‘Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals’ reviewed by Paul Reynolds

Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals

Columbia University Press, New York, 2012. 288pp., $32.50 / £22.50 hb
ISBN 9780231135405

Reviewed by Paul Reynolds

About the reviewer

Paul Reynolds is Reader in Sociology and Social Philosophy at Edge Hill University. He is on the …


John H. Summers (2008, ix) begins his introduction to his selected writings of C. Wright Mills like this: `C. Wright Mills was the most famous American sociologist in the world when he died on March 20, 1962. Yet no biography worth reading has appeared in the four decades since then, nor has a reliable apparatus of scholarship matured around his writings to guide commentary on his legacy.’

Stanley Aronowitz’s ‘political and intellectual study of the work of C Wright Mills’ (25), is rich in insight and scholarship, and wide ranging in its analyses of Mills work and its context in the work of post-war American Left intellectuals. It does not fill the gap that Summers suggests, and perhaps would not purport to do so, but it does add a dimension to reading Mills. It reflects Aronowitz’s credentials as a significant intellectual voice of the US Left, but perhaps tells us more about Aronowitz’s reading of Left intellectual culture in the 1950s and 60s, which constitutes his own intellectual roots and heritage, than it does specifically about Mills trajectory.

This is not an intellectual biography, and whilst Mills work provides a narrative thread, there are sustained digressions to explore the connections, fractures and disputes between different characters and factions in the American Left from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. In a sense, this is an effective means of exploring Mills’ work. It puts it in an imminent, concrete political context, which is the best way to understand one half of the dialectics of intellectual work and production (against the other of the abstraction and universality of intellectual discourse). Yet at the same time, it means that the text tends to straddle Mills and a broader narrative of the American Left. The result of these simultaneous threads is an uneven if intellectually thoughtful discussion. Behind the erudite observations on key intellectual debates, the question remains: who is Mills and what does he represent?

Part of the difficulty of writing a study of the intellectual work of Mills is the breadth and vision of his output, which cuts across disciplinary divides (notwithstanding his focus on The Sociological Imagination) and charts a singular engagement with the constitution of class politics in its concrete forms, the left, and the role of the intellectual. On the latter, Mills is clearly one of those intellectuals who deliberately straddles the academy and public debate. Summers (2008, ix) observes that `Mills’ contemporaries knew him as the author of long books, but also as an aphorist, essayist, reviewer, pamphleteer, and public lecturer’. It is the singularity of his trajectory in its intellectual reflections and political interventions that makes him not easy to locate within a broader analysis of the American Left. Geary (2009, 6) describes Mills’ career as ‘stretched from the death of the Old Left and the birth of the New Left’ concluding that he had ‘rejected what he termed the “labor metaphysic”, and he looked instead to an international New Left “young intelligentsia”, that allied a middle-class cultural opposition in the West with non-Communist socialist revolutionaries in the third world, particularly those in Cuba’. Contrast this with Aronowitz’s rather different characterisation of Mills in his introduction as an eclectic and elusive figure who,

 had great respect for Marx but asserted that part of his theoretical perspective was simply inapplicable to the mid-twentieth century world. He strongly criticised contemporary Marxist traditions for their metaphysical bent, especially their elevation of “labor” to a privileged position in the social pantheon (3)

This raises a caveat to any evaluation of Mills. His elusiveness to categorisation and his lack of sustained allegiance to a particular factional position means that he tends to be appropriated for the author’s position as much as located in his own, and Aronowitz is no exception. Aronowitz’s Mills can be traced through a number of eclectic influences: Dewey, Veblen and democratic pragmatism; Gerth and through Gerth Weber, Mosca and Pareto; Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge; and later ‘Western Marxism’. In charting these many influences, Aronowitz reads his Mills, an intellectual synthesising into a distinctive voice critiques that are aligned to democracy and movement politics. In doing so, he underplays another Mills, who is resolutely of the left but bound by a context in which he is disillusioned with Communists, Trotskyists and the politics of organised labour politics that constitute the ‘old left’ in that conjuncture, and only beginning to connect fully with the New Left, of Europe and Latin America, when he dies. This is a Mills made pessimistic by his analysis of class politics in the US, but it does not follow that he should be conceived as an intellectual who develops a distinctive voice as ‘magpie’ to many sources. His commitment to a left project struggling to find a credible voice in a difficult context provides more consistency than Aronowitz credits, surprising given his commitment to a contextualised analysis, following what he claims is Mills’ own method (27). As Hayden (2006, 165) observes, Mills called himself a ‘plain Marxist’, notwithstanding his criticisms in The Marxists, and there is much in Mills and Mills (2000) that suggests he sees himself as a critical thinker within but not aligned to the contemporary immanent manifestations of Marxism. There is at least a debate to be exercised that is absent, and it is important in understanding how to connect Mills’ work into a coherent trajectory and understand its coherence and interconnections as well as its ruptures and disconnections.

