C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

Contemporary Perspectives

Edited by John Scott and Ann Nilsen

C. Wright Mills is one of the towering figures in contemporary sociology and his writings continue to be of great relevance to the social science community. Generations of sociology students have enjoyed learning about the discipline from reading his best known book The Sociological Imagination. Over the years the title has become a term in itself with a variety of interpretations, many far removed from the original. The chapters in Part One of this book begins with general issues around the nature and significance of the sociological imagination, continue through discussions of modes of theorising and historical explanation, the relationship between history and biography, and the intellectual and political relationship of Mills to Marxism. They conclude with considerations on issues of class, power, and warfare. Part Two of the book includes a series of reflections from scholars who were invited to give personal thoughts on the impact of Mills’s writings in their sociological work, with particular attention to their own ‘biography and history’.

Chapter 5: Mills, Miliband and Marxism

Michael Newman

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


There is much that links C. Wright Mills and Ralph Miliband. They became close friends during the 5-year period from 1957 until Mills’s death; both were on the left, but occupied independent positions that do not easily fall into conventional categories; both wrote highly influential books about the power structure of advanced capitalist societies; and both attempted to engage with Marxism in a spirit of critical but sympathetic analysis without following any ‘line’. They were also linked closely by others, so that, for example, Mills, rather than Miliband, had been the original target of Poulantzas’s attack on elitist theories of the state (Barrow 2007). Yet there were also some crucial differences. Although Mills identified himself with the Left, and was at one time influenced by US Trotskyism, his intellectual interest in Marxism really only developed in the last few years of his life, and he remained outside this tradition. Miliband, by contrast, was never tempted by Trotskyism, but was steeped in Marxism since he had been a teenager. Second, while some critics (from both left and right) regarded Mills’s The Power Elite and Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society (Miliband 1973) as similar, there were some very important differences between the two books. Third, while both sought forms of agency to bring about a social transformation, the potential ‘solutions’ they identified were quite different. This chapter briefly outlines the relationship between the two men, and then focuses on their political and intellectual development, paying particular attention to their respective attitudes towards Marxism and the politics of the New Left.

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