Stanley Aronowitz, Labor Scholar and Activist, Dies at 88

As a self-described “working-class intellectual,” he declared that direct action was more potent than collective bargaining or conventional politics.,

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Stanley Aronowitz, a blue-collar organizer, university professor and prolific author who argued that electoral politics had failed American labor and that unions needed to adopt militant strategies to pursue a broad social agenda, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his daughter Kim O’Connell said.

Professor Aronowitz, a social theorist who taught at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, called himself a “working-class intellectual.” He maintained that direct action was a more potent weapon for workers than collective bargaining or conventional politics.

“We’ve been relying for so long on politicians to solve problems,” he told the magazine In These Times in 2014, “that the union membership no longer really relies on its own power.”

“Direct action, political education and cultural politics are the right ways to go,” he said in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, a cultural journal, in 2012.

As a disciple of the sociologist C. Wright Mills and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, Professor Aronowitz believed that labor had lost the class consciousness that once placed it at the forefront of broad movements for social change.

He argued that labor needed to broaden its agenda to include issues like education and affordable housing, and to flex its muscle through tangible tactics like one-day strikes and boycotts, rather than remain “supplicants of the Democratic Party.”

“Capitalism is not a rational system,” Professor Aronowitz said in an interview with The New York Times in 1995. “The only way it turns around is through mass struggle.”

Professor Aronowitz forecast the shrinking of the middle class and the wholesale replacement of both manual and intellectual labor by technology in the more than two dozen books he wrote, helped write or edited, including “False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness” (1973), “The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work” (1995), “How Class Works” (2003), “Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future” (2006), “Against Schooling: For an Education That Matters” (2008) and “Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals” (2012).

“He broke the paradigm of labor studies,” Michael Pelias, a professor at Brooklyn College and Long Island University and a former colleague, said by phone.

Professor Aronowitz helped write New Jersey’s unemployment compensation law in 1961 while working for the state’s Industrial Union Council; recruited workers and organized boycotts for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; and enlisted labor support for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups in the 1960s.

In 2002 he ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket, campaigning on a platform that combined “opposition to corporate power and plutocratic government with commitment to sustainability, racial equality, feminism, gay liberation and individual freedom.” He received 41,797 votes, just under 1 percent of the 4.6 million cast.

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Professor Aronowitz, center, at a 2002 debate, flanked by two of his fellow candidates for governor: the Democrat H. Carl McCall, left, and the Independence Party’s B. Thomas Golisano.Credit…Associated Press

Professor Aronowitz’s route to academia was unorthodox; he was a college dropout who had been laid off as a metal worker.

Stanley B. Aronowitz (the middle initial apparently did not stand for anything) was born on Jan. 6, 1933, in the Bronx to Nat Aronowitz, an engineer, and Frances (Helfand) Aronowitz, a bookkeeper.

After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, he enrolled in Brooklyn College, but he was suspended in the fall of 1950 for participating in a sit-in to protest the suspension of the campus newspaper, which had protested the dean’s refusal to sanction a left-wing student group. Rather than return to college, he transplanted himself to New Jersey, where he became a metal worker. He also worked for several unions and contributed to the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1962.

In 1965 he lectured at the Free University of New York, a sanctuary for academics fired for their leftist views. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the New School in 1968, when he was 35, and a doctorate from the experimental Union Graduate School (now the Union Institute and University) in 1975. Between degrees, he was associate director of Mobilization for Youth.

Professor Aronowitz taught at Staten Island Community College (now the College of Staten Island) from 1972 to 1976 and was an associate professor of social science and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, from 1977 to 1982. He retired from the City University of New York in 2017.

As a founding editor of the Duke University journal Social Text and a force behind the creation of the Center for Cultural Studies (now the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Professor Aronowitz lamented what he called the decline of the public intellectual.

Complaining that “almost nobody in the social sciences deals with the question of power,” he said: “What we do not have is an organized left. If you do not have an organized left, you do not have an organized political public intellectual.”

His marriage to Jane O’Connell ended in divorce in 1962. In addition to his daughter Kim O’Connell, he is survived by his son, Michael O’Connell, also from that marriage; his daughter Nona Willis-Aronowitz, an author, from his marriage to the writer and cultural critic Ellen Willis, who died in 2006; two other children, Hampton and Alice Finer; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“Before Occupy Wall Street, before Bernie Sanders, before the Squad,” Ms. Willis-Aronowitz said by email, “there was Stanley Aronowitz, singing me ‘Solidarity Forever’ as a lullaby, running for New York governor under the slogan ‘Tax and Spend,’ at a time when it seemed like everyone on the left was trying to out-moderate each other.”

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