The Politics Of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, Selected and introduced by John H. Summers, Oxford University Press, 2008 Paperback, $21.95, 320 Pages, ISBN 13: 978-0-19-534304-5.
The Half Forgotten Prophet
Who now reads C. Wright Mills? He began as a sociologist of class, ideology, power, and in four very widely read books gave us an unmatched critical portrait of the nation in the middle of the last century. America’s New Men of Power, on the leaders of the trade union movement, was published in 1948---to argue that the last thing they sought was radical social transformation. In 1952 with White Collar, he described the supersession of the old independent middle class by its bureaucratised heirs. Mills sought, with considerable effect, to capture the movement of society. Like the book on
labor leaders , the 1952 text was written in language saturated by his political passion— indignation at the destruction of citizenship, the industrialisation of culture, the surrender of personal autonomy. He returned to the attack in 1956 with The Power Elite, a sketch of the mid-century meritocracy as evincing very little merit ---and a great deal of self-serving corporatism. Mills insisted that our institutions precluded the development of the democracy promised by our radical tradition. Thinkers who were afraid to think refused the task of modernising that tradition. Instead, they held that the constraints imprisoning us were immutable. The series concluded in 1959 with The Sociological Imagination, in which he charged his colleagues in the social sciences with lacking the capacity to locate themselves in history and the imagination to conceive of alternatives, He was especially dismissive of those who used “abstracted empiricism” to obliterate questions of larger processes, while others employed “grand theories” to avoid asking what change had wrought.
Mills died in 1962 aged forty-five and could not complete a large study of intellectuals and the cultural apparatus—in which he had placed his ambiguous hopes for new projects of transformation. The project took the world for its stage. In his last years, Mills, become famous, travelled widely. His first hand observations on the self-censorship of Soviet intellectuals are wry pendants to his derision of contemporaries who celebrated American power.
In the last years of his life, his books were as widely read as those of his contemporaries John Kenneth Galbraith, David Riesman and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Galbraith and Schlesinger joined John Kennedy’s government and Riesman persuaded the President to appoint Marcus Raskin of our Editorial Board to the National Security Council. Mills for some years became the clearest voice of the American opposition to the Democratic Party’s fusion of welfare and warfare, about which to be sure. Galbraith, Riesman and Schlesinger themselves had plenty of doubts. In 1959 he published a short essay The Causes Of World War Three in which, well before Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, he described an academic-military-industrial complex which gave us a poorly disguised one party state. He characterised colleagues like Kissinger and the theorists of nuclear war as “crackpot realists.” When the US 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 it, he voiced the Cubans’ bitterness at American ignorance of Cuban history—and of our own imperial past and present. Amongst its hundreds of thousands of readers was, apparently, John Kennedy. Some days before his murder, he received the French journalist Jean Daniel . Daniel, en route to Cuba, asked if the President had a message for Castro. Yes, Kennedy replied, tell him that I am President and not a professor of sociology: I am under constraints. Was the Kennedy of the June tenth American University speech calling for a truce in the Cold War telling Castro to be patient, that he planned changes? 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. Whatever else the leaders of the protest of the sixties may not have read, they did know Mills, who helped bring into being the large dissent he for so long lamented was impossible.
I first read Mills in Dwight Macdonald’s all too short lived journal Politics, in 1944. an essay on the plight of the intellectuals. At the time, I thought that 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’ 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 first 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, race were assiduously under-emphasized. In the larger university, there was almost nothing to be seen of Joseph Schumpeter’s claim that intellectuals were ineradicably anti-capitalist. Harvard’s professors were too busy flying back and forth to Washington to staff the agencies of our expanding imperial power. One could not emigrate to Columbia 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 an association with him was of less than no use to them. Still, it was he (and to be sure, Riesman) who the New York intellectuals and their readers in the universities thought of when they thought of sociolgy 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’ description of the university as a higher or lower fusion of bureaucracy and feudalism, said that he entirely disagreed---and added, oddly, that he had had not read the book. Time passed and in 1956 I was teaching at a place where my colleagues did read Mills,
the London School of Economics. No one, however, knew him. Then we learned that he was a Fulbright Professor in Copenhagen, and 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 London School, 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 considered it safer to send him to Denmark.
