From Trotsky to Buckley
James Burnham mutated from firebrand revolutionary to National Review co-editor, and today he is getting a second life all over the conservative press.
What drives leftists to forge new careers by siding with their former enemies? These apostates don’t simply retool or change course — they make an epic transformation, joining the very forces they once sought to upend. From Whittaker Chambers to David Horowitz, they customarily announce their volte face and market themselves as insiders ready to blow the whistle on their former comrades.
Often a team of elders, who already made the ideological switch, appears to bless them and ease their transition, providing new publishing outlets and career opportunities. In books, articles, and public appearances, these former reds beat a noisy retreat from their old commitments, displaying an unearned confidence in their new view of the world and a hair-on-fire intolerance for those still adhering to their prior convictions. Oddly, after convicting themselves for a long record of naiveté, ignorance, disloyalty, and worse, these born-again conservatives expect us to trust their latest political judgments.
How seriously should we take the head-spinning makeover of an upper-class philosophy professor? Shouldn’t we laugh at James Burnham, who started out lecturing Leon Trotsky on revolutionary strategy and ended up running a rogue CIA operation with mobster Frank Costello to kidnap American Communists and pump them full of sodium pentothal? (This actually happened — you couldn’t make this stuff up.)
Alas, there’s nothing funny about the 1953 coup in Iran that Burnham helped orchestrate, his ensuing efforts to advance the preemptive bombing of the Soviet Union, his campaign to deploy biological and chemical weapons in Vietnam, and his alliances with segregationists and colonialists. With his trademark tone of finality, he claimed to grasp the inevitable trends of impersonal historical forces when he predicted war and barbarism in the 1930s, a global managerial takeover in the 1940s, a worldwide communist conspiracy in the 1950s, endless betrayals of liberalism in the 1960s, and so on.
For all the wacky elements of Burnham’s constantly moving ideology, his political career did not consist of drunken flirtations and reckless hookups. His story is not a dark parable of an unscrupulous shape-shifter: it is the dead-serious journey of a committed activist who never tired of hawking himself. Looking back, it seems clear that Burnham never really knew what he wanted, and yet he instantly embraced new positions as he jumped from mentor to mentor and group to group as a kind of merchant of apocalypse.
Can we find a real James Burnham behind his biography, or are we looking at a man deluded into thinking he could serve as a fitting maestro for several ages of anxiety?
Et tu, Burnham?
When James Burnham published his best-selling The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World in 1941, he had already ditched the far left but was still generally regarded as a radical, even a neo-Marxist. By the time he wrote The Struggle for the World six years later, he was flirting with obsessive anticommunism.
Too often, however, people rush to apply a version of black swan theory to Burnham’s shocking political conversion. With the benefit of hindsight, a complex evolution appears as an easily explicable U-turn.
For the Left, Burnham epitomized the petit-bourgeois weakling who cravenly succumbed to the pressures of alien class forces — a Marxist version of “filthy lucre.” For the Right, he heroically completed a pilgrim’s progress from the darkness of totalitarianism to the enlightenment of tradition. The center’s view has been most influential: Burnham proves the batty affinity between far left and far right.
Twinning these so-called extremes has become especially popular today among centrist pundits like Michael Bloomberg, who argue that the symmetrical “populisms” — Sanders and Corbyn on the left, Trump and Le Pen on the right — are destabilizing the West. Similarly, in his lively 1975 book Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History, John P. Diggins concludes that Burnham went “from the revolutionary Left to the militant Right without so much as pausing in the ‘Vital Center.’”
A more patient reading of the record shows that Burnham inhabited — albeit uncomfortably — the anticommunist center-left for a bit longer than he was a Communist and Trotskyist. Streamlining Burnham’s life to bolster an argument for the ideological kinship between revolution and reaction — including New Republic editor Jeet Heer’s claim that “Burnham took Trotsky’s idea of a world revolution and inverted it” — obscures more than it reveals.
Revolutionary to Reactionary
Born in Chicago in 1905 to a Burlington Railroad executive, James Burnham grew up Roman Catholic and, following his 1927 graduation from Princeton, matriculated at Oxford to study with Martin D’Arcy, England’s foremost Catholic public intellectual. Almost immediately breaking with D’Arcy and religion, he planned to collaborate on a journal called the Symposium with his former Princeton philosophy professor Philip Wheelwright. In 1929, Burnham joined his mentor on the faculty at the Washington Square campus of New York University, and they launched the Symposium a year later, modeling it after T. S. Eliot’s the Criterion.
