Friday, February 22, 2013

The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by James Burnham

James Burnham's The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943, 305 p.) came into my possession in 2001 upon purchase from Great Expectations Bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. It languished--or should I say waited for me--on my shelves until last summer, when it made the cut to India. It proved its merit, and I can only regret the wait. 

Burnham, better known for his The Managerial Revolution and then later as a writer at William F. Buckley's National Review, writes at a midway point in his odyssey from Trotskyite to Buckleyite. In this work, Burnham, starts by dismissing the claims of Dante's De Monarchia as anything other than at attempt to cover a naked political agenda. After dismissing Dante, he moves into a discussion of Dante’s fellow Florentine, political realist, Niccolo Machiavelli. Burnham argues that only by knowing politics as it's actually practiced, and not how we might wish it practiced, can we obtain and hold a measure of freedom. 

After discussing Machiavelli, Burnham moves forward a several centuries to discuss lesser known political thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, names familiar but not often read: Mosca (theory of the ruling class), Sorel (myth and violence), Michaels (iron law of oligarchy), and Pareto (famous for several things, but here about elites and beliefs). Each of these thinkers, early practitioners of political science as a discipline, looks at the stark realities of politics. For instance, the dominance of elites, the role of political parties (and elites within those parties), and beliefs based on something other than empirical science. In other words, how politics, even in nascent democracies, works. 

Burnham's argues that only by understanding how politics actually works can we preserve a measure of freedom, and his point convinces. Naive understandings of our political system only lead to frustration and failure. These individuals and their successors, the men and women who have studied politics since this was written (and even earlier, as Pareto is the most recent thinker considered) give us greater insight into our ways of practicing politics. Of course, ideas and even ideals are important, and perhaps Burnham undervalues these, but they do not overcome many hard realities. Machiavelli, ever the fascinating character, sets the tone not as a purveyor of evil, as the naive suppose him to be, but the consummate realist. Burnham and his thinkers add to this tradition, and by doing so can help us become wiser about the political world in which we live.  



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