The Struggle for the World, Revisited

James Burnham was an unorthodox communist who became an equally unorthodox conservative. As the most profoundly insightful analyst of Communism's 74-year war against the West, and of the progressively enfeebled liberal response to it, he speaks to us today in our present struggle with Islam.

In his opening paragraph, Daniel Kelly lists the stylistic reasons for Burnham's peculiar congeniality to my mind:

He seemed to see the world as it actually was rather than through the distorting lens of American optimism ... always did justice to the world's anomalies and contradictions ... did not treat every political question as if it posed a choice between good and evil ... never hesitated to say things it was considered in bad taste to say, despite their being true. [p. xix]


Burnham's flair lay not in prophecy but in synthesis, in spotting connections and patterns that others missed, and uniting them into broader, more significant wholes ... he was the first to provide an all-embracing study of the Cold War that brought together an exploration of its causes and current progress, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses (political, cultural, economic, strategic, geopolitical, psychological, etc.) of its major adversaries, and a grand strategy for achieving Western victory. [p. xxi]

Burnham's heritage was distinctive: Anglo-Saxon, but not old-stock, and with a decisive Celtic influence. His family on both sides came from Britain by way of Canada in the 19th century, and his mother was Irish Catholic. "Burnham, who was raised in his mother's faith, wrote that he had always thought of himself as 'non-national', partly because of religion" (p. 3, citing Suzanne Gillis Hamm to author).

Jim was born in Chicago in 1905, and grew up in comfortable, upper-middle-class Midwestern circumstances. In due course he was packed off to a Catholic boarding school in the Northeast, whence he moved on to Princeton. In both places he was exposed to Aristotelian philosophy, through Thomist theology in the former instance and directly by one of his professors in the latter. He was reportedly characterized by a "mordant manner" with "a cool, ironic mask" and "a dry wit and an intelligence that some thought arrogant" (p. 14, citing Nelson R. Burr to author). For graduate school, he went even further north-east -- to Oxford. There (among other things) he studied Anglo-Saxon at the feet of the one and only J.R.R. Tolkien. He then returned to the States to begin his career as an instructor at Washington Square College, NYU. Shortly thereafter, the stock market crashed and the hard times began.

The force of events on Burnham's life and mind turned him from literary and philosophical to political interests, and radicalized him, as was the trend of the times. In his case, he moved, not to liberalism or Communism, but to Trotskyism.

As a writer, he stood somewhat apart from the Trotskyist mainstream, favoring a nonrhetorical style over bombast and analysis over denunciation, although he did not always succeed in avoiding Marxist jargon. He continued to make the New Deal his primary target, but he also trained his guns on Stalinism, calling it a policy of tyranny at home and collaboration with the "imperialist" powers abroad in order to consolidate the dominance on the Soviet bureaucracy. The USSR was nevertheless still a workers' state, he affirmed, echoing Trotsky, and hence a country all Marxist-Leninists had to defend--not, of course, by supporting Stalin, but by seeking the victory of genuine Bolshevism both in the USSR and around the world. [p. 52]

To make a long and complicated story short and simple, Burnham's venture into sectarian ultra-Leftism, where he became a personage of note and consequence, ended when he could no longer give even qualified support to the Soviet regime. All along, the putative "realism" and "tough-mindedness" of his radicalism was in tension with his ingrained critical autonomy; the two came together when he saw that while "capitalism," as socialists understood it, was going under, "socialism" was not replacing it. Instead, the world was in the throes of what he called The Managerial Revolution (1941), a form of oligarchical statism that was essentially the same whether it be called New Deal liberalism, fascism, or Communism. In a nutshell, not only "capitalism," but democracy and the nation-state, were obsolete; at the time of writing, the wave of the future seemed to be a division and consolidation of Eurasia under German and Japanese hegemony.

Amusing to note, Burnham's contemporary response to World War II echoes my own retrospective one:

An opponent of U.S. involvement in the war in his Trotskyist days, he had remained one after his break with the movement (and had taken to praising German music and Japanese gardening to needle interventionist friends). But after Pearl Harbor, he did a complete about-face and called for an all-out war effort. [p. 104]

Clearly, some forms of "managerialism" were preferable to others. His next major work, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943), took oligarchy as a given, not to be wished away, but allowed for greater or lesser degrees of freedom within its constraints. Burnham thus avoided being either moralistic or amoral.

