The Incoherence of the Intellectual:
C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite
Knowledge and Action

Fredy Perlman

1
The Search for Radical Strategy
1939‑1948

Political Commitment and a Definition of Strategy

Mills committed himself to political struggle publicly in 1942, in a review of Franz Neumann's analysis of Nazi Germany. [1] Mills did not read Neumann's dissection of the Nazi Behemoth as a description of a distant enemy: The analysis of Behemoth casts light upon capitalism in democracies. . . If you read his book thoroughly, you see the harsh outlines of possible futures close around you. With leftwing thought confused and split and dribbling trivialities, he locates the enemy with a 500 watt glare. And Nazi is only one of his names. [2] The enemy is not located as a spectacle, as an object for passive contemplation and academic dissection. Locating the enemy is the first step toward locating oneself in the face of the enemy, it is the first step toward political struggle: Neumann's book will move all of us into deeper levels of analysis and strategy. It had better. Behemoth is everywhere united. [3]

Mills' choice of the words analysis and strategy is significant: it is an early statement of a problem that becomes central in later works: the link between thought and action, between consciousness and existence, between theory and practice. This choice of words is also significant as a political application of words he had used and defined earlier in purely academic contexts.

In an article published two years before the review of Behemoth, Mills had defined strategies of action as motives which appeal to others. [4] Motives are defined as named consequences of action. [5] (In later works, Mills called such motives ideals or goals.) The motives do not originate in the individual's biology; they are provided by his culture, through his interactions [6] with others. (This is the main point of Mills' first published article, an article which illustrates that at twenty‑three Mills was already master of the dull and bureaucratic writing style of professional academics, a style which, he later observed, has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.� [7] As soon as he illustrated how easily one can master the academic style, Mills abandoned it and wrote his works in a clear and straightforward language.)

Since a strategy consists of the named consequences of an action undertaken with others in a particular situation, the situation has to be defined in such a way that the consequences of action can be named. This is the task of analysis. If the strategy had better cope with the enemy described by Neumann, then the situation to be analyzed is capitalism in democracy. It has to be shown that certain kinds of action can change the social situation; if this cannot be shown, then the consequences of action cannot be named, and there can be neither motives nor strategies.

Elements for such analysis of the social situation (Mills later called such analysis a definition of reality) can be found in Mills' doctoral dissertation. [8] Here Mills follows John Dewey's rejection of an unchanging "human nature," and of a psychology of "instincts," as explanations of the continuity of social institutions. The continuity is explained in terms of socially acquired "customs" and "habits." Furthermore, "habit means will," so that the repeated daily activities of people are voluntary acts. [9] This means that "institutions" can be changed through human activity, that collective actions can have social consequences, and therefore that "strategies of action" can be formulated. Mills points out that Dewey applies his concept of action only to independent craftsmen and farmers: His concept of action is of an individual; it is not political action. [10] However, political action, namely collective practice based on named consequences (or on theory) is also possible, since It is obvious that Marxism as a doctrine and movement has linked practice and theory. [11]

Thus a political strategy is based on a definition of a social situation which can be changed by collective activity, and it consists of the named consequences of action which appeal to others. The others, in Dewey's language, are the "Public," a community of self-directed individuals. [12] The activity which links the individual to a public is communication, and for Dewey communication takes the specific form of education, since this psychology's stress on the modifiability of human nature opens wide the possibility of improvement by means of the educational enterprise; it is slanted specifically to educational endeavors. [13] Dewey's strategy was social reform through educational reform; one of the named consequences of this activity was to be "that of building up an intelligent and capable civil‑service." [14] In Dewey's view, the only alternative to social reformism "seems to be a concentration of power that points toward ultimate dictatorship. . . " [15]

Although Mills rejected Dewey's style of liberalism [16] and educational reformism, he seems, at least partially, to have shared Dewey's conception of "publics" composed of self‑directed individuals, since Dewey's conception of "The Eclipse of the Public" [17] reappears as Mills' own conception in works he is to write more than a decade later; even Dewey's reformist program of installing a civil service reappears in works where Mills exposes and rejects all shades of liberalism. The conception of others as potentially self‑directed individuals implies a non�-manipulative view of communication and seems to exclude the cynical and manipulative conception which crept into Mills' thought from other influences.

However, the specific public, the community to whom Mills is to communicate a political strategy, the historical agency which can potentially transform the social situation, is not yet mentioned, and the strategy itself has not yet been formulated.

