Revisiting Mills' “Letter to the New Left”
Source Dave Anderson
Date 11/01/22/00:02

from 'The Activist,' blog of the Young Democratic Socialists' (youth
group of Democratic Socialists of America)
Revisiting “Letter to the New Left”

C. Wright Mills died in 1962 at age 45, from the last of a string of
heart attacks. The author of such enduring classics as The Power
Elite, White Collar, The New Men of Power, and The Sociological
Imagination, he was one of the world’s foremost social scientists as
well as the leading intellectual influence on the emerging New Left
until his tragically early death. 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

Speaking of the political and intellectual milieu in which he wrote,
Mills identified a trend that sought to subsume differences between
Left and Right in the warm embrace of a liberal technocracy whose
objective, expert-driven approach to solving social problems would
obviate the need for political or – god forbid – class conflict. This
orientation seems to be an almost ineradicable part of modern social
and political life; it finds expression today in Barack Obama’s
appeals to post-partisan transcendence and in noxious formations like
No Labels, which masks its neoliberal ideology with a Reasonable and
Serious call to “put our labels aside, and put the issues and what’s
best for the nation first.”

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”

It’s not hard to understand why. As Mills argues, the historic
agencies of change identified by the Left all seemed to have collapsed
or stuck in a period of slow but terminal decline – a problem that he
identified as “the most important issue of political reflections – and
political action” for his time. It remains, I think, the most
important issue of our time as well. If the Left is to resurrect
itself and effect the structural changes we desperately need to avoid
social and ecological disaster, we need to figure out who is going to
do it and where. Mills proposed a tentative answer to this question,
but while it seemed plausible at the time he wrote his Letter, the
experience of recent decades appears to suggest otherwise.

Mills named the social agents given a privileged role in liberal and
socialist ideology – voluntary associations and the working class,
respectively – and characterized them as spent forces, vestiges from a
bygone era. In particular, he reserved the bulk of his criticism for
those New Left writers who “cling so mightily to ‘the working class’
of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency, or even
as the most important agency” even though Mills thought that the
development of state-coordinated welfare capitalism made this
proposition obsolete.

In a famous phrase, he termed this continued commitment to the working
class the “labor metaphysic” and characterized it as a holdover from
“Victorian Marxism” – an “ahistorical and unspecified hope.” The
working class, Mills argued (though, it must be said, tentatively)
could only play a decisive political role as a class-for-itself during
the early stages of industrialization or in an openly repressive
political system, conditions that no longer prevailed in any of the
advanced capitalist countries. As such, a new historical agent that
could occupy the leading role traditionally played by the working
class in Marxist ideology had to be found.

Mills thought that he found this agent in “the cultural apparatus, the
intellectuals” – specifically the young intelligentsia who appeared to
be at the head of a wave of social and political upheaval in the West,
the Soviet bloc, and the Third World. To Mills, it was not the workers
who were “fed up with all the old crap” and ready to move, but rather
the young intellectuals and students. Here was the historic agent that
possessed both the strategic social location and the élan necessary to
make the radical change he sought.

Mills was one of the first to make this sort of argument, but the
search among Left intellectuals and activists for a substitute
proletariat was commonplace during the 1960s and after. In addition to
radical intellectuals and students, theorists such as Herbert Marcuse
and Frantz Fanon came to identify elements of what Marxists called the
lumpenproletariat – racial and ethnic minorities, criminals, the
long-term unemployed – as leading forces in a revolutionary movement.
Underlying all these analyses was the assumption that the organized
working class had been hopelessly bought off by the welfare state and
integrated into the social order that the New Left wanted to
overthrow. As such, many New Leftists (but by no means all) came to
view the organized working class as an enemy that needed to be fought.

There’s no doubt that the official labor movements of the time
complacently accepted their place in the postwar order and in some
instances were shot through with racism, sexism, and homophobia (a
disgrace that unfortunately is still not completely eradicated). And
it’s equally true that radical youth and marginalized groups played a
huge role in the movements of the 1960s and after. But the rejection
by Mills and other New Left thinkers of the organized working class as
the leading force for radical change was one-sided and sometimes
produced disastrous results. Take Cuba – whose revolution Mills
ardently championed until his death – for example. The substitution of
a small band of young intellectuals and revolutionaries for a mass
movement of the working class all but ensured the development of
authoritarianism in that country.

The idea that radical intellectuals can be the leading force in a
radical social movement seems even more far-fetched today, especially
in the U.S. For one thing, most of them have been sucked into an
increasingly corporate and insular academy, and the conditions that
allowed for the concentration of radical young people in urban areas –
namely cheap rents, especially in the major cities – have largely
disappeared. Perhaps most importantly, the skyrocketing cost of
college tuition has saddled the average graduate with a $24,000
student loan burden. This debt economy channels many students toward
“practical” (i.e. business-oriented) majors, forces them to work long
hours while in school, and directs them away from movement work on
campus and after graduation. Organizing students has always been
notoriously difficult, and these recent developments only makes the
task harder.

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 only 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

None of this is to argue that radical youth, marginalized and
oppressed groups, or any other constituency are not important or have
no role to play in social movements. Nor do I attempt a one-sided
defense of an official labor movement that is often far too
conservative in its ideological and strategic orientation and does not
seek to organize the working class as a whole. Nor do I seek to
idealize workers or endorse a productivist outlook. Far from it. I do,
however, want to reaffirm the enduring position of the working class –
defined as broadly and inclusively as possible – as the leading force
for radical social change. It’s no coincidence that the level of
social struggle has declined significantly, at least in the U.S.,
during a period defined primarily by the (hopefully temporary) defeat
of the labor movement. Hal Draper put the matter succinctly: “No other
class has its hands so closely on the basic work without which the
system grinds to a halt. Not a wheel can turn without them. No other
class can precipitate a social crisis by the deliberate decision of
its organized cadres as in a large-scale strike.” This is still the
case despite all of the major changes capitalism has experienced in
recent decades. Seeing the working class as the leading historic
agency for radical change is not metaphysics – it’s a recognition of
the enduring realities of life under capitalism.

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