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C. Wright Mills -- N. Birnbaum

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The Half-Forgotten Prophet: C. Wright Mills

By Norman Birnbaum

This article appeared in the March 30, 2009 edition of The

Nation. March 11, 2009

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


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.

About Norman Birnbaum

Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the

Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the

founding editorial board of New Left Review and is a

member of the editorial board of The Nation. His most

recent book is After Progress: American Social Reform

and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century



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