I first met Stanley Aronowitz in 2014, too late to claim I knew him well. We never went out for drinks or shared a meal, and I never really encountered the gregarious and raucous legend who many students and co-conspirators have lovingly recalled in the weeks since his death in August. But for five years Stanley was my mentor, and I spent many long afternoons with him in his office and apartment. As one of his last students, I thought it might be valuable to share a few reflections, however partial, of what he was like in his final years.
To begin: a few things I did not know Stanley to be. He was not an advocate for the existing forms of organized labor, nor for the public education system, though he’d worked and agitated within both these scenes for decades. He reminded students in one of the classes I took with him that “unions are a wing of capital,” and that the purpose of schooling was not to foster liberation but “to keep our nose to the grindstone.” Nor would Stanley have called himself a sociologist, even if he spent most of his professional life employed as one. He’d even bristle at the notion of being called a Marxist, perhaps in part because so many of “the Marxists” – a term he’d lob disparagingly – didn’t quite know what to do with him.
I knew Stanley primarily as a comrade and as a theorist, two monikers which I believe he would have embraced. He fought persistently on the side of the exploited and the oppressed, and he devoted his life to advancing the theoretical and practical struggle over what Marx had called “disposable time.” This time is today largely dominated by capital, either as surplus labor-time or through what Stanley referred to as the colonization of leisure. And yet disposable time may also, occasionally – and perhaps one day, universally – be seized for the enjoyment of “really free” activity.
Stanley seized time. He held the floor, took up space, and grabbed everyone’s attention. He appreciated art, goofed around, and cherished his summers. He also emphasized the importance of joyful and rebellious subjectivity in political organization, and of the politics inherent to the most frivolous pursuits. He was a partisan of theory within the working-class movement: someone who accepted the vocation of the intellectual, but only in furtherance of what he saw as the fight for collective self-determination. And he stuck it out for the long haul.
I was introduced to Stanley by Peter Rachleff, an undergraduate adviser of mine who had worked with Stanley on Root & Branch, a libertarian socialist publication of the early 1970s. I was looking for a way to study theory without going further into debt, and the CUNY Graduate Center’s Sociology Program seemed to be a place where that kind of thing could be done. So, trained as I was to be obsequious with teachers, I followed Peter’s introduction with a letter to the esteemed Professor Aronowitz in which I professed my admiration for his work (of which at the time I knew little) and asked how to craft my application (I had never taken a sociology course in my life). His reply came quickly: I was to call him “Stan (no professor this or that)” and I was to call him at home.
With this first gesture Stanley set the tone for our relationship. After I was admitted to the program and appointed as his research assistant, I convinced him to oversee an independent study. My plan was to focus on Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, and the Italian operaisti, but Stanley insisted on a deep dive into Antonio Gramsci’s work. I had read Gramsci closely, and I knew of Stanley’s contributions to cultural studies, so I imagined things would trend in that direction. But I was willing to compromise my plan if it meant getting to know him.
Stanley surprised me again. A week before we were scheduled to meet, he decided that, if we were really going to grapple with Gramsci, we would also need to read several key works by Amadeo Bordiga and V.I. Lenin, and he sent me a list of titles. Stanley considered debates within the Italian Communist Party and the global communist movement to be essential context for any theory of hegemony worth its salt. Problems of political organization were not set aside in Stanley’s cultural studies. Instead – and this was equally true for Gramsci – studying culture was a way of extending political analysis into the sinews of everyday life.
We would meet in his office, hidden in the back of the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology, and Work, where young organizers of the Left Forum were often toiling over conference preparations and undergraduate assignments with the overhead lights off. Stanley supported their efforts and provided them with space. Despite his distaste for institutions, he was, I found out, a savvy navigator of institutional politics. He would find funding for out-of-the-box initiatives by advocating directly to the most distinguished administrators. He used his wiles and his charm to build spaces both within and outside of the university, spaces where young people could encounter ancient philosophies and new ideas in equal measure, where they could cultivate their radical imagination.
A few weeks into the semester, Stanley asked me what he should teach next. I immediately replied that he should offer a course on Marx’s Grundrisse, which I knew he had taught before. He scoffed at the notion that 21st-century graduate students, especially “sociologists,” would be interested. I can’t recall my reply, but I must have mounted a decent counterargument, because a few days later I received an email: “I decided to take your suggestion to offer a course on the Grundrisse in the Spring. It requires a minimum of five enrolled students to run… I am hopeful that there are four in addition to yourself who are interested enough to take it.” This was another surprise: he was listening to what his students thought was important, and he was willing to take leaps contrary to received wisdom, even when it meant reassessing his own battle-hardened skepticism.
Stanley suffered his first stroke that November. He recovered quickly, and after a brief hiatus we resumed our meetings. As he now required the use of a wheelchair, the Grundrisse course would need to take place at his apartment, around the corner from the Graduate Center. On the first day of class, in the depths of a particularly brutal New York winter, 25 people showed up to Stanley’s apartment, packing themselves into his living room. Now it was his turn to be shocked. I remember the look on his face: a mass movement (relatively speaking) toward radical theory had caught him completely off-guard. He encouraged total strangers to sit on his bed anyway.