Elements for a Retreat from Political Commitment

According to Professor Irving Louis Horowitz, "Mills benefited from his contact with European trained scholars at the University of Wisconsin�especially Hans H. Gerth." [18] In 1942, the same year he published his review of Neumann's Behemoth, Mills published another book review, written with Gerth. [19] Some of the questions raised by Mills in his earlier writings are treated very differently in this article.

Mills benefited from his contact with Gerth to sharpen, yet also to blunt, his definitions of the social context of human activity. In the place of Dewey's ideas about "custom" and "habit" as voluntary activities which account for the continuity of institutions, the Mills‑Gerth article puts "historical drift." [20] The article develops Max Weber's thesis that the "historical drift" of industrial societies is bureaucratization.

It is this form of organization which is taken to be the substance of history. [21] The two authors mention the fact that this drift is not a force of nature which imposes itself over human beings. It is the men who nurse the big machines, the industrial population, who implement that which makes history. This distinction between those who implement history and that which makes history is not a grammatical ambiguity: the following sentence says, For Weber, impersonal rationality stands as a polar opposite to personal charisma, the extra� ordinary gift of leaders. [22]

The bureaucratization and routinization of life takes place within three dominant structures of power, military, industrial and governmental and it is the leaders of these structures who make the ultimate decisions. [23] The view of history which emerges is one where active leaders decide and passive followers implement.� It is not pointed out that if the followers did not repeatedly decide to continue following (habit means will), the leaders would not have the power to make any ultimate decisions.

With this definition of social reality, historical change is still possible; furthermore, the historic agencies who transform social reality, the revolutionary masses, can be defined. However, these �masses" are not active subjects; they are not the self‑determined individuals mentioned earlier. The masses are objects, they are followers, they "implement" history, it is they who make revolutionary leaders successful, and it is the leaders who make ultimate decisions. In modern history always behind the elites and parties there are revolutionary masses. [24]

This conception of elites and masses drives a wedge into the heart of the community mentioned by Mills earlier. The elite and the mass are two separate communities, only one of which consists of self‑determined individuals. The dominant activities of these separate communities are different: one decides and the other implements. The separation between these two sets of people and activities is similar to the separation between the "academic community" and the "world outside."

In this context, strategy cannot take the form of motives of action which are shared by people in a common situation, since the elite and the mass are not in the same situation. Furthermore, the link between the leader and the masses does not consist of communication within a community of individuals, but of that kind of manipulation of the masses that makes the leader successful.

This conception of historical change in fact excludes the possibility of significant change. If bureaucratization is the historical drift and the substance of history, if Behemoth is everywhere united, and if revolutionary strategy is to lead to a struggle against the enemy located by Neumann with a 500 watt glare, then the Mills‑Gerth article does not move into deeper levels of analysis and strategy. In fact, it is hard to see just how "Mills benefited from his contact with European trained scholars at the University of Wisconsin�especially Hans H. Gerth." The historical drift cannot be stopped; the masses who are fragments of bureaucratic structures of power cannot destroy these structures to become self‑determined human beings. The masses can, at best, implement a revolution, which in this article means that they can be manipulated into pushing new leaders and elites, like the Nazi Party, into the dominant bureaucracies; the most that radical strategy can accomplish in the face of Behemoth is: radical shifts in the distribution of power and in the composition of personnel. [25]

The Powerless Intellectual

Two years after his excursion with Gerth, in an article titled "The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society," [26] Mills tried to find his way out of the maze where the excursion had left him in order to move into deeper levels of analysis and strategy.

In "The Powerless People," Mills tries to break out of the world of leaders and followers, elites and masses, since his own existence is denied by this type of analysis. He tries to locate himself, and on this basis to define his social situation.

If he is to think politically in a realistic way, the intellectual must constantly know his own social position. [27] Mills, the intellectual, is clearly not one of the elite, since he is powerless. We continue to know more and more about modern society, but we find the centers of political initiative less and less accessible. This generates a personal malady that is particularly acute in the intellectual who has labored under the illusion that his thinking makes a difference. In the world of today the more his knowledge of affairs grows, the less effective the impact of his thinking seems to become. Since he grows more frustrated as his knowledge increases, it seems that knowledge leads to powerlessness. He feels helpless in the fundamental sense that he cannot control what he is able to foresee. [28] This powerlessness and helplessness are not attributes of the intellectual as a member of a manipulated and dependent mass; they are due to a failure of nerve [29] (since habit means will.) Neither a leader nor a follower, the intellectual is also not an academic spectator who observes human history from outside. The "detached spectator" does not know his helplessness because he never tries to surmount it. But the political man is always aware that while events are not in his hands he must bear their consequences. [30]

The intellectual has been reduced to an instrument for manipulation and to a manipulated object. He wants his thought to make a difference, but he is in fact politically irrelevant. His power to make a difference, to have consequences, is separate from him and strange to him. This separation of the individual from his own power, this gap between a person's decisions and their social consequences, this incoherence or lack of unity between thought and action, characterize not only the situation of the intellectual, but also that of the wage‑worker, the salaried clerk, the student. However, Mills does not analyze the situation which is common to all these people, a situation in which they alienate their power to shape their environment, to make a difference in the world. Mills limits his analysis to the intellectual, and does not develop a conception of alienation; for Mills, alienation means disaffection; it is not a fact about people's situation, but a feeling about their situation (people are alienated if they don't believe in the work they're doing [31]).

