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Review of C. Wright Mills’ The Marxists

by William F. Warde  [George Novack]

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.3, Summer 1962, pp.67-75 and 95.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Marxists, by C. Wright Mills.
Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York. 480 pp. 1962. Paperback $.75.

Author’s Note

On April 11, 1961 in connection with the manuscript-draft of The Marxists, I wrote C. Wright Mills:

“Because we have so many and such deep divergences on the validity, interpretation and application of Marxism, it will be most useful to you if I confine my remarks largely to matters of fact. When the book comes out, I hope to review it at length.”

I did not then think that this would have to be done without the possibility of rebuttal from Mills. He had plans for a book which would propose a program for “The New Left” and deal with the objections to his views expressed both from the academic right and the socialist left.

Mills was that rare person, a genuine democrat who welcomed the open clash of differing opinions. He resisted coercion of thought, whether it came from the Power Elite in the United States or the bureaucrats in the Soviet Union.

He wanted a free culture for himself and for everyone else. He was especially exhilarated by the prospect opened by the Cuban Revolution of instituting “a new zone of a new freedom in the Americas.” He told me he was part-inspirer of the project outlined in Listen, Yankee for establishing in Havana a university with a worldwide faculty which would “make Cuban intellectual life a truly international, a truly free forum, for the entire range of world opinion, art, judgment, feeling.”

“We want to hear in these new halls of learning a Chinese Communist Party member discussing with a North American Republican Party member the meanings of freedom!” he wrote. “Let a Polish economist discuss with a Cuban economist the problems of the collectivization of land. Let a Mexican oil expert discuss the issues of nationalization of oil resources with a Venezuelan expert, employed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Let a British Labor Party man discuss with a Yugoslav politician – whatever they want to discuss.

“And put it all on tape. Print it in the newspapers of Cuba. Make it available in translations for the press of the world. Make books out of it.”

Mills regarded The Marxists as just such a contribution to the discussion of the major problems of our time designed to counteract the fear and ignorance of the ideas of Communism inculcated by the cold warriors.

Socialist ideas have become such an integral part of everyday political and intellectual life in the world outside North America that the negative aspects of Mills’ attitude toward Marxism would probably stand out most prominently there. But in the prevailing atmosphere of the United States the book should have a more beneficial influence.

For the past fifteen years the minds of the American people have been poisoned and perverted by anti-Marxist propagandists.

Today these range from the ultra-reactionary Birchites to the Sovietologists in the universities who teach that Marxism-Leninism is worth studying primarily to decipher the intentions of the “Communist enemy.”

Mills was disgusted with all this “hysterical nonsense” which has culminated in the establishment of anti-Communist schools and courses in colleges from New England to California. In The Power Elite he had exposed the realities of the rule of the rich. In The Causes of World War III he had condemned the criminal irresponsibility of the H-bomb strategy of their political and military representatives. In Listen, Yankee he warned the dollar diplomats to heed the voice of revolutionary Cuba and the hungry-nation bloc.

These works made Mills the mentor and hero of many young men and women who were equally fed up with the hypocrisy and brutality of the Washington policy makers and the thought control they encountered all about them. He pointed out another road for them by demonstrating that a scholar of unimpeachable standing and achievement could stand up for the truth against the lies of the monopolists and militarists and their conscripted intellectuals. He showed that the study of sociology did not have to result in acquiescence to the status quo or apology for its evils but could be the instrument of political protest and anti-capitalist criticism.

The Marxists should be appraised in connection with this current of radicalism. The “thaw” in Soviet literature since 1953 is an advance over the Stalin era even though it does not yet guarantee full and free expression to the writer. So The Marxists represents a step forward in American sociology although it does not adequately interpret scientific socialism.

In place of the doctored digests of the professional anti-Soviets, it offers samples of authentic Marxist thought along with samples of the opinions of its revisionists. Mills insists that Marxism is not only indispensable for understanding contemporary society but that it has given more effective expression than liberalism to the ideals of humanism, rationalism, freedom and democracy.

Through The Marxists Mills has placed the debate between socialism and capitalism, liberalism and Marxism, Bolshevism and Stalinism, Trotskyism and Stalinism in a new light. Free discussion on his serious intellectual level can help stir academic sociology from its slumbers and awaken more radical thought among the younger generation.

The criticism which I promised C. Wright Mills I would make of his positions is presented in that spirit of unhampered intellectual inquiry, of the give and take of contending ideas, which he sought to promote and so worthily exemplified – W.F.W.

* * *

The Marxists was the last of C. Wright Mills’ books to be published during his lifetime. His death at the age of 46 ended untimely a new beginning in his quest for sociological truth.

