Our lives are richer for having known him

January 1, 2016

Jen Roesch pays tribute to a friend and comrade who was taken from us too young.

THIS WEEK, we lost a brilliant and beautiful comrade. Aaron Hess died on December 27, months before his 40th birthday, and all too soon.

Aaron was a committed revolutionary socialist and member of the International Socialist Organization for his entire adult life. He joined the ISO during his first months as a student at Columbia University and never looked back.

Over more than 20 years of political activity, Aaron contributed to an enormous range of struggles. It didn't matter whether the struggle was a small one or a much larger one. Aaron always seized every possibility to be with people protesting against injustice.

When the right-wing racist Dinesh D'Souza came to Columbia in the mid-1990s, Aaron helped organize a protest of hundreds of students that dwarfed D'Souza's supporters. It was so successful that D'Souza was forced to retreat to a pigeon-infested turret in the park. Aaron was jubilant, but not content. I remember sitting in a comrade's apartment later that night to discuss how to build on the victory. Aaron, of course, was full of ideas about how to translate a symbolic success into real anti-racist reforms on campus.

Aaron Hess
Aaron Hess

This is one example of the many struggles Aaron was a part of during more than a decade of activism at Columbia. He organized student solidarity with campus workers during multiple contract disputes, participated in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, protested sanctions on Iraq in the mid-1990s, took part in the global justice movement, and was part of founding the Campus Antiwar Network when George W. Bush launched the "war on terror." He played an essential role in maintaining continuity between successive waves of struggles.

In 1998, when Matthew Shepard, a 20-year old gay man in Wyoming, was brutally murdered, the LGBT movement was in a lull--between the anti-AIDS activism of the 1980s and early '90s and the later movement for marriage equality. Aaron was part of pulling together a quickly organized protest that brought more than 5,000 people into the streets of midtown Manhattan. It's hard to imagine today's victories for marriage equality and the increasingly visible fight for trans liberation without a whole series of smaller struggles like these that came before.

More recently, Aaron was lucky enough to be in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011 when workers and students occupied the state Capitol building in protest of Gov. Scott Walker's attack on unions. Always one to throw himself in and try to move things forward, Aaron was part of a coalition to try to "kill the whole bill" and deepen the struggle.

There were many other struggles as well, often remembered only by the people involved in them--their stories and lessons are conveyed from one activist to another. Aaron was one of these people. He would talk to new activists for hours, always eager to share experiences of the past and lessons learned.

By talking about his life today, we can also help keep these stories alive. Aaron's whole political life is proof that individuals matter. Today's struggles are stronger because of him.

Aaron was also committed to the belief that theory and history are immensely important to the struggles of today. So it's not surprising that he found a natural home as an editor at Haymarket Books for some time. I think this was some of the work he was most excited about and naturally suited to. He himself was an avid reader and leaves behind an immense collection of books.

He joined Haymarket at a time when the staff was still small, and he brought the same enthusiasm and care to each book he worked on that he had for the people and struggles around him. He could work tirelessly toward immediate deadlines, but also look thoughtfully at the bigger picture to help shape the kind of press Haymarket has become.

BUT AARON'S contribution can't be measured solely by the wide number of struggles in which he participated, his activity in the ISO or his work at Haymarket Books. He was an incredibly special person who touched everyone who knew him. There are literally dozens of people who would consider him an intimate friend. Marx's declaration that "nothing human is alien to me" describes Aaron perfectly.

He wasn't one for small talk, preferring to move directly and intimately to matters of politics, philosophy, literature, music or art. He was a close listener who had an amazing ability to make people feel understood. His generosity was expansive, never confined to a small circle of people. He would speak to someone he had just met for hours, and with the same level of empathy and concern that he had for his closest friends. I think it is this quality that made him loved everywhere he went.

Aaron could sustain a political discussion or argument for hours, often late into the night, without it ever lapsing into tedium or hostility. Having read so avidly, he had a vast store of knowledge and insight he could bring to bear on any discussion, but he never wielded these like a bludgeon. Instead, he listened attentively, raised questions, shared information and made you see things through a new lens. Plus, he always knew the perfect way to make a joke to lighten the mood at the right moment. And he was also always willing to change his mind, and was frank and open when he decided he had been wrong.

I would be hard-pressed to guess the number of people he won to revolutionary socialism through hundreds of hours of such discussions. I know for a fact that he helped to re-inspire and renew the commitment of many of us over the years.

Though not a child of the working class, Aaron committed himself to its struggles with passion. He was won to revolutionary organization at one of the most elite institutions in the country, but one of his earliest experiences as an organized socialist was selling Socialist Worker at the UPS hub through a bitterly cold winter and then joining the picket lines and building solidarity when UPS Teamsters went on strike that summer.

Unlike some radicals who come from similar backgrounds, Aaron never felt the need to pretend he was anything other than who he was. Because of the opportunities afforded to him, as well as his particular talents, Aaron was deeply interested not only in politics, but music, art, poetry and literature. But he was neither embarrassed nor superior about his interests or knowledge. He was just eager to share them.

It didn't matter how much formal education or reading you had done; Aaron had a way of awakening you to new areas of discovery. His warmth and ability to explain things simply put you at ease, and his enthusiasm was infectious. All this made it easy for him to build relationships with a wide range of people who will feel his loss.

BECAUSE OF personal struggles, Aaron was not always able to remain as politically active as he would have liked in recent years. But he never let go of his commitment to the fight for a different world. Despite many obstacles and some tragic defeats in recent years, he was without cynicism and retained a deep and thorough confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to transform the world.

Last year, he posted an image of graffiti that read: "There is but one God. His name is death. We only say one thing to death: Not today motherfucker." I imagine him thinking about Egypt or Syria or Greece or Madison when he posted that. Politically, he never succumbed to the idea that defeats for our side were anything but temporary--even if painfully prolonged.

It is a terrible blow, though, that death was able to claim him so early in life. I know that he had so much more that he had not yet contributed to the world. Yet in a life that was too short, he gave so much.

For those who knew him, he left a memory and example of kindness, warmth and political commitment--and we are better people for having known him. For those who were not lucky enough to know him, he was part of creating a legacy of struggle and ideas that are part of the political fight we are left to wage. Our lives and struggle are so much richer for having had him.

Rachel Cohen contributed to this article.

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