Charles Wright Mills was the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century, his achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that he died at 45 and produced his major work in a span of little more than a decade. He was a critic of ideology and a social scientist as well. According to many people he was both a scholar and radical, but unfortunately never quite succeeding. Mills had many ideas and philosophies, which some were agreed on and others objected to. He spent a great amount of time dealing with the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Mills mixed the ideas of these two sociologists to come up with some of his best ideas and thoughts. The combination of Marx and Weber helped develop Mills’s theory of social reality.
Throughout the short life that Mills lived he wrote eleven books and over two hundred articles. Mills was forced to live off advances of books not yet written and he died nine thousand dollars in debt. His wife had no other choice but to barrow money from her father to bury him. According to contemporary social thought; his protestant background lies at the root of his social philosophy. Just recently, nearly a decade after his death is he beginning to be recognized for what he deserves.
C. Wright Mills was born in Waco, Texas, on August 28, 1916. He was one of two children and was born into a middle-class Irish and English Catholic family. In 1920 his family moved from Waco to Dallas, where Mills began to educate himself at Dallas Technical High School. The reason for the move was because his father had a job offering for an insurance company.
At an early age it was very noticeable to see that something was different about Charles Mills (he dropped the Charles in college and then used the initial C and his middle name, Write). The odd thing about Mills as a child was his strong objection to adults. He would stand up to adults, teachers and principals when he thought he was right and refused to back down. Mills always showed a stubborn attitude, which his mother referred to as “his unbeatable will”(Scimecca, 9). Besides his stubbornness, Mills always showed a tenacious faith in his own abilities. This attitude seemed to stay with him all his life. When he was questioned on why his class standing was mediocre and not at the top of his class, Mills relied by saying, “I didn’t want to”(Scimecca, 9). Later on in life his family truly believed that statement based on his intellectual achievements.
Mill’s younger days of elementary school were mainly depressing. He had very few friends and most of his love and attention came from adults. This soon ended, as his high school years were more blissful. Mills developed the art of craftsmanship, which became so important to his life. He soon realized that carpentry was a gift that he obsessed and he would spend hours building every day. Woodworking became his favorite hobby, which lead him to design his parent’s home in Dallas.
Following Mills graduation from high school he then attended Texas A&M University in the fall of 1934. At this time A&M was a rural military school with strong disobedience. Mills would only spend a year at the school based on his miserable experience. He had an occurrence on the wrestling mat, which was completely accidental, but was found guilty anyway. Mills injured an opponent during a match and as a result of that his punishment was to be ostracized from all his peers. For the whole year he spent at Texas A&M not a single person had a relationship with him and that’s what brought him to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin. This was an absolute different experience for him as he made two or three friends in his first year. For Mills two or three friends was the most he had ever had in his life and that was what clearly stopped him from abandoning his life at such a young age.
Mill’s experience at the University of Texas at Austin is where he achieved versatility. He began to excel in so many different areas including; academics, theater, books and music. It was a new and happier world for Wright. In his junior year was where the climax of his time spent at U of T came, as he married Freya Smith. Unfortunately that marriage would not last very long and he was married once again nearly two years later. Following that exciting event Mills continued to strive towards the top as he was elected president of Alpha Kappa Delta, the national honor society in sociology. At the university is also where a professor by the name of George Gentry educated Mills on the pragmatists and American philosophers. The years he spent at U of T were a period of awakening. Mill’s grew and rebelled, but most of all explored his own ideas and thoughts.
Mills lived through a dynamic 42 years. In 1942, at one of his strongest points in belief, America was fighting a war in Europe. Mills was rejected by the draft for hypertension and chose to stress his feelings towards the war, as opposed to join in it. In the Leftist literary journal of Franz Neumann’s Marxist study, Mills wrote his first review (Twayne, 44). This article stresses a number of thoughts; capitalistic economy of Nazi racism and imperialism, power of the elite’s, the monopoly capitalists, the Nazi party in general, the state bureaucracy, the armed forces and political structure. Mill’s strongest point was that the enemy was not overseas, but here at home, which was the American way. Coolidge, who was president at the time, stated that before the depression, American business, is business.
In 1930 there was a massive economic and social dislocation, which produced an environment that left the Roosevelt administration in derangement. It was during this period that C. Write Mills preached his concern for political consciousness. From day one he saw himself as part of the protest against American capitalism. With this, Mills attempted to draw on the contribution of American pragmatists. He believed he could ban sociology of such elements and make possible more pragmatic explorations of reality.
Mills also believed that the growth of industrial capitalism in the United States had resulted in an uncommon concentration of power. Mills did not accept the changes brought about by the New Deal and World War II, that the country had a ruling class composed mostly of large property owners (Tilman, 20). It was the big companies and factories, along with large financial corporations that were important to the power elite. They simply dominated the country. Mills thought that the New Deal had greatly enhanced the power of the executive branch of the federal government. This had also given other groups such as organized labor and farms new access to power. Along with this the World War and the Cold War had increased the power of the military. In Mills’s view, workers and farmers had more influence on public policy then they had before the New Deal. At the time Mills published the “new men of power” in 1948, which was the first volume of his trilogy on stratification (Tilman, 20). He believed that the United States was becoming a military force state with little standing in the way of economic slump and renewed warfare.
