Until his death in September, Charles Mills was the most persistent defender of the irreducibility of race in the American academy. Across a nearly thirty-five-year career, he opposed both its reduction to an epiphenomenon of economic exploitation and to a category subsumable under supposedly universal conceptions of the rational human being. By his account both Marxism and liberalism had failed to get race adequately into view; the two chapters of his intellectual life took the form of a critical dialogue with each in turn. It was the immanent critique of the latter, set in motion by what remains his most renowned work, The Racial Contract (1997), that earnt Mills his reputation as one of the Anglophone world’s pre-eminent social philosophers. In his 2016 John Dewey lectures to the American Philosophical Association, he summarised his worldview with an inversion of Rawls’s famous assertion about the foundations of society: ‘a slave society, a white settler state, a white-supremacist polity, is not a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, but a coercive venture by whites for white advantage’.
Born in England in 1951, Mills spent his early years in Jamaica, where his father was a renowned public servant and academic, awarded the Order of Distinction and the Order of Jamaica for chairing the country’s Electoral Advisory Committee during the political and civil disorder of the 1970s. After completing a degree in physics at the University of the West Indies in 1971, a Commonwealth Fellowship took the young Mills to the University of Toronto where under the supervision of Frank Cunningham and Dan Goldstick – Marxists working within the analytic tradition – he completed a doctoral thesis on ‘The Concept of Ideology in the Thought of Marx and Engels’ in 1985. From there, he moved to the University of Oklahoma for three years before spending seventeen years at the University of Illinois, nine at Northwestern and then finally working at the City University of New York until his death. Throughout, Mills maintained an outsider’s scepticism towards the methodology and assumptions of Anglophone philosophy, exacerbated of course by his status as a black academic in a predominantly white field.
The formative period of his intellectual life coincided with the protracted decline of the left both in Jamaica and the United States. In Jamaica, a wave of social tumult had pushed Michael Manley – previously an adherent of the Fabianism of Harold Laski from time spent at the London School of Economics – to attempt to build democratic socialism through coalitions with non-aligned countries and their neighbours in Cuba. He was defeated in 1980 following a series of violent attacks on his party’s base, threats of a coup from the right, economic pressure from the International Monetary Fund, and a visit from the then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to personally inform Manley that the US would not tolerate his country’s insubordination. Meanwhile, in what would become Mills’s adopted homeland, racist myths about the culture of poverty had taken root amongst the right, while the few vestiges of social democracy were under attack. His Dewey lectures set out in clear-eyed fashion the state in which the American left found itself:
The old, turn-of-the-century question as to why there is no socialism in the US has now become, with the rightward shift in the political centre of gravity and the corresponding restriction of possibilities, why there is no (left) liberalism, no social democracy, in the US.
Mills felt that in key respects the bourgeois task of abolishing non-economic hierarchies had not yet been accomplished in either country. Both were riven by deep inequalities that were inseparable from the racial form in which they were manifested. In 1970s Jamaica not one top firm was controlled by black people, despite their making up ninety percent of the country’s population. For the young Mills however, this entanglement of race and class did not justify a move away from socialism, but merely proved that the cultural domain was also a material one. In ‘Race and Class: Conflicting or Reconcilable Paradigms?’, a magisterial essay published in 1987, he sought to explicate the oft-quoted dictum of Stuart Hall that race is the modality through which class is lived, arguing that Hall did not mean to suggest that there was a perfect correlation between the two categories. Rather, racial classifications were the result of conflicts between social groups and represented different relations to economic and political power. On this basis, Mills concluded that ‘the ideologies and cultures of resistance that develop in the Caribbean will be most strikingly characterized by the reciprocal valorisation of blackness, whether in the form of Garveyism, Rastafari or Black Power.’
The dominant forms of Anglo-American Marxism however largely did not exhibit the subtlety of thinking about culture that Mills believed was necessary to navigate the relationship between class and race. Much of his early career was spent wrestling with conceptual matters – questions of history, ideology and morality – which he felt that this work had misconstrued. Analytical Marxism, which took as its starting point G.A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), aimed to apply a scientific rigour felt to be lacking in the interpretations emerging out of France and Germany by borrowing the tools of analysis developed by economics and logic to address issues of agency, class interests, and the relationship between base and superstructure. The concept of ideology however – the subject of Mills’s thesis – presented serious problems for this paradigm, since it seemed to suggest that an essential component of Marx’s theory was a rejection, on epistemological grounds, of the autonomy of social practices and morality.
