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George Orwell > James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution > Essay

James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution


[Note: This essay was originally printed in POLEMIC under the title
"Second Thoughts on James Burnham", and later reprinted as a pamphlet
with the present title.]

James Burnham's book, THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION, made a considerable stir
both in the United States and in this country at the time when it was
published, and its main thesis has been so much discussed that a detailed
exposition of it is hardly necessary. As shortly as I can summarise it,
the thesis is this:

Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is
now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be
neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic.
The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control
the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians,
bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of
"managers". These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush
the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic
privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be
abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new
"managerial" societies will not consist of a patchwork of small,
independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main
industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will
fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured
portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another
completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an
aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

In his next published book, THE MACHIAVELLIANS, Burnham elaborates and
also modifies his original statement. The greater part of the book is an
exposition of the theories of Machiavelli and of his modern disciples,
Mosca, Michels, and Pareto: with doubtful justification, Burnham adds to
these the syndicalist writer, Georges Sorel. What Burnham is mainly
concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and, so
far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature
oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and
fraud. Burnham does not deny that "good" motives may operate in private
life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power,
and nothing else. All historical changes finally boil down to the
replacement of one ruling class by another. All talk about democracy,
liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions
of Utopia, or "the classless society", or "the Kingdom of Heaven on
earth", are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the
ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power. The
English Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, were in each case simply
power seekers using the hopes of the masses in order to win a privileged
position for themselves. Power can sometimes be won or maintained without
violence, but never without fraud, because it is necessary to make use of
the masses, and the masses would not co-operate if they knew that they
were simply serving the purposes of a minority. In each great
revolutionary struggle the masses are led on by vague dreams of human
brotherhood, and then, when the new ruling class is well established in
power, they are thrust back into servitude. This is practically the whole
of political history, as Burnham sees it.

Where the second book departs from the earlier one is in asserting that
the whole process could be somewhat moralised if the facts were faced
Machiavelli and his followers taught that in politics decency simply does
not exist, and, by doing so, Burnham claims, made it possible to conduct
political affairs more intelligently and less oppressively. A ruling class
which recognised that its real aim was to stay in power would also
recognise that it would be more likely to succeed if it served the
common good, and might avoid stiffening into a hereditary aristocracy.
Burnham lays much stress on Pareto's theory of the "circulation
of the élites". If it is to stay in power a ruling class must
constantly admit suitable recruits from below, so that the ablest
men may always be at the top and a new class of power-hungry
malcontents cannot come into being. This is likeliest to happen, Burnham
considers, in a society which retains democratic habits--that is, where
opposition is permitted and certain bodies such as the press and the
trade unions can keep their autonomy. Here Burnham undoubtedly
contradicts his earlier opinion. In THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION, which was
written in 1940, it is taken as a matter of course that "managerial"
Germany is in all ways more efficient than a capitalist democracy such as
France or Britain. In the second book, written in 1942, Burnham admits
that the Germans might have avoided some of their more serious strategic
errors if they had permitted freedom of speech. However, the main thesis
is not abandoned. Capitalism is doomed, and Socialism is a dream. If we
grasp what is at issue we may guide the course of the managerial
revolution to some extent, but that revolution IS HAPPENING, whether we
like it or not. In both books, but especially the earlier one, there is a
note of unmistakable relish over the cruelty and wickedness of the
processes that are being discussed. Although he reiterates that he is
merely setting forth the facts and not stating his own preferences, it is
clear that Burnham is fascinated by the spectacle of power, and that his
sympathies were with Germany so long as Germany appeared to be winning
the war. A more recent essay, "Lenin's Heir", published in the PARTISAN
REVIEW about the beginning of 1945, suggests that this sympathy has since
been transferred to the USSR. "Lenin's Heir", which provoked violent
controversy in the American left-wing press, has not yet been reprinted
in England, and I must return to it later.

It will be seen that Burnham's theory is not, strictly speaking, a new
one. Many earlier writers have foreseen the emergence of a new kind of
society, neither capitalist nor Socialist, and probably based upon
slavery: though most of them have differed from Burnham in not assuming
this development to be INEVITABLE. A good example is Hilaire Belloc's
book, THE SERVILE STATE, published in 1911. THE SERVILE STATE is written
in a tiresome style, and the remedy it suggests (a return to small-scale
peasant ownership) is for many reasons impossible: still, it does
foretell with remarkable insight the kind of things that have been
happening from about 1930 onwards. Chesterton, in a less methodical way,
predicted the disappearance of democracy and private property, and the
rise of a slave society which might be called either capitalist or
Communist. Jack London, in THE IRON HEEL (1909), foretold some of the
essential features of Fascism, and such books as Wells's THE SLEEPER
AWAKES (1900), ZAMYATIN'S WE (1923), and Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
(1930), all described imaginary worlds in which the special problems of
capitalism had been solved without bringing liberty, equality, or true
happiness any nearer. More recently, writers like Peter Drucker and F.A.
Voigt have argued that Fascism and Communism are substantially the same
thing. And indeed, it has always been obvious that a planned and
centralised society is liable to develop into an oligarchy or a
dictatorship. Orthodox Conservatives were unable to see this, because it
comforted them to assume that Socialism "wouldn't work", and that the
disappearance of capitalism would mean chaos and anarchy. Orthodox
Socialists could not see it, because they wished to think that they
themselves would soon be in power, and therefore assumed that when
capitalism disappears, Socialism takes its place. As a result they were
unable to foresee the rise of Fascism, or to make correct predictions
about it after it had appeared. Later, the need to justify the Russian
dictatorship and to explain away the obvious resemblances between
Communism and Nazism clouded the issue still more. But the notion that
industrialism must end in monopoly, and that monopoly must imply tyranny,
is not a startling one.

