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A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors

Posted on Feb 29, 2012
Think-N-Evolve (CC-BY)

C. Wright Mills.

By Peter Dreier, Truthout

(Page 5)

By the time he wrote “The Power Elite,” Mills had given up hope that a resurgent labor movement could revitalize American democracy. He seemed oblivious to the burgeoning civil rights movement that had erupted in Montgomery in 1955. (In fact, he was oblivious to issues of race throughout his writings.)

But Mills’ books, particularly “The Power Elite,” resonated with the growing mood of discontent in the nation, particularly on college campuses. For example, its influence can be seen in the “Port Huron Statement,” the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), written in 1962. The “Statement’s” principal author, Tom Hayden and other SDS leaders, like sociologist Dick Flacks, greatly admired Mills. The “Statement’s” analysis of power and its call for “participatory democracy” echoed Mills’ views.

During the last few years of his life, a few trends—the rise of student activism in the United States and Europe; the Cuban revolution in 1959; and the awakening of anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia and South America—gave Mills a new sense of hope. Energized by these movements, he quickly wrote two short books—which he called “pamphlets”—that he aimed for a wide audience. “The Causes of World War Three” (1958), an impassioned plea for an end to the nuclear arms race, sold over 100,000 copies. “Listen, Yankee” (1960), a sympathetic look at the Cuban revolution from the viewpoint of a Cuban revolutionary, sold over 400,000 copies. In the fall of 1960, he published a “Letter to the New Left” in the British journal New Left Review, encouraging young radicals around the world.

Mills’ writing combined analysis and outrage. He was a meticulous researcher, but he did not wish to be what he called a “sociological bookkeeper.” He wrote about the fundamental questions facing American society and he had strong opinions. “I try to be objective,” Mills wrote, “I do not claim to be detached.”


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Toward the end of his life, the mainstream media began asking Mills for his views on major issues of the day. In December 1960, he was invited to appear on the NBC television show “The Nation’s Future” to debate A.A. Berle, a spokesperson for the newly elected Kennedy administration, about US policy in Latin America. On the eve of the program, Mills suffered a heart attack and had to cancel the debate. He never fully recovered his remarkable energy. A second heart attack on March 20, 1962, was fatal. He didn’t live to see the emergence of the student and antiwar movements that his work helped inspire.

Few [Occupy] Wall Street activists have probably heard of Mills or are familiar with his work. But Mills’ breakthrough ideas—especially his notion of the “power elite”—resonate today with the growing recognition that too much wealth and power in the hands of the superrich undermines democracy.


For further reference:

Daniel Geary, “Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left and American Social Thought,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Kathryn Mills with Patricia Mills, editors, “C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

John H. Summers, editor, “The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills,” New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

G. William Domhoff, “Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance,” sixth edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Tom Hayden, “Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times,” Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.

C. Wright Mills, “The New Men of Power. America’s Labor Leaders,” New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1948.

C. Wright Mills, “White Collar. The American Middle Classes,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

C. Wright Mills, “The Power Elite,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

C. Wright Mills, “The Causes of World War Three,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958.

C. Wright Mills, “Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba,” New York: McGraw Hill, 1960.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His next book, “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” will be published by Nation Books in June.


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By Alan MacDonald, March 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment

An excellent and inspiring article about a great progressive sociologist, Peter Dreier—- and kudos to truthdig for supporting this type of inter-generational history of the progressive idea.

Best luck and love to the “Occupy Empire” educational and revolutionary movement.

Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

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By thegrowlingwolf, March 1, 2012 at 11:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m an old school Sociologist—we were a very wise bunch of Americans—two books I cut my sociological teeth on were Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite.  These two works by American geniuses explain all about what’s happening—in one case over 100 years later and in the case of the Power Elite 56 years ago.  Too bad you folks are just now discovering C. Wright Mills—of course our idiot politicians have no idea about anything sociology or economics.  H.L. Mencken also taught us that everything the government says is a LIE.  You start from there and it becomes crystal clear.

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By gerard, March 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm Link to this comment

Foucauldian:  Second hand, sorry to say.

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By Foucauldian, March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment

gerard, February 29 at 12:43 pm

A personal mentor, Gerard, or second-hand?

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By Foucauldian, March 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment

Even looks like a rebel, doesn’t he?

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By moonraven, March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment

jimmy:  Thanks.  I try to bring some common sense and global experience to this site.

Most folks don’t want either of those—they want to keep sucking on the koolaid.

