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Alasdair MacIntyre

C. Wright Mills

(Summer 1962)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.9, Summer 1962, pp.21-23.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Radical Left throughout the world have cause to mourn the death of C. Wright Mills, when still in his late forties with many years of creative work in front of him. This most untypical American Professor of Sociology would not have been sad if the chief stimulus of his work were a stimulus to disagreement. And so for once a death may prompt us to ask in a properly critical spirit: just what was his achievement? Where can he lead us and where may he mislead us? His earlier sociological works White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) and The Power Elite (1956) directly underpin his later political works such as The Causes of World War Three (1958) and Castro’s Cuba (1960). So that it is possible to find a unity in his work, by means of which one book may throw light upon others. And the light that is thrown by The Causes of World War Three reveals the basic weakness of all Wright Mills’ work.

The apparent contradiction of that book is that on the one hand we are shown a whole social and economic system (that of American capitalism) driving towards war, while on the other hand we are offered a solution to the problem which involves no change in the overall shape of that social and economic system. But this apparent contradiction is perhaps to be resolved by considering the ambiguous way in which Wright Mills describes the American social system. Wright Mills describes the behaviour of the American political, economic and military elites. But he never makes it clear whether he is describing social roles or the people who are playing out those roles. Is he describing a system which lays down roles so that the actors have no alternative but to play their prescribed parts? Or is he describing a set of actors who happen to be playing their parts in this way but to whom other interpretations of their role are open The indecision between these alternatives or some third possibility means that Wright Mills can both use a rhetoric of inevitability about the processes of modern bureaucratic capitalism and also invoke the responsible intervention of intellectuals within the system.

The ambiguities in Wright Mills’ political writings are assisted by the scarcity and selectivity of his facts. It is impossible to tell from The Causes of World War Three whether he would have regarded the Kennedy administration as a reversal or an endorsement of the trends which he describes; it would be equally impossible to draw from it an intelligible account of Eisenhower’s role in ending the Korean War and working for a Summit. Both these gaps spring from a reluctance to be complex, which is stylistically honourable in Wright Mills the pamphleteer, but dangerous for Wright Mills the sociologist.

Yet Wright Mills’ final conclusion is clear : the wrong decisions are being taken by the wrong people. It is up to the right people to intervene. Here the political writings are backed up by the sociological analysis of The Power Elite. What that analysis misses is the active connivance of the ruled in the dominance of their rulers. Conservative political theorists would describe this connivance in terms of ‘the consent of the governed’; Marxists would describe it in terms of the ideological pervasiveness of the ideas of the ruling class. Neither would miss the existence of this social bond. It has traditionally been missed by liberal radicals, who have therefore been prone to conspiracy theories of society. And although Wright Mills was well aware of the fallacies of such theories there is at least a hint of conspiracy about The Power Elite.

This mistaken analysis is perpetuated in a version of the dichotomy between rulers and ruled which leaves the ruled necessarily for the most part helpless in the hands of the decision makers. It is characteristic of Wright Mills’ work that he sees the notions of an impersonal fate and an incomprehensible destiny as essentially notions belonging to the consciousness of the ruled. They cannot make history and these notions reflect their impotence. He never follows up two key questions : are not these notions equally (in a variety of forms) part of the consciousness of the rulers? And are not both ruled and rulers impotent partly precisely because they are impotent? Wright Mills’ failure here is part of the Marxism of his later years, an unfortunate episode to which I shall return.

His view of the power elite and of the centralization of decision-making in vast bureaucracies leads him to see ‘the ordinary man’ as passive, a prisoner of circumstance, needing to be renewed by someone else. The ruled are, for Wright Mills, not actively part of the system in the way the rulers are, for they are not active. The labour movement he treated in an early book and then left alone; and he always seems to view the labour movement in the world at large through the image of the American labour movement rather than vice versa. Wright Mills’ ‘ordinary man’ is essentially lower middle-class and he receives his classic treatment in White Collar. This is much the best of all Wright Mills’ books. This study of a dependent class shows their abdication of decision-making and their beliefs about society as a constituent part of the social system which leaves them so helpless. The belief is one of the progenitors of the fact. Or to put it another way White Collar shows us one section of the ruled made intelligible as part of a total society, while The Power Elite shows us a ruling class so external to the ruled as not to be an intelligible part of a total form of social life. Ideologically it is the transition from Weber to a crude version of Marx (and not even, as with Lukacs, a Weberian version of Marx).

