Commentary Magazine


James Burnham and the Struggle for the World by Daniel Kelly; Principles and Heresies by Kevin J. Smant

James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life
by Daniel Kelly
Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 475 pp. $29.95

Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement
by Kevin J. Smant
Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 425 pp. $29.95

In November 1955, the month he celebrated his 30th birthday, William F. Buckley, Jr. launched the magazine National Review, aiming to revive conservatism as an intellectual force in America. He had set himself an immense task. At the time, academics and journalists treated conservatism not as a philosophy, even an errant one, but as a symptom of mental illness, dismissing it as the “paranoid style” or as an ideological outgrowth of the “authoritarian personality.” But by the time Ronald Reagan was elected President 25 years later, a massive shift had taken place from liberalism to conservatism not only in public allegiance but, to a significant degree, in cultural respectability National Review was hardly alone in bringing about this reorientation, but it undoubtedly played an important role.

Buckley’s principal co-editors at the new magazine were two renegades from Marxism, James Burn-ham (1905-87) and Frank S. Meyer (1909-72). Burnham served as a mentor to the younger Buckley, becoming, in Buckley’s words, “the number-one intellectual influence on National Review.” Meyer’s great contribution was the idea of “fusionism,” an attempt to reconcile the two disparate philosophical sources of the American Right: a traditionalist strain tracing back to the thought of Edmund Burke and a libertarian strain tracing back to John Locke. Buckley’s own political ideas were, in addition, profoundly informed by his own Roman Catholic faith, but both Burnham and Meyer lived their lives as non-believers, having abandoned their respective religious traditions—Catholicism and Judaism—as young radicals.

Burnham and Meyer collaborated closely, but they were often at odds: Buckley referred to the relationship between the two as the “Hundred Years War.” Meyer, whose regular column in the magazine was called “Principles and Heresies,” was famously doctrinaire. Burnham, whose views were in a state of perpetual evolution, was given to such heterodoxies as an admiration for Nelson Rockefeller (a liberal Republican) and support for Medicare—stances that drove Meyer to apoplexy.

Though Burnham and Meyer passed from the scene some time ago, two new biographies, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, assure that they will not fade into oblivion. Both books are meticulous works of intellectual history, recording the full trajectory of their subjects’ ideas while (especially in the case of the book on Meyer) giving spare attention to the details of their personal lives. There are problems with this approach—most readers, I suspect, could do without an exegesis of Burnham’s high-school essays and would want to know more about Meyer’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism—but the books’ narrow focus does usefully enable one to follow the evolution of American conservative thought during the decades of its resurrection.

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The son of a comfortable, entrepreneurial Newark family, Frank Meyer joined the Communist party in his early 20′s while an undergraduate at Oxford. He was an only child, lonely and sickly, and seems to have found a sense of belonging in the cocoon of Communism. Rising rapidly, he earned membership on the central committee of the British party within three years and was then sent home to bolster the Communist ranks in the American Midwest.

At the close of World War II, when Stalin ordered the international movement to execute a sharp turn to the Left, Meyer found himself out in the cold along with other followers of Earl Browder, the now disgraced leader associated with the American party’s moderate wartime posture. According to his biographer, Kevin J. Smant, Meyer was not expelled from the party, nor did he resign; he merely “drifted away.”

Bereft of his movement “family,” Meyer settled with his wife near Woodstock, New York, where, fearing for his life at the hands of his former comrades, he slept with a loaded rifle at hand. Smant reports this detail matter-of-factly, perhaps mindful of similar anxieties described so vividly by the best-known Communist turncoat of that era, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers, however, had been not just a Communist but a spy, someone who might well have had reason to tremble. Meyer had been nothing more than a mid-rank party official. Why did he consider himself in mortal danger? Although Smant does not speculate, Meyer’s worries point either to a peculiarity in his psyche or to the possibility that there had been more to his work for the Communist party than he disclosed.

Though many apostates from Communism settled somewhere in the precincts of American liberalism, Meyer soon made a leap to the Right. He was powerfully influenced by Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), which argued that government intervention in the economy was a slippery slope to totalitarianism. Meyer became an advocate of the “night watchman” theory of the state—that is, a state whose functions are limited to law enforcement, court administration, and national defense—and he began to contribute to such conservative magazines as the Freeman and American Mercury, circles in which he developed a friendship with the young Buckley.

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Burnham, too, grew up in affluent surroundings as the son of a self-made railway magnate in Chicago. First in his class at Princeton, he went to Oxford for graduate study (preceding Meyer there by a few years) and then began a career teaching philosophy and literature at New York University. He wrote many books, a number of which sold well. Unlike the insular Meyer, Burnham progressed through a series of close partnerships in his intellectual life, first with Philip Wheelwright, his professor at Princeton, then with Sidney Hook and Leon Trotsky, and finally with Buckley.

