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] his parents were Claude George Burnham and Mary May (Gillis) Burnham.[3] His father was a prominent executive with the Burlington Railroad Company.[4] He went to university at Princeton and Balliol, and among his professors were J.R.R. Tolkien and Martin D’Arcy.[5]

Radical Politics

During the early and mid 1930's, Burnham was a committed Trotskyite Communist,[6] and helped to found the American Workers Party[7] with A. J. Muste and Sidney Hook.

His beliefs in Trotskyism were short lived. By 1940's, he had openly resigned from the communist movement.[8]

Turn to Conservatism

After rejecting Trotskyism in 1940, Burnham continued to develop his beliefs, until in the 50's he was a conservative.[9] 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.[10] In The Managerial Revolution, Burnham lists four Managerial Ideologies:[11]

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".[11] 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,[12] being its first editor.

Later Years

On February 23, 1983, President Reagan awarded Burnham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[13] Reagan gave the following short remarks: "As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world. Since the 1930's, Mr. Burnham has shaped the thinking of world leaders. His observations have changed society and his writings have become guiding lights in mankind's quest for truth. Freedom, reason and decency have had few greater champions in this century than James Burnham."

Death and Legacy

Burnham passed away from cancer on July 29, 1987.[14] Upon his passing, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan both expressed deep sadness.[15][16][17]

Historian George H. Nash argues that Congress and the American Tradition is "one of the most penetrating works of political analysis produced by conservatives since World War II."[18]


  • Introduction to philosophical analysis, (1932)
  • War and the workers, (1935)
  • Why did they "confess"? a study of the Radek-Piatakov trial, (1937)
  • The People's Front: The New Betrayal, (1937)
  • How to Fight War: Isolation, Collective Security, Relentless Class Struggle?, (1938)
  • Let the people vote on war!, (1938)
  • The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, (1941)
  • In defense of Marxism (against the petty-bourgeois opposition), (1942)
  • The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, (1943)
  • The struggle for the world, (1947)
  • The case for De Gaulle; a dialogue between Andre Malraux and James Burnham, (1948)
  • The Coming Defeat of Communism, (1949)
  • Why does a country go communist? (An address delivered at the Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom on March 31, 1951), (1951)
  • The case against Adlai Stevenson, (1952)
  • Containment or liberation? An inquiry into the aims of United States foreign policy, (1953)
  • The Web of Subversion: Underground Networks, (1954)
  • Congress and the American Tradition, (1959)
  • Bear and dragon; what is the relation between Moscow and Peking?, (1960)
  • Does ADA run the New Frontier?, (1963)
  • Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, (1964)
  • The War We Are In: The Last Decade and the Next, (1967)

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. How Great the Triumph: James Burnham, Anticommunism, and the Conservative Movement
  4. Herringshaw's American Blue-book of Biography: Prominent Americans of 1914 - An Accurate Biographical Record of Prominent Citizens in All Walks of Life
  5. The power of James Burnham
  6. (2013) Rebound: Getting America Back to Great. Rowman and Littlefield, 67. 
  7. Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism
  8. Burnham’s Letter of Resignation - Marxists.org
  9. (2003) Fifty Key Figures in Management. Routledge, 32. 
  10. Orwell, George (1946). Work : Essays : James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution.
  11. 11.0 11.1 (2003) The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. New York: John Day Company, 185-205. 
  12. (1959) Congress and the American Tradition. Transaction Publishers, 19. 
  13. Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. February 23, 1983
  14. JAMES BURNHAM IS DEAD AT 82; FOUNDER OF NATIONAL REVIEW. New York Times (July 30, 1987).
  15. (2012) Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography. Regnery Publishing, 289-290. 
  16. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1987/072987d.htm
  17. 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.” 
  18. Introduction

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