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An American Tragedy

Power, Politics and People

by C. Wright Mills, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz
Oxford University Press, 657 pp., $8.50

C. Wright Mills was a man who, in Malraux’s phrase, wished to “put a scar upon the map.” He had little charm and less loveliness; one could not easily imagine him relaxing into ease or wisdom. He was a man of power, an intensely personal kind of power, which came down upon one like a fist, hard and good-humred. Though himself a dedicated intellectual, he felt a certain contempt—mixed with uneasy admiration—toward most of the New York intellectuals, for what he wanted above all was that his opinions, his desires should matter in this world, and he had become convinced that most of the people writing for the serious magazines had surrendered the hope of power or influence and settled into a routine of brilliant display.

He left his scar upon the map. The sociologists he stirred to fear and anger by smashing their neat conceptual models and by insisting upon the wildness, speed, and passion of modern history; the intellectuals of the anti-Communist left with whom he worked for a time as a guerrilla ally but whom he turned against when he suspected them of resignation and defeat; the graduate students whom he excited into contempt for the trivialities of the academy—all responded not merely, perhaps not even primarily, to his writings but to his personal force. Even his enemies paid him that tribute. There has just appeared in the English Spectator a denunciation of Mills by a sociologist, Edward Shils, so ghastly in its venom that it serves, involuntarily, as evidence of Mills’s success in violating the pieties of the intellectual establishment in America.

For perhaps a decade I was a friend, or at least a steady intellectual collaborator, of Mills. I found him difficult, exhausting, and exciting, a man whose pressure of will seldom let up and often forced other people, even those who loved him as I could not, into the resistance of self-defense. But neither in our period of closeness nor later, when we quarrelled politically, could one doubt his strength, his thrusting energy and confidence. Everything he had—talent, personal life, restlessness, ambition—he threw into the effort to create for himself a unified style of life, one that would bring together thought and action, power and reflection, as few intellectuals seemed capable of doing.

Mills first became known in the intellectual world at about the time Dwight Macdonald was publishing his lively radical magazine Politics. At this time, directly after World War II and all the disillusionments that followed it, the intellectual left was beginning to fall apart. Old ideologies were shattered, new ones not in sight. Only Macdonald’s personal zest as editor of Politics created the possibility—perhaps the illusion—of preserving some sort of left-wing community. Into this depressing scene there suddenly barged the bear-like figure of Mills, a radical neither hardened by dogma nor softened by defeat, an American marvelously unscarred by history, an academic brilliantly equipped in his field yet also blessed with a journalistic gift. Here was a new friend, a new ally—who could not be drawn to him? He had little taste, it is true, for those semi-cooperative ventures that New York intellectuals recurrently improvise; he was a loner, a oneman work gang who had learned about Max Weber from Hans Gerth at Wisconsin and, as we supposed, had inherited from the atmosphere of his youth something of the wobbly’s high-spirited rebelliousness and the muckraker’s zeal for exposure.

Mills once explained to me that of the three proclaimed goals of the French Revolution he understood the appeal of liberty and equality well enough, but had very little sense of fraternity. He was right; and it is this failure of imagination—a symptom of his larger failure to appreciate the value of men working together in a bond of harmony and closeness—which kept him from fully grasping the historical significance of the socialist movement as a human enterprise. But if one could learn not to tax him on this score—and what was the point of it?—Mills made a marvelous intellectual ally, a native American radical who could speak both with indigenous accents and high sophistication. When some of us started Dissent in 1953 he would not join the venture (“no editorial boards for me”), but no sooner were we attacked by the rampaging exradicals than he came charging to our defense. Both attitudes, the fundamental apartness and the intense moment of solidarity, were characteristic of him.

That was the beginning. The end was sad and painful. In 1957 Mills came back from a trip to Europe and asked me to visit him. I went with anxiety and foreboding, for I had already heard rumors that he was in a state of manic exaltation, working up a new political outlook which would pit him against his old friends. Two or three minutes after we began talking, he started to pound away: he had discovered reasons for hope in the east European world, he was impressed by the industrial achievements of the Communist nations, he regarded the intransigent anti-Communism of his old friends as obsolete (soon he would be calling us the “futilitarians of the left”), and he wanted to see a new alignment of “the left,” a sort of informal Popular Front that would include intellectuals who were to one or another extent sympathetic to the Communist bloc.

