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Irving Howe

Reviewing James Burnham’s Latest Book

A New Theoretician for American Imperialism

(21 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 16, 21 April 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

JAMES BURNHAM writes as though he were – if not God – at least one of His major prophets. The contents of his latest book [1] is so shabby and pedestrian that, were it not for his highly skilled stylistic devices, it would be ignored rather than puffed into a sensation. It is his skill as a journalist – not merely his talent for constructing sentences so smooth that they lull the reader into ignoring the bumpy roads of thought along which they move, but also his ability to manipulate material – which is the key to understanding his prominence as a political writer. I therefore propose to begin this review, perhaps somewhat unconventionally, by discussing his style.

The strategy of a writer like Burnham is to assault his reader, to testify, bewilder, amaze, overawe. It is a strategy similar in its result, although not in method, to that of another skilled but irresponsible journalist, Arthur Koestler. Where Koestler utilizes devices commonly associated with the literary essay or the novel – the brilliant epigram, the startling metaphor – with which to smuggle his feeble ideas into the reader’s consciousness, Burnham scorns impressionism. He revels in his pseudo-scientific approach – what might be called his scientism. He is hard; he is tough; he never succumbs to sentiment or class allegiance or class illusions; he sweeps through history like a bolt out of hell [2]; he is the James M. Cain of politics.

With such a pose Burnham is able to destroy the critical faculties of his reader. A terrifying recital of atomic potentialities in that dead-pan “underwriting” which is the contemporary mode of exaggeration; erudition utilized to quell rather than stir thoughts; nonchalant juggling of states and super-states; gleeful scorn of “sentimentality” in politics which so impresses the sentimental reader; an eruditely evocative reference to the mysterious decline of Minoan civilization couched in the so impressively scientific jargon of the English historian, Toynbee – these are the mechanisms of intellectual intimidation which Burnham utilized. It is a classical example of the bastardization of the terms and concepts of modern thought in order, not to enlighten or even propagandize, but simply to bludgeon.


For what?

Burnham’s political proposals are simple to the point of being threadbare. They are neither more nor less than the concept of “collective security” first concocted by the very Stalinists whom he now abominates and seized upon by the very liberal journals at whom he now sneers. This concept, proposed by the Stalinists as a means of defeating Hitlerism and, now refurbished by Burnham as a means of defeating Stalinism, may be reduced to a simple proposition: the Western democratic capitalist powers must band together, their proletariats and socialist movements must abandon opposition to these powers, in order to defeat “the aggressor.” Version one: the Daily Worker, Max Lerner’s limp prose; version two: the New Leader, James Burnham’s lean prose.

A “Realist” Calls for World Empire

Ostentatiously chortling his “realism” – which is rapidly supplanting patriotism as the first refuge of scoundrels – Burnham bluntly calls for the creation of a World Empire dominated by the United States. This World Empire is to include all the non-communist states – Burnham isn’t a fussy sort: Franco is eligible also – and is to have as its purpose the destruction of “communist” Russia. A policy of get-tough should be buttressed by an international political strategy ruthlessly suppressing all agencies of “communist” Russia and the “international communist movement.” Aggressive political warfare is necessary, not merely tough gestures. Above all, ‘‘we” (exactly who is included in that “we” Burnham, thorough scientist that he is, does not tell us) must maintain the atomic bomb monopoly. While “we” maintain it, “we” must prepare for war with Russia. Perhaps Russia will retreat; if not, there will be war.

That is Burnham’s thesis. All the rest, including the country-store philosophizing about the cycles of civilization and the Toynbeeian tags, is window-dressing to pull in customers.

One question arises immediately: if Burnham’s premises are accepted, why not declare – or better yet, launch – a war immediately? If there is no choice but to support the U.S. against Russia and if war is as likely as Burnham suggests, why not strike now while “we” have the atomic bomb? Is that not tbe obvious conclusion of political logic and simple humanity? Why wait until “they” have the bomb?

Burnham does not go that far, though he offers no reason for his faillire to do so. Nor can he, for such a conclusion must be drawn if we accept his reasoning.

But it is a false and flimsy reasoning. Overawed as he has been by the façade of modern state power (see his first two books for the early stages of his awe) his method of analysis is to slice through a cross-section of history and base his conclusions on a glance at the results, without regard, for the background of his material or the implications of his views.

True enough that at the moment there is a sharp conflict between the U.S. and Russia. But is it not the elementary function of the historian to attempt an analysis of exactly what is the nature of the society in which this conflict takes place, an analysis somewhat more illuminating than is provided by Burnham’s use of the Toynbeeian tag, “A Time of Trouble.” What are the social roots and components of these conflicting societies? What is their relationship to the past and their prospect for the future?

The Nature of U.S. Society’

Burnham urges a U.S.-dominated World Empire, but never tells us what the nature of U.S. society is. From his book one could never discover that the U.S. is a capitalist country, the major imperialist power of the world and that it is in any case proceeding, willy-nilly, to build a world empire. Nor does Burnham attempt an evaluation of this society, its relationship to social classes, its historical prospects, its reasons for coming into conflict with Russia.

Burnham confines his “analysis” to Cassandraish complaints about the vacillations of U.S. policy, Its temporizing and compromises with Russia. It is here that he exposes his basic irresponsibility. Though some of the “inconsistencies” in U.S. foreign policy which he mournfully charts may be attributed to politicians shortsighted even from the point of view of American imperialism, most of them are simply inevitable and unavoidable fluctuations in which an imperialist power must engage. Burnham may proceed along the one-way track of his simplistic logic to a point ticklishly short of war, but those entrusted with the political fortunes of U.S. imperialism must take into account a great many complexities.

