[Marxism] James Burnham and the alt-right

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 4 17:21:22 MST 2020

This is from a long and interesting article in the latest Harper's. You 
are entitled to read one free one per month and this one is an eye-opener:

The Dark Knight overflowed with antiquarian theories and gleanings. His 
thoughts kept circling back to the midcentury right-winger James 
Burnham, a hallowed figure among the NatCons. Burnham’s trajectory 
perfectly matched the moment. He’d begun his career as a mild-mannered 
professor of philosophy, a genteel Princetonian whom one student 
described as having walked out of a T. S. Eliot poem, but some vision 
amid the Great Depression had changed him. Though he was dazzled by his 
Marxist colleague Sidney Hook, and by his encounter with Leon Trotsky’s 
History of the Russian Revolution, which he interpreted as a coming 
attraction for America, it still took a car ride through Detroit, the 
epicenter of the Depression, to clinch Burnham’s conversion. “The class 
struggle, the starvation and terror in act” that he witnessed among the 
city’s autoworkers convinced him that capitalism was ruined forever; he 
wanted to be a part of what came next.

At NYU, Burnham still lectured on Aquinas and Dante, but he was 
increasingly occupied with drafting strategies for Communist Party 
discipline. His attacks on Franklin Roosevelt, whom he accused of being 
an incipient totalitarian, were even more vitriolic than the 
conservative attacks on the New Deal. Trotsky, in exile on the island of 
Büyükada off Istanbul, was so taken with Comrade Burnham’s agitprop that 
he marked him as a protégé. Some organizers around Burnham were put off 
by his tailored suits, his taste for champagne and baccarat, and his dry 
patrician monotone, but this was also part of what made him useful; he 
lent American Marxism a dignified patina. Burnham broke with the 
Trotskyites over the question of whether the Soviet Union was in fact a 
worker’s state. Trotsky thought it still qualified despite the 
corruptions of Stalinism; Burnham thought it did not. From his reading 
of New Deal critics of the modern corporation, such as Adolf Berle and 
Gardiner Means, Burnham came to believe that the Soviet Union and the 
United States were converging on a kind of managerialism: two only 
marginally different planned economies, with little place for individual 
freedom. He started drifting to the right, and eventually wound up as 
the in-house guru of William F. Buckley’s National Review. But his 
professional life did have some coherence over the decades. It was spent 
taking up positions from various crumbling ideological ramparts to get a 
better shot in at his lifelong enemy: the liberal elite. Burnham could 
summon a good word for the Black Panthers, LSD, and Woodstock, which had 
at least sent some shockwaves to Vital Center Command Control.

Refreshingly, the NatCons [the Nationalist Conservatives that includes 
Trump, Tucker Carlson, et al] and the Dark Knight [the nickname the 
author gave to an alt-right computer engineer named  Curtis Yarvin, who 
I had never heard of] were interested not in Burnham’s avowedly 
right-wing phase—when brittle treatises such as The Suicide of the West 
(1964) appeared—but in his earlier, more ambivalent wartime output, The 
Managerial Revolution (1941) and The Machiavellians (1943), which were 
written in an era when Burnham was still contending with “remnants of 
Marxism.” These books, invoked by NatCons throughout my days in 
Washington, worked like a back door through which they could smuggle 
materialism into their program. Other phrases that I did not associate 
with conservatives were brought out like worn old pieces of family 
furniture, each brokered by trustworthy conservative middlemen. “The 
ruling class” was often cited at the Ritz, or, just as commonly, “the 
ruling class, as Angelo Codevilla calls it”—a reference to the 
intelligence analyst, conservative professor, and writer for the 
Claremont Review of Books.

Burnham’s chief idea—adopted by Yarvin—was that the American elite had 
become a managerial class that acted as guardians over institutions, the 
academy, and the professions. They were not aristocrats, nor were they 
capitalist tycoons, but rather an office-bound species that merely 
understood the techniques of governance and as a class no longer 
bothered with questions of their own legitimacy. Burnham had counseled a 
kind of equanimity in the face of this technocratic elite—the best you 
could do was to pit elites against one another in order to create space 
for concessionary freedoms. But Yarvin was more intent on destroying it. 
He believed that the United States was simply a more advanced form of 
totalitarianism than China. It had decentralized its despotism, spread 
it among different sectors, but the totalitarian imprint was still 
there: Americans who watched Fox News were captive to one narrative, and 
those who watched MSNBC were captive to another. But for Yarvin the 
trouble was that the original mythology of American democracy was 
breaking down. One could keep believing in it for only so long, just as 
it had required herculean myopia to continue to believe in Third World 
liberation long after its expiration date. Did anyone really still 
believe in American postwar innocence? Yarvin played at drawing the 
stench of the firebombing of Dresden into his nostrils. Did anyone still 
believe that liberal elites wanted equality in education? And so Yarvin 
had identified a groaning gap in the conference. “It will be interesting 
to see what kind of elite they come up with,” he said.


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