By the end of the war, his confident prediction of continuing Axis victories had been falsified, and he became alarmed at the new trend, just as confidently predicting continued Communist expansion throughout Eurasia and beyond. "The Third World War began in April, 1944," he announced in the opening sentence of The Struggle for the World (1947), referring to a mutiny of Greek Communist soldiers and sailors under British command -- the first overt clash in the alliance of convenience between the USSR and the Anglo-Saxon powers.

Interestingly, Burnham feared that he would be regarded as "nationalist, not to say chauvinist, imperialist, fascist, and so on" (p. 122). To offset the Red menace, he advocated an "American empire" to unite the non-Communist world, including a political combine of the United States, Britain, and the British Dominions, on the one hand, and a "European Federation" prefiguring the EU, on the other. From the outset, he argued that this great anti-Communist league should take the offensive, aiming to liberate the subject peoples -- not through direct military confrontation, but through economic and political pressure, and to counteract Communist subversion domestically.

Writing under the influence of Arnold J. Toynbee, Burnham's scope was broader than that of any one nation, but short of being cosmopolitan, recognizing both fundamental differences between, and similarities within, civilizations. America's destiny was to lead the West in the great civilizational crisis of his time, but this "colonial offshoot" was poorly prepared for the role, despite its wealth and power, having

no art of its own, no music, no literature, no great philosophy or religion ... Who, listening a few hours to the American radio, could repress a shudder if he thought the price of survival would be the Americanization of the world? (pp. 126-127).

Well, now. Let us step back a moment and appraise this bit of Europhile self-effacement. No art of our own? It's no accident that an American town, Hollywood, is practically synonymous with "the movies." No music? Granted, Burnham was writing during the lull between the Jazz Age and the birth of rock & roll, but even so ....  No literature? Mark Twain, just for starters; but again, considering his time, he may be forgiven for overlooking science fiction. No great philosophy? Okay, whatever. But religion? What other single nation has been so creative in this department? We may not have produced any world-historic ones, but we've spawned plenty of originals.

Be that as it may, Burnham hit the proverbial nail on the head when he characterized American politics by the dissonance between "abstract, empty, sentimental rhetoric of democratic idealism" and "ward-heeling, hotel-and-saloon, spoils system, machine practices ... both projected without any reference to world political facts."  Our biographer credits his subject with foretelling our Vietnam imbroglio and the breakdown of "containment":

Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have turned into an ambush and a desert.

However, the crucial flaw in this biography is Kelly's refusal to credit the "political-subversive" strategy that Burnham conceived, and Reagan finally enacted, with defeating Communism. On the other hand, Kelly does admit that Burnham's fears of Communist espionage and subversion have been vindicated by the opening of the Soviet archives.

The next few years were a period of rapid movement in the struggle between Communism and the Free World, both globally and domestically: the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, the fall of China, what Burnham pointedly called "the Korean phase of the war" (p. 160), Soviet atomic espionage, "McCarthyism." Through all this Burnham was writing more books elaborating on his "Struggle for the World" thesis: The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950), Containment or Liberation? (1953), The Web of Subversion (1954). His steadily-mounting impatience and frustration with "containment" abroad and anti-McCarthyism at home cost him his NCL ("Non-Communist Left") credentials and CIA connections, driving him into the "New Right" circle that formed around Bill Buckley's National Review in 1955. Burnham entered the last phase of his career with the title of "senior editor" and a column entitled "The Third World War."

In 1956, Burnham watched helplessly as the Eisenhower Administration stood idly by as the Hungarians rose up against Communism. The stalemate negotiated in Korea was tacitly formalized in Europe as well. As Burnham predicted, this was only a prelude to strategic defeats for the West, once it was committed to the purely defensive, and ultimately losing, strategy of containment. The fear of all-out war, which would inevitably turn thermonuclear, prevailed in Western councils, disregarding Burnham's counsel to meet the Communist strategy of indirect warfare on its own terms.

