USIH Review: Hartman on Geary

Review of Daniel Geary’s Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). ISBN-13: 978-0-520-25836-5. 277 pages.

Review by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
March 2010

            During my graduate studies, I took a course with Professor Leo Ribuffo on postwar American social thought. In the first part of the semester, we focused our readings on the 1950s consensus or pluralist theorists. The list of characters barely needs introduction: Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, Parsons, etc. I was not a fan. Hypersensitive to liberal capitulations to conservatism, especially on Cold War matters, I found their “vital centrism” infuriating. If they represented the mood of the nation, crude stereotypes about the 1950s as a “placid” decade seemed too kind. It was in this context, coming on the heels of my reading of the consensus thinkers, that I first read C. Wright Mills, specifically, his two most famous books, White Collar and The Power Elite. Ribuffo’s pedagogy was madly brilliant: first, lull us to sleep with the drab assurances of consensus, then, shock us out of a slumber with the abrasive anti-conformism of Mills. In this context, I came to love C. Wright Mills. I imagined him a renegade, a lone radical fighting the evil forces of orthodoxy with nothing more than the biting wit of his pen.

            Daniel Geary argues against this enduring image of Mills the maverick in his splendid little intellectual biography, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. Geary advises that Mills was a man of his time, not an outlier. “Mills’s thought,” he argues, “was far more characteristic of his era than has been recognized.” Geary organizes his book around the many ways in which Mills echoes larger intellectual trends, including: “the postwar prominence of the social sciences, marked by new empirical sophistication and an ambitious theoretical agenda to understand modern society; the postwar reception of German social thought in the United States, based on the emigration of intellectuals from Germany to the United States and the newfound interest in Max Weber’s work; the impact of the cold war on intellectual life, which forced thinkers to take a clear stance on American foreign policy; the growth of popular social criticism during the 1950s; and the decline of the Old Left of the 1930s and 1940s and the birth of the New Left at the end of the 1950s” (3). By placing Mills in his proper context, Geary offers what Mike Davis calls “an authentic ‘Millsian’ biography of C.W. that eschews the romantic icon in order to recover the thinker in all of his magnificent ambition and complexity.”

            Part of what made Mills seem different is that, unlike the mostly Jewish New York intellectuals whom he associated with, Mills the WASP was born and raised in Texas. He arrived in New York City far removed from the bloody sectarianism of the 1930s communist milieu, which eased the New York intellectual shift from anti-Stalinist leftism to conservative anticommunism in the early days of the Cold War. Unrestrained by such internecine warfare, Mills never wavered from a nonsectarian leftist worldview.

Born in 1916, Mills was educated at the University of Texas, where he learned John Dewey’s pragmatism as an undergraduate philosophy student. He undertook his graduate studies in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, trained in Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge. Although he would later come to see the role of the intellectual through an explicitly ethical lens—as a speaker of truth to power—Mills rooted much of his life’s thinking in an epistemology that combined the relativisms of Dewey and Mannheim. In a 1940 American Journal of Sociology article, Mills wrote: “There have been and are diverse canons and criteria of validity and truth, and these criteria, upon which determinations of the truthfulness of propositions at any time depend, are themselves, in their persistence and change, legitimately open to social-historical relativization” (34). Along these lines, Geary informs us that Mills anticipated Thomas Kuhn, author of the famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by his reference to these canons of truth as “paradigms.”

            A more important influence for Mills than Mannheim was another German, Max Weber. “Using Weberian forms of analysis,” Geary writes, “Mills explored both class divisions in American society and the repressive and alienating effects of concentrated political power and large-scale bureaucratic institutions” (45). This methodology informed both White Collar (1950) and The Power Elite (1956), Mills’s two most famous books.

The America depicted in White Collar was a dystopic “salesroom, an incorporated brain, a new universe of management and manipulation” (106). Mills analyzed an increasingly monolithic American culture by using the trendy tools of social psychology, an interest he believed consistent with his leftist commitments. “According to Mills,” Geary writes, “rather than relying on faith that individuals would automatically act in their objective class interests, socialists needed to better understand the psychology of those whom they hoped to recruit” (114). Such an understanding made Mills’s leftism a pessimistic brand: isolation, despair, and alienation deformed the white-collar worker, rendering socialist organization impossible. This interpretation placed Mills firmly in the Western Marxist tradition, at the height of its popularity in 1950, the year Theodore Adorno’s edited anthology, The Authoritarian Personality, steamrolled the social sciences. It was also the same year The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman’s popular criticism of the new middle-class personality type—the “inner-directed”—hit bookshelves. In light of this, Geary’s argument that Mills was embedded in a specific intellectual context hits home.

The Power Elite (1956) was similar to White Collar in that Mills applied a Weberian lens to understanding a bureaucratic culture, shifting it away from the middle class to focus it squarely on the institutional structures of the American rich. But it also represented a subtle change. Mills understood The Power Elite as consistent with his newfound belief that intellectuals should speak a “politics of truth,” which, taken at the epistemological level, potentially contradicted his earlier relativism. Geary nicely highlights this paradox of Mills’s altered emphasis: “Mills viewed truth as inherently contextual and political, yet his call for a politics of truth rested on the notion that if one could see through the obfuscation of official shams, one could uncover the truth about American society. Though Mills thought that beliefs were fixed socially, an idea ingrained in his mindset from his early engagement with pragmatism and the sociology of knowledge, his politics of truth placed his faith in the efforts of courageous individuals” (149-150). Mills began to think that the proper intellectual was a renegade in a world of reified power.

