BOOKS OCTOBER 8, 2008
The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills
Edited by John Summers
(Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $21.95)
C.Wright Mills published his sociological trilogy during the 1950s: White Collar in 1951, The Power Elite in 1956, The Sociological Imagination in 1959. Those were years of Republican ascendancy, and while the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a moderate, the vice president, Richard Nixon, and a number of key senators, including Joe McCarthy, belonged to the conservative wing of the party. By decade's end, the country was tiring of Republican rule and its accompanying scandals and foreign policy failures, and was harkening to the appeals of a young, ambitious, brash, Catholic politician who called for change. The times were perfect for a radical such as Mills to make his mark.
Almost a half-century later, the United States once again faces a choice between an incumbent conservative party with little public appeal and a young, dynamic politician whose race, rather than his religion, sets him apart from the usual run of presidential contenders. This time, though, there is no single social critic publishing books documenting the hold that powerful military and economic forces have over the country's destiny, and lamenting the decline of a vibrant public sphere, and urging intellectuals to dissent as loudly as they can from the prevailing complacency. Lacking a Mills of our own, we may turn back to the original. Oxford University Press has recently re-published Mills's trilogy, and The New Men of Power, Mills's book on labor leaders, which appeared in 1948, has been reissued by the University of Illinois Press. And now John Summers, an intellectual historian who has written widely on Mills--including a devastating essay in the Minnesota Review documenting the extent to which another sociologist, Irving Louis Horowitz, now something of a neoconservative but then more radical, mistakenly recounted the facts of Mills's life and prevented others from gaining access to the Mills papers that Horowitz kept over the objections of Mills's widow--has brought together a collection of Mills's essays, which he calls The Politics of Truth.
Mills, born in Waco, Texas in 1916, lived for only forty-six years; but during that time he published a significant body of work. He was a sociologist at Columbia for most of his career, and his style ranged from the scholarly--a dissertation on American pragmatism, studies of character and social structure, a collection and translation of the major essays of Max Weber--to popular books dealing with current events such as The Causes of World War III (1958) and Listen, Yankee (1960). Since literature did not much interest him, Mills was never a public intellectual in the mode of Alfred Kazin or Irving Howe, and he lacked Hannah Arendt's familiarity with continental philosophy; but still he treated a wide variety of topics that set him apart from the academic specialists of his day.
Choosing from the plethora of Mills's publications is no easy task. Summers has handled this chore wisely, rejecting a handy potpourri in favor of concentrating on what Mills had to say about a particular problem: the role that intellectuals should play in contemporary society. Not only do we have access in this volume to some of the more inaccessible of Mills's writings on this subject, we also get a glimpse at the book that Mills was under contract to write at the time of his death in 1962: The Cultural Apparatus, or The American Intellectual. Three lectures that Mills delivered on the BBC's Third Programme constitute the bulk of this material, and they provide a pretty good idea of the kind of arguments that Mills would have made had he not suffered a fatal heart attack.
There are many reasons to be interested in Mills's views on intellectuals. In our day, passions express themselves in politics primarily through blogging, a medium at which Mills, with all his radio addresses and pamphlet-like polemics, might well have excelled. The fact that so much of what passes for intellectual inquiry takes place within think tanks created to advance specific ideological agendas would have confirmed Mills in his insistence that intellectuals are corrupted by power and status. Mills denounced his sociological colleagues in the academy for their grand theorizing on the one hand and their mindless number-crunching on the other; and while grand theory has gone out of fashion, at least in the United States, quantitative social science is more entrenched than ever. And just as John F. Kennedy was part of the same spirit that eventually produced the New Left, the young activists attracted to Barack Obama may well launch an even newer one in the next few years. Should Obama lose, a McCain presidency is likely to send thousands of angry protesters into the streets. Should Obama win, he will no doubt disappoint some of his more fervent supporters, who will grimly detail once again the many ways in which liberals sell their souls to corporate and military interests.
