George Novack writing as “William F. Warde”

Mills and Marx[1]

Written: Winter, 1961
First Published: International Socialist Review, New York, Winter 1961, Volume 22, No. 1, 1/61, pp. 11-16.
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.

How can we defend the values of reason and freedom in this age of the “bureaucracy-ridden mass society”? Marxism and liberalism offer their contrasting answers

In The Sociological Imagination C. Wright Mills examines the state of the social sciences in the United States today. Half of the book is devoted to criticism of the dominant schools of sociology in the universities.

The other half sets forth Mills’ own views on what social science should be and do in our day. Although this second part has received less attention than his caustic commentaries on his academic colleagues, it is much more important since his method, ideas and example are bound to exert widening influence among the more independent-minded students of sociology.

Bourgeois thought as a rule oscillates between a narrow-minded empiricism disdainful of theory and a pretentious abstractness deprived of concrete content and contact with reality. Both tendencies find their expression in the fashionable schools of sociology dissected by Mills. He concludes that official social science has become pedantic, trifling and bureaucratized, serving mainly the non-democratic sectors of our society and indifferent to the needs of the people.

To this sterility Mills counterpoises the fruitful classical tradition of sociology represented by such figures as Comte, Marx, Spencer, Weber and Veblen. For these men “sociology is an encyclopedic endeavor, concerned with the whole of man’s social life. It is at once historical and systematic—historical because it deals with and uses the materials of the past; systematic, because it does so in order to discern 'the stages’ of the course of history and the regularities of social life.”

Mills upholds this tradition as the only scientific and valuable school of sociology which he himself strives to practice and carry forward. This method calls for the exercise of the sociological imagination, he says.

What does he mean by this? Ordinary people are beset by troubles which appear to them purely personal. They either do not understand the momentous historical, social and institutional changes which move and shape their lives or fear them as vague and uncontrollable threats.

The task of social scientists should be to help make men aware of the connections between the course of world history and what is affecting their private lives for better or for worse, to relate the individual biography to history, the self to the world. They can do this by translating individual troubles into public issues and showing how these issues reflect the social contradictions of our time.

When one man is out of work, that is his personal misfortune. When five million are unemployed, that becomes a matter of public policy to be openly discussed, democratically decided, politically resolved. The knowledge conveyed by the sociological imagination introduces more consciousness into social life, enables its members to exercise greater control over its functioning, and thereby increases freedom.

Mills sums up his purposes as follows: “It is the political task of the social scientist—as of any liberal educator—continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work—and, as an educator, in his life as well—this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.”

Mills has a more progressive method than the ordinary run of academic sociologists. But is the method he uses and advocates thoroughly sound and scientific? Let us subject his theories to the same critical analysis that he has applied to his fellow professors.

Mills acknowledges that “classical Marxism has been central to the development of modern sociology” and that “so very much of modern social science has been a frequently unacknowledged debate with the work of Marx, and a reflection as well of the challenge of the socialist movements and communist parties.”

He consciously continues this debate along his own lines. His unusual homage to the achievements and influence of Marxism has a special significance. The earliest American sociologists like E. A. Ross, Thorstein Veblen and Albion Small[2] were not reluctant to admit their admiration for Marx’s ideas and indebtedness to them. Their successors of recent decades in the departments of sociology have as a rule become so imbued with prejudice against Marx’s doctrines that students are deterred from approaching them with any objectivity.

Mills, however, has an ambivalent attitude toward Marxism. On the one hand he avows his debt to the founder of scientific socialism and, reverting to the original tradition of American sociology, urges the necessity of learning from him. On the other hand he relegates Marx to the world of the nineteenth century, saying that, however valuable many of his insights may still be, his conclusions have been invalidated by twentieth-century developments and need to be replaced by more up-to-date theories.

The principal source of Mills’ own general theory about the structure of society is another German thinker, Max Weber, whose writings he has edited and translated with H. H. Gerth ( From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1946) and whom he esteems as the foremost sociologist of this century.

