C. Wright Mills’s Cuban Summer

In 1960, C. Wright Mills traveled to Cuba to give voice to the country's revolutionaries. The result was one of the era's most influential polemics.

A memorial service march in Havana in March 1960 for victims of the La Coubre explosion. Wikimedia Commons

In January 1959, the Cuban Revolution took the world by surprise. Soon the island was flooded with foreign journalists, students, and intellectuals, all determined to see the unfolding social experiment for themselves.

One of these visitors was the Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills, author of classic studies of the postwar American class structure such as White Collar and The Power Elite. For two weeks in August 1960 — including a three-day stint traveling with Fidel Castro — Mills traversed the island nation. He was there with a purpose: to write a book that would give voice to the Cuban revolutionaries.

The result was Listen, Yankee, one of the period’s most influential polemics. Published in November 1960, the book became an overnight sensation, quickly selling over four hundred thousand copies in the US alone. By the time Mills died less than two years later, he was receiving nearly ten letters a day from readers all over the world, many asking, “How can you help me get to Cuba so I can help Fidel?”

In a new book, C. Wright Mills and the Cuban Revolution, sociologist A. Javier Treviño tells the backstory of that momentous publication. By recounting Mills’s visit and reproducing the transcripts of his interviews, Treviño captures the encounter of one of America’s sharpest postwar thinkers with one of the century’s most important revolutions.

What Kind of Revolution?

In the early 1960s, a whole generation of left-leaning intellectuals scrutinized Cuba’s nascent revolution, trying to discern the island’s political direction amid the maelstrom of the Cold War.

Many US liberal intellectuals sought to defend the revolution from US aggression by insisting it was not Communist, as detractors claimed. Meanwhile, by mid-1960, some foreign observers, such as Monthly Review editors Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, had begun to describe it as “socialist,” long before Fidel Castro publicly used the term.

But if the Cuban Revolution was evolving toward socialism, what kind of socialism would it be? Would the revolutionaries adopt, as historian Rafael Rojas put it, an “olive-green” socialism, or a “Comintern red” one? Would Castro become a “Caribbean Tito,” or would the island eventually erect a Soviet-style bureaucracy? Would Cuba manage to stake out a position of neutrality in the global order, or would it succumb to the binaries of the Cold War?

These questions had global implications. Mills and other observers watched closely for patterns that other impoverished former colonies might reproduce in future revolutions. As the French journalist Claude Julien commented in a conversation with Simone de Beauvoir for the Paris newspaper France Observateur, “Most underdeveloped countries are tempted to fix their gaze on Beijing. Many now say: We can look to Beijing, but also to Havana.”

For his part, Mills saw the Cuban revolutionaries as Marxists, but hoped they would embrace the ideology’s liberating and humanistic aspects — “a human socialism, a socialism with heart,” in Treviño’s words — rather than the stultifying orthodoxy of the Soviets. He viewed the revolutionaries’ lack of a well-defined ideology as an opportunity: in Mills’s eyes, Treviño writes, the young rebels were “bereft of any rigid political dogmatism, and being of the younger political generation, they have no experience with old-left Stalinism. They are a new left.”

Cuba had a clarifying impact. It showed that a revolution could be made without significant participation from the old Communist Party. And the rising US backlash, which soon took disastrous form in the Bay of Pigs invasion unleashed under the Kennedy administration, revealed the moral bankruptcy of Cold War liberalism.

Mills had been trying to develop his ideas about a “New Left,” which he saw as rejecting Stalinism but preserving Marxism, but “had not yet gotten [it] straight.” “After witnessing the Cuban Revolution being made,” Treviño writes, “he had indeed gotten it straight.”

This was a new left indeed.

Mills in Cuba

One fascinating aspect of Treviño’s book is the insight it gives us into Mills’s work process, especially through the transcripts of his recorded interviews, which are reproduced here for the first time.

The recorded interviews were short — ranging from ten to forty-five minutes — and sometimes disappointingly perfunctory, a sharp contrast to the in-depth interviews conducted by Oscar Lewis, Margaret Randall, Laurette Sejourné, and other foreign researchers in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But Mills did not have the luxury of time. His visit was a mere two weeks, and he wrote Listen, Yankee in a blistering six-week sprint upon his return. Another limitation Mills faced was that he was, Treviño notes, “severely monolingual.” He relied heavily on his translator, Juan Arcocha, a lawyer and journalist who had also recently interpreted for Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mills almost exclusively interviewed middle-class revolutionary officials and supporters. “Much as he derided the powerful,” Trevino writes, “Mills preferred to speak to them, and to the intellectuals, instead of the masses.” The famed sociologist used these interviewees as interlocutors for other groups. Thus he asked a Rebel Army captain to describe the expectations of impoverished peasants; he asked revolutionary supporters to describe the motivations of counterrevolutionaries; he asked members of the 26th of July Movement to describe their rivals, the old Communists.

