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  • James Burnham and the Anthropology of Liberalism

    Posted on October 16th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    James Burnham was an interesting anthropological data point in his own right.  A left wing activist in the 30’s, he eventually became a Trotskyite.  By the 50’s however, he had completed an ideological double back flip to conservatism, and became a Roman Catholic convert on his deathbed.  He was an extremely well-read intellectual, and a keen observer of political behavior.  His most familiar book is The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941.  Among others, it strongly influenced George Orwell, who had something of a love/hate relationship with Burnham.  For example, in an essay in Tribune magazine in January 1944 he wrote,

    Recently, turning up a back number of Horizon, I came upon a long article on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham’s main thesis was accepted almost without examination.  It represented, many people would have claimed, the most intelligent forecast of our time.  And yet – founded as it was on a belief in the invincibility of the German army – events have already blown it to pieces.

    A bit over a year later, in February 1945, however, we find Burnham had made more of an impression on Orwell than the first quote implies.  In another essay in the Tribune he wrote,

    …by the way the world is actually shaping, it may be that war will become permanent.  Already, quite visibly and more or less with the acquiescence of all of us, the world is splitting up into the two or three huge super-states forecast in James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution.  One cannot draw their exact boundaries as yet, but one can see more or less what areas they will comprise.  And if the world does settle down into this pattern, it is likely that these vast states will be permanently at war with one another, although it will not necessarily be a very intensive or bloody kind of war.

    Of course, these super-states later made their appearance in Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984.  However, he was right about Burnham the first time.  He had an unfortunate penchant for making wrong predictions, often based on the assumption that transitory events must represent a trend that would continue into the indefinite future.  For example, impressed by the massive industrial might brought to bear by the United States during World War II, and its monopoly of atomic weapons, he suggested in The Struggle for the World, published in 1947, that we immediately proceed to force the Soviet Union to its knees, and establish a Pax Americana.  A bit later, in 1949, impressed by a hardening of the U.S. attitude towards the Soviet Union after the war, he announced The Coming Defeat of Communism in a book of that name.  He probably should have left it at that, but reversed his prognosis in Suicide of the West, which appeared in 1964.  By that time it seemed to Burnham that the United States had become so soft on Communism that the defeat of Western civilization was almost inevitable.  The policy of containment could only delay, but not stop the spread of Communism, and in 1964 it seemed that once a state had fallen behind the Iron Curtain it could never throw off the yoke.

    Burnham didn’t realize that, in the struggle with Communism, time was actually on our side.  A more far-sighted prophet, a Scotsman by the name of Sir James Mackintosh, had predicted in the early 19th century that the nascent versions of Communism then already making their appearance would eventually collapse.  He saw that the Achilles heel of what he recognized was really a secular religion was its ill-advised proclamation of a coming paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in the spiritual realms of the traditional religions, where it couldn’t.  In the end, he was right.  After they had broken 100 million eggs, people finally noticed that the Communists hadn’t produced an omelet after all, and the whole, seemingly impregnable edifice collapsed.

    One thing Burnham did see very clearly, however, was the source of the West’s weakness – liberalism.  He was well aware of its demoralizing influence, and its tendency to collaborate with the forces that sought to destroy the civilization that had given birth to it.  Inspired by what he saw as an existential threat, he carefully studied and analyzed the type of the western liberal, and its evolution away from the earlier “liberalism” of the 19th century.  Therein lies the real value of his Suicide of the West.  It still stands as one of the greatest analyses of modern liberalism ever written.  The basic characteristics of the type he described are as familiar more than half a century later as they were in 1964.  And this time his predictions regarding the “adjustments” in liberal ideology that would take place as its power expanded were spot on.

    Burnham developed nineteen “more or less systematic set of ideas, theories and beliefs about society” characteristic of the liberal syndrome in Chapters III-V of the book, and then listed them, along with possible contrary beliefs in Chapter VII.  Some of them have changed very little since Burnham’s day, such as,

    It is society – through its bad institutions and its failure to eliminate ignorance – that is responsible for social evils.  Our attitude toward those who embody these evils – of crime, delinquency, war, hunger, unemployment, communism, urban blight – should not be retributive but rather the permissive, rehabilitating, education approach of social service; and our main concern should be the elimination of the social conditions that are the source of the evils.

    Since there are no differences among human beings considered in their political capacity as the foundation of legitimate, that is democratic, government, the ideal state will include all human beings, and the ideal government is world government.

    The goal of political and social life is secular:  to increase the material and functional well-being of humanity.

    Some of the 19 have begun to change quite noticeably since the publication of Suicide of the West in just the ways Burnham suggested.  For example, items 9 and 10 on the list reflect a classic version of the ideology that would have been familiar to and embraced by “old school” liberals like John Stuart Mill:

    Education must be thought of as a universal dialogue in which all teachers and students above elementary levels may express their opinions with complete academic freedom.

    Politics must be though of as a universal dialogue in which all persons may express their opinions, whatever they may be, with complete freedom.

    Burnham had already noticed signs of erosion in these particular shibboleths in his own day, as liberals gained increasing control of academia and the media.  As he put it,

    In both Britain and the United States, liberals began in 1962 to develop the doctrine that words which are “inherently offensive,” as far-Right but not communist words seem to be, do not come under the free speech mantle.

