C. Wright Mills, Free Radical
by Todd Gitlin

Whether or not the rest of this sentence sounds like an oxymoron, C. Wright Mills was the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century, his achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that he died at 45 and produced his major work in a span of little more than a decade. For the political generation trying to find bearings in the early Sixties, Mills was a guiding knight of radicalism. Yet he was a bundle of paradoxes, and this was part of his appeal whether his readers were consciously attuned to the paradoxes or not. He was a radical disabused of radical traditions, a sociologist disgruntled with the course of sociology, an intellectual frequently skeptical of intellectuals, a defender of popular action as well as a craftsman, a despairing optimist, a vigorous pessimist, and all in all, one of the few contemporaries whose intelligence, verve, passion, scope—and contradictions—seemed alive to most of the main moral and political traps of his time. A philosophically-trained and best-selling sociologist who decided to write pamphlets, a populist who scrambled to find what was salvageable within the Marxist tradition, a loner committed to politics, a man of substance acutely cognizant of style, he was not only a guide but an exemplar, prefiguring in his paradoxes some of the tensions of a student movement that was reared on privilege, amid exhausted (1) ideologies, yet hell-bent on finding, or forging, the leverage with which to transform America root and branch.

In his two final years, Mills the writer became a public figure, his tracts against the Cold War and U. S. Latin American policy more widely read than any other radical's, his Listen, Yankee, featured on the cover of Harper's Magazine, his "Letter to the New Left" published in both the British New Left Review and the American Studies on the Left and distributed, in mimeographed form, by Students for a Democratic Society. In December 1960, cramming for a television network debate on Latin America policy with an established foreign policy analyst (2), Mills suffered a heart attack, and when he died fifteen months later he was instantly seen as a martyr. SDS's Port Huron Statement carries echoes of Mills' prose, and Tom Hayden, its principal author, wrote his M. A. thesis on Mills, whom he labeled "Radical Nomad," a heroic if quixotic figure who, like the New Left itself, muscularly tried to force a way through the ideological logjam. After his death, at least one son of founding New Left parents was named for Mills, along with at least one cat, my own, so called, with deep affection, because he was almost red.

Mills' writing was charged—seared—by a keen awareness of human energy and disappointment, a passionate feeling for the human adventure and a commitment to dignity. In many ways the style was the man. In a vigorous, instantly recognizable prose, he hammered home again and again the notion that people lived lives that were not only bounded by social circumstance but deeply shaped by social forces not of their own making, and that this irreducible fact had two consequences: it lent most human life a tragic aspect with a social root, and also created the potential—if only people saw a way forward—of improving life in a big way by concerted action.

Mills insisted that a sociologist's proper subject was the intersection of biography and history. Mills invited, in other words, a personal approach to thought as well as a thoughtful approach to persons, so it was no fault of his own that he came to be admired (and sometimes scorned) as a persona and not only a thinker, and that long after his death he still demands to be taken biographically as well as historically. In SDS, we did not know Mills personally, for the most part, but (or therefore) a certain mystique flourished. It was said (accurately) that Mills was partial to motorcycles, and that he lived in a house in the country that he had built himself. It was said (accurately) that he had been divorced more than once, and (inaccurately) that he had been held back from a full professorship at Columbia because of his politics. If his personal life was unsettled, bohemian, and mainly his own in a manner equivalent to his intellectual journey and even his style, the fit seemed perfect.

Mills himself was not a man of political action apart from his writing, yet it was as a writer that he mattered, so his inclination to go it alone was far from a detriment. "I have been intellectually, politically, morally alone," he would write. "I have never known what others call 'fraternity' with any group, however small, neither academic nor political. With a few individuals, yes, I have known it, but with groups however small, no....And the plain truth, so far as I know, is that I do not cry for it." (3) His forceful prose, his instinct for significant controversy, his Texas hell-for-leather aura, his reputation for intellectual fearlessness and his passion for craftmanship (one of his favorite words) seemed all of a piece. A free intellectual tempted by action, he served as an engagé father or uncle figure, an outsider who counterposed himself not only to liberal academics who devoted themselves to explaining why radical change was either foreclosed or undesirable, but also to the court intellectuals, the fawning men of power and quantification who clustered around the Kennedy administration and later helped anoint it Camelot. The Camelot insiders might speak of a New Frontier while living in glamour and reveling in power, while Mills, the loner, the anti-bureaucrat, was staking out a New Frontier of his own.

