The Big Discourse

Originally published in The Nation, October 9, 2000.

Loneliness burdens many college freshmen, though precious few find lasting relief from it in the realm of ideas. So it happened for one freshman in 1935, when he left behind the isolation he had experienced at Texas A&M for the University of Texas and “the big discourse,” his term for the Enlightenment humanism that extended him both refuge and inspiration. Once a diffident student who reserved his compositions for private display, he quickly gave to this tradition the allegiance of an apostle. At age 20, he wrote his father: “I work and live very rapidly these days. Mine is a pen from whose point much ink will flow and some day into the brains of the populace. But let that be.”

Much ink did flow from the pen of C. Wright Mills. As a professor of sociology at Columbia University, Mills wrote prodigiously throughout the forties and fifties, publishing in major newspapers and journals of opinion and in little magazines in equal measure. Two of his books, White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), sold widely outside the academy, exerting a profound influence on the early New Left. A heart attack in March 1962 cut short his life at 45 years, but ten books and nearly 200 articles, essays and reviews had won him an international reputation. His books are now translated into twenty-three languages.

Mills departed Austin in 1939 for doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, he completed a dissertation that fused the pragmatist philosophy he had learned at Texas with his new métier, sociology. “A Sociological Account of Pragmatism” disappointed him. Yet that dissertation, and particularly three innovative articles on the sociology of knowledge that preceded it, impressed influential members of the profession. In December 1940 Robert Merton, himself a theorist only six years Mills’s senior, privately named him one of the three most promising sociologists in the nation.

A young prince in a rising discipline, Mills accepted an associate professorship of sociology at the University of Maryland, but he turned much of his attention to the lonely task of left-wing political agitation. In these years, anxieties over a permanent war economy traveled among New York’s socialist community, to which Mills began to appeal for contacts, and his political writings expressed fear that monopoly capitalism was generating a proto-fascist domestic apparatus underwritten by cultural insensibility and mass discipline.

Sensitive to the fast-changing character of liberal social structure, Mills held out against the irony of reform. Unlike so many of his elders, he did not know firsthand the capacity of entrenched power to co-opt and redirect dissent; nor had he suffered the lost promises of international Communism. “I did not personally experience the thirties. At that time, I just didn’t get its mood,” he explained in one of the 150 letters published in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, a beautifully edited volume by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills (his daughters). “Only with the onset of World War II did I become radically aware of public affairs.”

Released from military duty because of hypertension, Mills viewed the war as “a goddamned bloodbath to no end save misery and mutual death to all civilized values.” He harbored no sympathy for the fresh scars of erstwhile agitators. In an essay published in 1942 in the New Leader, he observed that their chastened radicalism belonged to a more thoroughgoing “crisis in American pragmatism,” in which private religious introspection, not political action, now served as the preferred sphere for the full development of the human personality. This kind of retreat into religion, Mills complained, neglected a “social theory of the self” (which he had explored in his early writings on the sociology of knowledge). It left individuals intellectually powerless to influence the massive secular forces that now overwhelmed them. The move away from politics, Mills wrote, “offers a personal and accommodative celebration of the modern fact of self-estrangement.” (Similarly, he would later christen the “cult of alienation” that enveloped postwar literature as “a fashionable way of being overwhelmed.”) Already by 1942, he regarded commitment to humanist politics and ideas as a spiritual enterprise that demanded steadiness of public purpose in the face of illiberal forces. This disposition, part evangelical, part stoic, would thereafter guide his criticism of US institutions.

Mills published widely during the mid- and late-forties, furthering his reputation for precocity even while shifting his research interests from the sociology of knowledge to stratification, labor, and social psychology. In 1945, an invitation arrived from Paul Lazarsfeld to join the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, and he left College Park for New York.

The New Men of Power appeared three years later, the first fruit of Mills’s work for the bureau. Surveying the origins, attitudes and party affiliations of 500 labor leaders, the book aspired to an objective, collective portrait that would also become politically relevant. “The most democratic societies of their size in the world,” labor unions, he concluded, nonetheless possessed the tendencies of the political economy that had shaped them: the elaboration of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the exclusive reliance on the major parties, the nervous impulse to conserve recent gains, the demotion of labor intellectuals to the role of gadfly or technician. Could labor leaders, whom Mills called a new “strategic elite” in the contest for power, resist “the main drift”?

