Letter to the Next Left

C. Wright Mills died in 1962 at age forty-five, 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 US 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.”

Although he has been dead for close to fifty years, Mills remains a towering intellectual figure whose work merits close attention today. Many of the problems and questions he raised continue (unfortunately) to be highly relevant to a world amid major overlapping social, economic, and ecological crises. Of particular note for those of us who choose to remain on the Left in these trying times 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 definitive takedown of the complacent formulations peddled by 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 especially relevant to what remains of the Left today, and it is the part of Mills’ letter that is the most problematic.

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, amniotic embrace of liberal technocracy. According to its proponents, who in Mills’ time were legion, such an “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 focused politically as demands and programs. These criticisms, demands, theories, programs are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilization — above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programs. 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 US, 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. But they pursue their program with a tenacity and singularity of purpose that recalls the sectarian revolutionaries of left-wing lore. Damn the consequences, the tax cuts must go through!

On the broad Left, by contrast, the prevailing mood tends to be conservative. The late Tony Judt, for example, makes this orientation explicit when, in his last writings before his death, he called for a “social democracy of fear” and the modest program of defending whatever is left of the twentieth century welfare state. Coming from a somewhat different angle, political scientist Sheri Berman has called 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.

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 twentieth century, and it has even less explanatory power when we look at the 1960s and 1970s. An unprecedented strike wave hit the US and Western Europe in this period. In 1970, there were over 5,700 strikes in the US 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 one of 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.

Giving at the Office

The idea that intellectuals qua intellectuals can be the leading force in a radical social movement seems even more far-fetched today, especially in the US. For one thing, most of them have been sucked into an increasingly corporate and insular academy. Widespread urban gentrification has made it incredibly difficult for any young radical not living off of mommy and daddy’s money to devote the bulk of their time to badly paid (or even unpaid) movement work. 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 make the task harder.

Mills lived and wrote during the flood tide of postwar liberalism, which placed a huge emphasis on the establishment of a system of mass higher education lavishly funded by the revenues generated by the Golden Age of welfare capitalism. In such a system, young intellectuals and students in the universities enjoyed a rather privileged life that is scarcely imaginable by the legions of toiling graduate students and adjunct instructors that do so much of the work in today’s neoliberal university. The relative leisure that marked the lives of the young intelligentsia of Mills’ time is little more than a distant memory. As the scholar and critic Jeffrey J. Williams observes in an essay on intellectuals in a recent edition of Dissent, “gone is the relaxed, privileged way of live, whereby one got a job because one’s adviser made a phone call, and one received tenure on the basis of two or three articles and had a decade to mull over a book.” With widespread precarity of academic labor (Williams reports that over 50 percent of teaching in higher education is now done by part-timers – over two thirds in English), the conditions that allowed members of the young intelligentsia to not only burnish their academic reputations but to participate in politics as a discrete social group are gone, and they’re not likely to come back.

In a development that Mills could not possibly have foreseen or anticipated, the young intelligentsia that he thought would supersede the working class as the leading force for social change has instead become incorporated into the working class. I suppose one can quibble over whether people possessing high levels of education and advanced degrees can plausibly be considered part of the working class. Here I would encourage the adoption of a very simple standard similar to that employed by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart when asked how one might define pornography: I know a worker when I see her. If the appalling wages, benefits, and working conditions that define life as an adjunct or graduate assistant does not make one a worker, then what does?

In a well-known essay from 1991, Richard Rorty lampooned the apparent insularity and depoliticization of the contemporary intellectual. Assuming the voice of a hypothetical member of the English faculty, he quipped: “I’ve just finished my latest book on cultural studies – I gave at the office.” But as Jeffrey J. Williams recognizes in the same Dissent essay noted above, the young intelligentsia of today is not a privileged class ensconced in the ivory tower, protected from the maelstrom raging beyond its walls — “academic politics is not a world apart, and particularly since the 1990s, it is frequently union politics.” Neoliberalism has invaded and transformed almost every arena of social life, and the campus is no exception. The struggles of adjuncts and graduate students at colleges and universities around the country for union recognition and the right to collective bargaining attest to this fact. In this sense, giving at the office is perhaps the best contribution that the young, campus-based intelligentsia of today can make toward the kind of radical social change that C. Wright Mills so ardently desired.

The Enduring Centrality of the Working Class

At the risk of indulging in a political rhetoric reminiscent of the musty sectarian formulations of yesteryear, I’d like to close by reaffirming the enduring centrality of the working class in the project of the Left. It’s no coincidence that the level of social struggle has declined significantly, at least in the US, during a period defined primarily by long, painful decline of the labor movement, however disappointing and compromised it may be — and it’s equally clear that a revival of working class organization is sine qua non for a broader revival of the Left. 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.” Despite all of the major structural changes capitalism has experienced in years, this is still a fundamental truth of social life and political practice. Continuing to see the working class in all its occupational, racial, ethnic, and sexual variety as the leading historic agency for radical change is not metaphysics — it’s a recognition of the enduring realities of life under capitalism. The Next Left would do well to keep this in mind.