To a degree that has come to seem controversial today, Mills was not cynical about the importance of reason—or its attainability, even as a glimmering goal that could never be reached but could be approximated ever more closely, asymptotically. To the contrary. He wrote about the Enlightenment without a sneer. (22) He thought the problem with the condition of the Enlightenment at mid-century was not that we had too much Enlightenment but that we had too little, and the tragedy was that the universal genuflection to technical rationality—in the form of scientific research, business calculation, and state planning—was the perfect disguise for this great default. The democratic self-governance of rational men and women was damaged partly by the bureaucratization of the economy and the state. (This was a restatement of Weber's great discovery: that increased rationality of institutions made for less freedom, or least no more freedom, of individuals.) And democratic prospects were damaged, too—in ways that Mills was trying to work out when he died—because the West was coping poorly with the entry of the "underdeveloped" countries onto the world stage, and because neither liberalism (which had, in the main, degenerated into techniques of "liberal practicality") nor Marxism (which had, in the main, degenerated into a blind doctrine that rationalized tyranny) could address their urgent needs. "Our major orientations—liberalism and socialism—have virtually collapsed as adequate explanations of the world and of ourselves," (23) he wrote. This was dead on.

It goes without saying that Mills felt urgently about the state of the world—a sentiment that needed no excuse during the Cold War, though one needs reminders today of just how realistic and anti-crackpot it was to sound the alarm about the sheer world-incinerating power that had been gathered into the hands of the American national security establishment and its Soviet counterpart. It cannot be overemphasized that much of Mills' work on power was specific to a historical situation that can be described succinctly: the existence of national strategies for nuclear war. Mills made the point intermittently in The Power Elite, and more bluntly in The Causes of World War Three, that the major reason America's most powerful should be considered dangerous was that they controlled weapons of mass destruction and were in a position not only to contemplate their use but to launch them. Mills' judgment on this score was as acute as it was simple: "Ours is not so much a time of big decisions as a time for big decisions that are not being made. A lot of bad little decisions are crippling the chances for the appropriate big ones." (24) Most of the demurrers missed this essential point. (25) To head off pluralist critics, Mills acknowledged that there were policy clashes of local and sectoral groups, medium-sized business, labor, professions, and others, producing "a semiorganized stalemate," but thought the noisy, visible conflicts took place mainly at "the middle level of power." (26) As for domestic questions, Mills probably exaggerated the unanimity of powerful groupings. He was extrapolating from the prosperous, post-New Deal, liberal-statist consensus that united Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy more than it divided them. Like most observers of the Fifties, he underestimated the potential for a conservative movement. (27) But about the centralization of power where it counted most, he was far more right than wrong.

One has to recall the setting. Mills died a mere seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis came within a hair's breadth of triggering a nuclear war. Khrushchev's recklessness in sending missiles to Cuba triggered the momentous White House decisions of October 1962. Enough time has passed since them without thermonuclear war that an elementary point has to be underscored: the fact that Kennedy's inner circle backed down from the brink of war was not inevitable. It was, shall we say, contingent rather than structural. A handful of men—they were men—had full opportunity to make the wrong decision and produce mass death. They made the right decision, as did Khrushchev, in the end, and the superpowers clambered back from the precipice. At that world-shattering moment when eyeballs faced eyeballs, the men in charge had the wisdom not to blow their eyeballs and millions of other people's away. They had the opportunity and the means to make other decisions. They were hair-raisingly close. The fact that they didn't make the wrong decisions doesn't detract from Mills' good judgment in taking seriously this huge fact about America's elite: that they were heading toward a crossroads where they might well have made a momentous, irreversible wrong turn. Who these men were, how they got to their commanding positions, how there had turned out to be so much at stake in their choices—there could be no more important subject for social science. Whatever the failings of Mills' arguments in The Power Elite, his central point obtained: the power to launch a vastly murderous war existed, in concentrated form. This immense fact no paeans to pluralism could dilute.

