In The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy profiles the often overlooked, founding neoconservative James Burnham:
He was one of the key thinkers of the postwar conservative movement, though his thought is badly neglected on the right today. The man whose mind explains our politics today and suggests a diagnosis—if not a cure—for our condition is James Burnham. Once a Marxist, he became the American Machiavelli, master analyst of the oligarchic nature of power in his day and ours.
He was one of William F. Buckley Jr.’s first recruits for the masthead of National Review before the magazine’s launch in 1955. Burnham, born in 1905, had already had a distinguished career. He had worked with the CIA and its World War II-era precursor, the OSS. Before that, as a professor of philosophy at New York University, he had been a leading figure in the American Trotskyist movement, a co-founder of the socialist American Workers Party.
But he broke with Trotsky, and with socialism itself, in the 1940s, and he sought a new theory to explain what was happening in the world. In FDR’s era, as now, there was a paradox: America was a capitalist country, yet capitalism under the New Deal no longer resembled what it had been in the 19th century. And socialism in the Soviet Union looked nothing at all like the dictatorship of the proletariat: just “dictatorship” would be closer to the mark. (If not quite a bull’s-eye, in Burnham’s view.)
Real power in America did not rest with the great capitalists of old, just as real power in the USSR did not lie with the workers. Burnham analyzed this reality, as well as the fascist system of Nazi Germany, and devised a theory of what he called the “managerial revolution.” Economic control, thus inevitably political control, in all these states lay in the hands of a new class of professional managers in business and government alike—engineers, technocrats, and planners rather than workers or owners.