James Burnham and The Struggle for the World

Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out this pathetic Michael Lind article in The Corner on Monday and it has roused me from my stupor. Lind’s polemical hit and run on conservatives comes dressed up as a book review of James Burnham and the Struggle For the World by Daniel Kelly. Since I have read the book in question and since I did my Masters Thesis on Burnham and containment, I thought it appropriate that I set the record straight. Lind’s essay provides an easy target, as it is full of intellectual dishonesty, attempted smears, and historical tunnel vision. What follows is not a full-fledged deconstruction or “fisking” but rather an overview of some of the major errors.

The first thing you must understand about Michael Lind is that his rasion d’ etre is to shout from the rooftops: Liberals are cool conservatives are not! Lind tried to fight the cultural tide and associate with conservatives (if you want to get picky, neo-conservatives) but soon found he couldn’t take the heat and so turned and attacked conservatism with a vengeance. To help you situate the new Michael Lind, this former editor of the National Interest published Up From Conservatism (his brave turn away form the sinister Right) in 1996 with praise from Gore Vidal and Sean Wilentz on the back cover. After have worked at one of the most respected and intelligent journals on the planet (The National Interest), Lind seems to have gone of the deep end following the path of Gary Wills and David Brock. Now Lind can be relied upon to hoist the liberal banner in op-ed pages and respectable journals like the New Yorker. The message is simple: conservatives are racists, elitist, misogynist, haters of everyone except their rich patrons and friends and the modern day GOP is simply a reflection of this intellectual failure. Lind, viewing himself as a fiercely independent and creative intellect, favors a “liberal nationalism” molded on Teddy Roosevelt. Lind is running so far from his neo-conservative roots that he makes Bill Kristol look like Russell Kirk.

True to this theme, Lind starts out by noting how cool James Burnham would have been had he died in 1946. Lind admirs the Burnham who

While teaching at NYU, he worked as a top deputy of Leon Trotsky, wrote essays for Partisan Review, and acquired an enviable reputation during vacations as a chemin de fer player at casinos near Biarritz. After breaking with Trotsky in 1940, he wrote “The Managerial Revolution” (1941), a worldwide best-seller that Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials cited as an explanation of contemporary history, and “The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom” (1943), an eloquent and controversial study of the nature of power. George Orwell denounced him and Ezra Pound corresponded with him. Burnham was often found on panels alongside the likes of Andre Malraux, Reinhold Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

But Lind disapproves of the Burnham who was marginalized by the “liberal intellectual establishment” and who “worked at Buckley’s National Review as an editor from its founding in 1955 until his effective retirement in the late 1970s.”

The clear meaning behind Lind’s words are that once Burnham began associating with conservatives, leaving behind the rarefied air of Schlesinger and Niebuhr, he had chosen the losing side of history. To make this clear Lind steps away from his discussion of Burnham to smear conservatives:

The largely unintellectual conservatives who preceded them before the 1950s, and succeeded them in the 1990s, have been surly, demagogic and wrong about everything; in contrast, the mid-century “movement” conservatives around Buckley were wrong about everything in a sprightly and erudite way. They were never for racism, only against desegregation; they did not support apartheid, they merely vilified its victims and critics; they were not in favor of dire poverty, they just objected to any and all government programs that might ameliorate it.

Isn’t that nice?! Conservatives were wrong about “everything.” To soften the blow, he admits that Buckley and his friends at the early NR at least were wrong in a “sprightly and erudite way.” Does Lind offer any proof or examples of how exactly conservatives were wrong about everything? No because he doesn’t have to – his readers know that conservatives are by definition wrong because they are not part of the “liberal intellectual establishment.”

But Lind goes farther. Not only does he reject the modern American Conservative Movement as wrong but he also denies its influence:

From today’s vantage point, it is clear that the anticommunist and libertarian conservatism that Burnham and Buckley fashioned alongside Goldwater and Reagan was a sideshow. The real story of the American Right in the second half of the 20th century was the defection of Southern white conservatives from the Democratic Party and their capture, by the 1990s, of the Republican Party.

Do you see it now? All of that writing and thinking and activism was a ruse. The real story was how the GOP sold its soul to racism in order to win the White House. Don’t you feel better knowing the whole story?

