This is the second part of an assessment and appreciation of the sociologist and cultural critic Stanley Aronowitz. In part one, Bruce Robbins reflected on Stanley Aronowitz’s influence, both as a scholar and as a political and public intellectual.


Another option is laid out very clearly in Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book The Last Intellectuals. Jacoby describes Stanley as “himself almost a transitional figure, illustrating the passing of the older independent intelligentsia and the rise of the professors.” I pause briefly on this “almost,” partly in order to note that Jacoby characteristically does not himself pause to explain it. Why isn’t he a “transitional figure,” why isn’t he a fullfledged transitional figure, if he does in fact illustrate the passing of the older independent intelligentsia and the rise of the professors? What is it in Stanley’s career that doesn’t quite fit, or maybe doesn’t fit at all, the somewhat simplistic binary that Jacoby lays out? It’s as if Jacoby, maybe because he is proudly writing against “the rise of the professors,” feels that he doesn’t need to descend to details like explaining himself, even when it’s the self that is sort of recognizing that there’s a problem with his own schematic view. It’s as if he assumes that all he owes the wider public he’s writing for is bold, schematic assertion. It’s funny, academics are the ones who are associated with quibbles (and you may think I’m quibbling now), but this “almost” of Jacoby’s seems to me characteristic of a different sort of quibbling, a market quibbling. Like maybe he’s too powerful in my world for me to want to make an enemy of him. And anyway, the sort of people I’m writing for won’t care that I’m not being more precise.

But to return to the question of how to tell Stanley’s story. What’s wrong with Jacoby’s? Stanley is taken as “almost” representative of the passing of the older independent intelligentsia and the rise of the professors. What about this idea of the older independent intelligentsia? What did “independent” mean? It seems important to me that Stanley himself never for a moment claims that in the first stage of his career as an organizer he was, in any sense, “independent.” Nothing could be further from the entrepreneurial, individualistic, neoliberal implications of “independence” than his own account of his work for, say, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. In doing that work he was of course dependent on the union– not embarrassingly so, as if there were some need to deny the dependence. But dependent in the very direct sense that when the right wing was triumphant in that union and in the labor movement generally, Stanley was pushed out—an event he locates in the year 1966. He was no longer able to make a “vocation”—meaning, to secure institutional and financial support for what he was doing. Having that support was the very antithesis of an idealized “independence”—at least as antithetical to “independence” as having a job in a university like this one. There is no such thing as an intellectual who is not “dependent” in one sense or another, or “grounded,” as I put it in the volume on intellectuals I edited for the Social Text collective. That would include dependent on the book market. Unless Jacoby wants us to believe that, for intellectuals and presumably for everyone, selling oneself on the market really is the highest and most desirable form of independence.

As a sociologist, Stanley has always been fascinated by the hypothesis that intellectuals might belong to a “new class” of knowledge workers and that they might therefore be capable of exerting a new kind of political leverage. I remember any number of Social Text discussions on the subject, though I don’t remember any ringing endorsement of the idea. What seems clearest to me in retrospect is that Stanley himself became interested in the subject of intellectuals as the other side of his disappointment with the rightward turn of the labor movement, with the labor movement as a non-agent of revolutionary change. I don’t think he ever explored the topic of intellectuals without his thinking about the labor movement being part of the same thought. To my mind, that is the right way to think. Getting away from what he called, after C. Wright Mills, the “labor metaphysic” was less an abstract theory than a judgment on the circumstances in which political decisions had to be made and a way of staying in the game, politically speaking.

One thing that was meant by the culture in cultural politics was feminism, which Stanley insisted was an irreducible critique of and addition to the New Left. Another thing meant by culture was racial justice. Still another, less obvious than the first two, was the antiwar movement. Recent critiques of the legacy of the 60s left that have stressed identity politics at the expense of real politics and economic inequality sometimes overlap with critiques that Stanley himself had made of the New Left, but from a more engaged and responsible position. But one enormous thing these leave out, that Stanley does not leave out, is the antiwar movement. Stanley is acute on both the weaknesses of pacifism and the irresponsible glorification of Third World authoritarian regimes in the name of anti-militarism and anti-imperialism. But he was never tempted by the idea that you could have a responsible left in America without resistance to American militarism. Under our current circumstances, that too looks very pertinent.

