Stanley Aronowitz on C. Wright Mills as Public Intellectual

“Mills is an exhilarating exemplar of the role and reach of the public radical intellectual and, at the same time, a sobering reminder of how far the human sciences have declined since the end of the Vietnam war.”—Stanley Aronowitz

Stanley Aronowitz, Taking it Big

In Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz emphasizes C. Wright Mills’s willingness to challenge the political and intellectual orthodoxies of his day. In terms of academia, Mills resisted the trend of his time for a more dispassionate or “scientific” approach to sociology. Instead, Mills saw himself as a public intellectual and conceived of his sociological practice as having a political and social impact.

In this excerpt from the introduction to Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz expands upon this facet of C. Wright Mills’s legacy:

Mills produced social knowledge but was also an intellectual agitator. He was deeply interested in advancing the science of sociology as a means of giving us a wider understanding of how society worked. From the late 1940s, when Mills and Helen Schneider produced their landmark study of the American labor union leaders, he remained a close student of social movements. His writings include analyses of the labor movement, the student Left, and the peace movement. He swam, intellectually, against the current, yet, unlike many independent leftists who saw only defeat in the postwar drift toward militaristic-corporate political economy and despaired of relevant political practice, Mills was, above all, a practical thinker. His interest was always to describe the “main chance” as a dead end and to counterpose the chances for leftward social change. Consequently, even when he describes labor leaders and portrays the new middle class in terms of subordination and as the allies of the leading elites, his mind never strayed far from the question “what is to be done?” What are the levers for changing the prevailing relations of power? How can those at or near the bottom emerge as historical subjects?

Mills was aware that to reach beyond the audience of professional social scientists he was obliged to employ rhetoric that, as much as possible, stayed within natural, even colloquial, language. Addressing the general reader as well as his diminishing audience of academic colleagues, Mills conveyed difficult and theoretically sophisticated concepts in plain, often visual prose, described by one critic as “muscular.” And, perhaps most famously, he was a phrasemaker. For example, his concept of the “main drift” to connote conventional wisdom, as well as centrist politics, encapsulates in a single phrase what others require paragraphs to explain. And instead of using the Marxian-loaded term “crisis” or the technical dodge “recession” to describe conditions of economic woe, he employed the colloquial “slump.” He characterizes the rise of industrial unions after 1935 as the “big story” for American labor, a term that encompasses history and common perception.

In these days, when most members of the professoriate have retreated from public engagement except when they act as consultants for large corporations, media experts, and recipients of the grant largesse of corporate foundations and government agencies who want their research to assist policy formulation—or confine their interventions to professional journals and meetings—Mills remains a potent reminder of one possible answer to the privatization of legitimate intellectual knowledge. In 1939, his colleague Robert S. Lynd wrote a probing challenge to knowledge producers of all sorts—Knowledge for What? In it, Lynd asked the fundamental question: to whom is the knowledge producer responsible? To the state? To private corporations? To publics that are concerned with issues of equality and social justice? Mills’s The Sociological Imagination, which appeared twenty years later, resumes Lynd’s critique but extends it to a searching repudiation of major social scientific methodologies.

Mills rejects as spurious the doctrine according to which the social investigator is obliged to purge his work of social and political commitment. His values infuse his sociological research and theorizing, and he never hid behind methodological protestations of neutrality. Mills was a partisan of movements of social freedom and emancipation while, at the same time, preserving his dedication to dry-eyed critical theory and dispassionate, empirical inquiry. He was an advocate of a democratic, radical labor movement but, nevertheless, was moved to indict its leadership not by fulmination but by a careful investigation of how unions actually worked in the immediate postwar period. A self-described man of the Left, in the late 1940s Mills provoked a portion of his leftist readership to outrage when he concluded that the “old” socialist and communist movements had come to the end of the road….


Mills is an exhilarating exemplar of the role and reach of the public radical intellectual and, at the same time, a sobering reminder of how far the human sciences have declined since the end of the Vietnam war. Even in death Mills was an inspiration to a generation of young intellectuals estranged from the suburban nightmare of post–World War II America and eager to shape their own destiny. He also inspired some in his own generation who, in fear and trembling, had withdrawn from public involvement but yearned to return. The decline of social engagement and political responsibility that accompanied the ebbing of reform and revolutionary movements in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the shift of labor, socialist, and social-liberal parties and movements to the liberal center. Many erstwhile radical intellectuals who retained their public voice moved steadily to the right, motivated, they said, by the authoritarianism of the New Left as well as the Old Left and by their conviction that American capitalism and its democratic institutions were the best of all possible worlds.

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