Mills not only invoked the sociological imagination, he practiced it brilliantly. Careful critics like David Riesman, who thought Mills' picture of white collar workers too monolithically gloomy, still acknowledged the insight of his portraits and the soundness of his research. (28) Even the polemical voice of a Cuban revolutionary that Mills adopted in Listen, Yankee—a voice he thought that Americans, "shot through with hysteria," (29) were crazy to ignore—was quietly shaped by Mills' ability to grasp where, from what milieu, such a revolutionary was "coming from." While he did not fully appreciate just how much enthusiasm Americans could bring to acquiring and using consumer goods, he did prefigure one of the striking ideas of perhaps his most formidable antagonist, Daniel Bell—namely, the centrality, in corporate capitalism, of the tension between getting (via the Protestant ethic) and spending (via the hedonistic ethic). (30)

In a sense, Mills' stirring invocation to student movements at the turn of the Sixties stemmed from his sociological imagination. He was deeply attuned to the growth of higher education and the growing importance of science in the military-corporate world. More than any other sociologist of the time, Mills anticipated the ways in which conventional careers and narrow life-plans within and alongside the military-industrial complex would fail to satisfy a growing proto-elite of students trained to take their places in an establishment that they would not judge worthy of their moral vision. If he exaggerated the significance—or goodness—of intellectuals as a social force, this was also a by-product of his faith in the powers of reason. Believing that human beings learn as they live, he was on the side of improvement through reflection. Thus, he thought that Castro's tyranny, and other harsh features of the Cuban revolution, were "part of a phase, and that I and other North Americans should help the Cubans pass through it." (31) In his last months, he was increasingly disturbed about Fidel Castro's trajectory toward Soviet-style "socialism," and restive in the vanishing middle ground. There are two fates that afflicted free-minded radicals in the twentieth century: to be universally contrarian and end up on the sidelines, or to hope against hope that the next revolution would invent a new wheel. On the strength of Mills' letters, my guess is that Mills would have gone through the second fate to the first, yet without reconciling himself to the sidelines.

Of course, no one can know where Mills might have gone as the student movement radicalized, grew more militant, more culturally estranged, frequently reckless and self-destructive, partly from desperation, partly from arrogant self-inflation. Of the generation of intellectuals who thrived in the Fifties, Mills more than any other was in a position to grasp not only the strength of what was happening among students, blacks, and women, but also the wrongheadedness and tragedy; might have spoken of it, argued for the best and against the worst, in a voice that would have been hard to ignore—though it would probably have been ignored anyway. I think it likely that, had he lived, he would have said about the New Left what he wrote in 1960 about the Cuban revolution: "I do not worry about it, I worry for it and with it." (32)

For all that his life was cut short, more of Mills' work endures than that of any other critic of his time. His was an indispensable, brilliant voice in sociology and social criticism—and in the difficult, necessary effort to link the two. He was a restless, engaged, engaging moralist, asking the big questions, keeping open the sense of what an intellectual's life might be. His work is bracing, often thrilling, even when one disagrees. One reads and rereads with a feeling of being challenged beyond one's received wisdom, called to one's best thinking, one's highest order of judgment. For an intellectual of our time, no higher praise is possible.


Notes

1) I am deliberately using a word from the little-noted subtitle of Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Free Press, 1960).

2) This was A. A. Berle, Jr., also a major exponent of the view that management in the modern corporation had taken control from stock owners. Berle, the influential co-author of The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), had been criticized by Mills for his views of corporate conscience (Mills, The Power Elite [New York: Oxford University Press, 1956], pp. 125n, 126n.). For those who knew this history, the forthcoming debate looked even more like a showdown.

3) From an essay written in the fall of 1957 to "Tovarich," whom Mills imagined as a symbolic Russian opposite number. C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills, ms. p. 276. My thanks to Naomi Schneider of the University of California Press, and Kathryn Mills, for permission to read and quote from the manuscript of that forthcoming book.

4) From a letter-essay addressed to "Tovarich," fall 1957, C. Wright Mills, ms., p. 26.

5) Mills to "Tovarich," C. Wright Mills, ms. p. 30.

6) Mills to "Tovarich," C. Wright Mills, ms. p. 278.

7) Mills to "Tovarich," C. Wright Mills , ms. p. 279.

8) Mills note in his "Tovarich" notebook, June 1960, C. Wright Mills , ms., p. 340.

9) Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Ballantine, 1958, 1960), pp. 185-6.

10) Letter to The Battalion, April 3, 1935, in ms., p. 36.

