George Novack writing as “William F. Warde”

The World of C. Wright Mills

Written: Summer, 1960
First Published: International Socialist Review, New York, Summer 1960, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 84-90.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain:George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

“War not Russia is the enemy,” says the noted sociologist. But he relies on intellectuals and not the working class to prevent catastrophe.

Academic sociology in the United States is a field where mediocrity prevails and a vast amount of scholarly industry produces little of scientific value or popular interest. The work of C. Wright Mills is a notable exception. Over the past decade this Professor of Sociology at Columbia University has come to tower above his colleagues like a mountain in a desert. No one who wants to know about the dominant forces and features of American society today can afford to ignore his work.

Mills has probed the strategic sectors of our society. These include the labor officialdom ( The New Men of Power, 1948), our latest immigrants ( The Puerto Rico Journey, 1950), the new middle class ( White -Collar, 1951) and the rulers of the nation ( The Power Elite, 1956.) Most professors play it safe and shun clear-cut stands on controversial issues. Mills has tackled such touchy subjects as the foreign policy of the U.S. imperialists, their suppression of civil liberties, the plutocratic prostitution of science, and the need for radical changes in our society. In two of his books ( Character and Social Structure, 1953 and The Sociological Imagination, 1959) Mills shows that he has thought deeply about the major problems of method. “To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose,” he tells his students. In line with this advice, he has cultivated a colloquial style which makes his reasoning and references clear to any attentive reader. And he can puncture learned bombast with well-aimed sarcasm.

In his latest book— The Ca uses of World War III (1958) and The Sociological Imagination (1959)—Mills displays the qualities that distinguish his earlier writings. In the first of these books, the subject of this article, he sets forth his views on the central question of international politics: who is responsible for the threat of atomic annihilation and what should be done to prevent it. His argument may be summarized as follows:

1. War, in becoming total, has become absurd as a means of national policy. Nevertheless the power elites of the U.S. and the USSR continue to be obsessed by a “military metaphysics” which does not take account of this reality. Their propagandists depict the world as divided into two camps, one “ours” and the other “theirs, “ in which devastating bombs and missiles are the sole guarantee of security.

2. To this lunatic definition of reality, American intellectuals should oppose a rational view of the world situation, proceeding from the understanding that “war, and not Russia, is now the enemy.”

3. War is not fatally predetermined. Certain highly-placed officials in whose hands the means of destruction are cent, which are irresponsibly and unthinkingly making choices that bring war closer. They should be brought to follow a different line that would promote peaceful international relations and favorably affect the attitudes of the Soviet leaders.

4. The only way to effect this switch in American foreign policy is for the community of scholars, writers, scientists and ministers to stop buckling down before the mad strategy of the “brisk generals,” put forward alternative proposals for action, get them debated and adopted.

Let us analyze this chain of assertions. The first point to be made is that, despite his plea for realism, the image Mills gives of the current international situation is highly unrealistic. It is no fancy but a grim fact that the world is divided into two armed camps. The basic cause for this hostility lies not in the psychology or ideology of the men at their head but in the opposing class nature of the contending camps and of the social structures they defend.

Mills has a less materialistic explanation. He argues that our power elite is hypnotized by a military metaphysics which induces them to keep piling up armaments in a race that serves no useful economic purpose and can end only in the destruction of mankind. As long ago as the fifth century B.C., Herodotus, the first historian, observed that no one is insane enough to prefer war to peace. This applies to the rulers of the U.S. Why, then, do they persist in their warlike course?

The political psychopathology of the power elite must have compelling material causes, the Marxists say. The policy-makers in the White House and the Pentagon are not merely obsessed by delusions. There is method and meaning in their madness. Their capitalist clients have enormous interests at stake in the profit system which they are striving to maintain.