Gradually, he moved towards politics. Two years after criticizing Marxism in his new publication, Burnham grew close to the Communist Party but peremptorily switched allegiance to A. J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP), a home-grown revolutionary organization. A year later the Symposium folded, coinciding with a split with Wheelwright, and Burnham began working for a, AWP merger with the United States’ main Trotskyist group, the Communist League of America. Meanwhile, he and Max Shachtman were coediting the New International, and, in 1935–36, Burnham abandoned Muste after the Trotskyists decided to join the Socialist Party as entryists.
When the enlarged Trotskyist movement left the Socialists to found the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1938, Burnham joined the central leadership with James P. Cannon. However, a year later, Burnham allied with Shachtman against Cannon and Trotsky over Soviet aggression in Poland and Finland. Cannon and Trotsky offered critical support despite their staunch opposition to Stalin, while Burnham, Shachtman, and the minority wing of the party saw the actions as worthy of outright opposition. After collaborating with Shachtman to launch the new Workers Party (WP) in 1940, Burnham resigned.
Two years before founding the WP, Burnham had joined the Partisan Review’s editorial board, hoping to unite it with the New International. He would remain part of this milieu for fifteen years, considering himself part of the democratic left. A section of The Managerial Revolution appeared in Partisan Review first, and he published, “Lenin’s Heir,” his formal repudiation of the Trotskyist understanding of Stalinism there in March 1945.
In the postwar period, signs that Burnham had converted to hardline anticommunism — similar to ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers’s denouncements of the movement as a monolithic international conspiracy — became obvious. The two would become an ideological tag team. In 1948, he testified before the House Committee on un-American Activities and called for the registration of all Communists.
The next year, he left New York University and joined the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert action arm. Yet in these years, the CIA leadership was still regarded as liberal and Burnham was treated with suspicion for being soft on McCarthyism. In 1953, he was forced off the editorial board of the Partisan Review for the same reason, and a year later he resigned from the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (which he had helped found) because he felt it was weak on domestic communism.
Burnham left the CIA and began identifying as a conservative, though never with the far right. He was always more preoccupied with fighting communism than with defending free markets.
From 1954 until his retirement in 1978, Burnham mentored William F. Buckley, serving as senior editor, columnist, and foreign policy oracle for the National Review. His ex-Communist colleagues Frank Meyer and Willi Schlamm considered him a “left deviationist” for his sympathy with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, his antipathy toward Barry Goldwater, his opposition to American control of the Panama Canal, and his softness on the welfare state. In the 1960s, Burnham tried to push Buckley toward the mainstream by championing both Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger.
In 1983, incapacitated by a stroke, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, and, four years later, he converted for the last time, returning to the Catholic Church on the eve of his death.
A Good Apostate Is Hard to Find
For at least seventy years, James Burnham’s story has appeared as lurid entertainment. I first encountered him through the Young Socialist Alliance at Antioch College. In a series that might as well have been called “Tales from the Trotskyist Crypt,” it presented Burnham next to other folk devils of the orthodox imagination — Max Shachtman, Bert Cochran, Michael Pablo, and others. Each represented a political virus to which the unwary young radical might succumb.
Burnham, however, was the über-ogre. After all, in the Trotskyist Fight Club of the late 1930s, the Old Man himself had denounced him as an “educated witch doctor,” “strutting petit-bourgeois pedant,” and “intellectual snob.” Some of these epithets seem more like gossip than analysis, especially considering the two had never met. Other rumors held that Burnham showed up at political meetings in a tuxedo, refused to forgo his summer vacations, which he sometimes took in Europe, and didn’t resign from his posh teaching job to devote himself to the movement full time. Such horrors kept some young Trotskyists up at night.
Recent scholarship shows that the Burnham we most often encounter in Marxist myth is more caricature than analysis. Pedant and snob, sure, but recent biographies demonstrate that Burnham was no dull elitist, unlike most professors at a time when prestigious WASP credentials were academia’s primary criteria.
On the contrary, Burnham had an urbane gravitas and anti-bohemian demeanor; seemingly unflappable, cool, and levelheaded, he even admired “Bolshevik toughness.” Tall and slim, with a straight back and spritely gait, Burnham had played football, hockey, and tennis. Trained as a boxer, he never seemed to fear the fascist hecklers drawn to street meetings where he soapboxed. Once engaged to notorious “femme fatale” Martha Dodd, he was also a legendary enthusiast of chemin de fer — the risky European card game made famous in Casino Royale.
