New Man of Power

Introduction to The Politics of Truth: Selected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, 2008

It’s been said in criticism that I am too much fascinated by power. This is not really true. It is intellect I have been most fascinated by, and power primarily in connection with that. It is the role of ideas in politics and society, the power of intellect, that most fascinates me as a social analyst and as a cultural critic.

—C. Wright Mills

Before Charles Wright Mills turned twelve, his family moved through five Texas cities and changed residences eight times. For weeks at a spell his father, a traveling insurance agent, left him alone with his mother and older sister. The restless isolation he felt in his boyhood never left him, nor did the special quality of ambition he discovered in his first sustained reading: a collection of little blue books that belonged to his father.

The title was Applied Psychology. The author, Warren Hilton, suggested in twelve volumes of epigrams and examples how to turn “the mind into an independent, casual agency.” Hilton stressed the plasticity of human nature, the infinite dialectical growth available to any untutored intelligence, properly motivated. Applied Psychology was a knock-off edition of the American philosophy of achievement, and Charles read all 1,100 pages in the spring of 1934, as he prepared to graduate from Dallas Technical High School.

Eager to report the powers stirring within him, he began a personal journal. Then, at the end of the summer, he declared his independence in a letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News. The city was a haven for religious fundamentalists. His mother had baptized him in the Catholic Church, and it was she who had persuaded him, when they lived in Sherman and his rebellion was exasperating his teachers, to serve as an altar boy in the local parish. In his letter, however, he squelched the moderate deception that no choice need be made between reason and revelation and left no doubt where his allegiance lay in the conflict.

Published on August 10, 1934, the letter provoked three indignant replies. A business associate passed news of the furor to his father, who quickly ended it. That autumn, not long after he turned eighteen, his parents enrolled him in Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, a military school. But it was too late. The bias of his temperament was set. “It was thought that A&M would make a man out of me,” he later said. “Instead, I became an intellectual.”[1]

The experiment at Texas A&M failed before the end of the first year, and young Mills, bucking the anti-intellectualism of military school even as he shuddered to join the “sissies” in Austin, transferred to the state university. There, from 1935 to 1939, he fell under the influence of a group of sociology and philosophy professors trained in the pragmatism of the Chicago School. They taught him a naturalistic approach to self and society that formed the nucleus of his thought. He called the pragmatists his “godfathers.”

Mills’s first contributions to sociology marked him as a prince in the discipline. “Language, Logic, and Culture,” “Methodological Consequences of the Sociology of Knowledge,” and “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive” were published to wide notice while he studied for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. The articles made an early instance of the linguistic turn in pragmatic social thought and broached the terms for a critical theory of culture that guided his writing for the rest of his career. Mills wanted to jettison the vocabulary of highbrow and lowbrow, advanced guard and establishment, and instead to adopt a radically sociological counter-model. “I should like us to abandon these terms—high, middle, and lowbrow,” he said during a speech to the PEN Club in New York. “They stand for fashionably snobbish distinctions and nothing else. I should like to replace them in our vocabulary of criticism by more anarchistic standards of culture.”[2] In the “educative interplay” of pragmatic intellectuals and their publics hived democratic sympathies at odds with both the interest-driven logic of capitalist accumulation and the romantic conceit of the advanced guard.[3] The ideal outcome of this “interplay”? To abolish itself in the “self-cultivating man,” to create new values from the unity of ideas and action.[4]

Though Mills received his pragmatic inheritance in the late thirties, while it took fire from all sides, he reserved his most serious complaints for its failure to develop a social or political theory by which to secure the “self-cultivating man” in a sensibility. He never filled the theoretical gap, retaining a pragmatic suspicion of concept-mongering, but he did more than anybody to develop and exemplify the sensibility.

