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New International, October 1947


Jack Weber

James Burnham, A Modern Cato

Portrait of an Irresponsible


From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 8, October 1947, pp. 234–241.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Burnham has assumed the toga of a modern Cato. There is no time to be lost. Communism must be destroyed! The world’s at stake. Awake, America! Delay may be fatal. The Third World War has already begun in Greece and Burnham is filled with anxiety lest the rulers of the United States may be unaware of this fact. True, it is not yet the full-blown shootin’ war, but that is inevitable in any case. Since that is so, wouldn’t it be better for this country to choose the opportune time for itself rather than to give any advantage to Russia? The war is so imminent indeed that Burnham actually wonders whether his book (The Struggle for the World) will not appear after it has already broken out full scale.

Perhaps there will still be enough time for us to appraise the values underlying Burnham’s choice of the lesser evil of victory through mild United States use of the atomic bomb monopoly. The “objective” and “amoral” Burnham of the Managerial Revolution has given way to one who supports democratic America to be the master of the world rather than its only rival, Stalin’s Russia. Time was, and not so long ago either despite the jet-speed of the modern tempo, when James Burnham interpreted all modern history as posing acutely the question: communism or capitalism? His choice then was for communism, despite the fact that he claimed reservations concerning the validity of Marxist thought. Today he implies by his characterization of his former comrades that he was temporarily “psychotic” when he supported Trotskyism. What was it that forced him to his senses and cleared his vision so that it saw the truth exactly 180 degrees around? Was it history that makes him now cast his lot so urgently with “democratic capitalism” as against “communism”?

Professor Burnham is nothing if not logical. Has he not studied and written about logic and philosophy for these many years? His writing breathes with the assurance of utmost, even brutal, clarity. He sweeps aside with impatience the mist of illusion, the fuzz of Utopianism. Like a true Realpolitician, he cuts directly to the essence of every question. Strange, is it not, that for so good a mind there should be no principles worth the mentionl He is a worshipper of the syllogism and models his writing on the positing of major premise, minor premise and conclusion. It seems almost superfluous to mention that with each new issuance of his “independent” thinking, he finds it necessary to change his premises, both major and minor. The clarity of the thinking as logical thought remains, it must be said. All that is lacking is real conviction.

The Professor broke with Marxism to write his new ideas in The Managerial Revolution. This work showed a man who had declined to use any compass. Burnham thought he was studying history “objectively,” without any preconceptions, ‘beginning entirely anew. He disowned all responsibility for what he found ... “this book contains no program and no morality.” He based himself on immediate experience – so he thought – and predicted the future from the situation of the “moment.” Nazism was dazzlingly successful for the time being and Burnham objectively projected this success into the near and even distant future. He laid down “logically” all the “teal” possibilities for the world – either capitalism or socialism or the managerial revolution. He proved conclusively – for himself – that, like it or not, the wave of the future was foreshadowed by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and some New Deal equivalent, all smoothing the way for the managerial society. The war would end with the triumph of the most advanced managerial states. Europe would be ruled by Germany, Asia by Japan, America by the United States. Russia and the British Empire would be divided up among these new super-states. Naturally the super-states would soon come into conflict with each other. “Everywhere men will have to line up with one or the other of the super-states of tomorrow.”

What does the new anti-Marxist Burnham make of history? It is not difficult to show that without any program and without any “morality,” one can become only a cynic, and we find Burnham coming to the defense of cynicism. History becomes a chaotic, meaningless welter of events. Politics becomes a struggle for power in the crudest and most barbaric sense. “The principles of political struggle are identical with those of military struggle.” That is, the struggle is at all times utterly ruthless. A real science of politics, tracing the complex stream of events to basic material causes (and science can do nothing else), becomes impossible to this kind of “objective” historian.

“Tragedy and comedy occur only within the human situation. There is no background against which to judge the human situation as a whole. It is merely what it happens to be.”

The present Burnham has clearly emerged from this scientific indifference, standing above the battle as a mere observer.

Once bitten, twice careful! Burnham felt that he had been tricked by his idealism when he joined the socialist movement He had placed his faith in the masses and they had betrayed him. The proletariat was obviously incapable of taking power and holding it; it could not make the kind of revolution visioned by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Burnham started by saying that the working class would not take power in his time. He ended by saying that they had proved themselves incapable of ruling and above all “administering” at any time. They obviously lacked the necessary technical knowledge and the specialized skill demanded by the complexities of modern society. Away then, with all illusions, away with all myths! Cynicism permits one to rise superior to false idealism.

