I gave a eulogy for my teacher and friend, the great Stanley Aronowitz, at the celebration of his life held in Prospect Park last week.
My name is Kristin Lawler. Like many people here today, Stanley Aronowitz was my teacher, and my friend.
I can’t help thinking that the funeral of a bigger than life working class radical should be an occasion to reinvigorate the political spirit that animated that life, to recommit to it. From death, a resurrection of the spirit.
Stanley would totally make fun of me for how hopelessly catholic that whole idea is, but it’s not only a catholic thing.
It’s also a well known battle cry on the left when the great ones die: You know, don’t mourn, organize.
Of course that’s what Joe Hill, legendary Wobbly songwriter and organizer, telegrammed to Big Big Haywood just before he was killed: Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.
But we do mourn. It’s a terrible shock when someone we love, someone important in our lives, passes, no matter how much we knew it was coming. But coming together over the death of a friend, a comrade, a teacher, is something else too. It is also an occasion to organize: to refresh the collective memory and collective hope that fuel working class struggle.
I think a truly great life, lived with passion and commitment to the cause, deserves that. And I think Stanley might smile on that idea, with that familiar devilish twinkle in his eye.
Jim Larkin, at Hill’s funeral, put it this way: “Therefore, comrades, over this great heart, now stilled in death, let us take up his burden, rededicate ourselves to the cause that knows no failure, for which he cheerfully gave his all.”
The cause, Larkin said, was working class emancipation, and Stanley indeed cheerfully gave his all to it. He spent his life creating spaces animated by it – democratic, open spaces of radical freedom, fueled by an eye for how power operates and a utopian imagination.
A radical imagination: what Stanley insisted is central to the struggle for a life beyond alienated labor, beyond professionalized, disciplinary bound “scholar-shit” (one of so many great phrases of his), beyond capitalism.
In a transitional time like the one we are living in. people must be able to imagine something radically different, radically utopian, radically free. And this imagination is not like some wispy reflection. It is material. You have to build spaces in which people experience it. Stanley didn’t just analyze the state of forces on the ground, think through what he always said was most important – “idears” – he built spaces that were materially prefigurative of what a new world, a free world, could look like. In this model, education and political struggle are one.
Stanley had been building this kind of space for decades by the time I met him, in the early nineties.
To this day I can’t believe my good fortune, to have found myself in one of those spaces. What incredible luck. I thought I was going to grad school to become a sociologist.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Walking into CUNY for the first time, looking for the classroom, I encountered a happy commotion, a group that was way livelier than what I’d experienced in academia up to that point. And at the moving center of it all, a man, bigger than life, laughing and talking with the students jockeying for his attention.
When class started the discussion expanded, Stanley sitting back and listening intently to what students had to say, asking questions, issuing provocations, reading from the text, cultivating clarity of thought.
The classes were more like gatherings, vibrant, overflowing with people from all over the grad center, not just in sociology, coming to think, to read, to write, to engage. Filmmakers and revolutionaries, novelists, philosophers, anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, autonomists, literary critics, lower east side squatters, transit workers, Zapatistas, kids just out of college and older union brothers and sisters who’d read Stanley’s books and come to study. People always hanging around afterwards, still talking, or following along with Stanley, over to his office or up to the bar to continue the conversation. There was this amazing bar in the cafeteria at the top of the old grad center, characterized by clouds of cigarette smoke and the din of conversation – in Spanish, in Greek, in Italian, in New Yowk City English. The bar, which we called “Laddy’s” after the distinguished Irish bartender, Laddy, served drinks all afternoon and evening and there too, Stanley would be in the center of conversations about working class power, jazz, Hollywood, rock and roll, Earth First, Act Up, Bertoldt Brecht, Ben Shahn, Scorsese, and the newest cop show on tv.
The scene was funny as hell too, and in academic spaces, that’s rare. We learned that friendship and laughter are not things that boring political struggle earns you – they are its very fire. They animate it, and without the joys and pleasures of being alive, of being human, politics is an empty form.