Where Burnham differs from most other thinkers is in trying to plot the
course of the "managerial revolution" accurately on a world scale, and in
assuming that the drift towards totalitarianism is irresistible and must
not be fought against, though it may be guided. According to Burnham,
writing in 1940, "managerialism" has reached its fullest development in
the USSR, but is almost equally well developed in Germany, and has made
its appearance in the United States. He describes the New Deal as
"primitive managerialism". But the trend is the same everywhere, or
almost everywhere. Always LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism gives way to planning
and state interference, the mere owner loses power as against the
technician and the bureaucrat, but Socialism--that is to say, what used to
be called Socialism--shows no sign of emerging:

Some apologists try to excuse Marxism by saying that it has "never had a
chance". This is far from the truth. Marxism and the Marxist parties have
had dozens of chances. In Russia, a Marxist party took power. Within a
short time it abandoned Socialism; if not in words, at any rate in the
effect of its actions. In most European nations there were during the
last months of the first world war and the years immediately thereafter,
social crises which left a wide-open door for the Marxist parties:
without exception they proved unable to take and hold power. In a large
number of countries--Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, England,
Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France--the reformist Marxist parties have
administered the governments, and have uniformly failed to introduce
Socialism or make any genuine step towards Socialism. . .. These parties
have, in practice, at every historical test--and there have been
many--either failed Socialism or abandoned it. This is the fact which
neither the bitterest foe nor the most ardent friend of Socialism can
erase. This fact does not, as some think, prove anything about the moral
quality of the Socialist ideal. But it does constitute unblinkable
evidence that, whatever its moral quality, Socialism is not going to come.

Burnham does not, of course, deny that the new "managerial" régimes,
like the régimes of Russia and Nazi Germany, may be CALLED Socialist. He
means merely that they will not be Socialist in any sense of the word
which would have been accepted by Marx, or Lenin, or Keir Hardie, or
William Morris, or indeed, by any representative Socialist prior to about
1930. Socialism, until recently, was supposed to connote political
democracy, social equality and internationalism. There is not the
smallest sign that any of these things is in a way to being established
anywhere, and the one great country in which something described as a
proletarian revolution once happened, i.e. the USSR, has moved steadily
away from the old concept of a free and equal society aiming at universal
human brotherhood. In an almost unbroken progress since the early days of
the Revolution, liberty has been chipped away and representative
institutions smothered, while inequalities have increased and nationalism
and militarism have grown stronger. But at the same time, Burnham
insists, there has been no tendency to return to capitalism. What is
happening is simply the growth of "managerialism", which, according to
Burnham, is in progress everywhere, though the manner in which it comes
about may vary from country to country.

Now, as an interpretation of what is HAPPENING, Burnham's theory is
extremely plausible, to put it at the lowest. The events of, at any rate,
the last fifteen years in the USSR can be far more easily explained by
this theory than by any other. Evidently the USSR is not Socialist, and
can only be called Socialist if one gives the word a meaning different
from what it would have in any other context. On the other hand,
prophecies that the Russian reégime would revert to capitalism have
always been falsified, and now seem further than ever from being
fulfilled. In claiming that the process had gone almost equally far in
Nazi Germany, Burnham probably exaggerates, but it seems certain that the
drift was away from old-style capitalism and towards a planned economy
with an adoptive oligarchy in control. In Russia the capitalists were
destroyed first and the workers were crushed later. In Germany the
workers were crushed first, but the elimination of the capitalists had at
any rate begun, and calculations based on the assumption that Nazism was
"simply capitalism" were always contradicted by events. Where Burnham
seems to go most astray is in believing "managerialism" to be on the
up-grade in the United States, the one great country where free
capitalism is still vigorous. But if one considers the world movement as
a whole, his conclusions are difficult to resist; and even in the United
States the all-prevailing faith in LAISSEZ-FAIRE may not survive the next
great economic crisis. It has been urged against Burnham that he assigns
far too much importance to the "managers", in the narrow sense of the
word-that is, factory bosses, planners and technicians--and seems to
assume that even in Soviet Russia it is these people, and not the
Communist Party chiefs, who are the real holders of power. However, this
is a secondary error, and it is partially corrected in THE
MACHIAVELLIANS. The real question is not whether the people who wipe
their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers,
bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now
obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.