Nor was Burnham a Nero Wolfe who engaged in Marxism without budging from his elegant Manhattan town house. He may have compartmentalized elements of his life, but, during his brief career as revolutionist, he inhabited Trotskyism with feverish intensity. In contrast with some on the academic left today, Burnham was a man of action, a workaholic who — despite his teaching and family responsibilities — regularly handled mundane administrative tasks, served reliably in leadership bodies, edited competently, and turned out a steady stream of columns, reviews, pamphlets, political letters, and position papers, all in his spare prose. He exhibited a magisterial, whip smart, erudite, organized mind, although not always an insightful one.
No one would suggest that Burnham didn’t move from left to right, but, when we promote a simplified version of his journey — Communism to fascism; far left to far right; careerist intellectual to hopped-up Judas — we say more about ourselves and our needs. Orthodox Trotskyists used the class nature of the Soviet state as a litmus test; those who failed — like Burnham — were condemned as servants of imperialism, Stalin, and Goebbels. Diggins believed that the vital center represents the only sane course; those who zoomed “from one extreme to the other” — like Burnham —simply continued the tradition of Bolsheviks behaving badly.
Bending Burnham’s tale to their narratives enabled them to avoid the devil they didn’t want to know — the apostate next door. Ideology for Burnham was subordinate to his hunger for self-affirmation as architect of the future. He was the type of thinker we all encounter from across the political spectrum, one who is brilliant at predicting the continuation of what was happening at the present. The only literal overnight switch in Burnham’s political life was when he became pro-war at the time of Pearl Harbor. Otherwise, his trajectory was labile, a long series of alliances and ruptures. At just about every stage he was judged to be a traitor and turncoat by his previous associates.
The Real Burnham
To some extent Burnham was a reactive thinker, recalibrating his expectations after each surprising new development replaced an earlier prediction; he connected a different set of dots and concocted a substitute theory to again explain, “what is happening in the world.” Though he certainly took extreme positions and dabbled in provocative rhetoric, he was less political nonconformist and more a barometer of his age. George Orwell understood this better than most: he effectively adapted Burnham’s notion of a managerial revolution that produced three competing states into his novel 1984; Burnham’s book appeared pseudonymously as The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.
A thinker like Burnham, who frequently combined some elements of left and right in varying proportions, offers endless possibilities for cherry-picking; readers are encouraged to focus on isolated examples while leaving the real pivots of his thought murky. I don’t have sufficient space to walk through the funhouse of twenty-first-century conservatism, but today Burnham appears as the champion of several contradictory facets of the Right. American Affairs Journal, the flagship of pro-Trump intellectuals, praises him for developing the “new class” theory that explains why a conservative populist revolt against the bipartisan elite is the wave of the future; George Will, who longs for a pre-Trump conservative intelligentsia, holds Burnham up as an example. Alt Right Media uploaded a nauseating 1964 lecture on affirmative action and liberal guilt.
In Burnham we find a man whose genius came from his ability to crystallize ideas already in the zeitgeist; his mentality could refract, rebound, and replicate indefinitely. His trajectory follows an idiosyncratic path, responding to the shifting tectonic plates of the twentieth century. If Trotskyism had any long-lasting effect, it was by transforming him from an aesthete into a political person who aimed to grasp theory. While working in the American Trotskyist movement, Burnham discovered he could turn out regular commentary on world events.
But Trotskyist ideas never seemed to take hold — Burnham later repurposed points lifted from this early period but lost the sense of how they fit together. The SWP certainly enhanced his knowledge of Communism and the Soviet Union, but his readings of Robert Michels, Arnold Toynbee, and others soon displaced the principal ideas.
If one feature of his legacy requires further research and discussion, it may be his loyalty to the myth of Western civilization; the figures in Burnham’s demonology all threatened his notion of “Western stability.” Even his first political pseudonym, “John West,” deliberately alluded to such an allegiance.
Few apostates make a dignified exit. Their writing, for the most part, becomes trashy and depleted through a dumb-and-dumber marshaling of payback politics. Burnham’s ambitions aimed higher than this, but almost everyone recognizes that his best work appeared in the 1940s. There is little to suggest that his intellect deepened as his life moved forward. Instead, it seems he trapped himself in a succession of conceptual stages that inhibited growth, including his delusionary claim after 1943 that he had transcended all ideology.
He became most useful as a propagandist who could put messages in the simplest, most effective form, but, even here, Burnham was something of a self-mimic, writing as though by rote reflex: “the war has begun” (1936) became The War We Are In thirty years later. His was a shadowboxing style, relying the same old habits of mind.
Burnham resembled many apostates by ending up doing things a lot dirtier than he ever anticipated and spreading lies about his former comrades bigger than he ever imagined. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make apostates.