Weber was as inconsistent in his politics as he was an eclectic in his social thinking. He was a monarchist liberal under the Hohenzollerns and wavered between historical materialism and idealism in his sociology. As Mills tells us, “he developed much of his work in a dialogue with Karl Marx.” Although Weber lifted many ideas from Marx, he rejected the materialist method and conclusions of scientific socialism. Certain of Marx’s concepts and contributions were helpful in analyzing social phenomena, he maintained, so long as they were treated as hypotheses and not mistaken for the representation of realities.

Mills draws many of his basic notions on historical change, social structure, sociological analysis and personality development from Weber. This is evident in his conception of the aims of sociology. According to Mills, “what social science is about is the human variety, which consists of all the social worlds in which men have lived, are living and might live” and the broadest aim of the social scientist “is to understand each of the varieties of social structure, in its components and in its totality.”

If we accept Mills’ conception, the diverse social structures need not have any bonds uniting them other than the fact that men have created them and lived in them at various times and places. They lack any essential material unity or historical continuity and simply stand out as different social units. In accord with this theory Mills insists that there are no laws encompassing all the successive social structures known in history. Each is presumably a law unto itself, although they contain certain comparable phenomena.

Mills also invokes the aid of Marx’s “principle of historical specificity” which states that each social formation must be independently analyzed to find out its specific laws of development.

As usual, the liberal sociologist takes over one side of a position from historical materialism while throwing out its other and equally important side. In addition to the principle of historical specificity, Marx also formulated some principles of historical generality and taught that the one is crippled and sterile without the other.

Marx based the primary law of evolution in human society on the fact that men must first secure the means for eating, drinking, clothing and protecting themselves through work before they can pursue or develop any of the higher social and cultural activities. Therefore, as Engels explained, “the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently of the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained . . .” ( Speech at the Graveside of Marx.)

Mills denies that any such basic and universal law of social determination as this exists. He likewise denies its corollary that the mode of production and the degree of economic development necessarily determine and can account for the main characteristics of the social structure.

Abstracted Empiricism

Here Mills lapses on the broadest historical scale into the “abstracted empiricism” he so cogently criticizes when exhibited on a smaller scale by his colleagues. His model of the entire social process is as disjointed as their patchwork conception of each social structure. He breaks up human history into a mosaic of separate social units which never add up to a systematic synthesis of the development of society into an integrated whole.

While Mills can carefully consider the problem of homogeneity in a single isolated social formation together with its differences from other social structures, he excludes homogeneity and admits only diversity when it comes to the whole course of human history.

On the scientific level such a procedure resembles the method of pre-Darwinian biologists who admitted the existence of separate species of living creatures and studied their different traits and functions but denied that one evolved into or was descended from another. Just as Darwin demonstrated the common descent of all biological species and explained the mechanism of their evolution, so Marx showed how and why the different social species were derived from and organically affiliated with one another.

Marx not only emphasized the necessity of discovering the laws regulating the operation of each particular social structure but also the laws which governed their transmutation into one another. Mills simply defaults on this aspect of the historical process, although the revolutionary transition from a lower social structure to a higher one (tribal life to class society or feudalism to capitalism) is the key point in the progress of mankind.

Marx sketched out the mechanism of social revolution in these general terms: “At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” ( Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy.)

Any such fundamental principle of historical change is missing from Mills’ sociology. It is, indeed, difficult to extract from his writings any consistent or comprehensive theory of the change of one social structure into another and their mutual inter-connections. We shall see how this deficiency handicaps his insight and foresight when he deals with the crucial problems of the changeover from capitalism to socialism.

Just as Mills breaks up the stream of history into autonomous social structures, so he fragments the social structure into separate institutional orders which do not have any consistent principle of unification.

