“The revolutionary loves a man who does not yet exist.’’
– Albert Camus
In recent years, critics of culture have given the imagination a one way ticket to the left. The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling is followed by The Radical Imagination by Irving Howe, which is followed in turn by The Sociological Imagination of C. Wright Mills. The imagination, it appears, is on its way to a progressive future. If the idealized future fails to materialize, the fault is with us and not with the left-liberal imagination. We will have failed to live up to it, failed to dream what we should have dreamed. Provided we never acquire any sense of history by looking back, a one-way imagination guarantees that The Sociological Imagination will be followed by The Androgynous Imagination and that, no doubt, by The Bionic Imagination.
As an enemy of the past and a prophet of brave new possibilities, C. Wright Mills was announcing the New Left in the early 50’s. In the three studies of stratification he published during the decade—The New Men of Power, White Collar, and The Power Elite—he captured the intellectual reaction to the McCarthy era with a sense of radical alienation that anticipated the tabloid sociology of Psychology Today. His next trilogy was composed of 60’s books: The Causes of World War III; Listen, Yankee!; and The Marxists. The Sociological Imagination is a transitional work, supporting its plan for the future with few of the claims to social science that he had previously felt necessary. Mills died at 45 before he could finish a third triad made of a Soviet Journal, essays called in manuscript the “New Left” and intended for a book on The Cultural Apparatus, and finally a Comparative Sociology of the Third World. We know what Mills intended from two collections of posthumous papers edited by Irving L. Horowitz. Now Horowitz has given us a final interpretation of Mills in American Utopian.
American Utopian is divided into “Settings,” “Sources,” and “Substances.” This last division, with a title that indicates what actually comes first for Horowitz, is a book-by-book summary of Mills with selected pro and con reactions. Yet it is not a good crib because Mills was a better stylist than his disciple. Condensation clarifies the evolution of Mills thought—but does not improve it. Horowitz’s narrow focus on Mills’s ideas permits little space for discussion of the influence of contemporary events and even less for pertinent details of Mills’s life. American Utopian does illuminate Mills’s journey from philosopher to social psychologist to sociologist as a quest for intellectual pragmatism, and it exposes the conflict of Mills’s preference for philosophy, Max Weber, and broadmindedness and academic sociology’s approval of psychology, Talcott Parsons, and the empirical. But it doesn’t explain why the Texas Trotsky fell so far afoul of the New York intelligentsia. Horowitz knows Mills the academic not Mills the man, and American Utopian’s unfortunate equation of academic and intellectual was abhorred by Mills himself.
By carrying the anti-psychological to the extreme of academic stuffiness, American Utopian suggests that the evolution of Mills’s writing has nothing to do with the development of his personality. We learn neither when Mills was born nor exactly when he died. Horowitz titillates with referenc es to Mills’s “self-aggrandizing claims to having more women in one month than Don Juan could boast in a life time,” and to “his continuous interest in sex outside the marriage,” but at the same time he fails to identify all of Mills’s wives (three) or any of his children. You will not learn here that middle-aged Mills’s first trip to Europe was made to attend a factory course on the maintenance of his beloved BMW motorcycle.
The part of the book devoted to “Settings” is little more than an excuse to melodramatize and misunderstand academic life at the Universities of Texas, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Columbia—and to do so from “official” histories written mostly for the benefit of alumni associations. Too often in American Utopian Mills the man is missing because he doesn’t fit Horowitz’s naive vision of Mills the scholar. (I once saw Mills myself at Columbia, taking off on his motor cycle with a good-looking blond on the backseat. He did not look much like a scholar. He looked more like a bear that had lost a fight with a lawn mower.)
Mills himself abhorred academe and academics because they perpetuated outmoded liberalism. He sought what he first called an “independent” and later a “New Left,” a left that defied capitalism without embracing Soviet-style statism. But the tumultuous birth of the New Left was still six years away when Mills offended his Columbia colleagues by writing:
In the Soviet Union Marxism has become ideologically consolidated and subject to official control; in the United States liberalism has become less an ideology than an empty rhetoric.
Mills made the equation of the intellectual and the alienated his paramount theme. Even Reuel Denney, coauthor with David Riesman of The Lonely Crowd, remarked in reviewing Mills’s White Collar: “Not all sales men are Willy Lomans.” Mills’s work suffered as he put more of his own angst into it. As Richard Hofstadter remarked to him: “You have somehow managed to get into White Collar a great deal of your own personal nightmare.”
In The Power Elite, Mills continued to project his private torments onto a capitalist world that he was sure was governed by some anonymous elite that made decisions without public explanation and without subjecting them to the popular will. In all of the operations of the Invisible Hand of the free market, Mills detected the conspiracy of some Big Brother. But even as Mills was growing ever more paranoid, he was capturing popularity by encouraging resentment of traditional authority. This “resentiment” had nothing to do with the American legacy of individualism and everything to do with the do-your-own-thing flight from responsibility. In the “New Left” Mills wrote:
We cannot create a left by abdicating our roles as intellectuals to become working class agitators or machine politicians, or by play-acting at other forms of direct political action. We can begin to create a left by confronting issues as intellectuals in our work. … We should make our own separate peace.
Reviewing The Causes of World War III, Russell Kirk pointed out that Mills would only replace one elite with an other, “composed, naturally, of Mills and his chums.” The tragedy is that Mills would not let himself see that his kind of intellectuals must inevitably become failed academics trying to resurrect revolution in their students. Manipulating relevant scenarios, academic cynics insure the continuance of the self-proclaimed intellectual vanguard. Defenders of genuine imagination prefer intelligence which can weigh and choose for itself, enabling students to surpass their teachers. Championing resentment at any price by generalizing short-term trends into social essences, Mills merely denied the intellect any power to make commitments. “I do not give unconditional loyalty to any institution, man or state,” Mills wrote in the “New Left.” “My loyalties are conditioned on the politics of truth as I determine the politics in each and every case.” As alienated intellectual, Mills finally betrayed himself—with a politics of truth that is no truth at all, and a conditional loyalty that is not loyalty. “My country right or wrong” is a far better choice than “myself right or wrong.”
[C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian, by Irving Louis Horowitz; The Free Press; New York]
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