Somewhat like the labor leaders he studied, Mills was managing a host of positions and influences in his thought. The New Men of Power contained traces of Wisconsin progressivism, Trotskyist socialism, a concept of “publics” imported from John Dewey, new techniques of social science research, even the rebellious spirit of the Wobblies. This pluralism made possible a salutary absence of dogmatism, and the book gathered reviews appreciative of its political energy and broad vision. He finished, though, with an ambivalent note on the prospects for an accord between labor leaders and labor intellectuals, which he thought vital for any recrudescence of independent politics: “Never has so much depended upon men who are so ill-prepared and so little inclined to assume the responsibility.”

White Collar marked a rapidly maturing social theory. It also commenced Mills’s rise to a peculiar place in American intellectual life. Although professional sociologists greeted the book with indifference or distrust, others hailed it as a provocative examination of the psychology of class. It became a bestseller, evidence that independent radicalism could find a place even during the dark nights of McCarthyism.

Mills, in turn, looked with growing confidence outside his profession for authority as a critic. Over the course of the decade, Cold War dissidents and uneasy students repaid his efforts in direct proportion to his escalating boldness. “I can no longer write seriously without feeling contempt for the indifferent professors and smug editors of the overdeveloped societies in the West who so fearlessly fight the cold war, and for the cultural bureaucrats and hacks, the intellectual thugs of the official line,” he wrote in The Causes of World War Three (1958), an antiwar pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies. In Listen Yankee (1960), a pro-Castro polemic that sold more than 400,000 copies, Mills called the United States a “reactionary menace” and proclaimed his independence from the growing student movement that drew inspiration from his example. “I cannot give unconditional loyalties to any institution, man, state, movement, or nation. My loyalties are conditional upon my own convictions and my own values.”

As the New Left gathered momentum, Mills seemed the man for the moment. Agitating for “our own separate peace,” with Communist intellectuals, he made official visits to Cuba and the USSR, traded counsel with Sartre in France, talked up E.P. Thompson to the Cubans and Carlos Fuentes to US publishers. One year before his fatal heart attack, he wrote to his parents about the obligations he supposed his writings had brought him. “I know now that I have not the slightest fear of death; I know also that I have a big responsibility to thousands of people all over the world to tell the truth as I see it and to tell it exactly and with drama and quit this horsing around with sociological bullshit.” A self-proclaimed “permanent stranger” in a nation he could not leave, Mills died a triply distinctive figure of US culture: a radical intellectual celebrity.

To many of his colleagues, he appeared an abrasive and even irresponsible sociologist, his contentious manner unworthy of the detached, scientific ideals to which their discipline aspired. The body of literature that now surrounds Mills is generally distinguished only by its tendency to respond to this outsized reputation and audacious personality, rather than to the ideas they illustrated.

Such is the guiding spirit of Collaboration, Reputation, and Ethics in American Academic Life by sociologists Guy Oakes and Arthur Vidich. Oakes and Vidich recount the bitter disputes between Mills and the refugee sociologist Hans Gerth, his friend and collaborator on two books, Character and Social Structure (1953), a textbook, and From Max Weber (1946), an influential collection of Weber translations. Mills and Gerth quarreled incessantly over credit and control of these works. Theirs was a complicated relationship that Oakes and Vidich reduced to a cynical, one-dimensional interpretation aimed at little more than proving Mills a charlatan and misanthrope. Though Collaboration, Reputation, and Ethics in American Academic Life claims to make a minor advance in “the history of academic ethics,” it fails to discuss prevailing standards of scholarly publishing in a fast-changing academy, standards against which we might measure the issues involved. Instead, Oakes and Vidich draw inferences from a batch of letters, some of them missing pages, and from an incomplete account of Mills’s swift rise to prominence. Placing him in the worst possible light at every turn, they refuse to offer readers the opportunity to reach conclusions contrary to their own.