Social structures, he says, are made up or built up out of institutions which all together determine the character of the society, the traits of typical individuals and the role they can play. Society is a composite of institutions of various kinds: political, economic, military, legal, kinship, religious, educational. Social structure is “the combination of institutions classified according to the functions each per forms.”

Marxism holds that the functions of all other institutions are dependent in the last analysis upon the conditions of production in that society. The unity of any social structure comes from the interrelations and interactions between its economic foundation and its cultural superstructure.

The homogeneity of slave society, for example, is derived from its basic relations of production and type of property, the ownership and exploitation of chattels by their masters, and the operation of all other institutions must conform to these facts. Thus the precise functions which education, politics or law performed in the pre-Civil War South can be explained only by setting forth the relations of these social activities to the “peculiar institution” of slavery which determined their chief characteristics and social role.

To Mills, however, this principle of historical materialism cannot be made a universal rule, although it is often applicable and useful. The economy is only one of numerous institutions into which the social aggregation can be differentiated, and it may not be the most decisive one: “Any one of the institutional orders, or spheres, which we have segregated may be (and, in fact, each of them have been) taken as the dominant order from which change springs.” ( Character and Social Structure).

Mills agreed with Weber that economics predominates in modern capitalism and therefore the economic order “is the point of departure for any realistic examination of institutional stratifications.” Even in this case, however, he does not categorically affirm that economic activity is decisive but only that it is the most useful and convenient vantage point from which to review the rest of the capitalist system.

On the basis of this pragmatic theory Mills finds it possible to assign the military high command an independent and predominant status in the United States today. The brass hats, he says, are not fundamentally executives for the policies and socioeconomic interests of the ruling rich but are pursuing ends of their own to which even the capitalist economy is subordinate.

Is this so? The armed forces might, as has happened elsewhere, venture to overturn the government by a coup d’état and set up a military dictatorship in place of democracy. But even the direct rule of armed force which would emerge from such an extreme eventuality would be administered to save the social interests of the strongest section of the exploiting class, and not simply on behalf of the officers’ corps. Under present conditions, however, the military leaders serve both the economic and political domination of Big Business.

The principal theoretical task of the sociologist, according to Mills, is to study how the different institutional orders are integrated and operate in a given social structure and to detect the shifts that occur within and between the respective institutions. In contemporary American society, for example, the economic, political and military orders are all superior to the family, church and education. Mills does not give a permanently paramount position to any part of the triangle composing the power elite at this stage; he believes that they play a game of musical chairs. Now the corporate directors, now the political chiefs, and now the high military plays the commanding role.

This eclectic sociology minimizes the historical fact that the relative importance of other social institutions is itself derived from economic conditions and changes. Their functions are, in mathematical language, a function of the economic factors.

Why are family (kinship) ties all-important in primitive societies while political institutions bound up with the territorial state are virtually nonexistent? The reasons for the centrality of the one and the insignificance of the other are lodged in such material factors as the crude technology, low level of production, collective economy and small, scattered populations of tribal life.

How are the shifts in the social position of the Catholic Church since the thirteenth century to be explained? It helped the highest estate in the Middle Ages; became dispossessed And weakened in the subsequent centuries; and is in a still more precarious status today. The root causes for this steady degradation of that religious institution can only be found in the revolutionary economic and social changes through which capitalism supplanted feudalism and is now itself being displaced by socialist forces.

Mills remarks that “the military order, once a meager establishment in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government?” How is this swift ascendancy, so contrary to American tradition, to be accounted for? It is obviously an outgrowth of the centralization and concentration of capital in its monopoly forms and the imperialist politics of Big Business.

The leading theories which make up and guide Mills’ own sociological imagination are all brought to a focus when he considers the central problem of social change in our time. He correctly says that “the climax of the social scientist’s concern with history is the idea he comes to hold of the epoch in which he lives.”