Once he is conscious of his own incoherence, of the separation between his thought and his activity, the intellectual struggles to break out of this powerlessness, to get to its roots, to unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications swamp us. [32] To get to the roots of his situation, the intellectual must not only smash the stereotypes which veil the situation, but also the spectacles of the "future" which divert his attention from the real situation. The more the antagonisms of the actual present must be suffered, the more the future is drawn upon as a source of pseudo‑unity and synthetic morale. . . . Most of these commodities are not plans with any real chance to be realized. They are baits for various strata, and sometimes for quite vested groups, to support contemporary irrespons�ibilities. . . . Discussions of the future which accept the present basis for it serve either as diversions from immediate realities or as tacit i ntellectual sanctions of future disasters. [33]

Among the veil makers and obfuscators, Mills singles out professors for his sharpest critiques in "The Powerless People" and also in a critique of textbooks published a year earlier. Since professors and textbooks are important sources of the stereotypes which clutter people's minds, some of the explanations of the intellectual's failure of nerve may fruitfully be sought there. What Mills found in a sample of textbooks on social psychology, all of it perpetrated as some kind of science, included an emphasis upon the 'processual' and 'organic' character of society . . . From the standpoint of political action, such a view may mean a reformism dealing with masses of detail and furthers a tendency to be apolitical. There can be no bases or points of entry for larger social action in a structureless flux. . . . The liberal 'multiple‑factor' view does not lead to a conception which would permit . . . political action. . . . If one fragmentalizes society into 'factors,' into elemental bits, naturally one will then need quite a few of them to account for something, and one can never be sure they are all in. . . . The 'organic' orientation of liberalism has stressed all those social factors which tend to a harmonious balance of elements. . . . In seeing everything social as a continuous process, changes in pace and

revolutionary dislocations are missed or are taken as signs of the �pathological' , . . . The ideally adjusted man of the social pathologists is "socialized.' This term seems to operate ethically as the opposite of 'selfish;' it implies that the adjusted man conforms to middle‑class morality and motives and 'participates' in the gradual progress of respectable institutions. If he is not a `joiner,' he certainly gets around and into many community organizations. If he is socialized, the individual thinks of others and is kindly toward them. He does not brood or mope about but is somewhat extrovert, eagerly participating in his community's institutions. His mother and father were not divorced, nor was his home ever broken. . . . The less abstract the traits and fulfilled 'needs' of 'the adjusted man' are, the more they gravitate toward the norms of independent middle‑class persons verbally living out Protestant ideals in the small towns of America. [34]

The professor who rejects the ideology of the politically impotent clerk, who refuses to trivialize himself and others, but who does not struggle against his impotence, may seek to escape by becoming a passive spectator whose goal is understanding. However, Simply understanding is an ideal of the man who has a capacity to know truth but not the chance, the skill, or the guts, as the case may be, to communicate them [sic] with political effectiveness. [35]

In this context, when Mills writes that, in general, the larger universities are still the freest� places in which to work, [36] he seems to be apologizing for his own choice of career. It is clear that, to Mills, being free did not mean that professors could publish books about their own powerlessness. Furthermore, he pointed out that professors were not even too free to do that, since the deepest problem of freedom for teachers is not the occasional ousting of a professor, but a vague general fear�sometimes politely known as 'discretion,' 'good taste, ' or 'balanced judgment.' It is a fear which leads to self‑intimidation and finally becomes so habitual that the scholar is unaware of it. The real restraints are not so much external prohibitions as control of the insurgent by the agreements of academic gentlemen. [37] Since 'the job' is a pervasive political sanction and censorship of most middle‑class intellectuals, the political psychology of the scared employee becomes relevant. [38] If the professor works in the freest place in which to work, then the situation of other sections of the population is, by implication, even more cramped than that of this scared employee. In that case, the community of powerless people is much larger than the academic community, and there is at least a possibility that the more powerless will be more interested in political action than the freest. If Mills' statement about the freedom of the intellectual is taken seriously, then the basis on which the intellectual is to engage in political action is not clear: is he to struggle because he's one of the powerless people, or because he's already the freest member of American society?

