Early in the introduction to Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Meaning of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz states clearly his reason for writing the book: “to achieve nothing less than to help restore [Mills] as one of the preeminent social thinkers of the past sixty years.” Indeed, Aronowitz, himself one of America’s most prominent social thinkers, has been doing just this kind of restoration work on Mills for the past decade; first with his much-cited 2003 article, “A Mills Revival?”, followed the next year by his editing of the eponymous C. Wright Mills in three volumes. But this time, in what is perhaps only the second intellectual study on Mills (the first, which also displays the same photo of Mills on its dust jacket, was produced by Daniel Geary in 2009), we get a full-length treatment of Mills’ work and thought on the political intellectuals who he so admired but also derided.
The book’s title of “taking it big” refers to Mills’s admonition to his students to grapple with the larger problems of contemporary significance; and Aronowitz takes it big in considering Mills’ notions of political and social power and the prospects for radical social transformation. Accordingly, we learn of Mills’ insider-outsider relationship with the New York intellectuals of the postwar period—Dwight Macdonald, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Sydney Hook—most of whom were obsessed with the “Russian question” and eventually moved to the Right. The book discusses Mills’ relentless pursuit throughout his life of agents of democratic change; first with labor leaders, later with cultural workers of various kinds, and finally, toward the end of his life, with the students of the New Left.
Particularly intriguing is Aronowitz’s chapter on what is arguably Mills’ most popular book, White Collar, on the alienated and frustrated American middle classes and on the rise of the intellectual as technician. As well there is a detailed discussion on Mills’ most famous and controversial book on the structure of power in American society, The Power Elite. In the penultimate chapter we get Aronowtz’s answer to the inquiry of what is a political intellectual: “a thinker who persists in writing, speaking, and teaching unauthorized ideas.” Today however there is a general decline of intellectual life in the U.S. and the political intellectual has become an endangered species. As more and more of our dissenting thinkers have recently left us—think of Edward Said, Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens—who is there to replace them? What we require, says Aronowitz, is a theoretical discourse on the history and the role of intellectuals. Taking It Big helps us consider that history and role.
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