Mills’ idea of this epoch is largely shaped by what he learned from Weber. The German sociologist taught that modern society inexorably tended toward the creation, consolidation and domination of large-scale bureaucratic apparatuses, hierarchically organized, rationally administered and centrally directed. Just as the workers were separated from the means of production, so the soldier was separated from the means of violence, the civil servant from the means of administration and the scientist from the means of investigation. These dispossessed atomized individuals were more and more helpless before the mammoth aggregations of power in the depersonalized mass society. Capitalism and socialism were simply two different types of this drive toward bureaucratic despotism. Although intellectuals were no less estranged from society than any other grouping by these developments, they could at least become aware of this universal degradation and uphold liberal values against it.

The influence of Weber is also discernible in Mills’ inconsistent sociological evaluation of the national state. The concept of the national state as the fulcrum of modern history has long been the basis of liberal ideology. As Mills remarks in The Causes of World War III, it is “the single most absolute and fetishized of our values.” In opposition to this fetish, Marxism maintains that the fundamental factor of historical determination since the rise of capitalism has been the world market to which the constituent national states are subordinate.

Mills writes: “The history that now affects everyone is world history.” It would therefore appear that he agrees with the Marxist approach. And yet, in contradiction to the priority he himself assigns to world history, he declares with Weber that the nation-state is the most inclusive unit of social structure that concerns the sociologist. This assertion has a curious provincial ring in the space age where technology, science and culture are cosmopolitan and economic, military and political affairs have an increasingly global scope.

Mills is aware that world history is at one of its greatest turning points. “We are at the ending of what is called the Modern Age” and entering what he calls the Fourth Epoch. Such institutions and ideologies of the Modern Age as free competition, nationalism, democracy and the Enlightenment are now imperiled.

On the political side the competing nation-states are being annexed by centralized bureaucratic super-states ruling vast empires, like the U.S. and the USSR, where irresponsible elites manipulate supine masses and cowed intellectuals. The dominant ideologies of the Modern Age rested upon “the happy assumption of an inherent relation of reason and freedom.” “The ideological mark of the Fourth Epoch—that which sets it off from the Modern Age—is that the ideas of freedom and reason have become moot—that increased rationality may not be assumed to make for increased freedom.” He fears the prospect of Big Bureaucrats tyrannizing over Cheerful Robots made complacent by standardized conditions of life and the hypnosis of mass communications. Mills counterpoises to this terrifying trend toward Orwell’s 1984 the reaffirmation of the need to fight for more reason, freedom and democracy.

While he shares these goals and values with liberalism and Marxism, he does not believe that either school of thought can explain the novel developments of the Fourth Epoch or that the movements directed by them know how to defend the ideals of the Enlightenment from bureaucratic barbarism.

The liberal and socialist interpretations of politics and history, he says, “have virtually collapsed as adequate explanations of the world and of ourselves.” “Each of these ways of thought arose as a guideline to reflection about a type of society which does not now exist in the United States or in the Soviet Union,” he writes in The Causes of World War III. “In these two nations, we now confront new kinds of social structure, which embody tendencies of all modern society but in which these tendencies have assumed a more naked and flamboyant prominence, and perhaps qualitatively new forms. ”

Although he arrives at different political conclusions than the cold-war propagandist James Burnham, Mills is apparently impressed with the erstwhile view of this prophet of world-wide “managerial revolution” that the U.S. and the USSR are twin prefiguration of a new social formation. “In the two super-states the history-making means of power are now organized. Their facilities of violence are absolute; their economic systems are increasingly autarchic; politically, each of them is increasingly a closed world; and in all three spheres their bureaucracies are world-wide.”

It is true that the Washington regime and the Soviet state manifest certain kindred traits and tendencies toward centralization which arise from the collectivism character of modern industry. But it is wrong to deduce from these superficial and limited resemblances that both are heading toward a common type of exploitive society where neither workers nor capitalists but bureaucratic politicians, administrators and technicians rule. They stand on diametrically different economies, one on capitalist private property, the other on nationalized property. The power centralized in the respective elites serves opposing social systems belonging to different stages of historical development.

