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Review Essay: Stanley Aronowitz, Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals

“Where have you gone, C. Wright Mills?  Sociology turns its lonely eyes to you”—with apologies to Simon and Garfunkle—would have better captured Stanley Aronowitz’ recent intellectual and political biography of Mills than the uninspiring title chosen.  Yet this reviewer implores readers not to get caught up with the chosen title, but rather to dive right in:  the water is fine!

Aronowitz, a public intellectual to his own credit, has taken the latest look at Mills, and implies that the world of macrosociology has never recovered from the loss of this shit-disturber from Texas.  He makes a very strong argument.

Mills was an iconoclast, which means heretic or challenger of tradition.  According to Aronowitz, by trying to get to the root of American life (writing from the 1940s to the end of his life in 1962), Mills was challenging the whole of American macrosociology, its understandings, and its role in the burgeoning US Empire, the latter which was expanding ever-outward in the early post-World War II era.  Yet his concern was not limited to sociology; he really was trying to understand the Empire itself, and to seek the social sector in the US that could overturn what he saw as the “main drift” toward (post-World War II economic) slump and war.

The interesting thing was that Mills was a sociologist writ large, and he was using the tools of the master to attack the master’s house (Audre Lorde).  Trained at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and working first at Maryland and then Columbia, Mills stood outside of (mostly) liberal academia, and cast his impressive sociological gaze at both sociology and larger US society, and found both troubled and troubling.  Unfortunately dying way too young, we never got to hear his ranting about the US invasion of Vietnam and subsequent wars, but his writings served to inspire students in the New Left and anti-war movements.  (And how many other sociologists can say this?)

Mills was interested in the big picture, trying to understand power and how it actually worked in US society, not how it was said to work.  His three master works—New Men of Power, White Collar and The Power Elite—were, according to Aronowitz, efforts to get to the root of power and to find ways to undercut it.

Aronowitz finds three things in Mills’ work which to recognize, honor and promote:  Mills refused to stay within sociology’s “box,” rejecting efforts to ensure he limit himself to finely-tuned deductive studies based on this empirical data or that; he was a visionary—reading Mills today, one feels that you are reading a contemporary; and he was personally brave, rejecting the pressures to “tone down” his analyses, to accept the “American Century” where the power of the United States was legitimate and desirable, instead of railing against it.  Mills was not a saint—and Aronowitz does not suggest this—but here was a sociologist writing about the world as he saw it, with the scope and breadth he thought it deserved, and during a time when this simply was not desirable—nor acceptable.  Mills—whose work has been translated in 23 languages to date—has been all-but-ignored by academia here in the US.

Unlike many of the public intellectuals writing in this country today, Mills was able to get his views into the public discourse to a considerable extent.  Part of that ability was his connection with the “New York intellectuals” of the post-World War II era, at least before most of them shifted to become apologists for the US Empire (can we say Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.?).  Tied closely to that, of course, was simply his location in New York City, the major communication center in the country while being employed at one of the major centers of sociology during the period, Columbia University:  his influence on his graduate students and then their participation in the New Left and in sociology certainly contributed to his reputation.  Yet part of this certainly included his personal boldness, his willingness to put out what he saw as clearly and unequivocally as possible:  I’m quite sure many of his colleagues were personally troubled by the outsized persona of this cigar-smoking, motorcycle-riding Texan in the astringent hallways of academia.

However, as Aronowitz shows clearly, Mills was always more than an “act”:  he was a conscientious scholar taking a serious approach to understand the world and sociology’s part within it, willing to let the chips fall where they may.  Mills’ work stood firmly on the shoulders of Marx and Weber, but he refused to limit is thinking to their viewpoints; in fact, part of his importance was his willingness to challenge the “masters,” and to develop original ideas that he disseminated as widely as possible.

And he was willing to challenge his own, previous thinking.  When Mills published The New Men of Power, he saw the labor movement to be a strategic site for social leadership against (what he saw) as the forthcoming drift toward slump and global conflagration.  However, by his next book, White Collar, he knew the labor movement leadership could not play the role he had ascribed to it, and he continued his search.

Aronowitz gives Mills a lot of credit, but he’s also not willing to give Mills a free pass.  One of his most trenchant critiques is of Mills’ attitude toward the Communist Party of the United States of American (CPUSA).  Mills was an anti-communist, but Aronowitz quotes Nelson Lichtenstein from the latter’s forward to the 2001 edition to New Men of Power:  “Mills was an anticommunist but one who saw the enemy as pathetic rather than dangerous” (in Aronowitz: 118).  Yet, as Aronowitz argues, while not ignoring the limitations of the Communists, the contributions of the CPUSA to the building of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1930s-early’40s were substantial and important.  As Aronowitz writes:

To see the communists as merely a tool of Soviet foreign policy is uncharacteristic of the rest of Mills’s evaluation of the fate of the unions.  His treatment of the communists, although containing more than a grain of truth is, at best, partial.

There is also no discussion of the Communist Party’s importance in the formation of unions comprising at least half of the CIO membership and its part in the administration of unions representing a third of the CIO membership . . .  These omissions constitute a serious flaw in his understanding of organized labor in the 1930s and 1940s (118-119).

Now let’s be clear:  Mills’ work is not the end-all and be-all of sociology.  Mills himself died before the re-emergence of the feminist movement and the more recent LGBT movement.  More questionable was his lack of interest in the escalating African American liberation struggles, particularly in the South, and their attacks on white supremacy, a key pillar on which the Empire at that time was dependent.

Nonetheless, I think Aronowitz has done an excellent job producing this intellectual and political biography of C. Wright Mills:  it brings to life the thinking and courage of arguably one of the most important American-born theorists in sociology.  In my opinion, it should be made essential reading in every sociology graduate program in the US (if not around the world), and should be given to advanced undergraduates:  basically, through this book, Aronowitz has thrown a bomb into the ossified world of sociology.  Unfortunately, however, I doubt this will happen in most American graduate programs:  my sense is that they are too busy teaching grad students to be quiet and “toe the line” while completing their studies and especially until after they get tenure—and by then, many young professors have learned this message so well that they will continue with their heads down even after gaining tenure.

We need more radicals within academia:  they are the ones that challenge the status-quo, and rattle the boxes of sterile thinking and complacency.  Stanley Aronowitz has introduced many of us in depth to one to whom is given great lip service—can you say “sociological imagination”?—and argues there’s more to the work of C. Wright Mills than this overused phrase suggests.  Sociologists today can no longer say, “we didn’t know.”


Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.  He has published books on the radical wing of the Filipino labor movement—KMU:  Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines:  1980-1994 (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1996)—and on the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO:  AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing County Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage?  (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2010 hardback, 2011 paperback).  He is currently working on a book on building international labor solidarity.  Scipes has published over 140 articles and book reviews in the US and in 10 different countries.  He can be reached through his web site, http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.



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