Mills' analysis of the situation of the professor is consistent with the title of his article, not with the justification of his chosen career. The professor after all is legally an employee, subject to all that this fact involves. [39] And what this involves is not different for the professor than for the worker who sells his labor or for the clerk who sells his time; the only difference is what is sold. When you sell the lies of others you are also selling yourself. To sell your self is to turn your self into a commodity. [40]

In order to smash the official stereotypes of thought, to go beyond the various forms of academic escape, Mills abandons the world of charismatic leaders and manipulated masses and returns to Dewey's community of self‑directed individuals; he would like to stand for a politics of truth in a democratically responsible society. [41] This means that the individual does more than make moral evaluations which may help him enrich his experience, expand his sensitivities, and perhaps adjust to his own suffering. But he will not solve the problems he is up against. He is not confronting them at their deeper sources. [42] And it means doing more than making detached, "objective" analyses of a spectacle in which the observer is not engaged, since this is more like a specialized form of retreat than the intellectual orientation of a man. What is involved is a location of oneself and a definition of reality which make coherent action possible. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience. [43]

The individual is able to formulate a political strategy only after he has located himself within his social situation. This is necessary in order that he may be aware of the sphere of strategy that is really open to his influence. If he forgets this, his thinking may exceed his sphere of strategy so far as to make impossible any translation of his thought into action, his own or that of others. His thought may thus become fantastic. If he remembers his powerlessness too well, assumes that his sphere of strategy is restricted to the point of impotence, then his thought may easily become politically trivial, And once he has formulated a strategy, he must communicate it with political effectiveness. Knowledge that is not communicated has a way of turning the mind sour, of being obscured, and finally of being forgotten. For the sake of the integrity of the discoverer, his discovery must be effectively communicated. [44]

Mills does not formulate a specific strategy in this article, though he does refer to discussion of world affairs that proceeds in terms of the struggle for power. [45] The agents engaged in this struggle for power are not defined. Mills clearly does not refer to a struggle between intellectuals and the corporate‑military elite. However, it is not clear if he is referring to a struggle in which intellectual leaders manipulate dependent masses into radical shifts in the distribution of power and in the composition of personnel, or a struggle in which all the powerless people, intellectuals as well as workers, peasants, clerks, and students move to appropriate their alienated power.

A Radical Strategy and a Liberating Agency of Change

In Mills' next two major works, [46] the rift between the academic spectator who takes the dependence of the "mass" and his own impotence for granted, and the radical intellectual committed to politically relevant action, becomes so wide that �C. Wright Mills" seems to become the name of two different authors.

Mills once again collaborated with Professor Hans H. Gerth, this time on a book of essays by Max Weber published in 1946. Whether he "benefited" primarily from his renewed contact with Weber or with Gerth, the Introduction to the book, written by Mills with Gerth, provides a frame of reference from which Mills would never again completely break loose.

Unlike the highly critical introductions to Veblen and Marx written by Mills in later years, the introduction to Weber is reverent, "objective," and uncritical. Weber is introduced as a political man and a political intellectual, [47] namely as a model of something which the powerless people are not. As a young man, Weber was a National Liberal; in the middle 'nineties, Weber was an imperialist, defending the power‑interest of the national state as the ultimate value and using the vocabulary of social Darwinism. [48] During World War 1, He clamored for 'military bases' as far flung as Warsaw and to the north of there. And he wished the German army to occupy Liege and Namur for twenty years. [49] When he moved to a "democratic" position, it was not because he saw democracy as an intrinsically valuable body of ideas. . . He saw democratic institutions and ideas pragmatically: not in terms of their 'inner worth' but in terms of their consequences in the selection of efficient political leaders. And he felt that in modem society such leaders must be able to build up and control a large, well-disciplined machine, in the American sense. [50] And finally, It is, of course, quite vain to speculate whether Weber with his Machiavellian attitude might ever have turned Nazi. To be sure, his philosophy of charisma�his skepticism and his pragmatic view of democratic sentiment�might have given him such affinities. But his humanism, his love for the underdog, his hatred of sham and lies, and his unceasing campaign against racism and anti‑Semitic demagoguery would have made him at least as sharp a 'critic, if not a sharper one, of Hitler than his brother Alfred has been. [51]

Weber's definition of reality is one in which the politics of truth in a democratically responsible society would have no meaning, because revolutionary political strategies cannot be formulated. The comprehensive underlying trend of modern society is bureaucratization, a process of rationalization identified with mechanism, depersonalization, and oppressive routine. [52] This trend does not consist of voluntary collective activities, but of processes which take place behind men's backs and over which they have no control. Even a revolutionary movement is, at best, only an instrument of these processes. Socialist class struggles are merely a vehicle implementing this trend. [53] In short, the comprehensive trend of history, like the law of gravity, is beyond man's reach, and the political intellectual, like the physicist of nineteenth century European science, is merely a member of an audience who observes a spectacle. In this context Mills does not say that simply understanding is an ideal of the man who has the capacity to know truth but not the chance, the skill, or the guts, as the case may be, to communicate. . . with political effectiveness.