Mills does not see the crucial importance of this. He insists that more adequate and accurate explanations for the frightening phenomena of the Fourth Epoch will have to be found than either liberalism or socialism can provide. He candidly confesses that so far he has not discovered them but considers it the duty of “social scientists of the rich societies” to look for them.

While this search is going on, it might be helpful for them and others to take another and closer look at the treasury of Marxism. The literature of twentieth century Marxism from Hilferding and Lenin to Luxemburg and Trotsky is rich in theoretical investigations of the phenomena of the imperialist phase of capitalist development, from the monopolist concentration of economic power to its unrestrained militarism.

Mills has not submitted these writings to any sustained critical analysis but simply sweeps them aside with the bare assertion that Marxism is out-of-date. To motivate his judgment on the irrelevance of Marxism, he does no more than tell us that “Karl Marx never analyzed the kinds of society now arising in the Communist bloc.” As Shakespeare says: “It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us that, my lord.”

However, orthodox followers of Marx have seriously and systematically studied the development of Soviet society. Foremost among them was Leon Trotsky. In The Revolution Betrayed and other writings he demonstrated how and why the first workers state became bureaucratically degenerated and acquired a totalitarian political form while retaining and developing such fundamental conquests of the Russian Revolution as the nationalized means of production and planned economy.

He also explained the peculiar nature and dual functions of the bureaucratic caste which had usurped power from the workers. In his last work, In Defense of Marxism, he even dealt at length with the theory picked up by Mills that the degenerated Soviet regime represented a new social formation apart from capitalism and socialism and its bureaucracy a new exploiting class ruling over helpless slaves—and that the advanced capitalist countries were likewise heading toward this state of bureaucratic collectivism.

Trotsky rejected this sociological characterization of the USSR on the ground that the Soviet bureaucracy was essentially a temporary excrescence, a tumorous growth, on Soviet society in conflict with its economic base and the demands of socialist development. It would have to be removed, he concluded, by the direct action of the workers who would regenerate Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural level.

The recent manifestations of anti-bureaucratic struggle in the Soviet bloc tend to bear out this diagnosis and forecast far more than the one-sided pessimistic interpretations of the spokesmen for the new totalitarian slave state.

Contrary to Mills’ assertion that Marxists have proved incompetent to analyze the evolution of the Soviet system, I venture to say that it would be impossible to arrive at a correct and rounded definition of the extremely contradictory social structures and dynamics of the deformed and degenerated workers states without recourse to the dialectical-materialist method of Marxism. In any event, Mills’ attempt to assimilate the Soviet states into a common pattern with their opposite, U.S. monopoly capitalism, is false and misleading.

Stages of History

The explanation of Soviet bureaucratism presented by Marxism is more profound and correct than that of Mills because, among other reasons, its picture of the development of civilization is far more concrete. Mills classifies the course of Western history into Antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Modern Age and the Fourth Epoch. How indistinct these designations appear beside the precisely defined stages of social advance analyzed by historical materialism: slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism, which are all historically determined and conceptually explained by their technological level, their economic content, their specific mode of production and forms of property.

The ideas of Marxism on the nature of the great transition of our time are equally superior to the empirical impressions and vague perspectives of Mills. We are living through a world-wide historical process in which the capitalist system is fighting for survival against the advancing hosts of a new socialist order. Humanity is not undergoing a passage from a partially enlightened Modern Age toward a Fourth Epoch of alienated idiocy and omnipotent bureaucracy. Along the road of revolution it is proceeding from the exploitive relations of international capitalism toward the non-exploitive relations of world socialism. During this prolonged and tortuous transitional period, especially in its first and restricted steps, it is undeniable that the new society must go through aberrations and deformations in this or that time and place.

The authentic Marxists have not only pegged these deviations and abominations but have worked to combat and correct them within the framework of the struggle for workers democracy and socialism. And, what is no less important than uncovering the causes for these anti-socialist relapses, they have pointed out the conditions for their disappearance with the further development of the world socialist revolution.

