About

Twitter

Facebook

CUP Web site

RSS Feed

New Books

Author Interviews

Author Events

Keep track of new CUP book releases:
e-newsletters

For media inquiries, please contact our
publicity department

CUP Authors Blogs and Sites

American Society of Magazine Editors

Leonard Cassuto

Mike Chasar / Poetry and Popular Culture

Erica Chenoweth / "Rational Insurgent"

Juan Cole

Jenny Davidson / "Light Reading"

Faisal Devji

William Duggan

James Fleming / Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog

David Harvey

Paul Harvey / "Religion in American History"

Bruce Hoffman

Alexander Huang

David K. Hurst / The New Ecology of Leadership

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Geoffrey Kabat / "Hyping Health Risks"

Grzegorz W. Kolodko / "Truth, Errors, and Lies"

Jerelle Kraus

Julia Kristeva

Michael LaSala / Gay and Lesbian Well-Being (Psychology Today)

David Leibow / The College Shrink

Marc Lynch / "Abu Aardvark"

S. J. Marshall

Michael Mauboussin

Noelle McAfee

The Measure of America

Philip Napoli / Audience Evolution

Paul Offit

Frederick Douglass Opie / Food as a Lens

Jeffrey Perry

Mari Ruti / The Juicy Bits

Marian Ronan

Michael Sledge

Jacqueline Stevens / States without Nations

Ted Striphas / The Late Age of Print

Charles Strozier / 9/11 after Ten Years

Hervé This

Alan Wallace

James Igoe Walsh / Back Channels

Xiaoming Wang

Santiago Zabala

Press Blogs

AAUP

University of Akron

University of Alberta

American Management Association

Baylor University

Beacon Broadside

University of California

Cambridge University Press

University of Chicago

Cork University

Duke University

University of Florida

Fordham University Press

Georgetown University

University of Georgia

Harvard University

Harvard Educational Publishing Group

University of Hawaii

Hyperbole Books

University of Illinois

Island Press

Indiana University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Kentucky

Louisiana State University

McGill-Queens University Press

Mercer University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society

University of Mississippi

University of Missouri

MIT

University of Nebraska

University Press of New England

University of North Carolina

University Press of North Georgia

NYU / From the Square

University of Oklahoma

Oregon State University

University of Ottawa

Oxford University

Penn State University

University of Pennsylvania

Princeton University

Stanford University

University of Sydney

University of Syracuse

Temple University

University of Texas

Texas A&M University

University of Toronto

University of Virginia

Wilfrid Laurier University

Yale University

August 1st, 2012 at 10:46 am

Stanley Aronowitz on C. Wright Mills as Public Intellectual

“Mills is an exhilarating exemplar of the role and reach of the public radical intellectual and, at the same time, a sobering reminder of how far the human sciences have declined since the end of the Vietnam war.”—Stanley Aronowitz

Stanley Aronowitz, Taking it Big

In Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz emphasizes C. Wright Mills’s willingness to challenge the political and intellectual orthodoxies of his day. In terms of academia, Mills resisted the trend of his time for a more dispassionate or “scientific” approach to sociology. Instead, Mills saw himself as a public intellectual and conceived of his sociological practice as having a political and social impact.

In this excerpt from the introduction to Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz expands upon this facet of C. Wright Mills’s legacy:

Mills produced social knowledge but was also an intellectual agitator. He was deeply interested in advancing the science of sociology as a means of giving us a wider understanding of how society worked. From the late 1940s, when Mills and Helen Schneider produced their landmark study of the American labor union leaders, he remained a close student of social movements. His writings include analyses of the labor movement, the student Left, and the peace movement. He swam, intellectually, against the current, yet, unlike many independent leftists who saw only defeat in the postwar drift toward militaristic-corporate political economy and despaired of relevant political practice, Mills was, above all, a practical thinker. His interest was always to describe the “main chance” as a dead end and to counterpose the chances for leftward social change. Consequently, even when he describes labor leaders and portrays the new middle class in terms of subordination and as the allies of the leading elites, his mind never strayed far from the question “what is to be done?” What are the levers for changing the prevailing relations of power? How can those at or near the bottom emerge as historical subjects?

Mills was aware that to reach beyond the audience of professional social scientists he was obliged to employ rhetoric that, as much as possible, stayed within natural, even colloquial, language. Addressing the general reader as well as his diminishing audience of academic colleagues, Mills conveyed difficult and theoretically sophisticated concepts in plain, often visual prose, described by one critic as “muscular.” And, perhaps most famously, he was a phrasemaker. For example, his concept of the “main drift” to connote conventional wisdom, as well as centrist politics, encapsulates in a single phrase what others require paragraphs to explain. And instead of using the Marxian-loaded term “crisis” or the technical dodge “recession” to describe conditions of economic woe, he employed the colloquial “slump.” He characterizes the rise of industrial unions after 1935 as the “big story” for American labor, a term that encompasses history and common perception.

In these days, when most members of the professoriate have retreated from public engagement except when they act as consultants for large corporations, media experts, and recipients of the grant largesse of corporate foundations and government agencies who want their research to assist policy formulation—or confine their interventions to professional journals and meetings—Mills remains a potent reminder of one possible answer to the privatization of legitimate intellectual knowledge. In 1939, his colleague Robert S. Lynd wrote a probing challenge to knowledge producers of all sorts—Knowledge for What? In it, Lynd asked the fundamental question: to whom is the knowledge producer responsible? To the state? To private corporations? To publics that are concerned with issues of equality and social justice? Mills’s The Sociological Imagination, which appeared twenty years later, resumes Lynd’s critique but extends it to a searching repudiation of major social scientific methodologies.

Mills rejects as spurious the doctrine according to which the social investigator is obliged to purge his work of social and political commitment. His values infuse his sociological research and theorizing, and he never hid behind methodological protestations of neutrality. Mills was a partisan of movements of social freedom and emancipation while, at the same time, preserving his dedication to dry-eyed critical theory and dispassionate, empirical inquiry. He was an advocate of a democratic, radical labor movement but, nevertheless, was moved to indict its leadership not by fulmination but by a careful investigation of how unions actually worked in the immediate postwar period. A self-described man of the Left, in the late 1940s Mills provoked a portion of his leftist readership to outrage when he concluded that the “old” socialist and communist movements had come to the end of the road….

***

Mills is an exhilarating exemplar of the role and reach of the public radical intellectual and, at the same time, a sobering reminder of how far the human sciences have declined since the end of the Vietnam war. Even in death Mills was an inspiration to a generation of young intellectuals estranged from the suburban nightmare of post–World War II America and eager to shape their own destiny. He also inspired some in his own generation who, in fear and trembling, had withdrawn from public involvement but yearned to return. The decline of social engagement and political responsibility that accompanied the ebbing of reform and revolutionary movements in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the shift of labor, socialist, and social-liberal parties and movements to the liberal center. Many erstwhile radical intellectuals who retained their public voice moved steadily to the right, motivated, they said, by the authoritarianism of the New Left as well as the Old Left and by their conviction that American capitalism and its democratic institutions were the best of all possible worlds.

2 Comments

  1. Edward Tiryakian says:

    The parallels between Mills and Pitirim Sorokin are striking. Is there any correspondence between them?

  2. What SUP from Your Favorite University Presses, August 3, 2012 | Yale Press Log says:

    [...] of its series on C. Wright Mills, a sociologist who believed his work could have social impact; Columbia University Press has an excerpt by author Stanley Aronowitz about the social contributions of Mill’s [...]

Post a comment