James Burnham (1905–1987) was an American popular political theorist, former Communist activist and intellectual, known for his work The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, which heavily influenced George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four".
Burnham was of English Catholic stock, although he was an atheist for much of his life before converting just before his death. He graduated at the top of his class at Princeton before attending Balliol College, Oxford.
As a member of the U.S. Workers Party Burnham was a leading Trotskyist in the 1930s, forming what became the Socialist Workers Party, which was a communist and anti-Stalinist party. He allied with Max Shachtman in a faction fight with the majority in the party led by James Cannon over the question of the nature of the Soviet Union. Cannon, backed by Leon Trotsky held that the USSR was a degenerated workers state while Shachtman and Burnham contended that the Soviet Union was bureaucratic collectivist and thus not worthy of being supported even critically. The specific event which led to the dispute was the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939.
The party dispute led to Shachtman, Burnham and their supporters leaving the SWP in 1940 but soon after Burnham broke with Shachtman and left the communist movement altogether and worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war. After the war he called for an aggressive strategy to undermine Soviet Union power. During the Cold War, he was a regular writer for National Review. In 1983 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. His ideas were an important influence on both the neoconservative and paleoconservative factions of the American Right.
Burnham theorised that the world would form into three super-states, the United States, Germany and Japan, which would compete for world power. Clearly at this time he did not foresee the Soviet Union's emerging as a super-power after the war, although he did predict that the United States would be the "receiver" for the disintegrating British Empire.
More importantly, he argued that capitalism was disappearing, but that it would not be replaced by socialism; neither, for that matter, would democracy ever gain the ascendancy. A new managerial class, rather than the working class, was replacing the old capitalist class as the dominant power in society. The managerial class included business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers. He gave Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as clear examples. Burnham's theory is sometimes thought to have been influenced by Bruno Rizzi's 1939 book La Bureaucratisation du Monde; but despite similarities, there is no evidence that Burnham knew of the obscure book outside of some brief references to it by Trotsky.
It is important to note that what Burnham meant by capitalism was the individual ownership and control of production, which is distinct from the modern corporation, an association established by law where individual shareholders have no direct control over production.
A later book, The Machiavellians, saw Burnham develop his theory by arguing that the emerging new elite would better serve its own interests if it were to keep at least some of the trappings of democracy, such as political opposition and a free press, and a controlled 'circulation of the elites'.
His 1964 book Suicide of the West became a classic among movement conservatives, defining liberalism as a "syndrome" ridden with guilt and internal contradictions. His works greatly influenced paleoconservative author Samuel Francis. Francis wrote two books on Burnham and based his political theories on the "managerial revolution" and the resulting managerial state.