Marxism According to C. Wright Mills


Diderot once noted that the future is to the philosophic man what immortality is to the religious man. Here C. Wright Mills, speaking as a “political philosopher,” attempts to delineate the sort of future mankind can expect. This work, a fitting capstone to a hectic career by the conscience of American sociology, is indeed concerned with the future. In the fourteen chapters comprising this book (seven written by Mills and seven written by “the Marxists” from Marx to Mao) the history of Marxian ideas is seen in present-day terms. Mills was no pious true believer – that which does not serve to illumine the contours of present society is, from a pragmatic viewpoint, ballast – and is properly and unceremoniously treated as such. Mills herein displays a reverence for conflicting modes of socio-historical reality, and a healthy irreverence for all else. This volume exhibits in every way Mills’ view of the sociological imagination: the need for historical specificity and empirical predictability, living social doctrine presented in living language, and a meaning and impact to ideas that can at least match, if not outstrip, informed biographies and informing newspapers. Let it thus be said at the outset that this is work the philosophic community will want to have. And its extraordinary low price and high value (made possible, paradoxically enough, by capitalist mass marketing techniques) is, itself a reflection of Mills’ Herculean battle for a “public sociology” similar in intent, if not in content, to Walter Lippman’s “public philosophy.”

As an overview of the contemporary situation in Marxisms in the light of their common intellectual antecedents, no single book now available covers as much ground as The Marxists, or covers the ground as well. Mills’ method of historical specificity, which is really empiricism with the dimension of time included, is herein well deployed. The interplay of social forces which has created Marxisms rather than a monolith “Marxist social science” is well portrayed. Throughout, it is interesting to see how Mills distinguishes himself from Marxists and anti-Marxists alike. Rather than celebrate or bemoan the fracturing of Marx’s works into various competing factions, he sees in this very process of revision, reevaluation, restoration, etc., the life blood of a social doctrine.

The thesis of the book can be stated quite simply: the Marxists are important precisely because of their distinctive and different appraisals, whereas the Liberals are unimportant precisely because of the absence of differences. Mills seems to be saying that liberalism is, a perishing intellectual commodity to the degree that it becomes identified with an existing social establishment, in short, to the extent that it becomes monolithic. The pluralist, the man receptive to new ideas, the man in- terested in the social uses of social science – in short, the classic liberal, must perforce interest himself in Marxism, because it is within its. confines that liberalism fulfills itself. The formalistic and official liberalism of new and old frontiers is captive to Statist dogma – whether on questions of academic freedom or foreign policy – as such, it has. lost its capacity to move men. And Mills was behaviorist enough to sense that those ideas which have no consequences in public action, have no consequences period. Thus Mills’ volume is not an appeal to partisan passions (for example, no Marxist could possibly be content with the relativism implicit in Mills’ presentation of the contemporary panorama of Marxian ideas), but a realistic assessment of contemporary political philosophy – and no less, of what the liberal individual must pay attention to in the realm of ideas if he wishes to carry forth in the “classic tradition” of Mill and Hobhouse. This volume is thus an attempt to fuse the pragmatic imagi- nation with the sociological imagination – and such a fusion results in a renewal of the sinews of political philosophy.

Mills’ present book is characterized by the same sort of sharp tongue and barbed wit as was The Sociological Imagination. If in this earlier work he rubbed the noses of his colleagues to the grindstone with such memorable phrases as “abstracted empiricism” and “grand theory,” he is no less clear in distinguishing the wheat from the: chaff in Marxian thought. His Jamesian characterization of the “law” of the “negation of the negation” deserves to be reproduced – in part at least: “one thing grows out of another and then does battle with it. In turn, the newly grown produces in itself ‘the seeds of its own destruction’. Marx’s texts are full of metaphors from the reproductive cycle and the hospital delivery room. Things are pregnant; there are also false alarms; wombs and midwives abound. And finally, there is bloody birth.” The outcome of this jocularity is, however, quite serious; “one should not mistake metaphors of style for a method of thinking.” And throughout, the essays chosen for inclusion in this text have this as their touchstone. The selections from the writings of the Bolsheviks: Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin; the social democrats; Kautsky, Bernstein, and Luxemburg; the critics of Stalinism; Hilferding, Borkenau, Deutsher; and the new revisionists: Khruschev, Mao Tse Tung, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara (some quite hard to come by in their original forms, and all scattered about); thus make for lively and intellectually provocative reading.

Mills’ own method, with which he studies the writings of the Marxians, constitutes a paradigm for the study of political thought worthy enough to be considered in the same class with Robert K. Merton’s paradigm for the study of the sociology of knowledge. His methodological base has four main constituent elements: (a) Analysis of Marxist political philosophy in terms of ideology, that is, in terms of which institutions and attitudes are justified or criticized. (b) Analysis of Marxism as an ethic, as a worked out body of ideals and beliefs. (c) Analysis of Marxist agencies of change, the instruments of reform, restoration, revolution, etc. (d) Marxism as a social and historical theory, the assumptions it makes about how man in society functions.

No claim is made by Mills for the sociological purity or inclusiveness of this paradigm for the study of political thought (indeed, in this he is distinguished from the exaggerated claims made by the Parsonian sociologists). Oriented to the chores of a social philosopher (a natural role for Mills, since he received his early training in philosophy), Mills seeks as much to explain his own perspectives and beliefs as those of the Marxians. What these beliefs are, is woven throughout the text portions of the book. Involved is a commitment to social science, of which Marxism is a part, and a very important part, both historically and in the present. However, the priority of social science as an empirical and historical whole makes a dogmatic outcome in favor of any one part of this tradition impossible. Indeed, Mills’ volume closes with a set of questions for the serious investigator and reader. And while there are fewer answers than one might hope for, the long journey from cover to cover leaves us more sober and better equipped to answer questions about the nature and content of Marxisms in the present world.

While the evaluative criteria of Mills are empirical and critical, these are not the only levels at which he operates. For Mills was too sophisticated a thinker not to understand that the social importance of ideas may or may not have anything to do with how scientific or rational a belief system is. Hence, Mills seeks to explain the widespread acceptance of Marxism in all parts of the world, on the basis of ideological and moral fervor, no less than upon the truth content of the doctrine. And Mills was himself a man with moral convictions, quite willing to stake his professional reputation in defense of these convictions. Marxism is a good thing to have around because it makes possible the dialogue without which life would indeed become grey and trivial. The dialogue is healthy in itself. And for that very reason, the plethora of Marxisms is a sign both of intellectual vigor and social importance.

Mills was above’ all a man of Enlightenment, a believer in the practical worth and consequences of ideas. His kinship for the writings of the Marxists was a belief in the human passions. He had no illusions about the terrorism of Stalinism, but yet he could ask himself if Stalinism could lead to socialism no less than Reformism. He had no illusions about the cynical uses of Marxism in the Soviet Union, yet he could ask himself to what extent Marxism is sincerely used and usable as a political policy-, making device. In short, Mills himself was a contributor, no less than a commentator, to the dialogue now raging within international socialist circles. As such, this book fulfilled Mills’ own conception of the role of the man of ideas in the world of men.

Irving Louis Horowitz Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Mar., 1964)

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