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A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Peter Dreier, Truthout
By the time he wrote “The Power Elite,” Mills had given up hope that a resurgent labor movement could revitalize American democracy. He seemed oblivious to the burgeoning civil rights movement that had erupted in Montgomery in 1955. (In fact, he was oblivious to issues of race throughout his writings.)
But Mills’ books, particularly “The Power Elite,” resonated with the growing mood of discontent in the nation, particularly on college campuses. For example, its influence can be seen in the “Port Huron Statement,” the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), written in 1962. The “Statement’s” principal author, Tom Hayden and other SDS leaders, like sociologist Dick Flacks, greatly admired Mills. The “Statement’s” analysis of power and its call for “participatory democracy” echoed Mills’ views.
During the last few years of his life, a few trends—the rise of student activism in the United States and Europe; the Cuban revolution in 1959; and the awakening of anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia and South America—gave Mills a new sense of hope. Energized by these movements, he quickly wrote two short books—which he called “pamphlets”—that he aimed for a wide audience. “The Causes of World War Three” (1958), an impassioned plea for an end to the nuclear arms race, sold over 100,000 copies. “Listen, Yankee” (1960), a sympathetic look at the Cuban revolution from the viewpoint of a Cuban revolutionary, sold over 400,000 copies. In the fall of 1960, he published a “Letter to the New Left” in the British journal New Left Review, encouraging young radicals around the world.
Mills’ writing combined analysis and outrage. He was a meticulous researcher, but he did not wish to be what he called a “sociological bookkeeper.” He wrote about the fundamental questions facing American society and he had strong opinions. “I try to be objective,” Mills wrote, “I do not claim to be detached.”
Toward the end of his life, the mainstream media began asking Mills for his views on major issues of the day. In December 1960, he was invited to appear on the NBC television show “The Nation’s Future” to debate A.A. Berle, a spokesperson for the newly elected Kennedy administration, about US policy in Latin America. On the eve of the program, Mills suffered a heart attack and had to cancel the debate. He never fully recovered his remarkable energy. A second heart attack on March 20, 1962, was fatal. He didn’t live to see the emergence of the student and antiwar movements that his work helped inspire.
Few [Occupy] Wall Street activists have probably heard of Mills or are familiar with his work. But Mills’ breakthrough ideas—especially his notion of the “power elite”—resonate today with the growing recognition that too much wealth and power in the hands of the superrich undermines democracy.
For further reference:
Daniel Geary, “Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left and American Social Thought,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Kathryn Mills with Patricia Mills, editors, “C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
John H. Summers, editor, “The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills,” New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
G. William Domhoff, “Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance,” sixth edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Tom Hayden, “Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times,” Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.
C. Wright Mills, “The New Men of Power. America’s Labor Leaders,” New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1948.
C. Wright Mills, “White Collar. The American Middle Classes,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
C. Wright Mills, “The Power Elite,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.
C. Wright Mills, “The Causes of World War Three,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958.
C. Wright Mills, “Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba,” New York: McGraw Hill, 1960.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His next book, “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” will be published by Nation Books in June.
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