C. Wright Mills: Intellectual, Revolutionary, Or Both?

By Max Forbes (‘23)

It seems natural that the upstart movements that characterized the 1960s in America began with someone who went against the grain, the firebrand sociologist C. Wright Mills. The leather jacket-wearing and motorcycle-riding Texan turned New Yorker fit in nicely with the rebellious aesthetic of the ‘60s, but it was his ideas that mattered the most in spawning the decade that many say changed America forever. Mills acted as the connective force between postwar America and the New Left, which only truly took off domestically after his untimely death. Mills instigated the liberal pushback against the conservative understanding of power, and he advocated for a sociological approach to empower the masses. To best understand his ideas and their motivations, respecting the chronology of his writing is especially helpful. It is easy to notice Mills’s transformation from a philosophizing pragmatist to a political radical, but his unwavering penchant for taking ideas and running with them made the transition natural. Though he addressed a variety of topics, his work can be read with an eye for logical progression.  Mills first recognizes trends in US concentration of power in The Power Elite, and then identifies those who are ultimately affected by these trends in White Collar: The American Middle Classes, before making a final push for how the affected should respond by advocating for a new brand of leftist ideology. More than a sociologist, Mills proves himself to be an intellectual to the core and apostle for the left in the second half of the 20th century. 

C. Wright Mills performed his first foray into intellectual writing as a high school student with a letter to the editor that defended science. Coincidentally, one of his final and arguably most stirring works was also somewhat of a letter, at least in name—his Letter to the New Left in 1960. And this was fitting, considering Mills’s writing was inherently aimed at an audience in hopes of spurning action, rather than intended for an academic’s perusal. In other words, his motivations were “always for crafting means of understanding the world, not for mere professional advancement” (1). This mission began with a “critical engagement with pragmatism” at the University of Texas that “provided Mills intellectual ammunition for rejecting the dogmatic models of truth that he encountered in the hated Catholic schools of his youth” (1, 2). Already, Mills was exhibiting a streak of intellectual rebelliousness that would prove important as he transitioned from pragmatism to modern liberalism. More importantly, Mills was intensely concerned with the application of his ideas, a desire he clearly expressed in his first published article entitled “Language, Logic, and Culture” (1939). In it, he “had argued for the social nature of knowledge” (1), a line of reasoning that would later propel his sociological findings out of the realm of academia and into the broad political movements of the 1960s. Mills saw a gap between current events, academic research, and tangible action. To be clear, he “did not call on social scientists to be agents of political change. … What they could do was examine social problems and state the political implications and assumptions of their own work” (1). Mills recognized the importance of ideas early on, and spent the rest of his life dedicated to empowering young intellectuals by pushing them to form an intellectual movement of their own in response to the signs of the times.

Mills first sought to convince his audience, whoever it may have been, of the trends that could prove troublesome for American society if left unaddressed. He worried that too many made “the assumption that in the West there are no more real issues or even problems of great seriousness” (3). The chief trend he looked to expose in The Power Elite (1956) was the concentration of power across three closely interrelated branches of society. The “political directorate, the corporate rich, and the ascendant military” all possessed a “coincidence of interests” which they could easily fulfill (4). He summarizes the trend: the “history of modern society may readily be understood as the story of the enlargement and the centralization of the means of power” (5). Mills’s ideas were inherently political because they seemed to contradict the whole-hearted embrace of U.S. nationalism that Americans flocked toward in the wake of the war. It may have been beneficial that corporate executives were in “quite full direction of the economy of the war effort and of the post-war era,” and Mills never seemed to take issue with the mixture of power as it related to the war (5, 6). But at the same time, the criticism he received was predictable, especially since Mills sought to “break down the bias against Marxism in the halls of learning and encourage students to assimilate its indispensable contributions to social science” (7). Even when American exceptionalism reached peak levels immediately following the war, Mills was willing to find errors with the status quo and encourage the left to go boldly against it.

