Burnham’s Dilemma


Staughton Lynd suggests the following a crucial problem faced by those interested in social transformation:

As a high school student I pursued my political education during the half hour trip to school on the New York subway. I devoured Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. I read Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, still my favorite novel. And I also read a book by an ex-Trotskyist named James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution.

Burnham argued that the bourgeois revolution occurred only after a long period during which bourgeois institutions had been built within feudal society. The position of the proletariat within capitalist society, he contended, was altogether different. The proletariat has no way to begin to create socialist economic institutions within capitalism. Hence, he concluded, there would be no socialist revolution.

I have no distinct memory, but I assume that I when I got off the subway and back to my parents’ home I reached for Emile Burns’ Handbook of Marxism or some such source to find out why Burnham was wrong. The problem was I couldn’t find an answer. Nor have I been able to find out during the more than half century since.

This version of Lynd’s story, which is featured in a number of his writings, comes from Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader.

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