‘Only Power Restrains Power’
Seventy years ago, James Burnham, in the middle of his intellectual odyssey from Marxism to conservatism, wrote an insightful and timeless study of politics and the nature of political power in a book entitled The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. In the 1930s, Burnham, then a professor at New York University, was a leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyite branch of the international communist movement. He edited and wrote for leftist journals including Symposium and the New International. Several months after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Burnham resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and began writing for Partisan Review, then a leading journal of the non-communist Left.
In 1941, Burnham wrote his first major book, The Managerial Revolution, which received critical acclaim from the New York Times, Time, the New Leader, Saturday Review, and other publications. John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that The Managerial Revolution was “widely read and discussed” among policymakers in Washington. William Barrett remembered the book as “original and brilliant” in its prediction of an emerging “New Class” in the United States and other world powers. It has had a strong influence on a string of conservative thinkers, who appreciated Burnham’s realism and his assessment of a coming democratic regime dominated by what others have called knowledge-workers.
Prior to his break with Marxism, Burnham, at the urging of his colleague Sidney Hook, began reading the works of Machiavelli, the German political scientist Robert Michels, the Italian political philosopher Vilfredo Pareto, the French syndicalist thinker Georges Sorel, and the Sicilian theorist and politician Gaetano Mosca. After Burnham left the international communist movement in the spring of 1940, he re-read these works as part of what he called his “political re-education.” Burnham was seeking an empirical and universal “science of politics” that would enable him and others to understand the actions and policies of political leaders. He later credited the “Machiavellians” with teaching him that “only by renouncing all ideology can we begin to see the world and man.”
Burnham went on to write a number of other important articles and books, such as The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1949), and Containment or Liberation? (1952), a brilliant Cold War trilogy which set forth a strategy for Western victory; Congress and the American Tradition (1959), which explored the principles of the American founding and the subsequent erosion of intermediate institutions in the face of growing centralized state power; and Suicide of the West (1964), a brilliant dissection of liberalism and its role in reconciling us to the global retreat of Western Civilization. However, all these works betray the influence of the Machiavellians, and writers familiar with Burnham’s career attest to the fundamental nature of The Machiavellians to all of Burnham’s subsequent writings. Samuel Francis believed that “all of Burnham’s writings since The Machiavellians must be understood in reference to it.” Kevin Smant called it “the basis for Burnham’s future analytical method.” Brian Crozier called The Machiavellians “the most fundamental of Burnham’s books.” Joseph Sobran called it “the key to Burnham’s thought.” John B. Judis wrote that The Machiavellians informed Burnham’s tactical understanding of the Cold War. According to Burnham’s biographer Daniel Kelly, Burnham admitted that since discovering the Machiavellians “he had not been significantly influenced by any other political theorists.” The book remains important as well to those wishing to understand the development of modern democratic regimes.
Burnham began The Machiavellians with a comparison of political rhetoric used in the 1932 Democratic Party Platform and Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century work, De Monarchia, to distinguish the “formal” from the “real” meaning of words used by political advocates and leaders. The Democratic Party’s Platform pledged immediate and drastic reductions in government spending; the preservation of a sound currency; a balanced federal budget; and a generally solvent government. Once in power, however, the Roosevelt administration proposed and implemented policies that directly contradicted the words of the Platform. Similarly, in De Monarchia, Dante’s avowed goals were a single unified world state and a limit to the power and rule of the Papacy that would produce universal peace, the highest development of human potentialities, and eternal salvation. In reality, Dante was a partisan in Florence of the Ghibelline faction of feudal European politics that supported the Holy Roman Emperor in a two-century struggle for power against the Guelph faction that supported the Papacy.
Burnham used this comparison of political rhetoric across six centuries to illustrate that throughout history there has been a “sharp divorce” between the formal meaning and real meaning of political rhetoric. Dante’s De Monarchia and the 1932 Democratic Party Platform told us nothing about the real aims of the writers. The real meaning could only be discerned by examining the rhetoric in the specific context of the time and circumstances in which they were written. “We think we are debating universal peace, salvation, a unified world government, and the relations between Church and state,” Burnham explained, “when what is really at issue is whether the Florentine Republic is to be run by its own citizens or submitted to the exploitation of a reactionary foreign monarch.” “We believe,” he continued, “we are disputing the merits of a balanced budget and a sound currency when the real conflict is deciding what group shall regulate the distribution of the currency.” The formal, ostensible, and idealistic goals appeal to sentiment and passion and serve to disguise the real aims of the writers. “In the hands of the powerful and their spokesmen,” he warned, this method of political advocacy “is well designed . . . to deceive us, and lead us by easy routes to the sacrifice of our own interests and dignity in the service of the mighty.”
