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The first neo-conservative: James Burnham and the origins of a movement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 October 2010


This article examines the origins of American neo-conservatism by assessing the contributions of one of its less known inspirations, James Burnham. In charting Burnham's political philosophies and various contemporary reactions to them, this article examines his legacy as it relates to the movement, specifically in his approach to foreign affairs and institutions. It argues that he was more a pioneer than is often acknowledged. In so doing this article also corrects misunderstandings that have arisen in critiques of neo-conservatism, suggesting that Burnham's oeuvre may offer more instructive guidance than some of his contemporaries in understanding the neo-conservative revolution in American foreign policy.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

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1 For its continuity in American history, see Kagan, Robert, ‘Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776’, World Affairs Journal (Spring 2008), {}CrossRefGoogle Scholar and more generally Mead, Walter Russell, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)Google Scholar .

2 For examples, see Kristol, William, ‘A Nobel War Speech?’, The Weekly Standard, 15:14 (21 December 2009)Google Scholar ; Boot, Max, ‘Obama's Finest Hour’, Commentary Magazine (10 December 2009)Google Scholar , {}.

3 A good examination of this is Gray, John, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (London: Allen Lane, 2007)Google Scholar .

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12 For a few others, see Francis, Samuel, Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984)Google Scholar ; Smant, Kevin J., How Great the Triumph: James Burnham, Anticommunism and the Conservative Movement (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992)Google Scholar .

13 Nash, George H., The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976), p. 91Google Scholar .

14 See Christopher Hitchens, who makes a few useful pointers in ‘How Neo-conservatives Perish’, Harper's Magazine (1990), and reproduced in For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports (London: Verso, 1993), p. 144.

15 Dorrien, Gary, The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture and War of Ideology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 19Google Scholar .

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21 Fukuyama, , America at the Crossroads, pp. 4849Google Scholar .

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24 George M. Jackman, Jr. of Amesbury, Mass. to James Burnham, 7 April 1953, Folder 5.1, Box 5, James Burnham Papers (JBP), Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

25 James Burnham, ‘Formula to Reality’, in The Organizing Committee of the Socialist Party Convention, New York City, Internal Bulletin No. 5, December (1937), copy in Folder 8.5, Box 8, JBP.

26 Burnham, James, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World (New York: The John Day Company, 1941)Google Scholar .

27 Orwell, George, ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’, New English Weekly (May 1946)Google Scholar .

28 The point is made, somewhat curtly, by Helene Garden: letter to James Burnham, 7 June 1941, Folder 8.1: ‘Communism and Anti-Communism’, Box 8, JBP.

29 Burnham, James, The Machiavellians (New York: John Day, 1943), p. 132Google Scholar .

30 Sidney Schupak, Philadelphia to James Burnham, received 3 March 1964, Folder 4.4, Box 4, JBP; Christy Thomas, La Jolla, California, to James Burnham, Folder 4.4, Box 4, JBP.

31 James Burnham, ‘Goldwater as Omen’, article intended for Sunday Telegraph (UK) (1964), Folder 4.5, Box 4, JBP.

32 Young, Marilyn B., ‘Imperial Language’, in Gardner, Lloyd and Young, Marilyn B. (eds), The New American Empire (New York: The New Press, 2005)Google Scholar .

33 Ferguson, Niall, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004)Google Scholar ; Podhoretz, Norman, ‘World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win’, Commentary (September 2004), pp. 1754Google Scholar .

34 Hegemony being one partner in an arrangement, league or union being stronger to the benefit of that association: Harris, Lee, ‘The Greeks Had a Word For It: Hegemony vs. Empire’, Tech Central Station, (14 February 2005)Google Scholar .

35 Kristol, William and Kagan, Robert, ‘National Interest and Global Responsibility’, in Kagan, Robert and Kristol, William (eds), Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000), pp. 324, 6Google Scholar .

36 Burnham, James, The Struggle for the World (New York: John Day, 1947), p. 197Google Scholar .

37 Burnham, James, quoted in Hitchens, ‘How Neo-conservatives Perish’, in For the Sake of Argument, p. 144Google Scholar ; Burnham, , Struggle for the World, p. 182Google Scholar .