By March our numbers had dwindled. “This is a good size,” he noted with relief, at the start of one session. We really needed to be a smaller group to grapple with the depth of the material, he’d explain. Stanley’s politics and theoretical practice may be located within precisely this kind of tension, not to say contradiction: the recognition that deep engagement with texts and ideas may only happen in small groups, coupled with the conviction that theory must also, in some sense, grip the masses. I would relate this to his relentless drive to function as a public intellectual without ever abandoning the critical and political independence of the outsider.
Recordings were made of several of these seminars, and I have gone back to listen to them in the weeks since his death. We worked through the central categories deployed in the notebooks written by Marx at a pivotal moment between his young, “humanist” writings and the mature “science” of Capital. We discussed theoretical questions around surplus-value, exploitation, and the process of capital’s realization. We also talked at length about concrete struggles, about Amazon, public schools, and slavery. And, of course, the problem of work in contemporary society remained central. One day Stanley summed up our present predicament in the gravest of terms: “When we have a civilization in which ‘the good job’ is the farthest horizon of people’s imagination, of people’s desire, we know that capitalism has succeeded in subordinating the population entirely.”
Over the next few years, he and I continued to meet on a weekly basis. I’d show up to his apartment, sometimes coordinating my visit through his caregiver, and he would be listening to classical radio and reading. I would bring him copies of whatever I had found interesting lately, usually new translations of French or Italian Marxist theory; he would ask me why there wasn’t more psychoanalytic research on cancer. He always wanted to know where my undergraduate students worked, what they talked about in class, and whether they were actually doing their reading. He maintained that he had never learned a thing at school, but he always had a story about an experimental initiative he’d launched in a K-12 or college setting, a new program devoted to worker education, a new venue of political discussion and debate.
I loved talking with Stanley, but the demands of graduate school meant that I was also in need of someone to shepherd my own research along. Over time it became clear that he was not the best person for the job. Partly this was due to his decline in health. But there was a deeper issue, I think. Stanley had always already thought through what appeared to me to be novel questions. I wanted to reexamine the New Left’s experience with the War on Poverty – ancient history, as far as he was concerned. It is worth recalling that Stanley was already something of an elder statesman even for the early leaders of Students for a Democratic Society. By the start of SDS’s 1962 conference at Port Huron, which Stanley attended after helping to draft its eponymous Statement, he had already worked in a factory for a decade.
Stanley participated in, if he did not initiate, countless projects that would appear as highlights on any timeline of U.S. social movements. In addition to the founding conference of SDS and related happenings, he organized the labor contingent at the 1963 March on Washington, the Committee for Miners focused on Hazard, Kentucky, and the merger which gave birth to the Democratic Socialists of America. He was central to the work of many creative journals: Studies on the Left, Social Text, and Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination, to name but a few. I used to say he was the Forrest Gump of the American Left, but this was never quite right, not least because of the question of intellectual capacity. Stanley was more like Marx’s old mole, popping up wherever the possibility of insurgency reverberated.
At a certain point I stopped talking to him about my research, in part because I grew embarrassed by my passion for a conjuncture long past. He was preoccupied, as we all should be, with the ecological question, with transformations in how we relate to land, culture, sexuality, technology, and work today. If he suspected the self-emancipation of workers from capital had a long way to go, having lost a great deal of ground since the 1960s, Stanley was anything but jaded. Long after many of his peers, he continued to cultivate a sense of outrage in defiance of decorum.
This sensibility may be relayed through another anecdote. Before meeting Stanley, I was involved in a graduate student-worker organizing campaign at a private university. In one of the first meetings I attended, in which there was great excitement about the prospect of a contract being signed, staff organizers from our prospective union led a discussion about what our contract might include. One of these items was a no-strike pledge. I was brand new to the city and to organized labor, so I asked why we would begin negotiations by conceding our most powerful weapon. An organizer informed me, with a smirk, that naturally this had been standard practice among unions in New York for decades, and that there wasn’t much point in agonizing over it. I replied, in that case, that perhaps we ought to avoid signing a long contract, to give us some room for maneuver. Who knew what the university might try to pull? That too was shot down, according to some other wisdom. I was chastened and dropped the subject.
Sometime later, while reading what turned out to be Stanley’s final monograph, I was tickled to find that the 50-year veteran of the struggle began his “manifesto for a new labor movement” with the following thesis:
Bargaining over wages, working conditions, and benefits need not culminate in a contract. If the workers’ collective power is sufficient to avoid a formal agreement, they are better off without one. If they must sign one, it should not include a no-strike provision. And if the workers are not strong enough to impose a deal that does not prohibit strikes during the life of the agreement, then the life of the agreement should be short – say, one year – and the terms should specify exceptional conditions in which workers may withhold their labor, such as discriminatory discharge or an arbitrary change in the work process.
