Book Review

Hartman on Geary’s Radical Ambition

Review of Daniel Geary’s Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). ISBN-13: 978-0-520-25836-5. 277 pages.

Review by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
March 2010

During my graduate studies, I took a course with Professor Leo Ribuffo on postwar American social thought. In the first part of the semester, we focused our readings on the 1950s consensus or pluralist theorists. The list of characters barely needs introduction: Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, Parsons, etc. I was not a fan. Hypersensitive to liberal capitulations to conservatism, especially on Cold War matters, I found their “vital centrism” infuriating. If they represented the mood of the nation, crude stereotypes about the 1950s as a “placid” decade seemed too kind. It was in this context, coming on the heels of my reading of the consensus thinkers, that I first read C. Wright Mills, specifically, his two most famous books, White Collar and The Power Elite. Ribuffo’s pedagogy was madly brilliant: first, lull us to sleep with the drab assurances of consensus, then, shock us out of a slumber with the abrasive anti-conformism of Mills. In this context, I came to love C. Wright Mills. I imagined him a renegade, a lone radical fighting the evil forces of orthodoxy with nothing more than the biting wit of his pen.

Daniel Geary argues against this enduring image of Mills the maverick in his splendid little intellectual biography, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. Geary advises that Mills was a man of his time, not an outlier. …[Continue here]

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. An excellent review of what looks like an exciting book, Andrew. Have to add it to my endless reading list.

    I’ve always wanted to teach an upper-division undergraduate course built around the New Left canon (i.e. what the student left was reading in the ’60s), e.g. Marcuse, Fanon, and, of course, Mills. In part my interest in teaching such a course would be to see what young people half a century (!) later make of this material.

    One other stray thought: In grad school, I had much the same reaction to the Cold War liberals that Andrew reports (I should make an exception for Hofstadter, who I found brilliant and fascinating even when I disagreed with him). And my sense was that, by and large, my professors shared my skepticism about Cold War liberalism. In the last decade or so, however, there seems to have been an attempt to revive the reputation of Cold War liberalism by folks like Kevin Mattson. I very much like this work, but cannot honestly say that it has fundamentally altered my feelings about Cold War liberalism.

  2. Thanks, Ben. Your idea for a course on the New Left canon is inspired. I think I may need to add that to my list of courses I want to teach.

    I should note that even though I dislike the politics of the Cold War liberals, like you, I found Hofstadter brilliant, and increasingly enjoy reading Daniel Bell. I think they asked the right questions, even if I didn’t find their answers convincing, especially questions about why the US is such a conservative nation. That said, I’m even less convinced by attempts to revive Cold War liberalism detached from the actual Cold War. But Mattson’s attempts are much better than Peter Beinart’s!

  3. I also enjoyed the review. I’ve got “The Sociological Imagination” sitting on my bookshelf, thought being to read in in preparation for a dissertation section on sociology. Soon enough.

    “I’m even less convinced by attempts to revive Cold War liberalism detached from the actual Cold War.”

    Just so. The hardest part of teaching such a class (maybe the whole point of teaching such a class?) would have to be recovering the fears/hopes/possibilities of the cold war generation and moment. This is what makes it such a great lens through which to examine the contemporary (cultural?) politics of the academy.

  4. Thanks, Eric. “The Sociological Imagination” is also a great read. I didn’t mention it in the review because, well, I was trying to keep it from getting too obnoxiously long. I recommend it to all of my students who are studying to be social studies teachers and who will no doubt teach high school sociology teachers. Its rarely assigned anymore in undergraduate sociology courses, as far as I can tell.

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