But curiously enough, when one examines the predictions which Burnham has
based on his general theory, one finds that in so far as they are
verifiable, they have been falsified. Numbers of people have pointed this
out already. However, it is worth following up Burnham's predictions in
detail, because they form a sort of pattern which is related to
contemporary events, and which reveals, I believe, a very important
weakness in present-day political thought.

To begin with, writing in 1940, Burnham takes a German victory more or
less for granted. Britain is described as "dissolving", and as displaying
"all the characteristics which have distinguished decadent cultures in
past historical transitions", while the conquest and integration of
Europe which Germany achieved in 1940 is described as "irreversible".
"England," writes Burnham, "no matter with what non-European allies,
cannot conceivably hope to conquer the European continent." Even if
Germany should somehow manage to lose the war, she could not be
dismembered or reduced to the status of the Weimar Republic, but is bound
to remain as the nucleus of a unified Europe. The future map of the
world, with its three great super-states is, in any case, already settled
in its main outlines: and "the nuclei of these three super-states are,
whatever may be their future names, the previously existing nations,
Japan, Germany, and the United States."

Burnham also commits himself to the opinion that Germany will not attack
the USSR until after Britain has been defeated. In a condensation of his
book published in the PARTISAN REVIEW of May-June 1941, and presumably
written later than the book itself, he says:

As in the case of Russia, so with Germany, the third part of the
managerial problem--the contest for dominance with other sections of
managerial society--remains for the future. First had to come the
death-blow that assured the toppling of the capitalist world order, which
meant above all the destruction of the foundations of the British Empire
(the keystone of the capitalist world order) both directly and through
the smashing of the European political structure, which was a necessary
prop of the Empire. This is the basic explanation of the Nazi-Soviet
Pact, which is not intelligible on other grounds. The future conflict
between Germany and Russia will be a managerial conflict proper; prior to
the great world-managerial battles, the end of the capitalist order must
be assured. The belief that Nazism is "decadent capitalism" . . . makes
it impossible to explain reasonably the Nazi-Soviet Pact. From this
belief followed the always expected war between Germany and Russia, not
the actual war to the death between Germany and the British Empire. The
war between Germany and Russia is one of the managerial wars of the
future, not of the anti-capitalist wars of yesterday and today.

However, the attack on Russia will come later, and Russia is certain, or
almost certain, to be defeated. "There is every reason to believe. . .
that Russia will split apart, with the western half gravitating towards
the European base and the eastern towards the Asiatic." This quotation
comes from THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION. In the above quoted article, written
probably about six months later, it is put more forcibly: "the Russian
weaknesses indicate that Russia will not be able to endure, that it will
crack apart, and fall towards east and west." And in a supplementary note
which was added to the English (Pelican) edition, and which appears to
have been written at the end of 1941, Burnham speaks as though the
"cracking apart" process were already happening. The war, he says, "is
part of the means whereby the western half of Russia is being integrated
into the European super-state".

Sorting these various statements out, we have the following prophecies:

1. Germany is bound to win the war.
2. Germany and Japan are bound to survive as great states, and to remain
the nuclei of power in their respective areas.
3. Germany will not attack the USSR until after the defeat of Britain.
4. The USSR is bound to be defeated.

However, Burnham has made other predictions besides these. In a short
article in the PARTISAN REVIEW, in the summer of 1944, he gives his
opinion that the USSR will gang up with Japan in order to prevent the
total defeat of the latter, while the American Communists will be set to
work to sabotage the eastern end of the war. And finally, in an article
in the same magazine in the winter of 1944-5, he claims that Russia,
destined so short a while ago to "crack apart", is within sight of
conquering the whole of Eurasia. This article, which was the cause of
violent controversies among the American intelligentsia, has not been
reprinted in England. I must give some account of it here, because its
manner of approach and its emotional tone are of a peculiar kind, and by
studying them one can get nearer to the real roots of Burnham's theory.

The article is entitled "Lenin's Heir", and it sets out to show that
Stalin is the true and legitimate guardian of the Russian Revolution,
which he has not in any sense "betrayed" but has merely carried forward
on lines that were implicit in it from the start. In itself, this is an
easier opinion to swallow than the usual Trotskyist claim that Stalin is
a mere crook who has perverted the Revolution to his own ends, and that
things would somehow have been different if Lenin had lived or Trotsky
had remained in power. Actually there is no strong reason for thinking
that the main lines of development would have been very different. Well
before 1923 the seeds of a totalitarian society were quite plainly there.
Lenin, indeed, is one of those politicians who win an undeserved
reputation by dying prematurely. [See Note at end of paragraph] Had he
lived, it is probable that he would either have been thrown out, like
Trotsky, or would have kept himself in power by methods as barbarous,
or nearly as barbarous, as those of Stalin. The TITLE of Burnham's essay,
therefore, sets forth a reasonable thesis, and one would expect him to
support it by an appeal to the facts.