The intellectual dishonesty in this assertion would be mind boggling if it were not so common. At root Lind commits a common error in trying to tie all of the various aspects of American conservatism into one neat little conspiracy theory. Lind wants to wrap the political, philosophical, and cultural aspects of conservatism together and then invalidate them by connecting them to today’s favorite bogeymen: race and fundamentalism. Hence, Lind’s obsession with people like George Wallace and Jerry Falwell:

In this story, Richard Nixon with his Southern strategy and George Wallace are more important than Barry Goldwater, and the fundamentalist theology of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had more effect than scholastic debates in the pages of National Review.

It never dawns on Lind that George Wallace and Richard Nixon aren’t conservative and that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, while on the conservative side of the spectrum politically, are not the leaders of the conservative movement or the GOP for that matter. What is even more amazing is that Lind could talk about the history of conservatism and ignore the influence of the West and Midwest. Lind is not interested in a balanced view of history. He needs villains and Wallace and Robertson fit the bill.

So, Lind’s obsessions prevent him from getting conservatism right but does he get Burnham right? No. As with conservatism, he immediately paints a very biased picture of Burnham’s views in the Cold War. Lind situates Burnham’s views in the debate between Containment and Rollback (more commonly know as “liberation” at the time):

Beginning with the Truman administration, anticommunist liberals and conservative realists like George F. Kennan proposed to “contain” the Soviet empire, until it mellowed and perhaps broke up. Burnham and his conservative allies denounced containment as appeasement. In its place, they called for “rollback” – an offensive war of some sort against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites . . . The bankruptcy and disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent death of communism, outside of a few tyrannies like China, Vietnam, and Cuba, vindicated Cold War liberalism. The strategy of containment, which the Right said would fail, worked. The liberal democratic welfare-state, which many National Review conservatives had depicted as a doomed compromise between the alternatives of communism and Christian conservatism, was the alternative to which ex-communist nations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union gratefully turned.

The problem with this analysis is two-fold. First it assumes a black and white line between containment and rollback and two it assumes that containment worked.

Ironically, Lind uses George F. Kennan as an example of someone who favored containment. While this is certainly true, it ignores the changes in Kennan’s views over the years. Kennan had his disagreements with the liberal intellectual establishment after his service in the State Department. A whole cottage industry sprung up around the debate over whether the “early Kennan” agreed with the “later Kennan.” To site Kennan as having supported the policies of the Cold War is disingenuous at best. In fact, Kennan and Burnham came to very similar positions later in the Cold War. Both eventually came to call for disengagement – a policy aimed at getting the US and the Soviet Union out of Europe so the Europeans could tend to their own affairs. The liberal intellectual establishment soundly rejected this policy. Few on the right agreed wholeheartedly with Burnham but Buckley allowed for a full debate in the pages of the National Review (If I ever get around to posting my thesis on the web, you could read about this in great detail). What Lind also ignores is that containment always included efforts at rollback. From assistance to anti-communists in Greece and CIA subterfuge around the globe to the funding of Solidarity in Poland, the US government frequently attempted to break the status quo of containment. So as to not give any conservatives credit, Lind of course ignores the crucial work of the CIA and others in funding anti-communist groups in Eastern Europe. Lind ignores this type of activity because it is exactly the type of propaganda and subterfuge that Burnham was calling for at the time. The liberal intellectual establishment was too busy accusing the CIA of fascism and murder to realize that the organization was funding anti-communist groups around the globe, including some that liberals like Arthur Schlesinger were members of at the time.

Besides the fact that containment and rollback were not so easy to separate, Lind also refuses to see that containment’s victory came with a heavy price. It is easy to sit back and gloat that containment “won” if you didn’t have to live in East Germany or Poland or Lithuania. Does Lind honestly believe that George Kennan meant for containment to take fifty years? Does he think that having millions of people murdered and tortured at the hand of communist butchers while the West watched helplessly was victory? The reason conservative focused on “liberation” was because many of them had escaped the hell of communism and were heartbroken by thoughts of those still trapped behind the Iron Curtain. I am glad that the West eventually triumphed over the Soviet Union but any talk of victory without accounting for the lives lost is cold hearted and arrogant.