    In our own day of academic safe spaces and trigger warnings, there is certainly no longer anything subtle about this ideological shift.  Calls for suppression of “offensive” speech have now become so brazen that they have spawned divisions within the liberal camp itself.  One finds old school liberals of the Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” days resisting Gleichschaltung with the new regime, looking on with dismay as speaker after speaker is barred from university campuses for suspected thought crime.

    As noted above, Communism imploded before it could overwhelm the Western democracies, but the process of decay goes on.  Nothing about the helplessness of Europe in the face of the current inundation by third world refugees would have surprised Burnham in the least.  He predicted it as an inevitable expression of another fundamental characteristic of the ideology – liberal guilt.  Burnham devoted Chapter 10 of his book to the subject, and noted therein,

    Along one perspective, liberalism’s reformist, egalitarian, anti-discrimination, peace-seeking principles are, or at any rate can be interpreted as, the verbally elaborated projections of the liberal sense of guilt.

    and

    The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obligated to try to do something about any and every social problem, to cure every social evil.  This feeling, too, is non-rational:  the liberal must try to cure the evil even if he has no knowledge of the suitable medicine or, for that matter, of the nature of the disease; he must do something about the social problem even when there is no objective reason to believe that what he does can solve the problem – when, in fact, it may well aggravate the problem instead of solving it.

    I suspect Burnham himself would have been surprised at the degree to which such “social problems” have multiplied in the last half a century, and the pressure to do something about them has only increased in the meantime.  As for the European refugees, consider the following corollaries of liberal guilt as developed in Suicide of the West:

    (The liberal) will not feel uneasy, certainly not indignant, when, sitting in conference or conversation with citizens of countries other than his own – writers or scientists or aspiring politicians, perhaps – they rake his country and his civilization fore and aft with bitter words; he is as likely to join with them in the criticism as to protest it.

    It follows that,

    …the ideology of modern liberalism – its theory of human nature, its rationalism, its doctrines of free speech, democracy and equality – leads to a weakening of attachment to groups less inclusive than Mankind.

    All modern liberals agree that government has a positive duty to make sure that the citizens have jobs, food, clothing, housing, education, medical care, security against sickness, unemployment and old age; and that these should be ever more abundantly provided.  In fact, a government’s duty in these respects, if sufficient resources are at its disposition, is not only to its own citizens but to all humanity.

    …under modern circumstances there is a multiplicity of interests besides those of our own nation and culture that must be taken into account, but an active internationalism in feeling as well as thought, for which “fellow citizens” tend to merge into “humanity,” sovereignty is judged an outmode conception, my religion or no-religion appears as a parochial variant of the “universal ideas common to mankind,” and the “survival of mankind” becomes more crucial than the survival of my country and my civilization.

    For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this:  that the liberal, and the group, nation or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.

    The inevitable implication of the above is that the borders of the United States and Europe must become meaningless in an age of liberal hegemony, as, indeed, they have.  In 1964 Burnham was not without hope that the disease was curable.  Otherwise, of course, he would never have written Suicide of the West.  He concluded,

    But of course the final collapse of the West is not yet inevitable; the report of its death would be premature.  If a decisive changes comes, if the contraction of the past fifty years should cease and be reversed, then the ideology of liberalism, deprived of its primary function, will fade away, like those feverish dreams of the ill man who, passing the crisis of his disease, finds he is not dying after all.  There are a few small signs, here and there, that liberalism may already have started fading.  Perhaps this book is one of them.

    No, liberalism hasn’t faded.  The infection has only become more acute.  At best one might say that there are now a few more people in the West who are aware of the disease.  I am not optimistic about the future of Western civilization, but I am not foolhardy enough to predict historical outcomes.  Perhaps the fever will break, and we will recover, and perhaps not.  Perhaps there will be a violent crisis tomorrow, or perhaps the process of dissolution will drag itself out for centuries.  Objectively speaking, there is no “good” outcome and no “bad” outcome.  However, in the same vein, there is no objective reason why we must refrain from fighting for the survival or our civilization, our culture, or even the ethnic group to which we belong.

    As for the liberals, perhaps they should consider why all the fine moral emotions they are so proud to wear on their sleeves exist to begin with.  I doubt that the reason has anything to do with suicide.

    By all means, read the book.

     

    2 responses to “James Burnham and the Anthropology of Liberalism” RSS icon

    • Helian said:
      One finds old school liberals of the Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” days resisting Gleichschaltung with the new regime, looking on with dismay as speaker after speaker is barred from university campuses for suspected thought crime.

      I’m not so sure that the participants of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement were ever all that principled. There was little talk of free speech when Arthur Jensen published his article in Harvard Educational Review on IQ. Students for a Democratic Society which were major promoters of the so-called Free Speech Movement disrupted Jensen’s lectures and demanded he be fired. It seems Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance caught on pretty quickly.

    • Of course, you’re right. The liberals of 1964 weren’t exactly so many John Stuart Mills. However, there are a few bona fide old liberals around who are getting uneasy about how far things have gone. See, for example, this post by Jerry Coyne. There are several other examples on his website, and he mentions other fellow liberals who agree with him.


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