[Note: It is difficult to think of any politician who has lived to be
eighty and still been regarded as a success. What we call a "great"
statesman normally means one who dies before his policy has had time to
take effect. If Cromwell had lived a few years longer he would probably
have fallen from power, in which case we should now regard him as a
failure. If Pétain had died in 1930, France would have venerated him as a
hero and patriot. Napoleon remarked once that if only a cannon-ball had
happened to hit him when he was riding into Moscow, he would have gone
down to history as the greatest man who ever lived. [Author's footnote.]]

However, the essay barely touches upon its ostensible subject matter. It
is obvious that anyone genuinely concerned to show that there has been
continuity of policy as between Lenin and Stalin would start by outlining
Lenin's policy and then explain in what way Stalin's has resembled it.
Burnham does not do this. Except for one or two cursory sentences he says
nothing about Lenin's policy, and Lenin's name only occurs five times in
an essay of twelve pages: in the first seven pages, apart from the title,
it does not occur at all. The real aim of the essay is to present Stalin
as a towering, super-human figure, indeed a species of demigod, and
Bolshevism as an irresistible force which is flowing over the earth and
cannot be halted until it reaches the outermost borders of Eurasia. In so
far as he makes any attempt to prove his case, Burnham does so by
repeating over and over again that Stalin is "a great man"--which is
probably true, but is almost completely irrelevant. Moreover, though he
does advance some solid arguments for believing in Stalin's genius, it is
clear that in his mind the idea of "greatness" is inextricably mixed up
with the idea of cruelty and dishonesty. There are curious passages in
which it seems to be suggested that Stalin is to be admired BECAUSE OF
the limitless suffering that he has caused:

Stalin proves himself a "great man", in the grand style. The accounts of
the banquets, staged in Moscow for the visiting dignitaries, set the
symbolic tone. With their enormous menus of sturgeon, and roasts, and
fowl, and sweets; their streams of liquor; the scores of toasts with
which they end; the silent, unmoving secret police behind each guest; all
against the winter background of the starving multitudes of besieged
Leningrad; the dying millions at the front; the jammed concentration
camps; the city crowds kept by their minute rations just at the edge of
life; there is little trace of dull mediocrity or the hand of Babbitt. We
recognise, rather, the tradition of the most spectacular of the Tsars, of
the Great Kings of the Medes and Persians, of the Khanate of the Golden
Horde, of the banquet we assign to the gods of the Heroic Ages in tribute
to the insight that insolence, and indifference, and brutality on such a
scale remove beings from the human level. . . . Stalin's political
techniques shows a freedom from conventional restrictions that is
incompatible with mediocrity: the mediocre man is custombound. Often it
is the scale of their operations that sets them apart. It is usual, for
example, for men active in practical life to engineer an occasional
frame-up. But to carry out a frame-up against tens of thousands of
persons, important percentages of whole strata of society, including most
of one's own comrades, is so far out of the ordinary that the long-run
mass conclusion is either that the frame-up must be true--at least "have
some truth in it"--or that power so immense must be submitted to is a
"historical necessity", as intellectuals put it. . . . There is nothing
unexpected in letting a few individuals starve for reasons of state; but
to starve by deliberate decision, several millions, is a type of action
attributed ordinarily only to gods.

In these and other similar passages there may be a tinge of irony, but it
is difficult not to feel that there is also a sort of fascinated
admiration. Towards the end of the essay Burnham compares Stalin with
those semi-mythical heroes, like Moses or Asoka, who embody in themselves
a whole epoch, and can justly be credited with feats that they did not
actually perform. In writing of Soviet foreign policy and its supposed
objectives, he touches an even more mystical note:

Starting from the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet
power, like the reality of the One of Neo-Platonism overflowing in the
descending series of the emanative progression, flows outward, west into
Europe, south into the Near East, east into China, already lapping the
shores of the Atlantic, the Yellow and China Seas, the Mediterranean, and
the Persian Gulf. As the undifferentiated One, in its progression,
descends through the stages of Mind, Soul, and Matter, and then through
its fatal Return back to itself; so does the Soviet power, emanating from
the integrally totalitarian centre, proceed outwards by Absorption (the
Baltics, Bessarabia, Bukovina, East Poland), Domination (Finland, the
Balkans, Mongolia, North China and, tomorrow, Germany), Orienting
Influence (Italy, France, Turkey, Iran, Central and south China. . .),
until it is dissipated in MH ON, the outer material sphere, beyond the
Eurasian boundaries, of momentary Appeasement and Infiltration (England,
the United States).

