5 JULY 1963, Page 20

The Great Obsession

B Y EDWARD SHILS FROM his first steps out of his sociological cradle, the late Professor C. Wright Mills stressed the superficiality and irrelevance of men's accounts of their own motives and be- littled them by pointing to the 'forces' which made them what they were. His intellectual pro- gress consisted in broadening his conception of the 'forces,' but he never became deeper than he was in his youth. Instead, he became more superficial as he became broader. Explanation was replaced by disclosure and by denunciation.

He was the natural enemy of his contempor- aries and his elders. He wanted to go beyond them too, by disclosing their thoughtless taking for granted of a social structure visible only to his own penetrating eyes and to those of his great forerunners Marx and Weber. He was uncom- fortable in an institutional setting which he would not leave and in which he refused to be contained. He was a 'natural-born agin'er.' The 'sociology of knowledge' was.a fit instrument for discrediting all competing thinkers and for diminishing the dignity of those already dimin- ished by defeat and submission. His repugnance for the established institutions, with their victors and defeated, went hand in hand with an image of himself as an indomitable spirit whom the established powers could not domesticate. Slap- dash and bloodcurdling were the proper rhetor- ical devices of one who liked to think of himself as an outlaw, a Prometheus, a last-ditch fighter, a lonely bull, an embattled hero who would never yield to coercion or seduction. He liked to put on the airs of. a man who was attacked on every side by overwhelming odds but who would never give up. Of course, the self-portrayal was com- pletely a self-deception—he was not a hero in any way; no one persecuted him; his books were much praised and widely read; he did not have to contend with censorship—rather, on at least one occasion he was party to an attempt to sup- press a detailed critical review of one of his books—and a list of the universities where he taught and the publishers and editors who brought out his writings shows how erroneous was his view of his own position in the world.

He began as an academic sociologist whose critical inclinations and wide reading quickly placed him beyond the preoccupation of the con- ventional sociology of the American universities of the late 1930s. From the very beginning, he was at odds with the assumptions of the socio- logical profession: He abominated the uncritical liberal humanitarian reformism of the American sociologists of his teachers' generation.

The native radicalism and the touch of Europe which the University of Wisconsin has afforded for many years were quickly absorbed; they focused his discontent on the 'structure of power' and the class system. At Wisconsin, he acquired something of Mannheim, a bit of Marx, a lot of Veblen, a touch of Max Weber—especially his observations on the depersonalised, constraining effects of bureaucracy. These became the essen- tial ingredients of Mills's image of the world, and they remained fairly constant through his whole remaining career. The changes thereafter were few : his belief in a revolutionary working class dropped away; his imagery became more melo- dramatic, and he became more of a preacher, exhorting to action intellectuals whom he had once written off as 'the powerless people.'

The stability of his obsessive preoccupation

with power, throughout the career which moved from academic sociology to apocalyptic prophecy before a world-wide audience, is now visible in this selection of his essays,* assembled by Pro- fessor Irving Louis Horowitz, who provides an introduction interesting only for its illustration of the widespread Schwartnerei for Mills's ficti- tious 'heroism.' hi the earliest articles, written for professional sociologists, one sees Mills, fascin- ated by Mannheim and the French sociologists, trying to escape by an available academic route from the abstract unreality of the laboratory and the questionnaire. In these early essays, one can already see his impatience with the analysis of details, his hunger for the grandiose, and the de- clamatory pretentiousness of his style. Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, Imperial Ger- many and the Industrial Revolution and The Theory of Business Enterprise were his intel- lectual and literary points of departure. He did not, however, share Veblen's moral puritanism, he took over from Veblen only his aversion against those who are in positions of power. He replaced Veblen's distinction between those who work and those who rule by inheritance and manipulation by a commonplace distinction be- tween the powerless and the mighty, and stretched it to the point where the nerves are set on edge. All his major and minor works bear witness to his fixation with this theme, from his hallucinated portrait of the power elite and his early statistical studies of the social origins and characteristics of American trade union and business leaders to his deliberately grim accounts of the powerless—the clerical workers and the small businessmen.

The thought of power saturated and intoxi- cated his mind. 'He was a Manichean who saw power as darkness. But he did not think that the powerless were on the side of light. In fact, he saw practically no light anywhere. He certainly hated the powerful, but he attributed no merit to the powerless. There were no carriers for his hopes partly because he saw no one worthy of them and partly because he really cared very little for humanity. He found sufficient to engage his passions in castigating the mighty and des- pising their victims. Defeat fascinated him, but he had little compassion for the defeated.

