People who write about intellectuals in the United States have tended to express a certain melancholy admiration for the so-called “New York Intellectuals.” The New York Intellectuals were political, there was never any doubt of that; in the 1930s in particular, when they flourished, they were even extremely political. There has been a good deal of questioning of the political commitments of those who have come after them, and of course also about the NY intellectuals themselves in the later stages of their careers. But there was no doubt that they were intellectuals—which is to say intellectuals rather than mere academics, primarily engaged in the public sphere rather than in universities and academic disciplines. The major mode in which the New York Intellectuals have been discussed has therefore been nostalgia: they are the crucial examples of the so-called “last intellectuals” whose extinction by the university, suburbia, and so on Russell Jacoby popularized in his book of that name.
One of the keenest pleasures in being asked to speak about Stanley Aronowitz on a panel devoted to the political intellectual is that he can speak about the New York intellectuals without any nostalgia whatsoever. I’m sure that there is more than one reason for this, but among the reasons I can think of is: 1) the fact that he himself can be as confident of his own status as a political intellectual as anyone on earth, and not just because he ran for governor on the Green Party ticket; 2) the fact that in the 1960s he found himself or rather put himself in the midst of other political intellectuals like him, a solid cohort of the New Left that, for all their peccadilloes and disagreements, have extraordinary achievements to their credit; and 3) the fact that the New York intellectuals, when push came to shove, refused to see the value of what the New Left generation was up to, hence is somewhat less deserving of our fondly idealizing memory, with some exceptions, than their supporters might think.
Lately I have been re-reading Stanley’s extraordinary essay “When the New Left Was New.” I found it in the collection The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism (1996), but in going back to it I remembered that it first came out in The Sixties Without Apology (1984), edited by Stanley, Sohnya Sayres, Anders Stephanson, and Fredric Jameson. It was just about to see the light, as I remember, when I came to my first meeting of the Social Text collective. The essay is a very keen and wide-ranging analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the intellectuals of the New Left, but it spends a fair amount of time in the narrative mode, and it encouraged a weakness I have myself for storytelling, so I hope you will forgive me if I spend a little time in that mode too.
I moved back to the US, after 8 years in Switzerland, in 1984. The first conference I went to in the fall of 1984 was the founding conference of the journal Cultural Critique. At that conference I didn’t meet Stanley, but I did meet Cornel West, and Cornel invited me to come to Social Text meetings back in NY. Which I did. For the next 15 years, I went to a lot of Social Text meetings. My wife, who had some experience of European-style party politics, often took an amused expression on those weekend afternoons when I went off to a Social Text meeting, referring to the journal as my “party.” It was a joke, but of course it had a point. Social Text was an uneasy substitute for a more direct form of political engagement—but it was not just a substitute, it was also a way into certain political engagements, a way of meeting people I shared commitments with and furthering those commitments. And at the very center of all that was Stanley.
As everyone probably knows, Stanley was one of the three founders of Social Text in the late 1970s. Those who are interested in the story can find it in issue #100, and probably elsewhere as well. (The other founders were John Brenkman and Fredric Jameson. You could say a lot about the trajectory of American cultural life since 1980 by following the individual trajectories of those three founders: what they’ve written about, or not written about; what political positions they have or haven’t taken, and so on. But by 1984 they were no longer coming to meetings.) The original impulse on the part of all three, it seems to me, looking from the outside, was to establish for the American left a serious journal of cultural politics. Political journals existed that were not especially cultural; cultural journals existed that were not especially political. This was to be a journal of both culture and politics.
