Review by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
During my graduate studies, I took a course with Professor Leo Ribuffo on postwar American social thought. In the first part of the semester, we focused our readings on the 1950s consensus or pluralist theorists. The list of characters barely needs introduction: Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, Parsons, etc. I was not a fan. Hypersensitive to liberal capitulations to conservatism, especially on Cold War matters, I found their “vital centrism” infuriating. If they represented the mood of the nation, crude stereotypes about the 1950s as a “placid” decade seemed too kind. It was in this context, coming on the heels of my reading of the consensus thinkers, that I first read C. Wright Mills, specifically, his two most famous books, White Collar and The Power Elite. Ribuffo’s pedagogy was madly brilliant: first, lull us to sleep with the drab assurances of consensus, then, shock us out of a slumber with the abrasive anti-conformism of Mills. In this context, I came to love C. Wright Mills. I imagined him a renegade, a lone radical fighting the evil forces of orthodoxy with nothing more than the biting wit of his pen.
Daniel Geary argues against this enduring image of Mills the maverick in his splendid little intellectual biography, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. Geary advises that Mills was a man of his time, not an outlier. …[Continue here]