The path from White Collar to The Power Elite is made easy by Wright Mills’ idealization of the American past as against the American present. The eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in the United States are for Wright Mills a time of decentralized local, face-to-face communities in which responsible publics democratically debate the great issues and mandate their representatives. This idealized picture of the relations between rulers and ruled misses out the true social bonds just as much as the cynicism of The Power Elite does. He identifies the past ruling-class with its own self-image just as disastrously as he misses any connexion at all between the present ruling-class and its self-image except the connexions of self deception and of self interest.

In this sense Wright Mills is himself a victim of the American dream. Indeed The Power Elite must remind us of a long tradition of specifically American radicalism, exemplified in F.D. Roosevelt’s early Presidential tirades against the rich and the powerful. So the relatively complex intra-group analyses of White Collar in the end are not extended to the liaisons between social groups. Hence his radicalism is displaced by a view of class which leads easily into the crudest of all political analyses from the Left: the workers are passive before a ruling group which must be displaced by an elite of the right kind. Who are the elite? The intellectuals. These in both The Causes of World War Three and in The Sociological Imagination are the potential liberators, just as they were for Lenin and for Karl Mannheim. There is something very piquant about the older Wright Mills’ denunciation of his intellectual colleagues as individuals, while looking to them as a group for social salvation.

Wright Mills once described himself as a Leninist without being a Marxist. In this light his transition from The Power Elite and his appeals to the intellectuals to his uncritical support for Castro and his sympathy for the present-day Soviet Union are easily intelligible. The wrong people are taking the decisions; what matters is that the right people should take them. The only problem then is to identify the right people. What is absolutely missing from Wright Mills is the notion that the masses should cease to be masses, that decision-making should belong to everybody and not just to some people. Democracy for Wright Mills is at best idealized bourgeois democracy.

So Wright Mills never attended to two crucial features of contemporary society which are essential to making good the kind of analysis he was looking for. One is the managerial structure which makes decision-making the monopoly of the few, no matter who they are, and which constitutes the social identity of the Soviet Union and the United States. The other is the way in which a term like ‘ managerial structure’ refers to the embodiment of certain attitudes and beliefs in both managers and managed. These are not two things: how society is organized and how people are conscious of and respond to this organization. The way people think and react is the most important part of the organization. In other words consciousness constitutes base as much as superstructure. Or rather consciousness is the unity which makes the notions of base and superstructure false abstractions.

The latest work on which Wright Mills was engaged was a selection from and commentary upon the Marxist classics. This reflects the degree to which his Leninism was finding its basis in a stereotype Marxism which by its concentration on the notions of private ownership as the key to capitalism and on consciousness as secondary to economic forms and forces inhibited him at precisely the point at which he most needed insight.

The moral of Wright Mills’ intellectual career is that social reality always takes its revenge on those who do not take it seriously enough. So towards the end of his life the Wright Mills of The Power Elite was apparently taken in by Khrushchevite managerialism. If Wright Mills had been more anxious to see, and less anxious to see through, he would paradoxically have been in a better position to expose contemporary capitalism. Imaginative sympathy with a social form can be among the deadliest weapons available for its destruction.

Nobody would have replied more vigorously to this criticism than Wright Mills himself, had he lived. The Left has all too few intellectuals for us to be able to spare someone as able as Wright Mills. And if his intellectual achievement is in the end to warn us of a variety of traps which await us, then we ought all to beware. The idea which we too often inherit from Marxism is that social analysis is easy. The lesson, and too often the only lesson, to be learnt from neo-Marxist writers of recent years is that it is enormously difficult.

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