I do not think it is fanciful to suggest that the unnecessary capital
letters with which this passage is loaded are intended to have a hypnotic
effect on the reader. Burnham is trying to build up a picture of
terrifying, irresistible power, and to turn a normal political manoeuvre
like infiltration into Infiltration adds to the general portentousness.
The essay should be read in full. Although it is not the kind of tribute
that the average russophile would consider acceptable, and although
Burnham himself would probably claim that he is being strictly objective,
he is in effect performing an act of homage, and even of self-abasement.
Meanwhile, this essay gives us another prophecy to add to the list: i.e.
that the USSR will conquer the whole of Eurasia, and probably a great
deal more. And one must remember that Burnham's basic theory contains, in
itself, a prediction which still has to be tested--that is, that whatever
else happens, the "managerial" form of society is bound to prevail.

Burnham's earlier prophecy, of a Germany victory in the war and the
integration of Europe round the German nucleus, was falsified, not only
in its main outlines, but in some important details. Burnham insists all
the way through that "managerialism" is not only more efficient than
capitalist democracy or Marxian Socialism, but also more acceptable to
the masses. The slogans of democracy and national self-determination, he
says, no longer have any mass appeal: "managerialism", on the other hand,
can rouse enthusiasm, produce intelligible war aims, establish fifth
columns everywhere, and inspire its soldiers with a fanatical morale. The
"fanaticism" of the Germans, as against the "apathy" or "indifference" of
the British, French, etc, is much emphasised, and Nazism is represented
as a revolutionary force sweeping across Europe and spreading its
philosophy "by contagion". The Nazi fifth columns "cannot be wiped out",
and the democratic nations are quite incapable of projecting any
settlement which the German or other European masses would prefer to the
New Order. In any case, the democracies can only defeat Germany if they
go "still further along the managerial road than Germany has yet gone".

The germ of truth in all this is that the smaller European states,
demoralised by the chaos and stagnation of the pre-war years, collapsed
rather more quickly than they need have done, and might conceivably have
accepted the New Order if the Germans had kept some of their promises.
But the actual experience of German rule aroused almost at once such a
fury of hatred and vindictiveness as the world has seldom seen. After
about the beginning of 1941 there was hardly any need of a positive war
aim, since getting rid of the Germans was a sufficient objective. The
question of morale, and its relation to national solidarity, is a
nebulous one, and the evidence can be so manipulated as to prove almost
anything. But if one goes by the proportion of prisoners to other
casualties, and the amount of quislingism, the totalitarian states come
out of the comparison worse than the democracies. Hundreds of thousands
of Russians appear to have gone over to the Germans during the course of
the war, while comparable numbers of Germans and Italians had gone over
to the Allies before the war started: the corresponding number of
American or British renegades would have amounted to a few scores. As an
example of the inability of "capitalist ideologies" to enlist support,
Burnham cites "the complete failure of voluntary military recruiting in
England (as well as the entire British Empire) and in the United States".
One would gather from this that the armies of the totalitarian states
were manned by volunteers. Actually, no totalitarian state has ever so
much as considered voluntary recruitment for any purpose, nor, throughout
history, has a large army ever been raised by voluntary means. [Note at
end of paragraph] It is not worth listing the many similar arguments that
Burnham puts forward. The point is that he assumes that the Germans must
win the propaganda war as well as the military one, and that, at any rate
in Europe, this estimate was not borne out by events.

[Note: Great Britain raised a million volunteers in the earlier part of
the 1914-18 war. This must be a world's record, but the pressures applied
were such that it is doubtful whether the recruitment ought to be
described as voluntary. Even the most "ideological" wars have been fought
largely by pressed men. In the English civil war, the Napoleonic wars,
the American civil war, the Spanish civil war, etc, both sides resorted
to conscription or the press gang. (Author's footnote.)]

It will be seen that Burnham's predictions have not merely, when they
were verifiable, turned out to be wrong, but that they have sometimes
contradicted one another in a sensational way. It is this last fact that
is significant. Political predictions are usually wrong, because they are
usually based on wish-thinking, but they can have symptomatic value,
especially when they change abruptly. Often the revealing factor is the
date at which they are made. Dating Burnham's various writings as
accurately as can be done from internal evidence, and then noting what
events they coincided with, we find the following relationships:

In THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION Burnham prophesies a German victory,
postponement of the Russo-German war until after Britain is defeated,
and, subsequently, the defeat of Russia. The book, or much of it, was
written in the second half of 1940--i.e. at a time when the Germans had
overrun western Europe and were bombing Britain, and the Russians were
collaborating with them fairly closely, and in what appeared, at any
rate, to be a spirit of appeasement.

In the supplementary note added to the English edition of the book,
Burnham appears to assume that the USSR is already beaten and the
splitting-up process is about to begin. This was published in the spring
of 1942 and presumably written at the end of 1941; i.e. when the Germans
were in the suburbs of Moscow.