“The communist myth, or a complex of myths, is a special source of great strength for the communist movement ... It expresses in secular form the great Dream of a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. As a compensation for those who are weary and careworn, or an ideal for those who are aspiring, it permits that seductive leap from a reality which is not, and can never be, to our taste, into the vision of a Utopian society where all men are free and equal and good, where exploitation and war and hunger and wretchedness have vanished, and all mankind is linked together in a universal brotherhood. According to the manner of all hallucinations, this dream is mistaken for objective reality: the dream is taken to be the guiding law of the very process of history, necessary, inevitable destiny.”

Burnham’s Theoretical Methodology

This is the myth which Stalinism utilizes to gain fanatic adherents all over the world, according to Burnham. The real thing is something else again. The Professor states what he is fighting:

“On the basis of the full evidence, communism may be summarily defined as a world-wide conspiratorial movement for the conquest of a monopoly of power in the era of capitalist decline. Politically it is based on terror and mass deception; economically, it is, or at least tends to be, collectivist; socially it is totalitarian.”

A footnote tells us that this definition could also apply to fascism, the two systems not being very far apart. In this “summary” definition, Burnham shows how he awakened from his dream and became a “realist,” of the cynical variety, of course.

It is not good to stand nakedly alone in this big world. One always seeks the comfort of like-mindedness in others, past or present. Burnham reveals this human weakness like everyone else. Having turned away from Marx, he found himself in search of better thinkers, non-Utopian and more hardened and inured to a bleak, chaotic world. He turned inevitably to the neo-Machiavellians who expressed to the letter his disgust with the dumb masses. There it was – the very first point laid down by Michels, Mosca, Pareto. It is inevitable, human nature being what it is and the organization of society the complexity that it is, that there shall always and forever be rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited. Can there, under the circumstances, be a real science of politics and history? Burnham answers yes, of a sort. “Historical and political science is above all the study of the elite, its composition, its structure, and the mode of its relation to the non-elite.” The masses, just as they are beneath the ruling class, are also beneath history.

The Burnhams are vaguely disconcerted by the admission they are forced to make the moment they discard Marxism. They attack its monism, its complex interrelations between economics and politics, between politics and sociology, between the mode of production and the nature of classes that afford in turn the dialectic materialist conception of history and the class struggle content of history. One will discard Marxist economics but accept the sociology, another will accept the economics but discard the rest. Burnham, in company with all the social democratic revisionists of every shade, accepts the materialist conception as one of the important factors in history, as one single fruitful concept of Marx and Engels, but as only one factor among the pluralistic many. These types always dip their fingers into Marx for tidbits to adorn their writings. But reject Marxism as they will as a science of society, they cannot deny that it has all the forms of a science. And lo and beholdl They find no alternative to take its place. Without Marxism there is no science. What, for example, does Burnham propose? He wants to begin at the beginning again. We must start patiently with the gathering of data from which to make generalizations and to arrive at laws. The science of society falls back into infancy. All that we can do is to describe what takes place. Strange that in this infancy Burnham is able to posit the inevitability (he falsely attributes this term to Marx and then proceeds to attack Marxism for its use, but finds nothing strange in using it himself while covering it under the guise of “empiricism”) of managerial society, the wave of the future. Burnham continually makes genuflections before the “facts,” especially the very latest ones, as though these outweigh all the rest of history. It never seems to occur to him that Marx and Engels devoted themselves to a vast range of historic facts and to the most meticulous surgery of the anatomy of society before they arrived at their conclusion.