A second serious defect in Mills’ analysis flows from his sociology of the modern super-states. He holds that the United States and the Soviet Union are both ruled by bureaucratic power elites of similar character. He regards them as convergent rather than divergent civilizations. “In surface ideology they apparently differ; in structural trend and in official action they become increasingly alike,” he writes, thus holding the U.S. and the USSR equally responsible for the war danger.

Mills’ definition of the two ruling groups dwells on superficial similarities in the military and political spheres and ignores the fundamental differences in their socio-economic structures. As he himself indicates, monopoly capitalist economy requires large-scale military production to keep operating at boom levels, while the military expenditures imposed on the Soviet states are a sheer waste which drains their forces and resources. Any halting of the military expenditures would provoke an alarming economic upset in the United States; it would immediately ease the burdens on the non-capitalist countries.

Finally, the historical right in this world encounter lies with the working class and its states, representing a superior mode of production which, despite grievous deficiencies and terrible bureaucratic deformities, has opened new vistas of social progress. By leaving these factors out of account Mills fails to pinpoint the real source of the war danger: capitalism. When Mills declares that “war, and not Russia, is now the enemy,” he gets no closer to reality by substituting the abstraction, war, for the contradictions between social systems.

War is not a super-class phenomenon. It is the function of a particular government dominated by a specific ruling class rooted in a specific socioeconomic system. Preparations for war and the waging of war are integral parts of the politics of the class holding power and reflect the basic drives and aims of its social structure.

Mills reverses the relationship between the war machine and the economic system: the military forces do not carry out capitalist aims; the economy serves the military machine! “I am not suggesting that military power is now only, or even mainly, an instrument of economic policy. To a considerable extent, militarism has become an end in itself and economic policy a means of it.” Even though the arms race is so lucrative for Big Business, war today, he says, has no rational economic purpose. He forgets that under capitalism what is profitable is rational, no matter how deadly or dangerous it may be.

We can agree with Mills that another World War is not predestined; it can be averted by the action of men. But this does not mean that no determinism is at work in the world. On the political arena a conflict is proceeding between two determinisms stemming from opposing class sources. On one side, the monopolists are determined to defend their positions, privileges and profits at any cost, including an atomic holocaust. This is not a mental aberration of the capitalist warlords, as Mills implies, a result of their dogmatism, ignorance or incompetence which can be removed by persuasion. It is an inescapable necessity for the survival of their economic system which is being pressed ever harder by the challenge of the anti-imperialist forces.

On the other side are the masses of this country and the rest of the world who have everything to lose from nuclear warfare and dread its prospect, although they do not yet see the causal connection between capitalism and the threat of atomic annihilation. The issue of war or peace hinges upon which of these class forces and their determinism conquers the other.

Mills accuses the Washington policy-makers of acting irresponsibly. The charge is justified but superficial. The militarists act irresponsibly toward the American people and the welfare of humanity despite their protestations to the contrary. Their primary duty and allegiance is to private enterprise; their decisions are shaped to protect that system, even though this squanders the nation’s wealth, poisons the planet, and may exterminate mankind.

What is it worth to the plutocracy to hold on to their privileges? The A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their vast military preparations, Dunes’ brinkmanship, and the refusal to disarm indicate that, if it is left to them, they are ready, if necessary, to fire the missiles and drop the bombs. Eisenhower’s original declaration that American planes will continue their spy-flights over Soviet territory underscores the provocative, dangerous and bellicose character of Washington’s policy.

Mills thinks it is imperative to concentrate on changing the minds and the course of the men in power, because they alone have the means of making history in our time. Without disparaging his stand for peace, we must nevertheless question the efficacy of his method. His resolute opposition to the cold warriors has great significance in the reshaping of American public opinion. The learned men in this country have long been either terrorized into submission or silence or converted into adjutants of the military machine.

Mills, from the same university whence Eisenhower ascended to the White House, has issued a declaration of independence from the State Department. This is a fresh breeze in the heavy-laden cold war atmosphere. Mills has taken a lead which can encourage dissenting intellectuals to rally against the merchants of death and the witch-hunters.