As an intellectual, Mills’s radical label is somewhat warranted because he failed to fall into any traditional camp within the left. He looked to preach something altogether new and unusual. He argued that neither liberalism nor Marxism was developed to properly fit the “new kind of social structure” that had developed (5). He failed to give an adequate alternative to either liberalism or Marxism until his later works. He initially only hoped to encourage people to have a heightened awareness of this concentration of power at the top, a necessary first step before pushing for the emergence of political agents of change. While not necessarily ad hominem on its face, Mills’s arguments certainly had a sense of urgency: “[t]he American elite have become an entirely different breed of men from those who could on any reasonable grounds be considered a cultural elite, or even for that matter, cultivated men of sensibility” (8). As an intellectual lone wolf, he was willing to push the envelope to persuade readers to take notice of how decisions affecting all of society were being made. One part of his strategy was to focus on American capitalism, a tool he saw as integral to maintaining the structure that had developed.

The highly connected nature of politics, the economy, and business would result in some drastic consequences, but for who? For example, because U.S. politics as a force “has been anchored in the economic sphere, (resulting in) its men using political means to gain and secure limited economic ends,” politicians have been heavily influenced by their own economic interests rather than those of society (9). However, Mills’s audience does not clearly learn who is affected by these alarming trends until White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951). The “who” is the individual, or in Mills’s terms, the “little man.” In his own words, “[t]he decline of the free entrepreneur and the rise of the dependent employee on the American scene has paralleled the decline of the independent individual and the rise of the little man in the American mind” (9). With White Collar, Mills begins to seek out the groups that he would later directly address and inspire in his Letter to the New Left (1960). Mills believes that the homogenization of the middle class and death of the individual will be reason enough to persuade the “politically apathetic” and “unwilling vanguard of modern society” (9). In developing his ideas which would later be adopted as doctrine by the “vanguard,” Mills is sure to distinguish his thinking from any of his predecessors. He argues that “the liberal ethos, as developed in the first two decades of this century by such men as Beard, Dewey, Holmes, is now often irrelevant, and that the Marxian view, popular in the American ‘thirties, [sic] is now often inadequate” (9). The new middle class and way of life were unknown to Marx or any of the pragmatists which he had read, and so Mills placed it upon himself to push people to a new philosophy. While he gives several reasons for why the growing middle class was different, the most important ones are those that relate to his previously observed power trends. The white-collar jobs that dominated the middle class—low-level management, or authority positions performed for an even higher authority—had increased due to “the rise of big business and big government, and the consequent trend of modern social structure, (and) the steady growth of bureaucracy” (9). Mills shied away from demeaning American capitalism, but his writing was laden with resentment of the lack of individuality that had become necessary for white-collar success.  He described a “personality market,” where “with anonymous insincerity the Successful Person thus makes an instrument of his own appearance and personality” (9). His love for entrepreneurial success follows from a biographical perspective. Mills was a free-spirited intellectual who was willing to go out on a limb, and he would not have it any other way.

An unrelenting individualism prevented Mills from understanding how the middle class could continue without seeking change. Put simply, he was incredulous as to how the people of his day could forget their sense of self. The death of the individual coincided with the death of the entrepreneur: “the idea of going into business for oneself ‘is so seldom expressed among college graduates as to seem an anachronism’” (9). Disillusioned by the traditional options for success of his day, Mills appears to wait for a movement to take hold and change everything. However, he becomes frustrated and wonders whether such a movement will ever occur, because he claims Americans “are strangers to politics. They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary; they are inactionary [sic]; they are out of it. If we accept the Greek’s definition of the idiot as a privatized man, then we must conclude that the U.S. citizenry is now largely composed of idiots” (9). In keeping to themselves, Mills claims, the majority have become too alike and in doing so have failed to organize. In the end, the elusive movement happened, and it was C. Wright Mills who instigated it when he finally addressed America head-on.

To successfully transition from sociologically inclined academic to political radical, Mills had to seek ways to provoke modern America. In The Sociological Imagination (1959), he claims the masses “have no public position,” and are people who “do not know where to go” (9). As a result, “on the political market-place of American society, the new middle classes are up for sale; whoever seems respectable enough, strong enough, can probably have them. So far, nobody has made a serious bid” (9). Late in his life, Mills fully made the connection between his study of sociology and political thoughts. He saw sociology as the method by which he could “bid” for this class of people who could apply his ideas. As a result, his later works take on an expressly political tone. “The very enterprise of social science, as it determines fact, takes on political meaning. In a world of widely communicated nonsense, any statement of fact is of political and moral significance” (10). He acknowledges the “political task of the social scientist,” which is “to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals” (10). The full development of C. Wright Mills as an intellectual was complete when he reconciled his science with his politics, and this led to the necessary gain in his following which would result in an entire movement.

