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C. Wright Mills

Date of birth : 1916-08-28
Date of death : 1962-03-20
Birthplace : Waco, Texas
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-01-26

American sociologist and political polemicist C. Wright Mills argued that the academic elite has a moral duty to lead the way to a better society by actively indoctrinating the masses with values.

On Aug. 28, 1916, C. Wright Mills was born in Waco, Tex. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Texas and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1941. Subsequently, he taught sociology at the University of Maryland and Columbia University and during his academic career received a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright grant. At his death, Mills was professor of sociology at Columbia.

Mills has been described as a "volcanic eminence" in the academic world and as "one of the most controversial figures in American social science." He considered himself, and was so considered by his colleagues, as a rebel against the "academic establishment." Mills was probably influenced very much in his rebellious attitude by the treatment his doctoral mentor, Edward Allsworth Ross, had received at Stanford. Ross was fired from Stanford in 1900, largely, it is thought, because he urged immigration laws against bringing Chinese coolies into America to work on railroad building. (Stanford was funded primarily by monies from a railroad which employed such labor.) The firing of Ross spurred the movement for academic freedom in the United States under the leadership of E.R.A. Seligman of Columbia University. Ross then went on to Wisconsin, where, together with John R. Gillin, he built up one of the broadest sociology departments in the nation and where Mills was one of his early doctoral students.

Mills emerged as an acid critic of the so-called military-industrial complex and was one of the earliest leaders of the New Left political movement of the 1960s. Against the overwhelming number of academic studies, Mills insisted—and this is the central thesis of virtually all of his works—that there is a concentration of political power in the hands of a small group of military and business leaders which he termed the "power elite." Essentially, what he proposes as a cure for this immoral situation is that this power be transferred to an academic elite, a group of social scientists who think as Mills does.

As to how the power is to be transferred, Mills is not too clear, as he died before he was able to complete a final synthesis of his thought. In general, he maintains that the academic elite already wields the power but that it is subservient to a corrupt military-industrial complex which it unthinkingly serves simply because it is the going system, the establishment. The task, then, is to convert the academic elite through moral suasion or a kind of "theological preaching," as one sympathetic critic has commented. A major reason why the academic elite unwittingly serves this complex is the elite's behavioral approach, its commitment to value-free social science. In the past, conservatives have attacked the academic intelligentsia on the same grounds, that it has been immoral not to inculcate moral values.

Now Mills and the New Left made the same criticism, although in the interest of rather different moral values. Mills and his followers argued that the so-called value-free commitment to analyze "what is," that is, the existing system, automatically buttresses that system and—since the system is wrong—is thus immoral. In a sense, then, as one commentator has observed, what Mills's program amounts to is: "Intellectuals of the world, unite!"

Mills's analysis of political influence has received a much more favorable response. Mills, like a number of other, earlier writers, as far back as Plato and as recent as Walter Lippmann, perceptively pointed out that eminence in one field is quickly transformed into political influence, especially in a democracy, where public opinion is so crucial. Thus, movie stars, sports stars, and famous doctors use their fame to secure elections or political followings. However, there is no rational basis for this, since competence is related to function. If one functions as a film actor or doctor, that does not mean that he has political wisdom. Mills thus advocated his social science elite to replace such corrupt manifestations of the existing system, thereby calling into question many of the fundamental assumptions of democracy. He advocated a community of social scientists, similar to Plato's philosopher-kings, throughout the world, but especially in the United States, and this elite would wield power through knowledge.

For a sympathetic assessment of Mills see the work by the American Marxist theoretician Herbert Aptheker, The World of C. Wright Mills (1960), and Irving L. Horowitz, ed., The New Sociology: Essays in the Social Science and Social Theory in Honor of C. Wright Mills (1964). Criticism of Mills is in Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (1960; new rev. ed. 1961); various works by Robert Dahl, particularly Who Governs? (1961); and Raymond A. Bauer and others, American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade (1963).

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