Stanley Aronowitz Made Time for Anyone Who Wanted to Think Beyond Capitalism

Stanley Aronowitz, who died last month at age 88, brought people together for critical, imaginative thinking not limited to narrow topics or narrow approaches. You didn’t have to be credentialed or famous to get his attention — you just had to want a better world.

Stanley Aronowitz's life was about making alternative spaces for thinking. (Verso)

As a young leftist, I read everything I could find by Stanley Aronowitz. Then one day, I wrote to him. I was about to take a job as a union researcher, but I felt like I should go back to school. I wanted his advice.

He wrote right back and said to call him. We ended up talking for hours. We talked about the book on education he was working on at the time, Against Schooling. We talked about Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life. We talked about what it would take for the labor movement to have its own schools and media.

Stanley didn’t have to talk to me. I wasn’t his student. I had no position or title. My only credential was the desire to think about how another world was possible and how we would win it.

Aronowitz said he gave his first political speeches at fifteen, campaigning in 1948 for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party. I think what I was looking for in Stanley’s writing was something like what Stanley was looking for when he showed up as a teenager at the Jefferson School. A worker education school run by the Communist Party, the Jefferson School was where Stanley said he got his real education.

The school, located in the 1940s and early ’50s in a former warehouse at Sixth Avenue and 16th Street in Manhattan, taught not just party ideology but classes in history, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, music, dance, and theater. The Jefferson School gave young Stanley intellectual resources with which to question the limitations of both the dominant society and the Communist Party.

His first book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, came out in 1973 after he had worked as a steelworker and then as an organizer with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Stanley’s analysis in False Promises of the labor movement’s obstacles brought together labor history, psychoanalysis, studies of technology and media, and his own working and organizing experiences. He wrote of how “leisure becomes the refuge from dehumanization.”

The thought of transforming conditions of exploitation and domination can feel unthinkable, overwhelming, blocked. At least a temporary feeling of freedom might be found in leisure, as Jamie McCallum, a sociologist and former student of Stanely’s, recently wrote. But a retreat from public life to private leisure can leave conditions of exploitation and domination unchallenged and untransformed. Exploitation and domination intensify, and even the time and space for leisure end up threatened. Stanley took this analysis and turned it into a lifelong quest to make a new public culture, where the thought of social transformation becomes thinkable.

So much of Stanley’s life was about making alternative spaces for thinking. When he was a steelworker, he organized reading groups with other steelworkers during lunch breaks and after work. He later helped organize alternative institutions such as the Free University of New York, the Free Association, Left Forum, and the Institute for Radical Imagination.

In memory of Stanley Aronowitz, I dream of a Stanley School. The only admissions criteria would be a desire to think about how another world might be possible. The purpose of Stanley School would not be to train cadre in Stanley Aronowitz Thought, but to bring people together for critical, imaginative thinking not limited to narrow topics or narrow approaches. Stanley School would not be anti-academic, but it also would not be dependent on academic institutions.

Stanley insisted that if we are serious about undoing exploitation and domination, it is crucial to understand and transform science and technology. Like the kinds of thinking going on in the tech worker magazine Logic and the revived Science for the People, Stanley School would be a place to think about the relationships of science, technology, labor, and power. As Stanley did in over a dozen books, the Stanley School would make connections across spheres of knowledge and life too often assumed to be disconnected.

There is still a lot to learn from Stanley’s writing. And there’s even more to learn from his example of being willing to talk to anyone who has a desire to think about how another, better world might be possible.