In 1941, Mills accepted a position as associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. The next summer he submitted his dissertation (a sociological history of pragmatism) at Wisconsin. He dedicated his spare energy to staying out of the war, which turned him toward radical politics. “The Powerless People” (1944), the opening essay in this collection, marked his transition from technical theorist to radical intellectual. “The means of effective communication are being expropriated from the intellectual worker,” he wrote, sounding a defensive note that echoed through much of his political writing. “The material basis of his initiative and intellectual freedom is no longer in his hands. Some intellectuals feel these processes in their work. They know more than they say and they are powerless and afraid.” In 1946 he joined his friend and teacher Hans Gerth in publishing From Max Weber. The Weber translations, plus a torrent of essays in magazines and journals, brought him to the attention of the Bureau of Applied Social Research in New York, then to the sociology faculty of Columbia College. He won tenure there in 1956, before he turned forty.

At the center of the eleven books Mills published was a trilogy: The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), and The Power Elite (1956). Cued by Balzac’s ambition to build up a total picture of society, the trilogy had a little to say about a great many subjects and a lot to say about a few subjects of great importance. The modern epoch had begun when its ideologies organized the moral energy of Enlightenment against myth, fraud, and superstition. Liberalism and Marxism had developed theories of human beings as secular, rational, peaceable creatures, then had transformed these theories in collective projects. But the institutions built around militarized capitalism and its power-state overwhelmed self and society, according to Mills. In the coming “post-modern epoch,” the moral culture of humanist aspiration stood disinherited of the expectation that intelligence and freedom entailed one another.

In 1956 and 1957, visiting Europe for the first time, Mills befriended a group of revisionist communists and socialists in London and Warsaw and began, on the strength of their example, to agitate for a renaissance in humanist value. In the pamphlet resulting from his visit, The Causes of World War Three, he implored intellectuals on all sides of the Cold War to call “our own separate peace.” The failures of conservative liberalism made his case for him in the Americas. The failures of official Marxism in Europe completed his appeal. By 1960, when he wrote the “Letter to the New Left,” he stood at the head of an international movement, virtually alone among American intellectuals in carrying none of the metaphysical guilt of a communist past and at the same time exemplifying unbroken radical commitment.

Critics often complained of the war-whooping tone of Mills’s writing. But in pronouncing liberalism and Marxism obsolete he absolved himself of their rhetorical conventions as well as their ideological confidence. His anarchism, attuned to the absurd, summoned reserves of semi-conscious knowledge for a pitiless assault upon the decaying legitimations. He was at his most popular while he was mocking “crackpot realists,” “advertising maniacs,” “technological idiots,” and “cheerful robots,” laying up perceptions around the margins of the commercial banality. Reading him in Esquire “jolted me out of my chair,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson. “It’s heartening to know that there are still people around with the simple guts to move in on the boobs with a chain-mace.”[5] Recordings of his addresses in the late fifties show him in command of a mature style, eliciting bursts of laughter and outrage. “You may well say that all this is an immoderate and biased view of America, that this nation also contains many good features,” he said on January 12, 1959, at the London School of Economics. “Indeed that is so. But you must not expect me to provide A Balanced View. I am not a sociological book-keeper.”[6]

The trilogy presented a panorama of labor leaders, white-collar workers, celebrities, political bosses, corporate chieftains, and “warlords.” Mills concluded in each case that those who had the best chance to exercise power were the least well prepared to exercise it responsibly. As he turned to rally the intellectuals as an independent force, he sighted the irony from another direction. Those who were best prepared to exercise power responsibly had the least chance of obtaining it. To complete the predicament, at no time in history were these means of power so concentrated, so consequential to human affairs, as in the age of thermonuclear weaponry and total war. In explaining why this predicament had come about, why it mattered, and how to transcend it, Mills drove his early “fascination with intellect,” into a climax as sophisticated as it was enthralling.