Ironically, whereas the lonely Meyer was almost all his life a “movement man,” beginning with the Communists and later with the conservatives, Burnham, despite his intense relationships with a series of other thinkers, was much more idiosyncratic and unpredictable in his thought. Although he flirted with Communism, he never joined the party, falling in instead with the Trotskyists. Indeed, the original secretariat of the Socialist Workers Party consisted of Burnham, James Cannon, and Max Shachtman. The Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 led Burnham and Shachtman to break with Trotsky and Cannon, and Shachtman formed his own “Workers Party.” Burnham helped with its launch but soon resigned, saying he had begun to reconsider Marxism and Leninism.

His new thinking took shape in his first big book, The Managerial Revolution (1941), which posited that technology had given rise to a class of managers who ruled alike over societies of outwardly different political systems. The emphasis on class in Burnham’s analysis showed the lingering effects of his Marxist training, but these faded from view in his next several books which, starting with The Struggle for the World (1947), were dedicated to the fight against Communism.

Burnham’s conservatism had more of an instrumental quality than Meyer’s obsessive quest for a conservative philosophers’ stone. To him, the more fundamental cause was always anti-Communism. Indeed, as his biographer, Daniel Kelly, rightly observes, Burnham’s style of conservatism—“secular, empirical, modernist, resigned to the welfare state as inevitable in a mass industrial society, emphatic on the need for victory in the struggle for the world”—provided “a preview of the neoconservatism of the 1970′s.” Which brings us to the question of the legacy of these two men.

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One of the things that was supposedly “new” about the neoconservatives of the 1970′s was that they came largely from the Left. As these biographies remind us, this phenomenon was not so novel, even a generation earlier. But no less essential to neoconservatism, as Kelly’s description of Burnham suggests, were certain positions and sensibilities that had never before found a home on the American Right.

Today, after several decades of mutual influence, these differences have largely been obscured; writing in COMMENTARY six years ago, Norman Podhoretz argued that neoconservatism no longer could or should be distinguished from American conservatism as such. What the careers of Burnham and Meyer remind us of, however, is that “conservatism as such” is also no longer what it was, and that its evolution required the reconsideration of a number of stands that were once distinctive features of its physiognomy.

A foremost issue in this regard was the movement’s position on race. Like National Review itself, Burnham and Meyer opposed the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision against school segregation, opposed President Eisenhower’s enforcement of integration in Little Rock in 1957, and then opposed the marches, freedom rides, and civil-rights legislation of the 1960′s, including the Voting Rights Act. Casting their arguments in constitutional terms, they invoked notions of judicial restraint and states’ rights. Meyer even undertook a reconsideration of Abraham Lincoln, concluding that the sixteenth President was a “ruthless” authoritarian.

The rationale may have been high-minded, but the stance taken by Burnham and Meyer provided ammunition to those whose own opposition to civil rights for blacks was motivated by simple racism. Worse, the constitutional objections to the remedies sought by civil-rights activists were seldom softened by sympathy for their cause. As white Southern mobs beat freedom riders within an inch of their lives, National Review appealed for an “attempt to understand” the thugs doing the beating. Burnham lamented that the high valence of the civil-rights issue had rendered impossible “scientific and empirical investigation that might prove objectively, once and for all, whether and in what sense Negroes [were] inferior”—research whose likely purpose, considering the times, would have been to justify discrimination.

Even with respect to Communism, the issue on which they earned most honor, Meyer and Burnham compiled a record tarnished by serious misjudgments. Primary among these was the attitude they adopted toward Joseph McCarthy. Meyer supported the Wisconsin Senator, while Burnham called himself an “anti-anti-McCarthyite.” Neither of them seems to have understood how much damage McCarthy was doing to the anti-Communist cause. They did not seem to grasp how essential it was, in anathematizing Communism, to exercise scrupulous care in distinguishing Communists from mere liberals and fools, even if many liberals themselves were refusing to acknowledge the threat posed by Communism to a free society.

A similar problem presented itself with the John Birch Society. National Review welcomed the group’s passionate anti-Communism, but the Birchers saw Communists everywhere, going so far as to label President Eisenhower a Red. National Review‘s editors argued long and hard about whether to criticize the society, many of whose members were subscribers. Burnham favored a break, while Meyer opposed it. In the end the magazine did take on the Birchers, but only after the organization had denounced America’s participation in the Vietnam war as a Communist plot.

Finally, the two men were not always shrewd analysts of the Communist world. Meyer denounced Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program as a sham, and Burnham joined him in saying the same about the Sino-Soviet split. In a similar vein, Meyer, arguing that a Communist was always a Communist, opposed U.S. aid to Tito after the Yugoslav leader’s break with Moscow. Burnham once said something very apt about George F. Kennan, the author of the cold-war doctrine of containment: that he lacked a sufficient “hatred for Communism,” and that his anti-Communism was “pale and abstract.” But if hatred of Communism was morally necessary—and it was—hatred alone was not a sufficient guide in combating it.

Still, indiscriminate though it was at times, the abhorrence of Communism felt by Burnham and Meyer was a far surer compass than the moral relativism that pervaded liberal attitudes from the 1960′s onward. Whatever their errors, the two men performed an essential service, mounting a stubborn defense of America and capitalism during a perilous time. Both deserve a substantial measure of thanks, even from those who, looking back, would not necessarily wish to have been at their side.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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