Mills has demonstrated that the power elite is centralized and strongly entrenched. Can any form of individual protest action prevail against it?

To combat its aims or change its course an equal or potentially greater force would have to be arrayed against it. Such a force does exist. It resides in the depths of the people, in the ranks of labor and the oppressed racial minorities. Mills has heard of its existence. But he has no confidence in its capacity for independent action, struggle and victory,

He therefore turns to another element, the one closest to him, the intellectual community. It seems that he cannot escape the company of an elite. In order to curb the monopolists calls upon his own special corps of writers, artists, ministers, scholars and scientists to wage one-man crusades against them.

In the person of this intellectual elite he claims to counterpoise rationality, sobriety and realism to the irrationality of the high and the mighty. The belief that intellectuals are the special custodians of objective intelligence is a common article of faith in the credo of liberalism.

Mills, too, has an exaggerated sense of the social mission and political weight of scholars and intellectuals. He believes that, as the one uncommitted grouping, only they can “transcend the milieu” in which they live. They alone are free to survey the social scene without prejudice and come up with the proper recommendations for solving social problems.

Mills couples his deflation of the influence of the working masses with an inflation of the power of the intellectuals as the outstanding exponents of reason. This is neither reasonable nor realistic. Reason, that is, ideas which conform to the main tendencies and urgent demands of social progress, can become an effective social and political power. Marx pointed out that ideas become a material power when they penetrate into the consciousness of the masses who act upon them. The political function of progressive intellectuals is not to wage a solitary duel with the ruling power but to help enlighten, arouse, instruct the working people who have the power, by virtue of their numbers, organization and strategic social position, to change the course of history. In so far as Mills does this and persuades others to do so, he performs a valuable service. But, having ruled out the workers, he inclines to rely upon the intellectual community alone to halt the war drive.

To stop war and guarantee peace it is essential to deprive the capitalists of their power. For that; it is not enough to counterpoise one set of ideas to another; it is necessary to confront one class force with an other.

To Mills such talk is outworn Marxist dogma, if not delusion and demagogy. Throughout his book there is no suggestion that the working people can play a part in halting war and making a peaceful world. The roar of the crowd is mute. The Public remains a pure spectator of national and world events. The passive masses are not the agents but the objects of history.

Our sociologist secretly cherishes the hope that those in power will sooner or later be brought to reason, because he entrusts the execution of his proposals to the existing governments. Thus he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors among the pacifist-minded dissenting liberals. If we stick to examples from Columbia University alone, progressive thinkers like the philosopher John Dewey sought to dissuade the capitalist rulers from embracing war as an instrument of policy as vigorously and vainly in the First World War as the historian Charles Beard did in the Second.

But, Mills argues, the present differs from the past. “To know the causes of the First and of the Second World War is not necessarily to know much about those of the Third,” he writes. This contention is not very novel but it is worth examination.

There exist two major peculiarities in the current prewar situation. One pertains to the social character of the pending war. The previous world wars were waged primarily between capitalist rivals for world supremacy, with Germany heading one coalition, England and the U.S. the other. From the beginning, the next war would have a fundamentally different character. It would not be an inter-imperialist dogfight but a war conducted by a capitalist combination led by the U.S. against a bloc of workers’ states headed by the USSR. This military encounter would also be at bottom an extension of the struggle between the pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist forces in the world.

The other unprecedented feature is the qualitative difference in the destructive power of the military machines which, in the existing “balance of terror,” deters the warlords from setting them in motion.

Mills does not acknowledge the first factor at all but pins all hopes for peace on the second. He regards the destructive power of nuclear weapons as an absolute deterrent which, however, the power elites obstinately refuse to recognize. In view of this latter fact, and so long as the uncontrolled elite in Washington retains command, it would be unwise to accept his or anyone else’s assurance that war is henceforth unthinkable or impossible simply because of the horrors it would inflict.

