Radicalism vs. Liberalism: C. Wright Mills’ Critique of John Dewey’s Ideas

This is J. L. SIMICH and RICK TILMAN’s 1978 critique of Mills (from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 4) which I don’t agree with but which raises several interesting issues on his relationship with Dewey.  Mills’ Ph.D. work on the Pragmatists was published as Sociology and Pragmatism:  The Higher Learning in America (New York, 1964) via Irving Louis Horowitz.


C. Wright Mills’ critique of some aspects of the thought of John Dewey is analyzed. What Mills studied was what he referred to as 1) Dewey’s “biologization” and “methodization” of value phenomena; 2) his approach to the solutions of socio-economic problems and 3) his insensitivity to the structural origins of interest and power. Mills held generally that Dewey was unable to free himself from liberal-reformist assumptions and programs and consequently could not construct a consistently radical critique of the dominant socioeconomic institutions. Careful analysis of Dewey’s writings, however, suggests a picture substantially different from the one Mills painted. It is shown that, in several areas, Mills’ critique of Dewey was over-stated and that Dewey was indeed committed to a program of fundamental social change considerably more radical than the prescriptions of contemporary liberalism. Finally, analysis of both Mills’ and Dewey’s political biographies suggests a common desire for an egalitarian and participatory society based upon some form of socialism. Their common interests and values are more striking than their


THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL THOUGHT of John Dewey has been under serious attack for many years. C. Wright Mills was not his first adversary (1). Dewey’s early pragmatic and later instrumentalist doctrine has been criticized in diverse intellectual and political circles. A partial survey of writers critically concerned with Dewey’s political thought in ways related to Mills’ critique includes: 1) Marxists and other radicals who believe instrumentalism is an ideological rationalization of the capitalist order. They contend that Dewey had an inadequate conception of class structure, little appreciation of the role of the working class, an unviable commitment to incremental rather than radical change and an unwillingness to confront squarely the problem of corporate power in capitalist societies (2). 2) Those such as Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian and social critic, think structural reform can only be achieved by overcoming group egoism and self-interest through overriding religious commitment. Niebuhr  believes that Dewey ignores this harsh reality because of his opposition to institutional religion and unwillingness to face the difficulties of attaining change in a hostile environment (3). 3) Disillusioned pragmatists like Randolph Bourne (4) emphasize propensity of instrumentalism to degenerate into a philosophy of political expediency in which ends are subordinated to means, and vision to technique. 4)

Recent critics, such as Alfonso Damico, argue that Dewey avoids serious reflection about values, especially political values, because, by focusing on the issue of the place of standards in choosing, he becomes preoccupied with the process of choice at the expense of criteria of choice (5). Pragmatism thus shuts off serious normative discourse by substituting “method” and “science” for philosophy, and “problem” for “value.” 5) Harold Stearns claims (6) that Dewey never asked the question of ultimate values or purposes, an assertion of obvious political significance if social or political reconstruction is sought. 6) Morton White contends (7) that Dewey’s liberalism supplies us with no particular or specific political position that can be acted on, only a plea for intelligence. 7) A. J. Somjee argues that Dewey’s inability to grasp the basic difference between the manipulative operations of a civil or mechanical engineer on the one hand, and political “engineers” on the other, makes his approach to the problems of political manipulation unrealistic and naive (8).

C. Wright Mills was a sympathetic yet critical interpreter of Dewey whose views partially parallel the above appraisals. Although he mounted his challenge from the political Left, he distinguished himself from other radical critics of pragmatism by the exceptional depth and penetration of his analysis. Consequently, the intellectual merit of his critique warrants consideration of his views aside from his reputation as a radical political sociologist and social critic. Mills received much of his early training in philosophy as a pragmatist under disciples of George Herbert Mead and John Dewey (9). The focus of Mills’ early work was the sociology of knowledge, particularly the sociology of philosophy (10). Although he concentrated on the social background of the major pragmatists and their reading audience, he also analyzed epistemological, methodological, ethical and political aspects of pragmatism. By so doing, Mills revealed a commitment to this mode of thought, although his critique of it was based on his own unique brand of eclectic radicalism (11).

The point is often made that pragmatism, including Deweyan instrumentalism, is an important component of American liberalism. At present liberalism is in a period of acute intellectual and political crisis. It is uncertain of its own doctrinal orientation, unable to formulate a convincing critique of the structural flaws of American institutions, and unwilling to focus on goals or programs capable of capturing the public’s support. Since instrumentalism is alleged to be a component of liberal doctrine, Mills’ analysis of Dewey may be useful in understanding the vicissitudes of contemporary liberalism. Our focus will be on the political aspects of his evaluation of Dewey. We will concentrate on Mills’ critique of Dewey’s 1) “biologization” and “‘methodization” of value phenomena and consequent lack of emphasis on the impact of the cultural apparatus in value formation and public policy; 2) incrementalist approach to the solution of sociopolitical problems, and 3) attitude toward the structural origins of conflicts of interest and power. Also, the similarities in political biography which narrow the gap between the two will be noted and Mills’ critique of Dewey’s political audience evaluated.


