Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, March–April 1950


Peter Loumos

Burnham Rides Again


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 2, March–April 1950, pp.122-123.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Coming Defeat of Communism
by James Burnham
John Day Co. 287 pp. $3.00.

The Coming Defeat of Communism is reminiscent of several books in the depression period. These writings were characterized by their “practicality” and their authors were referred to as “realists” who “didn’t mince any words.” Casting aside all economic, social and political considerations as meaningless, these writers went directly to the real cause of the depression: the American capitalist had lost his guts!

“If the Morgans and the Vanderbilts were around we wouldn’t be having this depression. However, there is still hope. The namby-pamby successors of the giants can still pull the country out of the depression (and without any help from Roosevelt’s socialistic government) if they will merely follow the course of the early capitalists, that is, take risk capital, invest it, produce goods and create a market.”

And since the then crop of capitalists was so dangerously ignorant, the authors usually included in the last three chapters a detailed description of how the curly capitalists had taken their risk capital, invested it, produced goods and created a market.

Burnham’s book is not about the depression; it deals with the current world crisis. Yet he shows the same hard-headed toughness, the same realism in his solution to the. present crisis that his predecessors showed in their approach to the depression.

Burnham’s thesis is simple, lucid and not particularly new. The struggle between the United States and Russia presents a world crisis that can end only in the complete defeat of one of these two forces. A total shooting war is not necessary. As a matter of fact, its cause might already be lost. The key to victory lies in the realization that World War III is now going on. The United States should therefore bend all its efforts to fight this “cold” war with all available force and, by defeating communism in the cold war, avoid the necessity of a shooting war. The author has no doubt that the United States can win this cold war and defeat communism if – it will follow the example of the experienced master of the cold war technique, that is, Russia. Burnham traces the activities of the Russians since 1944 in subversive warfare, propaganda, resistance, lies, deceptions, murders, assassination, etc.; and, lest these “ignorant, dangerously ignorant” rulers of the United States still can not see the proper course, he outlines in simple terms a plan for “continuous war of a new kind, a political, subversive, ideological, resistance war ... which may develop into an unlimited war by arms.” Here, indeed, is a practical man.

One wonders at Burnham’s blatant oversimplifications and his failure to consider the conclusions inescapable in the course he proposes. He counsels democratic capitalist America to adopt the informal war plan of totalitarian Russia so that it may defeat Russia at its own game. Burnham realizes that there are some differences between the United States and Russia. Presumably it is because of these differences that he charts the course for the United States’ victory. Is it conceivable that he cannot see that it is these very social differences between a democratic capitalist and a totalitarian .nation that dictate the differences in their war, hot or cold, techniques? Can he fail to see that when the United States adopts completely the methodology of a totalitarian nation it will be because it has itself become a totalitarian nation? In some places he ignores these considerations completely; in others, unable to ignore them, he dismisses them with a paragraph or a sentence.

Burnham’s plan includes making friends with anyone who can help “us.” His criterion for a friend is simple: is he a “firm anti-communist”? Burnham scoured Europe for two years gathering material for his opus and he found several such “friends.” In France, we should support DeGaulle; in Italy, the Vatican; and in China (hold your hats) Chiang Kai-shek. The effect of such alliances on the world populace that the United States is seeking to influence does not rate even a passing consideration. Burnham hews to his rule: friends should be cultivated “wherever they are to be found, even in places sordid or dirty.”

In other places the nature of his plan is so obvious that even he cannot disregard it He says:

“There is one further preliminary point, arising out of a peculiarity of the United States’ governmental structure, which should be noted before attempting to draw a positive conclusion.”

This peculiarity, so casually mentioned, is nothing less than the democratic nature of the United States. He continues:

“... many of these operations can only be carried out through a lack of publicity unprecedented in American tradition, with funds ‘unvouchered’ – not publicly accounted for, and a personnel also largely removed from public scrutiny.”

How delicately he describes the machinations of an American NKVD! His solution is worthy of his statement of the problem.

“For these reasons, and what they may imply, it would seem that the Congress ought to have some special mode of liaison with the direction of the agency which carries on these operations.”

Could anything be more consoling?

Burnham again deals with the limitations of American capitalism in the chapter The Suicidal Mania of American Business. He begins with a panegyric worthy of the National Association of Manufacturers:

“Business and businessmen have opened and built this continental nation, on the perspective and scale of Alexander Hamilton’s unprecedented vision, and they are to be therefore honored.”

Politically, however, they are “ignorant, dangerously ignorant” because they are not acting as a monolithic class against the common enemy. Their failure so to act is due, according to Burnham, to “... greed and ignorance and lack of vision.”

Any logical analysis from this point would show that until a monolithic capitalist class had been created no monolithic action could be expected from it. Hitler saw this years ago. He drove out the leaders of light industry, rationalized heavy production, integrated the state with the economy and thus eliminated the “dangerous ignorance” of the capitalist class. But why bring forth such unpleasant details? It is simpler, so much simpler, to refer in a footnote to The Managerial Revolution and explain that the “New Rulers” can easily carry out the program that the capitalists are too ignorant to follow.

Thus far we have been as charitable as the situation warranted. Burnham ignores the problems arising from the imposition of totalitarian methods and techniques in a democratic country. Suppose, however, that Burnham realizes that a democratic capitalist country cannot conduct an informal war à la Kremlin and still remain a democratic capitalist nation. And realizing this, he still counsels that course. Suppose that Burnham appreciates that indecisiveness is a necessary attribute of all capitalist classes in the framework of a democratic country. And, appreciating this, he still counsels monolithic action. Burnham then stands condemned as one who propounds, and apologizes for, a course that can have no end but totalitarianism.

One is reluctant to brand a person for what he has left unsaid. Suspicion increases, however, when one sees how studiously Burnham avoids these points, and how militantly he insists that the positive considerations of what “we” are fighting for are unimportant.

“It is not true, in the second place, that a war or a social struggle can be successful only if the program and apologetics for it are ‘positive’ in form. The contrary is more often true. In general, human beings understand much more clearly what they are against than what they are for.” (Italics in original)

In short, let us wage totalitarian war against the totalitarians, and let the chips fall where they may. As Burnham himself is quoted on the flyleaf of this book: “Who says A must say B!”

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 18 October 2018