“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Perhaps no one better embodied this motto than the radical social critic C. Wright Mills. Mills was born a hundred years ago today in Waco, Texas, an unlikely birthplace for one of the most significant American left-wing intellectuals of the past century.
The burly Texan made his way from the Lone Star State to New York City where he became a professor of sociology at Columbia University in 1945. In the decade that followed Mills established himself as a leading voice on the Left with his books White Collar and The Power Elite.
As a lonely dissenter in the McCarthy era, Mills offered a bleak portrait of Americans: alienated individuals in a mass society firmly controlled by a small, undemocratic elite.
But Mills always looked for alternatives. He was one of the first to herald the emergence of a global New Left, which he championed until his untimely death of a heart attack in 1962. Leftists today can learn valuable lessons from the example of Mills’s pessimistic intellect and optimistic will.
Mills was first radicalized during World War II. While many on the Left celebrated the war as a crusade against fascism, Mills worried about trends within wartime America.
He perceptively analyzed how the war concentrated power within the executive branch and gave rise to a military Keynesianism that set the US political economy on a permanent war footing.
Influenced by the renowned German sociologist Max Weber, whose essays Mills helped translate into English, Mills crafted a dark view of modernity that saw the inexorable rise of hierarchical bureaucracies stamping out possibilities for individual self-expression and democratic deliberation.
Mills’s stance resembled those articulated by similarly anxious left-wing intellectuals grouped around Dwight Macdonald’s journal, politics (whose name Mills suggested) and the German émigrés of the Frankfurt School (with whom Mills interacted). Along with those intellectuals, Mills became a leading exponent of what Howard Brick has dubbed “postprogressive radicalism.”
Before Mills’s time, leftists had generally considered themselves on the winning side of history, no matter how unpopular their views were in the present.
But in the face of the twin tragedies of fascism and Stalinism, many radical intellectuals despaired of the possibilities of a better future and became resigned to preserving left-wing ideals in critique if not in action. Radicalism came to be defined by its pessimism.
For Macdonald and many other New York intellectuals, their loss of faith in progress proved a way station to their postwar deradicalization.
But Mills’s optimism proved indomitable. He was always alert to the rise of new social movements that might challenge what he called the “main drift” toward militarism and concentrated political and economic power.
Following World War II, Mills was enthusiastic about the militant labor movement, which flexed its muscles in a series of massive strikes. Mills wrote his first book, The New Men of Power, to investigate whether labor leaders might challenge corporate elites for hegemony.
However, by the time Mills published his book in 1948, he had concluded that union leaders would become merely “junior partners” to big business, capable of securing material gains for their members but unable or unwilling to contest the corporate political economy or the military-industrial complex.
Indeed, by this point, labor suffered from the crippling Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which devastated much of the labor left by requiring union leaders to take anticommunist loyalty oaths.
With his hopes in labor dashed, Mills’s major works of social criticism, White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), developed the despairing analysis he had first voiced during World War II.
Mills’s characteristic mode of analysis was to debunk, to expose the hollowness of American democracy. He challenged what he called the “Great Celebration” among liberal intellectuals who praised the return of prosperity and the rise of the nation to global superpower status.
White Collar stood the American Dream on its head. Even though American office workers no longer suffered from material deprivation, laboring for large, impersonal, hierarchical corporations was deeply alienating, offering workers little autonomy or control over their labor.
The Power Elite, Mills’s most influential work, undermined the Cold War notion that the United States was a model democracy in sharp contrast to the totalitarian Soviet Union. Rather, Mills argued, major decisions were made by a small group of political, corporate, and military elites with little input from the American public.
Though Mills overstated the power of military brass, he rightly stressed the militarization of American society and politics and the concentration of political power in the executive branch — key trends ignored by Cold War liberals whose depiction of a pluralist democracy of competing interest groups Mills effectively skewered.
But Mills’s analysis of mass society alienation and power elite domination was too pessimistic. Ironically, it suffered from some of the same flaws as the liberal ideology he attacked.
Like liberal celebrants of the “end of ideology,” Mills overrated the stability of the American political order and failed to identify any countertendencies or dialectical contradictions that might augur social change.
Perhaps the most glaring lacunae in this regard was how Mills overlooked the left-wing potential of the African American civil rights movement. The problem was not simply Mills’s insufficient commitment to combating racism.
It was that, like liberals, he wrongly saw the movement as seeking merely the assimilation of African Americans into the existing social order when it was in fact the most significant social-democratic movement of its day.
Mills’s pessimistic intellect also rendered him unable to predict the upsurge of the global New Left toward the end of the 1950s. But it was to the credit of his optimistic will that he was one of the first to recognize its stirrings.
During a year spent in Europe starting in the fall of 1956, Mills connected with British New Left intellectuals such as Ralph Miliband and E. P. Thompson and with dissident socialists in Eastern Europe.
Returning to the United States, Mills became one of the principal spokesmen for the growing antinuclear movement with The Causes of World War Three (1958). In his bestselling book, Listen, Yankee (1960), Mills championed the Cuban Revolution as a new experiment in socialism that offered an alternative both to capitalism and to Communism.
Though he later soured on the revolution when Castro moved into the Soviet orbit, Mills helped lead a movement within the United States that criticized the US government’s neo-imperialist policies toward Cuba and the Third World more generally and helped spark the growth of mass protest against the Vietnam War later in the decade.
The rise of the New Left led Mills to theorize new agents of social change. He now dismissed the “labor metaphysic”— his earlier belief that unions were the necessary lever of social transformation — and instead argued that workers in the “cultural apparatus” could be a “possible immediate, radical agency of change.”
Mills believed “cultural workmen” could reshape public perceptions of reality through seizing control of “an elaborate set of institutions: of schools and theaters, newspapers and census bureau, studios, laboratories, museums, little magazines, radio networks.”
Mills was overly hopeful that the cultural apparatus could replace the organized working class as an agent of left-wing change.
But he was right to identify culture as a constitutive dimension of left-wing struggle and to focus on the activities of a mass of cultural workmen rather than on a narrow set of well-known “intellectuals.” Mills’s belief that a “young intelligentsia” of cultural workers could be a vital agent of change proved especially inspiring to the emerging campus-based New Left of the 1960s.
Though Mills did not live to see the New Left develop, his influence persisted. Just months after Mills’s death in March, 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society met to publish a manifesto that bore his fingerprints, the Port Huron Statement. Tom Hayden, its principal author, was a Mills devotee.
To the young leftists of the SDS, even the pessimism of Mills’s earlier works such as The Power Elite could prove liberating by breaking their illusions about American society and spurring them to make democratic ideals a reality.
But in our time, the exaggerated pessimism of Mills’s social analysis is its chief weakness, along with its neglect of sexism and racism. Debunking alone won’t suffice in an age in which elites are thoroughly unpopular yet retain a firm grip on power.
Most Americans today probably need little convincing that a small “power elite” runs their society. But that knowledge can also breed cynicism and apathy.
There is no substitute for the kind of sober analysis of social hierarchy that Mills provided. But we also need to show that change is not just desirable but actually possible. As Mills began to realize when he embraced the New Left, we need not just optimism of the will, but optimism of the intellect.