C. Wright Mills

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Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916, Waco, Texas – March 20, 1962, West Nyack, New York) was an American sociologist. Mills is best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination in which he lays out a view of the proper relationship between biography and history, theory and method in sociological scholarship. He is also known for studying the structures of power and class in the U.S. in his book The Power Elite. Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War II society, and advocated public, political engagement over disinterested observation.

Life and work

Mills graduated from Dallas Technical High School in 1934.[1] He initially attended Texas A&M University but left after his first year and subsequently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939 and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1941. After a stint at the University of Maryland, College Park, he took a faculty position at Columbia University in 1946, which he kept, despite controversy, until his death by heart attack. In the mid-1940s, together with Paul Goodman, he contributed to Politics, the journal edited during the 1940s by Dwight Macdonald.[2]


  • The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) studies the Labor Metaphysic and the dynamic of labor leaders cooperating with business officials. Mills concluded that labour had effectively renounced its traditional oppositional role and become reconciled to life within a capitalist system. Appeased by "bread and butter" economic policies, Mills argued labour adopted a pliantly subordinate role in the new structure of American power.
  • White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) contends that bureaucracies have overwhelmed the individual city worker, robbing him or her of all independent thought and turning him into a sort of a robot that is oppressed but cheerful. He or she gets a salary, but becomes alienated from the world because of his or her inability to affect or change it.
  • The Power Elite (1956) describes the relationship between the political, military, and economic elite (people at the pinnacles of these three institutions), noting that these people share a common world view:
the military metaphysic: a military definition of reality;
possess class identity: recognizing themselves separate and superior to the rest of society;
have interchangeability (horizontal mobility): they move within and between the three institutional structures and hold interlocking directorates;
cooptation / socialization: socialization of prospective new members is done based on how well they "clone" themselves socially after such elites.

These elites in the "big three" institutional orders have an "uneasy" alliance based upon their "community of interests" driven by the "military metaphysic," which has transformed the economy into a 'permanent war economy'.

  • The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills' most influential work, describes a mindset—the sociological imagination—for doing sociology that stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships. The three components that form the sociological imagination are:

1. History: how a society came to be and how it is changing and how history is being made in it

2. Biography: the nature of "human nature" in a society; what kind of people inhabit a particular society

3. Social Structure: how the various institutional orders in a society operate, which ones are dominant, how are they held together, how they might be changing, etc.

In The Sociological Imagination, Mills asserts that one must look inside oneself to help important research problems, and that social scientists "translate private troubles into public issues." [3] This translation means that you connect the problems you face in your biography to social institutions, the collection of which forms social structure and that you locate that structure in history. Additionally on this topic, Mills maintained throughout The Sociological Imagination that it is very difficult for most individuals in society to link their personal troubles to the cultural institutions in which they live.

The Sociological Imagination gives the one possessing it the ability to look beyond their local environment and personality to wider social structures and a relationship between history, biography and social structure.

Other important works include: The Causes of World War Three (1958), Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), and The Marxists (1962).

In a 1997 survey of members of the International Sociological Association which asked them to identify the ten books published in the 20th century which they considered to be the most influential for sociologists, The Sociological Imagination ranked second, preceded only by Max Weber's Economy and Society. [2].

The novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, is dedicated "To C. Wright Mills, true voice of North America, friend and companion in the struggle of Latin America". Dwight Macdonald had an off-again-on-again association with Mills, and sometimes, in his capacity as magazine editor, published Mills' material.


There has long been debate over Mills' overall intellectual outlook. Mills is often seen as a "closet Marxist" because of his emphasis on social classes and their roles in historical progress and attempt to keep Marxist traditions alive in social theory. Just as often, however, others argue that Mills more closely identified with the work of Max Weber, whom many sociologists interpret as an exemplar of sophisticated (and intellectually adequate) anti-Marxism and modern liberalism. However Mills clearly gives precedence to social structure described by the political, economic and military institutions and not culture which is presented in its massified form as means to ends sought by the power elite, which puts him firmly in the Marxist and not Weberian camps.

While Mills never embraced the "Marxist" label, he nonetheless told his closest associates that he felt much closer to what he saw as the best currents of flexible, humanist Marxism than to its alternatives. He considered himself as a "plain Marxist", working in the spirit of young Marx as he claims in his collected essays: "Power, Politics and People" (Oxford university press, 1963). In a November 1956 letter to his friends Bette and Harvey Swados, Mills declared "[i]n the meantime, let's not forget that there's more [that's] still useful in even the Sweezy [4] kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J.S. Mill [5] put together." [6]

There is an important quotation from Letters to Tovarich (autobiographical essay) dated Fall 1957 titled "On Who I Might Be and How I Got That Way":

You've asked me, 'What might you be?' Now I answer you: 'I am a Wobbly.' I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation that to political ethos, and I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. […] I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It's a kind of spiritual condition. Don't be afraid of the word, Tovarich. A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He's also a man who's often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn't made up himself. He doesn't like bosses –capitalistic or communistic – they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom.[7]

These two quotations are the ones chosen by Kathryn Mills for the better acknowledgement of the nuanced thinking of C.W.Mills.

