|C. Wright Mills|
As an academic, Mills was committed to the rigors of scholarly inquiry, but this did not mean that he thought that intellectual work should be value-free. Far from it. In a 1959 address at the London School of Economics that harshly criticized contemporary U.S. society, he provided his audience with an intellectual disclaimer that succinctly characterizes the spirit of his work: “You may well say that all this is an immoderate and biased view of America, that this nation contains many good features…Indeed that is so. But you must not expect me to provide A Balanced View. I am not a sociological bookkeeper.”
Despite the fact that he has been dead for close to 50 years, Mills remains a towering intellectual figure whose work repays close attention today. Many of the problems and questions he raised continue (unfortunately) to be highly relevant to a world in the midst of major overlapping social, economic, and ecological crises. Of particular note for those of us who choose to remain on the Left despite our marginalization is his 1960 “Letter to the New Left.”
Initially addressed to the British New Left and subsequently circulated in North America, this short and fragmentary but highly suggestive piece is, characteristically, epigrammatic in its prose and dizzyingly broad in its political and intellectual aspirations. It remains famous for its bulls-eye shotgun blast against the complacent formulations of the end-of-ideology crowd that held sway during the 1950s (“Its sophistication is one of tone rather than of ideas; in it, the New Yorker style of reportage has become politically triumphant”).
But here I want to focus on two aspects of the Letter that I think most concern us today – what it means to be on the Left, and the seeming collapse of the historic agencies of change identified by and with the Left, particularly the labor movement. The problem of agency is particuarly relevant to what remains of the Left today, and it is the part of Mills’ letter that is the most problematic. Let’s take each of these questions in turn.
What It Means to be Left
|Mills commuted to Columbia College|
on his motorcycle
Mills will have none of this. He defends the continuing salience of Right and Left as opposing regulative principles for approaching social life, and defines them as such:
The Right, among other things, means — what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focussed politically as demands and programmes. These criticisms, demands, theories, programmes are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilisation — above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programmes. And it means all this inside every country of the world.
To some extent, the opposition between Right and Left that Mills defined has been inverted today. In the U.S., at least, the organized Right in its Tea Party incarnation appear as today’s Jacobins and Bolsheviks, at least in their rhetorical calls for “revolution” and “Second Amendment remedies” (their political program, obviously, seeks not a new social order but a counterrevolution – no taxes, smashed labor and social movements, and queers and people of color put back in their place).
On the broad Left, the prevailing mood tends to be conservative. The late Tony Judt, for example, makes this orientation explicit when he calls for a “social democracy of fear” and the modest program of defending whatever is left of the 20th century welfare state. Coming from a somewhat different angle, Sheri Berman calls on the Left to “commit to managing change rather than fighting it, to embracing the future rather than running from it,” which amounts to a political program focused strictly on “helping people adjust to capitalism” rather than the structural changes that Mills called for. To be sure, there remain a number of individuals and organizations that do not seek only to maintain past victories or accept the inevitability and finality of capitalism, but these voices are fairly marginalized even on the Left, to say nothing of the broader society. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of excellent proposals to deal on a short-term basis with various problems caused by capitalism, and these should be vigorously pursued. But very few people these days, even most socialists it seems, can imagine living in a world beyond capitalism.
The “Labor Metaphysic”
|The 1968 Memphis sanitation strike|
Most importantly, the theoretical premise that underpins Mills’ rejection of the working class is deeply flawed. As noted above, he argued that organized workers could be a decisive force during the beginning stages of industrialization or under conditions of political autocracy and repression. The historical record does not bear this argument out. It does not hold when considering workers’ movements around the turn of the 20th century, and it has even less explanatory power when we look at the 1960s and 1970s. An unprecedented strike wave hit the U.S. and Western Europe in this period. In 1970, there were over 5,700 strikes in the U.S. involving over 3 million workers, and radical rank-and-file caucuses challenging conservative union bureaucracies in addition to the bosses sprung up in a number of major unions. In Italy, the 1969-1970 “Hot Autumn” strike wave was the biggest and longest in history. These events undermined the New Left thesis that the welfare state bought off the working class and undermined its traditional role as the leading force for radical social change. Indeed, through full or near-full employment and social policies that provided a measure of income support and social security for working people, it helped to encourage such action.
The Enduring Centrality of the Working Class
|Italian autoworkers on strike|