Mills was concerned with power and powerlessness. In his, “new men of power”, he analyzed the inability of the labor leader to exert power while in the essential powerlessness of the middle class (he referred to the middle class as white collar). In his third volume of the stratification trilogy, which was “the power elite”, Mills focused on the powerlessness and apathy of mass society, which included the majority of the American people. It is said to be his best-known and most controversial work. Mills described an elite class composed of members of corporate, political, and military circles who made the important decisions in American life. In addition to his work in sociology Mills wrote on political philosophy and the role of the “intellectual”. He believed that the term “intellectual is not politically correct. The main cause for Mill’s trilogy was to stress concern to the individual losing control over his work and life.
The wartime years remain the most difficult and troubling in any effort to understand Mill’s career. From 1942 to 1946, during the worldwide historic struggle against the Axis powers, Mills spent this exciting time period in the nation’s capital. At this time Wright was at the University of Maryland. His time was spent working on the dissertation on pragmatism, the edited volume on Max Weber and the volume on social psychology, which took a lengthy amount of time. It was there, at Maryland, where Mills decided to make his leap from philosophy to sociology. Karl Mannheim was the bridge that took Mills from philosophy to the light of sociology. Mannheim probably served this role for several other scholars, but chances are he was unaware of it.
Social science eventually came of age as its uses acted in many ways. Studies were conducted of Nazi and Fascist propaganda techniques, analysis of American soldier’s behavior in combat and psychological profiles of enemy leaders. At this point it was the first time in American history that social sciences were an acceptable part of the real world.
Mill’s had been a political innocent in the 1930’s during World War II. It is more likely that because of his political innocence that he was more of a radical as opposed to a Marxist. This would also explain why Mill’s soon became sympathetic to non-Marxism idea of power. He rejects a lot of Marxist in favor of his own brand of radicalism. With this thought in mind, Gerth and Mills clearly chose Weber over Marx. Mills never accepts Marxism as an idea.
As discussed above, the power elite was Mill’s strongest thought. It is basically an application of Mill’s working model of a social system. In this theory he discusses a three-part description of power. The first, is one’s ability to realize one’s will even if others resist it. The second is stating that power is one dimension of stratification and is always found with occupation, class and status. And lastly power is cumulative. Mills opts for Weber during this argument, as opposed to Marx analysis, producing a more comprehensive study. In Mill’s mind, power resides in institutions.
In this theory Mills is interested in two things: (1) how American society at mid-century is integrated and (2) how the individual is shaped by institutional orders in light of this integration (Scimecca, 83). In Mills’s theory of stratification and his conception of power are the bridges that connect the individual to his society.
The power elite is fairly comparable with respect to power, class, occupation and status. It follows that there is a high probability that those who make up this layer will exhibit a similar mentality and ideology, which will possess a class-consciousness. Mills had already shown that it is not attributable to the middle and lower classes. The power elite is an attempt to document this conception of the ruling elite in terms of individuals who perform similar social roles and are similar social types. Mills followed the power elite with the causes of World War II in 1958. He believed that the power elite was leading the United States into a war. In my mind I believe Mills theory of power (in the power elite) is accurate. His statements provide a solid understanding of the nature of power in American society.
Mills’ willingness to go it alone ran deep. In a letter to the student newspaper at Texas A & M, written in his freshman year, in the midst of the Great Depression, the nineteen-year-old Mills was asking: “Just who are the men with guts? They are the men…who have the imagination and the intelligence to formulate their own codes; the men who have the courage and the stamina to live their own lives in spite of social pressure and isolation” (Tilman, 79). A quarter of a century later the teenage Mills would have been called existentialism. In my mind “existentialism” is a positive word, but for them it was not. The thought of being an object and producing as opposed to viewing is very powerful.
One of Mill’s fondest theories, was the structural model. The first part is a persons character structure, which consists of organism and psychic structure. Then it goes on to discuss the person’s role. It involves their social structure with institutions and economic order. This includes kinship order, political order, religious order and military order.
During a phase of Mills’ career he publishes three books in rapid sequence, but tends to write all three very differently. His first book was The Causes of World War Three (1958) and it is a re-statement of earlier time. Following that book came The Sociological Imagination (1959), which mostly a genuine wisdom book and looking towards the future anxiously, hopefully and peacefully. Lastly there was Listen Yankee (1961), which was a book on the Cuban Revolution.
Mills had many theories and ideas, but where did those ideas evolve? Some say it was his religious background (which is a fact). Unfortunately his religion was not the only foundation for his thought. There were several other contributions that Mills believed in to help him acquire a rationale. Mill’s was exposed to pragmatism, Weberian sociology, neo-Freudianism, and Marxism (Scimecca, 22). George Herbert Mead inspired Mill’s to develop his theory of “the self”. That was one of his pragmatic theories.
As said above, Mills is just beginning to get recognized for his contributions to this society. His eleven books and hundreds of articles are still educating people today. Very few men in this world have left such a great intellectual legacy, and fewer still controversial and misunderstood. Charles Mills saw a different America then his peers around him and paid a great price for his dissenting views. People today are embracing Mills more for his heroics and colorful exploits that for his sociological writings. Today, Mills is known as the father of “radical sociology”. His heroism is looked at more greatly then ever before. He is continually being looked upon more as a romantic hero than a social theorist.
Mills was a controversial sociologist who lived through difficult times. His work remains of value to virtually every sociologist in the field. For emerging radical sociologists in the United States he is becoming a heroic figure to them. Regardless of what our overall judgement of his achievements, he is a difficult person to ignore. Instead of insisting on what Mills wants from sociology or what people want from him, why not acknowledge what he has given us.