The rise and rise of Donald J. Trump is a revolution. While today’s leftists would call it a counter-revolution, we might all agree that the 2015-16 populist-nationalist insurrection, which swept President Trump to power, falls outside the category of business as usual. For the anti-Trump camp, from Hollywood celebrities to Obama holdouts in the Deep State, Trump’s inauguration represents the moral equivalent of January 30, 1933.
The short-lived Journal of American Greatness and now the quarterly journal American Affairs provide a counterpoint to this Antifa (anti-fascist) narrative. An integral aspect of this nascent Trumpist intelligentsia is a high regard for James Burnham (above), a founding editor of the National Review and the author of such formative works as The Managerial Revolution (1941), The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943), The Struggle for the World (1947) and Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964).
When Burnham died in 1987, President Reagan described him as “one of those principally responsible for the great intellectual odyssey of our century—the journey away from totalitarian statism and towards the uplifting doctrines of freedom”. Not everyone shared Ronald Reagan’s admiration. Old-style Leftists reviled Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians because these books repudiated their fantasy that socialism—that is to say, a classless people’s community—would emerge out of the ruins of capitalism. Trotskyists broke with Burnham (and vice versa) for his refusal to accept that Stalin’s Russia somehow remained a workers’ state, albeit a deformed or degenerated one. Communist apologists, in turn, were aghast at Burnham’s mid-war denunciation of the Soviet Union as “the most extreme totalitarian dictatorship in history”. Coming in the midst of the Swinging Sixties, the central thesis of Suicide of the West—that the real role of American-style liberalism is “to permit Western civilisation to be reconciled to its dissolution”—garnered few friends on the progressive side of politics.
It is a different story with conservatives, of course, but still complicated. During James Burnham’s lifetime his work was widely read and, in the case of the Cold War, highly consequential. Many of the ideas he articulated in The Struggle for the World were already in circulation as early as 1944. He had identified guerrilla skirmishes in Greece, a power vacuum opening up in Eastern Europe, and the Chiang Kai-Shek-Mao Zedong standoff as the early stages of a global conflagration entirely distinct from the Second World War. Winston Churchill would have been aware of Burnham’s thinking before he delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech on March 5, 1946.
Despite this, and his key role in the National Review for a lengthy period, Burnham was rarely a source of political debate in the decades after his death. In 2002, for instance, Roger Kimball wrote an appreciative essay but feared that not even a new biography by Daniel Kelly would rescue James Burnham from relative obscurity:
But in this world, the combination of Burnham’s ferocious intellectual independence and unclubbable heterodoxy long ago consigned him to the unglamorous limbo that established opinion reserves for those who challenge its pieties too forcefully.
A “general renaissance” did not appear to be on the cards—until the momentous events of 2016, that is. In October last year, the anti-Trump conservative Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, spoke of the need:
to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition.
Jeet Heer, a senior editor for the New Republic, lambasted Continetti for “holding up Burnham as an alternative to Trumpism, portraying him as an advocate of a measured, brainy, and pragmatic right-wing politics that seeks to shape elite institutions rather than to take populist delight in burning it all down”. Heer, who writes a bi-weekly column with headings such as “Steve Bannon is Turning Trump into an Ethno-Nationalist Ideologue” and “Donald Trump is the Bizarro Noam Chomsky”, appears to have contracted a particularly virulent strain of Trumpophobia. That said, Heer might be right to argue that Burnham is not “an alternative to Trumpism” and, if anything, “a precursor to Trump”.
Perhaps it all comes back to The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. Burnham parted company with America’s Trotskyist movement in 1940, only a year before he wrote The Managerial Revolution. There are echoes of his Marxist past in the book, especially on the subject of ideology, but the bogus science of dialectical materialism is firmly rejected. The capitalism of West, according to Burnham, was vulnerable not to a socialist revolution but to a managerial one. The gravedigger of capitalism, as the likes of Adam Smith termed free enterprise, would not be the industrial proletariat but a managerial elite. This new ruling group did not own the means of production in the manner of “the individual entrepreneur, who owned the whole or the greater share of a factory or mine or shop or steamship company … and actively managed his own enterprise”. Still, the managerial elite increasingly controlled the means of production and ipso facto society as a whole. The great contradiction in the capitalist mode of production, then, was not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat but between ownership and control. The emerging rulers of our world were “operating executives, superintendents, administrative engineers, supervisory technicians” and “administrators, commissioners, bureau heads, and so on”.
