Earlier this week, Francis Sempa made a go at rehabilitating the reputation of James Burnham. I had some objections:
What’s odd about Sempa’s column is that very few try to resurrect the reputation of Vietnam hawks, the people who argued that the only problems with the war in Indochina are that the United States didn’t squander enough blood and treasure and didn’t slaughter enough Asians. America’s historical memory has struggled to flush such voices from its consciousness, and has largely succeeded. It also bears note that the National Review itselfrarely enjoys being reminded of the sort of sentiments it published during the 1950s and 1960s.
… via Hogan, Orwell on Burnham. And this is particularly on the nose:
Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is
winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if
the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in
London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than
they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake
suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of
apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving,
toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change,
the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to
lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of
five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the
instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticise his
theory in a broader way.