Weber does provide some elements which could lead out of this passive observation of underlying trends. The bureaucratization takes place in a context where the wage worker is separated from the means of production, where The modern soldier is equally 'separated' from the means of violence, the scientist from the means of enquiry, and the civil servant from the means of administration. Mills does not, however, follow this lead into a study of alienation as an activity. Instead, he merely says that Weber relativizes Marx's conclusions about the alienation of the wage worker. [54]

In this world where men are reduced to fragments of bureaucracies whose aims they neither understand nor control, there can be no publics of self‑determined individuals whose collective action has consequences on the underlying trend of history. In the place of such publics, Weber offered an alternative which appealed to large numbers of impotent, fragmented men in the twentieth century. Weber places great emphasis upon the rise of charismatic leaders. Their movements are enthusiastic, and in such extraordinary enthusiasms class and status barriers sometimes give way to fraternization and exuberant community sentiments. Charismatic heroes and prophets are thus viewed as truly revolutionary forces in history. Bureaucracy and other institutions, especially those of the household, are seen as routines of workaday life; charisma is opposed to all institutional routines, those of tradition and those subject to rational management. This holds for the economic order: Weber characterizes conquistadores and robber barons as charismatic figures. . . . they have in common the fact that people obey them because of faith in their personally extraordinary qualities. . . the monumentalized individual becomes the sovereign of history. [55] With detachment and even with reverence, Mills and Gerth observe, in 1946, that in Weber's view men cannot collectively make their own history; even revolutionary movements can merely implement what are already the underlying trends of history; and that Weber introduces a balancing conception for bureaucracy: the concept of 'charisma, [56] according to which man nevertheless makes history, but only one man, the charismatic leader, Superman.

*  *  *

As if to dissociate himself from Gerth, Weber and the Charismatic Leader, Mills opens his next major work with the following frontispiece: [57]

When that boatload of wobblies come
Up to Everett, the sheriff says
Don't you come no further
Who the hell's yer leader anyhow?
Who's yer leader?
And them wobblies yelled right back
We ain't got no leader
We're all leaders
And they kept right on comin'

�From an interview with an unknown worker Sutfliffe, Nevada June, 1947.

Mills' first published book, completed when he was 32, is neither a contribution to academic sociology nor a detached and apolitical accomplishment along the journey of a successful professional career. It is a politically motivated task, [58] and as such it takes up projects which had been left unfinished before the second excursion with Professor Gerth.

Rejecting the impotence of the academic intellectual, this politically motivated task aims to be politically relevant, [59] to go beyond those independent leftists for whom political alertness is becoming a contemplative state rather than a spring of action: they are frequently overwhelmed by visions, but they have no organized will. . . they see bureaucracy everywhere and they are afraid. [60] The book aims to expose the labor leader who is walking backwards into the future envisioned by the sophisticated conservatives. By his long‑term pursuit of the short end, he is helping move the society of the United States into a corporate form of garrison state. [61] In this book events are not explained in terms of underlying trends or inevitable historical processes, but in terms of decision and indecision, action and inaction, radical will and failure of nerve. In this context, political thinking becomes a practical activity, and strategy once again has meaning, because consequential collective action is once again defined as possible.

To regain his bearings, to locate himself through a fresh perception of his context, Mills again undertakes to unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect which hide the consequences of people's activity from their view. A chapter is devoted to The Liberal Rhetoric, which has become the medium of exchange among political, scholarly, business, and labor spokesmen. [62] The formulas of this ritualized substitute for communication do not clarify the social situation but obscure it. The rhetoric of liberalism is related neither to the specific stands taken nor to what might be happening outside the range of the spokesman's voice. As applied to business‑labor relations, the liberal rhetoric is not so much a point of view as a social phenomenon. . . . The liberal rhetoric personalizes and moralizes business‑labor relations. It does not talk of any contradiction of interests but of highly placed persons. . . [63] Within the framework of this social phenomenon, pious wishes about the personal morals of the highly placed persons replace political theory and practice: "If only the spokesmen for both sides were uniformly men of good will and if only they were intelligent, then there would be no breach between the interests of the working people and those of the managers of property� [64] In sharp contrast to the liberal rhetoric, the program of the far left . . . attempts to get to the root of what is happening and what might be done about it and consequently, by the public relations‑minded standards of sophisticated conservatives, it is naively outspoken and stupidly rational. [65]

