, Fascists and Communists.

In the United States the new class was surging forward too. In fact the New Deal spearheaded its rise. In accordance with this analysis, Burnham predicted that – another gem! – “The further development of , the war preparations, the economic world conflicts, and the wars, will prove in practice that success in none of them can be won along capitalist lines. When that proof is plain enough, the country will go over to definitive managerial revolution.”

The thought of a new class hitherto undreamed and unexpected was by no means original with Burnham. He simply picked up ideas already refuted by the Marxists, Trotsky in particular, and pasted them together like a house of cardboard. Events immediately flattened the flimsy construction. It turned out for instance that Hitler and Stalin had not united in 1939 in a pact – this is straight from Burnham’s crystal ball – to “drive death wounds into capitalism.” The attack of German capitalism on the Soviet Union shattered that prediction.

Today Burnham apparently feels that his unfortunate earlier book, managers, predictions and all does not deserve more than a non-committal two-line footnote. In this instance we must admit Burnham showed good judgment. That is all the theory of the managerial revolution ever deserved.

During the war, as tens of millions fell on the battlefields, Burnham took up the cult of “Machiavellianism.” Leading a comfortable sheep’s life in the NYU stable, he dreamed of running with the political wolves.

So this sheep donned wolf’s clothing. He imagined himself in the class of Machiavelli, who lived in the hard times of early capitalism and was a soldier and statesman able to endure exile. Burnham drew an undeviating line along the trajectory of capitalist political thinkers from the progressive revolutionary times of Machiavelli when the rising capitalist class sought to free itself from feudal fetters right down to the modern “thinkers” like Pareto and Sorel, who, in the decline of capitalism, helped pave the ideological road for fascism.

Burnham’s concepts and even phrases in this book of 1943 showed astonishing similarity with those of Lawrence Dennis, the self-avowed apostle of native fascism in America. [3]

In 1945 when the victory of the Soviet Union was a fact, Burnham – -dressed in his new Machiavellian clothing – celebrated the event in an unusual way. Instead of analyzing what it was in Soviet economy that enabled the workers’ state to put up unparalleled and successful resistance to the mighty war machine of German imperialism, Burnham wrote a toast to Generalissimo Stalin. He could not see the new economy accounting for itself in the most terrible of tests – war; he saw only the foul dictator sitting in the Kremlin! This, however, is quite characteristic of Burnham, simply indicating how consistently he acts in accordance with the political law that governs the petty bourgeoisie as a class. He hailed Stalin as Lenin’s “heir.”

This is equivalent to hailing Cain as the heir of Abel, the brother he murdered, or hailing Judas Iscariot as the heir of the man he betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. It was, in short, in strict accord with the best Stalinist propaganda.

It would be a mistake, however, to think this indicated Burnham’s readiness to join the Stalinist ranks. His praise of Stalin was not identical with Stalinist propaganda, because it did not have a Kremlin origin and was designed to serve different rulers. It was preparation for a propaganda job for a far mightier power than Moscow – Wall Street. It was preparation for the job Burnham carries out in his latest book – an attempt to smear communism with the filth of Stalinism.

In The Struggle for the World Burnham says admiringly, “The Stalinist method has always been to try, as far as possible, to swim with the tide, never directly counter to it, but always to keep on top of the water, not to be dragged under.” Burnham saw the “tide” flowing in Wall Street’s direction and applied the “Stalinist method” according to his own logic, and his own social outlook and personal welfare.

When Wall Street laid its aces on the table at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Burnham proved, contrary to the assertion of the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, that “you can go home again.” He went whole hog for Wall Street, including its projected World War III. “This book has made its point of departure the problem of atomic weapons ... the nations are morally prepared for war of extermination ...”