One simple but quite decisive example: Burnham’s policy obviously means a greatly sharpened international crisis. But the President and Secretary of State, as responsible capitalist politicians, must ask themselves if they are in a position to risk war, if the masses could be propelled into another and more terrible world war. These questions Burnham never even poses because, for all his pretension to intellectual rigor, he is merely a dilettante playing with firecrackers.

(Much the same issue arose with regards to the “appeasement” policy of the western capitalist powers during the Munich period. Some people could not possibly understand that these powers had no alternative but “appeasement” under the given circumstances. The much-maligned Chamberlain was feverishly building up an air force while “appeasing” Hitler; he was a responsible capitalist politician.)

Burnham’s complaints about U.S. vacillation are therefore absurd. The “Truman Doctrine” embodies many of his ideas; and now his proposal that the Communist Party be outlawed is receiving at least an airing. All in due time; have faith in your masters!

The Consequences of Atomic Warfare

If Burnham is appallingly superficial in his analysis, he is completely irresponsible in his proposals. U.S. imperialism trundles along to war because it has no alternative, its very existence dictates that course; unimpeded, it will, together with Stalinist Russia, drag humanity to destruction. But Burnham would give sanction to this course in the name of democracy. He must therefore consider: what will be the likely configuration of a world dominated by a U.S. imperialism victorious in a Third World War? What will be the consequence of atomic warfare? What is the likelihood of an upsurge of a native neo-fascist movement in America in such a period? Are there not already indications of the blows which the labor and radical movements can expect in such a situation?

Burnham has made his choice. Seeing the world in the process of destruction, he has chosen to give his support to one of the two major forces which, together and indissolubly, are leading to that destruction. I say together and indissolubly because decadent capitalism and totalitarian Stalinism are closely related phenomena; neither can be destroyed by the support of the other; the support of one must lead to the sustenance of the other. As these two societies proceed along their decline, they move closer to each other in political and social characteristics; to perpetuate the seed-bed of either is to prepare the growth of the other.

Burnham has chosen. Let those who have hesitantly begun along his path take notice. This out-and-out warmongering, this reckless call for atomic monopoly and use by U.S. imperialism; this readiness to accept even Franco as a partner in another war to make the world safe for democracy; this feebly qualified indifference to civil liberties at home – are the unavoidable consequence of that position.


I have dealt in some detail with Burnham’s attitude toward the U.S. We need not linger so long over his analysis of Stalinist Russia, which he describes without qualification as “communist.” The Stalinist movement becomes in his book the “communist” movement and quotations from both Lenin and Stalin are mingled without the slightest suggestion that there might be some difference between them. Now everyone has the right to change his mind and if Burnham wants to support U.S. imperialism, well ...

But for a man like Burnham, who was once in the revolutionary movement and did – and still must – know the difference between Stalinism and communism, between Stalin and Lenin, to equate them so blandly is simply fakery. This sort of amalgam which one may expect from a Hearst reporter is inexcusable in a man of political sophistication and knowledge. Burnham has the right to denounce Leninism, but to write as if its equation with Stalinism were taken for granted is, in his case, outright charlatanism.


Consistency Does Not Bother Burnham

In his first book, The Managerial Revolution, Burnham foretold the inevitable collectivization and likely totalitarianization of the world; in his second book, The Machiavellians, he attempted to formulate general laws about human nature and society which accepted the invariable existence of class societies and power cliques. In this his third book, he proposes a grandiose plan for world domination by one of the very powers presumably characterized by the categories of his first two books. But then do not these very categories invalidate from the start the conclusions of this latest book? Or are we to assume such a degree of intellectual fickleness that the author of three books written in some seven years does not assurqe responsibility for the first two?

For all his pseudo-realism, his toughness, his would-be scientific detachment, Burnham is obsessed with one central factor of modern society: power. First he was entranced by Hitlerism; result. The Managerial Revolution. Now he is entranced by Stalinism; result, his article on Stalin in Partisan Review and this current book. The intervening Machiavellians and the present borrowings from Toynbee’s verbal trinkets are the attempts to give general sanction to this concern with and fascination for power. Before power, Burnham gapes like a child and then like a somewhat sophisticated child he hides his awe with a smirk of detachment.

Where is Burnham going? He is no longer a socialist. He is contemptuous of bourgeois society and bourgeois liberals. He lacks that equalitarian impulse which occasionally redeems some of those who have abandoned Marxism for other disciplines or indisciplines. What remains?

A few days ago I discussed this matter with some friends and in order to test their reactions threw out the idea that Burnham, as a man with political talent and a line which makes him valuable to at least a section of American capitalism, might be touted for the role of intellectual spokesman of the most aggressive, reactionary elements of American capitalism which under certain circumstances could become part of a crypto-fascist movement. One of those present protested by saying that Burnham was too cultured a man to become part of or be near to a fascist movement. I think that Burnham’s culture is an impediment to his assuming the role in American life for which his book is a first step.

But how much of an impediment is that?



1. The Struggle for the World by James Burnham, John Day, 248 pp. $3.

2. On pp. 14–15 he discusses the “notion of world unity” – from Alexander the Great to Wendell Willkie.

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