James Burnham was the most influential conservative intellectual you’ve probably never heard of. Oh, I suppose if you are of a previous generation, or if you are yourself (or strive to be) an intellectual, you probably have run across the name. You certainly have heard of William Buckley and the National Review. The National Review which was as much a brainchild of Burnham and reflected his “war for the world” as it was Buckley’s.
Burnham was the first neo-con. He probably would have objected to that moniker. Neo-con, in that he was a fan of Machiavellian approaches to winning the Cold War, his “world struggle”. He was not a moralist, like so many today pretend to be. Neither was he an ideologue, thank God. The Lord knows we have enough of those, who can only think in terms of random words their “influencers” drip upon them and which stack themselves up helter-skelter in their minds and which they defend to the death, convinced as they are onto something original.
He was instead a realist, an Aristotelian (as all true, good conservatives are) and a cold-warrior who knew that man could not be perfected but by a perfect God, and never in this life. Although Burnham was an atheist, until the end – when upon his death bed he returned to the Catholic Church (everybody is an atheist when they are strong and healthy. But give them a stroke, a heart attack or a battle with cancer, and all of a sudden they can belt out “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” like they were back in Sunday School).
Burnham lived an extraordinary life; and this amazing biography by Daniel Kelly captures it extremely well. It was well documented, written without judgement (pro or con) and gives us an inside glimpse into the man who wrote “The Managerial Revolution” (the analysis, written 80 years ago which – terrifyingly – came true). What a momentous time it must have been, to be living in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. This book drips with the names (not name-dropped in the “oh look at my selfie with Obama” way, but instead as an organic part of the story of a man of true influence) of people we all (at least should) know about. It starts with Burnham’s correspondence with Trotsky (he burned all those letters when he abandoned Bolshevism – what a tragedy!!!). Late night conspiring with Arthur Koestler; editorial battles with Frank Meyer; criticized by Ezra Pound; dinner with Richard Nixon; his eternal friendship with William Buckley – receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.
Burnham was first and last and foremost an intellectual, of the caliber we have not seen in a generation. A man of learning, whose command of the currents and trends and historical implications of everyday debates and decisions was profound. As many great thinkers, he started out sympathetic to the communists’ political project. And with all clear-headed visionaries he abandoned it with the utopianism of youth when he realized there was nothing to be found in the visions of perfection beyond the blood-soaked breadlines except more tyranny and death. He became conservative, as all smart people do, because he realized that life is cyclical, that things go by only to come around again – perhaps in a different form and dressed up in a new frock but if we sit on the bench long enough we can recognize the patterns of the human condition for what they are, and apply what we have learned to the lazy and inexperienced minds before they bring ruin and disaster. At least that is the hope.
I don’t know what future historians – what future biographers like Daniel Kelly will say about the Burnhams of the 21st century. I often wonder if they even exist; I sure can’t seem to find any of them. Which is a real problems, because the Maos, the Lenins, the Chavez’s, the Pol Pots and the Ivan Marquez’s are alive and well and to be found behind a repainted old slogan atop an old mantra bemoaning the eternal victimization of man and pleading, again, “To each according to his need.”