Early in his career, he had looked leftward in a conventional way to find a solution to the problem created by the concentrated power of big business and its governmental ally. He even in an early essay believed in the salvationary potentiality of the revolutionary working class in alliance with 'pro-labour intellectuals.' These hopes, which must have been faint afterthoughts at best, did not last long. lie expected nothing from the labour movement; whose leaders, sinde they were not revolutionaries, he once regarded as members of the power elite. (Later, as his pic- ture of the world became more simple, he de- graded them to a lesser rank, to a no-man's-land which had none of the drama of the extremes, an inconsequential sphere of society in whi such mean things as bargaining and compromi of interests occurred.)

Increasingly in his 'heroic' phase, he used proclaim that he stood for 'freedom and reasd in a society in which he seemed to think of hi ,self as the only proponent of these virtues. Th

, never were given any substantive collie* although one suspects that they were close to the nebulosities of the 'critical philosophy' of the *POWER. POLITICS AND PEOPLE: THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF C. WRIGHT MILLS. Edited and with in introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz. (0.U.P., 52s. 6d.)

Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which in -its short exile in America provided enough Intellectual nonsense to last a generation. One never saw anything in his writing about what the political or economic system of a regime of 'free- dom and reason' would be like. He dropped hints that some liberal regime of the nineteenth cen- tury in which the public discussed important issues, and which used its freedom to exercise its reason, might have been this ideal regime. Since, however, he stressed its irrelevance and its unviability, it is more likely that this image of a Bagehotian age of discussion was only a polemical device for showing how impossible it was for any virtue to find expression in present- day society.

Constantly asserting the need to study 'struc- ture' and reiterating endlessly • the cliché of Ixreaucratisation, his views became emptier and emptier, la the end all he saw was an unpre- cedented and complete concentration of power

America and Russia, which he tried to assimi- late to each other in obviously preposterous ways, e.g. with respect to freedom of expression and association. He disparaged any more differ- entiated analysis of the pattern of the distribu- tion of power as superficial because such analysis was bound to show that power was more com- plex and more widely dispersed than he wished to believe.

Thus the vehement critic of modern sociology, who alleged that he nearly alone was carrying on the classic tradition df the subject, became in the end a demagogic simplifier. He had, despite his omnivorous reading, a singularly incurious mind. He was a person of tremendous energy which expressed itself in his great capacity for ork and in his voluminous output as well as in his vigorous and cloudy rhetoric. He had strong passions; especially strong was his passion in denunciation. But his intelligence could give ex- pression to his desire to transcend the common- place only by resorting to ridiculous exaggera- tion. By the time he reached his last phase and had become famous over a large part of the world, he had become the preacher of a single

proposition: the American elite was driving the world into a ruinous war, and its corollary: the Soviet elite, so much like the American elite, was

saving the world from war by its restraint. This became his obsession and the source of his fame. The quality of his intellectual performance diminished concurrently with his renown. In his first phase, when he was an academic sociologist, he was crude but solid. He read widely and did substantial research. In his second phase, he be- came the sociologist of the non-Stalinist con- venticles and of the research students who like himself ten to fifteen years earlier were in rebel- lion against the views of their teachers. He be- came the patron of melancholy ex-Marxists on the mourners' bench, and of those who read Kafka's novels as descriptions of contemporary society.

In his third and last phase, which ran from the publication of The Power Elite in 1956 to his

death last year, he became a world figure who met the needs of those who had renounced their Communist friends but who could not give up their old enemies. They needed for their solace an unsparing 'leftist' American critic of America, equipped with the mystique of sociology, an erudite who was not a pedant, a pro-Marxist who was not a party Marxist. He flattered the pre- judices of Europe by his robust animosity against his own country. He flattered them further by implying, from his own ignorance, how much better things were managed in Europe. He fitted

the mood of the times. He had the prejudices and the phrases of the revolutionary without be- lief in the likelihood of a revolution or any con- viction that it would bring forth something ol

value. So it was that he appealed to souls ren- dered homeless by Stalinism and by the suppres- sion of the Hungarian Revolution. He appealed to them to become the levers of that new order which has no content, and of a goodness which was good only in not being like the present.

It was only in his third prophetic phase that Europe and the rest of the world got to know him. The rapid sequence of books which followed The Power Elite: The Causes of World War

Listen, Yankee, The Sociological Imagination, and several others all kept him before the public

eye. With Professors J. K. Galbraith and Titmuss, he became the arsenal of the British New Left, a bastinado with which to beat down Anthony Crosland. He was more companionable to the New Left than his fellow triumvirs, who did not choose their admirers, because the outlook of the political conventicle was more congenial to him than it was to them. He made triumphal tours of the old world in the footsteps of the spec- tacular American evangelists of the latter part of the nineteenth century. He became the con- fidant of the Fidelistas. He was translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Italian, and Polish. No academic sociologist of any country had hitherto become a world figure so widely known beyond his profession.

Now he is dead and his rhetoric is a field of broken stones, his analyses empty, his strenuous pathos limp. He was a victim of his own vanity and of a shrivelled Marxism, which will not die and which goes on requiring the sacrifice of the