MILLS BELIEVED that Dewey’s explanation of human behavior was overly biological because his sequence of adjustment was a simplistic, mechanical one of organism -environment-adaptation. Mills contended that urbanized existence was virtually independent of biological factors, for explanation of action is cultural, not biological. In Dewey, on the other hand, physical characteristics were set against mental characteristics while inadequate attention was given to cultural factors. Mills argued that Dewey’s psychology thus failed to take adequate account of the fact that in the evolution of cultural conduct from organic behavior there is genuine novelty and irreducible qualitative differentiation. Thus, behavioral patterns are culturally fostered and cannot be reduced to biology and physiology. As Mills put it, “the biological theory of action constructed along adjustment lines is not adequate to our present data and knowledge” (12).

Mills elaborated on his disagreement with Dewey (and Marx) when he wrote in his essay, “The Cultural Apparatus,” that

the consciousness of men does not determine their material existence; nor does their material existence determine their consciousness. Between consciousness and existence stand meanings and designs and communications which other men have passed-first, in human speech itself, and later, by the management of symbols. These received and manipulated interpretations decisively influence such consciousness as men have of their existence. . . . In the cultural apparatus art, science, and learning, entertainment, malarkey, and information are produced and distributed. . . . Taken as a whole the cultural apparatus is the lens of mankind through which men see; the medium by which they interpret and report what they see. It is the semi-organized source of their very identities and of their aspirations (13).

The political significance of this becomes evident in Mills’ claim that the power elite is able to manipulate the cultural apparatus to its own advantage in establishing what Gramsci called “ideological hegemony.” Thus, Dewey was alleged to be guilty both of using a mechanistic adjustment model to explain human behavior, and of inadequate recognition of the class bias and power disparities which are inherent in the cultural environment of American capitalism.

Further, Mills argues, Dewey was wrong in believing that the method of science is necessarily self-corrective. Dewey paid inadequate attention to the sociology of knowledge perspective which shows how “scientific” methodology and the epistemological positions on which it is based depend upon the distribution of social power. For what is “scientific” is often an ideological rationale for what is useful to elites who perceive science as a device for consolidating or expanding their sociopolitical position. Consequently, models which are dominant in the scientific community, including the procedures of laboratory science upon which Dewey relied too heavily, may reflect little more than the existing power structure. This is especially true when these procedures, adapted from the “hard sciences,” become the methodological core of inquiry in the social sciences. Dewey’s work on social and political issues performs a “masking” or ideological function which vitiates its potential as an agent of social change. Mills put it this way:

It should be clear that …the angle of sight of these conceptions are not conducive, indeed prohibit the discernment or the reconstruction of power-issues and structural antagonisms (14).

Thus not only did Dewey’s philosophy serve as an ideological mask for the existing distribution of power, but it was an actual source of social problems.

According to Mills, Dewey’s value theory made him prone to overlook power inequalities, ideological differences, and conflicts of interest. Moreover Mills felt that Dewey’s biological model of action contained a deficiency which was connected with his evasion of the value

The biological model of action, “adaptation,” by its formality enables one to avoid value-decisions…. By its usage value-decisions as value-decisions are assimilated into the biological and hidden by formality (15).

Mills read Dewey as believing that value phenomena have their immediate source in biological modes of behavior. This embedding of value in a biological matrix is a central cause of Dewey’s failure to confront the necessity of value choice.

Related to this is Mills’ contention that, although for Dewey growth is a moral end, Dewey fails to establish criteria for differentiating between good growth and bad growth. But Mills ignores the fact that growth for Dewey is not an aimless, random activity but a process which enables more growth to occur. When growth does occur it will not hinder or block subsequent growth. Thus growth itself becomes the criterion Dewey uses for distinguishing between “good” growth and “bad” growth. As Axtelle and Burnett put it in his defense:

Growth is not neutral or amoral development. It is life guided with an eye to the enrichment of present and future development. . . One can “grow” —in a non-Deweyan sense—as a criminal; but it is doubtful if it can be said with assurance that in any culture criminality is a customary and opportune route to a life which is long, full, free, and vivid. It is true that some criminals reach an old age, relatively untouched by social demands, and die rich. For all the seeming glamour of their life of luxury, the secrecy required to exploit others leads to stultification (16).

Mills also objected to Dewey’s tendency to “methodize,” by which he meant that Dewey utilized methodological solutions to problems that were not, at bottom, methodological. Dewey was guilty of

. . . the assimilation of problems of political power and of moral goods to a statement of thinking, of method to a model of action and thought imputed to “science”. … But the model is generalized by Dewey into education and into the discussion of politics . . . “scientific method” becomes “the method of intelligence” and this method is equated with “liberal democracy” (17).

Thus, where Dewey perceives problems as emanating from a failure to use the “method of intelligence,” these are viewed by Mills as difficulties resulting from power, wealth, and status disparities originating in institutions, and from value conflicts rooted in the class structure. (18)

Such problems cannot be solved by resorting to methodological manipulation or substitution, nor can they be dealt with through the shibboleths of scientific experimentalism. Instead, Dewey should have squarely confronted the structural problem of power in modern capitalism. But he would not do so because “the professionalizing or methodizing of value and of value questions already assumes for its happy operation a kind of community that nowhere exists” (18).