Marx, incidentally, had a proper appreciation of Machiavelli as a thinker; but Marx placed him properly as a forerunner whose horizon was necessarily limited to the early beginnings of capitalism, even to the period of the rise of nations. Burnham, rejecting Marxism, has to go back for inspiration to Machiavelli and to those who continue on the sole basis of his thought in the modern period. It is the acceptance of the Machiavellian “theory” that leads Burnham to conclude that the next stage in history must yield the managerial society. All history of the past shows that there are rulers and ruled, that the power of the rulers is embodied in the state, which is nothing but organized force and fraud. (History is the study of organized force and fraud). Ergo: there will always be what has always been, rulers (an elite) and ruled, exploiters and exploited. Hence Burnham looks carefully around to see what the next type of rulers will be like, and he finds them among the “managers.” His “awe” before the managers is typical of intellectuals who have never been inside a factory, do not know its organization and how it runs in reality, and attribute truly magical powers to the administrators at the top. The true nature of the social cooperation involved in modern industry evades him, and that includes the “planning” which Burnham attributes, entirely erroneously, to the tops alone. In any case, Burnham was being perfectly “objective,” in his own view, when, he predicted the new managerial “social” revolution. He did not even take sides, he merely observed; it was not a question of desire or morality, it was a question of inexorable fact. All forms of government” were undergoing the same inner changes, the tempo alone varying. The administrative “letter” bodies used by Roosevelt under the New Deal were interpreted as the counterpart of Hitler’s corporate state and Stalin’s planning commissions. Burnham predicted boldly that these war measures of the New Deal would become permanent aspects of American life. Never again would there be a return to “free enterprise.” Possibly Burnham considers it a mistake on the part of the American rulers (are they bourgeois or managerial?) to have dissolved these bodies. Let it be again emphasized that Burnham disowned all responsibility or preference for what was happening; he was a mere reporter recording without prejudice objective truth.

This great lover of truth has, however, a singular way of presenting those elements of Marxism which he chooses to discuss. There is, for example, his handling of “ideology.” Marx made it crystal clear that an ideology is the real expression, conscious and unconscious, of a class point of view. Burnham presents the idea correctly in a sentence or two and then proceeds to do Machiavellian violence to it. He. treats ideology as though it were merely and identically demagogy. The ideology of capitalism in its historic rise equated liberty and freedom for the capitalist class abstractly with that of all humanity. But it did so whole-heartedly and in good faith, not as sheer demagogy, for it believed in its progressive social role, believed that it truly represented the basic interests of society, that the new class was ordained to usher into being through social revolution a new and better social organism. The ideology of the bourgeoisie was, in fact, progressive in its day. It was for that very good reason, its truly progressive nature, that it appealed to the European masses. The invading armies of Napoleon found a welcome as liberators in the countries brought under his subjection. True, this changed with the rise of nationalism, but Napoleon brought with him the social revolution for which these countries were ripe. That is why the armies of Napoleon spread the new ideology everywhere.

It Is Not Even a Good Fable

Burnham, evading completely the small question of progressive nature and awareness of the masses, actually draws an analogy between Napoleon and Hitler. So sure was he that Hitler would win the victory that he predicted that fascist “ideology” (which he identifies with “managerial” ideology) would also find a welcome in the conquered lands. The managerial revolution would be exported just as had been the capitalist social revolution. What a perfect travesty! Where was Hitler welcomed and by whom? Did the masses sabotage their own rulers and come to his aid? What about the awareness of Hitler’s racial theories? Could that be exported? What then did the resistance movements mean? Burnham is hard put to it to explain the bitter hatred between Russia and Germany, and why the capitalists preferred a German victory and the workers a Russian. The capitalists just did not know their own true interests. What serious class did not know its interests when the question was a matter of life and death historically? Burnham’s treatment of ideology is the worst kind of caricature of Marx.

Not only has he lost every sense of direction in history, he even reduces it to a form of fable. It is as though the fox involves the cat and the monkey in a quarrel, himself standing aloof in order to run off with the prize while they are busily engaged fighting each other. The workers, mobilized under the ideology of socialism (a Utopian ideology which can only benefit the managers in the end), will fight the capitalists, but neither of these classes will carry off the spoils. The managers will be the only victors in this struggle. These managers, it seems, can resort to any number of “ideologies.” They can use the fascist variety, or the socialist, or the New Deal. It’s all one in the end, Burnham assures us. Where the analogy then with capitalist ideology? The capitalists placed themselves at the head of the masses in the war against feudal society. True enough, the masses did the fighting. Burnham is forced to concede that the managers themselves, this new rising .class, do not know their own interests and do not accept the managerial ideology which yet will bring them to power. They scoff at it, in fact, since they maintain a firm belief in capitalism. And why not? They are surely among those who benefit most from the present system. Remember that Burnham excludes those lower technicians whose knowledge and skill are necessary to the functioning of the entire capitalist technology, from the class of managers (although they, far more than his so-called “managers,” have every reason to be discontented with their lot of exploitation). The identification of ideology with demagogy is implicit in Bumham’s remark on technocracy. He says:

“As a matter of fact, technocracy’s failure to gain a wide response can be attributed to the too-plain and open way in which it expresses the perspective of managerial society.”