The predicament was “structural.”[7] The corporate organization of culture tied off the veins of creativity, forcing the craftsman to cater to the formulas and stereotypes of the “overdeveloped supersociety” the United States was becoming. Confined to the roles of “hack” or “star,” the craftsman lost contact with the public, which split into “media markets” that trivialized the interests of its individuals into hobbies. The hive of “educative interplay,” once a place to practice democratic values, rotted in the commercial transaction. “You cannot ‘possess’ art merely by buying it,” Mills insisted, echoing John Dewey. “You cannot support art merely by feeding artists—although that does help. To possess it you must earn it by participating to some extent in what it takes to design it and to create it. To support it you must catch in your consumption of it something of what is involved in the production of it.”[8]

Confronted by the rationalizing model of the factory, most intellectuals underestimated their potential and defaulted on their obligations. Rather than generating counter-symbols and political alternatives, they chased surrogates in religion, cultural nationalism, or professional anticommunism. Public life, rather than occupying the center of moral instruction and political debate, was a leafing of one mood to the next, now anxious, now bored, addicted to crises, partially managed by public relations professionals and shot through by a paradox Mills called “rationality without reason.”

Did the supersociety mean that sociology might become a “common denominator” in the culture? In The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills ridiculed academic sociology in a style that appeared to his admirers as an instrument of his subversion and to his critics as disproof of his seriousness. He attacked Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, his colleagues at Columbia, and transformed the eminent Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons into stammering apologist for power. Mills accused them of establishing a sort of ecclesiastical guardianship over social knowledge. As the supersociety divested “ordinary men” of the democratic significance of their ideologies, so the research bureaucracy over which Parsons, Merton, and Lazarsfeld presided divested sociology of its political and speculative traditions.

The “sickness of complacency,” its sources many and varied, afflicted the craftsman with nothing less than a “spiritual condition.”[9]

The sensibility Mills proposed was tolerant and pluralistic, since it recognized the social relativity of canons of value and standards of belief. At the same time, it was politically committed to realizing the ideal content of democracy. The “self-cultivating man” was honor-bound to respect the variety of man-in-society yet committed to overthrowing antidemocratic institutions. Marxism had imparted to the intellectuals of the thirties a theory of history to measure their progress, an ideology to organize their perceptions, a party to discipline their impulses to action, and an interlocking system of political and social thought to coordinate their striving. Mills imparted to the generation of the sixties something more and something less, a “politics of truth” that entailed mutiny and sabotage. “It is easy for intellectuals to talk generously of the need for workers to control the factories in which they work. It is somewhat more difficult for them to begin to take over their own means of work. What we ought now to do is repossess our cultural apparatus, and use it for our own purposes. I mean this personally and literally.”[10]

Yet Mills left important questions unanswered. “You advise intellectuals to ‘write and speak for these media on their own terms or not at all,’” wrote his friend E. P. Thompson. “O.K. Supposing the answer of those who control the media is ‘not at all.’ What then?”[11] Theodor Adorno said Mills remained “beholden to what I might call the ruling sociology,” since he failed to analyze the economic process while assuming the chance for personal control of the apparatus of production.”[12] Richard Hofstadter suspected that he could say so many astute things about politics only because he had no real politics of his own.

The best responses Mills made to such objections consisted of demonstrations of his own freedom and fullness of mind. He experimented with organic farming, architecture, photography, marriage, and motorcycling. He exhorted his readers to do as he did: to conduct themselves as if their biographies could be effective forces in history. Faith in reason counted as one of the factors in its realization. Belief in possibility was the first condition of possibility. This was the method he had discovered as an adolescent in Walter Hilton’s little blue books, then, as a young sociologist, in the philosophical psychology of pragmatism. Yet the as if method deferred the riddle of power without solving it. In urging his readers to rise against bosses and masters, to unify thoughts and deeds, he never said how to tell the difference between thinking too long and acting too soon.

The Cultural Apparatus, The New Left, and Comparative Sociology, the manuscripts occupying Mills in the summer of 1960, might have yielded clues. On July 1, however, he had lunch in Manhattan with Raul Roa Jr., Cuba’s representative to the United Nations. Roa told him the young men who had made the revolution in Cuba had studied The Power Elite at their camps in the Sierra Maestra. “If the American consul should visit me here,” Fidel Castro had quipped to a reporter after the book reached him in 1958, “I hide this book under the bed, no?”[13] Roa wanted Mills to visit Cuba to see for himself what his book had helped achieve.

