In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote a personal letter to his friends Harvey and Bette Swados. “Let’s not forget,” Mills advised the Swadoses, “that there’s…more that’s useful in…the Sweezy kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J.S. Mill [a.k.a. variants of modern political liberalism] put together.”
In the six remaining years of his life, Mills, who himself would be a strong candidate for the description he had bestowed upon Thorstein Veblen—“the best critic of America that America has produced”—was to come into greater contact with Monthly Review. In 1958, Mills hosted a lecture meeting of the Monthly Review Associates that was attended by 1,100 people. That same year, MR advance-published a section from Mills’ classic book of the following year, The Sociological Imagination. In 1962, as he was suffering from advanced heart disease and preparing to defend himself against a spurious billion-dollar libel lawsuit filed by Cuban gangster capitalists whose pride had been wounded by Listen, Yankee!, Mills was actively hoping to host Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman for lunch at Mills’ home in West Nyack. Alas, that lunch and very much else was short-circuited by Mills’ tragic heart-attack death in March 1962.
All this and more points to something crucial for those working to create a decent and sustainable world: You could hardly do better than to spend some of your intellectual energies co-studying both the Monthly Review tradition of humanist, historical Marxism and the life and works of Charles Wright Mills.
An excellent way to start on such a course is to get hold of C. Wright Mills, Letters and Autobiographical Writings, a book published in 2000 by the University of California Press, edited by Mills’ daughters, Kathryn and Pamela.
With this suggestion in mind, I contacted Kathryn Mills, who graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her father and his legacy and also referred my question about Latin American developments to her half-sister, Pamela.
MD: This is such an obvious question: Just generally, what do you think your dad would be saying now, if he were still around?
Kathryn Mills: If my father were alive today I think he would be furious and full of sorrow over the fact that George W. Bush has been allowed to be president of the U.S. and allowed to invade Iraq and keep troops there for four years so far.
The scandals represented by the Abu Graib prison, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the Halliburton corruption, entwined with the highest levels of the Bush administration, show that Wright’s warnings about the growing power of the military within the power elite and the higher immorality prevalent in the corridors of power in the U.S. are painfully applicable today —to the point of being prophetic.
Those warnings from Wright began back in 1956, when The Power Elite was published, which was before General Eisenhower made his famous speech warning about the dangerous expansion of power wielded by the military-industrial complex. And what some believed to be overly strident in 1956 in The Power Elite seems to be well accepted in many discussions, even fairly mainstream ones, today. The corruption and perversion of purpose within
U.S. foreign policy (not to mention the various disasters involving domestic policies) have made the U.S. a bad caricature of itself on the world stage.
On a more positive note, I think Wright would be encouraged by the fact that there are many activists and other people who aren’t afraid to speak out in all walks of life, all around the world, from public intellectuals and private citizens to others, such as the Dixie Chicks from his home state of Texas, who use their visibility in the media to speak truth to power in one way or another.
I think that being a dissenter and social critic in 2007 is less lonely than being in that role back in 1960, when my father was doing it. And I think Wright would be encouraged by something that he didn’t imagine during his lifetime—that new technologies like the Internet help empower activists and organizers and people simply interested in political discussions.
MD: In your introductory essay in C. Wright Mills: Letters and
Autobiographical Writings, you say that today’s readers remain Mills’ proper audience. How might the new book help folks see that?
KM: As Dan Wakefield pointed out in his introduction for the book, C. Wright Mills was a man who inspired as well as informed, and these qualities are demonstrated with great energy by Wright’s letters. The letters in the book include a selection of Wright’s notes to his mother and father back in Texas, written throughout his adulthood, a letter to an ex-girlfriend, letters to his fiancé, a letter to the editor of a motorcycle magazine, and Wright’s letters to political, intellectual, and creative colleagues such as Ralph Miliband, Hans Gerth, Harvey Swados, and Bill Miller.