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By jimmmmmy, March 1, 2012 at 11:28 am Link to this comment

moonraven well said. i like your comments, there is no button to select “like” on this sites comments.

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By moonraven, March 1, 2012 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Folks lingering on in their 60s and 70s from cancer might disagree with John Poole—they might well wish they had died, cleanly and rapidly, from a heart attack in their 40s.

Actually, many men die from heart attacks at that age—it’s considered the highest risk age for heart attacks among males.

So Poole, what are you trying to accomplish with your trolling, anyway?  Put somebody down because he wasn’t a koolaid addict like you?

Drink it someplace else.  This isn’t a bar.

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By John Poole, March 1, 2012 at 9:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Gerard and Jimmmmmy: I well deserve your mocking of my poorly expressed
opinion. I meant to say that by birth year happenstance some are spared having
the face the conscription crucible which can leave such men feeling unsure about
themselves and incomplete. Mill’s two divorces and a likely third are more
important to me than his writing for my mantra is: get your own house in order
before casting aspersions outward. Mills seems to have been too smitten with his
own “outlander” status.

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By John Poole, March 1, 2012 at 8:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gerard and Jimmmmmy:  My point was very poorly expressed and both of you are
justified in mocking my words.  I meant to say that some by pure happenstance of
birth date end up not having to face the conscription crucible and I maintain that
not having to face such a defining crucible can leave a male feeling incomplete.
It’s a very delicate subject for many and would need another post to explore. 
Mills two divorces with a likely third one on the way tells me he never got his own
house in order before casting aspersions outward.  He seems to have been very
smitten by his “outlander” stance.

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By Mike Strong, March 1, 2012 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

Can you just give me the darn article on a single page (put the option at the top). I hit all those pages at the bottom and just said the heck with it.

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By Shenonymous, March 1, 2012 at 2:59 am Link to this comment

The best show of respect for his ideas is to buy his
books, read them, then do something to further
his…and your ideas. 

I found it curious that Drier did not give note to
Mills’ intellectual sibling Saul Alinsky whose work
affected millions of Americans as well.

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By Michael Cavlan RN, February 29, 2012 at 11:00 pm Link to this comment

When I read the title on this, I immediately thought

Ralph Nader


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By rumblingspire, February 29, 2012 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


“buying things they didn’t need and living without much purpose.”

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By gerard, February 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

Poole:  Wow!  Profound!

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By Richard N. Juliani, February 29, 2012 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Some of us who studied and were greatly influenced by Mills’ work when we were students back in the 1950s-60s regard his book “The Sociological Imagination” as perhaps his most important work.  And after all these years, I still talk about it in class since he described the core of sociological analysis in that work—- the intersection of individual experience with social structure.  It holds up as well today as it did then—- and remains absolutely worth reading.  One should also read his essay on the “classic tradition” which he used as an introduction to an anthology of excerpts from the “founding fathers” of modern sociology in the book “Images of Man.”  Great stuff.  I still remember the day that I saw the announcement of his death in the classified obituary listings of the NY Times—- and how sad I felt. He was a hero to our generation.

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By John Poole, February 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I knew I’d catch hell for my theory. What I’d like to express is these so called
heroes are usually failures at what counts most- being a caring mate and
nurturing father. Two failed marriages and perhaps the third on the rocks? Guys
like this are always looking to fix the world when they are fucking up their
personal world (oh, I see, the stupid cunts he married just didn’t “understand
him”).  The bit about military service was mentioned only to suggest certain males
never have to face a defining crucible. I never met the guy but I’d like to know if a
defining crucible confronted him and what was his response. He seems to have
glided within the higher echelons of academia comfortably.

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm Link to this comment

so to be a true amerikan once must serve as in the military, pretty far out theory

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By John Poole, February 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This guy fits into my theory that males born too early to fight in WWII and too late
for Korea end up with a certain world view.  So he died of a heart attack at age
45? Not much to want to emulate there if it wasn’t DNA related. Did rage and
resentment kill him? Was there a wife or children? What was he like as a human
not as a polemicist?

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

what wonderful article.  i would likely never been made aware of this marvelous human being eithout the internet and site like yours.outstanding !

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm Link to this comment

what a truly wonderful article. if it were not for the internet and new sites like truthdig i would have been aware of this marvelous human being. out standing.!

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By gerard, February 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

Mills was one of my most significant mentors.  I wrote a long comment which got lost in transit somewhere in the ether.  Suffice it to say to Truthdig, thanks for this resume of a significant contemporary.

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By moonraven, February 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

This guy was my idol when I entered university in 1962.

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