The competing portraits of Mills as leftist hero and Mills as academic villain caricature a stubbornly complex man. They fix his character within the very roles that he tried to elude or combine, imposing evaluative criteria that disregard his own terms of self-understanding. Insofar as they attribute his ideas to his eccentric personality they deradicalize the work. What remains to be explored, among those who would take his books with their intended seriousness, are the reasons for his popularity.

Throughout the fifties, Mills, borrowing freely from Dewey, Lippmann and Mead no less than from Veblen, Marx and Weber, returned to a theme that connected him to the decade’s subterranean rumblings: the abstracted character of postwar life. Mills thought the United States, an “overdeveloped” super-society, fattened on a feast of decayed symbols, which offered only outdated fragments of “the whole of live experience.” Public life, therefore, yielded not morally relevant ideas but tremulous moods and slogans. It produced not craftsmen but “cheerful robots,” not the means to use civil liberties but a rhetoric in their abstracted defense, not leaders of reason but paeans to the reasonableness of leadership. Massive, centralized institutions had arisen (“big, ugly forces”), by “drift” and by “thrust” alike. Yet corresponding pictures of reality failed to amplify what terrible challenges these institutions posed to “genuinely lively things.”

Mills argued that white-collar workers and other Americans, bereft of reliable firsthand portraits of everyday reality, suffered confusion and powerlessness, trapped by the detritus of outworn images fixed in the social worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In national politics, a dominant liberalism did not suffocate alternatives, as some Marxists believed. Rather, a “liberal rhetoric” diverted attention from a more important thought: There existed no coherent ideologies of any sort to connect the universalist ideals transmitted by liberalism and Marxism to the colossal social structures that now overwhelmed them. Reason and freedom did not inevitably increase, as the progressive teleologies assumed. But no satisfactory projects for the modern realization of these ideals had evolved accordingly. Now, they suffered eclipse before the impersonal forces of bureaucratization, centralization and rationalization so characteristic of a mass society. “The big discourse” stood homeless.

Alive to this gap separating experience and consciousness, Mills suggested, opportunistic elites appropriated and managed “second-hand worlds” in the service of a pecuniary standard of value. The money standard, the only measure of value permitted to flourish, in turn made possible the commodity culture that spun ever faster around the axis of the US class structure. “Images of American types have not been built carefully by piecing together live experience,” he remarked in White Collar. “Experience is trapped by false images, even as reality itself sometimes seems to imitate the soap opera and the publicity release.” The “tang and feel” of American life meant “shrill trivialization” of culture by the mass media and hypnotic manipulation of psychic existence by moneyed elites. Workers had become possessed by the logic of “personality markets.” Mills said citizens were “strangers to politics … not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary; they are inactionary; they are out of it.” Even leisure, where people might expect to revivify their creative instincts, betrayed its promise. The absence of pictures of reality, autonomous from the commodity nexus, allowed only formal options emptied of real substance. “The most important characteristic of all these [leisure] activities is that they astonish, excite, and distract but they do not enlarge reason or feeling, or allow spontaneous dispositions to unfold creatively.”

The same attack on formalism propelled The Power Elite, Mills’s “good loud blast at the bastards, one they can’t ignore maybe.” The selection and formation of leaders in government, business and the military, he argued, occurred within social worlds narrowly circumscribed by the values of money and militarism. The prep school, the corporate hierarchy, the “total way of life” of the military regimen: Each of these transits to power lacked clearly articulated, open rules of advancement, instead fostering social and psychological affinities “designed to form members that will tacitly accept and trust and respect one another.” Thus imbued with class consciousness, this power elite pursued the major “command posts” of modern American society.

Merely to assert in the fifties that an American upper class existed meant to court controversy. Mills went much further. Long-term trends in US social structure, he maintained, had both enlarged and consolidated the “command posts” occupied by the elite. “Local society,” its business and Congressional retinue, had suffered a fatal decline. Now, the higher officer corps, the administrative apparatus surrounding the presidency and a corporate hierarchy of the “very rich” exercised international power of unprecedented scope. Professional politicians had abdicated their responsibility to make this power responsive. Increasingly, a quasi-official “political directorate” of businessmen and military “warlords” appropriated the “executive centers of decision.”

