James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

Afraid for the future of the West in the face of the Soviet threat, this former Trotskyite shaped Ronald Reagan's tough approach.


IN 1983, Ronald Reagan awarded James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award. Reagan declared, “As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world. . . . Freedom, reason and decency have had few greater champions in this century.” With his characteristic smile and tilt of the head, Reagan added, “And I owe him a personal debt, because throughout the years traveling the mash-potato circuit I have quoted you widely.” The award’s recipient, then seventy-seven, was surely flattered. He was in declining health—his eyesight deteriorating, his short-term memory devastated by a stroke. His professional standing, too, was a far cry from the days when he had stirred up intellectual debate with books that assaulted conventional thinking.

It was fitting that Reagan and Burnham should come together to celebrate their mutual fight against global Communism. If the Gipper—who gets credit from many historians and commentators for being, as the Economist put it in a 2004 cover headline, “The Man Who Beat Communism”—was key to winning the Cold War, then Burnham laid the intellectual blueprint for him. He was the father of the Reagan Doctrine. Like Whittaker Chambers, who had made a searing break with Communism, Burnham was, as Reagan put it upon his death in 1987, “one of those principally responsible for the great intellectual odyssey of our century: the journey away from totalitarian statism and toward the uplifting doctrines of freedom.” Nor was Reagan alone in his view. “More than any other single person,” writes historian George H. Nash, “Burnham supplied the conservative intellectual movement with the theoretical formulation for victory in the Cold War.”


Still, the Cold War ended nearly a quarter century ago. Even granting Burnham’s pivotal role in the ideological battles surrounding that long struggle, it seems fair to wonder: What lessons, if any, can we derive from Burnham’s global outlook for the present? There is an understandable but misguided tendency among many intellectuals and policy makers these days to apply Cold War impulses and strategies to post–Cold War realities. Burnham was a fierce Cold War hawk on the intellectual scene, as was Reagan on the political scene, and thus many assume that their hawkish instincts would carry over into the subsequent struggles against Islamic fundamentalism or upstart regional powers. Indeed, Burnham biographer Daniel Kelly and conservative commentator Richard Brookhiser have suggested that Burnham was “the first neoconservative.”

Others, though, have suggested that Burnham was a quintessential foreign-policy realist, who stripped away wispy thoughts about human fulfillment and punctured myths fashioned by elites to justify their societal dominance—a realist rooted in an unadorned understanding of human nature and man’s irrepressible quest for power. But this interpretation also runs into difficulty, as Burnham’s Cold War prescriptions often differed from those of the era’s realists—including Hans J. Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann, among academics and journalists; and Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, among foreign-policy practitioners.

Perhaps it is best to try to understand Burnham as he understood himself. For his oeuvre reveals some intriguing contradictions that may help to elucidate contemporary foreign-policy disputes. Indeed, he personified the post–Cold War foreign-policy debate in his earlier writings about global power and America’s position in the world. The Burnham record cannot be fully understood, however, without exploring his remarkable odyssey from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan—or, in his case, from Trotskyism to Reaganism.


BORN ON November 22, 1905, in Chicago, Burnham was the son of a wealthy railroad executive. He studied at Princeton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received advanced degrees in English literature and medieval philosophy. Then he joined the philosophy department at New York University’s Washington Square College, where for the next thirty-two years he taught aesthetics, ethics and comparative literature. Soon—agitated by the ravages of the Great Depression, the apparent looming collapse of capitalism and the intriguing rise of Communism—he plunged into the turbulent world of left-wing radicalism.

He adopted the anti-Stalinist Bolshevik Leon Trotsky as his ideological lodestar. He joined various Trotsky-leaning organizations, coedited a Trotskyist theoretical journal called the New International, corresponded widely with the great man himself, and became embroiled in the intrigues and maneuverings of the Left. A gifted writer, Burnham emerged in New York literary circles as a thinker of rare dimension, depth and shrewdness.

Burnham was anything but the typical scruffy Trotskyist. Dedicated to the cause by day, the elegantly attired Burnham retreated to his Greenwich Village apartment by night and played bourgeois host at black-tie dinners where the guests seldom included his ideological brethren. Irving Howe considered him “haughty in manner and speech, . . . logical, gifted, terribly dry.” Others viewed him more as standoffish, perhaps a bit shy. But he was not easily ignored. James T. Farrell, who saw him as “prissy and ministerial,” used Burnham as the prototype for a character in his novel Sam Holman.