The prediction that Russia would gang up with Japan against the USA was
written early in 1944, soon after the conclusion of a new Russo-Japanese

The prophecy of Russian world conquest was written in the winter of 1944,
when the Russians were advancing rapidly in eastern Europe while the
Western Allies were still held up in Italy and northern France.

It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting A CONTINUATION
OF THE THING THAT IS HAPPENING. Now the tendency to do this is not simply
a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by
taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in
cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully
separable from cowardice.

Suppose in 1940 you had taken a Gallup poll, in England, on the question
"Will Germany win the war?" You would have found, curiously enough, that
the group answering "Yes" contained a far higher percentage of
intelligent people--people with IQ of over 120, shall we say--than the
group answering "No". The same would have held good in the middle of
1942. In this case the figures would not have been so striking, but if
you had made the question "Will the Germans capture Alexandria?" or "Will
the Japanese be able to hold on to the territories they have captured ?",
then once again there would have been a very marked tendency for
intelligence to concentrate in the "Yes" group. In every case the
less-gifted person would have been likelier to give a right answer.

If one went simply by these instances, one might assume that high
intelligence and bad military judgement always go together. However, it
is not so simple as that. The English intelligentsia, on the whole, were
more defeatist than the mass of the people--and some of them went on being
defeatist at a time when the war was quite plainly won--partly because
they were better able to visualise the dreary years of warfare that lay
ahead. Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger.
The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the
prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the
possibility of victory. But there was more to it than that. There was
also the disaffection of large numbers of intellectuals, which made it
difficult for them not to side with any country hostile to Britain. And
deepest of all, there was admiration--though only in a very few cases
conscious admiration--for the power, energy, and cruelty of the Nazi
régime. It would be a useful though tedious labour to go through the
left-wing press and enumerate all the hostile references to Nazism during
the years 1935-45. One would find, I have little doubt, that they reached
their high-water mark in 1937-8 and 1944-5, and dropped off noticeably in
the years 1939-42--that is, during the period when Germany seemed to be
winning. One would find, also, the same people advocating a compromise
peace in 1940 and approving the dismemberment of Germany in 1945. And if
one studied the reactions of the English intelligentsia towards the USSR,
there, too, one would find genuinely progressive impulses mixed up with
admiration for power and cruelty. It would be grossly unfair to suggest
that power worship is the only motive for russophile feeling, but it is
one motive, and among intellectuals it is probably the strongest one.

Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost
unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is
winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese
have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if
the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if
the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in
London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that
things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than
they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance
of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake
suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as
though they were already at an end. Burnham's writings are full of
apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are
constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving,
toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving
in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change,
the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch,
is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to
lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction
of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of
five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of
Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the
instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the
existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticise his
theory in a broader way.

The mistakes I have pointed out do not disprove Burnham's theory, but
they do cast light on his probable reasons for holding it. In this
connection one cannot leave out of account the fact that Burnham is an
American. Every political theory has a certain regional tinge about it,
and every nation, every culture, has its own characteristic prejudices
and patches of ignorance. There are certain problems that must almost
inevitably be seen in a different perspective according to the
geographical situation from which one is looking at them. Now, the
attitude that Burnham adopts, of classifying Communism and Fascism as
much the same thing, and at the same time accepting both of them--or, at
any rate, not assuming that either must be violently struggled against--is
essentially an American attitude, and would be almost impossible for an
Englishman or any other western European. English writers who consider
Communism and Fascism to be THE SAME THING invariably hold that both are
monstrous evils which must be fought to the death: on the other hand, any
Englishman who believes Communism and Fascism to be opposites will feel
that he ought to side with one or the other. [Note 1 at end of paragraph]
The reason for this difference of outlook is simple enough and, as usual,
is bound up with wish-thinking. If totalitarianism triumphs and the dreams
of the geopoliticians come true, Britain will disappear as a world power
and the whole of western Europe will be swallowed by some single great
state. This is not a prospect that it is easy for an Englishman to
contemplate with detachment. Either he does not want Britain to
disappear--in which case he will tend to construct theories proving the
thing that he wants-or, like a minority of intellectuals, he will decide
that his country is finished and transfer his allegiance to some foreign
power. An American does not have to make the same choice. Whatever
happens, the United States will survive as a great power, and from the
American point of view it does not make much difference whether Europe is
dominated by Russia or by Germany. Most Americans who think of the matter
at all would prefer to see the world divided between two or three monster
states which had reached their natural boundaries and could bargain with
one another on economic issues without being troubled by ideological
differences. Such a world-picture fits in with the American tendency to
admire size for its own sake and to feel that success constitutes
justification, and it fits in with the all-prevailing anti-British
sentiment. In practice, Britain and the United States have twice been
forced into alliance against Germany, and will probably, before long, be
forced into alliance against Russia: but, subjectively, a majority of
Americans would prefer either Russia or Germany to Britain, and, as
between Russia and Germany, would prefer whichever seemed stronger at the
moment. [Note 2 at end of paragraph] It is, therefore, not surprising that
Burnham's world-view should often be noticeably close to that of the
American imperialists on the one side, or to that of the isolationists on
the other. It is a "tough" or "realistic" worldview which fits in with the
American form of wish-thinking. The almost open admiration for Nazi
methods which Burnham shows in the earlier of his two books, and which
would seem shocking to almost any English reader, depends ultimately on
the fact that the Atlantic is wider than the Channel.

