C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills 1960

Letter to the New Left


Source: New Left Review, No. 5, September-October 1960.


WHEN I settle down to write to you, I feel somehow “freer” than usual. The reason, I suppose, is that most of the time I am writing for people whose ambiguities and values I imagine to be rather different from mine; but with you, I feel enough in common with you to allow us “to get on with it” in more positive ways. Reading your book, Out of Apathy, prompts me to write to you about several problems I think we now face. On none of these can I hope to be definitive; I only want to raise a few questions.

It is no exaggeration to say that since the end of World War II in Britain and the United States smug conservatives, tired liberals and disillusioned radicals have carried on a very wearied discourse in which issues are blurred and potential debate muted; the sickness of complacency has prevailed, the bi-partisan banality flourished. There is no need — after your book — to explain again why all this has come about among “people in general” in the NATO countries; but it may be worthwhile to examine one style of cultural work that is in effect an intellectual celebration of apathy.

Many intellectual fashions, of course, do just that; they stand in the way of a release of the imagination — about the cold war, the Soviet bloc, the politics of peace, about any new beginnings at home and abroad. But the fashion I have in mind is the weariness of many NATO intellectuals with what they call “ideology,” and their proclamations of “the end of ideology.” So far as I know, this began in the mid-fifties, mainly in intellectual circles more or less associated with the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the magazine Encounter. Reports on the Milan Conference of 1955 heralded it; since then, many cultural gossips have taken it up as a posture and an unexamined slogan. Does it amount to anything?

Its common disposition is not liberalism as a political philosophy, but the liberal rhetoric become formal and sophisticated and used as an uncriticised weapon with which to attack Marxism. In the approved style, various of the elements of this rhetoric appear simply as snobbish assumptions. Its sophistication is one of tone rather than of ideas; in it, the New Yorker style of reportage has become politically triumphant. The disclosure of fact — set forth in a bright-faced or in a dead-pan manner — is the rule. The facts are duly weighed, carefully balanced, always hedged. Their power to outrage, their power to truly enlighten in a political way; their power to aid decision, even their power to clarify some situation — all that is blunted or destroyed.

So reasoning collapses into reasonableness. By the more na´ve and snobbish celebrants of complacency, arguments and facts of a displeasing kind are simply ignored; by the more knowing, they are duly recognised, but they are neither connected with one another not related to any general view. Acknowledged in a scattered way, they are never put together: to do so is to risk being called, curiously enough, “one-sided.”

This refusal to relate isolate facts and fragmentary comment with the changing institutions of society makes it impossible to understand the structural realities which these facts might reveal; the longer-run trends of which they might be tokens. In brief, fact and idea are isolated, so the real questions are not even raised, analysis of the meanings of fact not even begun.

Practitioners of the no-more-ideology school do of course smuggle in general ideas under the guise of reportage, by intellectual gossip, and by their selection of the notions they handle. Ultimately, the-end-of-ideology is based upon a disillusionment with any real commitment to socialism in any recognisable form. That is the only “ideology” that has really ended for these writers. But with its ending, all ideology, they think, has ended. That ideology they talk about; their own ideological assumptions, they do not.

Underneath this style of observation and comment there is the assumption that in the West there are not more real issues or even problems of great seriousness. The mixed economy plus the welfare state plus prosperity — that is the formula. US capitalism will continue to be workable, the welfare state will continue along the road to ever greater justice. In the meantime, things everywhere are very complex, let us not be careless, there are great risks.

This posture — one of “false consciousness” if there ever was one — stands in the way, I think, of considering with any chances of success what may be happening in the world.

First and above all, it foes rest upon a simple provincialism. If the phrase “the end of ideology” has any meaning at all, it pertains to self-selected circles of intellectuals in the richer countries. It is in fact merely their own self-image. The total population of these countries is a fraction of mankind; the period during which such a posture has been assumed is very short indeed. To speak in such terms of much of Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Soviet bloc is merely ludicrous. Anyone who stands in front of audiences — intellectual or mass — in any of these places and talks in such terms will be shrugged off (if the audience is polite) or laughed at out loud (if the audience is more candid and knowledgeable). The end-of-ideology is a slogan of complacency, circulating among the prematurely middle-aged, centred in the present, and in the rich Western societies. 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 situation.