In August, Mills landed in Havana with two cameras and an audio recorder. Listen, Yankee!, a series of letters written in the voice of Castro, Che Guevara, and their comrades, appeared ten weeks later. The letters hailed the revolution’s experimentalism for stimulating a new relation of man-in-society without capitalist incentives or communist whips. “We are new men,” said Mills’s Cuban, offering a bitterly ironic comment on American triumphalism.[14] Crevcoeur had asked, “What then is the American, this new man?”[15] Listen, Yankee! returned the idea of the New Man to its colonial setting. It embraced the Cubans as brothers under the skin. Were they the only young intellectuals to feel the clean wind of revolution blowing against their backs? “I don’t know what you guys are waiting for,” Mills said to his students at Columbia. “You’ve got a beautiful set of mountains in those Rockies. I’ll show you how to use those pistols. Why don’t you get going?”[16]

Listen, Yankee! was an international sensation, selling more than 400,000 copies, but it also ended Mills’s odyssey. On December 10, 1960, the night before he was to debate the Cuban Revolution on NBC television, a heart attack struck. He never completely recovered. As the Bay of Pigs confirmed his worst predictions for American foreign policy, the course of the revolution in Cuba exposed the terrible ambiguities in his thought. In his final year, marked by failing health and a worsening international situation, he wandered around Europe before deciding to return to the United States. On March 20, 1962, he died in his sleep. He was laid to rest in a corner of Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York. Etched in his tombstone was an aphorism taken from The Marxists, his last book: “I have tried to objective. I do not claim to be detached.’ He was forty-five.

Edward Shils, a leading figure in the Congress for Cultural Freedom—an organization that practiced its own, state-subsidized politics of truth—once called Mills a “sort of Joe McCarthy of Sociology.” Shils also likened him to “a powerful windstorm.”[17] The complacency of liberal society in its natural course, rather than any genius Mills possessed, allowed him to “play his rat-catcher’s pipe” on a world scale, according to Shils, who settled on the image of the Pied Piper.[18] “Now he is dead,” Shils gloated in 1963, “and his rhetoric is a field of broken stones, his analysis empty, his strenuous pathos limp.”[19]

Yet Shils warned fellow liberals not to gainsay Mills’s importance, arguing that he had aroused a global public greater than any American sociologist in history. The list of friends, correspondents, and readers generated by his travels in the fifties became, in the sixties, a first-class roster and record book of radical thinking, a rallying point in the genealogy of the New Left. He was the elder figure they all knew in common. In 1968, the Central Intelligence agency wrote a classified report that identified Mills, along with Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon, as one of the three principle leaders of the international Left, though he had been dead for six years already.[20]

“Charlie, to many of us, was an eccentric,” Alfred Kazin demurred. “I mean, he was an extraordinary person; I’m aware that he had a certain legend as a radical figure, but it may be my literary inability to take sociologists seriously, but I thought he was what Senator [George] Moses called Son of a Wild Jackass. He was to me very much a Western type from Texas.” Although Mills befriended Daniel Bell, Dwight Macdonald, and Richard Hofstadter, his relations with the New York intellectuals were riddled by ambivalence. “I remember once we were having dinner together in the Village,” Kazin said. “I was talking about Balzac, and he took notes during dinner because this was all new to him—you know, that sort of thing. On the other hand, a lot of people thought he was great. I thought his mind was very simplistic.”[21]

