James Burnham’s Analysis of Leftist Revolutionaries Speaks to Today’s Crisis
The rioting, looting, and violence in the streets of some of our major cities have not stopped. The Leftist, anarchist, revolutionary movements continue their self-proclaimed program to eradicate “systemic racism” by attempting to erase history, silence dissent, coerce obedience to their political perspective, and destroy the forces of order within our society. Their tactics and their goals are not dissimilar to those of the New Leftists of the 1960s.
In a series of columns written for National Review, the political philosopher James Burnham dissected the ideological and tactical currents that steered the New Left of the 1960s. Burnham’s perspective was shaped by his own ideological flirtation with Marxism in the 1930s, when he helped found the Socialist Worker’s Party in the United States and became one of the leading spokespersons for the Trotskyite communists. In May 1940, Burnham resigned from the Party, explaining that Marxism of all varieties (Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist) was false, Stalinism and fascism were similar, and Leninist parties are “incompatible . . . with genuine democracy.”
Burnham became a leading liberal critic of communism in the 1940s, helping to found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, writing a prescient analysis of Soviet postwar goals for the Office of Strategic Services in 1944, and writing an influential Cold War trilogy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He ended up writing a regular column for National Review from 1955-78.
What the 'New Left' stood for
What Burnham and others called the New Left (as distinguished from the Old Left to which Burnham once belonged) formed the revolutionary leadership of the protest movements and violent riots of the 1960s. The protests then formally, publicly advocated “civil rights” and an end to the Vietnam War, but then, as now, the Leftist revolutionary leadership’s real goals were the destruction of the capitalist system and its replacement by their vision of a Marxist utopia.
In a June 4, 1968 National Review column, Burnham identified the intellectual sources of the New Left’s program as Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, and the French Marxists Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray. “The New Left,” wrote Burnham, “defines a ‘revolutionary’ as one who performs revolutionary acts. ‘The revolution’ becomes in its essence a matter of action, of feeling, sentiment.” Their natural tendency, he explained, “is toward some sort of anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism or nihilism.” They believe, he continued, that when “the bureaucratic power structure is overthrown, men will live together in the loving freedom of ‘participatory democracy,’ in which there will be neither leader nor led, neither victim nor executioner.”
Burnham called the New Left radicals “contemporary Luddites,” who were “privileged and pampered,” not members of the poor classes they claimed to be fighting for. Then, as now, the police was the enemy. Then, as now, their “anarchist vision” should they achieve it, would be transformed in practice “into a nightmare of bloodshed and tyranny.”
In a follow-up article, Burnham described the New Left’s views on democracy as similar to Lenin’s, i.e., there would be rule by an elite — the vanguard of the revolution. One of their slogans, Burnham explained, was “tolerance.” But their revolutionary tolerance in practice, he noted, “excludes movements which are obviously aggressive and destructive,” i.e., conservatives. The Leftists approve of violence, especially against police. Then, as now, “violence . . . [is] the only way in which the victims of the system can regain self-respect and dignity.” Burnham called this the “romantic cult of violence” which awakens the masses to the need to overthrow the system. “The primary business of the New Left,” he explained, “is therefore not to win reforms and concessions . . . but to provoke the system to violent confrontations.”
Goal of 'New Left' was 'to overthrow, to destroy'
In subsequent columns, Burnham noted that the “New Left is against the Establishment, the existing power structure, the status quo — everywhere.” Then, as now, the Leftist revolutionaries proclaim “participatory democracy,” which in practice “means the coercion — by putsch tactics” and “violence.” What he described as the “anarchic New Left” promotes the “freedom to defame, assault and imprison opponents, to deface and destroy the structures, records and artifacts of the existing social order.” The New Left’s goal, Burnham wrote, “is to overthrow, to destroy. . . ‘capitalism,’ ‘the establishment,’ ‘the status quo,’ . . . the existing structure of . . . civilization.”
Burnham, quoting Georges Sorel, discerned in the New Left’s program the echoes of the French Revolution:
During the Terror . . . the men who spilt the most blood were precisely those who had the greatest desire to let their equals enjoy the golden age they had dreamt of, and who had the most sympathy with human wretchedness.
In a Sept. 24, 1968 column, Burnham addressed rioting and how the media sympathized with the rioters and their professed goals. According to the media, Burnham explained in a description and analysis that applies equally to today’s crisis, “the riots are legitimate and justified. When the rioting evolves into a violent clash between the police (plus sometimes troops) and civilians, it is the police who are defined as the aggressors.” The solution to the riots, the media endlessly repeats, is “justice for black Americans” and “leeway for young mostly white protestors to speak their peace and do their thing.” The media, he explained, often ignores the transition of peaceful protests into violent confrontations. Almost always, the police are portrayed as victimizers.
In reality, Burnham wrote, the riots “are intended to be paramilitary operations in revolutionary warfare aiming at the destruction of . . . the existing order of government and society.” The fact that the great majority of protestors are “idealistic” youth and “suffering blacks” is irrelevant because the leadership and driving forces are revolutionary militants. “It is absurd,” Burnham wrote, “to think that ‘granting the demands’ will stop the riots.” “It is equally absurd,” he continued, “to suppose that violence can be avoided by keeping the cops out of it.” In words that today would be all too familiar to the lawful citizens of Seattle, Portland, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Kenosha, Lancaster, St Louis, Louisville, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Burnham wrote that the acceptance of a right to riot means that, “The right to riot negates the rights to security of person and property, of free access and thoroughfare, of legal process and of decision by democratic and constitutional procedures.”
Burnham's take on the right to riot
In a subsequent column, Burnham expanded on this notion of the right to riot and its implications for our society. He began with a description of events that is eerily familiar to our current crisis:
When police and troops stand by while rioters loot and burn, as in many cities after the death of Martin Luther King; when ministers and publicists praise civil disobedience; when the mayor of New York allows his City Hall to be surrounded and cut off for hours by rioting demonstrators; when such things become commonplace, a right to riot is plainly coming into social existence.
The right to riot is given a theoretical foundation by liberal doctrines that legitimize rioting and other forms of militant civil disobedience. Individual conscience justifies rioting; police brutality provokes rioting; social alienation gets expression in rioting; rioting is the natural outcome of frustrations produced by white racism and poverty.
He then noted that some of the primary functions of the state are to preserve order and to protect people and property. If the state fails to perform those duties, it risks the “destruction of the existing order of society.” “If agitation, preparation and organization for violence continue to be regarded as legitimate freedoms,” he wrote, “we shall continue to have violence, in mounting quantity.” What is emboldening the rioters, Burnham wrote, was the “collapse of the morale of the governing elite.”
If the governing elite does not stop the rioting, Burnham warned, there will arise “organized counterrevolutionary militants ready to take to the streets against the revolutionary militants” because “men will not endure anarchy.” To prevent that, he advised, “there will have to be sterner, quicker counter-action, including—when serious disorder is known to be planned—timely preventive therapy.”