It was always about that factory.
Factory as a place for reproduction.
For knowledge production.
For a means of production.
For class struggle.
For a union hall.
For reimagining the working day.
For reading a novel.
For getting away from it.
For false promises.
Maybe it was the place where we let it get away?
Borges had his labyrinth.
Stanley had his factory, ever descending into the dark depths, getting lost, coming out with books.
I loved going there with him.
He was the consummate tour guide.
I remember reading One Dimensional Man with Stanley, Eros and Civilization, Grundrisse... so many others, unpacking the messy contours of the dialectical method. You smiled when I told you I visited Gramsci's house in Sardenia. I tried to write one book like you wrote, connecting my life with Frankfurt School social theory. And the book was four years late.
I dropped by his house across from the Morgan Library to say hello and goodbye in January. When I arrived, you sat up in bed. You were reading Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann. His magnum opus, you said. And a goodbye. We talked about The Human Comedy, Labyrinths, and Absalon Absalom. From Balzac to Borges to Faulkner, he knew he was moving into a blurry space. And seemed ok with it all. He invited me back, but it wasn’t too be.
I knew him in three phases.
The first from afar, reading his Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism at grad school in Chicago in the mid 1990’s. And then auditing your classes at the graduate center, 16 years ago, sneaking out of my job in the Bronx at the syringe ex hanger to audit your classes, chatting about LeFebvre and the New Deal. He was not a fan. We chatted about Wilhelm Reich and Freud and on and on, the seminars with you were thrilling, reading your books for years, Crisis of Historical Materialism. False Promises helped bridge questions about work and play that would become a foundation for my dissertation and subsequent books.:
A former student of Stanley’s once said I had taken it all in, hook like and sinker.
It wasn't a compliment.
For me, it was a part of a conversation in motion.
In those early classes, he talked about going to protests in DC and jazz, enjoying the city. For a while there, he was everywhere, running for Governor, debating Marshall Berman, optimistic and occasionally curmudgeonly or forgetful. He held a class like none else, a conversation extending from the shop room floor as a public commons to Habermas to Marcuse to Newark, even if you didn't remember what we were supposed to be talking about.
The third was also after my father died in 2014, I brought my kids to your class at the Commons. He greeted the kids with a joke, chatting during the class, and a another joke when the kids announced they had had enough, it was time time go. Always a joke.
Having shifted from working in the Bronx to teaching, tenure, and full professorship at City Tech / CUNY, we were colleagues of sorts. There were points of disagreement. I thought there was more room for Alinsky like winnable wins. He advised we build revolutionary organizations. Direct action groups come and go, he reminded me. And was probably right. I was always the student. And there was a lot to learn in his Saturday classes, down the street from me. For the next five years I would take as many of these classes as I could, reading all Saturday morning, dropping by for a couple of hours, and then making my way to a demo. Most of the classes centered around the the theme of dialectical method. “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.
Introduction to Dialectics and Dialectical Thinking
With Stanley Aronowitz
An eight week course….
Dialectics has maintained a plethora of meanings, many of them in conflict with each other. Kant used the term sparingly and it was Hegel who made dialectics the moving force of all things. Marx, although following in the steps of Hegel, did not comment directly on what dialectics essentially is. It was through Engels, using Hegel that dialectics was to be applied to both nature and society. Lukacs, in the 1920’s, disagreed and considered dialectics to refer exclusively to social relations whereas nature had laws of its own, In the same decade and for the next forty years, the Frankfurt School philosophers were divided on this issue. However Adorno, who avoided a direct confrontation with Marcuse on this issue, thought dialectics applied to both nature and society. Through a close reading of seminal texts on dialectics and dialectical thinking, this course will explore the variegated meaning of dialectics and their relevance for our contemporary situation.
Readings will include:
Lukacs, Gyorgy. “What is Orthodox Marxism?”
Lefebvre, Henri. Dialectical Materialism
Marcuse, Hebert. “A Note on Dialectics” in Reason and Revolution
Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to Dialectics.
On and on he went, calling the streets of Brooklyn shopping malls, lamenting the moronization of American political discourse.
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 archades. Adorno dragged his feet in recommending Benjamin for a position at the Warburg Institute in London. Benjamin and Adorno continued to correspond. But as the world grew dark, Benjamin fled Paris but it was too late, eventually killing himself in Spain in September of 1940.
A small poetry review essay gets at the feeling of being in one of those classes with Stanley talking about his interest in reading as a child in the Bronx:
At one of Stanley Aronowitz’s sessions on the Frankfurt School theorists last fall, I mentioned Against Vocation and some of my thoughts on the work. Read The Dialectical Biologist, replied Aronowitz, a text (Harvard UP, 1985) 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.
“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.
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 19th century 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.
“All happiness depends on courage and work,” concedes Balzac. It is never simple or even possible to separate our labors from our creativity or the influences that form us. They are all part of the totality. Few of us completely conceptualize the whole. Instead we look at fragments. Marx loved Shakespeare stealing some of his best lines for his work. And Shakespeare, in hand, borrowed from Ovid. And on and so on.
Saturday morning after Saturday morning, I spent reading, getting ready for Marxism after Marx with Stanley Aronowitz.
Back to the source, yet again:
finding the revolutionary truth……[we] focus on three of the most original contemporary versions of Marxism which have taken into account current conditions. …the Frankfurt School, Henri Lefebvre, and Antonio Negri. …with new concepts and categories …”
We share our stories.
