C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite revisited

The New Left Project recently ran a series of articles revisiting C. Wright Mills’s life and writings, especially focusing on his 1956 classic The Power Elite. Included are new contributions from Steven Lukes and Stanley Aronowitz, as well as old ones by Ralph Miliband and Mills himself.

I first read The Power Elite as a first-year grad student at The New School. Back then I was inspired by Mills’s effortless and shearing analysis of American society, even while having reservations about some of the more theoretical assumptions behind his approach (for example, arguably his reliance on Weberian elite theory rather than Marxian class analysis).

With that book, Mills also made a significant contribution to the debate on power within the social sciences, in contrast with the reductive behavioralism dominant in the academy at the time. Although this was not made explicit in the book, in order for his theory of the power elite to hold, the exercise of power could not simply be understood as visible coercion. Instead, the power of the elites permeated American society in a much deeper way, manifesting itself covertly through influence, status, and ideology. In this way, Mills anticipated the arguments about the “third face of power” made by Lukes nearly twenty years later.

Even more admirable, though, was Mills’s commitment to the notion that intellectual activity was not simply a good in and for itself, but had a role to play in public life. He was one of the last great American men of letters – a public intellectual who rejected the conservative, consensus-driven politics of the early Cold War years in favor of a radicalism that could be put to use in deepening democracy. It is a shame that he did not live just a few years longer to see it come to life in the spirit of 1968.


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