C. Wright Mills on Knowledge, Power, and the Moral Duty of the Intellectual

An eminent and brilliant sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was deeply concerned with the responsibilities of social scientists in the post-World War II (American) society. Therefore he advocated for engagement of intellectuals in public life in contrast to merely conducting distant observations. Mills’s research and writings had a significant impact on the Left and social movements of the 1960s.

“As a type of social man, the intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article, does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of this politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Or, stated negatively: to deny publicly what he knows to be false, whenever it appears in the assertions of no matter whom; and whether it be a direct lie or a lie by omission, whether it be by virtue of official secret or an honest error. The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics. And he ought also to be a man absorbed in the attempt to know what is real and unreal.” (1967: 611)

Mills, C. Wright. 1963. “On Knowledge and Power.” Pp. 599-614 in Power, Politics and People: the Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz. Oxford University Press.

C. Wright Mills

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    • Yes, he probably was… And by the way, also among many his contemporary colleagues, as well as thereafter in the 1970-80s, Mills was perceived as a “dissident sociologist”

  1. I would like to remember C Wright Mills as the sociologist who exposed the myriad levels of US democracy and pointed to a plutocracy in operation. Today more than ever US politics is what Mills analytically described in his Power Elite.

  2. C. Wright Mills loomed large for me as an undergraduate sociology major in the 60s. His “Power Elite” and “Power, Politics and People” stare out at me now from a nearby bookshelf half a century later.

  3. So true especially in today’s world where corruption, nepotism, arrogance and “The Boss is always right” attitude is rife in academia atleast in the developing nations where we still haven’t come out of the cocoons of coloniality although we keep on harping about decolonising minds and academia but also keep on working passionately towards entrenching hierarchy and keeping the “banking model of education” alive and kicking. There is a sacred belief that teachers are supposed to preach and give sermons….they cannot learn…they are not supposed to because if they do, it might just shake the very foundations of knowledge and pillars of their empire of wisdom.

    As far as Mill’s triad of right people,right time and right way go, it takes grit, commitment and the resolve to be even hung by the palm if need be to match the perfect fit for this interlocking system.

    • Subir, thank you for your post. I have not heard of the “banking model of education.” The capitalist, now neoliberal higher education system yes. And decolonization, well, all I see are words.

      The hierarchies are crushing

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