[Note 1: The only exception I am able to think of is Bernard Shaw, who,
for some years at any rate, declared Communism and Fascism to be much the
same thing, and was in favour of both of them. But Shaw, after all, is not
an Englishman, and probably does not feel his fate to be bound up with
that of Britain. (Author's footnote.)]

[Note 2 As late as the autumn of 1945, a Gallup poll taken among the
American troops in Germany showed that 51 percent "thought Hitler did much
good before 1939". This was after five years of anti-Hitler propaganda.
The verdict, as quoted, is not very strongly favourable to Germany, but
it is hard to believe that a verdict equally favourable to Britain would
be given by anywhere near 51 per cent of the American army. (Author's

As I have said earlier, Burnham has probably been more right than wrong
about the present and the immediate past. For quite fifty years past the
general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy. The
ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the
diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and
the growth of the new "managerial" class of scientists, technicians, and
bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised
state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones;
the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party
régimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc: all these
things seem to point in the same direction. Burnham sees the trend and
assumes that it is irresistible, rather as a rabbit fascinated by a boa
constrictor might assume that a boa constrictor is the strongest thing in
the world. When one looks a little deeper, one sees that all his ideas
rest upon two axioms which are taken for granted in the earlier book and
made partly explicit in the second one. They are:

1. Politics is essentially the same in all ages.
2. Political behaviour is different from other kinds of behaviour.

To take the second point first. In THE MACHIAVELLIANS, Burnham insists
that politics is simply the struggle for power. Every great social
movement, every war, every revolution, every political programme, however
edifying and Utopian, really has behind it the ambitions of some
sectional group which is out to grab power for itself. Power can never be
restrained by any ethical or religious code, but only by other power. The
nearest possible approach to altruistic behaviour is the perception by a
ruling group that it will probably stay in power longer if it behaves
decently. But curiously enough, these generalisations only apply to
political behaviour, not to any other kind of behaviour. In everyday life,
as Burnham sees and admits, one cannot explain every human action by
applying the principle of CUI BONO? Obviously, human beings have impulses
which are not selfish. Man, therefore, is an animal that can act morally
when he acts as an individual, but becomes immoral when he acts
collectively. But even this generalisation only holds good for the higher
groups. The masses, it seems, have vague aspirations towards liberty and
human brotherhood, which are easily played upon by power-hungry
individuals or minorities. So that history consists of a series of
swindles, in which the masses are first lured into revolt by the promise
of Utopia, and then, when they have done their job, enslaved over again
by new masters.

Political activity, therefore, is a special kind of behaviour,
characterised by its complete unscrupulousness, and occurring only among
small groups of the population, especially among dissatisfied groups
whose talents do not get free play under the existing form of society.
The great mass of the people--and this is where (2) ties up with (1)--will
always be unpolitical. In effect, therefore, humanity is divided into two
classes: the self-seeking, hypocritical minority, and the brainless mob
whose destiny is always to be led or driven, as one gets a pig back to
the sty by kicking it on the bottom or by rattling a stick inside a
swill-bucket, according to the needs of the moment. And this beautiful
pattern is to continue for ever. Individuals may pass from one category
to another, whole classes may destroy other classes and rise to the
dominant position, but the division of humanity into rulers and ruled is
unalterable. In their capabilities, as in their desires and needs, men
are not equal. There is an "iron law of oligarchy", which would operate
even if democracy were not impossible for mechanical reasons.

It is curious that in all his talk about the struggle for power, Burnham
never stops to ask why people want power. He seems to assume that power
hunger, although only dominant in comparatively few people, is a natural
instinct that does not have to be explained, like the desire for food. He
also assumes that the division of society into classes serves the same
purpose in all ages. This is practically to ignore the history of
hundreds of years. When Burnham's master, Machiavelli, was writing, class
divisions were not only unavoidable, but desirable. So long as methods of
production were primitive, the great mass of the people were necessarily
tied down to dreary, exhausting manual labour: and a few people had to be
set free from such labour, otherwise civilisation could not maintain
itself, let alone make any progress. But since the arrival of the machine
the whole pattern has altered. The justification for class distinctions,
if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no
mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a
drudge. True, drudgery persists; class distinctions are probably
re-establishing themselves in a new form, and individual liberty is on
the down-grade: but as these developments are now technically avoidable,
they must have some psychological cause which Burnham makes no attempt to
discover. The question that he ought to ask, and never does ask, is: Why
does the lust for naked power become a major human motive exactly NOW,
when the dominion of man over man is ceasing to be necessary? As for the
claim that "human nature", or "inexorable laws" of this and that, make
Socialism impossible, it is simply a projection of the past into the
future. In effect, Burnham argues that because a society of free and
equal human beings has never existed, it never can exist. By the same
argument one could have demonstrated the impossibility of aeroplanes in
1900, or of motor cars in 1850.

