C. Wright Mills created the concept of a “power elite;” he imported the term “New Left” from Europe to the United States, and he was among the first to catch the phrases “paradigm” and “postmodern.” A global thinker in a square era, he was everything postwar America was not: radical, original, and hip. His work depicted a “distracted, shallow, banalized” mass society manipulated by secretive, but mediocre, masterminds. If this image of docile conformity seems like a truism it is largely because his analysis shaped how those years are understood today: Mills made the Fifties just as surely as they made him.
“The social sciences are becoming the common denominator of our cultural period,” Mills wrote in The Sociological Imagination, his influential critique of academic complacency. These were the days of the researcher, the physicist, the expert. But, if the nation as a whole trusted its scientists to further the common good, Mills credited them only with conspiring against democracy. He employed the same methods as his opponents — statistical analysis, opinion polling — but marshaled them to buttress his radical critique. “In a world of widely communicated nonsense,” he believed, “any statement of fact is of political and moral significance.”
Mills’s own image has been one of his greatest legacies; “a huge, alarming Texan,” who cussed and rode a BMW motorcycle, he waged a decades-long gunfight against his colleagues and rivals. Though he labored in the setting of the corduroy blazer, rather than the gray-flannel suit, he was a fashion rebel nonetheless, delivering lectures in cowboy boots and leather jackets. He described himself as “a prophet who comes in from the desert,” decried most sociology as “heavy duty theoretical bullshit,” and hoped his work could serve as “a good loud blast at the bastards.” While universities allied with business and government leaders, and many scholars closed out the public behind barriers of jargon, he crafted a “sociological poetry” and wrote books “for the people.” To the rising generation, Mills bequeathed the persona of the cowboy intellectual.
Especially important to collegiate radicals during the early 1960s, he was “see right” Mills, “intellectual father of The Movement,” the theorist everyone “had to know.” His major works of the previous decade — White Collar, The Power Elite, and The Sociological Imagination — inspired them with the confidence to offer their own critiques of a society of “cheerful robots.” From Mills, they elaborated a psychological and cultural, rather than an economic, attack on American values. He was unaffiliated with either Soviet socialism or liberal anticommunism. Most exciting, he believed that left-leaning academics needn’t rely on the working class, or industrial unions, to bring about progressive change. Perhaps middle-class thinkers could not, by themselves, foment and accomplish a revolution, but they could have a crucial impact. “Intellectuals have created standards and pointed out goals,” he wrote. “And then, always, they have looked around for other groups, other circles, other strata who might realize them. Is it not now time for us to try to realize them for ourselves?” This was a message that ambitious and dissatisfied undergraduates in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison were primed to embrace.
A new biography — Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought — by Daniel Geary, a professor of U.S. history at Trinity College, Dublin, attempts to challenge the mythology that has enveloped the man and his work. Arguing that the “captivating caricature” of Mills as “a lone dissident from the conservative complacency of the cold war era” has served to obscure “a full understanding of his ideas and their historical significance,” Geary works to reintegrate him into the ideological and academic debates of his productive years. “[W]e should not make Mills larger than life,” he insists “by portraying him as a maverick intellectual hero.”
This labor is partly rewarded. Examining Mills in situ reveals the rootedness of his social critique. The flat and deadened society depicted in his work is not so different from the vision proposed by his liberal contemporaries; consensus historians and the New York Intellectuals took a similar view, though they approached it with less critical intent and drew from it different conclusions. Granting this revelation — and is it so surprising that a theorist should interrelate with the ideational themes of his period? — Geary fails to dispel the notion of Mills as an individualist and loner. To the contrary, and despite his efforts, the book only reinforces that characterization: Mills was the founder and leader of a Party of One.
The book addresses, but does not appreciate, the most serious lacuna in Mills’s work: his silence on questions of racism and gender. “Though it does not excuse him,” Geary writes, “Mills was no different in this regard from many (though certainly not all) white male radicals of his era.” But, the blindness here is more than a personal failing, to be excused or not depending on one’s inclination. Mills honorably pursued a quest for self-knowledge. “My biases are of course no more or no less biases than those I am going to examine,” he wrote at the beginning of The Sociological Imagination. “Let those who do not care for mine use their rejections of them to make their own as explicit and acknowledged as I am going to try to make mine.” But, despite such goals, Mills never interrogated his own position as a white, male academic — a privileged space constructed, in large part, from hierarchies of racism and gender. In this light, his overarching concern with the quality of his own conscience can appear not as a crusade against conformity, but rather as an unadmirable insistence on self-investment.