Again Burnham presents nothing new. His latest prophets are Arnold J. Toynbee and Sir Halford Mackinder. Mackinder was the British “geopolitician” whose writings became popular among the Nazis. Toynbee is an English historian who started out during the depression of the Thirties to repeat in England the feat of Oswald Spengler in Germany a decade before. Toynbee heaped together a great mass of historical facts in a pattern designed to appeal to the depression-haunted petty bourgeoisie and give them a plausible historical explanation of the social crisis, other than the Marxist one, and a program, other than the program of Marxism, to end it. Interestingly enough, an abridgment of Toynbee’s interminable volumes has just been published in America coincident with the publication of Burnham’s book and coincident with the warning signs of the looming post-war depression. Burnham has undertaken to be the American high-priest of the Toynbee-geopolitical cult.

Thus our professor has made a full turn of the political wheel. The man who denied that theory had anything to do with practice in politics showed in practice how decisively politics is really determined by theory. He gravitated toward communism when the political power of capitalism waned in the depression of the Thirties; he returned to Wall Street when it flared up in the flames of World War II. He began his political career considering communism a great ideal, worth advancing with his talents; and has ended up damning it an illusion, a view that can advance a man with his talents high on Wall Street’s payroll. He began his political career on the side of the. workers and moved into the intellectual circle of the greatest thinker of our time; but after rejecting the method used by Leon Trotsky, he moved into the camp of the capitalists and finds himself now in the intellectual company of Rankin. He started out as a champion of the socialist society that will guarantee enduring peace for the entire world; and he ended up as a defender of capitalist exploitation and pillage, advocating another war that might exterminate mankind. He accused the Trotskyists of acting as “a left cover for Hitler” because they defended the Soviet Union while Stalin had a pact with Hitler; he ended up praising Stalin and himself fostering a fascist-like doctrine.

Thus everything turned into its opposite. The defender of democratic rights became a red-baiter; the man of good will a misanthrope, and the cool-headed logician a mental incompetent drunk with Wall Street’s power.

Above all, Burnham demonstrated the worthlessness of his primitive system of logic as a tool in analyzing his own complex evolution. In him warring tendencies were combined, the attraction of the working class against the pull of Big Business. This is easily handled in the logic of dialectical materialism as a concrete illustration of the “interpenetration of opposites.”

In Burnham this contradiction passed through two major qualitative changes. First his entry into the camp of the working class in response to the accumulation of doubts about Wall Street’s capacity to survive; second, back into the camp of Big Business in response to the accumulation of doubts about the ability of the working class to take power. This too is easily handled by dialectic logic as an illustration of how “quantity changes into quality.”

Finally, Burnham’s personal evolution goes a long way toward providing us with an illustration of the “negation of the negation.” At the outset, the implicit tendency toward socialism of the young believer in capitalism became explicit: and a socialist propagandist emerged. Then the implicit tendency of this particular socialist propagandist to undergo another metamorphosis became explicit – and a brazen propagandist of unbridled reaction emerged. Should native fascism gain strength in America, Burnham might well continue his present course, thus presenting us with a finished, home-grown case of political evolution of a type common enough, we repeat, in the political cesspools of Europe.

In 1940 Trotsky observed:

“Burnham doesn’t recognize dialectics but dialectics does not permit him to escape its net. He is caught as a fly in a web.”

Burnham’s course since 1940 has only served to confirm still further the correctness of that judgment.



1. Reviewed in our June 1947 issue.

2. The Workers Party on the other hand revealed positive traces of Burnham’s influence. Burnham’s fructifying association with the leaders of the Workers Party resulted in the birth of an unexpected theory about a “new” class in history hitherto “unforeseen.” This offspring of the union with Burnham was named “bureaucratic collectivism.” Burnham held that this new class was sprouting up throughout the world – German Nazis, Italian fascists, Kremlin bureaucrats, and American New Dealers. But the leaders of the Workers Party confined the new “class” to the front yard of only one country, the USSR. Lately the Workers Party officialdom has permitted this new class to climb fences into Eastern Europe and, according to some reports, even into America in the form of the Communist (Stalinist) Party.

3. See my review of The Machiavellians in the October 1943 Fourth International.


Last updated on: 22.2.2006