With the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, however, Burnham did a somersault. He repudiated Trotsky’s preposterous admonition that good socialists owed fealty to the Soviet system even in the face of comrade Stalin’s deviations from the true doctrine. Now he concluded the problem wasn’t Stalin but Communism itself. He broke with Trotsky, who promptly labeled him an “educated witch-doctor” and a “strutting petty-bourgeois pedant.” Burnham evinced no agony over this rupture. His commitment was “rational and pragmatic, not spiritual,” he explained. “God had not failed, so far as I was concerned. I had been mistaken, and when I came to realize the extent of my mistakes, it was time to say good-bye.”

Besides, he was developing a new theory of the ideological clash enveloping the industrial world, which he pulled together in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. It sold more than one hundred thousand hardcover copies in the United States and Britain during World War II, and far more in paperback. Postwar sales surged further when the book was translated into fourteen languages. The New York Times devoted three days of reviews and analyses to the book. Time displayed Burnham’s photo with a review that called the volume “the most sensational book of political theory since The Revolution of Nihilism.” Peter Drucker, reviewing it for the Saturday Review of Literature, labeled it “one of the best recent books on political and social trends.”

It argued that the great clash of the era was not between capitalism and socialism, but rather between capitalism and an emerging centralized society dominated by a new managerial class—business executives, technicians, soldiers, government bureaucrats and various kinds of experts in various kinds of organizations. This new class would assault the old structures of entrepreneurial capitalism, institute central planning and undercut any true democracy by superimposing themselves upon society as a kind of managerial oligarchy. Governmental intrusion and control would increase, though certain democratic norms would be preserved to provide legitimacy. The managerial era would engender superstates that would compete for global primacy. The outlines of this new epoch could be seen in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and, in less developed form, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The book had its critics, most notably George Orwell, whose penetrating analysis suggested how Burnham had gone astray. And some developments predicted by Burnham proved spectacularly wrong—for example, that Germany would win the war (this was before U.S. entry); that Germany and Japan would remain powerful states in their respective spheres; that Germany would not attack the USSR before a British defeat; and that the Soviets would be conquered. But Orwell pronounced the fundamental thesis “difficult to resist” and indeed incorporated it into his famous novel 1984. In retrospect, it is clear that Burnham had identified a fundamental shift in power interrelationships in the industrial world. Indeed, the most consequential fault line in American politics since the New Deal has been between the rising managerial class and those resisting its seemingly inexorable ascendancy.

Next came Burnham’s 1943 volume The Machiavellians, a kind of realist manifesto designed to help readers get past the myths of political discourse (or, as Burnham called them, ideologies) and get to the essence of political contention, which is always about power and its distribution. In projecting his thesis, he explored the thinking of four neo-Machiavellians—Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel. He made five important points.

First, the concept of representative government is essentially a fiction because of what Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy”—elites always emerge and zealously protect their power, while the masses ultimately depend psychologically upon autocratic leadership. Second, the myths or ideologies of any polity, while often nonrational in origin and substance, are crucial in maintaining societal cohesion and stability (along with the standing of elites), and so it is frivolous to attack them on the basis of verifiable facts or logic. Third, all healthy elites must maintain a kind of slow circulation, admitting new members and expelling obsolete elements, and they must maintain an equilibrium between lions (leaders who are traditionalist in outlook and willing to impose force) and foxes (the innovative ones who live by their wits, employing fraud, deceit and shrewdness). Without this flexibility and balance, an elite will atrophy and ultimately lose power. Fourth, human nature is fixed and flawed, and so government policies dedicated to the ethical fulfillment of man in society, as opposed to the protection of liberty, will fail. Fifth, societal stability and liberty require a balance of competing powers to check leadership abuses; as Burnham put it, “Only power restrains power.” This leads to Burnham’s faith in what Mosca called “juridical defense”—essentially, the equilibrium that ensues when competing influences and forces in society, both governmental and nongovernmental, are allowed to counteract each other.