These letters are full of life and variety. When combined with Wright’s autobiographical writings in the book, which were written in the form of introspective letters to his imaginary counterpart in Russia, Wright’s letters to real and fictitious recipients give the reader a personal and multi-dimensional view of Wright’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas on topics ranging from craftsmanship (in carpentry and in writing and thinking), European travel, and the universal human need to escape from one’s routines and reflect on one’s life, to political issues relating to the use and misuse of political and economic power and the role of the U.S. in promoting or not promoting violence around the world.
These are all topics of interest today.
We were also very fortunate to have Dan Wakefield’s introduction for the book. Part of it brings up highlights from the letters and part of it is more of a memoir of Dan’s own experiences with my father, which Dan brings to life the way you’d expect from a great story teller like Dan. Some of his anecdotes are joyful or funny and other parts of his introduction mourn the loss of a dear friend.
MD: Could you tell us a bit more about Tovarich, your Dad’s imaginary Soviet intellectual pen-pal? Who was Tovarich, and why did your father create him? Was it all heading toward another major C. Wright Mills book of some kind? How much Tovarich material is in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings? And do you have a favorite Tovarich passage?
KM: Tovarich means friend or comrade in Russian, and my father worked on his unfinished manuscript, entitled Contacting the Enemy: Tovarich, during the height of the cold war, when the USSR was considered our enemy. Tovarich was Wright’s imaginary counterpart in Russia—a politically questioning, literate
fellow interested in setting up human communications with individuals from the enemy country.
I think Wright liked the literary device of letter writing—which he used in one way or another in his classic essay “Letter to the New Left” and his book Listen, Yankee! as well as the Tovarich letters—because writing an essay in the form of a letter to a person or people helps to personalize and thus dramatize the issues at hand.
Also, as Wright explained in one of his letters to Tovarich, he wanted to use these writings as a tool for self-scrutiny. Explaining his life and beliefs to someone from a different culture would help him push himself to be as thorough as possible in the explanations.
Yes, to answer one of your questions, Wright did want his Tovarich letters to be a book project. With his unfinished manuscript he left a copy of a draft of a letter to a literary agent saying that perhaps it was a project in search of a co-author. If he could find a real-life Russian intellectual who would answer his letters to form a dialogue of essays for the book—a real person to fill the shoes of Tovarich—that would be great. But if no Russian co-author could be found, then Wright wrote that he wanted to finish the book and publish it on his own.
The Tovarich letters are interspersed with letters to real people in the book. I’d estimate that roughly one-fourth to one-third of the book is made up of letters to Tovarich.
A couple of my favorite passages from the letters to Tovarich are about my father’s personal “stages of autonomy,” as he called them, and the passage about his grandfather, the Texan cattle rancher.
MD: What is your personal favorite piece of your Dad’s writing, and why?
KM: My favorite book by my father is The Power Elite. As the third book in his trilogy on American society, I think it was the culmination of his thinking over a great many years. His work on The Power Elite benefited from what he had learned about writing with clarity and power, empirical research methods, and the laying out of arguments during the years he had worked on The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders and White Collar: The American Middle Classes. I think The Power Elite is particularly gripping because it goes to the heart of the concentration of power and what my father called “ the higher immorality”—topics that remain painfully important today.
I also have personal and perhaps irrational reasons for favoring The Power Elite among my father’s books. It is the book that my mother, Ruth Harper Mills, and my father worked on together from the time my father first got the idea of doing the book until it was completed. As a math major, my mother did the statistics for the book, and my father referred to her as his “chief researcher and editorial advisor” in the book’s acknowledgment pages.
My parents met when my father was looking for someone to conduct intensive interviews for White Collar. Intensive interviewing had been my mother’s specialty when she worked for the Bureau of Applied Social Research, and someone who still worked there—Marjorie Fiske, who later married Leo Lowenthal—suggested that Wright consider Ruth. Ruth left her job as executive secretary for the League of Women Voters in New York State when Wright hired her to work on White Collar.