11) In the late 1960s, Paul Goodman, another exemplary freelance intellectual who inspired the New Left, wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books on what he called "the sweet style of Hemingway," just as the strong silent style was about to pass into the nether world thanks to Kate Millett and other feminists. Goodman, even more than Mills, practiced an instantly recognizable prose style that found grace in lumbering.

12) Mills to "Tovarich," fall 1957, ms. pp. 273-74.

13) Mills to John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, November 7, 1944, pp. 83-84. To the credit of the foundation, he got the grant. This would make for an interesting subject: The way in which, while sociology was hardening into the molds Mills righteously scorned, it had not altogether hardened¾ which permitted the leaders of the field to honor Mills and take him seriously, at least in his early work, while recoiling from his later.

14) Mills to Harvey and Bette Swados, November 3, 1956, in ms., p. 241.

15) The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 225.

16) Sociological Imagination, p. 18n.

17) Sociological Imagination, p. 33.

18) I have elaborated on the implied politics of the Theory Class in "Sociology for Whom? Criticism for Whom?, in Herbert J. Gans, ed., Sociology in America, (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990), pp. 214-226.

19) Sociological Imagination, p. 131.

20) The Marxists (New York: Dell, 1962), p. 12. Mills' italics.

21) Sociological Imagination, p. 192.

22) See the great chapter "On Reason and Freedom," Sociological Imagination, pp. 165-176.

23) Sociological Imagination, p. 166.

24) The Causes of World War Three (New York: Ballantine, 1958, 1960), p. 21.

25) Irving Howe's harsh critique of The Causes of World War III (Dissent, Spring 1959, pp. 191-6) berated Mills for claiming that the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. were converging into a "fearful symmetry" (Causes, p. 9). Howe charged Mills with coming "uncomfortably close" to defending "a kind of 'moral coexistence'" (pp. 195-6), and the two men broke off their relations after the review appeared. In fury at the complacency of American leadership, Mills did at times veer toward the cavalier. Despite his sympathy for East European dissidents, Mills could indeed be, as Howe charged, slapdash about Soviet imperialism in the satellite countries. But subsequent scholarship makes plain just how great was the American "lead" over the Soviet nuclear establishment in the late 1950s, when Mills was writing; how fraudulent was Kennedy's claim of a "missile gap," and therefore how much greater was the American responsibility to back down from nuclear strategies that could easily have eventuated in an exterminating war.

26) Causes, p. 39.

27) In the chapter called "The Conservative Mood" in The Power Elite, Mills did write (p. 331) that "the conservative mood is strong, almost as strong as the pervasive liberal rhetoric," but he did not anticipate that opposition to civil rights and general anti-statism might fuse into popular movements that could eventually take over the Republican party.

28) Riesman, review of White Collar, American Journal of Sociology 16 (1951), pp. 513-5. Mills' "middle levels of power" was a concept aimed directly at Riesman's "veto groups" in The Lonely Crowd. Despite their analytical differences, however, Riesman was devoutly anti-nationalist, and his active commitment to the peace movement of the early 1960s converged at many points with Mills' suspicion of the power elite.

29) Listen, Yankee (New York: Ballantine, 1960), p. 179.

30) Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic, 1976). For one of many examples of Mills anticipating this important argument, see The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 384. Bell wrote a scathing critique of The Power Elite (reprinted as "Is There a Ruling Class in America? The Power Elite Reconsidered," Chapter 3 in The End of Ideology ), properly chastising Mills for scanting the differences between New Deal and Republican administrations, but also charging him—in the middle of the twentieth century!¾ with an overemphasis on power as violence. Mills dismissed "Mr. Bell's debater's points" in a letter to Hans Gerth of December 2, 1958, writing that he would not deign to respond publicly (C. Wright Mills, ms. p. 299). This is too bad, because most of Bell's points could have been straightforwardly and convincingly rebutted.

31) Listen, Yankee, p. 183. Mills' italics. It should be remembered that his misjudgments came early in the revolution. He wrote, for example: "The Cuban revolution, unlike the Russian, has, in my judgment, solved the major problems of agricultural production by its agrarian reform." (Listen, Yankee, p. 185). Such are the perils of pamphleteering.

32) Listen, Yankee, p. l 79. Mills' italics.

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