Second, the end-of-ideology is of course itself an ideology — a fragmentary one, to be sure, and perhaps more a mood. The end-of-ideology is in reality the ideology of an ending; the ending of political reflection itself as a public fact. It is a weary know-it-all justification — by tone of voice rather than by explicit argument — of the cultural and political default of the NATO intellectuals.

* * *

All this is just the sort of thing that I at least have always objected to, and do object to, in the “socialist realism” of the Soviet Union.

There too, criticism of milieux are of course permitted — but they are not to be connected with criticism of the structure itself; one may not question “the system.” There are no “antagonistic contradictions.”

There too, in novels an plays, criticisms of characters, even of party members, are permitted — but they must be displayed as “shocking exceptions”: they must be seen as survivals from the old order, not as systematic products of the new.

There too, pessimism is permitted — but only episodically and only within the context of the big optimism: the tendency is to confuse any systematic or structural criticism with pessimism itself. So they admit criticism, first of this and then of that; but engulf them all by the long-run historical optimism about the system as a whole and the goals proclaimed by its leaders.

I neither want nor need to overstress the parallel, yet in a recent series of interviews in the Soviet Union concerning socialist realism I was very much struck by it. In Uzbekistan and Georgia as well as in Russia. I kept writing notes to myself, at the end of recorded interviews: “This man talks in a style just like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.,” “Surely this fellow’s the counterpart of Daniel Bell, except not so — what shall I say? — so gossipy; and certainly neither so petty nor so vulgar as the more envious status-climbers. Perhaps this is because here they are not thrown into such a competitive status-panic about the ancient and obfuscating British models of prestige.” The would-be enders of ideology, I kept thinking, “Are they not the self-coordinated, or better, the fashion-coordinated, socialist realists of the NATO world?” And: “Check this carefully with the files of Encounter and The Reporter.” I have now done so; it’s the same kind of ... thing.

Certainly there are many differences — above all, the fact that socialist realism is part of an official line; the end of ideology is self-managed. But the differences one knows. It is more useful to stress the parallels — and the generic fact that both of these postures stand opposed to radical criticisms of their respective societies.

In the Soviet Union, only political authorities at the top — or securely on their way up there — can seriously tamper with structural questions and ideological lines. These authorities, of course, are much more likely to be intellectuals (in one or another sense of the word — say a man who actually writes his own speeches) than are American politicians (about the British, you would know better than I). Moreover, such Soviet authorities, since the death of Stalin, have begun to tamper quite seriously with structural questions and basic ideology — although for reasons peculiar to the tight and official joining of culture and politics in their set-up, they must try to disguise this fact.

The end-of-ideology is very largely a mechanical reaction — not a creative response — to the ideology of Stalinism. As such it takes from its opponent something of its inner quality. What does it all means? That these people have become aware of the uselessness of Vulgar Marxism, but not yet aware of the uselessness of the liberal rhetoric.

* * *

But the most immediately important thing about the “end of ideology” is that it is merely a fashion, and fashions change. Already this one is on its way out. Even a few Diehard Anti-Stalinists are showing signs of a reappraisal of their own past views; some are even beginning to recognise publicly that Stalin himself no longer runs the Soviet party and state. They begin to see the poverty of their comfortable ideas as they come to confront Khrushchev’s Russia.

We who have been consistently radical in the moral terms of out work throughout the postwar period are often amused nowadays that various writers — sensing another shift in fashion — begin to call upon intellectuals to work once more in ways that are politically explicit. But we shouldn’t be merely amused — we ought to try to make their shift more than a fashion change.

The end-of-ideology is on the way out because it stands for the refusal to work out an explicit political philosophy. And alert men everywhere today do feel the need of such a philosophy. What we should do is to continue directly to confront this need. In doing so, it may be useful to keep in mind that to have a working political philosophy means to have a philosophy that enables you to work. And for that, at least four kinds of work are needed, each of them at once intellectual and political.

In these terms, think — for a moment longer — of the end-of-ideology:

(1) It is a kindergarten fact that any political reflection that is of possible public significance is ideological: in its terms, policies, institutions, men of power are criticised or approved. In this respect, the end-of-ideology stands negatively, for the attempt to withdraw oneself and one’s work from political relevance; positively, it is an ideology of political complacency which seems the only way now open for many writers to acquiesce in or to justify the status quo.