 Mills defined the power elite in straightforward sociological terms, as “those political, economic, and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences” (153).  The way he mapped out power as intensely hierarchical challenged the pluralist thinkers, who believed that American democracy was comprised of counterbalancing forces. Mills argued that the American rich were the most powerful class of men in world history and that, unlike the mystified middle and working classes, they possessed class-consciousness. “Mills maintained that Americans accumulated wealth through neither entrepreneurial ingenuity nor a bureaucratic crawl to the top of an organization, but through financial, speculative, and legal manipulations of the market” (154). In other words, the rich knew how to advance their interests. Such an analysis, more germane than ever, makes The Power Elite Mills’s most timeless piece of writing. But, again, Geary places Mills firmly in his own context, referencing, ironically, Dwight Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial speech” as an example of widespread fears of unchecked power.

By 1960, Mills had become more optimistic about the possibilities for leftist movements, and as such, saw an even greater need for truthful public intellectuals. His optimism was born of his experiences with the international left. In England, Mills gave several well-received talks, as the British left seemed delighted by an American intellectual unwilling to celebrate the U.S. role in the Cold War. He wrote for the burgeoning English left periodicals, including an inspiring “Letter to the New Left” in one of the first issues of the New Left Review (which recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday).

The Cuban Revolution also encouraged Mills. Soon after Castro’s rebels swept into Havana, Mills traveled there for an intense three-week tour of the new Cuba, upon which he based his influential Listen, Yankee, a warning against American imperialist attempts to interfere with its newly liberated island neighbor. During this final stage of his life, before he died of a heart attack in 1962 at the young age of 45, Mills proclaimed himself a “plain Marxist,” or someone who recognized Marx as an exemplary social thinker but rejected treating Marx’s thought as dogma. In this vein, Mills considered himself apiece with Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Appleman Williams, and the independent socialist writers at Monthly Review. Geary makes clear that Mills, who might be thought of as the first New Left intellectual, appealed to young student activists such as Tom Hayden—author of the Port Huron Statement that founded Students for a Democratic Society—because he did not carry around the sectarian baggage of a former Trotskyist like Irving Howe. Howe, the founding editor of the social democratic journal Dissent, was unable to influence the New Left because he insisted that anticommunism be a first principle. Mills, by contrast, refused to take sides in the Cold War and was an emblematic anti-anticommunist.

Although Geary is a fan of Mills, Radical Ambition is no hagiography. For instance, Geary is critical of Mills’s treatment of American society in White Collar as, to use Herbert Marcuse’s lingo, “the one-dimensional society.” Geary argues that Mills ignores those spaces where Americans were able to nurture their psychic well-being apart from mindless mass culture, such as at church or at home, those havens in a heartless world. Fair enough. Similarly, Geary finds fault with Mills for his conceptualization of the power elite as unified, which Geary thinks gave fodder to his pluralist foes who painted him a conspiracy theorist. I am not sure about this critique, since even though it is undoubtedly true that the rich have interests specific to their domains (oil companies have different interests than Hollywood), when it comes to the really big issues dealt with by the federal government—taxes and wars—the rich have tended to speak with something close to one voice.

Geary’s most serious critique is that Mills ignores the most pressing issue of his time: the civil rights movement. More broadly speaking, Geary argues that Mills’s “most significant flaw was his inattention to issues of gender and racial equality.” Geary qualifies this massive gap in the same way that he downplays those things for which Mills has been celebrated: he is a man of his times. “Though it does not excuse him,” Geary writes, “Mills was no different in this regard from many (though certainly not all) white male radicals of his era” (8). But this then leads me to the only serious problem I have with Geary’s otherwise wonderful biography. Mills was in fact atypical.

As John Summers makes clear in a forthcoming issue of Reviews in American History, it is undoubtedly true that Mills spoke the same language as his ideological foes, about concerns comparable to theirs.* But how can it have been otherwise? Mills and his many opponents were of the same historical moment. Does this not make the differences between Mills and a consensus thinker like Daniel Bell that much more remarkable? Perhaps Mills was more maverick than Geary is willing to admit, especially at the political level, a fact that might even help to soften the critique of Mills’s record on race. In an interview with a Village Voice reporter shortly after release from a Mississippi prison (as quoted by Summers), Stokely Carmichael, bemused by “how dumb them crackers are,” said: “In jail they took away all my books—stuff by DuBois, King, Camus. But they let me keep Mills’s book about Castro, Listen, Yankee, because they thought it was against Northern agitators.” It seems Carmichael understood Mills as a renegade, at least, as compared to the white America of his immediate concerns.

Despite Geary’s underestimation of Mills’s anomalous characteristics, I highly recommend this book. I assigned it to my Master’s students this semester. Although my students are bright and intellectually curious, they are mostly unfamiliar with American intellectual history, and were uniformly unaware of C. Wright Mills. In spite of this, they found the book highly readable and engaging. Several of them expressed a wish to learn more about C. Wright Mills, and to read some of his work firsthand. This is high praise and indicates that Geary wrote a superb book about one of the most important figures in postwar American social thought. Read it!


Andrew Hartman is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).


*John Summers, “Permanent Stranger,” Reviews in American History, forthcoming. Summers gave me permission to paraphrase his soon-to-be published review. Summers, editor of a collection of Mills’s writings, The Politics of Truth: The Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, 2008), is busy at work on a Mills biography of his own.

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