The notion that the machine has altered human relationships, and that in
consequence Machiavelli is out of date, is a very obvious one. If Burnham
fails to deal with it, it can, I think, only be because his own power
instinct leads him to brush aside any suggestion that the Machiavellian
world of force, fraud, and tyranny may somehow come to an end. It is
important to bear in mind what I said above: that Burnham's theory is
only a variant--an American variant, and interesting because of its
comprehensiveness--of the power worship now so prevalent among
intellectuals. A more normal variant, at any rate in England, is
Communism. If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the
Russian régime is like, are strongly russophile, one finds that, on the
whole, they belong to the "managerial" class of which Burnham writes.
That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists,
technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats,
professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves
cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for
more power and more prestige. These people look towards the USSR and see
in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class,
keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people
very similar to themselves. It was only AFTER the Soviet régime became
unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers,
began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English russophile
intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish:
the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher
in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his
hands on the whip. Burnham at least has the honesty to say that Socialism
isn't coming; the others merely say that Socialism is coming, and then
give the word "Socialism" a new meaning which makes nonsense of the old
one. But his theory, for all its appearance of objectivity, is the
rationalisation of a wish. There is no strong reason for thinking that it
tells us anything about the future, except perhaps the immediate future.
It merely tells us what kind of world the "managerial" class themselves,
or at least the more conscious and ambitious members of the class, would
like to live in.

Fortunately the "managers" are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It
is curious how persistently, in THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION, he ignores the
advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country.
At every point the evidence is squeezed in order to show the strength,
vitality, and durability of Hitler's crazy régime. Germany is expanding
rapidly, and "rapid territorial expansion has always been a sign, not of
decadence . . . but of renewal". Germany makes war successfully, and "the
ability to make war well is never a sign of decadence but of its
opposite". Germany also "inspires in millions of persons a fanatical
loyalty. This, too, never accompanies decadence". Even the cruelty and
dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since "the young,
new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on
a large scale to lies, terror, persecution". Yet, within only five years
this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and
become, in Burnham's usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened
quite largely because of the "managerial" (i.e. undemocratic) structure
which Burnham admires. The immediate cause of the German defeat was the
unheard-of folly of attacking the USSR while Britain was still undefeated
and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this
magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be
made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the
common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all
your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

But, in any case, one should have been able to see from the start that
such a movement as Nazism could not produce any good or stable result.
Actually, so long as they were winning, Burnham seems to have seen
nothing wrong with the methods of the Nazis. Such methods, he says, only
appear wicked because they are new:

There is no historical law that polite manners and "Justice" shall
conquer. In history there is always the question of WHOSE manners and
WHOSE justice. A rising social class and a new order of society have got
to break through the old moral codes just as they must break through the
old economic and political institutions. Naturally, from the point of
view of the old, they are monsters. If they win, they take care in due
time of manners and morals.

This implies that literally anything can become right or wrong if the
dominant class of the moment so wills it. It ignores the fact that
certain rules of conduct have to be observed if human society is to hold
together at all. Burnham, therefore, was unable to see that the crimes
and follies of the Nazi régime MUST lead by one route or another to
disaster. So also with his new-found admiration for Stalinism. It is too
early to say in just what way the Russian régime will destroy itself. If
I had to make a prophecy, I should say that a continuation of the Russian
policies of the last fifteen years--and internal and external policy, of
course, are merely two facets of the same thing--can only lead to a war
conducted with atomic bombs, which will make Hitler's invasion look like
a tea-party. But at any rate, the Russian régime will either democratise
itself, or it will perish. The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire
of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if
established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis
for human society.

One cannot always make positive prophecies, but there are times when one
ought to be able to make negative ones. No one could have been expected
to foresee the exact results of the Treaty of Versailles, but millions of
thinking people could and did foresee that those results would be bad.
Plenty of people, though not so many in this case, can foresee that the
results of the settlement now being forced on Europe will also be bad.
And to refrain from admiring Hitler or Stalin--that, too, should not
require an enormous intellectual effort.

But it is partly a moral effort. That a man of Burnham's gifts should
have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather
admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable
and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of
reality by the cultivation of what is now called "realism".

[Note: With title "Second Thoughts on James Burnham", 1946; with title
"James Burnham", 1947; printed as a pamphlet with title "James Burnham
and the Managerial Revolution", Summer 1946]

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