Stanley Aronowitz and That Big Factory

It was always about that factory.

Factory as a place for reproduction.

For knowledge production. 

For a means of production.

For autonomy.

For class struggle.

For observation.

For a union hall.

For breaks.

For  reimagining the working day.

For reading a novel.

For organizing.

For getting away from it.

For false promises.

Maybe it was the place where we let it get away? 

Marx had his library. 

Borges had his labyrinth.

Stanley had his factory, ever descending into the dark depths, getting lost, coming out with books.

On August 16, 2021, Stanley Aronowitz finished his final shift and went home. A prominent labor historian, educator at CUNY, and mentor to dozens of graduate students, he guided generations of heterodox fans of his lectures through close readings on unorthodox Marxism, the culture industry, the Frankfurt School and historical materialism. 

He was also a magnificent contributor to Logos, each essay pointing us toward a vast histories of ideas: “Perhaps you know Foucault’s remark that despite the torrent of criticism directed against his philosophical system, ‘Hegel prowls through the twentieth century,’” he asks us in a review essay from 2003 on C Wright Mills.

That was when I first met Stanley. Having just finished his How Class Works, he was at the top of his game. David Horowitz listed him as one of the 100 most dangerous intellectuals in America. And, of course, this charge was merited.  

Countless review essays in Logos address his work, a new book every year or two, for decades, some 25 in total, on labor history, sociology, work, education, and technology, many emerging from conversations with students, his travels, and readings. In 2013, Kim Scipes published a review of his biography of C Wright Mills, writing about Mills and by extension Aronowitz:

“Aronowitz, a public intellectual to his own credit, has taken the latest look at Mills, and implies that the world of macrosociology has never recovered from the loss of this shit-disturber from Texas.  He makes a very strong argument. Mills was an iconoclast, which means heretic or challenger of tradition.  According to Aronowitz, by trying to get to the root of American life (writing from the 1940s to the end of his life in 1962), Mills was challenging the whole of American macrosociology, its understandings, and its role in the burgeoning US Empire, the latter which was expanding ever-outward in the early post-World War II era.  Yet his concern was not limited to sociology; he really was trying to understand the Empire itself…”

So was Stanley, excavating Mills’ time and his own. Legions of his students knew him, always reading more, willing to join, to follow an idea wherever it took them. He had no respect for pretense, thought the functionalists were boring, and hoped we could all become master organizers and historical materialists.   

Dozens of us participated in the memorials and conferences when Stanley passes last fall.

For a minute before my zoom session, I found myself in between sessions with his student Cornel West, chatting about Stanley and his work, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought

References to his classroom, and its gumbo like mix of ideas, can be found throughout my books and essays. I describe the feeling in one of his classes in a recent review in Logos:

At one of Stanley Aronowitz’s sessions on the Frankfurt School theorists, I mentioned Against Vocation and some of my thoughts on the work. Read The Dialectical Biologist, replied Aronowitz, a text by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins.  In it, Lewontin and Richard Levins argue “that a dialectical method was necessary to deal with complexity and change in the social and natural world. Medicine.. divorces itself from the social, and deals in simple linear, causal relationships between biological parts: A causes B and is cured by C. But health and illness are always in dialectical relationship with environment, society, culture and history.” So are writing and work. We all are all a part of this dynamic, laboring in a social environment that informs our contradictions and struggles. No one can escape this. Whitman contradicts himself.  This is part of what makes his writings on work, and democracy so compelling. Dialectical reason helps us come to grips with this movement back and forth, in constant flux.

“What’s Whitman’s contradiction? asks Stanley, referring to a queer sensibility he did not see when he read those Leaves of Grass when he was 14.

“Maybe I didn’t read it closely?” Aronowitz confesses, without looking at the essence, appearance, or “the living contradiction between” what Marcuse sees as “ the movement of things from that which they are not to that which they are.”  Ideas collide with shapes in time, poetry pointing us outside, to something more bountiful.

“If you want to be a secure person, do not take a secure job,” Aronowitz continues. It is hard not to see these dialectical workings in Whitman’s poetry, regardless of whether he worked as a real estate developer or handy man or journalist, commenting on issues of his day as his thinking evolved. On and on Aronowitz goes, taking us on a detour away from Marcuse, through a discussion of Whitman, the limits of our thinking, back to the 19th century. Marx’s reach extends in countless directions, Aronowitz mumbles, his ideas landing with 19thcentury French writer Honoré de Balzac. He is said to have wanted to study La Comédie Humaine after completing Capital. Afterall posits Balzac: “Reading brings us unknown friends.” Marx had few but Engels. Marx’s exploration of Balzac’s writings on the everyday life of laborers and revolutionaries alike would not come to be. But imagine if it had?  Walter Benjamin’s readings of Baudelaire might have found warmer reception.