We sat together for hours in a shabby lunchroom on Amsterdam Avenue, under a garish blue light and to the background of popular “Spanish” music. He kept hammering away and I retreated into silence. I felt that sense of despair which comes over one at losing the possibility of communication with a person one has intensely valued over the years. It seemed to me that he no longer talked, as once he had; he exhorted and pronounced, he sloganized in outline form, as if he had suffered an apocalyptic seizure. And there was little I could say.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Mills was not a convert to Communism. Nor was it news to me that things were changing rapidly and importantly in the Communist countries, or that democrats and socialists could now find friends in those countries—but among the intellectuals who were beginning, however hesitantly, to oppose the authoritarian structure of the regime. Where we differed was in our historical estimate of how far the dictatorships could be expected to relax, and far more important, in our moral-political response to the contending forces in the east European countries. My instinctive solidarity went out to those intellectuals in Poland who, whatever their enforced vocabulary, were really liberals and social democrats at heart, while Mills, turning to the kind of left authoritarianism which in America is expressed by Paul Sweezey’s Monthly Review, identified himself less with the living men who spoke for freedom in eastern Europe than with the historical process, as he took it to be, which would transform the Communist countries into societies closer to the image of our desire.

To me Mill’s new outlook was an intellectual disaster. To him, my resistance to that outlook must have seemed like the conservatism of a radical who fears to surrender fixed positions. We parted, tense and distraught, each certain that far more than a personal disagreement was at stake. This kind of break between people who care about politics can be as wracking as a personal separation between two people who have shared some part of their lives. In its miniature way, our split represented a development that is certain to become more sizable during the next several years. When Mills wrote his pamphlet. The Causes of World War III, in 1958 I reviewed it in caustic terms: he replied with heat: and we never saw one another again.

Between these two moments—roughly, 1946 and 1957—Mills did his most valuable and distinguished work. All of his important books (White Collar, Character and Social Structure, The Power Elite) contain brilliant sections and chapters displaying Mills’s gift for the destruction of the myths of social accommodation that had grown up during the late forties and early fifties. All of them are valuable for puncturing the fantasies of social harmony and universal prosperity which had become accepted currency among social scientists and journalists. All are distinguished by Mills’s keen notation of the troubledness of American life, a troubledness which it had become the special task of many of his colleagues to deny. And all of them are marked by a gift for improvising social generalizations on a secondary level, that is, not on the world-historical scale of a Marx or Weber but on the scale of a theorist trying to observe a society in the closeness and detail of its motion.

Yet none of Mill’s books, nor the posthumous collection of essays in Power, Politics and People, achieves the classical stature, the absolute rightness of description, which one finds in the Lynd’s Middletown or Cash’s The Mind of the South or Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. And the reason is not that Mills was less gifted than these writers—though it is certainly true that he lacked their capacity for the particular detail, the concrete observation, which brings a social analysis to life. (Mills knew this, and at one point in the midfifties he read Balzac voraciously in the hope of discovering the secret of narrative specification.)

Mills failed to achieve the finished performance of a Lynd, a Cash, or a Myrdal because he had undertaken a task more difficult than they had. He could not accept the static assumptions of many sociologists, who proposed to fix the lineaments of society almost as if it were an unchanging prescence, or who, in effect, gave up the wish to grasp the idea of modern society and contented themselves with observations, often useful, on its detailed manifestations. The supra-historical impulse which makes a good part of contemporary sociology seem so limited to outsiders, Mills fought against and, on the whole, with good effect. The tendency of certain exradicals in the sociological profession to describe American society in terms of more-or-less balanced interest groups rather than of contending classes and power formations, Mills also resisted. He kept reminding his colleagues and the world at large about the realities of power in America; he kept insisting that the ideal pattern of the democratic polity was very far indeed from the truth about the relationships of power. And he was right.

