In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, Burnham was viewed as a maverick member of the trans-Atlantic anti-communist left. To use the contemporary term, he was “canceled” by the left-leaning intellectual establishment when he defended Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic hearings about real and imaginary Soviet subversion in the United States. He joined the young William F. Buckley Jr. in founding National Review in 1955, where he remained an editor until his death in 1987, shortly after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
One might expect that the Cold War liberals and anti-communist socialists who became known as “neoconservatives” in the 1970s and 1980s would have embraced Burnham’s proposed revision of Marxism by managerial theory. After all, his left-to-right journey had blazed the trail that many of them had taken. Ironically, however, like good orthodox Marxists, the neoconservatives rejected the idea of the managerial revolution as a transition from one kind of society to another. For both Daniel Bell, a self-described democratic socialist, and Irving Kristol, co-founders of The Public Interest, small owner-operated businesses and globe-straddling multinational firms alike could be described without qualification as “capitalist” (a term for which Kristol often used “bourgeois” as a synonym).
Bell, who described himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture, was influenced by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who argued in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) that the cultural hedonism unleashed by consumerism would dig capitalism’s own grave and lead to a socialist society. For his part, Kristol rejected the idea of a broad managerial elite and instead appropriated the term “the new class,” coined by Đilas, and later associated with the work of the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, to refer to academics, journalists, and nonprofit activists whose left-wing “adversary culture” made them hostile to “bourgeois” capitalism and traditional “bourgeois” values alike. (Gouldner objected to this use of the term “new class.”)
In January 1978, the 73-year-old Burnham joined the debate in a review in National Review of Alfred Chandler’s study of the rise of managerial capitalism, The Visible Hand, titled “What New Class?” Burnham mocked the neocons for arguing that the “new class” of “intellectuals, verbalists, media types” could be compared in power and influence to “the managers of ITT, GM, or IBM, or the administrator-managers of the great governmental bureaus and agencies.”
Implausible though it was, the “new class” theory allowed neoconservative apparatchiks and other members of what has been called Conservatism Inc. to seek grants from rich libertarian donors and pro-business foundations by promising to prevent the allegedly imminent overthrow of capitalism by left-wing professors and nonprofit activists belonging to “the adversary culture.” Needless to say, Burnham’s view that corporate managers and bank executives are secure at the apex of the potentially oppressive managerial elite was not useful to conservatives in fundraising campaigns.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor