The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills

The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills

The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills

A half-century later, re-evaluating the works of C. Wright Mills, in The Politics of Truth.


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

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.

What can be said of Mills in his time, now that the time is past? He clearly thought that class society, with its visible stratification–and with much agitated awareness of it, at the top, the bottom and in between–had given way to a mass society. Where others, triumphantly or resignedly, saw in the postwar nation a society liberated from material worries and turned, creatively or neurotically, to cultural self-definition, he thought of it as a place of new compulsions and old constraints. Certainly, the imagery of White Collar was recognizable to anyone who knew the social criticism of Partisan Review writers Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, or of Robert Warshow at Commentary. Dissent, where this argument was axiomatic, was founded by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser in 1954–and in its early years some of it was a prolonged, if critical, footnote to Mills. Mills’s Columbia colleague and friend Richard Hofstadter was melancholic about the fate of our Republic: citizenship was obsolete.

What lent Mills’s account of the situation a special pathos were two elements–which Mills spent the rest of his life trying desperately to join. One was the larger historical analysis he learned from Hans Gerth, in which the United States was a specific case of a general tendency, despite all our differences from Europe. Bureaucratization in a merged public and private sphere, the concentration of power in politics, a leveling and enforced homogenization in culture were its outward signs. Modern society made freedom in the liberal sense of autonomous and reflective citizenship increasingly impossible. Many contemporaries stopped there, sadly but helplessly. Mills became angry–an anger that grew with time. It drove him in a relentless search for actors who could reset the historical clock.

The search was all the more relentless because in those days we feared extirpation in nuclear war. Much has been written about the intellectuals–some former radicals, some former Communists, some New Dealers, many driven by one or another ethnic or religious obsession–who formed our ideological expeditionary force. Some were reckless in demanding that Western governments risk nuclear war to “stop Communism”; others were equally reckless in assuring us that war would not occur. Less has been written about the smaller group who warned that a war that would terminate much of human existence was all too possible. This group was no less varied in composition and motive than were its antagonists. It included the Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, the Los Alamos physicist Philip Morrison, the Christian pacifist A.J. Muste, the historians H. Stuart Hughes and William Appleman Williams, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and Congressmen like Robert Kastenmeier of Wisconsin. Mills argued that a society in which critical reflection had given way to instrumental rationality was so heedless of its own humanity that it had no way to distinguish fantasies of destruction from routine political calculation. His passion for peace grew out of his iron hatred of the cold war’s intellectual profiteers.

Mills left a great deal out. Ethnicity and race in the United States (and elsewhere) did not particularly interest him. Despite his affinity for the early twentieth-century sociologist Max Weber, a very profound student of religion, Mills was himself religiously unmusical. He was concerned with the social setting of personal development, but his portraits of human existence were frequently one dimensional. Summers has titled the collection The Politics of Truth–but how much ambiguity, or openness, did Mills allow himself in considering his own truths? He was occasionally amenable to correcting his notions of historical sequence but much less self-critical about his belief that humans were potentially antagonistic to hierarchy. On his own account, many were glad to serve.

Reviewing White Collar in Partisan Review, Dwight Macdonald said that with the expiration of Marxist eschatology, we were all looking for a new key to social existence–Mills no less than the rest of us. Mills’s eventual answer, after encountering in Europe in the late ’50s strong oppositional stirrings that were to follow later in the United States, was that the new bearers of a project of social transformation were the intellectual vanguard. Allowed by society to think, but told not to think too much, they resented being denied autonomy–or ascribed the role of court jesters. In the American ’50s, Mills and others across the political spectrum were described not as social thinkers but as social critics. The implication was that the major structures of society would remain intact, no matter what was said.

Yet for some years Mills was the clearest voice of the American opposition to the Democratic Party’s fusion of welfare and warfare. In 1958 he published the short book The Causes of World War Three, in which, several years before Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, he described an academic-military-industrial complex that gave us a poorly disguised one-party state. He characterized colleagues like Kissinger and theorists of nuclear war as “crackpot realists.” When the United States broke off relations with Cuba and began its still unconcluded attempt to destroy Castro’s revolution, Mills visited the island and returned to write Listen, Yankee (1960), in which he voiced the Cubans’ bitterness at American ignorance of Cuban history–and of our own imperial past and present. Among its hundreds of thousands of readers was, apparently, John F. Kennedy. A month before his murder, the president received the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was en route to Cuba. In his discussion of Cuban history and the state of Cuban-American relations, Kennedy gave Daniel what could only have been a message meant for Castro: I am “President of the United States and not a sociologist”; I am under constraints. Was the Kennedy of the June 10, 1963, American University speech, which had called for a truce in the cold war, telling Castro to be patient, that he planned changes? In any event, the elegantly shaped fissures in the Kennedy project turned into the brutal contradictions of the Johnson presidency. Advances in civil rights and economic redistribution were accompanied by the destruction of much of our national moral substance in Vietnam.

Mills decried the “cheerful robots” produced by cold war culture. His younger readers, and some older ones, had an answer. The slogan of the 1965 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, evoking the computer cards used for data entry, was “I am a human being: do not bend, fold, spindle or mutilate.” At its beginnings, the new movement politics skipped over class and material interests to return to the search for a world more human. Mills at the start of his career was enthusiastic about John Dewey’s pragmatism precisely because it joined human purpose to the alteration of historical circumstances. At the end, the circumstances–as crushing as they were–struck him as rendering new purposes even more necessary.

Upon examination, however, these turned out to be the familiar old ones: the re-creation of a public sphere, the self-activation of citizens, the construction and consolidation of civic freedoms. His intellectual journey was thoroughly American, and he was far truer to liberalism than many of its most strident conventional defenders. The last piece in The Politics of Truth is a “Letter to the New Left” of 1960–a response to an anthology some of us published in London earlier that year under the title Out of Apathy. In it, Mills tried to settle accounts with the proponents of the idea then circulating about an “end of ideology.” Unfortunately, he did not acknowledge that the society described by the proponents of the idea (Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell, most prominently) was remarkably similar to Mills’s account of society. Routine’s soporific effect on politics, as his disillusioned contemporaries saw it, wasn’t all that different from the civic vacuum Mills deplored. Like everyone else, Mills was tied to his times. His call to revolt was one of the influences that produced, in the end, not revolution but rebellion–enough to disprove his own long conviction of the immobility of our society, sufficient to change society in major ways but hardly the rupture he yearned for. Mills is half forgotten–perhaps because much of what he said is now taken for granted. In the end, this splendid dramatist gave us not a night on the barricades but a full afternoon of historical questions, many of them with us still.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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