Anger, in short, is likely to characterize the American mood in the years following the Bush administration, and few writers were better at expressing anger than C. Wright Mills. Reading him in 1960, the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote that he "jolted me out of my chair. 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." Boobs--not the body parts but the political know-nothings--can certainly be taken for granted these days. The only question is whether intellectuals will attack them with chain-maces. If they do, C. Wright Mills will be their man.
"The most important problem for political reflection in our time has to do with the problem of responsibility," Mill wrote in response to some of the criticisms that were directed against The Power Elite. It was an odd term for a radical to use. We usually think of responsible people as those who obey laws, respect tradition, and honor authority--one reason why the New Leftists and hippies who followed in Mills's footsteps treated the notion of responsibility with disdain. The last thing the substance-abusing, serial-womanizing Hunter S. Thompson wanted from the writers he admired was lectures on abstinence.
Mills was attracted to the theme of responsibility because his style of social criticism ranked hypocrisy among the most serious of vices: you, the protectors of power and privilege, claim to be acting as responsible managers of the national interest, but in reality you are oblivious to the havoc produced by your decisions. Many of the terms that made Mills famous--"crackpot realism," "the American celebration," "the military metaphysic"--were pithy expressions of the failure of America's leaders to live up to the ideals that they espoused. The role of the social critic was not to posit unrealizable utopias. It was to hold people accountable for their decisions.
If you are not going to be responsible, Mills went on to say to the powers of his day, intellectuals will have to do it for you. "The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society, at least with reference to the value of truth," he wrote in Dissent in 1955, "for in the defining instance, that is his politics." Unlike businessmen or military officers, intellectuals need not say one thing and do another--not as long as they adhere to their proper calling. "The work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article," Mills continued, supplying the words that give this book its title, "does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, is the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality." Mills was not given to underplaying the importance of the kind of intellectual work in which he was engaged. "Since we belong among those who ask serious questions and try to answer them," he told a group of Canadian educators in 1954, "we also belong--whether or not we know it--to that minority which has carried on the big discourse of the rational mind, 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."
Mills, it is frequently pointed out, was a distinctively American thinker--a "native radical," in the words of his biographer Rick Tilman. His emphasis on hypocrisy was the most American of all his American features. Unlike the writings of the European intellectuals of his time, on the left and on the right, Mills's writings lack a tone of world-weary cynicism. It does not generally occur to him that people can be more dangerous by sincerely trying to impose their ideas on others than by guilefully failing to live up to them. Never one to mince his words, Mills had a ready answer to the question of who was the greatest critic of America ever produced in America: Thorstein Veblen. "He believed that the very Men of Affairs whom everyone supposed to embody sober, hard-headed practicality were in fact utopian capitalists and monomaniacs; that the Men of Decision who led soldiers in war and who organized civilians' daily livelihoods in peace were in fact crackpots of the highest pecuniary order," Mills wrote. "They had 'sold' a believing world on themselves; and they had--hence the irony--to play the chief fanatics in their delusional world." Mills admired Veblen for the same reason that Marx loved Balzac: he was unafraid to tell us that our illusions are just that--and therefore better off lost.
Mills's emphasis on the failure of people to live up to their ideals leads him to some unusual places for a radical. It is all but forgotten now, but the idea du jour of social criticism in the 1950s was "mass society." Helped along by the experience of totalitarianism, intellectuals looked at their world (the one now portrayed in the popular television series "Mad Men") and saw conformity and oppression everywhere. Marx and his notion of class conflict were obsolete; we were now threatened by Tocqueville's tyranny of the majority and Ortega y Gasset's revolt of the masses. That these thinkers were anything but radicals themselves did not bother those, including Mills, who found the concept of mass society attractive.