This new governing elite, argued Burnham, would not be committed automatically to the political creeds of freedom. Members of the old capitalist ruling class concerned themselves with liberty because liberty, or economic freedom, was in the best interests of the capitalist class, although the lifestyle of individualism had proven “beneficial to large sections of the masses”. Capitalists, at least in the era before the First World War and the New Deal, were also distrustful of an overweening state since such power had the potential to trample on their own. Moreover, parliamentary rule was given its due because national self-determination tended to promote the interests of the (mostly domestic) bourgeoisie. The nascent managerial class, on the other hand, might be expected to take a different view on notions of personal freedom, the overreach of the state or the unassailable authority of parliament rule.
George Orwell, in “Second Thoughts on James Burnham”, his 1946 critique of The Managerial Class and The Machiavellians, agreed that Burnham had been “more right than wrong” about the “general drift” towards oligarchy:
The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new “managerial” class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party regimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc: all these things seem to point in the same direction.
An important aspect of Orwell’s “second thoughts”, nevertheless, is a concern that Burnham not only “sees the trend” but “assumes that it is irresistible, rather as a rabbit fascinated by a boa constrictor might assume that a boa constrictor is the strongest thing in the world”. Orwell goes so far as to suggest that Burnham’s analysis might be no more than an American version of “power worship”.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Orwell makes the same mistake in a 1944 review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom that he (erroneously) accuses Burnham of making. Orwell, in the first instance, agrees with Hayek that “collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of”. George Orwell savages Hayek’s recommended remedy of “an unplanned economy, free competition, and emphasis on liberty rather than security”. To return to “free capitalism”, were it possible or even desirable, made no logical sense since it would again result in “monopoly”. Oligarchical Collectivism, ipso facto, was going to be mankind’s brave new world: “the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter”. Turns out that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not so much a warning, Orwell claimed, but a prediction.
A different reading of The Machiavellians than Orwell’s takes the “Defenders of Freedom” subtitle seriously. In our complex world, insists Burnham, there will always be rulers and ruled, justice and injustice, mendacity and self-delusion. Identifying a new power elite, as Burnham does in The Managerial Class, is not the same as believing in the inevitability of, let alone developing a penchant for, the totalitarian phenomenon George Orwell would call Oligarchical Collectivism in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Burnham, in The Machiavellians, makes the case for freedom of the press and the continuation of genuine political opposition, along with the measured “circulation of elites”. The emancipatory role of Burnham’s Machiavellians—Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels and we might include Burnham himself—is to recognise the brutal truth about political power not in order to dispense with liberty but to preserve it.
Thus, if James Burnham constitutes, as Jeet Heer contends, “a precursor to Trump”, it is not because Burnham advocated totalitarianism—quite the opposite. Orwell misinterpreted the purpose of The Managerial Class and The New Machiavellians, but he died in 1950. For Heer, almost seventy years later, to say Burnham “relished” totalitarianism is a mistake—if that is the right word—of another magnitude. Heer bemoans the “crisis of the conservative intellectual” and yet his unceasing (and predictable) twice-a-week tirade against President Trump indicates a crisis of sorts on the progressive intellectual front. His attempt to distinguish himself from leftist groupthink by labelling Donald Trump as “only fascistic rather than a fascist” is risible.
Jeet Heer’s conceptual problem—and it is the error of not only leftists but also of many conservatives—is to believe “capitalism has easily absorbed” the Managerial State. Obviously if this is your bottom line then any kind of populist uprising, starting with the Tea Party movement and culminating in Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, only makes sense in terms of white racism, nativism, Islamophobia, and so on. The Brexit victory, as an example, had to be the result of white working-class racism. The facts are otherwise. For starters, post-election statistics show Leave voters were not ignorant, old and uneducated. Nor were they xenophobic or anti-migrant, just mindful that a sovereign state should have the right to regulate immigration. The transnational New Class, wrote John O’Sullivan in the National Review, acknowledging his debt to Burnham’s seventy-five-year-old critique of managerialism, not only campaigned against national sovereignty (Project Fear) but also railed against the people’s decision: “They still cling to their orthodoxies. They are still angry that ordinary mortals, or at least Realities, have outfoxed them over Brexit.”
