Lawrence Dennis and James Burnham

lawrence_dennis_number_one

“America’s Number One intellectual fascist”

Every time I read something about George Orwell, such as this post by Nick Slater that went up the other day, I think of Orwell’s fascination with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941.)  Orwell was harshly critical of Burnham’s overall position, though he did pick up Burnham’s prediction that the Second World War would end with the division of the earth into three totalitarian superstates as the background of 1984.

What I find intriguing about that prediction, as indeed about the major points on which Orwell focuses his critique, is that all had appeared in print before Burnham published his book. In fact, they had all appeared in the works of one author, Lawrence Dennis. As I described the situation in a comment on a post at The American Conservative three years ago:

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

Burnham’s debt to Dennis was not entirely unobserved at the time. Joseph Hansen, a leading Trotskyist writer and onetime bodyguard to Trotsky, reviewed Burnham’s first two books in the October 1943 issue of The Fourth International writing as follows:

Huse of the University of North Carolina, analyzing Burnham’s latest book in The Southern Economic Journal, July 1943, writes the following as his final paragraph:

“One reproach that might be made against Mr. Burnham is his omission of Lawrence Dennis, a Machiavellian if there ever was one, to whose Dynamics of War and Revolution Mr. Burnham himself seems peculiarly indebted.”

A Deadly Parallel

Who is Lawrence Dennis? – a newcomer to politics might ask. Dennis is an avowed fascist, who advocates fascism for America and who is widely considered as the leading theoretician of self-acknowledged fascism in the United States.

The charge of Mr. Huse is, therefore, a very serious one. Is Huse perhaps committing a Machiavellian slander? Perhaps we can clear up Burnham’s “neutrality” if we go to the trouble of comparing his views with those of Dennis.

Dennis has written three books, Is Capitalism DoomedThe Coming American Fascism, and The Dynamics of War and Revolution. All of them appeared before Burnham’s writings. All of them were written from the viewpoint of a man anxious to set up a fascist dictatorship in the United States.

In his first book (1932) Dennis reached the conclusion that capitalism is doomed. He maintained, however, like Burnham that he was not seeking to make “converts to a new economic faith or plan.” Dennis was interested only in measures to make the “old age” of capitalism “long and pleasant.” His “only dogma” like Burnham’s “is that people must think realistically … about the problems of the world depression.”

In his second book (1936) Dennis gave up hope of measures to preserve democratic capitalism and predicted the inevitable triumph of either communism or fascism, of which he chose the latter. Burnham during this same period chose communism only later to reject it.

On Marxism, Dennis declares:

“I am inclined to find in his (Marx’s) explanation of the existing system and its inevitable course to collapse many flaws in logic and science. (Isn’t this Burnham’s position? – J.H.) I find the idea of a classless, governmentless society of workers enjoying social order and material abundance fantastic and unattainable. (Burnham reached this view later than fascist Dennis – J.H.) It appears unattainable for the reason that social order requires government and administration by a ruling class or power-exercising class which must always be an aristocracy of management, however selected, operating through some set of mechanism of social control, economic as well as political.” (The Coming American Fascism, by Lawrence Dennis, p.7)

Some years after Dennis’s succinct conclusion, Burnham wrote a whole book to explain this same point of fascist theory.

“Incidentally, it is to be remarked and even stressed that Communist Russia, no less than the fascist countries, the billion-dollar capitalist corporation, or the efficient army in the field, meets with extreme thoroughness and rigor these universal imperatives of social order and administrative efficiency.” (Idem, p.7)

These “universal imperatives” have a familiar ring, especially in connection with the question of the class character of the Soviet Union.

Dennis, too, believes society is like a cabbage – only he uses the old-fashioned term “social factors” instead of the modern Machiavellian “forces.”

And here is our old friend human nature in his birthday clothes: According to Dennis, “Human nature has not changed materially under liberal capitalism. The masses have not the intelligence or the humanity, nor the winners the magnanimity, which liberal assumptions have postulated.” (Idem, p.100.) Where did Burnham go to school?

Fascist Dennis entitles one of his chapters, The Inevitability of the Leadership of the Elite. Here are some sample excerpts from this chapter: “Fascism says that the elite, or a small minority, call its members by any term you will, always rule under any system.” Seven years later, Burnham was to write this down as the claim of “Machiavellianism.”

The ground Dennis selects for his view is brutally frank – more frank than Burnham’s ground:

“The central point is that it is useful to think of government and management as being the function of a minority, and that it is not useful to any good social purpose to proceed on the theory that the people or the majority rule.” (Idem, pp.234-5.)

This view is “useful” of course for the establishment of fascism which Dennis advocates. Unlike Burnham, Dennis has a clear goal. For the means to this goal, it is clear he has made a close study of what was efficacious in Italy and Germany.

Dennis even presents Burnham’s arguments – in advance of the clever Burnham – as to why there will aways be a ruling class. First argument: “Civilizations come and go, but the elite go on forever” because of the “limitations and inequalities inherent in human personalities.” (Idem, p.236) Second argument: “The sheer mechanics of administration and management of large numbers of people and the complex instruments of modern civilization” require a ruling class. But in place of “Machiavellianism,” Dennis uses these arguments to advocate fascism.

If the reviewers of Burnham’s book would like a better insight into some of Burnham’s contentions about the Machiavellians as defenders of freedom let them check fascist Dennis. “The elite do rule” but this does not mean that the “elite are subject to no control by the people.” The majority may be organized by an “out-elite” and “replace one set of the elite in power by another.”