In the lectures that previewed the book he was writing at the time of his death, Mills elaborated on his notion of the Cheerful Robot. "We know that men can be turned into robots--by chemical means, by physical coercion, as in concentration camps, and so on," he told his British listeners. "But we are now confronting a situation more serious than that--a situation in which there are developed human beings who are cheerfully and willingly turning themselves into robots." It might seem an exaggeration to claim that pressures toward conformity constituted a more serious danger to the human condition than Auschwitz and the Gulag, but such was the tone of the social thought of Mills's era. Mills lived in West Nyack, New York, a Rockland County suburb, and one of his neighbors, Betty Friedan, would soon write a book comparing the suburban home to the Nazi death camps.
The attraction to the idea of mass society caused all kinds of problems for Mills, and not only because the comparison with totalitarianism was way off the mark. To make the point that modern society was bad, Mills needed examples of societies that he considered good, and he inevitably found them in the past. The eighteenth-century founders of the American republic may have been slaveholders and aristocrats, but for Mills they were "men of culture" who "pursued learning," and compared with the era in which they lived, the United States has "suffered grievous decline." In contrast to the dreary office-going lives of commuters, Mills admired the old value of craftsmanship, thereby idealizing nineteenth-century forms of work that were not quite so attractive to those who lived them out. One unfortunate tendency of American historiography is progressivism, the conviction that things are constantly getting better. Mills exemplified Americanism's other fatal flaw: the declinist narrative of the fall from grace. But alas, what worked for Increase Mather did not work for C. Wright Mills. It made him into a romantic in radical garb. His romanticism colored his conception of the responsibility of the intellectuals, and finally undid it.
One of the most important essays ever written on the subject was Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation." Weber's lecture, delivered in a moment of revolutionary fervor to students at the University of Munich in 1918, made a sharp distinction between the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends. Those who seek radical transformations in the nature of human beings, Weber maintained, should not seek them through politics, because politics is always and everywhere about managing the means of violence. Responsibility, in a political context, emphasizes above all else dispassion, a close connection between ends and means, and a clear-eyed realism. Knowing that the consequences of his acts might bring death and destruction, the responsible politician will act with care and caution. The last thing a politician should be guided by is a romantic sensibility.
It was Mills who made Weber's great lecture available to American readers, in 1946, with Hans Gerth, in their influential volume From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. It is odd, then, that Weber's analysis played so little part in the way Mills treated the question of responsibility. The thinkers most influenced by Weber's essay were those committed to the "end of ideology," especially Daniel Bell, whose reflections on the subject of intellectual life were an extended and searching gloss on "Politics as a Vocation." Mills had nothing but contempt for Bell, who cheerfully returned the favor. "The end-of-ideology is a slogan of complacency, circulating among the prematurely middle-aged, centered in the present, and in the rich Western societies," Mills wrote in "Letter to the New Left" in 1960. "In the final analysis, it also rests upon a disbelief in the shaping by men of their own futures--as history and as biography. It is a consensus of a few provincials about their own immediate and provincial position."
Those were fighting words then--and they read like fighting words today. Intellectuals should not be complacent, Mills proclaimed in ringing terms. If an intellectual knows what is true, he should proclaim it, gonzo-style, throwing caution to the wind. Weber's ethic of ultimate ends was the one Mills thereby endorsed, and the ethic of responsibility was the one he rejected. For Mills, moderation in the pursuit of truth was no virtue.
Mills's failure to take Weber's warning seriously makes sense only if one views intellectuals as operating in a different moral universe from the one occupied by politicians. This is certainly how Mills understood the matter: there are people who urge truth to power and people who use power to obscure truth, and never do the twain meet. Thus the responsibilities of dissent have little or nothing to do with the responsibilities imposed by the state's monopoly on violence. Intellectuals, not holding power and likely never to do so, are free to be advocates of radical change without giving much thought--as Mills rarely did--to how power actually should be organized and distributed.