Marxists share with Mills his concern for safeguarding the values of reason and freedom inherited from the Enlightenment, that is, the heyday of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. But, if the plutocratic elite will not abdicate their power, how are these values to be preserved and extended unless the working people are victorious in their efforts to overthrow monopoly capitalism?

The forces striving to save this system are the worst enemies of reason and freedom, the spreaders of irrationality and the enforcers of servitude in its various forms. The Soviet bureaucrats, we agree, are no friends of reason and freedom, either. But the abolition of capitalist rule and its militarism by the workers in the West would be the best encouragement to the Soviet peoples to throw off bureaucratic rule in the East.

Mills contends that his sociological standpoint goes beyond the obsolete positions of both classical liberalism and classical socialism. This is an illusion, a bit of false consciousness about his real role and intellectual position. Actually he stands in line with the finest traditions of American liberalism incarnated in such scholars as E. A. Ross, Veblen, Dewey, Vernon Barrington and Charles Beard.

He has brought their kind of criticism of American bourgeois civilization up to date. But he has not transcended their basic ideas, values and perspectives. Like them—and, for that matter, like John Stuart Mill—he trusts to the influence of reason, science, democracy, debate and education to overcome reaction and promote social progress. Like them he rejects the Marxist doctrines that the workers are the key agency and their class struggles the indispensable means for accomplishing these aims.

Mills differs from the leading liberals of the early twentieth century by his greater sophistication and increased doubts about the future. Even as he defies the men in power, he feels depressed at the slim prospects of counteracting them. All the same, he casts the weight of his influence against the militarist madness of the imperialists. Hoping against hope that democracy, reason and freedom can be rescued from further degradation and ultimate destruction and that “the ideal of the Renaissance Man” can be revived, he ends up on a note of pure idealism: “It is on the level of human awareness that virtually all solutions to the great problems must now lie.”

It is hard to believe that so well-informed a man believes this. Surely he knows that awareness is only one aspect of social action, and not its most conclusive phase! Great historical problems have not ever been solved by human consciousness, but only by human action, social practice, revolutionary struggle. After such problems have been thought out, and even while they are being thought out, they have to be fought out by contending social forces. It is on the level of class action that grave social issues have been, will be and must be settled. Correct thinking enters as an indispensable element for victory in such struggle but it has to find its source, significance and destination in the arena of social and political practice.

These considerations provide a gauge for evaluating the role and work of C. Wright Mills. His probing studies of the American social structure; his summons to a broader outlook in sociological theory and analysis; his attacks upon the cold warriors and their armor-bearers among the intellectuals; his campaign to lift the academic boycott of Marxism; his breaching of the uniformity and conformity of official sociology are valuable contributions to the enlightenment of the present generation.

But there are vistas beyond this brand of liberal sociology and it will not go well with those who are content to stop there. We have tried to show some of the principal errors and limitations in Mills’ treatment of social problems which are typical of his school: vacillation between historical materialism and idealism; inclination to inconsistency; rejection of Marxism; failure to distinguish between a declining capitalism and a nascent socialism; overestimation of the middle class intellectuals and depreciation of the power of the working class; pessimism and skepticism; lack of a clear outlook on the future and lack of a realistic program.

All these imperfections make Mills’ sociology inferior to scientific socialism as a guide to the most progressive thought and the most effective political action. Despite its critics from Weber to Mills, Marxism remains the most valid and valuable form of “the sociological imagination” in our epoch.


[1] This is the second of two articles by the author on the work of C. Wright Mills. The first The World of C. Wright Mills (ISR-Summer 1960], dealt with the proposals of the Columbia University sociologist to prevent World War III.

[2] Albion Small, who established the first Department of Sociology in an American university at Chicago and edited its first scholarly journal, stated in 1912 that "Marx will have a place in social science analogous with that of Galileo in physical science."