All the more so, because the same driving forces that brought on the First and Second World Wars, forces deriving from the unsolved historical crisis of world capitalism, remain operative. The resort to war as the ultimate desperate remedy has even become more urgent for imperialism as the anti-capitalist states, movements and forces have advanced and gained strength in the past fifteen years.

War and capitalism, peace and socialism are equally indivisible. These simple equations are stale stuff, according to Mills. He advises us to junk these Marxist stereotypes based on the class struggle between the capitalists and workers, do some independent analysis of recent developments, and come up with completely fresh ideas on the world situation. What does his fresh thinking on the main theme of his book amount to?

The causes of World War III, he says, are neither single nor simple but multiple and complex. He enumerates a string of them: the military metaphysics and moral paralysis of the power elites, the arms race, the profit hunger of the privately incorporated economy, the inability or unwillingness of the American capitalists to develop alternative policies, widespread political indifference and moral insensibility, the apathy and inertia of the mass society, the absence of an American program for peace. Military, political, economic, psychological, moral, cultural factors are all jumbled together as the causes of war. Mills does not sort out the primary from the second or third rate factors or rank them in order of importance. All are apparently of equal worth and weight.

He devotes an entire chapter to the permanent war economy in which he demonstrates how indispensable the swollen war budget has become to the prosperity and stability of U.S. capitalism. Yet he refuses to draw the indicated conclusion from these facts. He remarks at one point that the military metaphysics “often coincides” with the profit interests of the monopolists, as though that was no more than a happy chance and not a necessary relation.

War, like any other phenomenon, has many contributing causes. To this extent Mills’ doctrine of plural causes is valid. But the causes are not equally potent in bringing about the phenomenon. Some are major, others minor. The task of social scientists is to establish the measure of significance of each of the factors in the process of historical determination.

According to Mills, the controlling factors are to be found in the mentality of the power elite, and, most vitally, in the metaphysical fixations of the high military. He regards psychological, and not economic; subjective, and not objective factors as the decisive determinants of World War III.

The immediate cause of World War III, he writes, “is the preparation of it.” Its ultimate cause is the metaphysics of violence that obsesses the ruling circles of the U.S. and the USSR. If Mills itemizes a series of “leading causes,” when it comes to selecting the leader among these, he nominates the military metaphysics. Thus from eclecticism he passes over to subjectivism and ends with an idealism which holds that ideas in the mind are the governing forces in our society.

Mills singles out for special attention one factor among the scattered cluster of causes he presents. That is the intellectual inflexibility of the power elite. “It is the rigidity of those who have access to the new means of history-making that has created and is creating the ‘inevitability’ of World War III,” he writes.

From this semi-idealist outlook, Mills passes over to a frankly Utopian exposition of the prerequisites for peace. He presents eighteen “guidelines to peace.” These include diverting increasing portions of the U.S. military budget to aid underdeveloped countries, no more testing of nuclear weapons, the abandonment of all military bases and installations outside the continental domain of the United States, immediate unilateral disarmament.

Every one of his proposals contradicts present governmental policy. It is reasonable to ask how these measures are to be implemented. What class, what political movement, what party is going to press for them? Here Mills thrashes about in confusion. In one place he says: “It is now sociologically realistic, morally fair, and politically imperative to make demands upon men of power and to hold them responsible for specific courses of events.” Elsewhere he confesses it would be foolish to expect anything from that quarter. “To appeal to the powerful, on the basis of any knowledge we now have, is Utopian in the foolish sense of the term.” If the plutocrats cannot be converted, then perhaps the people can take up the struggle? Mills waves aside this alternative. The mass society is too apathetic, uninformed and impotent to initiate action effective enough to change the course of events. It is a basic assumption of Mills’ school of sociology that modern society is so bureaucratized, so hierarchically organized and centrally directed that the mass, made up of atomized individuals, is manipulated like a herd. Most people today, he tells us, “are neither radical nor reactionary. They are inactionary.”