Europeans are likely to think about these issues differently. Weber's lecture was prompted by a situation in which socialists managed to grab power in Munich by means of a short-lived revolution; and after the left-wing revolution was suppressed, a far-right movement, failing to launch a successful putsch in the city, eventually took over the entire country in the form of Nazism. Down to our times, the line between dissent and power is harder to draw in Europe than in the United States. Vaclav Havel was both a dissident and a president, and the foreign ministers of both France and Great Britain emerged, much like the former foreign minister of Germany, out of a New Left milieu. (The Politics of Truth contains words of praise for Ralph Miliband, the Marxist thinker whose son is now the British foreign secretary.) For those who work in such an environment, dissent can be a path to power as well as an alternative to it. Even when out of power, a responsible political intellectual is therefore a kind of politician anticipating when power might fall his or her way. If there is a chance that you might wind up among the power elite, you are likely to think differently, and sometimes more scrupulously, about power.
One can never know these things for sure, but had Mills lived until the present day he would in all likelihood not have abandoned his radicalism; his was not the kind of sensibility that welcomes re-evaluations. And even though Mills never imagined himself actually holding power, his reflections on responsibility are deeply flawed by the sharp contrast that he makes between the politician and the political intellectual. By proclaiming that the intellectual should be responsible only for the truth, Mills seemed to believe that what is true is always clear (a position that he denied when he criticized the abstract empiricists among his fellow sociologists who were trying to establish scientifically valid truths about society). Even if the truth were clear, moreover, it does not follow that those who possess it are always right. If they insist upon it to the exclusion of everything else that is true, they become sectarians rather than intellectuals, zealots so persuaded that they are right that they are likely to denounce (and in some instances destroy) anyone who deviates from what they believe. There is such a thing as a politics of truth. There is also such a thing as a politics of humility. Mills was dazzled by the former and blind to the latter.
It is for this reason, I believe, that the man comes across as such an unpleasant figure in this collection of his writings. The Power Elite has its shortcomings: it fails to appreciate the extent to which the three legs of power that Mills identifies--political leaders, economic tycoons, and military officers--can struggle with each other, and it never satisfactorily explains why the American public was willing to accept a state of affairs that Mills found so problematic. But when Mills responds to his critics, he treats them with sarcasm and disdain. Hectoring was his metier. Asked to speak before a group of ministers in Canada, he delivered a blistering attack on them for their political apathy, reprinted here as "A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy." He never seemed to recognize, as a more nuanced critic might have, that if Christians did become more active in politics, and especially if they took seriously Mills's injunction that they place a priority on the sanctity of life, they might espouse views far more conservative than those admired by Mills. (War was a public issue in the 1950s; abortion was not.) Had I been in that audience on that occasion, I would have wondered who this pagan thinks he is, telling me what I ought to believe and do.
Like politicians today who are instructed never to admit a mistake, Mills huffs and puffs when the flaws in his writings are pointed out. In 1954, in an address to the National Conference on Methods for the Study of the Urban Community, he argued that "we have moved a considerable distance along the road to the mass society" and "at the end of that road there is totalitarianism, as in Nazi Germany or in Communist Russia." This is, to say the least, a harsh judgment about where our society is headed. And so Mills also says that phrases such as "mass society" are to be taken as "extreme types," as constructions meant to suggest trends rather than as empirical descriptions. Mills engaged in this sleight of hand whenever he was attacked by his critics for his caricatures. "Quite deliberately, of course, I have stated in The Power Elite an 'extreme position'--which means that in order to make matters clear I try to focus on each trend just a little ahead of where it is now," he told his critics. I love that "of course," which shows that Mills wanted to have it both ways--to make the most flamboyant pronouncement and then, when called on it, to suggest that his critics are the ones really at fault, since they simply fail to understand his methodology. Despite the similarity between his notion of an extreme position and Weber's concept of an "ideal type," Mills was not seeking understanding so much as he was dramatizing his conclusions. A man less persuaded of his own righteousness would have admitted as much.