And what, exactly, are the orthodoxies of the New Class? What is their ideology? Some answers are to be found in the work of John Fonte, author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others? (2011). Fonte has written about “transitional progressivism” and “post-democracy” hardening into something more creedal like “global governance”. Detractors such as Heer ridicule Burnham for overestimating the strength of the Nazi state—in the immediate aftermath of the Blitzkrieg no less—and yet the prescience of The Managerial State and The Machiavellians retains an astonishing resonance in the light of Trump’s victory. It should not have come as a surprise that Julius Krein, editor of American Affairs, a new journal touted in some quarters as the National Review of the Trump era, should title his first article “James Burnham’s Managerial Elite”.
Perhaps Krein’s most striking point is his departure from Irving Kristol’s analysis in the well-known essay “On Corporate Capitalism in America”. While Kristol agreed that the dynamics of “corporate America” contrasted with those of “entrepreneurial capitalism”, he concluded that the republic remained capitalist rather than managerialist. Krein, by making a fundamental distinction between Kristol’s “neo-conservatism” and Burnham’s anti-totalitarianism or freedomism, opens up a new intellectual landscape. By 1972, according to Krein, Burnham had rejected much of what passes for “conservative doctrine” as “obviously obsolescent” because classical American capitalism no longer endured. NAFTA, for instance, was less about fostering “free trade” in any traditional sense than allowing the managerial class to avoid the rules of national sovereignty: “It is simply the further emancipation of the managerial elite from any obligations to the political community.”
Additionally, a clear-eyed understanding of the Managerial State might better explain postmodernism and all those other perfidious dogmas haunting our waking hours. The neo-conservative may dismiss them as merely “bizarre cultural phenomena”, but maybe they serve the purpose of disguising the exploitative and degenerate behaviour of what I have previously referred to as the Left Power Elite:
That is why, at present, the only program that unites the Left intellectually is identity politics, the sole ideology that can appear to reconcile the interests of the managerial elite with elements of the exploited classes. In fact, however, the balkanization of the American people only strengthens managerialism by preventing a majoritarian confrontation with it.
Naysayers, and that includes conservatives, will maintain that Julius Krein’s positioning as a “Trumpite intellectual” is the oxymoron to shatter all oxymorons. If the Donald Trump phenomenon—as Jeet Heer and so many others proclaim—amounts to nothing more than a reactionary strongman promising “to take charge and unite the nation under his iron fist”, then there won’t be a lot for American Affairs to intellectualise about in the coming editions. I don’t think, however, that will be a concern. President Trump might not be a philosopher king but he forged an alliance with ordinary Americans—of all races, creeds and sexual preferences—who identified with his campaign-defining line, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our creed”. Because the source of his success was American workers and American real estate he was not only able to differentiate himself from the transnational skulduggery of Hillary and Bill Clinton and their globalist Clinton Foundation, he was that rarest of things in the Managerial State—a billionaire patriotic capitalist.
Super-charged patriotism dwelling in the White House, in any other era, would not have been anything out of the ordinary. In the America of managerialism and “global governance”, not to mention identity politics, Trump’s patriotism is a sensation. For the globalist Left, which has forged an unlikely alliance with Wall Street to endorse everything from open borders to Black Lives Matter and the Muslim Brotherhood, dissenting opinion is illegitimate. There must be no genuine political opposition.
The Managerial State has become so censorious that Michael Anton, writing for the transient Journal of American Greatness, used a pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, for his inspirational essay “The Flight 93 Election” last year. His essay addressed the subject at the heart of so much Donald Trump discourse, from CNN to American Affairs: whither totalitarianism in the United States of America. For the PC brigade, at least, the narrative is about the various Brownshirts occupying the White House. The New York Times, for example, recently published an article on the estimable Sebastian Gorka, author of Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War (2016), with the headline “The Islamophobic Huckster in the White House”. Michael Anton now works in the White House and, yes, the New York Times has posted an op-ed referring to his “dark anti-otherness”. The welcome insertion of James Burnham into the continuing debate, however, provides an alternative and surprisingly fresh perspective on who might be the real enablers of “dark anti-otherness”.