Born in Waco, Texas, in 1916 — his father had a liminal white-collar job as an insurance agent — Mills earned his undergraduate degree in Austin, and completed his PhD at the University of Wisconsin in 1942. The value of his thought was immediately recognized. At 25, he had already published articles in two leading professional journals. Columbia University offered him an associate professorship three years later. “Well, I made it,” he wrote his parents, “as you know that’s what I’ve been working for.”
In an educational milieu that precluded the teaching of Marx’s writings, Mills was intuitively drawn to those theorists — American Pragmatists, such as John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, as well as such European sociologists as Max Weber and Karl Mannheim — whose work most closely approximated models of historical materialism. These first influences would provide the main supports for his mature ideas. From the Pragmatists, he took a suspicion of eternal truths, a determination to link ideas and practices, and a commitment to examining the social origins of common sense. Weber’s writings convinced him that institutions were the primary struts and girders of social power. Using Mannheim’s concept of “total ideology,” he adopted a relativism that insisted on a “detailed self-location of social science.” Scholars, Mills would argue throughout his career, had failed to acknowledge the normative and biased nature of their own findings. “You cannot escape the realities of politics,” he cautioned, “even though academic sociologists in America have done their courageous best.” The end result — a “sociology of knowledge” that took institutions as its field of inquiry — was uniquely Mills’s, but it could have only come from a dissident in mid-century America.
Even as Mills forged his practices from the best tendencies of these various schools of thought, he also acquired some of their failings. Pragmatism and European sociology had been created as responses to radical socialist challenges, but by the time these doctrines filtered down to Midwestern universities, they had been shorn of this provenance. Mills was instructed in theory displaced from the conjuncture of its creation and effaced of its political implications. It is a testament to his radical determination that he managed to do the work he did with such hand-me-down stuff, but nevertheless, his thought would always be more Marxian than Marxist. As Paul Sweezy noted in Monthly Review, Mills spoke of a “power elite” rather than a “ruling class,” he discussed “impersonal manipulation” instead of “alienation,” and he tended to downplay the importance of economic relations. “The misery of 20th century man,” he once wrote, “is psychological and cultural, even more than it is material, at least here in America.” It was only in the last years of his life — when he finally left the United States and embraced global protest movements — that he was able to acknowledge his need for “a real confrontation with ‘Marxism.'”
Using this theoretical methodology, Mills mapped the social landscape of the United States. In the postwar decade, he published a trilogy of books that, between them, surveyed much of U.S. society.
The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders, published in 1948, marked the end of a period when Mills had viewed unions as “the only organizations capable of stopping the main drift toward war and slump.” The book was basically an obituary of the radical working class. Though Mills did not foresee the imminent anticommunist purges that would end the CIO’s period of militancy, he nevertheless concluded that labor leaders were “poor bets as far as political action is concerned. . . .”
His next study, of society’s middle strata, began with an ominous pronouncement: “The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society.” Published in 1951, White Collar analyzed the social significance of a demographic fact: the middle class was not what it had been. In 1870, one-third of the population had consisted of entrepreneurs, small businessmen, or professionals — what Mills and others called the “old middle class.” By 1940, that group had declined to 20 percent. Meanwhile, the “new middle class” of clerks, managers, salespeople, and salary men, had jumped from 6 to 25 percent. Mills believed that the political apathy and “status panic” of organization man came from his ties to complex hierarchies and corporate institutions. “Impersonal manipulation is more insidious than coercion,” he wrote, “precisely because it is hidden: one cannot locate the enemy and declare war upon him.” Modern white-collar workers, Mills feared, were so denuded of human essence that they did not even realize their own alienation. “They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary,” he wrote, “they are inactionary; they are out of it.”
Finally, there was The Power Elite of 1956, which focused on the men who occupied what Mills — echoing Weber — described as the “strategic command posts of the social structure.” Directing the “major hierarchies and organizations of modern society,” the group consisted of military leaders, politicians, and corporate executives. The impact of this small clique was entirely negative. Corporations were “totalitarian and dictatorial”; generals operated in the “crackpot realism” of “mutually assured destruction.” Compounding its sinister influence, the Power Elite operated with the unity of purpose that Mills had hoped to find among blue- and white-collar workers. “Nowhere in America is there as great a ‘class consciousness’ as among the elite,” he wrote, “nowhere is it organized as effectively as among the power elite.” The strength and coordination of the Power Elite meant that the vast majority of people had surrendered all autonomy over their own lives; “knowledge,” Mills concluded bleakly, “does not now have democratic relevance in America.”
Geary shows that this radically critical view was not so different from those offered by Mills’s intellectual opponents. Anticommunist liberals mainly objected to his undifferentiated criticism of American and Soviet leaders: in his view, they were equally culpable. “The men of either circle,” Mills explained, “can cause great cities to be wiped out in a single night, and in a few weeks turn continents into thermonuclear wastelands.”