But his dilemma was that in trying to work up a sociology that would be both realistic and radical, he lacked a fullscale theory of his own. He might have fallen back upon Marxism, which had the strength of a major tradition and an imposing, if deceptive, coherence. But he could not accept the traditional pictures of Marxism; they grew increasingly at variance with modern industrial society: there was no revolutionary proletariat, no class polarization in the sense predicted by Marx. The Marxist method remained a powerful one. but the social axioms that accrued to the Marxist tradition seemed to him largely obsolete. Inevitably, the result was that his best work is tentative, improvisatory, a straining toward a new theoretical synthesis he desired but could not find. Had he been content to follow along the ruts of orthodox Marxism his work would have possessed greater internal coherence than it did, but it would not have been so closely related to the actualities of American society as it now and again is. The Power Elite, his most important book, played an enormously useful role in reminding people that, quite apart from the formal politcal structure, there exists in America a hierarchy of socio-economic power closely dependent on ownership and wealth, income and property; but with its unfinished conception of a triad of power elites, military, industrial and political, it does not offer an entirely satisfactory picture of either the internal composition of the rulers or their relationship to the political process.

The collection of essays recently put together by Mr. Irving Horowitz is characterized by similar strengths and weaknesses. Mill’s best pieces are his earlier ones: strictly sociological studies but with a political sharpness that rescues them from academicism. There is a devastating critique of Lloyd Warner’s work on social class, a sharp attack on James Burnham’s managerial theories, a brilliant paper on “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists.” Mills was at his best as a free-wheeling critic, corrosively analytical, for whom radicalism served as a strategy for puncturing deceptions but had not yet become a burdensome quest for intellectual synthesis.

His later pieces seem to me sharply to decline in quality. For all his objection to “abstract empiricism” in sociology, what becomes evident is that he himself had little gift for social observation: he was not a good reporter.

Another major weakness of his later work is due to the fact that ne was turning away from sociology and toward politics. Each of these disciplines has its own requirements, its own standards, its own modes of procedure. Mills knew a great deal about sociology, but not very much about politics; he failed to see that the style of abstraction appropriate to one is not at all appropriate to the other; and he failed to grasp that the factors of time, immediacy, and limited choice are far more stringent in political analysis than in sociological delineation. (For example, to offer a long-range description of the causes of the Cold War, be it correct or incorrect, in terms of the fundamental tendencies of European society is not yet to cope with the immediate political problem of the division of Berlin. One of the thngs that so badly marred Mills’s Causes of World War III was his inability or unwillingness to confront this distinction.)

The two pamphlets Mills wrote in the last years of his life, one on World War III and the other on Cuba, mark the nadir of his intellectual career. They are scandalous not because they are pamphlets designed for a large audience—there is a tradition of pamphleteering which serious people should not scorn. These writings are scandalous because they are so shoddy in thought and method, so crowded with rhetorical wind, so grandiose in pretension and feeble in documentation, and so coy in their evasions (I have in mind especially the shameful equivocations about the Hungarian revolution in Causes and the narrative trickery, so unworthy of a man like Mills, employed in the Cuba pamphlet).

In his last years Mills became the idol of an international political tendency, the authoritarian left in Europe, Asia, and the United States, which cannot stomach the dogmatism and discipline of the Communist world but which clings to hopes and delusions as to its selfgenerated reform. Mills went to Poland not as the friend of the “revisionists” but as the guest of the government intellectuals. He won the admiration of Castroite partisans and young people in search of charismatic revolution to replace the tarnished images of Khrushchevite Russia and Maoist China. The sad truth is that he deserved the admirers he won: perhaps he even deserved to have Mr. Horowitz edit this book of essays.

I prefer, however, to remember another Mills: a man of great seriousness if only fragmentary achievement, a natural rebel at a time when most intellectuals were taking to cover, a keen and ambitious mind that had the courage to undertake too much. This Mills, in the prime of his life and achievement, deserves every honor as an example of the intellectual who stands alone, firm in his freedom, speaking with strength and critical urgency. Compared to the shilsy-shallying of his academic colleagues, this Mills seems a giant. For if it is true that some of them can point to work more neatly rounded and firmly structured than the achievement of Mills, what is the measure of their success against the tragic power of his failure?

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