Nobody could have expressed in a “plain and open” way the perspective of capitalist society with its exploitation before it overthrew feudalism and flowered into its later development. Its ideologists looked upon it as unlocking the gates to real freedom, not to a new method of exploitation. Yet, when it comes to the managers, they are aware of their real role as exploiters, and sometimes they express it too openly and plainly! Burnham is similarly aware of the truth and writes about it. The awareness of the masses, it seems, plays no role whatsoever.

Why, the Burnham concept does not even make a good fable. He has the managers even opposing the revolution which nevertheless will hand the power over to them. They fight on the side of the capitalists against the workers. Strange alliance! They enlist the aid of the capitalists against themselves. It is the workers and the middle class who help overthrow capitalism and then they hand back the power to one pan of their opponents. Thus Burnham positively tortures ideology and makes it into mumbo-jumbo. Please refrain from calling this science, even in its infancy.

Burnham is nothing if not a realist, he keeps insisting. Yet there is not one single iota of scientific observation in any of his work, although there is plenty of talk about such observation. He treats reality “summarily,” by logical deposition or acceptance, which means mechanistically and metaphysically. He warns against accepting documents and statements of political leaders at face value. He then proceeds to do precisely that, and in the worst instances of all. He swallows where it is essential to examine, regurgitate and reject. Hitler fulminates against “monopoly capitalism.” Hence he is against such capitalism even though he relies completely on it for support. The fascists maintain that they have established a system wherein wages, prices and production are all under rigid regulation and control. Burnham not once attempts to gauge the truth of these assumptions and assertions. He accepts Hitler’s word for it all.

Burnham criticizes Marxian economics. Yet he has not even reached the stage of understanding bourgeois – good bourgeois! – economics, let alone Marxist thought in this field.

Even Ricardo is a closed book to him. Here is a gem from Burnham’s “logical” wisdom:

“In capitalist economy, preferential income distribution to the capitalists takes place through the fact that the owners of the instruments of production retain the ownership rights in the products of those instruments. Since these products can be sold on the market at a price higher than the cost of the labor that goes into them, there is a surplus, and a large surplus, for the distribution on the basis of claims other than those for wage payments.”

Shades of Ricardo and Marx! Their work was all in vain; their attempts to determine the nature of prices and profits never reached to the heights of the Burnham intellect. Burnham repeats here all that not only Marx, but even some of the best bourgeois economists, attacked as completely “vulgar” economy. No wonder Burnham thinks that the “managers” can just about do as they like with economy. As a matter of “fact,” the capitalists are already doing as they like according to Burnham’s economy. Alas! Not only is social science in its infancy, but economic science as well, so far as Burnham is concerned. How can one expect Burnham to examine critically Russian economy or fascist economy when he fails to understand the very economy under which he is living?

Perhaps Burnham’s condensed economic statement was a mere lapse in language concerning the law of value. But evidently it is not, from the treatment given German economy under Hitler and Russian economy under state ownership. It seems that Stalin, too, has escaped completely from the yoke of the capitalist law of value. Burnham tells us:

“With the help of centralized state direction, managed currency, state foreign trade monopoly, compulsory labor, and prices and wages controlled independently of any free market competition, branches of the economy or the whole economy can be directed toward aims other than profit.”

This same idea led Bukharin in his day to say that Russia could go forward toward the building of socialism even at a snail’s pace. It was Stalin’s view also when he planned arbitrarily and manipulated the currency to help his form of planning until he found Russian economy running headlong into inflation. But one need not look to Burnham to give any concrete analyses of the twists and turns of Russian economy and the economic reasons for them. His lofty viewpoint avoids all troublesome details for the larger things. Economics, besides, is after all only one of the factors determining history.

Burnham likes to set down precepts only in order to violate them. He tells us over and over again that theories must give way to facts where the facts contradict them. Then he proceeds to do violence to actuality in order to force it into the Machiavellian theory that social revolution is merely a rapid shift in the nature of the ruling class.

“There occur periodically rapid shifts in the composition and structure of elites: that is social revolution.”

This theory in mind, Burnham tells us that the Russian Revolution had nothing whatsoever to do with socialism. All the socialist talk was merely in order to enlist the aid of the masses to accomplish the purposes of a clever new elite. This generalization is then forced on the facts. Revolution and counter-revolution become mere necessary parts of the same process, the one “growing” into the other. Bolshevism and Stalinism become identical since they represent mere stages in an inevitable development. How simple this makes the writer’s task! He need analyze nothing. Is the motion forward or backward, progressive or retrogressive? Has there been any essential change between 1921 and 1931? Not at all. Motion is – motion! One thing develops into

the other, that is all. An extra bit of slander of Lenin does no harm. Burnham tears a quotation or two out of Lenin to show that Stalin merely carried through the ideas already to be found in Bolshevism.