(2) So far as orienting theories of society and of history are concerned, the end-of-ideology stands for, and presumably stands upon, a fetishism of empiricism: more academically, upon a pretentious methodology used to state trivialities about unimportant social areas; more empirically, upon a na´ve journalistic empiricism — which I have already characterised above — and upon a cultural gossip in which “answers” to the vital and pivotal issues are merely assumed. This political bias masquerades as epistemological excellence, and there are no orienting theories.

(3) So far as the historic agency of change is concerned, the end-of-ideology stands upon the identification of such agencies with going institutions; perhaps upon their piecemeal reform, but never upon the search for agencies that might be used or that might themselves make for a structural change of society. The problem of agency is never posed as a problem to solve, as our problem. Instead there is talk of the need to be pragmatic, flexible, open. Surely all this has already been adequately dealt with: such a view makes sense politically only if the blind drift of human affairs is in general beneficent.

(4) So far as political and human ideals are concerned, the end-of-ideology stands for a denial of their relevance — except as abstract icons. Merely to hold such ideals seriously is in this view “utopian.”

* * *

But enough. Where do we stand on each of these four aspects of political philosophy? Various of us are of course at work on each of them, and all of us are generally aware of our needs in regard to each. As for the articulation of ideals: there I think your magazines have done their best work so far. That is your meaning — is it not? — of the emphasis upon cultural affairs. As for ideological analysis, and the rhetoric with which to carry it out: I don’t think any of us are nearly good enough, but that will come with further advance on the two fronts where we are weakest: theories of society, history, human nature; and the major problem — ideas about the historical agencies of structural change.

We have been frequently told by an assorted variety of dead-end people that the meanings of Left and Right are now liquidated, by history and by reason. I think we should answer them in some such way as this:

The Right, among other things, means — what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focussed politically as demands and programmes. These criticisms, demands, theories, programmes are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilisation — above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programmes. And it means all this inside every country of the world.

Only one more point of definition: absence of public issues there may be, but this is not due to any absence of problems or of contradictions, antagonistic and otherwise. Impersonal and structural changes have not eliminated problems or issues. Their absence from many discussions — that is an ideological condition, regulated in the first place by whether or not intellectuals detect and state problems as potential issues for probable publics, and as troubles for a variety of individuals. One indispensable means of such work on these central tasks is what can only be described as ideological analysis. To be actively Left, among other things, is to carry on just such analysis.

To take seriously the problem of the need for a political orientation is not of course to seek for A Fanatical and Apocalyptic Lever of Change, for Dogmatic Ideology, for A Startling New Rhetoric, for Treacherous Abstractions — and all the other bogeymen of the dead-enders. These are of course “the extremes,” the straw-men, the red herrings, used by our political enemies as the polar oposite of where they think they stand.

They tell us, for example, that ordinary men can’t always be political “heroes.” Who said they could? But keep looking around you and why not search out the conditions of such heroism as men do and might display? They tell us we are too “impatient,” that our “pretentious” theories are not well enough grounded. That is true, but neither are they trivial; why don’t they get to work, refuting or grounding them? They tell us we “don’t really understand” Russia — and China — today. That is true; we don’t; neither do they; we are studying it. They tell us we are “ominous” in our formulations. That is true; we do have enough imagination to be frightened = and we don’t have to hide it: we are not afraid we'll panic. They tell us we “are grinding axes.” Of course we are: we do have, among other points of view, morally grounded ones; and we are aware of them. They tell us, in their wisdom, we don’t understand that The Struggle is Without End. True: we want to change its form, its focus, its object.

We are frequently accused of being “utopian” — in our criticisms and in our proposals; and along with this, of basing our hopes for a New Left politics “merely on reason,” or more concretely, upon the intelligentsia in its broadest sense.

There is truth in these charges. But must we not ask: what now is really meant by utopian? And: Is not our utopianism a major source of our strength? “Utopian” nowadays I think refers to any criticism or proposal that transcends the up-close milieux of a scatter of individuals: the milieux which men and women can understand directly and which they can reasonably hope directly to change. In this exact sense, our theoretical work is indeed utopian — in my own case, at least, deliberately so. What needs to be understood, and what needs to be changed, is not merely first this and then that detail of some institution or policy. If there is to be a politics of a New Left, what needs to be analysed is the structure of institutions, the foundations of policies. In this sense, both in its criticisms and in its proposals, our work is necessarily structural — and so, for us, just now — utopian.