Mills took aim in a 1989 essay at what he saw as Cohen’s technologically determinist understandings of history. In his view, the Canadian Marxist’s thesis that asocial forces of production determine the structure of society was incoherent. Contra Cohen, he asserted that forces of production could not be so easily distinguished from relations of production. In his telling, the binary between the material and the social on which Cohen’s ontology rested fell apart once one recognised that society is constituted by both material and ideal elements. Where Cohen saw the impetus for the development of the forces of production in a supposedly natural human rational interest, Mills argued that it was the struggles internal to a specific society that influenced the use to which productive technologies would be put. This echoed the position developed by the political Marxists Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins-Wood, who had previously argued that economic relations were the results of political conflict between social groups. Mills however believed that the conflicts which determined the development of the forces of production were not only within the economic domain. Instead, they could also include those over racism and sexism.
His primary interventions on this terrain can be found in From Class to Race (2003), which brings together essays from the late 1980s until 2001, showcasing his intellectual development away from Marxism to what he called black radical liberalism. Its argumentative core is that debates around ideology have rested on a fundamental misunderstanding. For Marx and Engels, ideology was no mere pejorative term, denoting a false belief propagated in the interest of reactionary social forces. Mills sought to defend the view that social struggles could determine the course of history and that the ideas of equality and justice which motivated them could not be written of as ‘ideology’ in the limited sense employed by Cohen and others. For racial politics, the potential rewards of this endeavour were considerable. It motivated his attempt to resolve a central problem of Marxist social theory: if morality only served ruling class interests, then how could one defend the moral criticisms launched by the working class (or racialized minorities) against capitalism? Mills correctly observed in a 1994 essay that Marx and Engels were not in favour of a rejection of morality tout court but were instead opposed to the ideological treatment of moral claims as exercising causal power in the world. (It is one of the misfortunes of Marxist theory, which takes itself to be founded on a break with Hegel, that the origins of this critique of idealism in Hegel’s critique of Kant is often ignored.) Moralism cannot, Mills insisted, overcome technological underdevelopment or the absence of class power, but this does not mean that moral claims about the injustice of a particular social order cannot be well-founded, or that they are not worth making.
During this period, Mills also turned his attention to questions of socialist theory and practice. In the Global North he saw the failure of socialism in the dogmatism of its Stalinist adherents, who marshalled the conceptual tools of vulgar Marxism to label any criticism of communism as bourgeois ideology. Particularly moved by Vivian Gornick’s observation of the millenarian cultishness of the mid-century American Communist Party, Mills argued that Stalinism was unwilling to reckon with facts which challenged its own worldview. Broadly correct as this diagnosis was, wasn’t the pathology that Mills diagnosed the result of a division of theory and practice and the transformation of communist party members into the super-structural workers they opposed? Wasn’t the correct response a renewal of the socialist project of embedding theoretical reflection within the lives of the working class, rather than a turn towards liberalism in search of an ideology less hostile to moralism? Mills’s often illuminating analysis of the left’s failures were though never sufficiently localised to allow for a conceptualisation of political strategy. Questions of building a political movement capable of redistributing wealth and power largely eluded him.
In view of the failure of actually-existing-socialism, what was to be done about the transformations brought about by post-Fordist capitalism? A handout for a paper Mills delivered in 1996 at the Radical Philosophy Association sketched a map of the left’s road to power:
Socialism in Our Time: A 500-Year Plan to Be Passed on to Their Grandchildren: As pedants know, if nobody else, the new millennium doesn’t actually start until the year 2001, so this gives RPA members several years to prepare a 500-year plan:
2001-2100: Struggle against white supremacy/majoritarian domination
2101-2200: Struggle against white supremacy/minoritarian domination
2201-2300: Struggle for social democracy
2301-2500: Struggle for socialism
Get your black diapers now!
Mills’s point is clear: despite assumptions that America is a pure bourgeois society, it still retained pre-capitalist remnants of non-economic hierarchies. There could be no socialist revolution without a bourgeois revolution and therefore the struggle against racism was the front on which this battle needed to be fought. Ultimately, the theoretical framework that Mills adopted to illuminate the prevalence of white supremacy was one forged in dialogue with Rawls rather than Marx. The Racial Contract (1997) presented a radical reinterpretation of social contract theory: rather than equality Mills argued that it was in fact the domination of women and non-white people that served as the foundation for modern Western societies. The groundwork for this reorientation had been prepared by his decade of writing in and ultimately against Marxism, but Mills’s immanent racial critique of liberalism does not discard Marxism entirely. Radical feminism also proved to be a key influence, in particular Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988); he later co-authored a revision of his book in the form of a dialogue with Pateman, Contract and Domination (2007).