Unfortunately Mills gives insufficient emphasis to Dewey’s recognition that there are many situations which arise in hostile environments where the method of intelligence can be expected to accomplish little. As Dewey once put it:

If intelligent method is lacking, prejudice, the pressure of immediate circumstances, self-interest and class interest, traditional custom or institutions of accidental historic origin are not lacking, and they tend to take the place of intelligence (19).

However, Mills is correct in asserting that Dewey is unnecessarily vague about the kinds of environments in which the method of intelligence will not succeed because of structural obstacles.


SINCE PRAGMATISTS are usually assumed to be incrementalists it is not surprising to find Mills putting Dewey in this category (20). Dewey’s incrementalism as methodology, policy prescription and political philosophy was suspect because it failed to consider total social structures. Focusing on Dewey’s concept of adaptation, Mills writes that the

biological model strengthens the drive toward the specificity of problems and this specificity implements . . . a politics of reform of the situation. Adaptation is one step at a time; it faces one situation at a time (21).

Although Mills is not explicit in defining incrementalism what he apparently means are programs that deal with parts or aspects of a problem instead of the whole problem. Consequently such programs deal mostly with secondary issues rather than fundamentals. The aspects of the problem that are dealt with are usually those for which a “product” solution is possible. The solutions which are chosen are such that they will constitute the least amount of disturbance to the social fabric. Incrementalist reform efforts were associated with the New Deal at the time Mills wrote his critique, and later with the Fair Deal and the New Frontier-Great Society programs. It is this kind of piecemeal reconstruction that he faults. As John Carbonara put it:

Mills is committed in a partially Deweyan sense to a continual social reconstruction, simply because our knowledge of the social order keeps changing and increasing. He differs from Dewey, and other liberals in that he does not advocate a “piecemeal” reconstruction. This in his view is doomed to failure, because partial reconstructions never really take into account the entire social order. What is required is a broad reconstruction along many, if not all, fronts simultaneously (22).

An analysis of Dewey’s proposals for socio-economic reconstruction during the depression provide a different picture than the Mills’ view. For Dewey advocated a different role for government than it had traditionally played. No longer was it to be the “night-watchman” State of classical liberalism. Instead, it must undertake an obligation to satisfy basic economic needs. Thus Dewey supported government ownership of basic industries and natural resources. To achieve such socialization he advocated heavy taxation on upper income groups. This revenue could then be used to compensate owners of industries which were nationalized, and also redistribute wealth through subsidizing social welfare programs (23).

Although it is difficult to square Dewey’s views on sociopolitical change in the 1930s with the Mills’ interpretation, it must be remembered that Dewey’s radicalism was inconsistent since he vacillated between advocacy of Welfare State capitalism and genuine socialism. Nevertheless, several years before the New Deal began, he had written that

We are in for some kind of socialism, call it by whatever name we please, and no matter what it will be called when it is realized. Economic determinism is now a fact, not a theory. But there is a difference and a choice between a blind, chaotic and unplanned determinism, issuing from business conducted for pecuniary profit, and the determination of a socially planned and ordered development. It is the difference and the choice between socialism that is public and one that is capitalistic (24).

Should it be thought that Dewey’s commitment to large-scale structural reform is exaggerated, let us look at a summary of his position on the New Deal during the 1930s. Admittedly this is the period when Dewey moved furthest to the Left. However, based on Mills’ citations, it was the period of Dewey’s work with which Mills was most familiar, and most likely the one about which Mills generalized. As Edward Bordeau put it:

Dewey could not accept Roosevelt’s compromise with capitalism for he saw clearly that the New Deal permitted power and rule to remain essentially in the same hands as those that brought the country to its present state-dominated as those hands are by the profit motive…. While the New Deal was not, to Dewey’s mind, radical enough in terms of his socialism, it was nonetheless greatly under the influence of his instrumentalism and pragmatism even if this pragmatism was more ad hoc and headless than his own. Dewey genuinely applauded what he, Roosevelt, had accomplished, but the New Deal was merely an attempt to save capitalism and “only a new system which destroys the profit system can banish poverty and bring the American people the economic liberation which modern science and technology is prepared to bestow upon them. . .” (25).

It is evident that Mills underestimated Dewey’s commitment to radical reform during the 1930s, although in Mills’ defense, Dewey’s advocacy of radical change throughout his career was inconsistent. Dewey’s sometime commitment to radicalism was more evident in the 1930s than it had been earlier or became later. Consequently, Mills’ emphasis on the liberal, as opposed to the radical implications of instrumentalism, is more accurate when aimed at Dewey’s political analysis before and after the depression. Mills once wrote of C. E. Ayres that his point about Dewey was:

too reminiscent, too localized: it represents a phase of thought . . . and could not hold of the entire career and periods through which Dewey has moved (26).

This was an apt summary of Mills’ own work on Dewey.


MILLS ARGUED that Dewey’s socio-political ideas were incorrect because they assumed a harmony of interest and a balance of power between interest groups that did not exist in the United States. A central theme is that “he is all too ready to root conflict in a ‘logical nature’ which man is up against; he is too reluctant to admit the facts of conflict within the cultures of men” (27). Mills enlarged this assertion into the claim that because of its assumption of a harmony of interests, Dewey’s model of action “serves to minimize the cleavage of power divisions within society, or put differently, it serves as a pervasive mode of posing the problem which locates all problems between man and nature instead of between men and men” (28).