38 Burnham, , Struggle for the World, pp. 183184Google Scholar .

39 Morison, J. L., Review, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 24:3 (July 1948), p. 407CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

40 For the exchanges, see Burnham, James, ‘Max Eastman As Scientist’, New International, 4:6 (June 1938), pp. 177180Google Scholar ; Eastman, Max, ‘Burnham Dodges My Views’, New International, 4:8 (August 1938), pp. 244246Google Scholar . The disagreements, and Trotsky's disavowal of Eastman, are documented in Diggins, John P., Up From Communism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 173179Google Scholar .

41 Max Eastman, Chilmark, Mass. to JB, 15 July 1950, Folder 6.18, Box 6, JBP.

42 This view was frequently expressed by him in travels to developing countries: The Ceylon Observer, ‘Extreme Form of Imperialism’, 1 April 1951; Ceylon Daily News, ‘Communism is an Extreme Form of Imperialism’, 5 April 1951: copies in Box 1, JBP.

43 Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Pacific Palisades, CA to James Burnham, Life Magazine, New York (7 April 1947), Folder 6.23, Box 6, JBP. For other positive reaction to the imperial view, see Nicolas Burr of West Hartford, Conn., to James Burnham (10 April 1947), Folder 5.28, Box 5, JBP.

44 Burnham, James, The Coming Defeat of Communism (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1950)Google Scholar .

45 Burnham, James, Containment or Liberation? An Inquiry into the Aims of US Foreign Policy (New York: John Day Company, 1953), p. 20Google Scholar ; Kennan, George F., ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs, 25:4 (July 1947), pp. 566582Google Scholar . Kennan did, argues Peter Grose, flirt with the notion of political and subversive warfare in early stages, but abandoned it later: see Operation Rollback: America's Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 2000).

46 Burnham, , Containment or Liberation?, pp. 2627Google Scholar .

47 Ibid., p. 29.

48 Ibid., p. 36.

49 Ibid., pp. 38–9, 70, 242.

50 See the review by Reuss, Henry S., ‘Liberalism Is Driving Us All Into the Ground, It Says Here’, Washington Post (10 April 1964), p. A4Google Scholar .

51 Ashford, Gerald, ‘Burnham on Liberalism’, San Antonio Express/News (19 April 1964)Google Scholar .

52 By liberalism, Burnham meant a fusion of nineteenth century principles, twentieth century egalitarianism, statism, reforms and semi-socialism: James Burnham, ‘Goldwater as Omen’ (1964), at p. 4; article intended for the Sunday Telegraph (UK), copy in Box 4, JBP.

53 Burnham, ‘Goldwater as Omen’, 9.

54 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

55 Respectively, Sidney Shupak, Philadelphia, to James Burnham, letter received 3 March 1964, Folder 4.4, Box 4, JB Papers; Frederick Busi, French Department of University of Massachusetts, 7 May 1964, Folder 4.4, Box 4, JBP.

56 Christy Thomas of La Jolla, California to JB, 10 April 1964, Folder 4.4, Box 4, JBP.

57 James Burnham, ‘What's Wrong With the Cold War?’ 1964 typed script, in Box 4, JBP.

58 For relevant documents, see Greenberg, Karen J. and Dratel, Joshua L. (eds), The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

59 Orwell, George, ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’, Polemic, 3:1 (May 1946)Google Scholar , and in Orwell, George, Essays, ed. Carey, John (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 10521073Google Scholar .

60 Burnham, quoted by Orwell, ‘James Burnham’, at p. 1072.

61 Orwell, ‘James Burnham’, p. 1061.

62 Burnham, ‘Lenin's Heir’, quoted by Orwell, ‘James Burnham’, p. 1062.

63 Dorrien, , Neoconservative Mind, p. 42Google Scholar . For the criticism, see Mabel, Lionel, ‘Stalin's Advocate’, Politics, 2:5 (May 1945), pp. 146148Google Scholar ; Macdonald, Dwight, ‘Beat Me Daddy’, Partisan Review, 12:2 (Spring 1945), pp. 181187Google Scholar .

64 The Struggle for the World, quoted in J. P. Zmirak, ‘America the Abstraction’, The American Conservative (13 January 2003, {}.

65 Burnham, James, ‘A War Distorted: The Uncivilized Will Enslave or Destroy Us If We Do Not Fight’, New York Times (9 April 1971), p. 31Google Scholar .