Mills’s interviewees were also apparently preselected. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Cuban official Raul Roa had arranged his trip; Mills had neither the ability nor the inclination to seek out those who did not share the revolutionary government’s views. Reading through the interview transcripts, anyone who has conducted research in Cuba will have the vaguely familiar impression of being shepherded toward approved spokesmen.

The transcripts also reveal that Mills pulled lines of inquiry from his own theories — for example, the role of intellectuals, broadly defined, as revolutionary agents. At times this could result in somewhat leading questions: “Would you think that . . . a proper way to define the situation would be like the following: That one small branch of intellectuals went into the hills, including Fidel . . . That is, the Revolution was made by young intelligentsia in contact with the poor people?” Mills listened but also occasionally imposed.

Mills did draw on other sources. In addition to an unknown number of unrecorded interviews, he directly observed the country, in all of its tumult. That August, a wave of nationalizations swept US-owned companies, the government implemented increasingly radical agrarian reform, and a counterrevolutionary movement emerged, largely funded by the CIA. Mills would have witnessed these transformations firsthand, perhaps seeing protesters dumping the signage from nationalized US companies into the sea or hearing the bombs that exploded almost nightly in Havana by the fall of 1960.

At the time, Cuba was also in the throes of a heated battle between Catholics and revolutionary supporters, visible in tussles outside churches across the island and turbulence at the universities of Havana and Santiago. That Mills did not ask about these themes, which were pressing in certain circles, sheds light on how he thought about the aims of his book.

It is similarly revealing that Mills avoided detailed information about individual experiences. When one woman began to describe the logistics of how she and others had transported medical supplies to the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra, Mills asked his translator to reel her in: “I wonder if she would sort of back away from her personal participation for a moment” and instead focus on “pivotal events of the Revolution as a whole.”

These excisions — of individual details or of local conflicts within universities or churches — show Mills’s preoccupation with the broad strokes that he knew would resonate with an American audience: US foreign policy, Communist activity, charismatic leadership.

Listen, Yankee

The publication of Listen, Yankee in the final months of 1960 sparked an intense public debate. Some Cuban exiles, members of the US liberal establishment, and other scholars decried it as simplistic or propagandistic. A group of Mexican intellectuals penned a collective letter to defend it.

Since then, scholars have continued to debate the work’s importance. Literary scholar Peter Hulme has described the book as a politically engaged piece of travel writing — in a way, an unrecognized pioneer of a new literary genre — and historian Van Gosse has called it “the first radical bestseller” and “a key radicalizing text” of the 1960s generation.

Treviño is less sure of how we should define it. “Was Listen, Yankee a work in sociology?” he asks. “It certainly didn’t read like [Mills’s] previous analytical studies. . . . Perhaps it was a manifesto of sorts, or a piece of journalism . . . or a political ‘pamphlet’ as he liked to call it?” In some measure, of course, it was all of these things.

Mills thought of Listen, Yankee as a successor to James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He hoped to replicate that book’s “fury” and directness.

In a conversation with his publisher reproduced by Treviño, Mills notes that he wanted to publish the book immediately, “to get it out fast, to distribute the hell out of it all at once, and so maybe raise a little impolite hell.” He tried to write it in direct, clear, authentic language, describing it as “the first thing I’ve ever written . . . by ear, for ear.” Still, even he was surprised by the global impact Listen, Yankee had — on sensibilities, if not policy.

Treviño’s book amply demonstrates the effect the Cuban Revolution had on C. Wright Mills, and the effect Mills’s book had on the world. But what can we say of the effect Mills or his work might have had within Cuba? (Perhaps ironically, Listen, Yankee was published around the world but not in Cuba.) On this Treviño is relatively silent, unfortunately declining to pursue some of his more suggestive asides.

For example, while ensconced in the Sierra Maestra in 1958, Castro and other members of the Rebel Army reportedly read and discussed Mills’s 1956 book The Power Elite. According to one contemporary journalist, Castro later used many of Mills’s concepts in his speeches, albeit without attribution. Elsewhere, Treviño briefly compares Mills’s concept of the “new little man” — the white-collar worker of the postwar service economy — to Che Guevara’s concept of the revolutionary new man. Expanding on these tidbits would’ve given us more insight into Cuban revolutionaries’ relationship to Mills and his work.

Mills’s premature death in 1962 spared him some of the soul-searching that other foreign intellectuals later faced over Cuba. He did not live to see Castro’s endorsement of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, nor the imprisonment of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla in 1971. These events largely ended the romance many foreign intellectuals had with the Cuban Revolution. Whether Mills would have reacted similarly is hard to say, but by this point the New Left’s youthful phase was decidedly over.

The “socialism with heart” Mills had hoped for proved too fragile for the Cold War.