Mills believed Dewey tried unsuccessfully to deal with the problems of power and force within a technological framework by reducing these concepts from political to technical ideas. Power was energy, violence was waste, and organized force was synonymous with efficiency. Thus Dewey avoided a concrete recognition and analysis of the problem of political power and depoliticized the vocabulary of social struggle.

Although Dewey’s model postulated conflict between man and nature, this does not mean that there were not concurrent conflicts occurring at different levels of analysis, say between men and men or between institutions or classes. Mills disregarded this in arguing that Dewey’s position had two pernicious effects. One is that the social sciences, partly under Dewey’s influence, are permeated with the belief that fundamental social and political problems result from the inability adequately to manipulate and control nature. On the contrary, Mills was convinced that these difficulties cannot be resolved because of the disparities of power, wealth and status which gave the upper hand to the dominant class. The other effect is the widely-held belief that the solution to the problem is more and better education and incremental reform, prescriptions about which Mills remained skeptical throughout his career.

Clearly there are fundamental differences in the way that Dewey and Mills perceived the role of science and technology. In Liberalism and Social Action Dewey wrote that:

the rise of scientific method and of technology based upon it is the genuinely active force in producing the vast complex of changes the world is now undergoing, not the class struggle whose spirit and method are opposed to science (29).

Dewey’s interpretation of the role of science and technology was incorrect for Mills because it was based on untenable assumptions of a natural harmony of interest. Technology was not an instrument by which the whole society adjusted to new conditions. On the contrary, the prime function of technology and science was to serve the interests of big business.

Technological power is then socially neutral and those who would celebrate it must face the question: Power for what? Dewey has celebrated “man’s” growth of power through science and technology; he has not clearly answered the question involved in that celebration. To do so would have committed him to face squarely the political and legal problem of the present distribution of power as it exists within this social order. And this Dewey has never done. . . . Just how this technology is to be taken from those pecuniary individuals who now monopolize it, we are not told (30).

Again Mills has overstated the case. As has been shown, Dewey’s ideas, at least during the 1930s, about how to deal with corporate power and its misuse of technology were similar to those of other radicals.

Mills also charged Dewey with showing insufficient commitment to part and program. He was too “mugwumpish,” that is, too independent and individualistic. Thus, his conception of political action was never firmly tied to any political organization, platform, or class. Dewey’s “social class perspective,” to use Mills’ phrase, was ill defined and ambiguous and lacked a sharp political focus.

There was so much spurious hope and optimism in Deweyan pragmatism. But it is spurious . . . because of lack of tough political analysis (31).

These, of course, are the structural criticisms of Dewey shared by other radicals (32). Such criticisms have weight, but they overstate the case that can be made as the following summary of Dewey’s political values and activity demonstrates.


DEWEY’S VOTING RECORD indicates that he was an independent. At the national level most of his votes were cast for socialist or progressive third-party candidates, although occasionally he supported a Democrat for the Presidency when there seemed to be no suitable alternative. He voted for Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, in 1884. In 1912 he supported Socialist Eugene V. Debs for President. In 1916 he voted for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and Charles Evans Hughes, a progressive Republication, for governor of New York. In 1924 he backed Robert M. LaFollette, the progressive reformer, for the Presidency. Then in 1932, 1936, and 1940 he supported Norman Thomas. The only other indication of his later voting records reveals that he voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 (33). Clearly Dewey had long realized the importance of third-party pressure in offering the public real alternatives. What he wanted was a party to formulate and propagandize progressive programs. His willingness to support the Democratic Party emerged only when third-party agitation seemed fruitless.

It is interesting to note that both Mills and Dewey voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate, for president in 1940 (34).

Perhaps Mills and Dewey were not as far apart as Mills thought when he wrote parts of Sociology and Pragmatism the same year. In spite of Mills’ strictures on the inadequacy of Dewey’s conception of theory and practice and the linkage between the two, he came to the same conclusion about to whom he should give his political support. Mills was somewhat further Left in the political and ideological spectrum than either Dewey or Norman Thomas. Nevertheless, when forced to choose, he chose Thomas, whose views he preferred to those of the Stalinists, Trotskyites and other radical splinter groups. Perhaps the main difference between Mills and Dewey in the arena of electoral politics was that Dewey was willing to support non-socialist “progressive” or “liberal” parties and candidates, while Mills abstained from such support on the grounds that these movements were not sufficiently “radical.”

