James Burnham

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James Burnham (November 22, 1905July 28, 1987) was an American philosopher and political theorist. He chaired the New York University Department of Philosophy and became a radical activist in the 1930s and an important factional leader of the American Trotskyist movement. In later years Burnham rejected Marxism and became an even more influential theorist of the political right as a leader of the American conservative movement. His 1941 book The Managerial Revolution speculated on the future of capitalism. Burnham was an editor and a regular contributor to William F. Buckley's conservative magazine National Review on a variety of topics. He rejected containment of the Soviet Union and called for the rollback of communism worldwide.


  • Liberals, unless they are professional politicians seeking votes in the hinterland, are not subject to strong feelings of national patriotism and are likely to feel uneasy at patriotic ceremonies. These, like the organizations in whose conduct they are still manifest, are dismissed by liberals rather scornfully as ‘flag-waving’ and ‘100 percent Americanism.’ The national anthem is not customarily sung or the flag shown, unless prescribed by law, at meetings of liberal associations. When a liberal journalist uses the phrase ‘patriotic organization,’ the adjective is equivalent in meaning to ‘stupid, reactionary and rather ludicrous.’ The rise of liberalism to predominance in the controlling sectors of American opinion is in almost exact correlation with the decline in the ceremonial celebration of the Fourth of July, traditionally regarded as the nation’s major holiday. To the liberal mind, the patriotic oratory is not only banal but subversive of rational ideals; and judged by liberalism’s humanitarian morality, the enthusiasm and pleasures that simple souls might have got from the fireworks could not compensate the occasional damage to the eye or finger of an unwary youngster. The purer liberals of the Norman Cousins strain, in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, are more likely to celebrate UN day than the Fourth of July.
  • There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power. Oppositions which do not express genuine social forces are as trivial, in relation to entrenched power, as the old court jesters.
    • James Burnham (1987) The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom. p. 280

Burnham's Letter of Resignation, 1940


James Burnham, "Burnham's Letter of Resignation," The Fourth International, v. 1, no. 4 (August 1940), pp. 106–107.

  • The faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party, its conclusion, and the recent formation of the Workers Party have been in my own case, the unavoidable occasion for the review of my own theoretical and political beliefs. This review has shown me that by no stretching of terminology can I regard myself, or permit others to regard me, as a Marxist.
  • I reject, as you know, the "philosophy of Marxism," dialectical materialism....

    The general Marxian theory of "universal history," to the extent that it has any empirical content, seems to me disproved by modern historical and anthropological investigation.

    Marxian economics seems to me for the most part either false or obsolete or meaningless in application to contemporary economic phenomena. Those aspects of Marxian economics which retain validity do not seem to me to justify the theoretical structure of the economics.

    Not only do I believe it meaningless to say that "socialism is inevitable" and false that socialism is "the only alternative to capitalism"; I consider that on the basis of the evidence now available to us a new form of exploitive society (which I call "managerial society") is not only possible but is a more probable outcome of the present than socialism....

    On no ideological, theoretic or political ground, then, can I recognize, or do I feel, any bond or allegiance to the Workers Party (or to any other Marxist party). That is simply the case, and I can no longer pretend about it, either to myself or to others.

The Managerial Revolution, 1941


James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, 1941.

