If I had to recommend one book on politics, it would be James Burnham’s The Machiavellians. If I had to recommend one pamphlet, it would be an overlooked gem of American political discourse, Sam Francis’s The Other Side of Modernism: James Burnham and His Legacy. There is no white identitarian, racially aware conservative, American nationalist, or any other member of the Dissident Right who does not owe a massive debt to this towering genius. Yet this book has nothing to do with race. Instead, it focuses on power and seeks to build, however, hesitantly, towards a historiography and philosophy of the Right.
The slim monograph was published by The World & I Online, a magazine part of the Unification Church network of Sun Myung Moon. Of course, it was this same network that funded the Washington Times, Sam Francis’ base during his time within the “respectable” conservative movement. This background info captures the American Right’s entire problem. Francis dissects the American conservative movement’s inability to grapple with modernism and develop a science of power. However, this modernist, rationalist, anti-theocratic project was only enabled by what can charitably be termed an insane Asiatic religious cult.
As Francis points out, James Burnham, a Trotskyite defector to conservatism and a fervent Cold Warrior, has been quietly neglected by respectable conservative thought. He was never purged per se — he was one of the original contributors to National Review, President Ronald Reagan gave him the Medal of Freedom, and commentary about Burnham still appears in eminently respectable Conservatism Inc. outfits like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Yet he was in but not of the American conservative movement. Like Francis himself, he was a private man, at the margins, a deeply serious student of power more interested in how it functioned than in acquiring its trappings.
Francis suggests this was so because Burnham never fit into the clumsy “fusionism” of Frank Meyer, the unwieldy alliance between traditionalists and libertarians that held together the Buckleyite Right. Those whom Francis described as traditionalists were dissenters from modernity, those who claim that our loss of belief in God and the desire to remake the world to further an emancipatory, individualist project were connected. “Denying the absolute and transcendent sources of moral values,” Francis wrote, summarizing traditionalism, “modernism has no grounds for resisting tyranny or controlling anarchy.” In the crudest terms, we need God because without Him, everything is permitted. (The pro forma reference to the inevitable horrors of Nazism that would surely follow is often invoked by traditionalist conservatives of this tripe.)
Libertarianism doesn’t necessarily require God, but Burnham was certainly no libertarian. He endorsed state action in the economy and did not ground his thought in “individualism.” Instead, Francis argues, Burnham’s “fundamental ideas emphasized order, authority, and power.” There is such a thing for society. Within it, there rages the never-ending battle for power and status.
Indeed, Burnham posits the “limitless appetite for power” as something fundamental to human nature. This places him within the modernist, “Machiavellian” approach to politics, which seeks to understand the ways flowery political rhetoric is a mask for the pursuit of concrete political ends. The “real meaning” of political discourse, Burnham argued, was for temporal ends, not the “fictional world of religion, metaphysics, miracles, and pseudo-history” but the “actual world of space, time, and events.” Burnham even posts that the careful study of history could lead to the development of a “science of power,” resting on assumptions about human nature.
The primary goals at which I am in this column, as in most of the books and articles I have written are fact and analysis. I do not accept any theory of class, national ethnic, partisan, or sectarian truth. If conclusions I reach are true, they are just as true for Russians as for Americans, for pagans as for Christians, and for blacks as for whites.
Burnham entirely dismissed the possibility of limiting rulers via constitutional niceties or appeals to abstract moral codes. Instead, “all rulers. . . serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege.” Echoing Calhoun, Burnham wrote:
No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders nor businessmen, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make when all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.
Some might call this view cold-hearted, yet it was precisely the understanding that only power can check power that animated the Framers when they created the Constitution and the American Republic. (And yes, they were mostly WASPs and not the Iroquois Confederation.) However, there is no “perfect society,” no legal formula or Constitution that can make society perfect. There is only eternal political conflict, and religious creeds, political formulas, abstract ideologies, and Sorelian myths all serve the same end. They are means by which the elite direct the masses, masses who are incapable of ruling themselves.