The Marxists is significant both for its opposition to the dominant trends in American social thought and for its place in the political and intellectual evolution of the author. This irreverent Columbia Professor of Sociology rejected the credo of his fellow faculty members that liberalism provides an adequate answer to Marxism.

Liberalism was once a fighting creed, he observed, but it has come to a dead end and now serves as a rationale and rhetoric for upholding the irresponsible rule of the Power Elite. It has been conscripted for this function because American conservatism has no philosophy of its own with which to defend the status quo.

Repudiation of the principal ideology for justifying the Big Money brought Mills face to face with Marxism, the foremost doctrine of the anti-capitalist forces. The Marxists records his debate with scientific socialism in order to define his own ideas and positions more precisely.

Mills accorded Marxism exceptionally high rank in the field of sociology. Marxism is more valuable for understanding today’s social realities than all “the abstractions, slogans and fetishisms of liberalism,” he insisted. He wanted to break down the bias against Marxism in the halls of learning and encourage students to assimilate its indispensable contributions to social science.

Mills challenged another shibboleth of the professional liberals who, for their own cold-war purposes, accept the claim of Stalinism that it is a continuation of genuine Marxism and Bolshevism, rather than its distortion and negation. He sought to dissociate the ideas of Marx and Engels from the Stalinist stigmas and, in line with this, to highlight the twin roles of Lenin and Trotsky who came together to form “the Bolshevik pivot” in the October 1917 Revolution.

He contrasts these two with Marx, whom he one-sidedly portrays as a creative thinker but not a man of action, and with Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Tito and Khrushchev whom he rates as purely practical politicians. Lenin and Trotsky were for him embodiments of the unity of theory and practice. “Both are thinkers of high quality and both are among the most accomplished politicians of the last hundred years.”

In protest against “the enormous ignorance and systematic distortion” of Trotsky’s ideas, Mills calls upon the Soviet leaders “to publish great editions of Trotsky’s complete works and discuss widely and freely both his theoretical contributions and his political roles in their revolution. That will surely be most propitious,” he writes, “for new beginnings in Soviet Marxism.”

His recommendation that our countrymen find out what Marxism really teaches, his rejection of liberal complacency, his straightening-out of the roles of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in the Marxist tradition will act as antidotes to widespread prejudices in our national thought.

Mills’ Appraisal of Marxism

Apart from selections of writings by socialist thinkers, from the founders of Marxism to the Yugoslav Kardelj, the Englishman G.D.H. Cole and the Cuban “Che” Guevara, the axis of the work is an examination of the merits and demerits of Marxism. What is the substance of his critical appraisal?

Scientific socialism gave a theoretical picture of capitalist society which was better than any other in its day. However, classical Marxism is a conceptual reflection of the conditions of nineteenth-century Western capitalism. The matured, highly industrialized capitalist societies of the mid-twentieth-century and the Soviet types of society require a more complex type of explanation. Marxism is the Model T of sociology, Mills implies. It must be traded in for a higher-powered design which has kept up with the immense changes in the most advanced sectors of the world.

Most important among these new phenomena is the enormous scale of the aggregations of economic, political, military and cultural power with their extreme centralization, bureaucratization and tyranny over helpless masses of ordinary individuals. These trends are most fully incorporated in the two gigantic superstates, the US and the USSR, which so belligerently confront each other.

“The run of historical events,” he writes, “has overturned the specific theories and explanations” of classical Marxism. On the one hand, capitalism is stronger than ever in the industrialized West where Marx foresaw the workers coming to power. On the other hand, all the major revolutions of our century have occurred in predominantly peasant societies with autocratic governments where capitalism was weak. No proletarian revolution of a Bolshevik type has taken place in a democratic capitalist society and there are no substantial reasons to anticipate that one ever will.

Above all, Marxist theory has been invalidated, Mills argues, because its central proposition that the wage-workers would become more and more class conscious, anti-capitalist and revolutionary has not been borne out in the developed capitalist countries. “To a very considerable extent, they have been incorporated into nationalist capitalism – economically, politically and psychologically.” The discrediting of “the labor metaphysics,” the keystone of the structure, entails the collapse of the rest of scientific socialism.

All that remains of the original Marxism as a lasting legacy to sociology is its method of work, he asserts. Everything else from its dialectical logic to its theory of the state has not stood the test of events and must be modified or discarded.

What does Mills propose to put in place of the classic liberalism and Marxism he has swept aside as obsolete? He does not give us much concrete information. In fact, he says he does not have to give any immediate alternative to the ideologies he has presumably demolished. He intended to work out his own theoretical positions and program of action subsequently together with those colleagues of “The New Left” who shared the view that they had gone beyond the limitations of Marxism to some superior but still indeterminate type of social theory.

[. . .]

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