On the dialectic of work and play, Stanley was there like few others, an organic intellectual who was as comfortable in a factory as talking about one, a bridge between old left and new, class consciousness and postmodernism. Dialogue with him was like a conversation in motion. An autodidact with an encyclopedic memory and a stand-up comedian’s timing, he commanded our attention, ever lighting things up, with stories about riots in Newark, strikes, protests in DC and jazz sets in the West Village.  For a while there, he was everywhere, running for Governor, debating fellow Bronx native, Marshall Berman, bountiful and occasionally curmudgeonly or forgetful, in a conversation extending from the shop room floor public commons to Habermas to Marcuse to Newark, even if you didn’t remember what we were supposed to be talking about.

 “I am not a Marxist, I am a historical materialist,” he reminded us. By this time, he was well into his ‘80’s still writing books, often about the same thing, the knowledge factory, the crumbling business labor accord, but slowing down.  Still he was ready to teach.  On and on he went, calling the streets of Brooklyn shopping malls, lamenting the moronization of American political discourse.

Dialectics is about the movement of history, he explained. The movement of history is the guiding thread to enable us to grasp human beings and their social activities. Stanley lead us through a rousing reading of Adorno’s 1958 Introduction to Dialectics. We concentrated on lecture nine, in which Adorno recalled a memory of Walter Benjamin. “I am going to say something scientific now,” noted Stanley. “He generally thought of Benjamin as the cat’s piss. He was generally admiring. But his admiration did not extend to his anarchism.” Without a university home, Benjamin freelanced for much of his adult life, hanging out with Brecht, researching the arcades. Adorno dragged his feet in recommending Benjamin for a position at the Warburg Institute in London. Benjamin and Adorno continued to correspond.  As the world grew dark, Benjamin fled Paris but it was too late, eventually killing himself in Spain in September of 1940.  

Saturday morning after Saturday, we shared ideas, debating a Marxism after Marx with Stanley Aronowitz.  One narrative after another:  “I grew up in the East Bronx,” Stanley began, on a typical Saturday. “And played violin.  My mother was a musician and dragged me to the opera,” he began, ever connecting his life narrative with a point about the writings in question, often on the Frankfurt School. Adorno reminds us that progress is anything but guaranteed.  “The concept of progress is dialectical in a strictly non metaphorical sense.” The dialectic is certainly not at a standstill.  We talk it through, remembering Benjamin and the Frankfurt school members who dealt with  a rise of fascism in their day.  They wanted socialism.  What they got was National Socialism. 

“What  does it  take  to make history,” he wondered. “Not just a living wage?”

Stanley loved reading Il QuadernoThe Prison Notebooks drafted by Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, when he was jailed by the fascist regime in his home country.  It was as if he thought something magic might happen if we read it close enough. Maybe this time, we might get it right, connecting theory and practice. And maybe it did? Or maybe it didn’t? 

We talked about György Lukács and Honoré de Balzac.  He considered the totality perhaps more than any writer, said Stanley, highlighting the importance of culture and the novel. Life and age were getting away from him, but he was still sharing.

Stanley recalled a moment when he was teaching at UC Riverside. “I was at the movies and the lights went on.  And there was Herbert Marcuse.  He was in the front and I was in the back. ‘Stanley, what did you think of the movie?’ he asked. ‘Pretty good,’ Stanley replied. ‘Your aesthetics are crap’ Marcuse replied.  He wasn’t very interested in the movies.”

By the pandemic, time was getting away from Stanley.  He was often forgetful, still we had one more last meeting.  I dropped by his house across from the Morgan Library to say hello and goodbye in January of 2021, a few months before he passed that summer at the age of 88. I hadn’t seen him for over a year and wasn’t sure how he was going to be after a series of strokes and falls. When I arrived, he sat up in bed.  

“What do you think of our new union leadership,” he asked, greeting me with a smile, gossiping about trade union politics and books. He’d been reading Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann. His magnum opus, he said, edited by Adorno, with liner notes by Arnold Schoenberg. We talked about The Human Comedy, Labyrinths, and Absalon Absalom. From Borges to Faulkner, he knew he was moving into a blurry space. And seemed ok with it all.  We kept chatting away, talking about books and Honoré de Balzac and John Paul Sartre.

“He wrote a wonderful essay about New York City.”

“What do you think I should be reading?” I followed.  Stanley had never lead me astray.

“Try Adorno’s 1951 Minima Moralia.”

“Thanks for reading with me through the years.”

“Try Hannah Arendt’s edited Benjamin.”      

“It reminds me of the city, ever evolving, mechanical reproduction.”  

A few more minutes and Stanley started fading.  And we said goodbye. He invited me to come back any time, but it wasn’t too be. He gave me a way to look at the world and history and social theory, through critical engagement mixed with the joy of reading on a Saturday, of getting up early, even after Halloween for a class, unpacking a complicated paragraph in Grundrisse or Il Quaderno, connecting the dots in a history of ideas, between our union and the Frankfurt school, classroom and the global factory.  I loved going there with him.  

Benjamin Heim Shepard is Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology, CUNY. His most recent book is Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

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