Burnham, like Machiavelli, urged us to see the world before us as it is. Sappy rhetoric is always a cover for the pursuit of power, and those who seek to deceive us through such verbal games to protect their own status deserve our contempt, not our naïve acceptance. I would say of Burnham what he said of Machiavelli — Burnham’s moral code, compared to his critics, is much better.
The postwar American Right’s fatal flaw was defining opposition to the Soviet Union in terms of “individualism” and “free expression.” Instead, we must understand that power can’t be wished away. Hierarchy will always exist and must always exist, in every society, in every tribe, in every commune. Egalitarianism itself, as Francis argued, is a political weapon, a way to build power. It is no use to complain about “double standards” because the whole point of advancing equality, anti-racism, or social anarchism is to enable those double standards.
Accepting the permanent and inevitable realities of power and hierarchy allows us to cut through the twisted lies that have defined the postwar American Right. It’s for this reason that Burnham is more important than ever before. Republican appeals to “limited government” are obvious excuses to avoid confronting the corporate oligarchs that are crushing their own constituents. They won’t use state power to protect free speech online, prevent the mutilation of children in the name of transgenderism, or provide stimulus payments to ordinary Americans. However, limited government is a lie, as Republicans are quite eager to use state power to censor criticism of Israel, launch expensive foreign wars for unknown ends, and provide economic assistance to Wall Street. The hypocrisy surrounding this term is so overwhelming that even using the phrase “limited government” has become something of a tell, an indication that we know someone is either a coward or a liar.
Can we simply return to “traditionalism?” Well, which tradition? Even if one wants to define the Dissident Right as a religious movement, all the different creeds can’t be correct. A bland ecumenical Christianity or “Judeo-Christian values” is hardly a substitute for a real movement of faith. Matthew Rose rather vaingloriously ejected the already dead Sam Francis from Western civilization itself in First Things because Francis discussed race realism instead of focusing on some “transcendent horizon” of a larger “social good.” Catholic “integralists” like Adrian Vermeule say much the same thing, where belief in the Roman Catholic Church will mix with some rhetoric about the common good that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joe Biden speech, except for abortion.
The collapse of American Christianity, the wholesale surrender of every mainline Protestant denomination, many Catholic parishes, the Southern Baptists, and even some Orthodox churches show the strategy of citing God as a moral absolute but behaving no differently than most progressives is a losing strategy. If such traditionalists truly believe that they can save the West with religious appeals, I’d challenge them to win back their own denominations before trying to win back America.
Burnham and Francis show neither individualist political creeds nor mushy religiosity and nostalgia can counter the Left’s triumphal march through the institutions. The Right doesn’t even have a vocabulary to describe what’s happening to it. It focuses on the letter of the law or “norms” and expects progressives to restrain themselves. Yet progressives have a moral vision, and they will not let technicalities stop them. The result is that even supposedly hard-right Senators like Ted Cruz are reduced to whining that the other team isn’t playing fair. This is true, because they are playing for keeps. It is no exaggeration to say that postwar American Right exists to tell the historic American nation that “our principles” forbid us from pursuing our interests. However, Republican lawmakers are clearly serving their interests by doing this, guaranteeing themselves a lucrative post-electoral job after losing respectably.
Instead of engaging as “politics as wish” or trusting in institutions, we must examine the realities of power. We must understand how it works. We must do this without claims to the supernatural, to innate human decency, or to a vague optimism that the good guys win in the end. As Spengler said, “Optimism is cowardice.”
Yet is it so simple? Burnham saw myth and religion as practical forces for building power. Francis notes that he focused on the “irrational and mythic forces of tradition and ideology” and the way they can sweep aside the decadent and complacent representatives of a dying order. We see this now, with the BLM faith, a faith complete with claims of supernatural deeds, rituals, and a cult of saints, pushing aside what remains of traditional Christianity in the same way early Christians ripped apart Mediterranean paganism. Burnham coldly analyzes the power of myth, but does seem to miss something essential. Francis quotes Whittaker Chambers: “The Fire Bird is glimpsed living or not at all. In other words, realists have a way of missing truth which is not invariably realistic.”
