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Dissenting big time: E.P. Thompson, C. Wright Mills and making the first New Left

Social Movements

C. Wright Mills (from

Few figures loom larger in the making of the first, late 1950s, New Left than E.P. Thompson and C. Wright Mills. Both were big. Both fit uneasily, to say the least, in the company of any established intelligentsia.

In their capacity for confrontation and in their influence on how Leftists of the late 1950s and early 1960s struggled to break free of orthodoxy and the straightjackets of conventional analytic conformity, Thompson, the historian, and Mills the social philosopher/ sociologist, provide unrivalled and lasting legacies.

Mills was an awkward Texan who, as a youthful scholar, aspired to climb the ladder of prestigious university appointments. His academic career in the 1940s and early 1950s was fairly conventional, save for an encounter with the critical theorist Hans Gerth, a refugee from Nazi Germany with an attraction to radical causes.

Incredibly successful, Mills landed an Ivy League post. A man of insatiable appetite, he regularly consumed dinners of two 30-ounce steaks. He was known to eat an entire cake in a single sitting. Cigars punctuated his day. When he was not eating, Mills was working. If he was not writing, he might be building his own house. In the age of the gentleman scholar, Mills was a decided oddity, descending on Columbia University, where he never quite fit in, astride his motorcycle.

His reputation secured (albeit not without the usual carping criticism of the academy) by the publication in 1951 and 1956, respectively, of White Collar and The Power Elite, Mills was less and less concerned with scholarly stature and the views of his professor peers. He honed his writing to appeal to a mass audience. And his message grew more and more radical.

Mills virtually invented the term — the power elite — that would become a fixture of New Left discourse in the mid-to-late 1960s. His argument that an overlapping triumvirate of economic, military, and political forces constituted an elite that called all the shots in American life, keeping a perpetual war economy going, was a staple of oppositional thinking in the anti-Vietnam War era.

The worst ravages of McCarthyism, coming as they did in the early 1950s, never really rained down on Mills. His radicalism, developing as this reactionary assault was waning, marked him as a target of Cold War ideologues only in the later 1950s.

By this time Mills was disgusted with scholastic complacency and turned his back on an academic environment in which he had once been hailed as a star. Instinctually individualistic, even anarchistic, Mills nonetheless came to respect the Marxist tradition, especially its materialist understandings and critique of power. His mass-market paperback annotated collection, The Marxists (published posthumously), introduced unfamiliar readers to revolutionary historical materialist writings from Marx to Mao. It also eased the way for a soon-to-develop American New Left to be receptive and open-minded to Marxism.

Featured regularly on television debates, Mills produced lengthy pamphlets that intervened in the politics of the period. He dissected the superpower drive of the arms race in The Causes of World War III and attacked American counterrevolutionary policies toward Cuba in Listen Yankee. Arguably his most brilliant and eminently readable book, The Sociological Imagination, struck decisive blows against the empiricist, pseudo-scientistic character of sociological inquiry in the United States, excoriating the reigning orthodoxy of Talbot Parsons’ structural functionalism and deploring the sterile fetishization of method that had come to dominate the social sciences. These three works, amazingly, appeared in 1958, 1959, and 1960.

Academics who once admired Mills now attacked him. Conservatives regarded him as the enemy of civil society. Liberals and even once Left-leaning social democrats saw him as beyond the pale.

Mills spent his last years largely in a self-imposed exile. He lectured in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union and elsewhere, cultivating friendships, connections, and influence with international dissidents and Fidel Castro, who had read and admired The Power Elite.

Against doctors’ orders, and after three heart attacks, he drove on and on, impervious to pleas to look after his failing health. In March 1962, at the young age of 45, Mills succumbed to final heart failure. His premature and tragic death meant that he would not be present at the making of a youth revolt that would look to him as a significant intellectual influence.

E.P. Thompson (from

One of the dissidents Mills befriended and learned from was E.P. Thompson, future author of The Making of the English Working Class. In the 1950s, Thompson was making his exit from the British Communist Party, which he had joined in the 1940s, attracted to the revolutionary communist possibilities of the anti-fascist struggle.

With revelations of Stalinist atrocity in the past and confirmation of its repudiation of communist promise in the invasion of Hungary in 1956, Thompson and others dissented but remained revolutionaries. Around small journals like the New Reasoner and the early New Left Review, this first British New Left championed the building of Left Clubs, debates over culture and class, argued about happenings in the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and aligned with others in the United Kingdom in a wide ranging Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Unlike Mills, Thompson came to his New Left sensibilities not through academic channels, but via the Communist Party, as a teacher in adult education, and in movements for peace and international solidarity. His break from Stalinism meant that his political writing of the 1950s was constructed around what he called socialist humanism and the need for a different kind of Marxist analysis and practice.

Thompson’s project, born Marxist, but ultimately dissenting from Stalinist deformations, drew Mills towards what the American sociologist would call “plain Marxism.” For Mills, Thompson’s insistence on the importance of human agency, and his assessment of the cultural reservoir of class experience and class struggle, drew on Marx creatively but did not reduce revolutionary thought to deterministic dogmatic platitudes.

Mills actually recommended to Fidel Castro, who recognized the need to recruit intellectuals to Cuba who could develop Marxism creatively, that Thompson and his wife Dorothy, another mainstay of the early British New Left, be brought to Cuba to teach. Castro was apparently warm to the idea, as were the Thompsons. But the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy within the nascent post-Batista Cuban state, having checked up on the socialist-humanist New Left couple (almost certainly with Soviet sources), wrote a curt finis to the plan.

