Ellen Willis died on Thursday, November 9, 2006.
Parents may not always want to proudly claim their children and it is only right that children often rebel. But if I were to name my intellectual and political parents, they would be Stanley Aronowitz and Ellen Willis.
One simple, if simplistic, way of mapping divisions in the political world is to picture a two-by-two table with four cells representing different political tendancies: along one “economic” axis exists a spectrum that runs from “Capital” to “Labor.” A second “cultural” axis runs along a spectrum from “Communitarian” to “Libertarian.”
It is pretty easy to fill in the cells on the Right:
Capital/Libertarian: the radical, free market, anti-regulatory Right. Fill in with Cato Institute, etc.
Capital/Communitarian: the pro-business and culturally conservative Right. Think of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
The Left is more difficult.
Isn’t it tempting to put the entire Left into the Labor/Communitarian cell? After all, the “Left” has been, for the most part, defined by its Communitarian and/or Collectivist impulses. Leftists are, almost by definition, critics of Capital and its culture of decadence, perversity, and sin. No?
When I try to draw this map on the board in a classroom, students are often stumped by the final empty space, unable to name anyone who belongs in the Labor/Libertarian terrain.
Since the culturally conservative backlash of the 1980s, that space has been occupied and preserved almost single-handedly by Ellen Willis.
Nobody was better at exposing authoritarianism on the Left or tracing hidden utopianism on the Right.
At some point, though, you have got to read “Towards a Feminist Sexual Revolution” (originally published in Social Text, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall 1982, pp. 3-21.) It is an extraordinary manifesto for a gender politics that embraces sexual freedom and cultural radicalism.
The obituary published in the New York Times quotes Ellen saying that her “deepest impulses are optimistic.” The political and intellectual roots of that optimism is in Ellen’s axiomatic commitments to the socio-psychological insights of Wilhelm Reich. Ellen was the rightful heir to the legacy of Reich and his deeply anti-fascist political views on pleasure, culture and freedom.
In Ellen Willis, I have lost a mentor and a friend.
I fear that the Left has lost something more: its greatest champion of freedom and pleasure.