In Sociology and Pragmatism Mills evaluates the nature of the “publics” whom Dewey addressed (35). These publics include students, educators, professional philosophers, and those actively concerned with social and political problems. Mills locates Dewey’s political anchorage and his reading publics in those business and professional groups from a rural or small town background to whom the “formality, intellectuality, and tentativeness” of Dewey’s thought corresponds and appeals. He indicates that Dewey’s audience found his commitments to incremental reform, avoidance of violence, and “mugwumpism” convincing. Mills asks rhetorically, “Could the political character of Dewey’s concept of action be imputed to the fact that none of the groups to which he is oriented have aspirations to rule?” (36) It was evident to Mills that Dewey’s theory of action and his political and social philosophy were well tailored to the views of his audience. His criticism in this regard is an attempt to explain the deficiencies of liberal analysis and support of liberal politics rather than an accusation of opportunism against Dewey.

liberalism recognizes new irrational spheres; for instance, class struggles and power fights. But it is intellectualistic in so far as it attempts to solely through thought, discussion and organization to master as if they were already rationalized, the power and other irrational relationships that dominate here . . . From all these factors mentioned comes an explanation for why there is no power problem in pragmatism. For it is precisely individuals who coming from varied strata have arrived at modus operandi among themselves that conceive of all problems being solved by intelligence and discussion (37).

It is interesting to note that Mills, himself, soon abandoned any belief in the revolutionary and socialist potential of the American working class as an archaic element of the “labor metaphysic.” He began to direct his political analysis to many of the same groups that he had criticized Dewey for having in his reading audience. For it was evident that, if structural changes were to be brought about, intellectuals would have to play a prominent role. Thus, despite his early skepticism about the political orientation of Dewey’s publics, Mills arrived at similar conclusions about the social origins and occupational affiliation of the likely catalysts of political change, although he communicated with these groups in more radical phraseology.


How CONVINCING is Mills’ critique of Dewey? The answer to this question is a value-laden one lying as much in the realm of political philosophy as in scholarly method. The art of textual exegesis as utilized by the historian of ideas, and the insights of the political biographer are relevant, but no more so than the scholars’ ideological reaction to Mills’ and Dewey’s political commitments and value-orientations.

Mills understood his analysis of Dewey to be a dialogue between radical and liberal, with all the implications this has for political and intellectual confrontation between opposing camps. However, Mills distorts Dewey’s views primarily by exaggerating some of the tendencies prevalent in his earlier works. He also underestimates Dewey’s commitment to, and involvement with, parties and organizations committed to fundamental structural change, including several with a strong political focus (38). But, in fact, he and Dewey are closer in political and intellectual orientation than he is willing to admit. Both share a desire for an egalitarian and participatory society which has much in common with the ideals of guild socialism. As political activists they each spent much of their careers outside the framework of the two party system as activist Leftist independents, although Mills was less a joiner than Dewey. Their common interests and values are more striking than their differences (39).

Given the principled commitment of Dewey to active theoretical and practical support of large-scale structural change, why has “pragmatism” come to denote little more than opportunism and expediency and to be associated with policies which are often alleged to be unprincipled? Lewis Feuer’s “principles of wings” provides insight into the ideological evolution of pragmatism from a doctrinal change orientation of the political Left to a moderate-conservative perspective of the Center and Right.

The principle of wings, as we have seen, affirms that every philosophic unit-idea in the course of its career makes the passages through the whole spectrum of ideological affiliations. A philosophical doctrine which begins at the Left will move Rightward, and if at the Right, it will diffuse toward the Left. In the course of its life-history, every philosophic standpoint and unit-idea will therefore be associated with contrary political standpoints (40).

In accord with Feuer’s principles of wings, pragmatism, a liberal perspective once noted for its moral commitment, opposition to dogmatism, and autonomy from the prevailing power system has assumed an apologetic intellectual and political role. The question is whether or not contemporary liberalism’s ill-defined ethical standards ideological closure, and affiliation with the powers-that-be owes these traits to Dewey to the degree implied by Mills? Or have they been derived from some other source?

One recent critic of American liberalism, Bruce Miroff, does not perceive any direct intellectual links between the “pragmatic liberals” and Dewey. Miroff does not attribute their policy errors directly to deficiencies in instrumentalism. Indeed, though his book, Pragmatic Illusions, is a critique of the “pragmatic liberal” political style and belief system, no mention is even made of Dewey. What Miroff describes may be little more than a limited conversion of the residues of the American pragmatic tradition into an ideological rationalization of the modus operandi of New Frontier and Great Society. We have shown that the “liberalism” of Dewey was at times quite radical in its programs and implications and, therefore, different in substance and spirit from the dominant ideology of interest-group, or pragmatic liberalism. However, it is also evident that Dewey’s political thought had some of the deficiencies which are intrinsic to American liberalism. In this regard Mills’ critique of Dewey serves as a valuable antidote and corrective.

Because Mills was sometimes wide of the mark in attacking Dewey’s liberalism, it does not follow that his evaluation is irrelevant to the analysis of American liberalism. His interpretation of Dewey is valuable not because it is an adequate view of him as a political thinker, but because it is a compelling critique of present-day liberal doctrine and practice. The flaws Mills attributed to Dewey are much more prevalent among the contemporary proponents and practitioners of interest group liberalism. Specifically, they include a strong tendency to reduce problems of issues to problems of method, and to take as problems of method problems that are not at bottom methodological in nature, but rooted in the class structure and power matrix of American capitalism.

