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December 2009 (Volume 61, Number 7)

In this issue we are reprinting C. Wright Mills’s “Psychology and Social Science” from the October 1958 issue of Monthly Review. The argument of this piece was subsequently incorporated in Mills’s Sociological Imagination, which appeared fifty years ago this year, and constituted a powerful indictment of mainstream social science. Both “Psychology and Social Science” and the larger Sociological Imagination were strongly influenced by “the principle of historical specificity” as described in Karl Korsch’s Karl Marx. Mills used this to construct a radical challenge to the prevailing notion of a permanent “human nature,” applicable to all societies and social situations. He later referred to The Sociological Imagination — in a letter to an imaginary Soviet correspondent (part of a work he was writing, to be called Letter to a Russian Intellectual) — as “a kind of ‘Anti-Duhring,’” constituting his radical break with ahistorical social science.

Mills — author of White Collar (1951), The Power Elite (1956), and other iconoclastic works — was both a resolutely independent left thinker and what Todd Gitlin (in his afterword to the fortieth anniversary edition of The Sociological Imagination) has called “the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century.” In his last few years, he emerged as the single most important figure in the launching of the intellectual New Left, with the publication of “Letter to the New Left” in the New Left Review in September-October 1960.

The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 widened the split within Marxism, with official Soviet ideologues more and more separated from independent Marxists, particularly in the West. Mills increasingly identified with the latter, labeling himself in his final book, The Marxists (1962),as a “plain Marxist,” which he defined as someone who views Marxism not as a dogma but as a critical tool, to be employed in historically specific terms. He associated this perspective with such diverse names among his contemporaries (in what generally came to be known as “Western Marxism”) as G.D.H. Cole, Georg Lukàcs, Isaac Deutscher, Joan Robinson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Thompson, William Appleman Williams, Paul Sweezy, and Erich Fromm — authors who, with the exceptions of Lukàcs and Fromm, were all Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press writers.

In a November 1956 letter to his close friend Harvey Swados (also an MR author), Mills wrote: “Let’s not forget that there’s more [that’s] still useful in even the Sweezy kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J.S. Mill [i.e., modern liberal ideology] put together.” Mills was struck by Sweezy’s critical assessment of The Power Elite in theSeptember 1956 issue of Monthly Review, which Mills saw as somewhat “doctrinaire,” but “no less so than all the liberal stuff,” and “much more generous as well.” Sweezy was later to be acknowledged by Mills as one of the individuals to whom he was beholden for helpful criticisms of the earlier manuscript version of The Sociological Imagination. In May 1958, Mills chaired Monthly Review’s ninth birthday gathering in New York, with G.D.H. Cole as the main speaker, attracting a crowd of 1,100. At the time of his death at age forty-five in 1962, he was planning a lunch at his home in West Nyack, New York, which was to include his close friend Ralph Miliband, soon to become cofounder of The Socialist Register, together with Monthly Review editors, Leo Huberman and Sweezy.

The central event in the last three years of Mills’s life (and for Monthly Review at the time) was the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mills visited Cuba and strongly defended its socialist path in his powerful polemic Listen Yankee! (1960), written in six weeks of frantic, around-the-clock effort. Mills was slated to engage in a debate on Cuba with a major liberal figure, A.A. Berle, on NBC television December 10, 1960, but was struck by his first heart attack the night before. As Miliband wrote in his tribute to Mills in Monthly Review (September 1962), the Bay of Pigs invasion filled Mills with “bitter, helpless shame. In fact, it broke his heart….It was altogether fitting that, when Mills died fifteen months later, Fidel Castro should have sent a wreath to the funeral. For Mills was a casualty of the Cuban Revolution, and of the revolution of our times.”

Among Mills’s most lasting legacies was his critique of what he called “liberal practicality,” which he believed was a major hindrance to the development of meaningful left action. This was a central theme of The Sociological Imagination and continued to occupy him in all his subsequent works. Those who wish to continue along his path would do well to start there. (See John Bellamy Foster, “Liberal Practicality and the U.S. Left,” Socialist Register, 1990. For an interview of Mills’s two daughters, see Michael Dawson, “Interview with Kathryn Mills and Pamela Mills,” Monthly Review Commentary, October 2007.

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2009, Volume 61, Issue 07 (December)
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