Cultural politics, it seems to me, was a way of continuing the New Left project under unpropitious circumstances. This is not the way it looked to everybody, and it’s not the way people have necessarily seen it since. The tendency has been to forget about the unpropitious circumstances. As you know, there has been a considerable amount of criticism directed at cultural politics as identity politics, which is to say the wrong politics, or at cultural politics as simply rejecting politics in the real sense. In the latter category I put a polemic by Sean McCann and Michael Szalay entitled “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left.” In the former category I put Walter Benn Michaels’s book The Trouble with Diversity, which argues (in a sort of parody of conspiracy theory) that the whole point of cultural politics was to be able to ignore economic inequality. The title “The Sixties Without Apology” seemed appropriate to the book the collective had just finished editing because there were a lot of requests that the 60s be apologized for. You can perhaps think of other examples. This note has been repeated many times, of course, and not without reason, since the Democratic Party under the leadership of the Clintonites and their faith in the demographics of race and gender delivered us unto the abominations of the present adminstration. Cue Nancy Fraser.
As someone who came to the New Left by way of the labor movement, as someone who always knew the minutest details of the labor movement the way a baseball fan knows their team’s rising and falling batting averages; as what might be called an organic intellectual of the labor movement (not that he ever claimed such a thing about himself), Stanley was and is well-placed to refute these charges—to show that recent efforts by people like Bernie Sanders and the Reverend William Barber to build a poor people’s movement were in fact part of the New Left project from the beginning. If the movement’s address to economic inequality failed, as the tells the story, it was not for lack of trying. As he tells the story, he himself was pushed out of the labor movement in 1966 as part of the leadership’s desire to purge the movement’s radical wing. There is no entry for labor movement, labor union, trade union, or AFL-CIO in the index of Michaels’ book The Trouble with Diversity. Or, for that matter, in the index of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. If you want to tell the story of what happened to the 60s or the political intellectuals, you can’t really afford to leave that stuff out.
The term “political intellectual” can sound as redundant as the term “public intellectual.” I mean, what is a private intellectual? If an intellectual is not public, is she or he really an intellectual at all? Isn’t privacy in this sense what we have in mind when we make a distinction between intellectuals and academics? Academics can be private in the sense that what they write aims at their fields and doesn’t aim to go beyond their fields. Intellectuals may or may not be academics, but what distinguishes them, at least in the tradition of Zola and Sartre, is getting involved in things that are none of their business, or at least that others will be quick to say are none of their business.
This at least is the traditional view of the intellectual. It was disputed in the 80s and after by Michel Foucault’s concept of the “specific” intellectual, set against the so-called “universal” intellectual, where “specific” didn’t demand or encourage any politicizing beyond the issues specific to the workplace and the area of competence. At the same time, as everyone knows, Gramsci’s opposition between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals also recognized an area of accomplishment that might win you the honorific without making you a celebrity: work for an emergent social class or grouping that happened out of the public eye, but was functional to its coming to self-consciousness and self-organization, its ability to throw its weight around. The paradigmatic case of the “organic” intellectual would be the labor or community organizer. That is of course what Stanley started out in political life as.
One question that might be asked, on a panel devoted to Stanley as political intellectual, is how to tell the story of Stanley becoming famous—famous as a writer and thinker, that is. I have sometimes thought of Stanley in relation to Norman Mailer, maybe because both are celebrities, or because Stanley ran for governor just as Mailer ran for mayor, and both of them have always had larger-than-life personalities as well as larger-then-life accomplishments. But Armies of the Night is a whole book about what might be thought of as the quintessential gesture of the political intellectual, or the intellectual as such– namely, being drawn into involvement in a political moment or issue or movement that he doesn’t want to get involved in, a movement that on some level he feels is not really his business. Characteristically, this has never been Stanley’s mode as a writer—he is always already engaged, politically speaking. Which may mean that after all he’s more of a political intellectual than Mailer is, or a better example. Mailer would be more the paradigm of the writer, like Mary McCarthy describing anti-Vietnam demonstrations in London in 1968, demonstrations that are not really her thing.
Part II continues on Saturday, 25 November.
A version of this essay was a delivered as a talk at an event honoring Stanlety Aronowitz at the CUNY Graduate Center on April 13, 2017.