The Man as “Scientist”

Just as Burnham accepted Hitler’s “thousand years,” he again accepts Stalin at his own evaluation as the continuator of Lenin. Burnham does not believe for one moment that socialism exists in Russia. Quite the contrary, he thinks that Stalinism represents one form, the totalitarian form, of managerial society. Why, then, does he insist on speaking of Russian society as “communist” society? He calls communism a world-wide conspiracy for the seizure of power by the totalitarian Stalinists. This fast-and-loose, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t language can appeal only to prejudices, not to “objectivity.” We shall show presently that Burnham believes, or more properly hopes, that managerial society can be arrived at by different paths, in particular the “communist” or Stalinist path, and the anti-communist or American path. He finds that the path is everything, that it is better to travel the more gentle American way even though the end will be the same. We must coin for him a new term, the “Managerial Revisionist.”

Burnham himself once replied to those who would identify revolution with counter-revolution, Leninism with Stalinism. It would be both dreary and thankless to quote the one Burnham against the other. His present standpoint permits him to sum up the struggle between Trotskyism and Stalinism in the following enlightening fashion:

“The principal issue between them (Trotsky and Stalin) was a purely tactical problem. What percentage of communist resources and energies should be assigned directly to the Russian fortress, and what to operations in the still unconquered sections of the earth?”

This purely tactical problem apparently explains Stalin’s wiping out of the whole generation of Bolsheviks, his establishing for this purpose and for the purpose of maintaining himself in power of a GPU totalitarian regime which covers all Russia with concentration camps. Does Burnham really believe that his triviality explains adequately the profound process of decay that took place in Russia? Does he hope that this establishes him as the true scientist as against Trotsky with his minute and painstaking studies of every phase of Stalinism, and his Marxist explanation of what would otherwise have been the most fantastic of all phenomena? This is no argument ad hominem. One has only to read. Burnham, to repeat, has not dared to attempt one bit of concrete analysis of Bolshevism and Stalinism in their political histories. He repeats with that great chorus of detractors of Bolshevism: Stalinism issued forth from the loins of Leninism. That is the sum and substance of his argumentation.

Let us take his own “science” and apply it here. Hitler in similar fashion issued forth from the Weimar Republic and yet Burnham finds it necessary to distinguish the first as the founder of managerial society, the second as the old bourgeois society. He tells us that this is because there was a rapid change of elite under Hitler. And also, no doubt, many changes in policy. Does Burnham perhaps not know that there was far less of a change of elite under Hitler than under Stalin? Hitler, as a matter of fact, prevented the rapid change of elite that would have come with the victory of the proletariat. The suppressions were not of the bourgeois ruling class, but of the working class leaders most of whom had never been in power at all, or for a relatively short time under Weimar.

If Burnham cares to examine, entirely on his own premises, the rapidity of change of personnel (actually he confines himself to the politician spokesmen of the rulers) of the elite in the two regimes, Hitler’s and Stalin’s, we shall be happy to. assist him. The evidence would then be overwhelming that a “social revolution” à la Burnham took place under the leadership of Stalin as against the regime established by Lenin. And this “social revolution” was far more drastic under Stalin than under Hitler. But Burnham could make of this what he likes – perhaps the change from a “first stage” to a “second stage” of the managerial revolution. For our part, we do not lack a sense of direction. We recognize counter-revolution when we see it.

The latest Burnham (we hasten to say we mean the one revealed in the Struggle for the World, since the Burnhams change so rapidly) differs materially from the preceding one. The older one was all for “objectivity” and had neither program nor morality; that is, he took no side despite the fact that he apportioned the uncertain victory to the wrong side. Now we note a decided shift. From being the aloof scientist, Burnham becomes the ardent and alarmed advocate of a program. The program is most urgent. Whence this shift? And what is the basis of the choice of the lesser evil that he makes? We tread here on rather delicate ground. If Burnham prefers one set of means to another, he gives us no key as to the ends these means are to serve. All he gives is a “minimum” program to solve the world crisis, at least temporarily.

