C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills

The humanist social critic whose work helped lay the groundwork for the upheavals of the 1960s.


C. Wright Mills not only “took it big,” he lived it as well.

“If you do not specify and confront real issues, what you say will surely obscure them. If you do not alarm anyone morally, you will yourself remain morally asleep. If you do not embody controversy, what you say will be an acceptance of the drift to the coming human hell.” C. Wright Mills, who died a few weeks ago at the age of forty-six, not only wrote those words, but lived by them. A sociologist, social critic, humanist and individualist, he brought his enormous intellect and energy to bear on the great issues of our time, confronting questions that few of his academic colleagues had the capacity or the courage to grapple with. His influence went far beyond the academic circles which his work so often disturbed, for he wrote to be read by a large and intelligent–but not necessarily technical–audience, and he succeeded. In that, as in so many other respects, he was out of step with the time and society he lived in; and was all the more indispensable to it.

I had the great fortune of knowing Mills personally, first as a student of his at Columbia, then as an assistant on a research project, and since as a friend, and I make no pretense of detachment in commenting on the life and the work of a man I knew to be as great in generosity and kindness as in talent and dedication. Mills was a big man–in size, intellect, appetite and purpose–and he had the rare gift of transmitting his own enthusiasm over everything that came within the scope of his Gargantuan interest (and at one time or other almost everything did, from motorcycles to Mexican history, from home-building, camping and bread-baking to Balzac, Chinese agriculture and the Irish theatre). He had a sense of humor as well as a sense of history, and would laugh at himself as he demanded in mock-gravity, “My God man, you mean you don’t bake your own bread?” or, if home construction was the current absorption after work, “You mean to say you’d live in a house you didn’t build yourself?” As he worked hard he relaxed hard, and found in mechanics a demanding diversion whose specific solutions provided a happy relief from the far more tangled questions he was trying to answer in his real work. Once, when a visiting intellectual, harried by Mills’s attacks on his position from every angle, finally asked in exasperation, “What do you believe in?” Mills snapped back “German motors.”

Of course, he believed in and built much larger and more complicated things than houses and motors. By the age of forty he had completed, in addition to a staggering number of other projects (from directing a study of the health needs of U.A.W. members to translating and editing, with his friend Hans Gerth, a comprehensive volume of the work of Max Weber), the last of three volumes which constitute a major study of American society: The New Men of Power(labor), White Collar (the middle class) and The Power Elite (the upper class of decision-makers). These books were sociology in the classic sense of “the study of society” rather than the new, compressed and jargon-ridden styles of the profession which Mills so brilliantly analyzed and dismissed in The Sociological Imagination. Mills believed in approaching a subject by what he called “Taking it big”; and he could not understand the time and energy devoted to proving points that were not only minor, but also obvious.

“As a writer,” Mills once explained, “I have always tried, although in different ways, to do just one thing: to define and dramatize the essential characteristics of our time,” and his work up to and including The Power Elite could be included within that aim.

But in the last few years, Mills was doing something further, in short books that he did not present as sociology but which nevertheless were attacked for not being sociology. He thought of these books, The Causes of World War III and Listen, Yankee, as a high order of “pamphleteering” which frankly included exhortation as well as analysis. In these last years, it was as if Mills felt that there wasn’t enough time–for society, and perhaps he knew also, for himself–to afford the luxury of lengthy investigation and leisurely study. He felt that as a human being, who was also a sociologist, his duty was to persuade as well as to define; to grab the complacent citizen by the collar and shout Listen, Yankee before it was too late. These books were frankly angry, with an anger that Mills understood the times called for; as he wrote in The Causes of World War III, “…Today compassion without bitterness and terror is mere girlish sentiment and not worthy of a full-grown man.”

I visited him once just before he went to Cuba in 1960 and he was working sixteen hours a day. A few months after he returned–with more of the same schedule–he had his first heart attack. He had been working for some time under the strain of personal tragedies that would have disabled most men, and under public and professional pressures which would have silenced most men. But he worked on until the collapse and returned to work afterwards (completing a book called The Marxians, to be published this spring); and even when he was flat on his back in bed, he was talking of current and future plans, including a book that would be a “dialogue” with an imagined Russian intellectual, a book on The World Intellectual Apparatus(it had begun as a book on American intellectuals and grown to world, or Mills, size) and, most Millsian of all, a many-volumed World Sociology. He was capable of doing it all, and more, but not capable of doing the thing that might have enabled him to last and do it: to rest. But in the forty-six years that he didn’t rest at all, he gave us a lot. If the society survives the “cheerful robots” and “crackpot realists” that he warned us about, there will also survive a large, solid and exciting body of work marked Mills.

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