Porterfield and Mills II
Bill Long 10/10/05
Common Concerns of Two who Never Met
In a previous essay I argued that both Porterfield and Mills, who each spent precisely half of their lives in TX (even though it was the second half for Porterfield--1937-79-- and the first half for Mills--1916-39), were attracted to the role of imagination in sociological research. This essay argues that by the time each reached his full maturity he was strenuously engaged in applying his sociological insight to the "madness" of the arms race in the early Cold War period (1950s). Their approaches, arising as much from their genial (Porterfield) or edgy (Mills) personalities as from their sociological methods, are strikingly similar, as this essay seeks to show.
Porterfield on the Cold War
Porterfield's 1953 work is called Wait the Withering Rain? Studies in the Conditions of Survival and Peace. He imagines a time (1970) when the struggle between a Communist Soviet Union, that had long ago departed from Marx's theories, and the West would break into open warfare. "Somebody said that somebody started it; and somebody said that it was somebody else." For six years in the 1970s, a devastating war would go on. All the major cities of the world would be wiped out, leaving only the remnants of humanity on the countryside. After the bombs had exploded, from the mushroom cloud would descend a dry rain of radioactive particles which continued to wither life to the roots.
After this hopeless scenario, Porterfield turns to his remedy for the desolation that impends. A few chapter titles, included by Cain, give the sense of where Porterfield is going: (1) "For the Tribal Mind to Give Way to the World Mind;" (2) "For Sound Social Theory to Replace Suicidal Ideas;" (3) "For the Freedom of Science;" (4) "For Philosophies of Conflict to Fade;" (5) "For an Attitude of Active Good Will," etc. Porterfield's design is clear: the future of humanity depends on our "desert[ing] the tribal mind and achiev[ing] a mind that is humanity centered" (Cain, p 147). Sociologists are crucially important in this process both because they are scientists, and therefore know how to deal with reason and objective data, and because they may be able to transcend the boundaries of their own existence (which physicists and chemists, for example, may not be able to do) and the philosophy of their own society. Porterfield realizes that the latter is a real challenge but that sociology might be able to occupy a research position which he, on occasion, called "The Kingdom of God on Earth" (ah, can't we see the echoes of a much earlier era in sociology--almost to the "Small" era of 50 years previously), and help create the humanity centered rather than the tribal reality of life. His optimism and generousness of spirit is evident in the book, even as he believes that the humanity's destruction is quite possible.
C Wright Mills on the Cold War
That Mills authored a book on the same subject is quite astonishing, given that the professional world of sociology had, by the late 1950s, largely removed itself from public debates on important social issues. As has happened with every one of the social sciences in American life, where questions answered by researchers are posed by and reflect intra-field developments, sociology also lost its "social" consciousness and became an inner-directed world. But not for Mills (and Porterfield). Mills' book, The Causes of World War III, also looked to the future and imagined the horrific possibility of a great war that would wipe out millions of lives.
A digression suggests itself here. For those who grew up after the 1950s (and I was on the cusp of that), just as for those who might not have experienced the Great Depression or the Holocaust of WWII, the stories told by people coming from those times might seem quaint, unrealistic, or so foreign to our consciousness that we don't know how to react. But we who were children in those days actually climbed under our desks during school hours to "protect" ourselves against possible incoming Soviet missiles; we imagined that Russian agents were probably staked out on our playgrounds; we were taught to feel a palpable fear about "falling behind" the Soviets in math and science (the space race was an instance of this). Thus, as we get to Mills' white-hot polemic against the arms race, we do so with the sense that he felt there was a certain inevitability in the international competition that would almost certainly lead to destruction.
Once Again--C. Wright Mills
Todd Gitlin has left us a memorable description of Mills' style:
"Mills' writing was charged—seared—by a keen awareness of human energy and disappointment, a passionate feeling for the human adventure and a commitment to dignity. In many ways the style was the man. In a vigorous, instantly recognizable prose, he hammered home again and again the notion that people lived lives that were not only bounded by social circumstance but deeply shaped by social forces not of their own making, and that this irreducible fact had two consequences: it lent most human life a tragic aspect with a social root, and also created the potential—if only people saw a way forward—of improving life in a big way by concerted action.
In his book on the Causes of WWIII Mills let both his pessimism and hopefulenss speak. The troika of the military, business, and political establishments were hell-bent on pursuing an insane arms race that had no internal principle or external force that would stop it. Yet, citizens are not hopeless. Perhaps there was a class, the intellectuals (reminiscent of Porterfield's hope for sociology), who have not bought the government/military and business vision, and would rise to the occasion to stop the senseless march to destruction. The publisher described the book as follows:
"The Americans and Russians are told every day that preparation for war is the sole solution to the tensions between their countries. Spokesmen for each side call this policy "realism." C. Wright Mills calls it "crackpot realism." In this book, a bold and angry statement of the central problem of our time, the author of The Power Elite and White Collar attacks the official commitment to an armed emergency which has no foreseeable end except disaster, and he brilliatly sets forth constructive alternatives."
And so their paths cross again, even as neither acknowledged the other's work.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long