Note: The distinguished leftist organizer, intellectual, and sociologist Stanley Aronowitz passed away earlier this week. Andrew Ross, his colleague on the journal Social Text, made the following comments at a CUNY symposium devoted to Aronowitz in 2017.
The first time we met was at the epic 1983 Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture conference in Champaign-Urbana. Alongside Stanley and other heavyweight thinkers, there was a younger generation of folks like myself who were there to figure out how to renew the Marxist tradition on our own terms. The conference was focused squarely on the cultural turn, and so it was less troubled by debates about the Fourth International than other Marxist gatherings might have been. I met Stanley in a social setting, and for some reason we ended up discussing the career of Malcolm Knox, a Scottish translator of Hegel. It could have turned into a Marxist bro conversation revolving around some insider baseball detail of the Marx industry. But what I took away from it was just the opposite, that Stanley had an ecumenical and compendious interest in ideas of all kinds. In subsequent years, when we had a close working relationship on the Social Text collective, I would come to realize how hungry and capacious his mind was.
During the years I spent there, Champaign-Urbana was a portal for the entry of British Cultural Studies into the U.S, though it was clear that, unlike other schools of European theory, Cultural Studies in the US could not survive as a transplant and would have to engage with the long and complex history of American culture and politics. Having recently decided to stay in the US, the lessons of the American left were on my front burner, and that’s where Stanley became a key influence. He was one of the few American left intellectuals who was not allergic to continental, or Western Marxist thought, he was seriously open to new ideas and ideologies, but he was also a veteran of hard-fought struggles within the New Left, the U.S labor movement and the American intellectual tradition bequeathed by the likes of John Dewey and C. Wright Mills. Plus he had gotten some feminist religion from Ellen Willis. He was not a dogmatist, nor certainly a sectarian, and had carved out a position as a radical independent whose views were shaped by the lessons of movement politics. Thanks to his remarkable memory, and the gift of his gab, he was able to call up all of these legacies and give them contemporary immediacy. And last but not least, he also wrote journalism, which meant that he could write with lucidity and was never a prisoner of academic jargon. No one seemed to combine all of these qualities. As my friend and comrade Paul Smith, who also moved to these shores from the UK in the late 1970s, said to me at the time, “Who else is there?”
So, when I moved from Champaign to the East Coast to take a job at Princeton, one of the first things I did was join the Social Text collective, of which Stanley was one of the founders and animating forces. Access to this New York milieu was a lifeline thrown to me, since I was already beginning to drown in the waters of Princeton gentility (exceptions to the rule included Cornel West, also a Social Text regular, and Sheldon Wolin).
The Social Text collective was committed to the primacy of politics (it was a “journal of tendency”) but also to what used to be known as the “relative autonomy” of culture. It was self-published, and its pages were open to a broad variety of topics. No doubt, the journal contributed in some ways to the career of Cultural Studies in the U.S, but it did so best in the context of live debates on the left, about Zionism and Palestine, or Cuba and Castro, for example. Stanley always insisted that we should be mindful of the responsibilities that came with being an independent journal of the American left—a lineage that he saw as running from the Partisan Review, through Dissent and the Socialist Review.
The same could be said, I think, about Stanley’s own contribution to Cultural Studies. Thinking and commenting about the “cultural turn” was part and parcel of his generalist outlook as a left intellectual, and it affected his rich body of writing about education, the labor movement, intellectual history, and the sociology of work and technology. Thinking about culture was just part of the job of being an intellectual, and especially if you were a radical who believed that culture is where power is administered and contested. We are reminded of this now whenever we hear someone quote Andrew Breitbart’s maxim: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Or, as Lawrence Meyers put it in a recent Breitbart column about the lessons that radical conservatives should learn about storytelling and narrative framing: “Culture influences politics, and in ways the Left has understood for a long time. The Right has sat idly by, as they did with higher education, and let an ideological movement take over one of the most important aspects of American society.”
It’s not hard to find mirror-image sentiments on the left, lamenting that conservatives have figured out ways to tell better stories–on law and order, racial retrenchment, gender rights, public power and so on. But we can never rely simply on taking control of the narratives, and Stanley’s abiding attention to material struggles was a healthy reminder of the limits of “discursive” politics. For example, how people struggled to earn a livelihood was a longstanding preoccupation of his, and it prepared us for what I think of as the “turn to labor” in the second half of the 1990s.
The turn to labor was more an extension of than a reaction against the cultural turn, and partly because it was prompted by the degradation of labor in the culture and knowledge sectors of the economy. The deprofessionalization of academic labor was happening in our own backyard, in what Stanley called the ‘knowledge factory” of the corporate university. At the same time, creative labor, traditionally at the margins of the productive economy, was being re-installed at the front and center of the New Economy. Artists and creatives were being lionized as the new model workers, or as the motive force of urban regeneration according to the template of Richard Florida’s “creative city.” And in the corporate world, creativity and company culture were the new buzzwords for value-adding labor. These were all consequential developments and could hardly be ignored by folks who thought of themselves as cultural workers. Stanley helped to pave the way for understanding this new landscape of labor, and ultimately for organizing among the ranks of those with the most precarious hold on it.
No doubt this helps to explain how and why he took on C. Wright Mills as the topic of his last book. Mills was rightfully skeptical about the concentration of bureaucratic union power in the offices of Big Labor’s chieftains. But as a result, he was quick to sideline labor’s chances of remaining a progressive force on the political landscape, and he famously encouraged a new generation of radicals, in his Letter to the New Left, to abandon the “labor metaphysic.” Unlike Mills, however, Stanley’s own writings consistently reveal his faith in the ability of the rank and file to reclaim their unions and revive their radical political function.
Mills was not a cultural critic, at least by the standards of the New York Intellectuals who owned that term in the immediate postwar period. But his 1959 essay on the “cultural apparatus,” which was the prototype for an unfinished book with that same provisional title, was an important influence in Cultural Studies circles. In the unfinished preface, Mills noted that his critics often complain that “I have been too much fascinated by power,” and responded that “it is not power but intellect that I have been fascinated by,” And so it was that Stanley ends up describing, in his book, the “Millsian program that lies before us” as one largely focused on the role, conduct, and contribution of intellectuals.
If that is the program that Stanley, via Mills, has bequeathed to us, then it goes without saying that we are operating on quite a different landscape than the one with which Mills, or even the younger Aronowitz himself, was familiar. The emergence, in the intervening decades, of conservative think-tanks and right wing media punditry has shrunk the space available to the left intelligentsia on the spectrum of public opinion. Nor do intellectuals enjoy anything like the same kind of central privilege on the left today. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine a contemporary equivalent of Mills’ influential Letter to the New Left, and it would not have occurred to Stanley himself to write a ‘Letter to Occupy Wall Street” or to the Movement for Black Lives, much less to the inchoate decolonial tendencies of our current moment. Intellectuals tend to be fellow travelers of today’s more horizontal-organized movements rather than far-seeing thinkers who chart the path ahead for the rank and file to follow. So, too, the voice of Stanley’s heroic working class intellectual has ceded to others—non-white and non-male. But that’s not to say that ideas matter any less. Every movement of action needs a movement of ideas, and Stanley’s gift has been to embody that need—in the challenge of being an intellectual activist—for so many of us.