“The Power Elite”: Comment on Criticism

“The Power Elite”: Comment on Criticism

The recent publication of The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills’ study of American society, has aroused a great deal of discussion and controversy in the press. Perhaps because it contains a caustic criticism of much that is happening in American society and to American thought, the book evoked strong reactions from many reviewers. In the belief that The Power Elite raises issues of the first importance, the editors of Dissent invited Mr. Mills to comment on his critics. Here is his reply.

Dear friends:
I hope you will forgive me if—being more interested in criticism than in critics—I don’t mention names but rather bring up points. I want briefly to comment on some of the criticism of The Power Elite not because I believe the book invulnerable to criticism nor because I want to take a crack at people who have taken one at me, but because I think the angry character of many of the reviews suggests political and moral questions that are of intellectual interest.

This anger, I believe, is due to the fact that whether it is generally right or generally wrong, the book is taken as a blow at the smooth certainties and agreeable formulas that now make up the content of liberalism. This liberalism now determines the standard view of American civilization; most reviewers are liberals of one sort or another, or at least think of themselves as such. But since they are often intelligent as well, their liberalism is rather insecure. Therefore they are easily upset. Therefore they become very angry. Therefore, they want to wiggle out of any arguments about the liberal platitudes and qualifications to which they cling.

What is interesting is the way they wiggle.

One journal of liberal opinion, rather than review the book, runs a piece containing one thought: professors who read White Collar “liked every part of it except the one about professors.” They thought this part “only half true, a kind of caricature.” So, concludes the reviewer, perhaps the pictures in The Power Elite of all the other groups—bureaucrats and politicians and millionaires—are also caricatures.

Of course they are. All concepts are “caricatures.” They invite attention to selected features of some object. The question is to what extent they specify important features and to what extent they obfuscate them. This critic suggests that the test of social conceptions is whether or not those to whom they refer find them pleasantly in line with their own self-image. He suggests further that they should know best since it is “one kind of life that they [know] about.” It is difficult to think of a more misleading test. I’ve never studied any group that had an adequate view of its own social position. But whether that is alw...