James Burnham and the Geopolitics of 1940

James Burnham and the Geopolitics of 1940
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Eighty years ago James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution, a book that was widely read and discussed when it appeared in 1941 during the early years of the Second World War. The book’s principal theme was that most of the major powers in the world, including Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States, were moving toward some form of rule by a “managerial elite,” what some observers later termed a “new class.” Burnham completed the book in 1940, less than a year after he broke with the international Trotskyite movement and before the United States was a full belligerent in the war.

Burnham’s theory of rule by a managerial elite resulted in part from his study of the sociopolitical writings of Gaetano Mosca (The Ruling Class), Vifredo Pareto (Mind and Society), and Robert Michels (Political Parties), all of whom believed that elites or oligarchies held political power in all of the world’s major countries. Whether a government called itself a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy, real power resided in a ruling class or elite.

Scholars often overlook another aspect of The Managerial Revolution — it was Burnham’s first effort at geopolitical analysis, and was therefore the intellectual base upon which he wrote his Cold War trilogy (The Struggle for the World, The Coming Defeat of Communism, and Containment or Liberation?) and his regular columns in "National Review" from 1955-78. The Managerial Revolution, then, was the intellectual foundation of Burnham’s evolving geopolitical worldview.
Burnham moved from Left to Right on the ideological spectrum, but he was not an ideologue.

Though remembered as a conservative, Burnham eschewed philosophical labels. He was an empiricist. He studied and analyzed facts, historical circumstances, geography, and political realities before reaching general conclusions. Some criticized him for celebrating power and those who wielded it. It is more accurate to say that Burnham understood power and carefully studied how political leaders wielded it. He called Machiavelli and others who wrote truthfully about power “defenders of freedom.”

Burnham was a student of Mackinder, Spykman

Burnham’s geopolitical analysis derived from his reading of classical geopolitical theorists, including Britain’s Sir Halford Mackinder and Yale professor Nicholas Spykman. Those theorists focused on spatial relationships and the power potential of certain geographical regions. Mackinder viewed northern-central Eurasia as the “pivot” of world politics, while Spykman believed that the crescent region that included Western Europe, the Middle East, southwest Asia, and East Asia (which he called the Rimland) controlled the destinies of the world. Burnham did not mention Mackinder or Spykman in The Managerial Revolution but he did cite them in his later geopolitical works.

The outcome of the Second World War, Burnham wrote, will result in a small number of “‘super-states,’ which will divide the world among them.” Looking geographically at regions where advanced industry and economic growth were concentrated, he predicted that three super-states would emerge from the war — in North America based in the United States; in Western and Central Europe, north Africa, and western Asia (“the European center”); and in Central and East Asia and the nearby islands (the “Asiatic center”). The postwar world would be dominated by the “struggle among the three strategic centers for world control.” All three super-states would be run by managerial elites. (Burnham called communism, fascism and New Dealism “managerial ideologies”). Other smaller nations would coalesce around the three super-states.

Burnham predicted wrongly that the Soviet Union would break apart as a result of the war, with its western half gravitating toward the European center and its eastern half toward the Asiatic center. More accurately, he predicted that the United States would fully join the war in 1941 and emerge from the war as the “nucleus of one of the great super-states of the future.”

“From her continental base,” he wrote, “the United States is called on to make a bid for maximum world power as against” the other super-states, and would gradually assume receivership for the exhausted British Empire.

WW II and the birth of two 'super-states'

The Second World War produced two super-states — the Soviet Union and the United States. Burnham described the Soviet Union as a “despotism,” and called it “the most extreme [tyranny] that has ever existed in human history, not excepting the regime of Hitler.” Indeed, Burnham discerned a “historical bond between communism and fascism,” and pointed out their many similarities: the party structure; operational techniques of terror; elite control of mass movements; a one-party dictatorship. He noted that it was the Hitler-Stalin pact that started the European phase of the war.

Burnham rightly foresaw that the United States would assume some of Britain’s imperial responsibilities and its role as the world’s dominant sea power. After the war in his Cold War trilogy, Burnham urged the Truman administration to politically and militarily organize the Rimland nations of Europe, the Middle East and Asia to counter Soviet power based in Mackinder’s pivot region or “Heartland.” In the terms used in The Managerial Revolution, this meant that North America and the European center joined together (NATO, CENTO, SEATO) to offset the power of the Asiatic center. This became even more important when the communists won the civil war in China, thereby adding population, a huge landmass, and a long seacoast in East Asia to the strength of the Asiatic center.

Eighty years later, The Managerial Revolution continues to be relevant to the geopolitics of the 21st century. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the managerial elite that rules China, one of today’s super-states. China occupies part of the Asiatic center and seeks to extend its influence via the Belt and Road initiative throughout Eurasia and Africa.

The United States, led by its ruling class, seeks to counter China’s expansion by its relationships with the Rimland states of Europe and Asia, most especially India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Meanwhile, Russia looks to regain her status as a super-state and increasingly cooperates with China, raising fears of a new Sino-Russian bloc. As Burnham reminded us in The Managerial Revolution, international politics is fundamentally “the struggle for . . . power” among ruling elites. It will always be so.

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