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James Burnham mutated from firebrand revolutionary to National Review co-editor

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tags: National Review, James Burnham



Alan Wald is a member of Solidarity and an editor of Against the Current. He is the author of "The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s."

What drives leftists to forge new careers by siding with their former enemies? These apostates don’t simply retool or change course — they make an epic transformation, joining the very forces they once sought to upend. From Whittaker Chambers to David Horowitz, they customarily announce their volte face and market themselves as insiders ready to blow the whistle on their former comrades.

Often a team of elders, who already made the ideological switch, appears to bless them and ease their transition, providing new publishing outlets and career opportunities. In books, articles, and public appearances, these former reds beat a noisy retreat from their old commitments, displaying an unearned confidence in their new view of the world and a hair-on-fire intolerance for those still adhering to their prior convictions. Oddly, after convicting themselves for a long record of naiveté, ignorance, disloyalty, and worse, these born-again conservatives expect us to trust their latest political judgments.

How seriously should we take the head-spinning makeover of an upper-class philosophy professor? Shouldn’t we laugh at James Burnham, who started out lecturing Leon Trotsky on revolutionary strategy and ended up running a rogue CIA operation with mobster Frank Costello to kidnap American Communists and pump them full of sodium pentothal? (This actually happened — you couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Alas, there’s nothing funny about the 1953 coup in Iran that Burnham helped orchestrate, his ensuing efforts to advance the preemptive bombing of the Soviet Union, his campaign to deploy biological and chemical weapons in Vietnam, and his alliances with segregationists and colonialists. With his trademark tone of finality, he claimed to grasp the inevitable trends of impersonal historical forces when he predicted war and barbarism in the 1930s, a global managerial takeover in the 1940s, a worldwide communist conspiracy in the 1950s, endless betrayals of liberalism in the 1960s, and so on.

For all the wacky elements of Burnham’s constantly moving ideology, his political career did not consist of drunken flirtations and reckless hookups. His story is not a dark parable of an unscrupulous shape-shifter: it is the dead-serious journey of a committed activist who never tired of hawking himself. Looking back, it seems clear that Burnham never really knew what he wanted, and yet he instantly embraced new positions as he jumped from mentor to mentor and group to group as a kind of merchant of apocalypse. ...

Read entire article at Jacobin


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