C. Wright Mills, the great American sociologist, recognised the power of the press in the political process. It is perhaps no surprise to see that the family of one of his greatest academic friends has become the object of sustained press vilification. A recent argument between Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, and the Daily Mail newspaper highlights the importance of Mills’s arguments that are reviewed in a forthcoming book from Edward Elgar Publishing. C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination, edited by myself and Ann Nilsen, will be published next month to review Mills’s legacy 50 years after his untimely death.
A central chapter in the book, by Michael Newman, discusses the intellectual and political relationship between Mills and Ralph Miliband, father of Ed and David Miliband. Newman has been drawn into the press controversy to comment on the uses, and misuses, of his work in the denigration of Miliband.
In late September 2013 the Daily Mail published an article about Ralph Miliband titled ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’. Miliband was Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and was the author of a major study of the Labour Party (Parliamentary Socialism) and of the massively influential State in Capitalist Society. His book on the state owed much to discussions with Mills, who had produced his own key text on The Power Elite. Both men were critical of capitalism and its power relations, but Miliband was certainly not anti-British, just as Mills was not anti-American. Criticising the power arrangements of a society is a very different matter from hating a country or its people.
The attack in the Daily Mail was an indirect way of attacking Ed Miliband himself. It saw his father’s alleged hatred of Britain as a way of undermining Ed Miliband’s credibility as a political leader. As has been noted, this comes from a newspaper largely owned by a man whose grandfather was a member of the British Union of Fascists and an advocate of Hitler’s political programme. The actions of the grandfather in no way reflect on the views and actions of the grandson today, yet the Daily Mail uses this argument against Miliband.
Ralph Miliband was born in Belgium but, as a Jew, left the country at the time of the Nazi occupation. He arrived in England, where he completed his education and joined the Royal Navy in order to fight for a British victory in the war against Germany. This is certainly not the action of a man who hates the country in which he had settled and spent the rest of his life. Miliband taught and researched at the London School of Economics and came into contact with C. Wright Mills through the New Left. They became close friends and confidants, the bond so close that Ralph gave his elder son David the second name Wright in honour of his comrade.
The article in the Daily Mail wrote of Miliband’s ‘evil legacy’. Those who have any familiarity with Miliband and his work will simply not recognise this as having any relationship to the truth. Miliband was, like Mills, a sophisticated intellectual who drew heavily on the ideas of Marx. He was what Mills called a ‘plain Marxist’. He was never a member of the Communist Party and his attraction to Marxist thought was because of its empirical relevance and its vibrancy. I knew Miliband slightly during the early 1970s and know that he was a kind and thoughtful man who loved Marx’s works for their literary power. In a lecture he recited the opening paragraph of The Communist Manifesto, paused and rolled his eyes in pleasure saying ‘Ah, sheer poetry!’
C. Wright Mills would have been saddened at the treatment of his friend’s memory and its use for purposes of political propaganda, but he would not, perhaps, have been surprised. He was well aware of the behaviour of the media and of politicians and had himself been subject to inappropriate vilification that aimed to deflect attention from the substance of his arguments.
The book that Ann Nilsen and I have edited brings together a number of contributors who reflect on different aspects of Mills’s legacy and the importance of the ‘sociological imagination’. Jennifer Platt looks at the reception accorded to the Sociological Imagination itself, Mike Savage looks at issues of social class, I look at issues of power and elites, Ann Nilsen (with Julia Brannen) and Krishan Kumar look at individual biography and history, and John Brewer looks at issues of war and peace. The various contributors each reflect on their personal encounters with Mills and his work, and Michael Newman, of course, reflects on Mills’s relationship to Miliband and British politics. A Foreword and personal reflection comes from Kate Mills, the daughter of C. Wright Mills.
The debate in the British press over Miliband shows no sign of dying away. Articles critical of the Daily Mail have appeared in both The Independent and The Guardian, and the matter has been covered on the BBC and ITV news broadcasts. It has reignited a debate over legislation on press freedom, with the liberal press finding it difficult to reject regulation when part of the right-wing press abuses the freedom to publish. This is a matter of huge political importance and one on which, no doubt, Mills would have produced a characteristically pithy response of his own.
Professor John Scott CBE is Professor of Sociology and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Plymouth University and is Honorary Professor in sociology at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of books on social theory, class, power, and sociological methods and is a Fellow of the British Academy and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences.
‘C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination‘ will be published in hardback in November 2013.