What is happening in the world? When one looks at recent news, one can’t help feeling a sense of bewilderment. A storied Olympian announces his new gender on the cover of Vanity Fair, the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage a constitutional right, racial violence returns to St. Louis and Baltimore, police are ambushed and murdered in New York City and Houston, murder is on the rise, Democratic candidates apologize for saying all lives matter, “trigger warnings” precede the teaching of Ovid at university, the president unilaterally amnesties millions of illegal immigrants, politically correct mobs use social media to silence dissent and intimidate heretics, hundreds of thousands of migrants flood into Europe, a slowing Chinese economy causes volatility in the U.S. stock market, more than 70 percent of Americans say they are unhappy with the direction of the country, and the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is a billionaire television star who promises to deport illegal aliens, oppose free trade, raise taxes on hedge funds, and establish a national health plan where “you can get everything in Obamacare, but much more.”
This rush of unexpected, unprecedented, indeed shocking events is enough to induce dizziness. The accompanying confusion is widespread and mounting. Our national consensus has been “shattered,” writes James Piereson. “Something is going on,” says Peggy Noonan. But neither she nor anyone else seems to know what that something is.
It is James Burnham we might turn to for guidance. Born in 1905 to a wealthy Chicago family, the now largely forgotten social theorist attended Princeton and Oxford, taught philosophy at New York University, contributed to the New York intellectual journal Partisan Review, served in the CIA, and was, in the words of William F. Buckley Jr., the “dominant intellectual influence” at National Review from 1955 to his retirement as senior editor in 1978.
“Burnham,” wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb in 1950, “restored to conservatism some of the hard-headedness it had lost in an effete age of liberal democracy.” In books and essays and columns, Burnham wrote prolifically and controversially on foreign policy, the Cold War, Communist subversion, the separation of powers, congressional supremacy, and the ideology and consequences of liberalism. “He devoted,” Buckley said of Burnham in 1980, “over a period of 23 years, more time and thought to more problems, major and minor, than would seem possible for an editor resident in Kent, Connecticut, who came to New York only two days every week.”
What makes Burnham worth studying now are two books he wrote during the Second World War. These controversial, long-out-of-print texts were the result of the intellectual tumult Burnham experienced as he abandoned the radical Trotskyism of his 30s for the idiosyncratic conservatism of his maturity. The Managerial Revolution (1941) is a commentary on the state of the world at the time of writing. The Machiavellians (1943) is a study of the Italian sociological school of elite theory. Together, they promise to explain nothing less than, as the subtitle of Revolution puts it, “What is happening in the world.”
“Burnham has probably been more right than wrong about the present and the immediate past,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, despite his criticisms of Burnham’s conclusions and vision of the future. And there was plenty to criticize. Burnham’s style is detached, technical, cold, empirical, dense, somber, and often boring. His attitudes on race, too, would today exile him from polite company.
In his attempts to approach politics as scientifically as a physicist approaches physics, Burnham is sometimes guilty of reductionism, determinism, historicism, materialism, and pessimism. Many of his predictions were incorrect. He is often read not as a serious thinker whose ideas remain vivid and enthralling, but as an exemplar of those Communists who abandoned the faith for militant opposition to all political religions—a prototypical neocon. Burnham is neglected, or treated as a fossil.
He shouldn’t be. The war writings of James Burnham not only are a powerful antidote to wishful thinking about politics and society. They also propose a method for the study of cultural, economic, social, diplomatic, and political phenomena. By drawing attention to the actions and beliefs of elites, by describing a transformation in the nature of American democracy, Burnham helps illuminate the world of the caliph, El Chapo, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Caitlyn Jenner.