“This bare minimum (of offense and defense) is enough to solve the immediate world political crisis. It is enough, that is, to permit civilization to continue at least through the next historical period. It is very far from enough to solve society’s more enduring problems, or to guarantee a world at all in accord with our wishes. These larger problems are not part of the subject matter of this book, which is confined to the political analysis of the present crisis. Beyond the minimum, the questions are left entirely open, and they are, in fact, open. To solve the problem of the present crisis is no more than the pre-condition for the solution of the larger problems. But without the pre-condition, there will be no further problems, much less their solution.”

We are left breathlessly awaiting Burnham’s analysis of the larger problems and his solution for them. All that he reveals right now is that the pre-condition for the survival of civilization is the supremacy on a world scale of United States power. Nor will we be able to judge the adaptability of means to ends, since, we do not know these ends.

For Real Realism

Burnham motivates his new role as “adviser ex officio” of American imperialism by choosing the uncertain for the certain. If all society is now moving in the direction of managerial exploitation, in place of capitalism, his preference for the American, type could hardly be based on “science.” His previous work showed fascism and Stalinism as the prototypes of managerial society. The superiority of Hitler’s regime from the military standpoint (the only one that counted in war, Burnham told us) was traced precisely to its totalitarian nature. The democracies didn’t have a chance unless they followed suit and transformed themselves into managerial societies. Burnham saw precisely this happening. Now we have the new approach which we may designate as Managerial Revisionism. The United States need not establish a strictly totalitarian regime in passing over to the stage of managerial society.

“It is even possible that the United States could accomplish the transition to managerial society in a comparatively democratic fashion.”

Burnham projects, somewhat more dubiously to be sure, the idea that the world empire under American hegemony, need not be maintained under an iron heel. Of course Burnham does not care to take any responsibility in this sphere. He tells us:

“Without reference to the question of whether it ought to be done, or will be done, I shall describe what could be done.”

To this is Burnham’s science reduced, to rationalizing of the most childish sort. To whom is he appealing? He wants the more “scientific” and enlightened section of the ruling class to steer a course which will conserve as much liberty and democracy as possible. Of course, democracy itself is a mere fraud and a veneer covering the rule of the exploiter but it does have a certain relative worth to the masses – and to Burnham. The new Burnham even answers the older one:

“The argument that a free structure of society is not so strong externally as a despotic structure and therefore must be given up in an era of wars and revolutions, seems to me unproved, and not a little suspicious.”

Democracy, after all, does permit the chance for creative forces to develop; it permits criticisms of serious mistakes, etc. It was the United States, history demonstrated, that did bring the atomic bomb to completion.

But if Burnham tries to win over whoever it is he is trying to win over to a democratic course in the transition to managerial society, surely he has the most curious advice to offer concerning the very first step on this road. He calls for the immediate and most ruthless suppression of the “communists” in this country. He is sure that with the right measures – concentration camps – they will stay suppressed. He is aware that this is somewhat dangerous to the maintenance of a democratic course, but we must take our chances on that. What is truly hilarious is the motivation this Machiavellian gives for such suppression. The communists are violating the “rules of the game.”

“The principles of an organized society cannot be interpreted in practice in such a way as to make organized society impossible.”

The rules of the game! Rules that Burnham tells us again and again have been set by the ruling elite entirely for its own benefit and with not the slightest or at most a protective minimum of concern for the masses. The rules of force and fraud! Burnham cannot possibly pretend that he doesn’t know that this argument has been the stand-by of every single reactionary at every stage of history. It is the old resort to “law and order,” not even in a new garb. It becomes clear that Burnham thinks these rules socially necessary. If revolutionary changes will not come slowly according to revisionist blueprint, Burnham shows himself willing to suppress the revolution. We speak, mind you, of his own “revolution,” the managerial revolution, not ours. Burnham has given us a “science” of Machiavellianism. There is no reason why we should not apply it to himself. He wants the ruling class to stop short with the suppression of the Stalinists, but he admits that this is most unlikely. Whoever says A will have to say B. Those who oppose the suppression of the Stalinists, not because of any political support, but because of understanding of the spreading social effects of suppression of any one group to all other opposition groups, will find themselves next oh the list. The action with which Burnham would resolve his dilemma is all-revealing. One takes note that his appeal for the retaining of some measure of liberty is made not to the masses but to a section of the ruling class.