That an elite possessed such immense power at all should distress any democrat, Mills seemed to suggest. That it exercised such power on behalf of private, self-interested standards of value should cause outrage. Within the “second-hand worlds” that determined public consciousness, the requirements of America’s permanent war economy foreclosed alternative views. Pluralism, the dominant but now outdated picture of US democracy, only muddled the origins of the “moral uneasiness of our time”: the dimly perceived understanding that the power elite adhered to a “crackpot realism,” “a paranoid reality all their own” that might produce the most terrible of results: a third world war.

The Sociological Imagination (1959) continued Mills’s assault on bourgeois formalism, focusing attention on prevailing models of social science. “Until now I have not really fought these people in American sociology,” he wrote the British socialist Ralph Miliband late in the decade. “I’ve ignored them and done my own work; but they’ve been fooling around behind the scenes and now I declare war: I am going to expose their essential bankruptcy.” By “behind the scenes” Mills was alluding, one supposes, to his own department. For his book expressed and then sought to surmount the major fault lines in professional social science at Columbia and other leading departments.

“Grand Theory,” said Mills, offering a witty “translation” of the jargon-laden prose of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, was afflicted by a formalist withdrawal from actual problems of the world. The grand theorists trafficked in a self-referential realm of reflection dominated by minute distinctions and interminable elaborations of basic concepts. In ascending to their “useless heights” they presupposed a natural harmony of ideas—their “metaphysical anchor point”—and so regarded conflict as a deviant phenomenon to be explained, not assumed. Yet because Parsons “has fetishized his Concepts,” the exercise of power in real-world situations could not very well make its way into his work in the first place, nor into that of other grand theorists. “The basic cause of grand theory is the initial choice of a level of thinking so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts. This absence of a firm sense of genuine problems, in turn, makes for the unreality so noticeable in their pages.”

“Abstracted Empiricism,” too, constituted a withdrawal from substantive problems. Possessed by method, the empirical studies of Paul Lazarsfeld yielded a great many details about attitudes and opinions of social life, though such studies “do not convince us of anything worth having convictions about.” Their frame of reference, according to Mills, usually remained so narrow and precise as to deny the fruits of empirical data any larger connection to social structure. “There is, in truth, no principle or theory that guides the selection of what is to be the subject of these studies,” he remarked. Abstracted empiricism, an approach that aspired to put sociology on a particular type of scientific basis, shrank from the task of moral and political judgment. The “formal and empty ingenuity at its center,” not to mention the basic requirements of its operations—large, well-funded research institutes—had turned sociologists into mere technicians, solicitous of only the most immediate questions of the day.

Throughout his career Mills offered figures such as Veblen, Balzac, Agee and Huizinga as models of inquiry, because they “took it big”—took in the “whole of experience” and thereby sought to stand apart from their milieu. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills lamented that modern social science was, in the first and final instance, connected only to the upper reaches of American society. From there came the funding for the research institute, the bureaucratic organization and specialized character of the university; from there, he said, came the very definitions of the problems of study. Mass society had rendered equivocal reason and freedom. Now, without an intellectually autonomous class of thinkers who made plain the political and ethical features of this condition, society promised only to continue its fearful trajectory toward a postmodern epoch. Mills implored his colleagues to connect history to biography, the private troubles of ordinary folks to publicly relevant issues.

He left too little opportunity in his social psychology for the formation of private consciousness, and his portraits often seemed overdrawn accordingly. Today, his white-collar man implies a comparison not to George Babbitt but instead to Hannah Arendt’s Adolf Eichmann. The Power Elite concluded darkly, shadowed by the specter of U.S. totalitarianism. To the extent that these books stimulated the impulse to act, such inspiration owed not to precept but to example, to the fact of their existence.

So it was for Mills’s criticism of his colleagues: his moral psychology and political hope outran his sociology. Much of his work situated the creative individual within a web of psychic manipulation and centripetal forces. When he denounced his fellow intellectuals as “futilitarians,” then, his complaints seemed mere hectoring. Late in the fifties he began to write more positively about “cultural workmen” as agents of change and “the cultural apparatus” as a site of progressive advance. He never developed these sentiments, however, and left important questions unanswered. In challenging the monopolization of secondhand worlds by class-conscious elites, why should intellectuals be trusted to contain their own instinct for power?

