The political ideas of James Burnham lodged themselves in George Orwell’s mind, horrifying and challenging him, refusing to let go until Orwell could refute them with sufficient authority to declare them fully vanquished. Orwell dedicated three long essays to Burnham’s works, each one painstakingly unpacking the myriad ways in which Orwell saw Burnham’s theories as flawed. In his writing about Burnham, Orwell explains why he rejects what he calls “neo-pessimism”—a line of thinking about global politics that dismisses any possibility of positive change.
Burnham argues that capitalism is a failed system of the past and socialism is unworkable; instead, the world is lurching inevitably toward a new ruling class of the managerial elite. In Orwell’s reconstruction, Burnham believes that “this new ruling class expropriates the capitalists, crushes the working class movements and sets up a totalitarian society governed by the concept of efficiency.”
Burnham’s arguments contain many trenchant insights. Orwell writes in “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” that Burnham has correctly identified some trends underway:
For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy. The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralized state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party régimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction.
Yet Burnham’s ideas, Orwell argues, are based on a fundamental error: he believes that the way things are is the way they will always have to be. He uses the animal kingdom to highlight Burnham’s pessimistic and short-sighted obsession with the status quo. “Burnham sees the trend and assumes that it is irresistible, rather as a rabbit fascinated by a boa constrictor might assume that a boa constrictor is the strongest thing in the world.”
The neo-pessimist claims that a belief in a better future is an act of self-delusion, an exercise in utopian fantasy. He identifies two sources of this flawed line of thinking: the notion that politics must be the same at all times, and that political behavior is the same as any other type of human behavior. In The Machiavellians, Burnham’s follow-up to The Managerial Revolution, Orwell points out the gaping hole in Burnham’s inevitability thesis. “The argument implied all the way through the book is that a peaceful and prosperous society cannot exist in the future because it has never existed in the past. By the same argument one could have proved the impossibility of aeroplanes in 1900.”
To Orwell, the assumption that politics must be the same in all ages ignores the importance of economics—namely, the power of scarcity. What is particularly galling about modern society is that it is, for perhaps the first time, humans existed in a world of relative abundance: it is now technically possible to guarantee a baseline quality of life for all people. Politics in the absence of the fear of poverty must be different from that of the past. “The justifications for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge.”
Orwell rejects the “realism” of neo-pessimism on the grounds that it leaves no room for genuine human decency. If all behavior can and should be reduced to machinations for power, and there are no other forces besides those of power, politics becomes devoid of any sense of humanity and is thus pointless as a human exercise. The realist rejects any positive vision for politics to create a better society; intellectuals strutting around the halls of high society believe it not because it is true, but because it seems “smart.”
Any theory which is obviously dishonest and immoral (“realistic” is the favorite word at this moment) will find adherents who accept it just for that reason. Whether the theory works, whether it attains the result aimed at will hardly be questioned. The mere fact that it throws ordinary decency overboard will be accepted as proof of its grown-upness and consequently of its efficacy.
Orwell is obsessed with Burnham’s ideas because he sees the neo-pessimist school as deeply dangerous. In a separate essay, he associates the power of neo-pessimist thinking, and its misguidedness, to the allure of its temporality. It resonates with those who can only think in the shortest of terms and want to flaunt their superiority.
The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.
The neo-pessimist position is incompatible with Orwell’s view of a more equal, more just, and more decent society—socialism, as he saw it. For the socialist project to have any chance, it would have to overcome the deceptive allure of the neo-pessimists.