What is the real basis of Burnham’s choice? In principle he has given no reason that is acceptable. There was a moment in the past when Burnham picked out a sentence from the writing of Trotsky which considered the possible hypothesis that fascism might perhaps be the first stage in the decay of civilization. If the proletarian revolution failed to occur, then civilization might be doomed to disappear and give way to some new form of barbarism. Burnham soon equated this to a certainty, making the advent of fascism inevitable since the proletariat, in his view, was incapable of seizing, power and transforming society. It is unclear whether Burnham still thinks that “managerial society” is a form of decay of civilization. His theories on the future, aside from the superficial abstraction from history that there will always be rulers and ruled, have not been divulged, assuming he has any. His “revisionism,” nothing but a new adaptation of social democratic revisionism, consists in the wish that the new form of society will be brought about slowly and sensibly rather than in revolutionary tempo. There is no “principle” in Burnham’s neo-Machiavellian “science” to warrant any choice between managerial societies. It follows that Burnham’s choice is based completely on factors not revealed in his book, but merely rationalized there in rather transparent style. He tells us that there are times when the fate of the ruling class (that of the United States in this case) involves the fate of all. He would therefore defend the strength and power of his own ruling class, rather than see it replaced by a Russian totalitarian ruling class. This is the same kind of “science” that caused Hegel to defend the absolute monarchy in Germany, Scheidemann and Co. to defend Germany in the First World War, the social democrats in general to defend their own ruling classes in every great crisis.

Burnham regrets that the present situation has developed in the way that it did. He would much have preferred to see Hitler defeat Russia than to have the United States “assigned” this task. This can be surmised in his post-mortem advice to Hitler. Why, oh why, didn’t Hitler offer a political partnership to France? Such magnanimity would have had the most far-reaching effects.

“There were probably elements within Nazism that made it impossible for Hitler to grasp his political chance, but, looking back, we can see what kind of chance it was, and what it would have meant, if it had been taken.”

Too bad he doesn’t expatiate on just what it would have meant. First and foremost it would have meant an alliance against Russia. Burnham would not have had to face the prospect, in case of Stalin’s victory, that:

“Once again the settled peoples of the Plains would bow to the yoke of the erupting nomads of the Steppes.”

Hitler failed so that now Burnham is under the necessity of giving the advice to his own ruling class.

The meaning of Burnham’s interpretation of the Machiavellian theory that there will always be a ruling class, though the exact composition will change, is clear to a Marxist. It is the basis of submission to one’s own ruling class. Why bump one’s head against the stone wall of human nature and inevitable history? We must do the best we can in a bleak world with the ruling class that exists; we must contrive one way or another to get along with it. Burnham has become, along with those “radical” neo-Machiavellians who defend the “truth” first and foremost, the indirect preacher of submission and defeatism. In what real sense is this any different from the function of the church? The real irony is that Burnham builds a theory that the masses are the ones who must, in the nature of things, be ever submissive. He turns his own mind’s thinking outward and places its psychology elsewhere. His “objectivity” is the purest type of subjectivity, for he has given no analysis of reality whatsoever. He never even looked at the masses to determine their awareness, their power of organization, their capabilities. He long ago turned his back on the oppressed and downtrodden, turned his back with many gestures of snobbish contempt. The gesture cannot for one moment hide the fact that the choice of this intellectual is based on completely vulgar self-interest. He lives the life of one of the privileged in the United States. The desire to save the satisfactory way of life reduces itself to the life of Burnham. He will gladly come to the rescue of his ruling class, if that class will only maintain the kind of life to which Burnham has become accustomed. The “harsh,” objective analysis of society that Burnham thought he was making leads finally to nothing but old-style radical reformism. The Machiavellian will placate the ruling class into granting a few “liberties.”

Burnham correctly repeats again and again that he advocates no program and no morality. There is one class in society that has no program of its own: the petty bourgeoisie. At one time it is won over to the working class, when the workers and their leaders show firmness and ability to achieve the proletarian revolution. But in periods of defeat, the middle class moves back into its relationship of submission to the big bourgeoisie. Burnham’s entire course is a perfect illustration of this Marxist wisdom. He has moved from one camp to the other. It took a little time to detach himself entirely from the working class movement. At first he appeared to be suspended in midair, belonging to neither camp, predicting in fact the end of both these camps. (Which would have solved his dilemma). The curve of his movement did not stop, however. He now finds himself advocating the salvation of the American bourgeoisie. He cannot possibly pretend that the United States has become or is rapidly becoming the managerial society. It remains what it always was, monopoly capitalism and imperialism.

