Rest in Power: Stanley Aronowitz (1933–2021)

Longtime left activist and thinker Stanley Aronowitz died this week at the age of 88. Friend of the ISE Jamie McCallum has written an obituary for Stanley in Jacobin  that gives an excellent overview of his life and work.

Murray Bookchin and Stanley knew each other personally and shared a surprising number of thematic as well as biographical points of resonance. Both were secular Jews with roots in New York City’s vibrant socialist left. They both became deeply disillusioned with the labor movement where they worked as organizers, and in Stanely’s case, serving as the primary union point person for the historic March on Washington organized by M.L.K. and Bayard Rustin. Both gravitated towards Frankfurt School Critical Theory, which sought to make sense of a post-war world where labor semmed to have lost its radical energy. Both explored the new radical possibilities presented by the New Social Movements that came to define the 1960s New Left and beyond, in particular the ecology movement. Aronowitz shared with Bookchin a vision of a post-scarcity/post-work society. As McCallum notes in his obituary, “The point, Stanley thought, was not simply to abolish work, but to redefine the realm of necessity so that it included all the good things of life — like lots and lots of free time.” Both were intellectuals who disdained the constraints of academia and narrowly defined disciplines. Aronowitz eventually became a sociology professor at the City University of New York, but like Bookchin, his ideas were always directed towards the goal of radical social change.

They had a mutual respect for each other’s work and directly engaged with the other’s ideas on many occasions. Stanley wrote an extended review of Bookchin’s The Ecology of Freedom for the Village Voice literary supplement in 1982. He later was blurbed on the back cover of The Modern Crisis, stating, “Murray Bookchin stands at the pinnacle of the genre of utopian social criticism.” When Bookchin died in 2006, Stanley was quoted in in an obituary from Vermont Public Radio: “It is hard for somebody who is a dreamer, who is a utopian… I think he’s had tremendous influence. Much of it has been unacknowledged.”

Murray also engaged with Stanley’s writings, such as this rosy review of “Remaking the American Left” which called it an “admirable and important work (…) that deserves widespread discussion.” After reviewinng their shared assessment of the radical potential of new movements and traditions, he closed by by stating “Stanley Aronowitz is to be complimented for opening the arena for such a discourse among serious socialists.” Yet the two thinkers had their differences as well. Aronowitz remained closer to the Marxist tradition than Bookchin, who expressed skepticism of Aronowitz’s attempts to forge a “neo-marxist” theory in the 1978 Telos article “Beyond Neo-Marxism.” Writing on the limits of class politics, Bookchin wrote:

These arguments already appeared in my “Listen, Marxist” of April, 1969. They have since been appropriated by neo-Marxists like Stanley Aronowitz in False Promises to add a legitimation precisely to a “proletarian consciousness” and interest they were meant to challenge. I adduce this type of distortion primarily to guard the reader against “neo-Marxist” tendencies that attach basically alien ideas to the withering conceptual framework of Marxism—not to say something new but to preserve something old with ideological formaldehyde—to the detriment of any intellectual growth that the distinctions are designed to foster. If Marx’s work can be rescued for our time, it will be by dealing with it as an invaluable part of the development of ideas, not as pastiche that is legitimated as a “method” or continually “updated” by concepts that come from an alien zone.

 

Yet in his later years, Bookchin would have his own partial rapproachement with Marxism and nostalgia for “The Left that Was.” Both remained lifelong revolutionaries who understood their project as sharpening and advancing the political struggles of their times. Aronowitz’s work was voluminous and wide-ranging, leaving generations of radicals to come a rich legacy well worth  engaging with. 

Rest in Power Stanley Aronowitz.

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