To get to the root of what is happening, and to define it in ways that make clear what might be done about it, Mills has no use for an underlying trend or a substance of history which runs its course like an incurable disease whatever men decide and do. Instead of the unrelenting and inevitable march of the nearly cosmic process of bureaucratization, Mills now sees big businessmen installing the dominant bureaucracies of post‑war America under the very noses of the labor leaders to whom workers had delegated their struggle (and thus alienated their power). The sophisticated conservatives see the world, rather than some sector of it, as an object of profit. They have planned a series of next steps which amount to a New Deal on a world scale operated by big businessmen. [66] This is no natural law; it is The Program of the Right, a program which consists of nothing less than the establishment of the Power Elite and the Permanent War Economy described in Mills' later works as the socio‑econornic system of the United States. From the union of the military, the scientific, and the monopoly business elite, 'a combined chief of staff for America's free private enterprise is to be drawn. If the sophisticated conservatives have their way, the next New Deal will be a war economy rather than a welfare economy, although the conservative's liberal rhetoric might put the first in the guise of the second. [67]

There was nothing natural or inevitable about this process to Mills in 1948; it was both unnatural and avoidable. Lacking a concept of alienation, he does not go to the root of the political apathy of the American worker [68] who unmanned himself by allowing labor leaders to speak and act for him, but Mills does narrate what the labor leaders did with the worker's alienated power: . . . the labor leader often assumes the liberal tactics and rhetoric of big business co‑operation; he asks for the program of the sophisticated conservative; he asks for a place in the new society. . . [69] and thus, he is helping move the society of the United States into a corporate form of garrison state. Watching the labor leader bow and crawl, the political intellectual chooses his own course of action�the intellectual who, as Mills knew well in 1948, was not made powerless by underlying historical trends but by his own decisions; whose situation as a scared employee was not imposed on him from above or below, but was deliberately chosen. The two greatest blinders of the intellectual who today might fight against the main drift are new and fascinating career chances, which often involve opportunities to practice his skill rather freely, and the ideology of liberalism, which tends to expropriate his chance to think straight. The two go together, for the liberal ideology, as now used by intellectuals, acts as a device whereby he can take advantage of the new career chances but retain the illusion that his soul remains his own. As the labor leader moves from ideas to politics, so the intellectual moves from ideas to career. [70] As a result of the choices made by those to whom workers had given up their power to act and think, the main and constant function of a union is to contract labor to an employer and to have a voice in the terms of that contract. . . . the labor leader is a business entrepreneur in the important and specialized business of contracting a supply of trained labor. . . The labor leader organizes and sells wage workers to the highest bidder on the best terms available. He is a jobber of labor power. He accepts the general conditions of labor under capitalism and then, as a contracting agent operating within that system, he higgles and bargains over wages, hours and working conditions for the members of his union. The labor leader is the worker's entrepreneur in a way sometimes similar to the way the corporation manager is the stockholder's entrepreneur. [71]

In later works, Mills is going to write about the collapse of historical agencies of change, about a Labor Metaphysic which holds that workers are going to arise spontaneously, about a promise of labor which was not fulfilled; [72] he is going to describe these false hopes as if they were traps into which he had once fallen, as if he had once believed that American workers were about to initiate a vast anti-capitalist struggle, which Mills would join as soon as the workers began it. But, whatever traps the straw men of the labor movement may have fallen into, Mills was never in such traps (at least not in his published works). He had not even mentioned the American worker as a revolutionary force before The New Men of Power, and in this book he considers the American worker politically apathetic. He does say that the U.S. worker may, under certain circumstances, be willing to take steps toward his own humanization, but by saying this he merely gives the U.S. worker attributes which, after all, this person shares with all normal human beings. In the light of the analysis he makes in The New Men of Power, Mills' later pronouncements about the automatic agency of change which collapsed, his disclaimers of any Labor Metaphysic, his "disappointments" with the promise of labor, can only be interpreted as excuses for his own movement from ideas to career, as liberal ideological devices which he used to take advantage of new career chances while retaining the illusion that his soul remained his own.