“The problem of order and welfare, in the light of the … inevitability of the leadership of the elite or a minority, appears to be largely one of getting the right elite or minority in power…” (Idem, pp. 242-3)

Almost word for word this appears seven years later in Burnham’s book. We don’t believe Burnham consciously plagiarized from Dennis although at times the similarity is so striking as to require an effort of will to keep from becoming a convert to Burnham’s theory about the depravity of human nature.

Dennis continues: “It is one of the merits of fascism, and a part of its appeal, that its leaders do not dissimulate their rule or try to place responsibility for their rule on a phantom of definition and assumption – such as, the majority or the proletariat.” Burnham claims this to be the distinctive merit of “Machiavellianism.”

Dennis ends his book on the problem of the fascist party, its organization and its method of action. He believes the time not yet ripe (1936) and calls only for “preparatory thinking and discussion.”

It is only in this final chapter that we find the main difference between Dennis and Burnham. All other differences are at bottom differences of terminology.

Fascist Forecasts

In 1940, Lawrence Dennis published his third book. All his volumes thus precede Burnham’s and if credit is to be given for development of theory it is customary in the world of science to recognize the first in time. Let us see, therefore, what is rightfully Burnham’s and what Dennis’s – all the while keeping an eye out for any fascist or Machiavellian trickery.

Dennis starts out on a pessimistic note:

“This book is addressed not to the masses but to the elite or to the ruling groups, actual and potential … it will never be read by the masses … it is too rational to appeal to the masses.”

We rub our eyes and proceed.

Now we are in for a shock. Dennis, like Burnham, predicts a new system to replace capitalism. “I am prepared to record definitely and stand on the prediction that capitalism is doomed and socialism will triumph.” But what does Mr. Dennis mean by “socialism”?

“The terms communism (referring to the revolution in Russia), Fascism (referring to the revolution in Italy), Nazism (referring to the revolution in Germany) and the New Deal (referring to the revolution in America) now appear clearly to be each just a local ism. Looking at the entire world situation, one may now say that there is just one revolution and just one significant ism: socialism.”

Dennis’s “socialism” turns out to be identical with Burnham’s “managerial society.” Did Burnham expound this very same thesis with greater brilliance when he called it the “managerial revolution”?

Dennis even has in a nutshell Burnham’s description of the differences in the course followed by the “managerial revolution”:

“Fascism and Nazism, differ from communism mainly in the manner of coming into operation. A vital element of the Fascist and Nazi way of coming to power was the taking of the big business men and middle classes into the socialist camp without resistance and, even with enthusiasm …”

Dennis speaking in the light of the German and Italian experiences explains a lot of things.

“The main purpose of a realistic approach to current problems must be to prepare the minds of the elite minority capable of leadership when the time comes for such leadership. The time is not yet ripe …”

Thank God for that favor. But “The real leaders of the new American revolution will at some stage of the collapse have to sell themselves to a considerable number of people.”

What Next?

Dennis even anticipated books of Burnham’s type. “As the world swaps revolutions and imperialisms” Americans will “take new bearings.” He recommends that they reject Karl Marx and turn to Machiavelli. Again,

“The present ins in the democracies are neither organized nor class conscious. The changed mechanics, after we go to war, will at once work for a clarification of thinking about power by the outs or marginal ins among the elite.”

Burnham began by rejecting the materialist dialectics. In the end he rejected Marxism completely and took a number of the more nervous rabbits along with him in his flight, penning them up in the Workers Party. But Burnham was in such a hurry to get some place that this Workers Party became irksome baggage. He discarded it the way a soldier of fortune discards a trophy of war when it stands in the way of richer loot. He has written feverishly – in his spare time producing two books within two years, one of them creating quite a ripple among the “elite” of the petty bourgeoisie. The theories developed in these two books, while not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis, at least provide a remarkable demonstration of how great minds run in similar channels.

Hansen’s assertion that Burnham’s works were “not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis” might be sarcastic. Others have suspected that Burnham plagiarized Dennis’ works wholesale. See page 191, note 8, of Political Reason in the Age of Ideology: Essays in Honor of Raymond Aron edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Daniel J. Mahoney (Transaction Press, 2007.) where it is stated that not only Burnham, but also E. H. Carr used Dennis’ work without attribution.

It is something of a misfortune that one of the most trenchant statements about the relationship between Burnham’s work and Dennis’ was written  by a figure even more thoroughly stigmatized than Dennis himself. The late Keith Stimely was a far-Right figure, for a time a neo-Nazi, who by the time of his death had become a Satanist. Evidently his goal in life was to shock as many people as possible. At any rate, his essay “Lawrence Dennis and a ‘Frontier Thesis’ for American Capitalism” is quite well-done. The version of it linked here includes a note by the late Sam Francis citing his own argument that Burnham arrived at his conclusions independently of Dennis.

If it was worth George Orwell’s time, and for that matter Joseph Hansen’s, to argue against Burnham’s presentation of Dennis’ ideas, surely it would be worth someone’s time to engage with Dennis’ own works. I would say that Dennis was in many ways a stronger thinker than Burnham. For example, while Burnham did predict that the Axis would be victorious in the Second World War, Dennis argued that fascism would come to the USA as the price of America’s victory in that war. Dennis predicted that this postwar fascism would be called by some name other than “fascism,” and indeed that its exponents would claim to be the archenemies of fascism, but that it would embody the substance of Mussolini’s system. Writing in the 1960s, Dennis saw no reason to renounce this prediction.

 

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