Imourn the death of C. Wright Mills, bitterly and personally. We had, in the last five years of his life, become close friends. I am not minded to write a detached appraisal of his work and thought. But I think I can write about the man he was, and what he was about.
Mills was 45 years old when he died of a second heart attack last March, at his home in West Nyack, near New York. He had by then long established himself as the most interesting and controversial sociologist writing in the United States. With books like White Collar, The Power Elite and The Sociological Imagination, he had succeeded in proving to a new generation of students what most of their teachers had managed to conceal from them: that social analysis could be probing, tough-minded, critical, relevant and scholarly, that ideas need not be handled as undertakers handle bodies, with care but without passion, that commitment need not be dogmatic, and that radicalism need not be a substitute for hard thinking. With what he called ‘pamphlets’, like The Causes of World War III and Listen, Yankee, he had wanted, and managed, to reach a wider public, in the hope of doing what one man could against the brainwashing and intimidation to which his fellow Americans were, and are, exposed from all sides, day in day out.
Mills was as American as could be. He was born in Texas, and liked to recall that his grandfather, in the old days of one man one gun, had died, shot in the back. However, he not only fled from the intellectual desert of Texas as soon as he had graduated from its University; let his enemies make of it what they will, he also came to
Enters The Power Elite. It is easy but dishonest to attribute the corruption of a society to its people. Rousseau was right: the people are never corrupt. But they are often corrupted; by those whom it pays to corrupt, by those who have the power to do it. In White Collar, which he thought his best book, he had analysed the various kinds of corruption which had affected the middle layers of American society. In The Power Elite, he went on to locate the corruptors-in-chief, the men of the ‘higher immorality’, and found them in three interlocking groups: the corporate rich and the ‘warlords’ (those whom an unexpected disciple, Eisenhower by name, has called the ‘industrialmilitary complex’) and the political directorate.
The Power Elite is a rich and intricate book, written, like all that Mills wrote, in a compelling style, intense, muscular, alive. It is one of the very few books to glitter among the grey mass of what, in the United States, passed for social analysis in the frightened fifties. There is room for debate about much of its detail. But I don’t think there is much room for serious debate about the book’s general thesis, namely, that in America, some men have enormous power denied to everyone else; that these men are, increasingly, a self-perpetuating élite; that their power is, increasingly, unchecked and irresponsible; and that their decision-making, based on an increasingly ‘military definition of reality’ and on ‘crackpot realism’, is oriented to nefarious ends.
Mills was an angry man, with the disciplined, directed anger of the humanist in an irrational society—for what is humanism if not anger at unreason? His fiercest anger, however, was not with the Power Elite: for they were merely acting out the role cast for them by the social setting in which they were allowed to wield power; nor with American labour leaders, the men whom he had, in one of his first books, hopefully called the New Men of Power. True, they had failed to form an effective counter-weight to the Power Elite; worse, they had adopted its ethos and its purposes. But then, Mills had long given up (mistakenly, I think) the belief that organised labour could
To an extraordinary degree, Mills had something which is not very common among academics and intellectuals: an intense respect for the intellectual craft, for the world of ideas, knowledge and scholarship, for the intellectual as the high priest of reason and truth. He really liked only two kinds of people: those who were good with their hands, a carpenter, a mechanic, a gunsmith; and those who were possessed by the intellectual passion, as he was himself. He never made the vulgar mistake of taking seriously only those who shared his view of the world. Unlike many radicals (not to speak of antiradicals), he was an intensely listening man. The basic requirement was not shared opinions, but honesty and knowledge, scholarship and relevance. Every working day (and every day was a working day), he was engaged, through books, essays, articles, newspapers, in a silent but active debate with fellow writers, anywhere. I have never seen anyone read as creatively as Mills did. He couldn’t even read a detective story without pencil in hand.