JAMES BURNHAM AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE WORLD: A LIFE
By Daniel Kelly
ISI Books, $29.95, 443 pages
PRINCIPLES AND HERESIES: FRANK S. MEYER AND THE SHAPING OF THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT
By Kevin J. Smant
ISI Books, $29.95, 390 pages
REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN
One of Jim Burnham’s close friends during and after their Trotskyite tryst was Max Shachtman, a wily and witty polemicist who became a prominent anti-communist in the 1950s. Schachtman’s break with communism coincided with the internal 1945 uproar in the Communist Party and the expulsion of Earl Browder, the party’s longtime leader. His fanatical loyalty to Joseph Stalin had been rewarded with a typical Stalinist purge. However, being an American citizen, Browder couldn’t be liquidated. Despite his disgrace, he still championed Stalin even after his personal appeal to Stalin had been rejected.
A face-to-face debate in New York between Shachtman and Browder opened with Browder, having just returned from Moscow, offering an unblinking defense of Stalin and the Soviet Union. As Browder sat down, the tall, slim Shachtman rose up. He pointed a long bony forefinger at Browder and made an unforgettable pronouncement:
“There, but for the accident of geography, sits a corpse.”
I thought of this anecdote as I read the biographies of two intellectuals, Jim Burnham and Frank Meyer, who went from communism to anti-communism and became rival founding editors of Bill Buckley’s fledgling conservative magazine, the now venerable National Review. Had Burnham or Meyer been Soviet intellectuals their back-stabbing manifestoes and censorious memoranda to Buckley about each other would undoubtedly have led to the sudden demise or gulagization of one or the other, or probably both. But for an accident of geography, indeed.
However the battle for the soul of a modern conservatism wasn’t, of course, just the story of these two feuding intellectuals seeking ideological mastery. What makes these biographies, Daniel Kelley’s “James Burnham and the Struggle for the World,” and Kevin J. Smant’s “Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement,” essential reading is that they provide from a conservative viewpoint an enormously detailed understanding of the 20th century war of ideas. For these two books mirror the global struggle between totalitarianism and democracy spread over seven decades and, for Mr. Buckley, Burnham and Meyer, the equally important struggle against liberalism, socialism and collectivism.
The authors have successfully synthesized the ideas and ideologies of two men who for years held each other in contempt the Midwestern Burnham, an academic who taught philosophy at New York University, onetime chief adviser to Leon Trotsky, connoisseur of art, wine and music, devoted to European travel, a Tory who wanted conservatism to be mainstream. And Meyer, single-minded, devoted to books (he was for 15 years National Review’s successful book editor), chess master, lover of Shakespeare, deathbed convert to Catholicism. For him, the conservative ideology was paramount; compromise on its tenets, which Burnham favored, inadmissible.
Mr. Buckley called Meyer “the house theologian” but it was to Burnham that Buckley accorded the ultimate accolade: “the dominant intellectual influence” at the National Review. The long debate between Meyer and Burnham was, it could be said with a bow to Hegel, dialectica “between the real and the ideal, between pragmatism and principle, between what was possible and what was right,” to quote Meyer’s biographer.
The ideological odyssey of these two highly intelligent men reminded me of the words of John Maynard Keynes: “Marxian Socialism must always remain a portent to historians of Opinion how a doctrine so illogical and so dull can have exercised so powerful and enduring an influence over the minds of men, and through them, the events of history.” It’s still a mystery.
Even more of a mystery is how as sophisticated and intelligent a man like Burnham could also have favored segregation, defended white-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa during the heyday of apartheid. I myself once argued with Burnham, a believer in the “mission civilatrice” of French colonialism, about his support of French rule in Algeria.
What made for the sharp difference between the two men was that Burnham shared a belief with the early Central Intelligence Agency policy makers, with whom he worked, that the social democratic forces in Europe along with American labor were the toughest and most reliable anti-communists. In fact, another National Review spinoff publication which Burnham edited praised the AFL-CIO and George Meany, its president, for their anti-communism and “intelligent” foreign policy views.
Meyer simply didn’t see it that way. Meyer, of course, had no relation with the CIA or with their ideas as espoused by Burnham or the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. In addition, Burnham supported the idea of the welfare state, defended the Tennessee Valley Authority and public ownership, anathema to Meyer. In a sense, Burnham would have been comfortable in the pinkish Macmillan-Heath Conservative Party in England. Richard Brookhiser, a senior National Review editor, is in fact quoted as believing that Burnham was “the first neoconservative.” Irving Kristol, who has been acclaimed as the “godfather” of neoconservatism, might, as a longtime admirer of Burnham, well agree.
The history of the world, Thomas Carlyle wrote, is but the biography of great men. And the history of a magazine is but the biography of great editors. And these two books are the story of National Review and three great editors, Burnham, Meyer and the reigning force over both, William Buckley, playing his captivating dual role as Maecenas and Cicero.
In praising these volumes, I don’t mean to slight the pioneering work of George Nash, the distinguished historian, or the solid intellectual contribution of Russell Kirk or even the Buckley biography by John Judis. What is striking here is the unusual access the authors were given to National Review documents and personal interviews with NR editors, high and low.These long overdue biographies justifiably recognize two men who contributed mightily to the development of a political philosophy which has influenced the free market democracies.
I think it could be said that with Mr. Buckley and William Rusher, the National Review publisher, they created”a permanent infrastructure of ideas and organizations for that movement,” to quote Mr. Smant, a movement which began with the Barry Goldwater train wreck in 1964, almost collapsed with the election of Richard M. Nixon, whom the National Review editors despised, but finally triumphed with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Quite a story, worth telling, worth reading.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for the The Washington Times.