I don’t say this to brag that I had intuited the master’s correct position. I say this to demonstrate the degree to which Stanley maintained a youthful, righteous indignation right up through his last works. He maintained a profound distrust of conformism on the Left, and he wasn’t afraid to announce it, even if it meant criticizing former comrades. He never shied away from making a room uncomfortable if he thought it could help to invigorate a new sense of militancy.
Sometimes we’d end up talking for an hour and then staring at the bookshelves of his apartment in silence. I’m not sure what he was thinking about, but I know that I was always mulling over what is to be done, even though, I’d remind myself, the riddle of strategy could only be answered in the domain of concrete struggles. Certainly Stanley, if anyone, knew this. Nevertheless, he found himself in the role of the intellectual, and, along with Gramsci and C. Wright Mills, he believed this obliged him to intervene into the affairs of the world. If leaders, spokespeople, and academics on the Left had repeatedly failed in these duties, as Stanley maintained, the problem of radical action is not to be solved in anti-intellectualism. On the contrary, the challenge is to advance theory to new heights while also participating in the organization of insubordination at a mass level. Radicalism means experimenting with new means of articulating the relationship between the two.
Shortly before Stanley died, I was reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, a complicated book from a contemptible politician. In that text, Moynihan referred to an article in Barron’s weekly covering the Third Conference of Socialist Scholars (which later became the Left Forum), held at the New York Hilton Hotel in 1967. This article, according to Moynihan, revealed “the theretofore closely held confidence that Michael Harrington was a socialist.”
Harrington, today best known for having led the Democratic Socialists of America before it was cool, was then author of the best-selling book The Other America, which made an impression on some of the architects of the War on Poverty in the early 1960s. The Barron’s article claimed that, over the course of a panel discussion about the limits of the state’s anti-poverty initiatives, Harrington was won over from a “Menshevik” perspective to one that was patently “Bolshevik.” He was converted, it would seem, by the arguments of his co-panelists: Hyman Lumer of the Communist Party U.S.A., and Stanley Aronowitz of the West Side Committee for Independent Political Action.
By the time I read this I had grown accustomed to bumping into Stanley in print. It was not all that shocking to see him mentioned here, embedded as he was in this milieu. I was, however, intrigued by the report of what Stanley had said on that panel:
Violently, Aronowitz attacked the entire Poverty Program except for a single aspect which he described as “a valuable tool” for the radical movement. “At least,” he said, “it has given employment to the organizers.”
With no memory of having ever discussed this episode with Stanley, I searched my hard drive only to rediscover that he had, of course, already written about it. In “When the New Left Was New,” published in Social Text in 1984, Stanley referred – with no small amount of self-satisfaction, I’m sure – to Moynihan’s account of the episode. He then reflected on it in terms I never heard him use: “In retrospect, I think the hodgepodge of programs directed to the needs of the poor was one of the most interesting features of the entire decade.”
I had been trying for years without success to rouse Stanley’s interest in precisely this question, seeking to demonstrate how the dynamic relationship between the capitalist state, social movements, and anti-poverty work provided an angle through which we could reexamine some of his chief concerns. And yet, while he seemed to enjoy our conversations about contemporary politics, working-class education, and the history of Marxist theory, he always appeared disinterested, even distant, when I brought up elements of my research that built on and sought to extend his own lifelong project.
If I was studying the 1960s–70s, Stanley had lived through them, ultimately experiencing them as a failure. He wrote publicly about the defeats of the Left, and in private he also spoke self-critically. For one, he accepted some responsibility for the New Left’s failure to build an independent political party. Maybe my project simply hit too close to home.
Many of us on the Left emerge in the present: politicized by an event, a relationship to work, a strike on campus. Some of us then descend into the past to understand the deeper roots of what produced the conditions informing the world we now inhabit and struggle to transform. A few of us – myself included – risk getting stuck in a sort of twilight zone, living like zombies in our present while endlessly seeking out threads from the past. I have no doubt that we do need to take detours into the archives of the Left, its traditions, and its theories, and that these journeys are essential for our collective development. I don’t think Stanley would disagree – he loved telling stories. But he also insisted that we cannot dwell in the past, for doing so would mean abdicating the responsibilities of making history, which, after all, we have chosen to accept.
I regret that I fell out of touch with Stanley over the last two years, and I will always wish I had found a way to speak with him a few more times. But his influence as a teacher will live on. Beyond the many students and comrades who worked alongside him, he leaves a vast repository of theoretical, historical, and personal texts. He was working on memoirs, and I hope that he was able to commit enough to tape, type, or paper that more publications are still to come. I’m confident that I’ll continue to run into him in the archives, and he’ll have articulated with the utmost precision what I have only just become able to start thinking myself.
But the thing is, he never quite figured it out either. To honor his legacy, we need to take up our own struggles to build the future in the present, and to constantly rediscover the capacities for collective outrage that might get us there, without any guarantees.
Andrew Anastasi is the editor and translator of The Weapon of Organization: Mario Tronti’s Political Revolution in Marxism (Common Notions, 2020). He is a member of the Viewpoint Magazine editorial collective and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.