Mills views the labor movement, as he does the rest of the social structure, from the top down, and exclusively from its present position and not its prospects. He says that the bureaucratized trade unions are integrated as a parochial interest in the middle levels of the established power setup and cannot decisively affect national policy. That is in fact the present state of the labor movement, and, if that status is considered frozen and final, nothing further can be expected from it. Mills has just such a static and narrow conception of the role of labor. He takes its existing condition for granted and underestimates the mighty potential in the working class. His empirical lens magnifies the powers that be and miniaturizes the power that is going to be.

Revolutionary events since 1917 have given Mills a sufficient glimpse of labor’s insurgency for him to qualify his estimate of its power with the escape clause: “at the present juncture.” The recent steel strike provides a more immediate warning against low-rating the power of the workers. That strike not only disclosed the impotence of the union leadership but also the capacities for resistance latent in the ranks. It was, to be sure, a defensive action on the economic level. But, with a change in the surrounding circumstances and a different kind of leadership and program, this power could become an independent force of incalculable dimensions.

But that” is not the case now, exclaims Mills, and we have to do something to stop the drift and thrust toward war under present conditions. At this point he leaves the ground of social reality altogether. The U.S. must abandon “the doctrinaire idea of capitalism” and adopt his program regardless of the prejudices of the power elite. If this seems Utopian, well then, today “Utopian action is survival action.”

As radical as this sounds, it is exceedingly unrealistic advice from a sociologist who demands realism in thinking. The power of capitalism cannot be disposed of so easily and it cannot be wished away. The citadel of the power elite will not fall, like the walls of Jericho, at the blast of a professor’s trumpet. Moral indignation may be an excellent stimulant to action but it is insufficient for sweeping political and economic changes.

The struggle for peace is a struggle to wrest the war-making powers from the hands of the capitalist rulers. This can only be a class struggle led by the workers in an independent political movement. Mills wants to expand democracy, make the economy publicly responsible, replace the permanent war economy with a peace economy and subordinate the military to the people.

Says he: “A real attack on war-making by Americans today is necessarily an attack upon the private incorporation of the economy, upon the military ascendancy, upon the linkages between the two.” These are excellent fighting words. They express not only an anti-militarist but an anti-capitalist orientation.

Unfortunately Mills does not indicate any political means for achieving these praiseworthy ends. Aware of this lack, he complains about the absence of democratic parties, movements and publics where such issues could be debated. His Utopianism is not merely the result of his false sociological theories and intellectualistic bias but of the default of the union leaders who refuse to cut loose from the Republocrats and launch a labor party. This disorients and depresses dissident intellectuals as much as union and Negro militants by depriving them of any political vehicle for implementing their opposition to Big Business.

Since he wrote The New Men of Power in 1948Mills has become more and more disillusioned about the labor movement and its social role and prospects. Influenced by the great strikes of 1945-47, he then saw in the labor movement the sole force that could combat the evils of capitalism:

“Inside this country today, the labor leaders are the strategic actors; they lead the only organizations capable of stopping the main drift towards war and slump.”

“There must be the power and there must be the intellect,” he wrote. He envisaged this combination in an alliance of the labor leaders and the left intellectuals. “It is the task of the labor leaders to allow and to initiate a union of the power and the intellect. They are the only ones who can do it; that is why they are now the strategic elite in American society,” he concluded.

In the eleven years since, none of the established labor leaders has shown any disposition to take on the job, or even to recognize its necessity. Disappointed in this elite, Mills now sees no alternative but to turn to the intellectuals without them.

Mills is a victim of the status quo, the low ebb of the labor and radical movements—and of his own theories which so hamper his “sociological imagination” and scientific insight that he cannot foresee the changes in store for American society and the key role the workers will play in them. That is why his explanation for the causes of World War III does not go to the heart of the problem.