In the pivotal year of 1964, the nation passed from the postwar boom into "the Sixties" and all that followed. The epicenters of this cultural earthquake, while polar opposites politically, were both, appropriately, in California: the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and the "Free Speech Movement" at UC-Berkeley. The triumph of LBJ's "vital center" at the polls was short-lived. Burnham was on hand with his last major work, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.

With his characteristic blend of world-historic grand vision and topical myopia, Burnham began by contrasting the world-map of his day with that at the outbreak of World War I, fifty years earlier: "like a film winding in reverse, with the West thrust backward reel by reel toward the original base from which it started its world expansion" (p. 284). His nostalgia for the glory days of imperialism was matched by his amply-justified cynicism about decolonization (whose primary victims were -- with the notable exception of the French settlers in Algeria -- the native peoples themselves) and contempt for the "half-formed pseudo-nations" (p. 264) that filled the UN.

Burnham's overriding concern was "the will of the West to survive as a distinct historical entity" and he diagnosed liberalism as "the ideology of Western suicide" (p. 287). The empty formulas of freedom, equality, democracy, and progress masked the harsh realities of civilizational recession, particularly in the face of three major challenges: Communism, the "Third World," and crime.

With respect to the last of these, Burnham was ahead of the curve, since "law and order" had not yet become a hot-button issue; but that was a generational phenomenon, ultimately self-correcting. With respect to the first, he reiterated and elaborated his analysis of liberal weakness in the face of the totalitarian enemy, and was vindicated by the twelve-year rout that preceded the rally and victory of the Eighties. With respect to the second, his appearance of prescience is perhaps magnified by the vagueness of his premonitions. However, it is noteworthy that while liberals do not feel an instinctive kinship with Islam as they did with Communism, the same self-destructive dynamics he observed then are at work now: preoccupation with protecting the civil rights of subversives (even their "right" to immigrate!); reluctance to use force in the national interest; debunking of family, faith, and patriotism, which give people the rootedness and connection that make sacrifice meaningful.

Burnham's running commentary on current events ceased after a stroke in 1978, but he lived to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, whom he had hailed as a potential winner back in 1966. He died in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall was torn down, four years before the USSR fell apart.

Late in life, Burnham summed up his general political position:

I am anti-Communist and anti-Soviet: and since I am 100% both, I guess I am Extreme in that dimension .... But on social and economic questions ... I have a general presumption in favor of freedom, which I take to mean pluralist democracy in politics and the market in economics, but I don't regard this presumption as an absolute. [p. 208]

Moreover, despite his Catholic upbringing (to which he returned at the end of his life), his mature mind was firmly secular and would-be scientific.

Kelly likens him to the neoconservatives, but also relates Burnham's disdain for Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, and all their heirs and assigns. His cautious and skeptical attitude towards democracy, especially as applied to non-Western peoples, sharply distinguishes him from those notorious enthusiasts for global democratization.

While it is vain and presumptuous to speculate on what Burnham might have thought of the post-Cold War world, it seems safe to say he would not lightly abandon "the belief that had led him to politics in the first place: that Western civilization, which he viewed as the world's foremost, lay in mortal peril" (p. 368). While he favored Western trans-national institutions like the Common Market, this was quite explicitly in opposition to both the USSR and the "Third World." As Kelly observes, "The Camp of the Saints reads as Suicide of the West might had it been written as fiction. Burnham found the book fascinating, and spoke of it often" (p. 350). 

In sum, Burnham was what one might call a "Occidentalist."  His perspective transcended and subsumed the various regions and nations of the West, while contrasting them with all non-Westerners collectively. In explicitly Toynbeean terms, he understood the West as a civilization, not as a religion (Christianity), race (white people), or regime (secular, democratic modernity), for it overlaps all of these things but is coterminous with none of them. Though he undervalued both American exceptionalism and the separate identities of the European peoples, he had an intuitive grasp of the fundamental unity of the Western family of nations, which we would do well to hold onto during our present world-historic crisis.

2011 by Karl Jahn