In 1948 Mills does not seem to have been waiting for the politically apathetic workers to "arise." He was concerned, rather, with defining the circumstances in which workers might be willing to move. And the first condition for such movement was to cope with the apathy, the dependence, the lack of initiative and self‑determination which largely account for the worker's powerlessness and dehumanization: . . . the power of democratic initiation must be allowed and fostered in the rank and file. . . . During their struggle, the people involved would become humanly and politically alert. [73]

Only then can the left be linked securely with large forces of rebellion. [74] However, forces of rebellion do not "arise" any more automatically than individuals who strive to communicate radical goals and strategies, and workers do not become apathetic any more automatically than the professors or labor leaders who abandon these political tasks in order to enjoy academic or political privileges with the explanation that the historical agency "collapsed." Yet it is somehow easier to excuse in the others; they are not leaders of a protest of such proportion; they follow the main drift with a certain fitness and pleasure, feeling there is something to gain from it, which there often is. But the labor leader represents the only potentially liberating mass force; and as he becomes a man in politics, like the rest, he forgets about political ideas. . . . Programs take time; of the long meantime, the labor leader is afraid; he crawls again into politics‑as‑usual. [75]

On the basis of a definition of reality which clarifies the activities responsible for people's powerlessness, and the location of potential historical subjects who may be willing to struggle for their lost power, Mills is able, for the first time, to link thought with projected action, to formulate a general political strategy. In its broadest form, the strategy is To have an American labor movement capable of carrying out the program of the left, making allies among the middle class, and moving upstream against the main drift. . . [76] Before the program of the left can be carried out, it must be communicated �and this communication is precisely one of the tasks of Mills' book. We shall attempt to do only one thing: to make the collective dream of the left manifest. [77] Only after the strategy has been communicated with political effectiveness will it be possible to speak of workers as a potential agency of change, and then only because the strategy consists of a commonly undertaken project. The� American worker has a high potential militancy when he is pushed, and if he knows what the issue is. Such a man, identified with unions as communities and given a chance to build them, will not respond apathetically when outside political forces attempt to molest what is his. [78] Whatever promise there is in this perspective, it is not based on the expectation that a Savior in the shape of a class conscious proletariat will descend from heaven to pull mankind out of the main drift, but rather on one's own determination to fight and on one's ability to define a field of strategy within which the struggle can be effective. Consequently, one cannot later be "disappointed" by the fact that the Savior did not arrive, but only by one's own timidity, indecision and failure to choose. The American labor unions and a new American left can release political energies, develop real hopefulness, and open matters up for counter‑symbols only if they are prepared to act boldly and win over the less bold by their success. The labor leaders and the U.S. workers are not alone if they choose to fight. They have potential allies of pivotal importance. All those who suffer the results of irresponsible social decisions and who hold a disproportionately small share of the values available to man in modern society are potential members of the left. The U.S. public is by no means a compact reactionary mass. If labor and the left are not to lose the fight against the main drift by default and out of timidity, they will have to choose with whom they will stand up and against whom they will stand. [79]

In spite of the lucidity with which Mills exposes the choice confronting the political intellectual, he is frequently at pains to build himself an escape hatch, and he closes the book with it: It is the task of the labor leaders to allow and to initiate a union of the power and the intellect. They are the only ones who can do it, �that is why they are now the strategic elite in American society. Never has so much depended upon men who are so ill‑prepared and so little inclined to assume the responsibility. [80] This last paragraph of the book flatly contradicts much of the book's content, and particularly the frontispiece in which the wobblies yell We're all leadersand they kept right on comin! The last paragraph is not written by the same man who inserted the frontispiece, nor by the member of a new American left who is determined to act boldly and win over the less bold; it is written by a more passive type of man, a sociology professor who benefitted from his contact with Max Weber and Hans Gerth. The rift between the frontispiece and the last paragraph was never bridged by Mills; it seems that the Weberian leaders and the leaderless Wobblies occupied separate compartments in Mills' mind, and since either one, or the other, emerged from a compartment at any given time, the two never directly confronted each other. [—> contents]


Notes to Chapter 1

1 Mills, "Locating the Enemy: The Nazi Behemoth Dissected.� (Review of Franz Neumann's Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism.) Vol. 4, Partisan Review (September‑October, 1942), pp. 432‑437; in Power, Politics and People, pp. 170‑178. [—> main text]

2 Ibid., p. 177. [—> main text]

3 Ibid., p. 178. [—> main text]

4 �Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive," American Sociological Review, Vol. V, No. 6 (December, 1940), in Power, Politics and People, p. 443. [—> main text]

5 Ibid., p. 441. [—> main text]

6 "Language, Logic and Culture," American Sociological Review, Vol. IV, No. 5 (October, 1939), in Power, Politics and People, pp. 423‑438. [—> main text]