To wrap up this little smear campaign, Lind attempts to claim Burnham as a liberal. First he denies Burnham any connection to the Neocons. In discussing Burnham’s three most important works Lind notes:

All three show the influence of the early-20th century “elitists”: thinkers such as Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Georges Sorel. These “Machiavellians,” like Burnham, are “defenders of freedom” because they unmask the attractive lies with which self-serving elites disguise their personal and factional ambitions. Nothing could be further in spirit from the optimistic faith in benevolent elites of today’s Straussian neo-conservatives, who learned from the mid-century German philosopher Leo Strauss to distinguish the “esoteric” truth, accessible only to “philosophers,” from the deceptive “exoteric” version of reality that must be disseminated to the broader public by politicians, pundits, and preachers.

Then Lind writes Burnham out of today’s conservatism:

It is doubtful whether someone with Burnham’s mature views would be a conservative at all in today’s America. Instead of the American world empire based in the Middle East that today’s neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Charles Krauthammer dream of, Burnham wanted a polycentric world governed by a balance of power. Burnham also believed that, to check an imperial presidency of the kind sought by neo-conservatives (at least when a Republican is in the White House), the American republic needs a strong and confident Congress. “Congress and the American Tradition” is a brilliant defense of the importance of Congress against the majoritarian tyranny embodied in presidential “Caesarism,” which the liberal left supported under FDR and his liberal successors and which the Right champions today. Burnham, who in “Congress and the American Tradition,” defended habeas corpus as a cornerstone of Anglo-American liberty, probably would have been appalled at the Bush administration’s claim that US citizens described as “enemy combatants” can be detained in military prisons indefinitely.

Stretching for a connection Lind says “Burnham worked his way back to something like the pessimistic liberalism of the American Founders” failing to explain how liberalism in 1776 relates to liberalism of 2003. What Lind is trying to say is that when Burnham was right he was liberal when he was wrong he was conservative.

The tragedy of all of this is that the whole point of Kelly’s biography was to explore the unique place Burnham inhabited in the conservative movement; to discuss Burnham as a scholar, journalist, and polemicist but also as a person. Lind rejects this for a cheap shot at conservatism. Lind’s arrogance comes from his belief that he has the answers to history. He can’t make sense of the complexity and tension involved in American Conservatism so he falls for a caricature and a smear.

Since Lind has obviously failed, tomorrow I will give you my take on James Burnham and the Struggle for the World.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Lind is surely a fool, but occasionally he stumbles, backwards almost, onto something near the truth. I think, for example, it might be a fair thing to say that Burnham would be less than impressed by many of our neoconservatives. Relatedly, he would probably be decried facilely as a stale old paleoconservative simply because he would have no patience whatever for our debacle of an immigration policy. “Buchananite” or “nativist” would not be far from his detractors’ lips.

  2. Having read most of Burnham’s books and essays, I would have to agree with the idea that he was wrong about almost everything. Here is a short run-down of his major mistakes:

    1) During the early days of World War II, he predicted that Germany would easily defeat England.

    2) In the early stages of the Cold War he advocated the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against the Russians – which would have started World War III and been a moral disaster.

    3) He refused to recognize the reality of the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s and in fact argued for years afterwards that the Chinese and Russians were still closely allied, despite a mountain of evidence against this fact. This error was rooted in his fundamental belief that communists leaders were ideologues first and nationalists second, which was a misreading of reality.

    4) He vastly over-estimated the power of the Soviet Union and China, arguing that the West was doomed in the 1960s when in fact the United States already enjoyed a huge economic advantage over communism.

    5) He was a huge fan of dictators all over the world, in places as far a field as Iran, Spain, Greece, Indonesia and Chile. The policy he advocated led to the US supporting murderous regimes and losing the respect of freedom loving people all over the world. A large part of the current tide of global anti-Americanism can be traced back to the policies Burnham supported.

    6) He pined after European imperialism long after it had lost any logic or rational. He thought that people in Asia and Africa were incapable of governing themselves, and ignored the crimes against humanity committed by colonial regimes like South Africa, Rhodesia and French Algeria.

    7) He advocated the use of biological and chemical weapons in Viet Nam, the sort of thing that gives Saddam Hussein a bad name.

    In summary, I think Burnham was one of the most repellent figures in American intellectual history, and should best be regarded as a case study of how not to think about the world.

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