C. Wright Mills and the New York Intllectuals

“As his peers drifted rightward, Mills lurched to the Left, at a time when such a move was decidedly unfashionable.”—Stanley Aronowitz

Stanley Aronowitz, Taking It BigIn Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz describes the uneasy intellectual and political relationship Mills had with the New York Intellectuals (Dwight MacDonald, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Lionel Trilling, etc.).

Mills arrived in New York City in 1945 and while he shared many of the leftist sympathies of the New York Intellectuals, he was not caught up in the same debates regarding Marxism or the battles between Stalinists and Trotskyists. Likewise, while he was an anti-Communist, Mills did not come to accept American mainstream liberalism that many New York Intellectuals would during the Cold War. Indeed many New York Intellectuals moved further and further to the right in the coming years.

In the following excerpt from the chapter Mills and the New York Intellectuals, Aronowitz describes this relationship in greater detail:

What accounts for Mills’s refusal to join his ideological peers in participating in the American celebration, even though he was a devout anticommunist for most of his career? To begin with, he was neither raised in New York nor attended City College, the 1930s hotbed of student, independent radicalism. He did not imbibe the endless political talk that filled the alcoves of the college’s cafeteria where the leftist factions met daily, mostly reinforcing their respective received wisdom. He was raised and schooled in Texas and obtained his Ph.D. at the leading campus of Midwestern populism, Wisconsin. Despite his sympathies with Trotskyism, he kept his distance from left-wing sects, thus avoiding the bruising conflicts suffered by beleaguered activists in these formations. And he was not the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants nor of working-class origin. The intense desire for assimilation shared by a large portion of those within these groups did not shape his view of America and its institutions. In other words, he could afford to remain an outsider; he was not eager to shed estrangement from his country and its culture. That Norman Mailer shared these sentiments may be ascribed to his adversarial character as much as to his wartime experiences and distance from the prevailing Left-sectarian milieu. Like Mills, he was no joiner.

For the New York intellectuals who fit the typical New York radical profile, politics meant, in the first place, attention to the Russian question, which took the form of an almost Talmudic devotion to the study of the fate of the Bolshevik revolution. For their generation of radicals, the revolution and its outcome had become a measure of the entire history of socialism and Marxism. Mills was acutely aware of the betrayals that his friends found in the rise of Stalinism. However, he believed that a specifically American radicalism that was relatively independent of Marxism could not be created on the foundation of a critique of the outcome of the Russian revolution. Such a radicalism had to be rooted in its own society and culture. And he found the dominant economic and political environment of the United States abhorrent, unworthy of the kind of critical approbation that marked the slide of the bulk of New York intellectuals from radicalism to the political center and, in more than a few instances, to the Right. In short, he had no emotional or intellectual stakes in a politics based on a repudiation of the Soviet regime. It left him free to remain uncompromisingly anticapitalist and, as he was later to remark, more and more devoutly socialist, rather than slipping into the comfortable clothes of a modern New Deal–inflected liberal. As his peers drifted rightward, Mills lurched to the Left, at a time when such a move was decidedly unfashionable.

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