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Radical Ambition

Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought

Daniel Geary
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Radical Ambition
    Book Description:

    Sociologist, social critic, and political radical C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was one of the leading public intellectuals in twentieth century America. Offering an important new understanding of Mills and the times in which he lived,Radical Ambitionchallenges the captivating caricature that has prevailed of him as a lone rebel critic of 1950s complacency. Instead, it places Mills within broader trends in American politics, thought, and culture. Indeed, Daniel Geary reveals that Mills shared key assumptions about American society even with those liberal intellectuals who were his primary opponents. The book also sets Mills firmly within the history of American sociology and traces his political trajectory from committed supporter of the Old Left labor movement to influential herald of an international New Left. More than just a biography,Radical Ambitionilluminates the career of a brilliant thinker whose life and works illustrate both the promise and the dilemmas of left-wing social thought in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94344-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Maverick on a Motorcycle? The Thought and Times of C. Wright Mills
    (pp. 1-13)

    The sociologist, social critic, and political radical Charles Wright Mills (1916–1962) did not fit the 1950s stereotype of the “egghead” intellectual. Famous for riding a motorcycle, he dressed in boots and a leather jacket at a time when academic protocol dictated more formal attire. Over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, he had an imposing physical presence. He was good with his hands as well as with his brain: he knew how to fix his motorcycle, he helped build two of his houses, and he chastised friends for not baking their own bread. He spoke...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Student Ambitions: The Education of a Social Scientist
    (pp. 14-44)

    Today Mills is often celebrated as a public intellectual whose insights gained power because he ventured outside the ivory tower. Yet he developed his major themes, ideas, and approaches in an academic context. The origins of his thought lie not in an early involvement in literary, bohemian, political, or journalistic circles, but in a university education in the social sciences. Mills’s student years at the University of Texas at Austin (1935–1939) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1939–1942) established the foundation upon which his later work would build. In order to understand Mills, it is necessary to...

  6. CHAPTER 2 What Is Happening in the World Today: Weberian Sociology and Radical Political Analysis
    (pp. 45-73)

    In February of 1942, Mills sent a letter to prominent left-wing New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald. Mills closed his letter with the request that Macdonald “from time to time let me know what is going on in the world.”¹ Throughout his life, Mills frequently ended his correspondence with this phrase. It is significant that he began to use it in the early 1940s, when he first developed a left-wing interpretation of world events and began to seek a new audience for his ideas. Still, Mills remained embedded in social scientific discourse. His interest in current political events went hand in...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Union of the Power and the Intellect: The Labor Movement and Bureau-Driven Social Research
    (pp. 74-105)

    In 1945 Mills moved to New York City to take a position as a research associate at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR). Eager to learn the new methods of social research pioneered by the bureau, Mills felt confident that he could make them serve his own sociological and political ends. Once in New York, Mills also began a brief but intense romance with the American labor movement, which for a short period following the war seemed to offer great promise as an agent for left-wing social change. After his bleak pessimism of the war years, the four-year...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The New Little Men: ‘White Collar’
    (pp. 106-142)

    “The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society.”¹ So beganWhite Collar. A fundamental occupational shift had occurred: the rise of a new middle class of dependent, salaried employees and the decline of a propertied old middle class. Grasping the significance of this transition required examining white-collar workers in their various guises as corporate managers, bureaucratic professionals, salespeople, and clerical workers. This investigation of the “occupational salad” of the new middle class revealed a new picture of American society “as a great salesroom, an incorporated brain, a new universe of management and manipulation.”² It was the novelists who had best...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Politics of Truth: ‘The Power Elite’ and ‘The Sociological Imagination’
    (pp. 143-178)

    Shaped by the intellectual and political environment of the late 1940s,White Collarwas the work of a professionally and politically isolated intellectual who espoused a fully disillusioned radicalism. The book thus marked the transition to Mills’s influential social analysis of the 1950s. But it was also the product of methods and ideas that Mills had developed over the previous fifteen years. LikeWhite Collar, The Power Elite(1956), Mills’s influential book on American power and democracy, andThe Sociological Imagination(1959), his classic critique of professional sociology, were not simply responses to the particular time in which they were...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Worldly Ambitions: The Emergence of a Global New Left
    (pp. 179-215)

    For American left student activists of the early 1960s aiming to practice their own politics of truth, Mills’s “Letter to the New Left” of 1960 provided inspiration. Attacking the liberal notion of an “end of ideology,” Mills suggested that radical ideals could once again affect the course of history by stirring the masses out of their apathy. Defending “utopian” thinking, he showed the necessity of a New Left that would break through the limits of the cold war consensus politics of the 1950s. Most important, Mills proclaimed to the emerging white student movement that “new generations of intellectuals” could be...

  11. Epilogue: The Legacy of C. Wright Mills
    (pp. 216-220)

    On March 20, 1962, at the age of forty-five, Mills died of a heart attack in his home in West Nyack, New York. Observances of his death marked the distance that he had traveled in the two-and-a-half decades of his intellectual career. Hans Gerth traveled from Wisconsin to speak at the memorial service held at Columbia University, along with Daniel Bell, once a key influence on Mills’s radicalism, but by then one of Mills’s leading liberal targets. Other prominent Columbia sociologists, Merton and Lazarsfeld included, were conspicuously absent.¹ A Quaker service for friends and family, held at the interfaith pacifist...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 221-262)
  13. Index
    (pp. 263-277)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 278-278)