It appears that Mills understood his position as being much closer to Marx than to Weber, albeit influenced by both, as Stanley Aronowitz argued in A Mills Revival?. [8] Mills argues that micro and macro levels of analysis can be linked together by the sociological imagination, which enables its possessor to understand the large historical sense in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. Individuals can only understand their own experiences fully if they locate themselves within their period of history. The key factor is the combination of private problems with public issues: the combination of troubles that occur within the individual’s immediate milieu and relations with other people with matters that have to do with institutions of an historical society as a whole. Mills shares with Marxist sociology and other "conflict theorists" the view that American society is sharply divided and systematically shaped by the ongoing interactions between the powerful and powerless. He also shares their concerns for alienation, the effects of social structure on the personality, and the manipulation of people by elites and the mass media. Mills combined such conventional Marxian concerns with careful attention to the dynamics of personal meaning and small-group motivations, topics for which Weberian scholars are more noted.

Mills had a very combative outlook regarding and towards many parts of his life, the people in it, and his works. In this way, he was a self proclaimed outsider.

I am an outlander, not only regionally, but deep down and for good. [9]

C Wright Mills' ideas also involve the Soviet Union. Mills was invited to the Soviet Union and acknowledged there for being critical of American society, yet Mills used the opportunity to attack Soviet censorship while there. Mills also holds in his ideas that the United States and Soviet Union are ruled by similar bureaucratic power elites and thus the two are convergent rather than divergent societies, which is a very controversial idea of Mills'.

Above all, Mills understood sociology, when properly approached, as an inherently political endeavor and a servant of the democratic process. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills wrote:

It is the political task of the social scientist -- as of any liberal educator -- continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work -- and, as an educator, in his life as well -- this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society. [10]

Related Books and Articles

  • John H. Summers, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, 2008). Summers is currently writing a biography of C. Wright Mills. [3][4]
  • Irving Louis Horowitz, C. Wright Mills, an American Utopian (1983).
  • Rick Tilman, C. Wright Mills, A Native Radical and his American Roots (1984).
  • John Eldridge, C. Wright Mills, Key sociologist (1983).
  • Kathryn Mills, ed., with Pamela Mills, C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, introduction by Dan Wakefield (University of California Press, 2000).
  • Tom Hayden with Contemporary Reflections by Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Flacks, and Charles Lemert, Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times (2006).
  • Kevin Mattson, Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970 (2002).
  • G. William Domhoff, "Mills's The Power Elite 50 Years Later" in Contemporary Sociology, November 2006.
  • Stanley Aronowitz, "A Mills Revival?", in Logos Journal, Summer 2003.
  • Keith Kerr. Postmodern Cowboy: C. Wright Mills and a New 21st Century Sociology. (Paradigm 2008)
  • Daniel Geary, "Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought" (University of California Press 2009).
  • Daniel Geary, "'Becoming International Again': C. Wright Mills and the Emergence of a Global New Left" in "Journal of American History," December 2008

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. Short biography of C. Wright Mills published in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers in 3 volumes by Thoemmes Press, Bristol, UK, 2004
  2. TIME April 4, 1994 Volume 143, No. 14 - "Biographical sketch of Dwight Macdonald" by John Elson (Accessed 4 December 2008)
  3. [Mills, C Wright. THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press, 2000.]
  4. Paul M. Sweezy, founder of Monthly Review magazine, "an independent socialist magazine".
  5. I.e., liberal intellectuals.
  6. 7-nov-2007 17.07 library.umass.edu Remo, I just reviewed the Mills correspondence in the Swados Papers, and, yes, that is an accurate quote. In a letter dated Nov. 3rd [1956] Mills writes, "What these jokers -- all of them -- don't they realize that way down deep and systematically I'm a goddamned anarchist. I'm really quite serious and I'm going over the next few years to work out the position in a positive and clean-cut way. In the meantime, let's not forget that there's more still useful in even the Sweezy kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of JS Mills put together." I'm happy to send you a photocopy of the entire letter if you like. Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of further assistance. Best regards, Danielle -- Danielle Kovacs Curator of Manuscripts Special Collections and University Archives W.E.B. Du Bois Library University of Massachusetts 154 Hicks Way Amherst, MA 01003 (413) 545-2784 [1].
  7. From C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills, introduction by Dan Wakefield (University of California Press, 2000.), pag.252. Wobblies were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the direct action they favored included passive resistance, strikes, and boycotts. They wanted to build a new society according to general socialist principles but they refused to endorse any socialist party or any other kind of political party.
  8. "These perspectives owed as much to the methodological precepts of Emile Durkheim as they did to the critical theory of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Using many of the tools of conventional social inquiry: surveys, interviews, data analysis—charts included—Mills takes pains to stay close to the “data” until the concluding chapters. But what distinguishes Mills from mainstream sociology, and from Weber, with whom he shares a considerable portion of his intellectual outlook, is the standpoint of radical social change, not of fashionable sociological neutrality." A Mills Revival?.
  9. [Horowitz, Irving L. C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian. New York: Free Press, 1983.]
  10. [Mills, C Wright. THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press, 2000.]