Mills travelled frequently back and forth across the Atlantic in those years. I was one of those who introduced him to the British and European academics sympathetic to the American radicalism he represented. They liked his admission of perplexity in the face of changed in modern social structure, and were scornful of his American detractors. They were repelled by the denigration of Mills in the CIA funded monthly Encounter, by a scholar with the vocation of an ideological policeman, Edward Shils. “Wright is fortunate in his enemies,” the British historian Edward Thompson said. In Europe, he was fortunate in his new friends—Thompson amongst them, He travelled in Communist Europe with Ralph Miliband, a London School of Economics political scientist, the intellectual voice of those in the Labour Party persisting in a British sort of Marxism. (His son, the present British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was given the middle name of Wright.)
Marxism in several interpretations was the language of much discussion then in western Europe---and there were signs in Soviet Europe in those years (the late fifties and early sixties) of considerable restiveness with the ossified dogmas of the post-Stalinist Communist parties. Mills had grown up in late New Deal America, studied sociology at Wisconsin with a German émigré scholar, Hans Gerth, thoroughly immersed in the analysis of the newer forms of capitalism of the twenties and thirties 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.
John Summers, who has been working with the Mills legacy for years, has now done us the large service of collecting essays; lectures and sketches by Mills from the prodigously productive last two decades of his life. Apart from his books, he published articles, polemical letters, reviews in an unending stream, lectured widely, corresponded with critics and friends ceaselessly. Some of these 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 the one case the product was a building, in the other an account in depth of our society. 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. Summers provides ample biographical data, as well as an excellently representative selection of Mills’ occasional writing, providing a clear view of Mills’ thought. Perhaps, however, the phrase “occasional writing” is not quite right. The themes of his major works are quite visible in his shorter pieces ---and in some of the texts before us we get hints of those later works which he did not live to write. What can be said of Mills in his time now that the time is past?
Mills 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 post-war 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 any one who knew the social criticism of Partisan Review writers
Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, or 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’ Columbia colleague Richard Hofstadter was melancholic about the fate of our republic: citizenship was obsolete.
What lent Mills’ account of the process 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. Bureaucratisation in a merged public and private sphere, the concentration of power in politics, levelling and enforced homogenisation in culture were its outward signs. Inwardly, modern society made freedom increasingly impossible. Many contemporaries stopped there, sadly but helplessly. Mills became angry—an anger which grew as time went on. It drove him in a relentless search for an actor or 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 own 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 which would terminate much of human existence was all too possible. It was no less varied in composition and motive than were its antagonists. 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 own 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 US (and elsewhere) did not
particularly interest him. He was, despite his affinity for the early twentieth sociologist, Max Weber, a very profound student of religion, himself
religiously unmusical. He was concerned with the social setting of personal development, but his portraits of human existence were frequently one dimensional. The editor has titled the collection, The Politics Of Truth---but how much ambiguity, or openess, did Mills allow himself in considering his own truths? He was occasionally amenable to correcting his notions of historical sequence, much less self-critical about the values he thought consonant with human dignity.
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’ eventual answer, after encountering in Europe in the late fifties strong oppositional stirrings which were to follow later in the US. 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 fifties, 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.
Mills decried the “cheerful robots” produced by the culture. His younger readers, and some older ones, had an answer. The Berkeley 1965 revolt’s slogan, evoking the cards used for storing data in the information technology of the time. was “I am a human being: do not bend, fold, or mutilate.” The new movement politics at its beginnings 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 recreation of a public sphere, the self-activation of citzens, the construction and consolidation of civic freedoms. His intellectual journey was thoroughly American. With many other antagonists of what liberal society had become, Mills was far truer to liberalism than many of its most strident conventional defenders.
The last piece in the anthology is a “Letter To The New Left” of 1960 ---a response to an anthology some of us published in London in 1959 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 (originally Raymond Aron and after him Daniel Bell) was remarkably similar to the one
Mills himself presented. Routine’s deadening effect on politics, as his disullusioned 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. It was enough to disprove his own long conviction of the immobility of our society, sufficient to change it in major ways, but hardly the
rupture he yearned for. He 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 day of thought about historical questions, many of them with us still.
Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board of New Left Review and is a member of the board of The Nation. His most recent book is After Progress; American Social Reform And European Socialism In The Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 2001.