Eccentricity was not the source of Mills’s appeal. It was his ability to diffuse the idea of the independent intellectual to those who felt superfluous, or compromised, or orphaned in the maelstrom of the American Century. The gregarious quality of his manner and thought did not impress the Manhattan literati, but it showed in the thousands of citizens who wrote him personal letters, each more earnest than the next. Mills addressed designers, generals, labor leaders, clergymen, scientists, urban planners, and novelists, editors, and journalists from Mexico City to Moscow. Always he denied that intellectual life was an aristocracy or that membership required proof of genius. Always he refused the temptation, so strongly felt in the academic system, to defer to special methods or theories. He returned his public to the ethical and emotional significance of ideas. Reason was not a technical skill but a prayer for salvation, “the most passionate endeavor of which a man is capable.”[22]

The variety of style and role in which Mills manifested his passion was the hidden measure of his distinction. Alongside his many academic articles and books he issued pamphlets, public letters, and sermons. He contributed to obscure left-wing magazines and to that stronghold of establishment opinion, the New York Times. Speaking as sociologist, satirist, and prophet, as leftist and critic of the left, as Texan and New Yorker, he refused to subdue himself in a false dualism of commitment and withdrawal. He turned up perspectives from which he could criticize obsolete forms and demonstrate that new forms were imaginable. His extravagant indignation, so solemnly regretted by his auditors, called attention to the moral dimension of politics at a time when managerial dimensions dominated. His refusal to efface himself from his prose, so embarrassing to his colleagues, called attention to the personalities concealed in their postures of detachment. By representing no one party, he could speak credibly to many different parties. His greatest achievement was his independence.

Mills’s sensibility will inspire dissent for as long as immorality and stupidity inhibit the promise of American life. The estrangement of the craftsman from his calling parallels the estrangement of the public from “the big discourse that has been going on, or off and on, since western society began some two thousand years ago in the small communities of Athens and Jerusalem.”[23] Recognizing this common plight is the first condition of our rehabilitation.

[1]      Quoted in Lee Jones, “Power Elite’s C. W. Mills Challenges Intellectuals,” Daily Texan (Oct. 1958).

[2]      Mills, “Power and Culture,” speech at PEN Club, May 14, 1956, page 9.

[3]      “The Cultural Apparatus,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[4]      “The Decline of the Left,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[5]      Hunter S. Thompson, “Wright Is Right,” Esquire, v. 53 (Jan. 1960): 18.

[6]      “Culture and Politics,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[7]      Mills used this word “structural” like Lionel Trilling used “actuality”—the frequency of usage signaled an entire train of associations and tendencies.

[8]      “The Man in the Middle,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[9]      “Letter to the New Left” and “The Power Elite‒Comment on Criticism,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[10]    “The Decline of the Left,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[11]    E. P. Thompson to Mills, April 21, 1959, CWM Papers, University of Texas.

[12]    Theodor W. Adorno, Introduction to Sociology, ed. Christoph Godde, trans. Edmund Jephcott (1968; Cambridge, England, 2000), 142.

[13]    As reported in Jules Dubois, “Report on Latin America,” Chicago Sunday Tribune (Nov. 20, 1960): 16.

[14]    “Listen, Yankee!” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[15]    Hector St. John Crevcoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782; Gloucester, Mass., 1968), 49, 47.

[16]    Arnold Abrams, “C. Wright Mills: Controversial Figure in Conforming Sociology,” Columbia Daily Spectator, Nov. 29, 1960.

[17]    Edward Shils, “Imaginary Sociology,” Encounter. v. 14 (June 1960): 80; and Edward Shils, “Professor Mills on the Calling of Sociology,” World Politics, v. 13 (July 1961): 606.

[18]    Shils, “Professor Mills,” World Politics, 621.

[19]    Edward Shils, “The Obsession,” The Spectator, no. 7045 (July 5, 1963): 21.

[20]    Office of Current Intelligence, “Restless Youth,” No. 0613/68, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, September 1968.

[21]    Alfred Kazin Interview, Richard Hofstadter Project, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 1992, pages 11-12.

[22]    “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[23]    “Are We Losing Our Sense of Belonging?” C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings, ed. John Summers (Oxford University Press, 2008).