We learned a lot about the world from Stanley’s stories, too, which we devoured: of the encounter between the old left and the new, an encounter that shaped him, and so, has shaped all of us students. We learned about OCAW and civil rights and union halls and be-ins, and we learned from his critique of capital’s division of mental and manual labor never to reproduce the privileging of the former. It was all just work, and all of us needed less of it.
We modeled ourselves on someone who didn’t lie, who always called it as he saw it, who never bullshitted. And he didn’t take any crap, or suffer fools gladly, and it made everyone around him feel free.
He had a healthy disrespect for institutions, especially the educational ones that only served to reproduce capitalist social relations.
Institutionalization, he said, is the repository of scarcity.
He taught us to see the difference between the energy of the labor movement and the rituals and structures of the unions. To see that without real movement power institutions become irrelevant at best and at worst, will sell you down the river with false promises.
In some ways the moment I describe was unique. A time in which the engagement between poststructuralism and Marxism that characterized Stanley’s work at that time, was so much on the table. But it was also all of a piece, all the parts of Stanley’s long, well lived life, the Free School and Studies on the Left, Bayard Rustin and the Green Party campaign, Social Text and False Promises, the PSC and the Center for Cultural Studies, they all rhymed with each other.
Once when we were working together at the union, I organized a concert and rally that had NYC musicians set to music newly unearthed lyrics from the Woody Guthrie archive. I asked Stanley to speak and of course he brought the house down with his remembrance of the CP hootenannies he’d attended as a kid and his reflection on the singalong and the tradition of song and culture in the labor movement. And he sang, beautifully! He literally sung the importance of radical democratic cultural and political spaces where workers enjoyed life and felt the solidarity required for direct action, for building power.
Until he retired, Stanley’s office and his center continued to be such a space. I’d go visit him there and as ever, it would be filled with books and conversation and laughter and groups of people, arguing the world, planning the Left Forum, hanging out.
That was education, to him, and he kept it up until the very end, even after he retired and his health declined, still holding classes with the Institute for the Radical Imagination, the organization he and his students founded and that, along with its journal, Situations, will continue to carry on his work.
The fact that so many of those he taught over the years have their own intellectual progeny, have created their own spaces in which they continue this intellectual and political lineage, is also testament to the power of this kind of engaged and cheerful group “close reading” of the world. It’s generative.
I wish Stanley were here to weigh in on this moment, as cultural workers threaten a nationwide strike for shorter hours, as American workers overall are using the most direct of direct action to tell their bosses, en masse, I would prefer not to.
But that spicket has been turned off.
Losing someone dear means that the loss never goes away. It always remains. It sucks. I never could go all the way with “don’t mourn, organize,” because we do mourn the passing of those we love. But in gathering in this most central ritual commemoration, something else can happen too. When we all come together in the name of someone we love and on whom we have modeled ourselves in some way (and I think all of Stanley’s students can say this), the person and what they looked toward in the world is with us. Fills us, together, with their spirit.
May each of us, may all of us, who have been influenced and inspired by Stanley, rededicate ourselves today to the practices that he taught us. May we all be as brilliantly attuned to our world, and with such good humor. As capitalism careens violently toward its own limits, we’ll need what he taught us:
To build spaces of the radical imagination, on the page, and in the world.
To say what you mean, tell the truth, be who you are, proudly.
Be present, pay attention, the world is enthralling if you don’t tune out.
Think seriously but do it over dinner and martinis, over music, watching movies, with comrades, enjoy.
Laugh. Shit is funny. And never ever stop fighting the good fight.
Stanley, thank you, for all of it. You will be with us every time we are together and do a close reading of the world animated by great love for it, by intense hope for its revolutionary future. In the words of one of the many great Wobbly songs I learned from you, “we shall bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” Let’s honor our teacher and friend, our great comrade, by continuing this work, together. Solidarity forever.