If The Sociological Imagination is Mills’s final step in his intellectual journey, his Letter to the New Left is his legacy. In it, he proposed a summarization of the societal trends that needed to be addressed by the left. More critical was his coinage of the term that would be adopted around the world for years after his death: the “New Left.” Mills had become dissatisfied with a “decayed and frightened liberalism,” an ideology that had become “a set of administrative routines to defend rather than a program to fight for” after the New Deal (8). In his familiar style, Mills describes his mindset that the leaders of the left would eventually share: “it is much safer to celebrate civil liberties than to defend them, and it is much safer to defend them as a formal right than to use them in a politically effective way” (8). While his disappointment in political apathy was evident, Mills positions the intended main takeaway of his Letter in his concluding portion. He calls out to students, young professors, writers, and war opponents, summarized as “the young intelligentsia,” to be the most dynamic wing of the left (3). Mills had been clamoring for a liberal reform movement all along, and the long-awaited moment had finally arrived. In contrast to goals set by the left in the past, he saw the importance of centering focus on “these new generations of intellectuals around the world as real live agencies of historic change … We are beginning to move again” (3).  While he had known his audience for years, Mills found a reception when he was willing to call them out by name. The legacy he left in Letter to the New Left was profound, because it made people believe they could affect the negative trends that Mills had identified.

With the New Left finally putting down roots, Mills seemed to have turned a page in his career toward a pure political agenda and away from intellectual inquiry. We cannot be sure, however, because C. Wright Mills died at age 45 before the world witnessed the political results of his work. He began a more explicit detailing of what would become the “New Left” ideology in his Causes of World War Three (1960). Mills proposed “an end to nuclear testing, negotiations with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and recognition of Communist China” (1). In addition, he “did hope that (the Cuban Revolution) could help foster an internationalist New Left consciousness in the United States and in the world as a whole” and regarded Fidel Castro as a friend (1). Overall, Mills’s actual participation in the New Left movement was minimized and is less important than his role as the one who started the ‘60s fire. He was the man who saw “the intelligentsia as a new source of political agency (and) offered needed inspiration to New Leftists across the globe, reassuring them that intellectual and cultural activity could be politically significant, that ideas can and do matter” (1). According to key Mills biographer Daniel Geary, “it is virtually impossible to imagine the development of American sociology or the left without Mills” (1). Mills had successfully transitioned the left from old to new, by finding the cracks in its New Deal iteration and showing people what was possible with a reclamation of individuality.

Though certainly politically ambitious, it may be best to view Mills as simply a highly motivated and intellectually curious sociologist. His works are often interpreted as contrary to the norm, but it was just Mills following his thoughts to their logical conclusions. He valued ideas only as highly as their application, and it was in this spirit that he ended up spawning the New Left movement. His passion for the individual led to an understanding of liberalism that remains strong even today. To consider C. Wright Mills as a liberal is not wrong, but it fails to capture the dynamism of his work because he changed what the term “liberal” means altogether. Mills can more accurately be characterized as a revolutionary.

Max Forbes is a Finance and American Studies major at the University of Notre Dame. His essay was originally written for Professor Peter Cajka’s American Studies course, ‘The Ideas That Made America.’ He enjoys discussing the American identity and historical underpinnings of U.S. current events.


  1. Geary, Daniel. 2009. Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  2. McGreevy, John T. 2003. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
  3. Mills, C. Wright. 1960. “Letter to the New Left.” In The American Intellectual Tradition, Volume II, edited by Hollinger, David and Charles Capper, 478-486. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Mills, C. Wright. 1958. “The Structure of Power in American Society.” The British Journal of Sociology 9, no. 1: 29-41. doi:10.2307/587620.
  6. Gill, Timothy M. 2018. “Why the Power Elite Continues to Dominate American Politics.” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/24/why-power-elite-continues-dominate-american-politics/
  7. Warde, William F. 1962. “International Socialist Review.” International Socialist Review 23, no. 3: 67-75, 95. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isr/vol23/no03/warde.htm
  8. Summers, John H. 2008. The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. United States: Oxford University Press.

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