Which brings us face to face with the most important issue of political reflections — and of political action — in our time: the problem of the historical agency of change, of the social an institutional means of structural change. There are several points about this problem I would like to put to you.

* * *

First, the historic agencies of change for liberals of the capitalist societies have been an array of voluntary associations, coming to a political climax in a parliamentary or congressional system. For socialists of almost all varieties, the historic agency has been the working class — and later the peasantry; also partie and unions variously composed of members of the working class o (to blur, for now, a great problem) of political parties acting in its name — “representing its interests.”

I cannot avoid the view that i both cases, the historic agency (in the advanced capitalist countries) has either collapsed or become most ambiguous: so far as structural change is concerned, these don’t seem to be at once available and effective as our agency any more. I know this is a debatable point among us, and among many others as well; I am by no means certain about it. But, surely the fact of it — if it be that 0 ought not to be taken as an excuse for moaning and withdrawal (as it is by some of those who have become involved with the end-of-ideology); it ought not to be bypassed (as it is by many Soviet scholars and publicists, who in their reflections upon the course of advanced capitalist societies simply refuse to admit the political condition and attitudes of the working class).

Is anything more certain than that in 1970 — indeed this time next year — our situation will be quite different, and — the chances are high — decisively so? But of course, that isn’t saying much. The seeming collapse of our historic agencies of change ought to be taken as a problem, an issue, a trouble — in fact, as the political problem which we must into issue and trouble.

Second, is it not obvious that when we talk about the collapse of agencies of change, we cannot seriously mean that such agencies do not exist. On the contrary, the means of history-making — of decision and of the enforcement of decision — have never in world history been so enlarged and so available to such small circles of men on both sides of The Curtains as they now are. My own conception of the shape of power — the theory of the power elite — I feel no need to argue here. This theory has been fortunate in its critics, from the most diverse points of political view, and I have learned from several of these critics. But I have not seen, as of this date, any analysis of the idea that causes me to modify any of its essential features.

The point that is immediately relevant does seem obvious: what is utopian for us is not at all utopian for the president of the Central Committee in Moscow, or the higher circles of the Presidency in Washington, or — recent events make evident — for the men of SAC and CIA. The historic agencies of change that have collapsed are those which were at least thought to be open to the left inside the advanced Western nations, those who have wished for structural changes of these societies. Many things follow from this obvious fact; of many of them, I am sure, we are not yet adequately aware.

Third, what I do not quite understand about some New-Left writers is why they cling so mightily to “the working class” of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency, or even as the most important agency, in the face of the really historical evidence that now stands against this expectation.

Such a labour metaphysic, I think, is a legacy from Victorian Marxism that is now quite unrealistic.

It is an historically specific idea that has been turned into an a-historical and unspecific hope.

The social and historical conditions under which industrial workers tend to become a class-for-themselves, and a decisive political force, must be fully and precisely elaborated. There have been, there are, there will be such conditions; of course these conditions vary according to national social structure and the exact phase of their economic and political development. Of course we can’t “write off the working class.” But we must study all that, and freshly. Where labour exists as an agency, of course we must work with it, but we must not treat it as The Necessary Lever — as nice old Labour Gentlemen in your country and elsewhere used to do.

Although I have not yet completed my own comparative studies of working classes, generally it would seem that only at certain (earlier) stages of industrialisation, and in a political context of autocracy, etc.. The “etcs.” mean that I can here merely raise the question.

* * *

It is with this problem of agency in mind that I have been studying, for several years now, the cultural apparatus, the intellectuals — as a possible, immediate, radical agency of change. For a long time, I was not much happier with this idea than were many of you; but it turns out now, in the spring of 1960, that it maybe a very relevant idea indeed.

In the first place, is it not clear that if we try to be realistic in our utopianism — and that is not fruitless contradiction — a writer in our countries on the Left today must begin there? For that is what we are, that is where we stand.

In the second place, the problem of the intelligentsia is an extremely complicated set of problems on which rather little factual work has been done. In doing this work, 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. Only by detailed comparative studies of them in all their human variety can we hope to understand any one of them.