As things turned out they got married the following year. My mother ended up working on White Collar for three years, but unlike The Power Elite, White Collar had been under construction by my father a long time before he met my mother.
MD: Do you have any future Wright-related projects or plans readers of MR might keep an eye out for?
KM: No, personally, I don’t; but I know of three other people who are working on books about C. Wright Mills right now.
Stanley Aronowitz, who is probably familiar to MR readers since he’s written many books on labor issues, is writing an intellectual and political biography of Wright, which is under contract to be published by Columbia University Press when it’s done.
Also there are two members of the newest generation of Mills scholars—Daniel Geary and John Summers—who are now working on books about Wright’s work and/or his life.
I believe Dan Geary’s book will be an intellectual biography; the University of California Press has it under contract. His Ph.D. thesis is called “The Power and the Intellect: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and the American Social Science” and it was completed in 2004 for the University of California, Berkeley.
John Summer’s book-in-progress, a biography of Wright, is under contract to be published by Oxford University Press when it’s finished. His Ph.D. thesis, which is about Wright’s life or one portion of it, was completed in 2006 for the University of Rochester.
Also I’d like to mention a book on Wright’s work that was published recently—just last year, as an original paperback—entitled Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times by Tom Hayden, with contemporary reflections by Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Flacks, and Charles Lemert. I’d recommend that book
to people who are interested in Wright’s work and its impact on the New Left.
MD: With all that’s happening these days in Latin America, I wonder about your thoughts and feelings about your Dad’s deep connections to the cause of liberation in that region. I’m sure your father would be excited and pleased to see the trend toward bottom-up development, but I wonder how you feel reading the newspaper. Angry, happy, vindicated, sad, hopeful? All of the above? If this isn’t too personal, could you say a few words on this topic?
KM: I’d like to refer that question of Pamela, who lives in Rio de Janeiro. She certainly knows more about things Latin American than I do.
MD: Great, and thank you so much for the interview, Kathryn!
Pamela Mills: Even taking into account the changes that have occurred in the world in the more than 4 decades since my father died, I think there isn’t much doubt that the C. Wright Mills who envisioned an independent socialist force in the world would be pleased and excited about the recent elections of left-leaning governments in Latin America –- Chavez in Venezuela, Kirchner in Argentina, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador.
Here in Brazil, where I lived through the repressions of the military dictatorship and the subsequent redemocratization of the country, although President Lula, as the former metal worker and labor leader is called by Brazilians, hasn’t fulfilled all his leftist campaign promises, and there have been serious corruption problems, there is no doubt that he has taken measures in the interest of the large masses of poorer people, who recognized this last year by helping elect him for a second term. Clearly, his government has taken steps to improve the distribution of wealth in Brazil, and he is one more potential member of an independent block.
All in all, I would say my main feeling is one of cautious hopefulness that the forces of the left will be able to form a bloc with enough weight to make a difference on the international scene, and that they will be responsible for significant changes within their own countries in favor of the working classes, in favor of more just societies. Considering the enormity of what needs to be done, the firm political and economic decisions that need to be made to produce real change, and the opposition they face, both internally and externally, I think it would be unrealistic to feel more than cautiously hopeful. I am rooting for them.
Essays in this series…
Capitalism, the Absurd System: A View from the United States
(June 1, 2010)
South Africa’s Bubble Meets Boiling Urban Social Protest
(June 1, 2010)
Political Reawakening in Zimbabwe
(April 1, 1999)
April 1999, Volume 50, Number 11
(April 1, 1999)
The Financial Power Elite
(May 1, 2010)
July-August 2010, Volume 62, Number 3
(July 1, 2010)
Foreword to the Summer Issue
(July 1, 2010)
Awakening in Oaxaca: Stirrings of the People’s Giant
(June 1, 2010)
Time to Pay the Piper
(June 1, 2010)
Sartre: Conversations with a “Bourgeois Revolutionary”
(June 1, 2010)