One narrative after another.
“I grew up in the East Bronx,” Stanley begins.
“And played violin. My mother was a musician and dragged me to the opera.”
Saturday after Saturday, chatting Adorno with Stanley.
I found page after page of blog, phd, and book notes from those classes.
On the way to class, the police pulled us for skipping a turn style. The sun shines.
I tell Stanley about going to Gramsci’s house. We walk from 37th street, looking at the sky, the buildings, taking in delirious New York. Past the Graduate Center and Madison Square Park, billowy clouds above, a rally at Union Square, we stroll through the gorgeous Saturday…
Stanley had asked us to review some writings on the Frankfurt School.
Past homeless people and fashion models, skyscrapers and cabs, we walked Gotham.
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.
For hours, we talk it through, remembering Benjamin and the Frankfurt school members who dealt with a rise of fascism in their day.
Stanley Aronowitz walked me through a vast history of ideas as we sat at the Brooklyn Commons trying to make sense of it all.
Another Saturday, we read the Communist Manifesto on Saturday with Stanley.
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies….
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master(3) and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes….”
The words read like poetry,
The struggles have only continued.
“How do you create a different world,
How do you bring the proletariat into history,” wondered Stanley,
As we sat chatting at the People’s Forum.
“What does it take to make history,
Not just a living wage?”
Riffing on debates over organizational efforts and reproduction,
Coalition politics vs revolutionary strategies, debates that go on and on and on.
He made fun of me for being a social worker and going to protests.
But didn’t mind if I shot out that he needed to get out more.
“There is hardly any dialogue today,” he lamented,
worrying about a dwindling public sphere for ideas.
Lets read some women, I suggested as we wrapped up our conversation.
I thought of him visiting Casa Grasci in Sardinia a few years ago.
The museum displays portraits, as well as copies of the author’s copy of the Divine Comedy. He wrote, he organized, and he believed in our capacity to think, to believe in our own intelligence. One of the great joys of my life was reading the Prison Notebooks, Il Quaderno, with Stanley Aronowitz, who wrote extensively about Gramsci in books and essays including: “Gramsci’s Theory of Education: Schooling and Beyond”….
Stanley loved reading Il Quaderno with everyone.
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?
Sometimes we met at his old apartment by the graduate center. We talked about György Lukács and Western Marxism, Honoré de Balzac, who Stanley said considers the totality perhaps more than any writer, and the importance of culture and the novel. Life and age are getting away from him, but he's 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."
Finishing the talk with Stanley, Phil and Tibby and I walked out into the New York streets, telling stories and enjoying the afternoon.
I took his classes all the way until the pandemic.
But time getting away from him.
He was often forgetful.
And then one more meeting last January, chatting about it all, one more time. 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.
“What do you think of our new union leadership,” he said, greeting me, with a smile, gossiping about trade union politics and books, talking about Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, his master work, Benjamin and Faulkner and Absalom Absalom!.
I asked Stanley about the fights.
“If you are interested in a fight, think about Stalin and Trotsky.
That was a fight.”
“That’s not exactly a resolution I’m looking for, one man stabbed…” I paused.
“Well, you said fights,” he replied, pausing. “How about Vladimir Lenin fighting with George Valentinovich Plekhanov, Russian Democratic Party.”
We kept chatting away, talking about books and Honoré de Balzac and John Paul Sartre.
“He wrote a wonderful essay about New York City.”
“Thanks for reading with me through the years.”
“Try Hannah Arendt’s edited Benjamin.”
“We read it together,” I replied.
“It reminds me of the city, ever evolving, mechanical reproduction”
Like Allen’s poem, our lives ever changing.
A few more minutes and Stanley started fading.
And we said goodbye.
He gave me a way to look at the world and history and social theory.
I do not always agree with the confrontational approach.
But the engagement, 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, that I miss more than ever.
A few of us chatted after we got the news last night.
Heather Gautney I know... with him in or not in....what a mensch... I met you through him....he adored you... talked a out you all the time…
Heather Gautney agreed. He created so much for us.
Hard to write through tears. He brought so many of us together. I owe him so so much. Can’t even explain…
Michael Pelias wrote:
“The loss of Stanley for us is immeasurable- he was the great bridge, a wide span one at that, connecting the New Left and the Old Left. Truly, the organic intellectual of his time. I will be in touch about memorials and classes- his corpus needs studying and to be kept alive.”
On the dialectic of work and play, Stanley was there like no one other....
Benjamin Heim Shepard it was from Stanley that I learned about Marx, Luckas, the Frankfurt School, and many many other important figures that shaped my own ideas and possibilities. I am forever grateful.
I don't have the words to adequately signify the impact that Stanley Aronowitz has had on my intellectual development. One paragraph of close reading with him was worth an entire curriculum (and much more). To this day I practice close reading with students in all my courses. Stanley was the consummate political intellectual. Unperturbed by the arbitrary mandates of orthodoxy, the domination logic that seeks to reduce subjectivity to a mere "thing", he eloquently combated the false dichotomies of self and other, thought and action, everyday life and revolutionary struggle, with righteous fervor. Stanley's appreciation of art was infectious (as he was wont to say, "I wrote a book on that!"). He often recited lines from his favorite poems. Here's to you Stanley. See you on the other side of the widening gyre. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Stanley Aronowitz, 1933 - 2021. RIP
RIP Stanley. Thank you. Godspeed.