Detached from a theory of history, society or political practice, in this later period Marxism for Mills remained a tool for recognising forms of domination within the social contract of modern societies. This led him to turn more directly to the ideological field, where he produced sweeping and often brilliant analyses of culture and the history of ideas. Blackness Visible (1998) brings together a series of essays on the racism implicit in the supposed universalism of philosophy, which argue that throughout history philosophers presupposed a subject which anachronistic interpretations have presented as universal. When properly historicised, he argued, it became clear that what Kant and others meant when they wrote about freedom and rationality were properties that they saw as unique to Europeans.
His most incisive critical treatment of liberal thought was perhaps his 2005 article ‘Ideal theory as Ideology’. There he argued that the assumption of a non-coercive foundation of society served as a way of treating racism and oppression as anomalies. The dispute between ideal and non-ideal theory should, Mills insisted, ‘be seen as part of a larger and older historic philosophical dispute between idealism and materialism’. The materialists, in contrast to their opponents, were on the side of a clear-eyed reckoning with the reality of exploitation. A 2007 essay, ‘White Ignorance’, elucidated his view that the Marxist conception of economic exploitation as the foundation of the social order could be employed to explain the persistence of racism, and the creation of social groups with an interest in not recognising the oppression in which they partake. But conceptions of racial exploitation need not rest on the labour theory of value which, Mills argued, ‘has proven to be fatally vulnerable’. It is hard not to read such disavowals as concessions to the liberal philosophical idea of reasonableness. In 1999’s ‘European Spectres’ Mills defended the need to move away from Marxism on this basis. The battle that Marxists face, Mills conceded, was that they:
believe a set of highly controversial propositions, all of which would be disputed by mainstream political philosophy (liberalism), political science (pluralism), economics (neo-classical marginal utility theory), and sociology (Parsonian structural functionalism and its heirs). But the irony is that all of these claims about group domination can be made with far greater ease with respect to race, relying not on controversial Marxist notions, but undeniable (if embarrassing) and well-documented (if usually ignored) facts from mainstream descriptive social theory, and on conventional liberal individualist values from mainstream normative social theory.
Of course, within an academy dominated by liberals working in a Rawlsian tradition what constitutes a reasonable opinion is heavily circumscribed. Wasn’t this a strange and somewhat defeatist concession to make? If Marxist theories of ideology were true – a view to which Mills claimed to be committed – then could they not help explain the blind spots of liberal social theory? Could they not clarify why it was that liberals conceived of society in a way that closed off the possibility of a conception of the collective good; that ignored the existence of class as a determinant of the structure of society; that denied the reality of exploitation as the source of profit; that through mystifying functionalist explanations obscured the historical emergence of social institutions? The pages of this journal, for example, have provided a socialist attack on key tenants of the liberal Weltanschaung: the political Marxism of Brenner and Meiksins-Wood, Peter Mair’s trenchant diagnosis of the hollowing out of liberal democracies, the analytic Marxism of Erik Olin-Wright. But with the political defeat of socialism in the 1990s, Mills seems to have turned away from engaging with those thinkers who offered the most perceptive interpretation of the causes of social oppression.
In his final book, Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), which collected recent essays about the unspoken racist character of liberal thought, Mills would call for a critical rapprochement with liberalism, proposing that Rawlsian conceptions of justice could be adapted to fight for racial equality. This would only be successful, he insisted, if the social theorist employed the concept of ideology to critique the forms of rationalization that privileged groups use to justify the existing order. Such work was no doubt beneficial in sharpening the eyes of liberalism to the racism of the right as well as within its own ranks. But it is hard to shake the impression that the project of advancing a critique of liberal racism was simply moving with, rather than against, a tide which had washed away any serious challenge to capitalist domination. The afterglow of materialism in his work nevertheless offered a profound challenge to the methodological assumptions of contemporary philosophy, while his emphasis on history, political and culture – not as examples to elucidate arguments but as the sources of philosophical problems – helped to combat the provincialism that still plagues much of the discipline. This attempt to draw attention to the world of conflict and struggle was ultimately his greatest contribution. In spite of the distance he travelled, it should be understood as emerging from, not against, his Marxism.
Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Stuart Hall, 1932-2014’, NLR 86.