Aronowitz, who edited a three volume collection on C. Wright Mills (Aronowitz 2004), knows his Mills. Amongst his other writings on Mills is a reflection on Tom Hayden’s (2006) study of Mills as radical nomad. Curiously, whilst name checked as ‘excellent’ (6), it is neither included in the bibliography nor discussed, where Hayden, according to the earlier Aronowitz, `goes further than Mills. His discourse is less an analysis of alliances amongst the political, military, and economic elites and the individuals who constitute them that we find in Mills, than a more straightforward argument for the existence of a ruling class.’ (2006, 25)

As Perlman (1970, 5) observes, noting from Letter to the New Left,

‘the most important issue of political reflection – and of political action – in our time is the problem of the historical agency of change, of the social and institutional means of structural change’…. For Mills, this was not a speculative problem; it was not a subject for contemplation. It is an intensely practical and personal problem. It raises questions about the relation of the individual to history, about the relevance of intellectual activity to the making of history, about the unity of thought and action, theory and practice … Mills did not answer these questions; he posed them, and for posing them he was left standing alone in a United States which contained no revolutionaries during a period he called the mindless years … He did not leave the new insurgents clear answers; he left them lucidly posed questions.

Perlman overstates his case, but then Aronowitz’s eclectic Mills overstates the influence of the frustrations of left intellectuals in the absence of an unincorporated working class.

Such a position, drawing out a more radical and Marxist Mills, might have been worth exploring in more depth in this book. What Aronowitz’s text does instead is reinforce the eclecticism rather than the continuities of Mills’ thinking through successive chapters devoted to phases of Mills’ intellectual trajectory, which successively take on his initial intellectual work on pragmatism, drawing on Mannheim and social psychological analyses; his sojourn in New York and intellectual debates mainly around the Partisan Review; his time at Columbia and patronage by figures such as Merton, in which New Men of Power and White Collar confirm his critical position with respect to organised Labour; his work with Gerth, notably Character and Social Structure; his analysis of elite power and structure in The Power Elites; his public intellectual work with the Causes of World War Three and Listen Yankee; and his engagement with Western Marxism prior to his death and his exhortation for a critical science in The Sociological Imagination. In themselves, each chapter has value, but for example Chapter 2 is actually a discussion on intellectuals, the Partisan Review and the New York Left where Mill is only a counterpoint to the discussion. Likewise the discussion of Mills work with Gerth takes a considerable excursus on the origins and development of psychology and its critical engagement by the left through such thinkers as Reich and Marcuse. It is perhaps unfair to Aronowitz, given the importance of context and breadth of analysis, but it does weaken a sense of continuous and coherent analyses of Mills and tends to shape him in Aronowitz’s broader frame by default. And Aronowitz frame is clear in his extensive writings (Aronowitz 1990, 1998. 2007).

Aronowitz takes his title for the book from a comment often attributed to Mills – Taking it Big – explained more succinctly in a quotation taken from the Columbia Alumni News as a frontpiece to Mills daughter’s collection of his letters and autobiographical writings: `It’s a writer’s responsibility to orient modern publics to the catastrophic world in which we love … he cannot do this if he remains a mere specialist. To do it at all, he’s got to do it big!’ (Mills and Mills 2000, vii)

That perhaps gives a substantial clue to unlocking Mills. He is best seen as a radical public intellectual seeking to speak truth to power and galvanise minds to think critically within the particular context within which he writes and acts politically. His social psychological work with Hans Gerth, his sustained and highly critical studies on organised labour and its power, and his disenchantment with American left politics, inevitably took him in a direction that would be highly critical of orthodox and doctrinaire politics and ideological arguments, and towards a more culturally sophisticated Marxism. Aronowitz acknowledges this in his Afterword in connecting Mills concerns with the Birmingham School (the CCCS under Stuart Hall) (243). Hence Mills exhortations, most prominently in The Sociological Imagination, his writings on the intellectual and intellectual craftmanship, his provocation on Cuba, Listen Yankee, and his Letter to the New Left. These are the writings of an intellectual not afforded the easy cover of being part of a particular political faction, yet compelled to speak from a commitment and base analysis that draws widely from different theorists but organises them in a way that locates within a critical Marxist position. In Foucault’s (2001) terms, Mills is parrhesiastes – what is important is to speak to truth and engage in the practice of speaking to truth as a political act.

He reflects the qualities of Howard Zinn, another great post-war non-aligned American Left intellectual, in his attention to thorough empirical work and his commitment to propagating beyond the academy. His empirical work echoes Pierre Bourdieu insofar as he finds class and stratified society a truth not simply produced by theoretical orientation or by evidence. In a sense, his political commitment and imminent exhortations and provocations in popular form as well as more intellectually framed books reflects Marx in the industry, commitment and immanence of his writings within a transitioning Left in which he saw much to criticise.

Aronowitz has added positively to the literature on Mills and the American post-war Left with this fascinating study, and read alongside his edited 3 volume collection (2004), Geary (2009) and Mills and Mills (2000) for the voice of Mills itself, this is a strong contribution to recent scholarship on Mills, but I feel we are still waiting for what Summers asks to do a great intellectual justice.

2 January 2013


  • Aronowitz, Stanley 1990 The Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics and Culture in Marxist Theory London: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Aronowitz, Stanley 1998 The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism London: Routledge.
  • Aronowitz, Stanley ed. 2004 Wright Mills (Sage Masters in Modern Social Thought series) London: Sage.
  • Aronowitz, Stanley 2007 Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future Boulder: Paradigm Books.
  • Foucault, Michel 2001 Fearless Speech Edited by Joseph Pearson. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
  • Geary, Daniel 2009 Radical Ambition: C Wright Mills, the Left and American Social Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hayden, Tom 2006 Radical Nomad: C Wright Mills and His Times with contemporary reflections by Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Flacks and Charles Lemert Boulder: Paradigm Books.
  • Mills, Kathryn with Mills Pamela 2000 C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Perlman Fredy 1970 The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C Wright mills Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action. Detroit: Black and White.
  • Summers, John. H. ed. 2008 The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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