66 Burnham, James, ‘China Policy: The Balance Sheet’, New York Times (5 May 1971), p. 47Google Scholar .

67 Burnham in ‘Science and Style’, appended in In Defense of Marxism, 198.

68 G. Salvemimi, introductory essay to Salomone, A. W., Italian Democracy in the Making (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945), quoting Mosca, pp. xvxviGoogle Scholar ; Juan J. Linz, ‘Fascism, Breakdown of Democracy, Authoritarian and Totalitarian Regimes: Coincidences and Distinctions’, Estudio/Working Paper 2002/179 (October 2002), at p. 50.

69 James Burnham, ‘Democracy, Oligarchy and Freedom’, (15 July 1952), pp. 1–2, Lecture at the Aspen Institute, Aspen, Colorado, Folder 3.4, Box 3, JBP.

70 Burnham, ‘Democracy, Oligarchy and Freedom’, p. 4. Emphasis in original.

71 James Burnham to Silva Norkela, Institute of Political Science, Turku, Finland (19 November 1972), Box 1, JBP.

72 For one such defense, see Lawrence Sherwin Friedman, James Burnham's Interpretation of History, MA Thesis in Political Science, University of Illinois, 1950 (Urbana), at 6, copy in Folder 1.2, Box 1, JBP.

73 Such an error is made by Friedman, , James Burnham's Interpretation of History, p. 136Google Scholar .

74 Edward Crankshaw, Cracks in the Kremlin, excerpt in ‘Catastrophic Age’, The Washington Post (2 October 1951), copy in Box 1, Folder 1.2, JBP.

75 Wilford, Hugh, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 75CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

76 Miłosz to Burnham, undated, probably 1952, Folder 10.2, Box 10, JBP. Emphasis in original.

77 Burnham, , Containment of Liberation?, p. 31Google Scholar . For John Bolton's appraisal, see Surrender Is Not An Option: Defending America at the UN and Abroad (New York: Threshold Editions, 2007) and the review by Brian Urquhart, ‘One Angry Man’, New York Review of Books, 55:3 (6 March 2008), {}.

78 See Marx, Karl, ‘Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Press, 1989), p. 524Google Scholar ; and with Engels, F., Manifesto of the Communist Party (Melbourne: International Bookshop, orig. 1848), p. 24Google Scholar . For an overview of Marxist critiques of law, see Collins, Hugh, Marxism and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

79 Burnham, James, ‘What is the Purpose of the UN?’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 252 (July 1947), pp. 110, p. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

80 Burnham, ‘What is the Purpose of the UN?’, p. 1.

81 Burnham, ‘Goldwater as Omen’.

82 Charles M. Cooke, US Navy, Retired, Admiral, Sonoma County, CA to James Burnham and Robert Strausz-Hupe (7 March 1961), Folder 6.3, Box 6, JBP.

83 Charles O'Hara, Canton 3, Ohio, to James Burnham (29 January 1953), Folder 5.1, Box 5, JBP.

84 Kristol, and Kagan, , Present Dangers, p. 20Google Scholar .

85 Jowitt, Kenneth, ‘Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change: The Urge to Speed History Along’, Policy Review, 118 (April–May 2003), pp. 3342Google Scholar .

86 Tanenhaus, Sam, ‘Hello to All That: The irony behind the demise of the Partisan Review’, Slate Magazine (16 April 2003)Google Scholar , {}.

87 Buruma, Ian, ‘Ghosts of the Holocaust’, Los Angeles Times (3 June 2007), p. M8Google Scholar .

88 See a review by Robertson, Neil G., The Journal of Politics, 61:1 (February 1999), pp. 261263CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

89 Jumonville, Neill, The New York Intellectuals Reader (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 411Google Scholar .

90 Burnham quoted in Dorrien, The Neoconservative Mind, p. 39; Lazare, Donald, ‘Neoconservatism and Orthodoxy’, American Quarterly, 47:2 (June 1995), pp. 361368, 363CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

91 After the syndicalist author Georges Sorel, The Illusions of Progress, trans. John and Charlotte Stanley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); Reflections on Violence, trans. T. E. Hulme (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915).

92 The view is perpetuated in such popular documentary programmes as Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (BBC, 2004).

93 Kagan, Robert, ‘Armed for Reality’, The Washington Post (13 December 2009)Google Scholar .

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