Evident, too, is a refusal to consider the possibility that “lack of awareness of objective self-interest,” as Mills put it, is fostered by a cultural apparatus dominated by powerful elements which benefit from fostering the folklore of political and intellectual pluralism. Contemporary liberalism often sanctions an evasion of the problems of corporate power and upper class wealth in a way that Dewey never did during the 1930s. As an academic stance of which Mills was critical, it endorses morally dubious efforts to separate humanistic values from social science inquiry in ways contrary to instrumentalist doctrine. As a political posture it often ignores the failures of the welfare and regulatory mechanism and promises more of the same on an incremental basis.

In short, the same tendencies Mills thought he saw in Dewey are, instead, part of liberal thought and practice. A serious reappraisal of Dewey’s thought and Mills’ critique, which is itself rooted in pragmatism, are essential to an understanding of contemporary liberalism and its role in the American experience.


1. Unfortunately, the Dewey-Mills correspondence sheds no light on their political differences. Instead, their letters deal primarily with the question of which philosophers were pragmatists. See Mills to Dewey, October 29, 1941 and Dewey to Mills, November 3, 1941, Box 4B364, C. Wright Mills Collection, Barker Texas History Center Archives, University of Texas, Austin.

2. Marxist-Leninist interpretations to this effect are found in Howard Selsam, Socialism and Ethics (New York: International Publishers, 1943) and Harry Wells, Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1971). Other radical interpretations include George Novack, Marxism and Pragmatism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), V. J. McGill, “Pragmatism Reconsidered: An Aspect of John Dewey’s Philosophy, Science and Society, 3 (Summer, 1939), pp. 289-322, and Ernest Sutherland Bates, “John Dewey, America’s Philosophic Engineer,” Modern Monthly, 7 (August, 1933), pp. 387-96, 404.

3. Niebuhr argues that the development of scientific experimental procedures for the purposeful control of social changes is impossible in a community where there are “dominant social classes who are trying to maintain their special privileges in society.” These pragmatic moralists fail to realize the “stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives.” Niebuhr concludes that “man’s collective behavior will never ‘be conquered by reason, unless reason uses tools, and is itself driven by forces that are not rational.” These “forces, of course, are those of religious faith in a supernatural order to whose purposes the realm of nature is subordinate.” See Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), pp. xl-xxxv. Also see Joan Huber Rytina and Charles P. Loomis, “Marxist Dialectic and Pragmatism: Power as Knowledge,” American Sociological Review, 35 (April, 1970), pp. 316.

4. See Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals, edited with an introduction by Carl Resek (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), especially the essays entitled “A War Diary” and “Twilight of Idols.” For a similar analysis see Lewis Mumford in Pragmatism and American Culture, Gail Kennedy, ed. (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1950), pp. 36-49, 54-57.

5. Alfonso J. Damico, “Analysis and Advocacy: Pragmatism and the Study of Politics,” Polity, 7 (Winter, 1974), p. 205.

6. Harold Stearns, Liberalism in America (New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1919), pp. 180-84. Stearns also says that: “The plain truth is that method and technique are subsidiary to ends and value in any rational philosophy either of politics or life, and that the pragmatists were so busy studying method that they had small time left for studying the purposes to which that method was to be applied.” Loc. cit.)

7. Morton White, The Revolt Against Formalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 195, 200-202.

8. A. J. Somjee, The Political Theory of John Dewey (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1968), p. 174.

9. Mills took his M.A. in philosophy at the University of Texas in 1939. His thesis, Reflection, Behavior and Culture, (unpublished master’s thesis, Department of Philosophy, Univ. of Texas, 1939) focuses on aspects of the thought of Dewey and George Herbert Mead, especially Dewey.
Clarence Ayres, a leading exponent of Deweyan instrumentalism in economic analysis, had a great impact on Mills. In addition, Mills’s graduate committee included George Gentry and David Miller, both students of Mead during their graduate training at Chicago. A good analysis of Mills’ intellectual perspective as a student, which emphasizes the influence of pragmatism, is found in a letter of recommendation written by Ayres to Professor Charner Perry of the University of Chicago, March 2, 1939. Box 3F291, Clarence E. Ayres Collection, Barker Texas History Center Archives, University of Texas, Austin.

10. See Sociology and Pragmatism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964). This was Mills’ doctoral dissertation originally entitled A Sociological Account of Pragmatism. Also see Irving Louis Horowitz, ed., Power, Politics and People (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), especially the essays entitled “Language, Logic and Culture,” “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive,” “Methodological Consequences of the Sociology of Knowledge,” and “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists.”

Three short unpublished manuscripts that deal with Dewey in an incisive and original way, partly from a sociology of knowledge perspective, are found in Boxes 4B 361, 359, 360 of the Mills Collection. They are entitled “Inceptions and Outcomes of Reflection,” “Sum up of J. D.” and “The Orientation of Dewey’s Quest for Certainty.”

11. Mills’ eclecticism consisted of a fusion of pragmatism, institutional economics, and symbolic interactionism, three closely related schools of thought of American origin, with various strands of European social thought.

12. Mills, Reflection, Behavior and Culture, p. 45.

13. Mills, Power, Politics, and People, pp. 405-407.

14. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 434.

15. Ibid., p. 380.

16. Axtelle and Burnett, “Dewey on Education and Schooling,” in Guide to the Works of John Dewey, Jo Ann Boydston, ed. (Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1970), p. 263. Mills contends that the reason for Dewey’s refusal to establish specific growth criteria lies in his unwillingness to place growth (educational) issues upon the “moral, political plane where decisions between adults must be made.” Further, “. . . education as growth is calculated to avoid just such questions.” See Sociology and Pragmatism, pp. 457-58.

