Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of a good workman.
What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you work. (Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press: 196)
A Mills Revival?
by Stanley Aronowitz
C. Wright Mills is exemplary of a vanishing breed in American life: the public political intellectual who, despite his grating message, often received a hearing in mainstream media. For almost fifteen years, beginning with the publication of The New Men of Power in 1948 and ending with his untimely death, at age forty six, in 1962, Mills was among America’s best known social scientists and social critics. During the late 1940s and 1950s he published three books that constitute a theory and description of the post-World War II American social structure. His Sociological Imagination remains widely read in college classrooms, both for its attempt to provide a socially-committed introduction to the discipline, and its fierce critique of the prevailing tendencies in American sociology, what Mills calls “Grand Theory” and “Abstracted Empiricism.” The grand theorist’s scope is much too wide to yield practical and theoretical insight. And Mills criticizes the legions of Abstracted Empiricists who, in the service of incrementally accumulated verifiable scientific knowledge, confine themselves to producing small-scale investigations. Together with his collaborator and mentor, Hans Gerth, he edited one of the earliest and best collections in English translation of Max Weber’s essays. And Character and Social Structure (1954), written with Gerth, an unjustly neglected work, may be considered Mills’s premier work of social theory. This book elaborates what I claim was the “scaffolding” upon which he hung his major works of middle range theory, especially the triology. In fact, it is difficult to fully comprehend the harsh critiques of Sociological Imagination, and Mills’s method, without the elaborated theoretical framework of Character.
While not exactly a household name, he was widely known among the politically active population and wide circles of academic and independent intellectuals. Unlike many public intellectuals he was neither a servant nor a supplicant of power but, in the sense of the 17th century English radical, was a “ranter”; in American terms, he was a Paul Revere whose job it was to sound the alarm. Indeed, some of his writings recall the pamphlets of the decades of the American revolution where the address of numerous and often anonymous writers was to the “publick” of small farmers and artisans, as much as to those holding political and economic power. Much of his later writing may be compared to turn of the 20th century populist and socialist pamphleteers whose aim was to simultaneously educate and arouse workers and farmers to the evils of corporate power.
Yet in his most fertile period of intellectual work, the decade and a half ending with the publication of The Sociological Imagination (1959), with the possible exception of The Power Elite, Mills hardly expected to reach a popular, let alone mass public. Nevertheless, he always attempted to reach out to a wider public than did his fellow academics, even when he was formulating new theories, let alone engaging in public criticism. But Mills’s intention is entirely subversive of contemporary mainstream social science, especially the notion that intellectuals should remain neutral observers of economic, political and social life. While he performed his fair share of funded research—notably his study of Puerto Rico and the collective portraits of characteristic social types—most of his writing is addressed to potential and actual political publics. Following Marx and Weber, who at the end of his life was a major contributor in shaping the moral and legal framework of the Weimar Republic, Mills held that intellectuals and their ideas were embedded in the social antagonisms and struggles of their own time; they bring to their analysis a definite standpoint, whether or not they are prepared to acknowledge it.
Yet Mills adhered to none of the mainstream parties nor to those on the fringes of mainstream politics. While he was a figure of his own time (his main work was done in the 1940s and 1950s, when issues of sex, gender and ecology were barely blips on the screen), his position was congenitally critical—of the right, conservatives, liberals, the relatively tiny parties of the left and especially members of his own shrinking group, the independent leftists. Like one of his heroes, the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen, himself a pariah in his chosen discipline, to paraphrase a famous aphorism of Marx, Mills was “in but not of” the academy insofar as he refuses the distinction between scholarship and partisanship. But, unlike Veblen, whose alienation from conventional economics was almost total, Mills was, for most of his professional career, a sociologist in his heart as much as his mind The rhetoric and the methods embodied in his books on American social structure—The New Men of Power, White Collar, and The Power Elite—are firmly rooted in the perspectives of mainstream American sociology at the end of the war. These perspectives owed as much to the methodological precepts of Emile Durkheim as they did to the critical theory of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Using many of the tools of conventional social inquiry: surveys, interviews, data analysis—charts included—Mills takes pains to stay close to the “data” until the concluding chapters.
But what distinguishes Mills from mainstream sociology, and from Weber, with whom he shares a considerable portion of his intellectual outlook, is the standpoint of radical social change, not of fashionable sociological neutrality. At the height of the Cold War and in the midst of the so-called McCarthy era, he fearlessly named capitalism as the system of domination from within one of its intellectual bastions, Columbia University, and distanced himself from ex-radicals among his colleagues who were busy “choosing the west,” otherwise giving aid and comfort to the witch-hunters, or neutering themselves by hiding behind the ideology of value-free scholarship. Anti-Stalinist to the core, toward the end of his life he was, nevertheless, accused of pro-Communist sympathies for his unsparing criticism of the militarization of America and his spirited defense of the Cuban revolution.
In the light of his later writings which, to say the least, held out little hope for radical social change in the United States The New Men of Power, Mills’s first major work, occupies a singular place in the Mills corpus. Written on the heels of the veritable general strike of industrial workers in 1946, and the conservative counterattack the following year embedded in the Taft-Hartley amendments to the Labor Relations Act, the study of America’s labor leaders argues that for the first time in history the labor movement, having shown its capacity to shape the political economy, possessed the practical requisites to become a major actor in American politics as well. But as both “as army general and a contractor of labor,” a “machine politician” and the head of a “social movement,” the labor leader occupies contradictory space. (Mills, 1948) By 1948, the year of publication of the first edition of The New Men of Power, buoyed by American capitalism’s unparalleled global dominance, a powerful conservative force was arrayed against labor’s recently acquired power and, according to Mills, had no intention of yielding more ground without an all-out industrial and political war. Yet, he found union leaders curiously unprepared for the struggle. Even as their cause was being abandoned by liberal allies, and belittled and besmirched by their natural enemies among the corporations and their ideological mouthpieces, right-wing intellectuals and conservative politicians, union leaders remained faithful to the Democratic party and to the New Deal, which was rapidly fading into history. Mills and his collaborator, Helen Schneider, found that the concept that working people needed a labor party to truly represent their political interests had declined from the perspective of most labor leaders whereas a decade earlier, the apex of industrial unionism, a majority favored the formation of such a party, despite their expedient support of the Democrats.
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