  • I shall present a theory - which I call "the theory of the managerial revolution." During the past century, dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of "theories of history" have been elaborated. All of the theories, with the exception of those few which approximate to the theory of the managerial revolution, boil down to two and only two. The first of these predicts that capitalism will continue for an indefinite, but long, time, if not forever:' that is, that the major institutions of capitalist society, or at least most of them, will not be radically changed. The second predicts that capitalist society will be replaced by socialist society. The theory of the managerial revolution predicts that capitalist society will be replaced by "managerial society," that, in fact, the transition from capitalist society to managerial society is already well under way.
  • Ideologies capable of influencing and winning the acceptance of great masses of people are an indispensable verbal cement holding the fabric of any given type of society together.
    • p. 25; as cited in: Thomas Diefenbach (2009) Management and the Dominance of Managers. p. 138
  • The contention that control over the instruments of production is everywhere undergoing a shift, away from the capitalists proper and toward the managers, will seem to many fantastic and naive, especially if we are thinking in the first instance of the United States. Consider, it will be argued, the growth of monopoly in our times, Think of the Sixty Families, with their billions upon billions of wealth, their millions of shares of stock in the greatest corporations, and their lives which exceed in luxury and display anything even dreamed of by the rulers of past ages. The managers, even the chief of them, are only the servants, the bailiffs of the Sixty Families. How absurd to call the servant, master!
  • To say that the ruling class is themanagers is almost the same thing as to say that it is the state bureaucracy', he writes.
    • p. 57; Cited in Fred Riggs (1970) "Introduction: Shifting Meanings of the Term 'Bureaucracy'"
  • The managers will exercise their control over the instruments of production and gain preference in the distribution of the products, not directly, through property rights vested in them as individuals, but indirectly, through their control of the state which in turn will own and control the instruments of production. The state – that is, the institutions which comprise the state – will if we wish to put it that way, be the “property” of the managers’.
    • p. 71–72; As cited in: Stijn Maria Verhagen (2005). Zorglogica’s uit balans. p. 300
  • We are now in a period of social transition, a period characterized, that is, by an unusually rapid rate of change of the most important economic, social, political, and cultural institutions of society. This transition is from the type of society which we have called capitalist or bourgeois to a to a type of society which we shall call managerial.
  • They must at the same time be so expressed as to be capable of appealing to the sentiments of the masses. An ideology embodying the interests of a given ruling class would not be of the slightest use as social cement if it openly expressed its function of keeping the ruling class in power over the rest of society. The ideology must ostensibly speak in the name of 'humanity', 'the people', the race', 'the future', 'God', 'destiny', and so on.
    • 186; as cited in: Thomas Diefenbach (2009) Management and the Dominance of Managers. p. 128
  • In its own more confused, less advanced way, New Dealism too has spread abroad the stress on the state as against the individual, planning as against private enterprise, jobs (even if relief jobs) against opportunities, security against initiative, "human rights" against "property rights." There can be no doubt that the psychological effect of New Dealism has been what the capitalists say it has been: to undermine public confidence in capitalist ideas and rights and institutions. Its most distinctive features help to prepare the minds of the masses for the acceptance of the managerial social structure.
    • p. 201–202.
  • The New Deal is a phase of the transition process from capitalism to managerial society. The New Deal is not Stalinism and not Nazism. But no candid observer, friend or enemy of the New Deal, can deny that in terms of economic, social, political, ideological changes from traditional capitalism, the New Deal moves in the same direction as Stalinism and Nazism.
  • The Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution... but a managerial revolution... Today Russia is the nation which has, in its structural aspects, advanced furthest along the managerial road.
    • p. 220–221; As cited in Marcel van der Linden (2007, p. 83)
  • [A rival theory that has to be better than the dominant “90 percent explanation” cannot go wrong very often and still stay in the contest. For the challenger of a 50 percent incumbent, some shortcomings are not that fatal. This comparative situation has to be remembered as argued by James Burnham:]

    ... we must keep in mind an obvious principle of scientific method. To disprove the theory, it is not enough to show that it is not 100% certain,that difficulties confront it, and certain evidence seems to be against it. It must be further shown that it is less certain than alternative theories covering the same subject matter, that there are in its case more difficulties, more negative evidence than in the case of at least one alternative theory. No theory about what actually happens and will happen is ever ‘certain’.

    • p. 274; As cited in: Jan Tullberg "Comparatism — A constructive approach in the philosophy of science." The Journal of Socio-Economics 40 (2011) 444–453
  • The managers - these administrators, experts, directing engineers, production executives, propaganda specialists, technocrats - are the only social group among almost all of whose members we find an attitude of self-confidence. Bankers, capitalist owners, liberal politicians, workers, farmers, shopkeepers-all these display, in public and private, doubts and fears and worries and gloom. But no one who comes into contact with managers will fail to have noticed a very considerable assurance in their whole bearing. They know that they are indispensable in modern society.

Quotes about James Burnham

  • Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham's theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of "cold war" with its neighbors.
    Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a "peace that is no peace."
    • George Orwell. "You and the Atom Bomb", Tribune (19 October 1945): Commonly cited as the first documented use of the phrase "cold war",
  • The publication of two books … helped to galvanize the concerns that were beginning to emerge among intellectuals (and many others) about the implications of totalitarianism. One was James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution … [A second] Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom... was far more controversial — and influential. Even more than Burnham, Hayek forced into public discourse the question of the compatibility of democracy and statism. And unlike Burnham, he made no pretense of neutrality about the phenomena he described. ...In responding to Burnham and Hayek... liberals were in fact responding to a powerful strain of Jeffersonian anti-statism in American political culture... The result was a subtle but important shift in liberal thinking.
    • Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform : New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)
  • It is tempting to write off Burnham’s Trotskyist phase as wasted time, a six-year detour into the sterile world of left-wing sects. But this judgment would be wrong... [because] the involvement prepared him for what would be his real career.
    • Daniel Kelly (2002) James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life. p. 87; as cited in: The Independent Review, by Joseph R. Stromberg. 2013.
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