That Thompson was prepared to go to Cuba in 1961-1962 was itself an indication of his disillusionment, at this point, with the New Left project in the United Kingdom. By the time of 1968, Thompson was, if still active in left politics (he coauthored the May Day Manifesto, for instance), largely on the margins of increasingly public upheavals. The baton of overt struggle had seemingly passed from Thompson’s hands to those of younger comrades he had influenced greatly, such as Tariq Ali and Sheila Rowbotham.

To be sure, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class was never far removed from New Left sensibilities, the text rebounding against mechanical understandings of class formation in a perpetual cascade of insight. The book liberated studies of labour from the incarceration of Stalinist dogma and respectable labour’s linear understandings of the forward march of the pious, cautious institutions of working class self defence (co-operatives, friendly societies, trade unions) and their evolution into parliamentary, 20th-century electoralism, ensconced in the Labour Party.

Thompson complicated this with attention to the Brechtian values of the 18th-century crowd, understandings of the moral economy of the popular classes, appreciations of the clandestine night marauders of the Luddite movement, and explorations of the conspiratorial political underground of London and the provinces, all of which fought the technologies, economies, and politics of the Industrial Revolution and state power.

These insights as well as longstanding commitments drove Thompson back into the politics of extra-parliamentary struggle in the 1970s. He led campaigns against the state’s incursions on popular democratic entitlements. He almost single-handedly revived mobilization against an invigorated and intensified nuclear arms race that, in the Age of Reagan, threatened “Star Wars” ending in “Mutually Assured Destruction.” This latter mobilization catapulted Thompson into global prominence as arguably one of the world’s leading advocates of nuclear disarmament. It also put him in contact with a growing army of Eastern European dissidents, most of whom had been forced underground.

Like Mills in an earlier historical period, Thompson threw himself into the work of ending the arms race with a reckless disregard of his health, which suffered repeated blows throughout the 1980s. His immune system ravaged, Thompson’s body deteriorated; he died in 1993.

Bringing the Past into the Present Mills and Thompson were big men with big ideas and their influences on their times were big indeed. These books give us wonderfully evocative senses of Mills and Thompson, albeit in very different ways. Both deserve close reading and serious thought.

Stanley Aronowitz, himself an important public intellectual of the Left in the United States, situates Mills and his major works, including his 1948 book on trade union leaders, The New Men of Power and subsequent studies such as White Collar, The Power Elite, and The Sociological Imagination in their political and intellectual context. He provides illuminating discussion on Mills’ changing perspective on the labour movement, his shifting relationship to a rightward-moving milieu of New York intellectuals, and his origins within and evolving refinements of American sociological traditions like pragmatism.

Mills’ fascination with the intellectual, and the role of this social figure in public discussions and political life, looms large in Aronowitz’s account. Mills is rightly heralded as someone who never abdicated his responsibility to keep asking the difficult and irksome big questions: Who exercises power and how? What are the imminent dangers that need to be turned back? What is the agent of social change?

Cal Winslow’s collection of E.P. Thompson’s political essays and polemics from the late 1950s and early 1960s is a book of a different kind. Winslow introduces Thompson, and provides a sketch of how he came to write these New Left essays, but the immense value of this book is to bring together essays that have long been difficult to locate.

To be sure, these pieces, originally appearing mostly in the New Reasoner and the early New Left Review, as well as in volumes like the 1960 Thompson- edited Out of Apathy, have been more accessible of late. Yet no single text brings them together as conveniently as this recent Monthly Review press publication.

Included in the Winslow collection are Thompson’s original essay “Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines,” his lengthy critical response to Raymond Williams’ book, The Long Revolution, and ruminations on Revolution, socialism and intellectuals, commitment, and figures like the 19th-century socialist, author and craftsman William Morris (subject of Thompson’s first 1955 book, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary) and the all-too-unheralded ‘provincial’ socialist, Tom Maguire.

Moreover, the price of admission to these writings is well worth it simply to have in print Thompson’s long letter of resignation from the New Left Review. “Where Are We Now?” was written as an April 1963 memo that attacks a shift in the Review’s political orientation away from the British working class and toward the “Third World,” discussing along the way internationalism and Marxism. Meant for the private consideration of the Review’s editorial board, Thompson’s admittedly hard-hitting assessment is remarkably insightful, almost timeless in its significance. Like much that Thompson wrote, “Where Are We Now?” is anything but “politically correct.” There will be those who latch on to an offensive phrasing or an indiscretion to pillory the position taken. That would be unfortunate and, undoubtedly, miss the important political statement that this 1963 text articulated.

Mills and Thompson live with us today because they had the audacity to think big about the possibilities of the Left. Neither shrank from debate, challenge, or attack. They left their mark on their time and on ours because of their commanding willingness to argue through difference as a political obligation. That they live with us still will, hopefully, encourage others to argue in like manner, and with like purpose. Hats off to Aronowitz and Winslow for their part in bringing these two big dissenters back into our dialogues.

Bryan D. Palmer, a long-time contributor to Canadian Dimension, is the author of the forthcoming James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-1938 (2021) and the co-author of Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (2016).

This article appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Surveillance State).


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