Mills' output was huge in a short life, and here I can pick up only a few themes. He produced his strongest work in the Fifties—White Collar (1951), The Power Elite (1956), The Sociological Imagination (1959)—banging up against political closure and cultural stupefaction. These books were, all in all, his major statements on what he liked to call "the big questions" about society, preceding the pamphlets, The Causes of World War Three (1958) and Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), along with an annotated collection, The Marxists (1962). (He also left a plethora of unfinished, ambitious projects, not only polemical but deeply empirical.) Next spring, a collection, C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills, is be published by the University of California Press. This volume serves as a superb accompaniment to Mills' published books precisely because—as with Albert Camus, James Agee, and other exemplars of radical individualism—the personal and the political embraced each other so closely.

One thing that stands out in the letters is just how deeply, fearlessly American Mills was. Growing up in Texas, schooled in Austin and Madison, living in Maryland and New York, Mills was full of frontier insouciance: "All this national boundary stuff is a kind of highway robbery, isn't it?" (4) "Intellectually and culturally I am as 'self-made' as it is possible to be," he wrote. (5) His "direction," he wrote, was that "of the independent craftsman." (6) "I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep and for good....I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat." (7) In the midst of his activist pamphleteering, he still wrote: "I am a politician without a party" (8) —or to put it another way, a party of one. So it only reinforced Mills' reputation that he proved to be a martyr of a sort—not a casualty of jousts with political enemies but, in a certain sense, a casualty of his chosen way of life. This physically big ("Take it big!" he liked to say), prepossessing, hard-driving man was more frail than he would want to let on, or know. That he suffered a grave heart attack while feverishly preparing for his TV debate on Latin American policy felt like a scene from High Noon, except that Gary Cooper is supposed to win the gunfight.

His prose was hard-driving, not frail, and this was not incidental to his appeal. His writing was instantly recognizable, frequently emulated (look at the early passages of the Port Huron Statement and other SDS publications of the time), and properly labeled muscular. It was frequently vivid and moving, often pointedly colloquial, though at times clumsy from an excess of deliberation (Mills worked hard for two decades to perfect his style). He was partial to collisions between nouns of action and nouns of failure—"showdown" and "thrust" versus "drift" and "default." He was partial to polemical categories like "crackpot realism" and "the military metaphysic." This style was, in the best sense of the word, masculine, though hardly macho—a macho writer would not be haunted by the prospect of mass violence, or write that the "central goal of Western humanism [was]...the audacious control by reason of man's fate." (9)

Mills' willingness to go it alone ran deep. In a letter to the student newspaper at Texas A & M, written in his freshman year, in the thick of the Great Depression, the nineteen-year-old Mills was asking: "Just who are the men with guts? They are the men...who have the imagination and the intelligence to formulate their own codes; the men who have the courage and the stamina to live their own lives in spite of social pressure and isolation." (10) Rugged stuff, both democratic and noble, Whitmanian and Hemingwayesque, in a manner that has come to be mocked more than read. A quarter of a century later, the stance implied by the teenage Mills would have been called existentialism, and when transposed into a more urgent prose translated from the French, would have become—was—the credo of teenage boys with the audacity to think they might change the world. Later, this style would be burlesqued as macho, brutal, distinctly (and pejoratively) "male." But the accusation of male exclusivity would miss something central to Mills' style, namely the tenderness and longing that accompanied the urge to activity—qualities which carried a political hopefulness that was already unfashionable when Mills used it and has now virtually vanished. (11) To be precise, the spirit of these words was in the best sense adolescent.

I speak of adolescence here deliberately and without prejudice. The adult Mills himself commended the intensity and loyalty of adolescence: "I hope that I have not grown up. The whole notion of growing up is pernicious, and I am against it. To grow up means merely to lose the intellectual curiosity so many children and so few adults seem to have; to lose the strong attachments and rejections for other people so many adolescents and so few adults seem to have....W. H. Auden recently put it very well: 'To grow up does not mean to outgrow either childhood or adolescence but to make use of them in an adult way.'" (12) Mills could never be dismissive about ideals or, in the dominant spirit of his time, consider idealism a psychiatric diagnosis.

"I have never had occasion to take very seriously much of American sociology as such," Mills had the audacity to write in an application for a Guggenheim grant in 1944. (13) He told the foundation that he wrote for journals of opinion and "little magazines" because they took on the right topics "and even more because I wished to rid myself of a crippling academic prose and to develop an intelligible way of communicating modern social science to non-specialized publics." At twenty-eight, the loner already wished to explain himself; the freelance politico wished to have on his side a reasoning public without letting it exact a suffocating conformity as the price of its support. Mills knew the difference between popularity, which he welcomed as a way to promote his ideas, and the desire to live a free life, which was irreducible; for (he wrote in a letter at forty) "way down deep and systematically I'm a goddamned anarchist." (14)

