James Burnham

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James Burnham (November 22, 1905 - July 29, 1987) was a leading American conservative of the 1950s, and an editor of National Review magazine.

He is best known as a proponent of Rollback against Soviet Communism, which he promoted in the late 1940s. Opponents warned it would lead to nuclear war. It was adopted by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Soviet Communism collapsed.

In the 1930s he was a Communist of the Trotskyite anti-Soviet variety, but was attacked by Trotsky himself and expelled by the Socialist Workers Party in 1940.

  • “Modern liberalism, for most liberals, is not a consciously understood set of rational beliefs, but a bundle of unexamined prejudices and conjoined sentiments. The basic ideas and beliefs seem more satisfactory when they are not made fully explicit, when they merely lurk rather obscurely in the background, coloring the rhetoric and adding a certain emotive glow.” [1]

Early Life

James Burnham was born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 22, 1905.[2]

Radical Politics

During the early and mid 1930's, Burnham was a committed Trotskyite Communist.[3]

Turn to Conservatism

After rejecting Trotskyism in 1940, Burnham continued to develop his beliefs, until in the 50's he was a conservative.[4] It was during this time period, that Burnham wrote some of his most important books, such as The Managerial Revolution.

The Managerial Revolution

In 1941, Burnham published one of his best known books, The Managerial Revolution, which created "quite a stir" in both England and the United States.[5] In The Managerial Revolution, Burnham lists four Managerial Ideologies:[6]

The book was (and still is) unusual for its focus on the underside of the Administrative State, or managerial state, as Burnham makes the case that "Under the centralized economic structure of managerial society, regulation (planning) is a matter of course".[6] Commonly, writers separate the various ideologies apart based on the nature of their master plans without examining their core use of Central planning.

National Review

James Burnham helped William Buckley found National Review in 1955,[7] being its first editor.


Burnham passed away from cancer on July 29, 1987.[8] Upon his passing, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan both expressed deep sadness.[9][10][11]

Further reading

  • Francis, Samuel. James Burnham: Thinkers of Our Time‎ (2nd ed. 1999) 164 pages
    • previously published as Power and history: the political thought of James Burnham‎ (1984)
  • Kelly, Daniel. James Burnham and the struggle for the world: a life (2002) 443 pages; the standard scholarly biography

Primary Sources

  • Burnham, James. The Managerial Revolution: Or What is Happening in the World Now (1940), highly influential study of capitalism
  • Burnham, James. The Struggle for the World (1947)
  • Burnham, James. The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950)
  • Burnham, James. Containment or Liberation? (1952).


  1. Conservative Books
  2. (2014) American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Open Road Media, 186-190. 
  3. (2013) Rebound: Getting America Back to Great. Rowman and Littlefield, 67. 
  4. (2003) Fifty Key Figures in Management. Routledge, 32. 
  5. Orwell, George (1946). Work : Essays : James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution.
  6. 6.0 6.1 (2003) The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. New York: John Day Company, 185-205. 
  7. (1959) Congress and the American Tradition. Transaction Publishers, 19. 
  9. (2012) Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography. Regnery Publishing, 289-290. 
  10. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1987/072987d.htm
  11. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1987, 895. “Nancy and I have learned with deep sadness of the passing of James Burnham. Mr. Burnham, the author of seminal works, like The Managerial Revolution and The Suicide of the West, and a senior editor of the National Review, was one of those principally responsible for the great intellectual odyssey of our century: the journey away from totalitarian statism and towards the uplifting doctrines of freedom.”