During the years when I was going to Social Text meetings—absolutely formative years for me—I didn’t always fully appreciate the immense contradictions that Stanley was trying to hold together, in his past as a labor and community organizer, and in his present as an academic and an intellectual. I’m not sure I always saw how much labor went into Stanley’s quiet insistence that the model of the activist should never be sidelined. That meant developing a position, defending and adapting that position, rather than putting on a one-off performance, like an Anthony Lane review in The New Yorker; it meant being unafraid to repeat yourself, something academics are always afraid of–perhapds excessively so. Stanley and Cornel West repeated themselves; they repeated themselves because they had their eyes on a prize that was higher than individual academic honors. I didn’t come to those meetings from activism, as Stanley and Cornel did; I was first and foremost an academic, whatever my political commitments. Stanley helped me get my priorities straight, and keep them straight. It’s something he has always done for a lot of people. It’s one sense in which he is a political intellectual. His priorities are those he credited to C. Wright Mills: “abandon the labor metaphysic, don’t get bogged down politically and emotionally in the controversies regarding the Soviet Union, China, or anyplace besides the United States; rediscover American traditions, particularly the promise of a democratic society, equality, and community; oppose the domination of large corporations over all aspects of American life; support national liberation movements abroad, but avoid endorsing their particular form of government.”. It’s still not a bad list of priorities.

“By 1967,” Stanley writes in one of his accounts of the New Left, “having abandoned their bold assertions of sovereigny, SDS leaders no longer saw their generation as historical subject, but were self-proclaimed ‘organizers,’ meaning they were to facilitate the agency of the people. For them it was always ‘the people,’ the poor, the blacks—in short, someone else.” It occurred to me only much later that my own case for a middle-class radicalism and left professionalism probably owed much more than I realized at the time not just to Stanley’s critical interest in “New Class” theories, but more specifically to his impatience with a politics that was always for “someone else.” I have a book coming out within a few days called The Beneficiary (no colon, no subtitle) that is still making a version of this argument, and is still deeply indebted to Stanley.

There are a lot of anecdotes I’m tempted to include. Some of them about the tendency on Social Text toward an identitarian or “holier-than-thou” left, which Stanley resisted mightily—for him it was never about who you were, but what you did. Some of them are about the tendency to go more “academic” or “cultural studies” in the institutional sense, giving up on the activist impulse, like the almost absurdist debate we had over whether to keep the thin red line on the journal’s cover, a symbol that the contents offered something more than matters of intellectual interest. Some are about how Stanley, Randy Martin, and Andrew Ross made Social Text the go-to journal for issues around academic labor and student debt. One of the images I carry around is Stanley coming out in the rain, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, when I asked him to speak at a rally for Columbia grad students, who were already trying to unionize, and then shuffling off to the subway downtown in perfect good-humor after doing his usual perfectly-toned job as a speaker.

From False Promises on, Stanley has always been a storyteller, mixing analysis with autobiography, theoretical concepts with the political trajectories of Tom Hayden or C. Wright Mills or Jerry Rubin or someone else. As I’ve suggested, there’s a baseball-fan side to his fascination with the week-by-week, month-by-month details of SDS and SNCC and Studies on the Left and others of the New Left’s organizations and his compulsion to re-tell their story, but the point I want to emphasize in conclusion is a little different. It’s a theoretical point that struck me thinking about Stuart Hall and the fact that Hall took an extremely unfashionable position with regard to the concept of progress—progress in theory, and progress in general. Everyone who has ever spent any time with Stanley has remarked on his immense energy, his vitality, his optimism of the will, his optimism about life as such. It’s tempting to see the storytelling as a simple reflection of that personal vitality. I prefer to see it (and with it, to see Stanley’s absolute rejection of nostalgia and melancholy) as coming from his ability to anticipate a happier ending. There is nothing naïve about this anticipation; Stanley would be the last person to close his own eyes to the failures and disappointments he has narrated himself. But it’s the commitment to the possibility of progress that has kept him doing what real political intellectuals do– writing manifestoes and coming up with titles like “death and rebirth” or “from the ashes of the old.”

To be a bit sociological about this, I think the ability to narrate a story of progress depends on whether one has a sense of belonging – belonging to a social unit of some sort, in this case, a social movement. If you don’t feel you belong, you are much less likely to be able to narrate a story of collective progress; you are more likely to opt for melancholy and nostalgia. If you do feel part of an ongoing collective enterprise or project, if you are committed to that collective project, the form of your discourse is much more likely to factor in the fact that there is always next season.


A version of this essay was a delivered as a talk at an event honoring Stanlety Aronowitz at the CUNY Graduate Center on 13 April 2017.