17. Ibid., pp. 418-19. But for a rebuttal of Mills’ arguments, see Dewey’s A Common Faith (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1934) pp. 77-78, and his Authority and the Individual, edit. Harvard Tercentenary Publications (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1937), p. 187.

18. Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 410.

19. Dewey, The Quest For Certainty (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1960), p. 265. In this respect another Dewey comment is illuminating: “The thesis that the operation of cooperative intelligence as displayed in science is a working model of the union of freedom and authority does not slight the fact that the method has operated up to the present in a limited and relatively technical area. On the contrary, it emphasized that fact. If the method of intelligence had been employed in any large field in the comprehensive and basic area of the relations of human beings to one another in social life and institutions, there would be no present need for our argument. The contrast between the restricted scope of its use and the possible range of its application of human relations—political, economic, and moral-is outstanding and depressing. It is this very contrast that defines the great problem that still has to be solved.” Dewey, “Authority and Social Change,” in Authority and the Individual, p. 187.

20. In an early publication Mills characterized liberal ameliorism (incrementalism) in this manner: “The ‘informational’ character of social pathology is linked with a failure to consider total social structures. Collecting and dealing in a fragmentary way with scattered problems and facts of milieux, these books (on social pathology) are not focused on larger stratifications or upon structured wholes.” Mills, “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists,” Power, Politics and People, pp. 526-27.

21. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 382.

22. This is the interpretation of Mills’ conception of incrementalism utilized by John Carbonara in his Critical Empiricism in C. Wright Mills (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Philosophy, S.U.N.Y., Buffalo, 1967), pp. 23, 90-91.

23. Consult the following sources: Dewey, “America’s Public Ownership Program,” People’s Lobby Bulletin, 3 (March, 1934), p. 1; Taxation as a Step to Socialization,” ibid., 4 (March, 1935), pp. 1-2; “The Imperative Need for a New Radical Party,” Common Sense, 2 (1933), reprinted in Challenge to the New Deal, Alfred M. Bingham and Selden Rodman, eds. (New York: Falcon Press, 1934), pp. 269-73; “No Half Way House for America,” People’s Lobby Bulletin, November, 1934, p. 1; “You Must Act to Get Congress To Act,” ibid., May, 1932, p. 1; “Voters Must Demand Congress Tax Wealth Instead of Want,” ibid., June, 1932, p. 1. “President’s Policies Help Property Owners Chiefly,” ibid., June, 1934, pp. 1-2; Dewey, “The Drive Against Hunger,” New Republic, 29 (March, 1933), p. 190.

24. Dewey, Individualism Old and New (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962), pp. 119-20. Again, note the ambiguity and vagueness of the first sentence in the quotation.

25. Edward J. Bordeau, “John Dewey’s Ideas About the Great Depression,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 32 (January-March, 1971), pp. 78-79, 83-84.

26. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 324. James H. Tufts pointed to a weakness in Mills’ and other interpretations of Dewey when he wrote that: “One general remark, growing out of my long friendship and discussions with Dewey is this. Many criticisms of his supposed views have been based on passages in his writings taken as though they represented his whole thought on the topic. That has not infrequently resulted in distorted or one-sided conceptions. It is not his habit to guard very meticulously all his statements. When he wishes to make a point he often does not take pains to note all possible qualifications or exceptions. He drives at the central idea. And then, perhaps at another time and in another connection brings out other aspects.” James H. Tufts to Mills, December 6, 1941, Box 4B364, C. Wright Mills Collection.

27. Mills, Reflection, Behavior and Culture, p. 54.

28. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 382.

29. Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934), p. 74.

30. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, pp. 416-17.

31. Undated manuscript entitled “Pragmatism as Politics and as Religion,” Box 4B360, C. Wright Mills Collection.

32. It is interesting to note that these criticisms of Dewey are similar to those later made of Mills himself by his Marxist critics. See Paul Sweezy and Herbert Aptheker in G. William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard, eds., C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), pp. 115-64. Also see Aptheker’s, The World of C. Wright Mills (New York: Marzani and Munsell, 1960). Mills elaborates on this theme: “The character which Dewey gives action may be, in part, explained by tacit awareness, or a desire to avoid the consequences foretold in the truism that when thought gets hitched to political action, it tends strongly to become rigid, to ignore factual matters which would embarrass it by changes. Such a situation also goes into the explanation of why Dewey has been rather liberally mugwumpish in politics and why “action” is not linked with a sizable organization, a movement, a party with a chance at power. The concept of action in Dewey obviously does not cover the kinds of action occurring within and between struggling, organized political parties. . . . Politically, pragmatism is less expediency than it is a kind of perennial mugwump confronted with rationalized social structures.” Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 394.

