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The Other Side of Modernism: James Burnham and His Legacy


Article # : 13295 

Section : MODERN THOUGHT
Issue Date : 10 / 1987  3,227 Words
Author : Samuel T. Francis

       James Burnham died of terminal cancer at his home in Kent, Connecticut, on July 28, 1987, at the age of eighty-one. Debilitated by a stroke that impaired the functioning of his memory in 1978, he had long since ceased to write the fortnightly column "The Protracted Conflict" in National Review, on the masthead of which he had appeared since its first issue in 1955. A reticent man by nature, Burnham by the time of his death was not well known in either the national intellectual community or even in the conservative movement with which he had worked since the 1950s, and many today who are pleased to call themselves conservatives confessed their ignorance of who he was or what he had done. Although Burnham was from the 1930s to the 1950s a highly visible star in the New York intellectual constellation and continued his luminescence among New York conservatives until his stroke, the New York Times did not bother to print an obituary of him. The omission is all the more striking since President Reagan had seen fit to award Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 and issued a laudatory tribute to him after his death.
       
        The neglect of Burnham by liberal and even mainstream media is explained by many conservatives as the response to be expected from those whose incantations to the broad mind and the open mouth are belied by their contempt for those who dissent from their canons. Yet Burnham was also neglected by many conservatives, who knew him best through his column and his classic Suicide of the West, repeatedly reprinted since its first publication in 1964. George H. Nash, in his monumental The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, acknowledges Burnham's importance in the emergence of conservative anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s, but neither Nash nor most other students of the American Right have fully appreciated the significance of Burnham's political ideas or their potential for constructing a serious and critical political theory for the contemporary American Right.
       
        Burnham did not generally socialize with the conservative movement. He was not a member of the Philadelphia Society, seldom contributed to conservative periodicals other than National Review, and seldom or never participated in the seminars and summer schools of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or Young Americans for Freedom. His aloofness was probably in part a personal choice, but it also reflected an incongruity between his thinking and that of the mainstream of American conservatism as it has developed since the 1940s. Burnham and his more percipient readers were aware of the incongruity, which served to keep him at a distance from many of his professional collaborators on the Right, while, ironically, causing the Left to concentrate its fire on his writings to a greater degree than on any other conservative intellectual figure of our era.
       
        Until fairly recently the mainstream of American conservative thought could be divided into two courses, generally called libertarian and traditionalist. The former centered on individual rights and the limitations of the state and emphasized the free market as a means of solving social and economic problems. The traditionalist wing of conservatism focused on the duties of men in a historic continuum and emphasized authority, order, and religious and ethical virtue. Although subsidiary and eclectic bodies of opinion flourished, and though some like the late Frank S. Meyer sought to formulate a "fusionist" school that bridged the contradictions between libertarians and traditionalists, these were the predominant currents among American conservatives until the
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