James Burnham’s ‘managerial revolution’ and the Great Reset

James Burnham
Read Time:5 Minutes

Left Lockdown Sceptics is meeting in London on 13th November! Find out more and register to attend here.

There are theories that the ‘Great Reset’ of the World Economic Forum is a programme for a technocratic fascist coup or revolution. There is little current Marxist analysis of these theories, which no doubt explains the comment in the otherwise informative book Pseudopandemic by Ian Davis: ‘Neither free market liberalism nor Marxist theory provide and adequate framework to describe the emerging Technate’ (p. 243)

However, the theory of emerging fascist Technate[s] was the subject of a wide ranging and explosive Marxist debate 80 years ago. Although that debate has since been sent down the “memory hole”; it did inspire and enter into the content of Orwell’s book 1984.

Here we need to briefly understand an integral part of Marxist theory: the core or essences of ideas associated with historical events can reappear in different forms or costumes.

This is a method to analyse history for a comparative analysis of modern events that removes potentially superficial differences in order to focus on common causes. Thus from one of the most famous opening passages of Karl Marx: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ And for example, regardless of the specific accuracy this application; the comparison of Stalin to Napoleon.

In 1941 a book was written on the topic of a technocratic revolution by a “dissident” (and prominent) Marxist theoretician. I will leave it to George Orwell to introduce the subject:

James Burnham’s book, The Managerial Revolution, made a considerable stir both in the United States and in this country at the time when it was published, and its main thesis has been so much discussed that a detailed exposition of it is hardly necessary. As shortly as I can summarize it, the thesis is this: The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of ‘managers’. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands.

Orwell’s ‘Second thoughts on James Burnham’, 1946

Burnham does not appear to draw on the historical antecedents to this kind of idea which in fact had been quite widespread, perhaps to generate the illusion of more originality than his idea deserved. However, Patrick Wood has drawn on this material whilst analysing the Great Reset in the context of the ‘pseudopandemic’ (here and here).

Burnham’s thesis was that the Italian and German fascism of the 1930s was a manifestation of his “managerial [ie, technocratic] revolution”.  The sensational part of his thesis? So was the Bolshevik revolution. And thus fascism and Bolshevism were essentially different forms of the same thing. That part of the idea in 1941 was not particularly original either.

Now we need to understand another part of Marxist theory (which unfortunately is already fairly well understood by people who have never read a word of it): the ruling class will often pursue an agenda with the necessary support of a subservient class that is not in the ultimate interests of that subservient class.

Thus, spurious noble justifications or rationalisations have to be employed, whilst the real reasons have to be sublimated beneath the surface (like the oil in the Iraq war). Burnham draws attention to this early on in his book towards the end of chapter 2 and it is a reiterated theme throughout the book.

He would have warned us against the noble goals of technocracy, such as the following manifesto:

By clinging to an outdated economic structure that often directs technology’s uses strictly for profit we are missing the full value of technology for the betterment of society and the environment […] Technocracy is a better way to confront social problems than authoritarian politics divorced from technical expertise. Technocracy is about making scientifically proven decisions. We are about making balanced and responsible choices for society and the environment

Manifesto of ‘Technocracy Works’

Equally, concerns about sustainable development and global warming might be merely a cover stories for a ruling class to pursue its material and economic interests. And the more they adopt, sponsor and support those advocating the noble ‘communitarian’ ideas the more they believe in those ideas themselves. Meanwhile, many of these advocates become either ‘useful idiots’ or cynics.

So when we read the World Economic Forum on stakeholder capitalism, for example, we should be highly suspicious, but should also take into consideration that Klaus Schwab and others may actually believe in it themselves.

There was an extremely impressive Marxist analysis of Burnham’s book from a young Tony Cliff in 1943. (Note: I am a libertarian communist so I am certainly not prejudiced in favour of famous Trotskyist theoreticians). Here, Cliff asks the question:

Is it possible for the servants of the oligarchy – namely the managers – to free themselves from its rule and become the workers’ exploiters? Before answering this question, let us deal with Burnham’s third argument, namely, that the process of displacement of capitalism by the ‘managerial society’ is taking place already?