34. Dewey’s view of the 1940 campaign is expressed in The Nation, 151 (September, 28, 1940). Mills wrote to his parents that “I am this November voting for Norman Thomas. I know he will not win but that does not mean the vote is lost. You both vote for him too. His is the only anti-war party in the running.” Undated letter, Box 4B349, 2.325, C. Wright Mills Collection. In spite of his regard for the Socialist Party and many of the measures it supported, Dewey never became a committed socialist who adhered to socialist dogma. His pragmatic attitude toward social problems precluded a commitment to socialism or for that matter any other “ism.” He once wrote that “The person who holds the doctrine of ‘individualism’ or ‘collectivism’ has his program determined for him in advance. It is not with him a matter of finding out the particular thing which needs to be done and the best way, under the circumstances, of doing it. It is an affiair of applying a hard and fast doctrine which follows logically from his preconception of the nature of ultimate causes.” Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1965), p. 202.

35. Mills uses the idea of community politically in the concept of the “public” which is identical with Dewey’s use of it in The Public and Its Problems. Mills wrote that “Publics live in milieux but they can transcend them—individually by intellectual effort; socially by public action. By reflection and debate and by organized action, a community of publics comes to feel itself and comes in fact to be active at points of structural relevance.” Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), p. 321.

36. Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 393. Also see pp. 343, 351-53, and Joseph Scimecca, The Sociological Theory of C. Wright Mills (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977), p. 61. But also see Gary Bullert, John Dewey in Politics (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Political Science, Claremont Graduate School, 1975), p. 300. Perhaps Mills was betraying his own uncertainty about which parties and programs on the left to support when he overstated the case against Dewey in this way: “Dewey has not taken party stands. He has stood for many ‘programs’ and attitudes and very specific issues like the trials of Negro sharecroppers. Sidney Hook, who surely should know, has written ‘. . . none of the conventional label of left-wing politics can be affixed to him. This is what we should expect about anyone faithful to the spirit of the experimental philosophy.’ We can see Dewey fumbling for words what are politically neutral: ‘There is no word which adequately expresses what is taking place.’ ‘Socialism’ has too specific political and economic associations to be appropriate. ‘Collectivism’ is more neutral, but it, too, is a partyword rather than a descriptive term.” Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism, p. 405.

37. Mills, “Sum Up of J. D.,” pp. 1-3, Box 4B359, C. Wright Mills Collection.

38. Dewey was instrumental in organizing and/or leading the following: The Progressive Education Association, League for Industrial Democracy, American Federation of Teachers., The People’s Lobby, American Civil Liberties Union, American Association of University Professors, and the League for Independent Political Action. Since Mills was aware of these affiliations, he is probably criticizing Dewey for vacillating between support of liberal and radical organizations instead of consistently adhering to a radical line.

39. An interesting comparison of Mills and Dewey is found in a letter written by the American Marxist George Novack to Leon Trotsky’s widow. “He [Mills] has shown by his criticism of U. S. militarism and, above all, by his stance in defense of the Cuban Revolution that he is one of the most courageous and honest of all academic figures in this country today. He belongs to the same university faculty as did John Dewey, and they are of the same intellectual and moral stature, as well as of the same general trend of thought. Moreover, he is today defending the right of Trotsky’s views to be presented to the public without prejudice or discrimination no less vigorously than did John Dewey in the hearings on the Moscow Trials. I believe that you can credit the comparison based upon my intimate acquaintance with the work and character of both these eminent scholars.” Novack to Natalia Trotsky, September 30, 1961, Box 4B396, C. Wright Mills Collection.

40. Lewis Feuer, Ideology and the Ideologists (New York: Harper, 1974),pp. 56-57.

41. Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: David McKay Company, 1976).

2 Responses to “Radicalism vs. Liberalism: C. Wright Mills’ Critique of John Dewey’s Ideas”

  1. Geof Rayner Says:

    “This is J. L. SIMICH and RICK TILMAN’s 1978 critique of Mills (from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 4) which I don’t agree with but which raises several interesting issues on his relationship with Dewey.”

    Sorry, but you should say why you disagree. I find some of the points diagreeable but I think the debate is relevant today. It is certainly true that confusion reigns about the meaning of the term pragmatism (which the originator of pragmatism (Peirce) rejected anyway. )

    I find Mills’ critique a wee bit superficial. It jumps to the political realm too quickly whereas pragmatism was engaged in much more. And Dewey was a socialist who called himself a liberal (we are in JS Mill territory here.)
    The writers of the piece are also superficial. Who says that the definition of socialist is something like this: “Dewey never became a committed socialist who adhered to socialist dogma.” This is an antisocialist statement (ie socialist= dogma)!

    Nevertheless thanks for posting this. I hadn’t read Mills’ PhD on Dewey and i thought i should get round to it. As a long time admirer of both Mills and Dewey (and Peirce, James and Mead), it reads to me a bit like a father-son dispute common in political thinking (Malthus’ dispute with his father being the template).

    • pinkindustry Says:

      Some good criticisms there Geof: it is of course up to me what I do or do not say, but I take your point: I think the debate is relevant too. You may well be right about the dogma reference, possibly the word is being used in contrast to pragma (but there is no shortage of dogmatic socialists).
      The League for Industrial Democracy (set up by Dewey) became a CIA front which might have been worth mentioning in this context.
      The introduction to Sociology and Pragmatism is worth reading on some of the issues you raise, if you read it I wonder if you’ll still think Mills is superficial.

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