The Machiavellians, on the other hand, were, according to Burnham, “the only ones who have told us the full truth about [political] power.” Burnham devoted the rest of the book to analyzing and synthesizing the empirical studies of “political man” contained in Machiavelli’s The Prince, Discourses on Livy, The Art of War, and History of Florence; Mosca’s The Ruling Class; Sorel’s Reflections on Violence; Michels’ Political Parties; and Pareto’s Mind and Society. The Machiavellian tradition, what Burnham called “Machiavellism,” attempted to use the scientific method to analyze politics, political leaders, and political events. Machiavellian political analysis was driven by empiricism, not ideology; facts, not goals.
Burnham used the political truths gleaned from the writings of the Machiavellians to construct an analytical framework for studying domestic and international politics. That framework consisted of a number of core theses, including that (1) an objective science of politics describes and correlates observable facts and eschews advocacy of any political goals; (2) political science is primarily concerned with the struggle for power among people and groups; (3) all societies are divided between a ruling class and the ruled, an elite and the non-elite; (4) history and political science should focus on the study of the elite or ruling class, and its relation to the non-elite; and (5) the primary goal of every ruling class is to maintain and expand its power and privileges. Therefore, the rhetoric used by these ruling classes should be carefully analyzed for what it says about the political elite’s desire to retain power and exclude the non-elites.
In the closing chapters of The Machiavellians, Burnham used these political truths to analyze and warn against a trend toward what he called “Bonapartism” evident in all advanced nations, including the United States. “In every advanced nation,” he wrote, “we observe the evolution of the form of government . . . wherein a small group of leaders, or a single leader, claims to represent and speak for the whole people.” The leader or leaders claim paramount or unlimited authority based on “the will of the people.” There is an effort to diminish or destroy all “intermediary political bodies” that come between the centralized government and the people. He noted that the tendency toward Bonapartism or totalitarianism was completely developed in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia; less so in England and the United States. He warned, however, of a “paradoxical political phenomenon” in the United States, which he called “democratic totalitarianism,” whereby leftists and liberals in the name of democracy cede more and more power to a centralized government and “advocate the suppression of the specific institutions and the specific rights and freedoms that still protect the individual from the advance of the unbridled state.” This centralized government then speaks for the people as a whole, with the leader coming to represent the will of the people.
The democratic totalitarians who wield state power, Burnham noted, claim to represent the people; therefore those forces that oppose the state are called obstructionists or enemies of the people. Critics of the policies of those in power are labeled extremists who oppose the will of the people. In Burnham’s view, however, it is precisely those groups and forces who oppose the governing elite that ensure the survival of liberty.
Burnham’s discussion of the threat to liberty posed by the growth of centralized state power and the importance of intermediary institutions to the preservation of liberty are the most important and enduring aspect of The Machiavellians. He defined liberty, what Mosca called “juridical defense,” as “a measure of security for the individual which protects him from the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise of personally held power.” For liberty to survive it is necessary for the right of opposition, which means “the right of opponents of the currently governing elite to express publicly their opposition views and to organize to implement those views,” to exist. This is because the “existence of a public opposition (or oppositions) is the only effective check on the power of the governing elite.” “No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power,” he wrote. “Only power restrains power.”
Liberty and freedom, he explained, require “the existence in society of a number of relatively autonomous ‘social forces,’” and that “no single social force—the army . . . or the Church or industrial management or agriculture or labor or the state machine . . . —shall be strong enough to swallow up the rest and thereby be in a position to dominate all phases of social life.” Reminiscent of Montesquieu and the Founders, Burnham wrote,
It is only when there are several different major social forces, not wholly subordinated to any one social force, that there can be an assurance of liberty, since only then is there the mutual check and balance that is able to chain power. There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power.
“Not unity, but difference,” he continued, “not the modern state but whatever is able to maintain itself against the state, not leaders but the unyielding opponents of leaders, not conformity with official opinion but persisting criticism, are the defenses of freedom.” This analysis can be helpfully compared to that of Tocqueville a century earlier; in his Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes a pluralist and decentralized democratic America, where the pressures of equality exist and are growing but which had not yet rendered his “democratic despotism” a full reality. Burnham draws a more pessimistic picture as the results of that despotism worked their way through with the help of ideology and what Burnham thought to be universal political forces of elite self-protection.
Despite its prescience, The Machiavellians, unfortunately, is one of the least remembered of Burnham’s books. It is, nevertheless, his most profound and timeless work. All students of political science should read and re-read this work because it sheds light on the actions and motives of past and present political leaders, both here and abroad. More importantly, all citizens who value and cherish liberty should heed its warnings about the dangers posed by the growth of concentrated state power and the necessity of maintaining and nourishing strong, vigorous institutional opposition to state power. Like the subjects of his book, James Burnham deserves to be remembered as a “defender of freedom.”
Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
Posted: November 3, 2013
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