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Humanistic marxism: fatally flawed
on March 4, 2002
"It is my aim in this book to define the meaning of the social sciences for the cultural tasks of our time. I want to specify the kinds of effort that lie behind the development of the sociological imagination; to indicate its implications for political as well as for cultural life."
The first chapter of this book is "The Promise" and in it Mills takes his stand with the great tradition of the Enlightenment and the idea of liberation by learning. For Mills, the promise is that cultivation of the sociological imagination may enable people to place personal worries and concerns in the larger social and historical context, and thus to think more effectively about them.
Chapters on Grand Theory and Abstracted Empiricism show how the understanding of social processes is impeded by immersion in certain types of theory and in narrow-minded "nomal science". Other chapters explore the many and varied ways that the critical and probing "sociological imagination" can be subverted or frustrated. His description of the Machieavellian tactics employed by academics to sideline rivals is especially revealing (for example, have a potentially dangerous book reviewed by a junior member of a hostile faction). His comments on the function of professional associations and conferences are equally deadly.
The fatal flaw of the book is Mill's Marxism and lack of understanding of economics, exemplified by his dismissive reference to people who could not see the value of the New Deal. The author's theoretical and ideological stance is not explicitly articulated but was clearly in the rational and humanistic Marxist tradition. He yearned for a viable alternative to liberalism and Marxism as he saw them in the 1950s but he clearly did not perceive classical liberalism as a candidate that was worthy of mention. It seems that classical, non-socialist liberals were so thin on the ground during his lifetime that he did not see any need to engage with them. That is a major weakness and it prevented Mills, and this book, from reaching the full extent of insight and understanding that his scholarship, his integrity and his industry should have permitted.
The Appendix on Intellectual Craftmanship is worth reading every few years to keep focussed for effective reading, thinking and writing. The remainder of this review consists of extracts from the appendix to convey some of its flavour.
"It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives.They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other."
"You must set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist's way of saying: keep a journal...In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned..."
"One of the very worst things that happens to social scientists is that they feel the need to write of their 'plans' on only one occasion: when they are going to ask for money for a specific piece of research or 'a project'. It is as a request for funds that most 'planning' is done, or at least written carefully about. However standard the practice, I think this very bad: it is bound in some degree to be salesmanship, and, given prevailing expectations, very likely to result in painstaking pretensions; the project is lilely to be presented', rounded out in some arbitrary manner long before it ought to be; it is often a contrived thing, aimed at getting the money for ulterior purposes, however valuable, as well as for the research presented."
"Any working social scientist who is well on his way ought at all times to have so many plans, that is to say ideas, that the question is always, which of them am I, ought I, to work on next. And he should keep a special file for his master agenda, which he writes and rewrites just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time he ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes too, when he is relaxed."
"Any such procedure is one of the indispensable means by which your intellectual enterprise is kept oriented and under control...In [a vigorous and free intellectual community]...there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes - on problems, methods, theory - ought to come out of the work of social scientists and lead into it again: they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extend guide their work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being."