In the third place, who is it that is getting fed up? Who is it that is getting disgusted with what Marx called “all the old crap"? Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world — in the bloc, outside the bloc and in between — the answer’s the same: it is the young intelligentsia.

I cannot resist copying out for you, with a few changes, some materials I've just prepared for a 1960 paperback edition of a book of mine on war”

“In the spring and early summer of 1960 — more of the returns from the American decision and default are coming in. In Turkey, after student riots, a military junta takes over the state of late run by Communist Container Menderes. In South Korea too, students and others knock over the corrupt American-puppet regime of Syngman Rhee. In Cuba, a genuinely left-wing revolution begins full-scale economic reorganisation- without the domination of US corporations. Average age of its leaders: about 30 — and certainly a revolution without any Labour As Agency. On Taiwan, the eight million Taiwanese under the American-imposed dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, with his two million Chinese, grow increasingly restive. On Okinawa — a US military base — the people get their first chance since World War II ended to demonstrate against US seizure of their island and some students take that chance, snake-dancing and chanting angrily to the visiting President: “Go home, go home — take away your missiles” (Don’t worry, 12,000 US troops easily handled the generally grateful crowds; also the President was “spirited out the rear end of the United States compound” -and so by helicopter to the airport). In Great Britain, from Aldermaston to London, young — but you were there. In Japan, weeks of student rioting succeeded in rejecting the President’s visit, jeopardise a new treaty with the U.S.A., displace the big-business, pro-American Prime Minister, Kishi. And even in our own pleasant Southland, Negro and white students are — but let us keep that quiet: it really is disgraceful.

“That is by no means the complete list; that was yesterday; see today’s newspaper, Tomorrow, in varying degree, the returns will be more evident. Will they be evident enough? They will have to be very obvious to attract real American attention: sweet complaints and the voice of reason — these are not enough. In the slum countries of the world today, what are they saying? The rich Americans, they pay attention only to violence — and to money. You don’t care what they say, Americans? Good for you. Still, they may insist: things are no longer under the old control; you're not getting it straight, American: your country — it would seem — may well become the target of a world hatred the like of which the easy-going Americans have never dreamed. Neutralists and Pacifists and Unilateralists and that confusing variety of Leftists around the world — all those tens of millions of people, of course they are misguided, absolutely controlled by small conspiratorial groups of trouble-makers, under direct orders straight from Moscow and Peking. Diabolically omnipotent, it is they who have given the tens of millions the absurd idea that they shouldn’t want to remain, or to become, the seat of American nuclear bases — these gay little outposts of American civilisation, So now they don’t want U-2’s on their territory: so now they want to contract out of the American military machine: they want to be neutral among the crazy big antagonists. And they don’t want their own societies to be militarised.

“But take heart, American; you won’t have time to get rally bored with your friends abroad; they won’t be your friends much longer. You don’t need them; it will all go away; don’t let them confuse you.”

* * *

Add to that: In the Soviet bloc, who is it that has been breaking out of apathy? It has been students and young professionals and writers; it has been the young intelligentsia of Poland an Hungary, and of Russia too. Never mind that they're not won; never mind that there are other social and moral types among them. First of all, it has been these types. But the point is clear — isn’t it?

That’s why we’ve got to study these new generations of intellectuals around the world as real live agencies of historic change. Forget Victorian Marxism, except whenever you need it; and read Lenin again (be careful) — Rosa Luxemburg, too.

“But it’s just some kind of moral upsurge, isn’t it?” Correct. But under it: no apathy. Much of it is direct non-violent action, and it seems to be working, here and there. Now we must learn from their practice and work out with them new forms of action.

“But it’s all so ambiguous. Turkey, for instance. Cuba, for instance.” Of course it is; history-making is always ambiguous; wait a bit; in the meantime, help them to focus their moral upsurge in less ambiguous political ways; work out with them the ideologies, the strategies, the theories that will help them consolidate their efforts; new theories of structural changes of and by human societies in our epoch.

“But it’s utopian, after all, isn’t it?” No — not in the sense you mean Whatever else it may be, it’s not that; tell it to the students of Japan.

Isn’t all this, isn’t it something of what we are trying to mean by the phrase “The New Left"? Let the old men ask sourly, “Out of Apathy- into what?” The Age of Complacency is ending. Let the old women complain wisely about “the end of ideology.” We are beginning to move again.

Yours truly,
C. Wright Mills