However, even Myth needs a social base. There’s a reason a Myth, a political formula, or even a simple narrative “takes” among one group of people and is rejected by another. Both Burnham and Francis devote significant attention to identifying the socioeconomic groups that benefit and suffer from the current Managerial State. In this sense, they are building what Julius Evola (perhaps the most non-realist thinker of the Right) said was desperately needed — a historiography of the Right. Whatever its numerous errors, Marxists and other subversives have developed entire schools of thought that allow the analysis of class, race, pop culture, history, sociology, anthropology, and everything else that can be imagined. They’ve essentially created entire fields or taken over older fields completely.
The American Right, in contrast, is purely reactionary in the worst sense. There is no systemic worldview, no analytical process by which they can conceptualize and respond to the terrible events being unleashed against them. Instead, many take refuge in vague hopes that God, a political savior, or some nebulous American patriotism will save them. Burnham’s science of power, by turning modernism against itself and creating such a system, could give Rightists such a tool.
Leftists, as usual, understand Rightists better than Rightists understand themselves. Francis wrote:
The Left perceived that Burnham’s inversion of modernism was a far more serious threat to it than the anti-modern traditionalism that many conservatives represented. Burnham’s modernism threatened to remove the philosophical ground from under the Left’s feet and leave it with no basis for its political ideology.
Of course, the American Right never used Burnham’s system, with the exception of those like Francis. Instead, they doubled down on comforting myths, myths that seem almost designed (or were actually designed) to steer the grassroots into dead ends. For example, James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, which identified liberalism as a stage in the death of a civilization, was repackaged by Jonah Goldberg. It’s traditionalist in a way far dumber than reactionary Christianity; instead, it asks us to believe in the “Miracle” of classical liberalism and somehow educate Americans to believe in this creed. Like all Leftists, “education” is always the answer. Burnham’s more substantial text said liberalism was a stage of decay; Goldberg tells us to defend this poison.
What is needed by the Right is a framework. Burnham provides the beginnings of one, and Francis took it a step farther with Leviathan. These are substantial texts, but even reading through this slim volume will give you an orientation about what needs to be done. To quote Francis once more:
Among contemporary conservatives only James Burnham offered a theoretical framework and a practical application of modernist political ideas that challenge the conventional modernist categories as defined by the Left. When the American Right begins to understand and accept his legacy, it will begin to glimpse a more enduring victory in the protracted domestic and global conflict in which Burnham was enlisted.
However, it can’t stop there. Burnham himself recognized the power of Myth. Karl Marx didn’t just analyze the world, but gave his followers a goal, promising they had nothing to lose but their chains. Burnham scoffed at utopias, but knew a glorious vision is needed to move the masses. More than that, it needs to be something so powerful, primal, and perfect that it will inspire the utmost sacrifice.
For us, it is the Western civilization-state. It’s the dream of a new Imperium where our people can live in safety, pursue greatness, and endure forever. It’s knowing that we are the rope between man and Overman.
While in politics, we must be modernists in analyzing power, we must be capital-T Traditionalists as well. We are pursuing what is good, noble, and true, and always have been. However, Burnham and Francis remind us that mere rhetoric, “the formal argument,” counts for little. We must pursue power. We must have the willingness to wield it. And we must educate ourselves in order to get it. Spare a few moments and read The Other Side of Modernism: James Burnham and His Legacy. You’ll look at the world differently afterward, and perhaps, like me, you’ll start thinking of the concrete ways we can achieve a great destiny in our own lifetimes.
Two American Renaissance Podcasts by Gregory Hood and Chris Roberts are particularly relevant to this topic:
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