Burnham is one of those intellectuals who thinks that he is giving voice to advanced thought, to “independent” ideas. He is against all illusion; yet he is under the greatest of all illusions. He thinks he is leading the way when in actuality he is becoming a camp follower. His appeal to the American ruling class to hasten to seize world rule through its monopoly of the atomic bomb is sheer beating against an open door. He need not fear. American imperialism is aware, of its role and is following its destiny quite firmly. Does Burnham really think that they needed his advice, so urgently given too? It would be a poor ruling class indeed if it required the advice given by the unstable Burnham. Petty bourgeois that he is, he sways from one side to the other. How does Burnham’s science account for his own instability? How does he account for his philosophic “pluralism” being so closely intertwined with political opportunism? Burnham tells us with a wave of the hand:

“The law of dialectic logic is simply that whatever serves the interests of communist power is true.”

No, the first law of dialectics is that things ever change, and that they can move backward as well as forward. That means the recognition of the social direction of motion. There is decline, even decay, as well as advance. Stalinism represents the utter decay of the Russian Revolution. The case of the individual, Burn-ham, also falls under the dialectic law of motion. He took steps in the direction of the working class, that is, in a progressive direction. Then he recoiled (socialism was not for his time) and went back pell-mell to the camp of the bourgeoisie. Being an intellectual, he had to cover his retreat with “ideology.” How, after all, could a Machiavellian admit even to himself that he was exhibiting the same vulgar process of the ordinary person who says to himself that there are exploiters and exploited and that he prefers to be one of the exploiters rather than a slave all his life? The process is that simple and that reactionary. The crusader is not a leader but a follower.

Burnham examines society, not by looking around but with his eyes fixed always in one direction – gazing at the apex of political power. It is almost an obsession with him. The superstructure alone is what counts. The comic result of his investigation is that he winds up with the first law of all conservatism: conserve the power as it is, for any change can only be for the worse. The United States is today the most powerful nation on earth. Let it remain so. Better still: let it extend and consolidate its power.

“The United States has power, greater relative power in the world today than has ever been possessed by any single nation. The United States is complacent in the enjoyment of many of the immediate fruits of that power, in particular the highest living standard there has ever been. The United States is, however, irresponsible in the exercise of its power ... The United States must itself, openly and boldly, bid for political leadership of the world.”

Burnham merely states openly what is in the mind of every imperialist scoundrel. He is concerned, just as they are, that this power will wane with the next great economic crisis which he, like the rest, knows is inevitable.

We can quite agree with Burnham that civilization is gravely menaced. But we can see little choice of any “lesser evil” between the frying pan of Stalinist totalitarianism and the fire of American imperialism. To us these are both the protagonists and the manifestations of inevitable decay. The idea of a “mild” use of the atomic bomb in a preventive war is a defeatist way of saying that since we must suffer the disease let us bring it on faster. It is as meaningful as the saying of the French ruler before the great French Revolution: “After me the deluge!” The real scientists keep assuring Burnham that his idea that the United States can maintain its atomic bomb monopoly for very long is Utopian. If the American ruling class hesitates to take the course prescribed by Burnham, it is because they have not been blinded by their own power. They still see the masses of all the countries, including their own. They still speak with relief of the fact that their policy of “unconditional surrender” actually worked to stave off the working class revolution after the war – at least for the time being. The last war (the First World War) taught them that a socialist revolution is not to be trifled with and deserves respect. They hesitate to disturb the power of Stalin because they recognize his role in channelizing the revolution and preventing a new outbreak. The world is full of uncertainties.

The atomic bomb epitomizes the threat to civilization that exists in the present status quo. It is a far greater menace precisely because of the existence of Stalinism. That bloody totalitarian regime makes not the slightest appeal to intelligent, freedom-loving men and women anywhere. More than ever before it is clear that only the proletarian revolution can save civilization. It alone’ can achieve the form of solidarity from country to country that would enable internationalists to appeal successfully to the masses, to the scientists and idealists to join hands against those who would unleash the third cataclysm, with its atomic bomb destruction. If Burnham proves anything at all, he proves that there is no other way. It is he who would substitute illusion for truth. The problem today is crucial and its solution is concentrated at one point, the problem of, leadership and guidance. The only permanent solution lies in the shifting of power, not the retention of the present power in society. Burnham himself admits that his solution is temporary at best. How temporary? Granted for the sake of argument the momentary success of the “Burnham plan,” it offers not the faintest hope of harnessing the forces of destruction in the future. The problem of harnessing these forces is not a scientific one, in the narrower sense of that word, but a social revolutionary one. That is the real crusade. Burnham’s crusade is a Machiavellian sham.

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Last updated on 24 June 2017