Although most of the essays assembled in The Politics of Truth portray the intellectual as a man of independence resisting the temptations of power and popularity so as to speak his mind, not all of them do. In fact, three of the essays reprinted here make the opposite point: the intellectual should hide his real convictions, and kowtow to the powerful, and advocate double standards. These are the essays that deal with communist societies, especially the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Mills never quite made up his mind about Marxism. At times he portrayed the Marxist project as outdated because of its emphasis on class conflict and its naive--Mills calls them "Victorian"--assumptions about Western progress. At other times, particularly in The Marxists, which appeared in 1962, he found in Marxism a viable alternative to liberalism. Still, he was never a vulgar Marxist. For a thinker so influenced by the American experience, there were sources other than Marxism to which one could turn, including pragmatism, syndicalism, and anarchism; and Mills was too eclectic to chain himself to an ideological system.
But alas, when it came to regimes claiming to embody Marxist principles, Mills was more charitable. From time to time Mills denounced Stalinism, but so desperate was he to find an alternative to the way that public business was conducted in the United States that he regularly muted his criticisms of societies that called themselves socialist. Mills traveled to the Soviet Union in 1960 and kept a journal of his experiences. According to Summers, the journal records his dismay with Soviet intellectuals who speak "like parrots who mouth a formula." Yet the section from the journal that Summers reprints in the book, which features an interview with Alexander Chakovski and Raisa Orlova, comes across as a chatty interchange between writers comparing notes on how to get published--this at a time when Nadezhda Mandelstam was still banished from Moscow and Vasily Grossman was unable to publish Life and Fate. Nowhere in the interview do we witness Mills as the angry young man denouncing the powerful and rallying the dissidents. Instead we have him explaining his concept of the Cheerful Robot to his Soviet interlocutors. The spectacle is repulsive.
Much of the sociological analysis that Mills made of the United States proved to be correct; there really was an economic and military power elite in the 1950s, whose power was so out of balance that even Eisenhower called attention to it in his farewell address. We can still read The Power Elite and White Collar and learn from them, and the same cannot be said about much of the academic sociology of the 1950s that Mills spent so much time criticizing. ("Who now reads [Herbert] Spencer?" Talcott Parsons once asked. The same could now be said of Talcott Parsons.) Corrupt union leaders, self-satisfied reactionary businessmen, and trigger-happy generals certainly deserved loud and critical scrutiny, and Mills, better than any other figure of his time, offered it.
That Mills was often so right about the United States makes it that much more peculiar that he was always so wrong about the Soviet Union. Mills believed that the Soviet Union was just a couple of years away from providing bread without cost to all of its citizens. (This is where he cites Ralph Miliband, who had proposed the same idea.) "If the United States did that," Mills points out, "the associated bakers of Cleveland, etc. would be most upset!" Still, why not? "There is nothing inherent in the economy of the Soviet Union that prevents this being done. Such things are not just utopian dreams, they are soon going to be perfectly possible for the Soviet Union.... Imagine the world effect if they were to say that from now on bread is a 'natural human right,' or whatever way they wish to put it!" Like Lincoln Steffens before him, Mills had seen the future and had little doubt that it could work.
At a time when American cold warriors were exaggerating Soviet military and economic power, Mills can be forgiven for not realizing that the Soviet Union he visited was twenty-five years away from collapse. Less forgivable is his idea that the Soviet Union and the United States were more similar than different. In 1964, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel P. Huntington published a book called Political Power: USA/USSR, in which they raised--only to reject--"convergence theory," the notion that the two societies fighting the Cold War would become increasingly similar to each other. Although they did not list Mills among the convergence theorists, he belonged there. In the first of the lectures that he delivered to the BBC outlining his book on the intellectuals, Mills argued that the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were antagonists gave them all too much in common. Both concentrated economic and military power. Each filled up its respective continent and was therefore culturally diverse.
And the similarities did not end there. Mills saw in both the United States and the Soviet Union all the features of modern mass society of which he disapproved. "The power of both is based upon technological development. In both, this development is made into a cultural and a social fetish, rather than an instrument under continual public appraisal and control. In neither is there significant craftsmanship in work or significant leisure in the non-working life. In both, men at leisure and at work are subjected to impersonal bureaucracies. In neither do workers control the process of production or consumers truly shape the process of consumption." We have a power elite, they have a power elite. Convergence!
Mills was so persuaded of the convergence thesis that he saw little or no significant difference between the two systems when it came to the life of the mind. In the third and last of his lectures, Mills proclaimed that "in neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. is there a set of free intellectuals, inside as well as outside the universities, which carries on the big discourse of the Western world and whose work is influential among parties and movements and publics." And even if there were, he continued, they could never get their message across: "In neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. are there media of genuine communication, freely and regularly open to such intellectuals, and with the aid of which they translate the private troubles of individuals into public issues, and public issues into their meanings for the private life; accordingly, in both there prevails a higher and irresponsible ignorance, and an isolation of the free intelligence from public life."
If Mills believed this, one wonders why he wrote as much as he did. If it were really impossible for American intellectuals to expose the connections between private troubles and public issues, one might as well become a number-cruncher. Mills the social critic was going out of his way to make Mills the sociological observer obsolete. And he seemed to take pleasure in doing so. In an interview with a group of Mexican writers, he confessed to his own impotence:
"It is only when freedom doesn't make any real difference in the power sense, or when it isn't used, that one is quite free. U.S. intellectuals, for example, are very free people, in the formal sense of being able to write anything. I think that any book with any kind of quality, regardless of what it says, or what it condemns in the U.S., will find a publisher.... But it doesn't seem to make much difference. Why? Because my omnivorous society is so politically apathetic and so clownish in its cultural and political tastes that it will celebrate, and even make rich, a writer who has utterly condemned its very foundations."
May I nominate these words as the most irresponsible that Mills ever uttered? If you are an intellectual fortunate enough to live in a society that allows its writers to publish their books without censorship and cannot arrest you for what you believe, you ought to encourage intellectuals from less fortunate societies to struggle as hard as they can to enjoy the same freedoms that you do. By denouncing his own society for being little different from authoritarian ones, Mills was dealing a blow to the cause of dissent in the orbit of totalitarianism, and also pandering to the prejudices of his non-American audiences. In so doing, he not only failed to condemn the repression of writers and intellectuals in those societies, he all but excused it. Our clownish tastes, their secret police--it's all the same. That may be the way the world looked to Professor Mills on Morningside Heights, but when the authorities will not let you publish a book that at times rivals War and Peace in its emotional power--I am referring to Vasily Grossman's great novel--then you are likely to think differently.
Mills's ideas about the Soviet Union were bad enough, but his thoughts on Cuba were worse. Listen, Yankee was published in 1960, and in it Mills made it clear what role the intellectual should play when it came to Third World revolutions. Persuaded that little freedom of thought existed in his own country, which meant that all the news from Cuba would be hostile to what Fidel Castro was trying to achieve, he believed that "Cuba's voice is a voice that must be heard in the United States of America." His mission was therefore to go to Cuba, listen to what its leading revolutionaries had to say, and translate their words into American terms for American readers. Any success on his part, he wrote, would not be owing to him, but to the fact that he was given "complete access to information and experience by Cubans close to events and who, once trust is established, are eager to express everything they feel."
Mills was persuaded that he had won their trust because they knew and respected his work. He was fooling himself. The people in Cuba to whom he spoke knew that he had chosen to be their mouthpiece, and they used him accordingly. In his own way, Mills acknowledged the truth of this. Cuba's voice, as he put it, required a hearing. But Cuba has no voice; only Cubans do. By claiming to speak for the entire society, Mills was cheerfully acknowledging that in this society there is no freedom for the individual, and that this does not overly trouble him.
In Listen, Yankee, Mills adopted the voice of a Cuban revolutionary explaining to his not-too-bright North American neighbors what his revolution is all about. "To most of us," Mills's revolutionary says, "our new beginning is the very best thing that has ever happened to us." For one thing, we are going to rid ourselves of Yankee imperialism, no longer allowing our island to be a paradise for gamblers and men in search of sex. But our revolution will prove to be far more than that. "In Cuba, we've just about solved the agricultural problem by our land reform: we've increased production and greatly diversified what we are growing." A consumer-goods industry is about to be born. Industrial production will take off. Most important of all, we will be a model for other countries in Latin America. "This continent is going to become the scene of convulsions you've never dreamed of." Wake up before it is too late, Yankee. We have been poor but we have our pride. "But we are glad, we have to be glad, that finally many things that must be done are now being done in Cuba."
Cuba's socialist experiment failed so miserably that, except for those who are still persuaded that it embodies some principle in which they continue to believe, the re-publication of these words is bound to diminish Mills's reputation. This is why I am glad that John Summers, who generally admires Mills, nonetheless included a selection from Listen, Yankee in his collection. It illustrates where Mills went wrong when he wrote about intellectuals and their responsibilities. When he concentrated on the United States, Mills did not think that the role of the intellectual was at all complicated: there was truth, there was power, and the one was to be chosen over the other. But after he began to travel outside the United States, Mills discovered that "the problem of the intelligentsia is an extremely complicated set of problems," as he explained in one of his BBC lectures. "In doing this work," he said about the life of the mind, "we must--above all--not confuse the problems of the intellectuals of West Europe and North America with those of the Soviet Bloc or with those of the underdeveloped worlds. In each of the three major components of the world's social structure today, the character and the role of the intelligentsia is distinct and historically specific."
What follows from this could not be clearer. For all of Mills's insistence that intellectuals dedicate themselves to a politics of truth, truth for him did not amount to the universal imperative so prominent in his earlier essays. So long as some country somewhere is challenging American hegemony, speaking power to truth is more important than speaking truth to power. The independent radical had become the fellow traveler. It is not a pretty sight.
Some of C. Wright Mills's ideas deserve to be brought back to life. Many of today's intellectuals tackle the problems that he addressed, but very few have the capacity to tie them all together, somehow managing to make a critique of academic sociology seem as interesting as the Strangelovian fantasies of armchair strategic theorists. But if the next years are going to feature a renewed interest in radical ideas, we will need also to learn from Mills's mistakes. He is, among other things, a cautionary example.
The very first essay in Summers's collection, "The Powerless People," contains reflections about the intellectual life that Mills published in Dwight Macdonald's magazine politics in 1944. Mills addresses himself to "the difficulty of speaking one's mind for those who do not speak popular pieces." Writers seek a large audience, but the magazines and publishers who bring out their work are worried about the bottom line, and so they are unlikely to take on anything too risky. Universities "are still the freest of places in which to work," but "the trends which limit the independence of the scholar are not absent there." All this makes it enormously difficult for the independent thinker to retain his independence. Mills saw few ways to resolve this problem, and a pessimistic tone dominates this essay.
Demonstrating the spirit that would soon characterize the beatniks and then the New Left, Mills called upon intellectuals to resist these pressures to conform: "The basis of our integrity can be gained or renewed only by activity, including communication, in which we may give ourselves with a minimum of repression." It is a shame that Mills did not follow his own advice. It may well be true that in the United States intellectuals are unlikely to influence public affairs by advising, or even becoming, statesmen. All the more reason, then, for American intellectuals to use the one advantage that they unquestionably possess: the freedom to call things as they see them, in all their complication. Mills, finding himself swept up in the enthusiasm of his times, threw that advantage away. Let us hope that social criticism in the aftermath of George W. Bush does not do the same.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor for The New Republic.
By Alan Wolfe