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



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.



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

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

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

4 For various works on the subject, see Norton, Anne, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) ; Drury, Shadia B., Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York: Martin's Press, 1997) ; and ‘The Esoteric Philosophy of Leo Strauss’, Political Theory, 13:3 (August, 1985), pp. 315337 .

5 Smith, Steven B., Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) ; Alter, Robert, ‘Neocon or Not?’, New York Times (25 June 2006) . See also, Lilla, Mark, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York: New York Review Books, 2001) .

6 See, for example, George, Jim, ‘Leo Strauss, Neoconservatism and US Foreign Policy: Esoteric Nihilism and the Bush Doctrine’, International Politics, 42:2 (June 2005), pp. 174202 .

7 Kristol, Irving, Neoconservatism: Autobiography of an Idea (Chicago, Ill: Ivan R. Dee, 1999) .

8 Norton, , Leo Strauss, pp. 161180 ; and the useful review of the work in Cooper, Barry, Perspectives on Politics, 3:3 (September 2005), pp. 622623 .

9 Kristol, Iriving, ‘Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed – Perhaps the Only – Neoconservative’, in Kristol, Irving (ed.), Reflections of a Neoconservative (New York: Basic Books, 1983) .

10 Dorrien, Gary, The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture and War of Ideology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 63 . See, Bazelon, David T., Power in America: The Politics of the New Class (New York: New York American Library, 1967) ; Djilas, Milovan, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Praeger, 1957) ; Rizzi, Bruno, The Bureaucratization of the World, trans. Adam Westoby (New York: Free Press, 1985, orig. 1939) .

11 Steinfels, Peter, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979) .

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

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

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. 19 .

16 Dorrien, , The Neoconservative Mind, p. 63 .

17 Fukuyama, Francis, ‘After Neoconservatism’, New York Times Magazine (19 February 2006) .

18 Novak, Michael, Will It Liberate? Questions about Liberation Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), pp. 4748 ; Dorrien, , The Neoconservative Mind, p. 7 .

19 Harrington, Michael, ‘The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics’, Dissent, 20 (Autumn 1973), pp. 435454 ; Dorrien, , The Neoconservative Mind, p. 2 .

20 Mann, James, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004) ; Franchon, Alain and Vernet, Daniel, L'Amérique messianique (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 2004) . Francis Fukuyama is useful in pointing out these sources: America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 196.

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

22 Kirkpatrick, Jeanne, ‘Politics and the New Class’, Society, 16:2 (January–February 1979), p. 48 .

23 Monten, Jonathan, ‘The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in US Strategy’, International Security, 29:4 (2005), pp. 112156 , 112 and variously cited sources: Kagan, Robert, ‘America as Hegemon’, In the National Interest, 2:29 (July 2003) ; Ferguson, Niall, ‘A World Without Power’, Foreign Policy, 143 (July/August 2004), p. 32 .

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) .

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

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. 132 .

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) .

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

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) .

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, 6 .

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

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

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

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

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

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) .

45 Burnham, James, Containment or Liberation? An Inquiry into the Aims of US Foreign Policy (New York: John Day Company, 1953), p. 20 ; Kennan, George F., ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs, 25:4 (July 1947), pp. 566582 . 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. 2627 .

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. A4 .

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

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) .

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

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

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. 31 .

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

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. xvxvi ; 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. 136 .

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. 75 .

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

77 Burnham, , Containment of Liberation?, p. 31 . 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. 524 ; and with Engels, F., Manifesto of the Communist Party (Melbourne: International Bookshop, orig. 1848), p. 24 . For an overview of Marxist critiques of law, see Collins, Hugh, Marxism and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) .

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. 1 .

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. 20 .

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

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

87 Buruma, Ian, ‘Ghosts of the Holocaust’, Los Angeles Times (3 June 2007), p. M8 .

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

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

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

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) .

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



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