Not any old goddamned anarchist, however. Certainly not an intellectual slob. He respected rigor, aspired to the high calling of craft, was usually unafraid of serious criticism and liked to respond to it, liked the rough and tumble of straightforward dispute. Craft, not methodology—the distinction was crucial. Methodology was rigor mortis, dead rigor, rigor fossilized into arcanery of statistical practice so fetishized as to have eclipsed the real stakes of research. Craft was work done with respect for materials, clarity about objective, and a sense of the high drama and stakes of intellectual life. The Sociological Imagination (1959), his most enduring book, ends with an appendix, "On Intellectual Craftmanship," that in turn ends with these words (which, as it happens, in college, I typed on an index card and posted next to my typewriter, hoping to live up to the spirit):

Before you are through with any piece of work, no matter how indirectly on occasion, orient it to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shaping and the meanings, of your own period, the terrible and magnificent world of human society in the second half of the twentieth century. (15)

Some mission for pale sociology! His major books were driven by large topics, not method or theory, yet they were also driven by a spirit of adventure. (He was so far from main thrust as to prefer the term "social studies" to "social sciences.") (16) That a sociologist should work painstakingly, over the course of a career, to fill in a whole social picture should not seem as remarkable as it does today. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills grandly excoriated the two dominant tendencies of mainstream sociology, the bloated puffery of Grand Theory and the microscopic marginality of Abstracted Empiricism, in terms that remain as important and vivid (and sometimes hilarious) today as they did forty years ago. All the more so, perhaps, because sociology has slipped still deeper into the troughs Mills described. He would be amused at the way in which postmodernists, Marxists, and feminists have joined the former grandees of theory on their "useless heights," (17) claiming high seriousness as well as usefulness for their pirouettes and performances, their monastic and masturbatory exercises, their populist cheerleading, political wishfulness, and self-important grandiosity. He would not have thought Theory a serious blow against irresponsible power. I think he would have recognized the pretensions of Theory as a class-bound ideology—that of a "new class," if you will—to be criticized just as he had exposed the supervisory ideology of the abstracted empiricists in their research teams doing the intellectual busywork of corporate and government bureaucracies. I think he would also have recognized, in the grand intellectual claims and political bravado of Theory, a sort of Leninist assumption—a dangerous one—about the irreplaceably high mission of academics.(18)

Of course Mills had a high sense of mission himself—not only his own mission, but that of intellectuals in general and social scientists in particular. He was committed to intellectual work guided by truth to what Max Weber had called a "calling," a vocation in the original sense of being summoned by a voice. Not that Mills (who with Hans Gerth edited the first significant compilation of Weber's essays in English) agreed with Weber's conclusion that "science as a vocation" and "politics as a vocation," to name his two great essays on the subject, needed to be ruthlessly severed. Not at all. Mills thought the questions ought to come from values, but the answers should not be rigged. A crucial difference! If the results of research made you grumpy, too bad. But he also thought that good social science became good politics when it moved into the open and generated public discussion. He came to this activist idea of intellectual life partly by temperament—he was not one to take matters lying down—but also by deduction and by elimination. For if intellectuals were not going to break the intellectual logjam, who would?

This was not, for Mills, a merely rhetorical question. It was a question that, in the Deweyan pragmatic spirit that had been the subject of his doctoral dissertation, required an experimental answer, an answer that would unfold in real life through reflection upon experience. For his conclusion after a decade of work was that if one were looking for a fusion of reason and power—at least potential power—there was nowhere else to look but to intellectuals. Mills had sorted through the available history-makers in his books of the late 1940s and 1950s—labor in The New Men of Power, the middle classes in White Collar, and the chiefs of top institutions themselves in The Power Elite. Labor was not up to the challenge of structural reform, white collar employees were confused and rearguard, and the power elite was irresponsible. Mills concluded (partly by elimination) that intellectuals and only intellectuals had a fighting chance to deploy reason. Because they could embody reason in addressing social problems when no one else could do so, it was incumbent upon them to try, in addressing a problem, to have "a view of the strategic points of intervention—of the 'levers' by which the structure may be maintained or changed; and an assessment of those who are in a position to intervene but are not doing so." (19)

As he would write in The Marxists, a political philosophy had to encompass not only an analysis of society and a set of theories of how it works but "an ethic, an articulation of ideals." (20) It followed that intellectuals should be explicit about their values and rigorous in considering contrary positions. It also followed that research work should be supplemented by blunt writing that was meant to inform and mobilize what he called, following John Dewey, "publics." In Mills' words, "The education and the political role of social science in a democracy is to help cultivate and sustain publics and individuals that are able to develop, to live with, and to act upon adequate definitions of personal and social realities." (21)


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