“I am for the Cuban revolution. I do not worry about it, I worry for it and with it.”
from Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba
C. Wright Mills suffered a heart attack at the age of 45 while at home in New York on March 20, 1962. Fifteen months earlier, his doctors had warned him that the next one would be his last. And it was. An intense, creative and noble life ended in one swift blow. His life, however, would continue beating within a new generation that had found in Mills a shining example.
In the midst of McCarthyism and the cold war, he published a half-dozen books vital to understanding contemporary US society. Among them were The New Men of Power: American Labor Leaders (1948), White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), The Power Elite (1956), The Causes of World War Three (1958) and The Sociological Imagination (1959), as well as other essays and articles. They unmasked the true nature of capitalism from a critical, independent, original and lucid perspective that contributed to the birth of the “New Left.”
Although Mills was by then an accomplished author and widely recognized by his peers, the publication of Listen, Yankee in 1960 brought him a surprising notoriety that served as the driving force behind the debate that swirled around him until that fateful day in March. It was a book about Cuba. Mills had come to the island in the summer of 1960. He wanted to study the Cuban Revolution, and he had prepared for the trip by reading as much as he could about the island, writing down his questions and doubts. Eager to understand the reality of this country and its young revolution, he prepared intensely. Here he spent long hours speaking with Fidel and Che Guevara on several occasions, as well as with many other Cubans from all walks of life.
Upon returning to New York he worked feverishly night and day for six weeks. Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba was published in November. It suddenly became an extraordinary and valuable example of engaged literature. Written without great academic pretensions, told in straightforward language through the voice of an imaginary and anonymous Cuban revolutionary, the book aimed to reach ordinary Americans. It quickly became a bestseller.
Among the first to read the book were FBI analysts, since the bureau obtained the manuscript prior to its publication. Anticipating its impact, the FBI also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the publisher, Ian Ballantine, to publish a negative perspective of the revolution by another author.
Mills received numerous messages of support and appreciation of his book. He was also criticized, insulted and threatened. According to the FBI, a few days following the appearance of Listen, Yankee, someone sent Mills an anonymous letter warning him that “an American agent disguised as a South American would assassinate him on his next visit to Cuba.” In a memo dated November 29, 1960, the FBI noted that “Mills indicated he would not be surprised if this were true since he does not doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other similar United States organizations do not approve of his activities. Mills has made several inquiries in regard to purchasing a gun for self-protection.” It is significant that the paragraph immediately following this quote is blacked out by the FBI and remains classified.
Mills’s friends recall that he was concerned not only for himself but for his family, and that he had indeed acquired a handgun, which he even kept next to his bed while he slept.
During those days, Mills had been preparing for an hourlong televised debate with Adolph A. Berle Jr. on NBC, with a viewing audience of approximately 20 million people, which was scheduled to take place on Saturday, December 10. He had dedicated many hours to studying US policy toward Latin America and had accumulated sufficient material for another book.
On the eve of the highly publicized program, he suffered a severe heart attack. He was in a coma for four days and hospitalized for two weeks until he decided to return home. The doctors insisted that he avoid stress. “That’s like telling me to avoid eating and breathing,” he responded. The cardiograms revealed that he had previously suffered a heart attack, possibly in 1956 or 1957.
While Mills began his long process of recuperation, the Batista mafia in Miami filed a $25 million defamation lawsuit, according to FBI calculations, against Mills and the publishers of Listen, Yankee. The bureau itself admitted that the US government tried to interfere and impede them from mounting a proper defense.
Cuba anxiously followed Mills’s difficult and solitary battle. In a letter to Ralph Miliband on January 25, 1961, Mills wrote, “Fidel keeps cabling me to come on down and convalesce in Cuba, and my friend Vallejo…a medical man of real ability, as well as the head of INRA [National Institute of Agrarian Reform] in the Oriente, says that just to step on the island will cure me and that he has some things to talk over anyway.”
This letter is an important document, as it reveals the depth of Mills’s admirable personality. Describing the question of his health he said, “I’m not ever going to be a track star; probably can’t really get into any revolutionary action in anybody’s mountains, but with a little carefulness on the physical side, I shouldn’t be handicapped much at all. But of course that’s only medicine, which is about living and dying, not about how one might live, or even must live. That’s well beyond medicine and well into one’s own morality….
“What we do not know, as yet, is how much intellectual and moral tension I can stand without the silly heart blistering out again…. One point that bothers me greatly: I’m afraid there is going to come about a very bad time in my country for people who think as I do…. What bothers me is whether or not the damned heart will stand up to what must then be done.”
In the same letter, Mills mentions some of the financial problems brought on by his illness. “I am not teaching this Spring of course, and do not yet know if Columbia will pay my salary for the semester or not. I have no hospitalization or such insurance (which anyway is a racket) and my first week (in a local suburban hospital mind you) cost $1,100.00…that’s just the hospital, no doctors or surgery.”
C. Wright Mills paid a high price for his passionate love of truth. Listen, Yankee was for him “a pivotal book,” which helped him fight the “moral ambiguity” and “cowardice” that prevailed in US intellectual circles at the time.
Nearly half a century later, his principal message not only retains its relevance; recent historical events vindicate it. The world has changed a lot since 1960. The USSR and “real socialism” have crumbled. Neoliberal capitalism is global, yet its dominion is increasingly challenged by the peoples of Latin America and elsewhere.
From the time when Mills came to visit us, Cuba has lived a dramatic life with successes as well as failures. Alone and abandoned by all after the USSR disappeared, it had to heroically resist some very hard and difficult years during which the United States intensified its economic and political aggression. Today Cuba forges a path to craft its own unique socialist system, rooted on its own historical experience and with the active participation of its people. Social movements are transforming Latin America, with several countries putting into practice new, diverse and multicolored forms of socialism.
Mills’s prophetic vision is becoming a reality. Indeed, now we have many things to talk about. We are waiting for him.