Left and Right

The Importance of James Burnham

A new and excellent article from Michael Lind.

By Michael Lind, Tablet

What a newly rediscovered thinker got right and wrong.

Who could have guessed that in the third decade of the 21st century, many conservatives would be discussing class struggle, while most progressives would be determined to change the subject from the American class system to statistical disparities among ever-multiplying racial and gender identity categories? Once uncritical cheerleaders for capitalism, Republicans now find they have fewer friends in the corporate suite; they can only hope to gain political power by appealing to working-class former Democrats of all races in addition to their own shrinking electoral base. Meanwhile, many progressive Democrats have warmed to corporations and investment banks, as long as they censor conservatives, support Black Lives Matter, and hire diversity consultants.

The need to make sense of this realignment goes a long way toward explaining the recent rediscovery of the mid-20th-century American thinker James Burnham, a follower of Leon Trotsky who eventually joined the anti-communist right and then spent the rest of his life as an editor at the flagship Cold War conservative magazine National Review. Born into the affluent family of a railroad executive in 1905, Burnham became a professor of philosophy at New York University after being educated at Princeton and Oxford. In the 1930s he was a major figure in the circle around Trotsky, the exiled Soviet revolutionary. After renouncing Marxism, in 1941 he published The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World, which became a trans-Atlantic bestseller. In the midst of World War II, Albert Speer discussed a British article about the book’s thesis with Adolf Hitler; George Orwell drew on Burnham’s ideas in building the imaginary world of his novel 1984.


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