Tony Cliff, ‘Managerial Revolution (A counter-revolutionary theory of monopoly capitalism), 1943

In this debate or analysis you don’t need to agree or disagree with one side or another. It is about learning from history – which may about to repeat itself. It is possible that this pseudopandemic is:

  • An attempt at a managerial revolution as described by Burnham
  • An attempt at a capitalist global transnational totalitarian coup to subvert populism and a “crisis in democracy”
  • A recognition by the capitalist class themselves, or sections of it, that capitalism has arrived at its own limitations and contradictions and requires some dramatic structural overhaul

Or it could be something else: perhaps, once its goals are achieved, the whole Great Reset agenda stop and the World Economic Forum will be the ‘Patsy’. Whatever the case, it is worth considering the possibility we have been here before.

4 thoughts on “James Burnham’s ‘managerial revolution’ and the Great Reset

  1. This is excellent. And overdue. We are confronted with the assertion of power by managerial ‘experts’. Whose authority may not be questioned. And the Left has signed on to this Party Line. Consider the Manifesto of the International Manifesto Group which uncritically signs on to the Covid crisis crap. This is what we get from the comfortable and tenured socialist ‘experts’.

    I believe we must move beyond a critique, of rightfully raging at the refusal to debate or be held to account by evidence. On such grounds we can make a convincing case notwithstanding the challenges of presenting it given the propaganda and censorship.

    What is lacking is a path forward. We know what we are against but what matters is what we are for. What is to be done? What is the path forward, the goal of a better way that can rally people. A positive manifesto and not more wringing of hands.

    You have my email. Pick up the baton and initiate the collaboration needed to bring this about.

  2. “An attempt at a capitalist global transnational totalitarian coup to subvert populism and a “crisis in democracy”

    “A recognition by the capitalist class themselves, or sections of it, that capitalism has arrived at its own limitations and contradictions and requires some dramatic structural overhaul”

    – spot on the money analysis I’d say.

  3. “The emergency of the bureaucracy in Russia after the revolution enables us to envisage the problem at yet another level. In this case too, analysis lets us see deep and understandable factors at work, upon which we cant dwell again here. The birth of the bureaucracy in Russia was certainly not a chance occurrence. The proof is that bureaucratisation has since then increasingly appeared as the dominant trend of the modern world. But to understand the bureaucratisation of capitalist countries we call upon the tendencies immanent in the organisation of production, of the economy and the state under capitalism. To understand the origins of the bureaucracy in Russia, we refer to a totally different process, such as the relationship between the revolutionary class and ‘its’ party, the ‘maturity’ of the former and the ideology of the latter. Now, from a sociological point of view, there is no doubt that the canonical form of the bureaucracy is that which emerges at an advanced stage in the development of capitalism. Yet the bureaucracy which first appeared historically was that which arose in Russia, on the very morrow of the revolution, on the social and material ruins of capitalism; it is even this bureaucracy which, through a thousand direct and indirect influences, has strongly induced and accelerated the movement towards bureaucratisation within capitalism. Everything happened as though the modern world was pregnant with bureaucracy – and that to produce it it was ready to bring all grist to the mill, including some which seemed least appropriate such as marxism, the workers’ movement and the proletarian revolution.” (History As Creation – Paul Cardan. reprinted by Solidarity UK 1978.(p27). Cardan as well as Tony Cliff and Burnham all concerned themselves with the bureaucratisation of the world.

    You wrote “The ruling class will often pursue an agenda with the necessary support of the subservient class that is not in the ultimate interests of the working class…”
    What the lower classes have in common with the ruling class is the need for Security. Capitalism is the drive, the search for Security, its solutions always undermine the security of the lower classes (The lower classes cling to whatever security they can). Class struggle is a struggle of competing groups for security. Unfortunately for the lower classes it’s always on capitals terrain.
    Socialism arose as a reaction to the insecurities emerging capitalism was inflicting on society. The movement expressed ideas on how to resist the insecurities being inflicted. A struggle over restraints ensued. Socialism found political expression through social democracy – a temporary compromise, an admission that the beast could not be fully restrained, could not be put back in the bottle.. SD = a compromise that didnt work – and no longer tries.
    Every concern these days is about Security. The left will never have mass appeal /support until it can put forward ideas of how it can guarantee Security – that ends the insecurity engendered by the ruling class’ drive for security…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.