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International Socialist Review, Fall 1959


Daniel Freeman

Modern Sociology and Marxism


From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.4, Fall 1959, pp.123-124.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Sociological Imagination
by C. Wright Mills
Oxford University Press, New York. 1959. 234 pp. $6.

In his latest book, Professor C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, aims “to define the meaning of the social sciences for the cultural tasks of our time.” Mills, an independent radical, is one of the most advanced sociologists in American academic life today. It is therefore no surprise that in this book he is very much concerned with the implications of social science, or as he calls it “the sociological imagination,” for political tasks. By this he means the attempt to analyze the “problems of biography, of history, and of their interactions within social structures” and thereby to generate increased social awareness as a precondition for political and cultural change.

The political task of social scientists, says Mills, is “continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals.” Equipped with “sociological imagination” socially informed publics, parties and movements may perhaps produce enough of the power of reason in society (and Mills is quite pessimistic on this score) so that someday we may achieve the goal of “the avoidance of war and the re-arrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human reason and freedom.”

Mills develops his concept of “sociological imagination” through a critique of the two currently dominant schools of academic sociology described as “Grand Theory” (represented by Talcott Parsons) and “Abstracted Empiricism” (represented by Lazarsfeld, Stouffer and others). Mills says that these schools negate what he regards as the promise of ninteenth century sociology – the establishment of the forces of reason and freedom in society. Rather than serving such ends, he argues, they produce works either directly or indirectly in the interests of the “power elite” of military, governmental and corporate institutions.

He summarizes the function of prevailing social science as follows: “In bureaucratic social science of which abstracted empiricism is the most suitable tool and grand theory the accompanying lack of theory – the whole social science endeavor has been pinned down to the service of the prevailing authorities.” In effect this is social science in uniform.

In this book, as in his previous writings, Mills is at his best in the role of radical social critic with a clear insight into the true nature of American capitalist society and the function of its official ideological hacks. Unfortunately his ability to replace the pseudo-theory of sociology in the service of the ruling class with a superior method and theoretical structure is sadly limited by his idealist and rationalist approach.

While Mills admires many of Marx’s ideas, he reveals a meager understanding of their basic materialist-dialectic and class-struggle revolutionary content. And for a conscientious scholar of Mills’ standing, the lumping together of Marxism with its Stalinist perversion is little short of shocking.

Mills declares that events in the modern world show “why Marxism has so often become a dreary rhetoric of bureaucratic defense and abuse.” He says,

“John Stuart Mill never examined the kinds of political economy now arising in the capitalist world. Karl Marx never analyzed the kinds of society now arising in the Communist bloc. And neither of them ever thought through the problems of the so-called underdeveloped countries in which seven out of ten men are trying to exist today. Now we confront new kinds of social structure which, in terms of ‘modern ideals,’ resist analysis in the liberal and socialist terms we have inherited.”

Leaving aside John Stuart Mill and the inheritance of modern liberalism, is it really possible to dismiss the work of modern Marxism on precisely the questions named by Mills? Take, for example, the monumental work of Lenin and Trotsky in applying and elaborating Marx’s theory of permanent revolution in relation to economically backward countries oppressed by capitalist imperialism. This work of analysis and prognosis was brilliantly confirmed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and more recently in the Chinese Revolution. It remains the key to an understanding of the vast transformations taking place over our entire planet.

As to the question of an analysis of Soviet society, it is true that Marx in his time never envisaged such a phenomenon. But this can hardly dispose of the validity of the modern Marxist analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union expounded over a whole historical period by Leon Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement.

It is indispensible to carefully study the living Marxist doctrine as it was applied and tested in the events of the world we live in. This can scarcely be expected from the sociologists in the service of the “power elite.” The work of a radical critic of Mills’ caliber, however, demands such a study.

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Last updated on: 2 May 2009