Edmund Wilson was incredulous about his friend John Dos Passos’s left-to-right political U-turn. He expressed this in verse:
On account of Soviet Knavery
He favors restoring slavery.
Like Wilson before me, I struggle to understand what compelled so many 1930s left-wing thinkers to become conservatives by the 1940s and 1950s. Below I grapple with an explanation for the left-to-right trajectory by way of a brief intellectual biography of James Burnham. Consider this a cautionary tale.
Burnham is a key thinker among the anti-Stalinist left that Alan Wald has written about in his 1987 book The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. Burnham, along with Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, and Will Herberg, is also one of four people analyzed by John Patrick Diggins in his 1975 book, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History. (Note: these two books pair well together precisely because their ideological perspectives are vastly different. Diggins, who remained a Cold War liberal well past that ideology’s expiration date, wrote that his book “could be called a study of progress,” made apparent by the book’s title. The leftist Wald, on the other hand, calls the conservative turn taken by the left-wing intellectuals he studies “The Great Retreat”—he might have called it “Down from Communism”—and writes that Burnham had by the mid-1940s “settled upon a vulgar anticommunist ideology that would sustain his increasingly banal writings for the next forty years.”)
Unlike most New York intellectuals, Burnham was born into relative comfort, as his dad was a Burlington Railroad executive in Chicago. After an elite undergraduate and graduate education, Burnham took a position at New York University as a philosophy professor, where he hoped to explore his budding interest in Thomism. But like so many others, the Great Depression wreaked havoc on Burnham’s worldview and by 1930 he had begun reading Marx. Certain elements of Marx would remain with Burnham forever, well beyond his intellectual U-turn, particularly his hyper-skeptical view of liberal pieties. But it was Leon Trotsky who converted him to the cause of communism. Burnham was particularly transfixed by Max Eastman’s English translation of Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution (1932).
Burnham’s friendship with fellow NYU philosopher Sidney Hook pushed him even further to the left. Hook’s 1933 book, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, which a reviewer called “the most significant contribution to Marxism which has as yet appeared in America,” melded pragmatism, the quintessentially American philosophy of his teacher John Dewey, to the radical internationalism of Karl Marx. Although Burnham loved Trotsky’s teleological and metaphorical approach to history, he recognized that such analysis would not translate well into an American context. Burnham was a sucker for the poetics of Hegelian dialectics, but was more convinced by Hook’s interpretation of Marx through Dewey’s pragmatic notion that all ideas must be verifiable in experience. “Any problem which cannot be solved by some actual or possible practice,” Hook wrote, “may be dismissed as no genuine problem at all.” The underlying premise was that if the Great Depression signaled the death knell of capitalism, Americans should turn to Marx, the greatest critic of capitalism, in their efforts to create a better tomorrow—but, only insofar as Marx’s ideas worked in the context of the American experiment.
Hook pushed Burnham to help organize the American Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. As Wald writes: “To the Trotskyist movement he brought some special qualities: a breadth of cultural knowledge, a writing style free of Marxist clichés, an aura of objectivity and impartiality, and a fresh perspective on indigenous political issues.” But by 1940 Burnham had left the Trotskyist movement and thereafter rapidly became one of its most scathing critics. By the early postwar years he was a full-blown anticommunist conservative, and would later become a regular contributor to Buckley’s National Review. How did this happen?
One of the most important debates among the sectarian left of the 1930s revolved around the following questions: Was Stalinism a bastardization of the Russian Revolution? Was it a betrayal of Marx? Or was Stalinism the logical conclusion of both Bolshevism and Marxism? Diggins wrote: “The ‘Russian Question’ forced veteran Marxists in Europe and America to discuss the problem of ends and means and the relationship between revolutionary violence and political conscience. Soon an intellectual search was under way to discover the fatal flaw in the history of communist theory and practice, the original sin, as it were, from which Stalinism took its malignant birth.”
Trotsky and most people in the various Trotskyist groups, including the Workers Party, declared that Stalinism was the result of conservative and bourgeois elements within the revolution that sought centralized authority over the proletariat. Burnham disagreed with Trotsky and quit the Workers Party, which led to desolation of the sort that often engenders a painful reexamination of one’s own ideas. Burnham had concluded that he had been seduced by a philosophy—the Marxist dialectic—which was entirely predicated on nothing more substantial than a series of metaphors. It was in the context of such self-reflection that he wrote his most famous book in 1941, The Managerial Revolution, which Diggins describes as “an answer to Trotskyism and a farewell to Marxism as a philosophy of history and as a program of hope—but not as a mode of analysis.”
More from Diggins’s astute analysis of The Managerial Revolution: “Marx was right about the past: the domination of the capitalist class, which ruled by virtue of its economic role in the course of development, made democracy historically impossible; he was wrong about the future: the domination of the new managerial class, which rules by virtue of its technological and organizational necessity, makes democracy eternally impossible.” This is why C. Wright Mills later gave Burnham the unflattering title, “The Marx of the Managers.”
Diggins continued: “Managerialism, of which Stalinism was an expression, evolved logically from Marx’s assumption that all power and authority derived from possession of the means of production. As sociological phenomena, managerial rule, technological authority, and bureaucratic domination could be traced back to the means of production, the ownership of which Marx had regarded as the sole source of power and freedom.” In short, Marx’s notion of historical development, which was grounded in the Hegelian dialectic, was dead wrong. But Marx’s notion of power, which unlike liberalism saw through the sham of sentimental higher principles like justice, was right in that who controlled production controlled society.
Burnham had given up on Marx’s socialist revolution but had retained Marx’s clear-eyed skepticism of liberal shibboleths. From there the trek to conservatism was short, since Burnham could no longer cling to socialism and he had never clung to liberalism. Burnham’s next book, The Machiavellians (1943) illustrated his deep disdain for democracy and his growing uncritical fascination with elite rule.
At an abstract philosophical level, Burnham’s journey from far left to far right makes some sense, and in this it might support the “horseshoe theory” which posits that the far left and far right are closer to each other than either is to the political center. It also might support James Livingston’s longstanding argument that socialism and Marxism and other isms don’t have particular or predictable left or right political valences. But I am highly skeptical that these are the correct conclusions to draw from the cautionary tale of Burnham, and not only because his Marxism was, like Hook’s, always a peculiar sort. More to the point: How does someone go from supporting ideas that amount to a rationale for universal equality in one second, to supporting ideas that amount to a defense of rigid hierarchy in the next?
I have not yet solved the riddle of left-to-right turncoats. Perhaps this riddle is unsolvable. But I’d love to hear your ideas!