7 The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 218. [—> main text]

8 A Sociological Account of Pragmatism, 1942. Published as Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. [—> main text]

9 Sociology and Pragmatism, pp. 452‑453. [—> main text]

10 Ibid., pp. 392‑393. [—> main text]

11 Ibid., p. 428. [—> main text]

12 Ibid., p. 437. [—> main text]

13 Ibid., p. 455. [—> main text]

14 John Dewey, Freedom and Culture, quoted in Ibid., p. 434. [—> main text]

15 Ibid. [—> main text]

16 Ibid., p. 461. [—> main text]

17 Ibid., p. 436. [—> main text]

18 Irving Louis Horowitz, "Introduction: The Intellectual Genesis of C, Wright Mills," Ibid., p. 23. [—> main text]

19 Mills, "A Marx for the Managers" (with H. H. Gerth, Ethics: An International Journal of Legal, Political and Social Thought, Vol. 52, No. 2 (January, 1942), in Power, Politics and People, pp. 53‑71. [—> main text]

20 Ibid., p. 53. [—> main text]

21 Ibid. [—> main text]

22 Ibid., pp. 53‑54. [—> main text]

23 Ibid., p. 67. [—> main text]

24 Ibid., p. 71. [—> main text]

25 Ibid. [—> main text]

26 'The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society,'' Politics, Vol. l; No. 3 (April, 1944), in Power, Politics and People, where it is published under the title �The Social Role of the Intellectual," pp. 292‑304. [—> main text]

27 Ibid., p. 299. [—> main text]

28 Ibid., p. 293. [—> main text]

29 Ibid. [—> main text]

30 Ibid., p. 294. [—> main text]

31 Ibid., p. 300. [—> main text]

32 Ibid., p. 299. [—> main text]

33 Ibid., pp. 302‑303. [—> main text]

34 "The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLIX, No. 2 (September, 1943), in Power, Politics and People, pp. 536‑537 and pp. 551‑552. [—> main text]

35 "The Powerless People," loc. cit., p. 300. [—> main text]

36 Ibid., pp. 296‑297. [—> main text]

37 Ibid., p. 297. [—> main text]

38 Ibid., p. 300. [—> main text]

39 Ibid., p. 297. [—> main text]

40 Ibid., p. 300. [—> main text]

41 Ibid., p. 304. [—> main text]

42 Ibid., pp. 298‑299. [—> main text]

43 Ibid., p. 299. [—> main text]

44 Ibid., p. 300. [—> main text]

45 Ibid., p. 303. [—> main text]

46 From Max Weber Essays in Sociology (Translated and edited from the German by Mills with H.H. Gerth), New York: Oxford University Press; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1946, and The New Men of Power. [—> main text]

47 Introduction to From Max Weber, p. 32. [—> main text]

48 Ibid., p. 35. [—> main text]

49 Ibid., p. 39. [—> main text]

50 Ibid., p. 38. [—> main text]

51 Ibid., p. 43. [—> main text]

52 Ibid., p. 50. [—> main text]

53 Ibid. [—> main text]

54 Ibid. [—> main text]

55 Ibid., pp. 52‑53. [—> main text]

56 Ibid., p. 52. [—> main text]

57 The New Men of Power, Frontispiece. [—> main text]

58 The Sociological Imagination, p. 200. [—> main text]

59 The New Men of Power, p. 10. [—> main text]

60 Ibid., p. 18. [—> main text]

61 Ibid., p. 233. [—> main text]

62 Ibid., p. 111. [—> main text]

63 Ibid., p. 111 and 113. [—> main text]

64 Ibid., p. 114. [—> main text]

65 Ibid., p. 240. [—> main text]

66 Ibid., pp. 240‑241. [—> main text]

67 Ibid., pp. 248‑249. [—> main text]

68 Ibid., p. 269. [—> main text]

69 Ibid., p. 249 and p. 233. [—> main text]

70 Ibid., p. 281. [—> main text]

71 Ibid., p. 6. [—> main text]

72 See Power, Politics and People, pages 187, 105‑108, 232, 255‑259. [—> main text]

73 The New Men of Power, pp. 252‑253. [—> main text]

74 Ibid., p. 250. [—> main text]

75 Ibid., pp. 169‑170. [—> main text]

76 Ibid., p. 291. [—> main text]

77 Ibid., p. 251. [—> main text]

78 Ibid., pp. 269‑270. [—> main text]

79 Ibid., p. 274. [—> main text]

80 Ibid., last paragraph of the book, p. 291. [—> main text]


SOURCE: Perlman, Fredy. The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action. Detroit: Black & Red, 1970.


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Chapter 2: The Mindless Years 1950‑1956


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