Might Mills’s calls for the transcendence of distinctions between culture and politics trivialize public life? He did not live to answer such questions fully. What is clear is that an elitism stood behind his writings. “Who wants to be loved by masses, or by mass-like minds?” he asked his longtime friend William Miller in 1954. In the end, his belief in intellectuals as an agent of social change became a modern version of the “labor metaphysic” he rejected in Victorian Marxism, as historian Michael Denning has noted.

Yet the tenacious exhortation for intellectuals to seek “publics” over masses constituted a strength, too. It belongs to his venture to make “reason democratically relevant,” as he put the matter in The Sociological Imagination. Appreciating Mills’s achievement in this respect does not require a sacrifice of the intellect, as his most parsimonious critics insist. Nobody did more to revive popular discussions of class and democracy in the postwar years. Nor did anyone make a more compelling bid to connect politics and ideas and “the whole of live experience” at a time when none of these seemed very compelling.

Mills refused to abandon universalist values even when his investigations disclosed ample reasons for doubting their continued relevance. If this grim perseverance could lead to a kind of elitism, it could also imbue his books with rhetorical force. Much of the power of his books and essays owes to the way in which he mined various traditions and impulses—liberal progress, Weberian irony, Texas populism, modern views of the sociology of knowledge—in the service of a near-missionary rhetoric of humanist redemption.

In a sense, a conservative radicalism anchored his life. He reported himself a member of the “classic tradition,” a “plain Marxist” and especially an intellectual craftsman who sweated over his prose, which became less academic and more vernacular over time. “Isn’t there room for just plain solid stuff; workmanlike stuff by an artisan stratum?” he wondered to his friend Lewis Coser at mid-decade. “That’s my ideal kind of production and reception.”

Other correspondence records his wide-ranging amateur interests: in music, movies, motorcycles, photography, art and architecture. They indicate an approach to reflection not as the highly technical endeavor so characteristic of the twentieth century but instead as a deeply personal, occasionally aesthetic way of realizing older notions of selfhood in a world now constrained by impersonal institutions. To Dwight Macdonald, Mills defined White Collar as a series of “prose poems” toward such a realization. “The book is my little work of art,” he wrote elsewhere. And the “politics of truth” which so exercised Mills’s evangelical imagination implied “the act of a free man who rejects ‘fate;’ it is an affirmation of oneself as a moral and intellectual center of responsible decision.” Even his idiosyncratic style seemed a response to the sterile rituals of professionalism. He wrote in a 1948 letter, “About flamboyance: don’t you love it? God, the only way to live: the only personal answer to bureaucratic precision and form which, part of the managerial demiurge, would stultify everything we do and are.”

In a 1956 letter to novelist Harvey Swados, his neighbor and confidant, Mills claimed that “what these jokers—all of them—don’t realize is that way down deep and systematically I’m a goddamned anarchist.” This best describes his own view of his temperament, at the center of which stood a visceral determination to avoid the “sense of the trap” that he seemed to see around every American corner. The actual substance of his concerns points toward a more traditional conclusion. He opposed promiscuous mingling of Freud and Marx, defended liberal education and promoted a national civil service as well as a “genuine bureaucracy.” He defined the “cultural apparatus” as “the seat of civilization,” invoking no less an apostle of sensibility than Matthew Arnold. Sending a telegram to a rally against the Bay of Pigs, he rested his case on the most familiar of distinctions: “Kennedy and company have returned us to barbarism.”

Mills came to believe that the freedom and reason embedded in “the big discourse” he first learned in Texas would require the radical subversion of the prevailing order. He concluded that Columbia University belonged to him and his kind. His colleagues had “defaulted.” Others will catalogue other motives for his ambition, but his letters and autobiographical compositions show his sense of his role as a redeemer of lost ideals, an old-fashioned moralist in a time of “mindlessness” and existential despair. That his public moralism coincided with a flawed personal life did not escape his sense of irony, nor the attentions of his many academic enemies.

Mills hoped to belong to “the heritage that mankind has produced in its best moments.” His extensive writings to an imaginary Russian friend, Tovarich, suggest how alone he believed he was in this aspiration. That so many have flocked to his work in the past four decades also shows how mistaken that conviction has become.