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The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills | The Nation

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The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills

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YAROSLAVA MILLSC. Wright Mills in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1960

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Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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I first read C. Wright Mills in Dwight Macdonald's all too short-lived journal Politics in 1944. It was an essay on the plight of the intellectuals. I was 18 at the time and thought there was nothing better than becoming an intellectual--and I suppose I had John Dewey's influence on the New Deal generation in mind. Mills's earliest academic work was on American pragmatism, which he viewed as our way of connecting present and future, a dramaturgy of historical purpose. By the time I heard Mills speak, at a meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in 1948, he had become exceedingly pessimistic about the liberating power of thought. That made sense to me. I was studying sociology in the graduate program at Harvard, where themes like class, gender and race were assiduously underemphasized. In the larger university there was almost nothing to be heard of Joseph Schumpeter's claim that intellectuals were ineradicably anticapitalist. Harvard's professors were too busy flying to Washington to staff the agencies of our expanding imperial power. One could not emigrate to Columbia University to study with Mills. His appointment was at Columbia College, and he warned graduate students away: he was thought an outsider in the "profession," and association with him was unhelpful to their careers. Still, it was Mills (and to be sure, David Riesman) whom the New York intellectuals and their readers in the universities thought of when they thought of sociology at all. Mills was the self-designated survivor of a tradition of large historical and social criticism in American sociology that had largely disappeared by the time he apprenticed himself to it.

I recall holding a copy of the newly published White Collar one spring day in 1952, on the steps of Harvard's Emerson Hall. Talcott Parsons came by, took the book from my hands, opened directly to Mills's description of the university as a higher or lower fusion of bureaucracy and feudalism and said that he entirely disagreed--and added, oddly, that he had not read the book. Time passed, and in 1956 I found myself teaching at a place where my colleagues did read Mills, the London School of Economics. No one, however, had met him. Then we learned that he was a Fulbright professor in Copenhagen, and so we invited him to London. I was his host for the visit and was astonished at his first question. Why, when he asked to be sent as a Fulbright professor to the LSE, had we said that we were not interested? We hadn't: no one had asked us. The Fulbright authorities, apparently, thought that they could hardly deny an award to Mills--but must have considered it safer to send him to Denmark.

Mills traveled frequently back and forth across the Atlantic in those years. I was among those who introduced him to British and European academics sympathetic to the American radicalism he represented. They liked his admission of perplexity in the face of change in modern social structure and were scornful of his American detractors, like Edward Shils, who denigrated Mills in the CIA-funded monthly Encounter. "Wright is fortunate in his enemies," the British historian Edward Thompson said. In Europe, he was fortunate in his new friends--Thompson among them. He traveled in Communist Europe with Ralph Miliband, an LSE political scientist and the intellectual voice of those in the Labour Party persisting in a British sort of Marxism. (One of his sons, the present British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was given the middle name Wright as a token of affection for Mills.)

Marxism in several interpretations was being widely discussed in Western Europe--and there were signs in Soviet Europe in the late 1950s and early '60s of considerable discontent with the ossified dogmas of the post-Stalinist Communist parties. Mills had grown up in late New Deal America and studied sociology at Wisconsin with a German émigré scholar, Hans Gerth; he was thoroughly immersed in the analysis of the newer forms of capitalism of the '20s and '30s and had plenty of contact with Trotsky's American followers. His travels in Europe constituted a spiritual homecoming as well as a voyage of discovery.

Apart from his many books, Mills published articles, polemical letters and reviews in an unending stream, lectured widely and corresponded with critics and friends ceaselessly until his death, at age 45, in 1962. John Summers, who has been working with the Mills legacy for years, has done us the large service of collecting in The Politics of Truth many essays, lectures and sketches. Summers provides an ample biographical sketch of Mills as well as a first-rate representative selection of his occasional writing. Perhaps, however, the phrase "occasional writing" is inappropriate. The themes of Mills's major works are quite visible in his shorter pieces--some of which offer hints of works he might have written. And some of the shorter pieces appeal precisely by virtue of their unfinished quality: we see a painstaking intellectual workman at his bench. The figure of speech is apt: Mills was a master craftsman who built his own house in Nyack, outside New York City. His intellectual work was artisanal, the sequence self-consciously defined: the design of a project, the assemblage and testing of materials, followed by construction, step by step. In the one case the product was a building, in the other an in-depth account of self-serving corporatism. Mills was also a photographer. His takes of the surface of our lives were often sharply, even cruelly, etched. He did not, however, stop at appearances and insisted that surface and body, event and larger process, incident and structure, were inseparable.

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