The likeness was even more marked between Mills and such consensus historians as Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, and Richard Hofstadter. The status anxiety described in White Collar suggested the psychologically fragile Progressives whom Hofstadter would discuss in his 1955 book, The Age of Reform. Hartz’s flattened liberal landscape, meanwhile, helped shape the historical analysis Mills offered in his sociological studies. Positioned against the inactive and immobile new middle class, White Collar conjured a utopian past when independent businessmen and professionals had participated in a truly muscular democracy. Such a story could only be told by ignoring hierarchies of racism and gender. The old middle class built its independence on the illegitimate domination of women, as well as African Americans, Indians, and other detested minorities. In the nineteenth century sketched by Mills, in contrast, the dispossession of Native Americans appeared as the “exhilaration of expansion across the gigantic continent,” while slavery “did not loom so large as is often assumed.”
In this panoramic view of the United States, Mills pictured a withered democracy where neither Marxian proletarians nor Jeffersonian entrepreneurs any longer possessed independent agency. If, in a properly constructed polity, “men at large are presented with genuine alternatives, the moral meanings of which are clearly open to public debate,” then the society Mills sketched in these three books was critically — and perhaps fatally — deranged. Placated by consumption, frozen with “status panic,” alienated into automatons, citizens had sacrificed their historical rights of democratic participation.
It was a tale of declension that left little space for a liberational denouement. Geary repeatedly describes his subject as a “pessimistic” or “disillusioned” radical. Blind to American racism and poverty, transposing — in effect — his own experience of intellectual alienation onto society as a whole, Mills concluded that no sites of resistance remained viable. In this moribund situation, for most of his career, he withdrew to the high ground of personal conscience, substituting a moral “politics of truth” for any possibility of political practice.
In his last years, he began to escape these strictures. Traveling to Europe for the first time in 1956, he connected with a robust radical tradition and joined the international antinuclear movement. His encounter with nonaligned radical scholars, such as E.P. Thompson and Ralph Miliband, encouraged him to declare himself a “plain Marxist.” In 1960, he traveled to Cuba for two weeks and then wrote Listen, Yankee, an enthusiastic endorsement of the Revolution. He even began to take note of the civil rights movement. “I have never been interested in what is called ‘the Negro problem,'” he wrote that year. “Perhaps I should have been and should be now.”
He would not get the chance. On March 20, 1962, C. Wright Mills died of a heart attack; he was 45 years old. Fidel Castro sent flowers to his funerals, but many fellow faculty members at Columbia University — alienated by years of conflict — chose not to attend the service. His early death secured his legend. It also left many questions unanswered. Would he have expanded the support for African-American equality that he had begun to express in his final months? Would he have welcomed second-wave feminism? The counterculture? Radical violence? “Any answers to such questions,” Geary demurs, “would be purely speculative.”
But, the probable answer is there. C. Wright Mills is at least as notable for the movements he missed as for the ones in which he participated. “Mills never belonged to any political party,” Geary writes, “and there is no evidence that he ever participated in a political demonstration.” Though he was in college during the Great Depression, he was not active in the vibrant student movement of those years. “I did not personally experience ‘the thirties,'” he acknowledged later. “At the time I just didn’t get its mood.” During the Second World War, and in the years immediately afterward, he embraced the United Auto Workers — bragging in a letter “sometimes at night or day I’m out with the proletariat” — but he soon distanced himself from the union movement, and dismissed working-class models of radical change as the “labor metaphysic.” He didn’t particularly bother about McCarthyism, and never wrote publicly on the matter. “Since Mills died in 1962,” Geary writes, “his neglect of issues of gender and race was more excusable.” No. By then it was more than possible — in fact, it was necessary — to identify the social importance of racism and sexism.
Mills’s radical and personal ambitions were one and the same. He ended as a spokesman for third-world movements, but for most of his career he belonged only to the faction of self. The society he analyzed seemed to have co-opted all credible institutions of radical change. Only one protest site remained — a man’s own conscience. Because poverty, sexism, and gender did not apply to his own life, he saw right past them, failing to identify these as the factors that imminently would spark an inspiring new movement for participatory democracy. It is possible that he would have embraced these efforts. Hopefully, he would have done so. But, despite Geary’s attempts to dispel the image of him as a loner and maverick, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, for Mills, progressive politics remained secondary to the maintenance of his own moral independence in an alienated world. “Nothing,” he once wrote in a letter, “is worth the continual feeling that you’re not your own man.”
Thai Jones is the author of A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience.