Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought

Reviewed by Peter

Daniel Geary, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought

Although C. Wright Mills died in 1962, his sociological legacy remains a contested subject in the discipline. Mills continues to be controversial because he argued that sociologists could make a major contribution to public understanding if they rejected the boundaries of the academic discipline and fashioned a more public sociology. Mills’ radical reputation was also based on his incisive critique of the military industrial complex and his famous letter to the New Left.

Daniel Geary’s book brings an intellectually rigorous approach to Mills’ work which cuts through some of the distortions and myths surrounding his career. The author seeks to situate Mills’ writing in the broader sociological tradition and to show that there was a remarkable continuity in the themes he developed over time. Mills was thus not a radical nomad, as he is sometimes portrayed. His work instead reflects a synthesis of diverse influences which range from American pragmatism to Max Weber to Karl Mannheim to survey research. Mills’ work is not easily categorized, but he might best be described as a Neo-Weberian who demonstrated that power is embedded in social institutions.

As Geary carefully documents, Mills’ reputation as a radical social theorist would seem to imply that his work represents a major departure from the dominant methodologies and theories of conventional social science. This is hardly the case, as Mills constantly returned to the sociological tradition in the course of his intellectual career. While Mills certainly had some famous disputes with leading figures in postwar American sociology such as Talcott Parsons and Paul Lazarsfeld, he remained committed to the discipline itself. At the same time he urged its practitioners to “think big” and to take on the great moral and political questions of his time.

Mills is often mistakenly identified as working from a Marxist tradition. While he was certainly influenced by Marx, he was not steeped in Marxism. Rather, his writings tended to reflect Weber’s reading of Marx. In a famous footnote in The Power Elite, Mills explains why he adopted the term power elite instead of ruling class to describe the structure of power in the US. Despite his recognition of Marx’s contributions, Mills doubted that Marxian analysis could provide a clear understanding of the changing nature of post-World War II capitalism. Later in his career Mills was particularly critical of people on the left who continued to hold on to what he called the “labor metaphysic.” For Mills this meant an uncritical acceptance of the working class as the only agent of radical social change in advanced capitalist society.

Mills’ radical reputation influenced the way he was interpreted by American social scientists, and gave credence to the idea that there was a major disjuncture between his approach and that of mainstream social science. In fact, as Geary maintains, some of the flaws in Mills’ work are the result of his adhering too closely to mainstream tenets. Despite his very public and often vituperative disputes with former friends like Daniel Bell, Mills shared a lot of their assumptions about the triumph of the liberal consensus and the waning of the great social struggles of the past.

Geary connects some of these debates to Mills’ pessimism and his search for new agents of social change – intellectuals practicing what he called “the politics of truth” and, later, student leaders of the New Left. Mills’ trilogy, The New Men of Power, White Collar, and The Power Elite, represents his best effort to come to grips with the transformation of American society. His dim view of the prospects for radical change was based on his empirical studies. He argued that labor unions in postwar America had been coopted and would not advance a radical social agenda, that white collar workers were politically ineffectual and wracked by status anxieties, and that a power elite dominated the decision-making process on all major issues.

Geary demonstrates that while Mills’ conclusions differed from those of his liberal interlocutors, he still accepted the view that American society was increasingly characterized by an undifferentiated mass which had been politically pacified by consumerism. Mass society theorists had a difficult time discerning the fault lines in American society. Geary rightly argues that although Mills was an intellectual forefather of the New Left, he generally ignored race and racial tension as a decisive social cleavage, and he was not particularly well informed about gender inequality.

Where Mills made his reputation for being a radical was in his critical examination of the structure of power in the United States, his trenchant critique of the permanent war economy, and his questioning of US foreign policy. His image as a maverick was further solidified by his call for the profession to fulfill its intellectual promise, and, more generally, for social scientists to take seriously their responsibilities as critics of society.

Daniel Geary does an excellent job of showing the continuity in Mills’ thinking and how Mills returned to many of the issues that he had considered in the early 1940s. Yet at the same time Mills became increasingly open to perspectives from outside the US. He was strongly influenced by his travels through Europe and, later, by the Cuban revolution.

Mills’ failing health and the demands of being a public intellectual drove him to take on ever more ambitious projects. His later books or pamphlets (as he called The Causes of World War III and Listen Yankee) suffered as a result of the demands placed on him. Despite the lack of rigor reflected in some of these writings, Mills never suffered from a failure of nerve. His questioning of the American celebration of the present and his critique of liberal practicality and “crackpot realism” set him apart from many other intellectuals at the time. Finally, his argument for the Cuban revolution, written from the perspective of the Cuban people, caused a number of his friends to abandon him. Mills was indeed courageous in making the case for the Cuban revolution and in his more general questioning of the whole Cold War consensus. As Geary shows, however, these stances were consistent with the concerns Mills expressed in the early 1940s about the militarization of American society and its consequences for democracy.

Geary finds the tensions in Mills’ writing best reflected in his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. Here Mills accuses sociologists of being seduced either by mindless, small, empirical studies or by abstract grand theories unconnected to reality. Mills argues vehemently that for sociology to help people understand the great issues, it would need to return to its classic tradition. While some interpret The Sociological Imagination as Mills’ breaking with his profession, Geary shows that Mills’ critique reflected the concerns of other sociologists who were worried by the growing competitiveness and bureaucratization of the academy.

The Sociological Imagination, for Mills, restored the promise of sociology as a tool for interpreting the current era. It reflected his paradoxical position as both critic and promoter of sociological analysis. Even now, this book evokes both admiration and disdain from professional sociologists, confirming Mills’ ability to pose the important questions.

Radical Ambition makes a major contribution to defining and clarifying Mills’ intellectual legacy. In so doing, it affirms his continued relevance.

Peter Seybold Sociology Department Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis pseybold@iupui.edu