The Pragmatic Utopian: Erik Olin Wright, 1947-2019

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright spent his career trying to imagine practical alternatives to capitalism. Although his work was broadly categorized as Marxist or socialist – terms he readily admitted were toxic in many quarters – his approach to class was rarely doctrinaire or dirigiste, even as it was unapologetically utopian, albeit in a pragmatic way.

“A great deal of scholarship focuses on explaining the sources of social injustice and the causes and consequences of undesirable social conditions,” he wrote in 2011 as president of the American Sociological Association, “much less explores the design of alternatives to existing institutions that would help realize moral ideals of justice and human flourishing. The idea of ‘real utopias’ is meant to point sociology in this direction.”

Wright, whose four-decade professional life was spent as a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, despite repeated job offers from higher-profile schools, died January 22 of leukemia. He was 71.

Before Wright unleashed his inner utopian, he was a Marxist scholar.

As Adam Szetela, one of Wright’s PhD students at Madison, wrote for Dissent  magazine, “From the ‘Utopia and Revolution’ seminar he initiated and led as a graduate student at the University of California–Berkeley to the book he finished in the intensive care unit of Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, Wright developed one of the most sustained understandings of class and capitalism since Karl Marx. Like his forebear, Wright believed in the moral impetus to struggle against capitalism and to envision alternatives.”

Another Wright doctoral student, Vivek Chibber at New York University, wrote that Wright “will be remembered as the most important theorist of class in the second half of the twentieth century, and the greatest Marxist sociologist of his time.”

Wright was born February 9, 1947, in Berkeley, California, although he grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where both his parents were psychology professors at the University of Kansas. His colleague Michael Burawoy would later suggest the roots of Wright’s interest in sociology might have arisen “at the childhood dinner table where each member of the Wright family had to give an account of their day’s activities.” In 1964 Wright entered Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s in social studies in 1968. He earned another bachelor’s in the next two years studying history at Balliol College, Oxford University, before returning to a United States neck deep in the Vietnam War.

Wright was eligible for the draft. But he attended the Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian-Universalist seminary in Berkeley, and as he explained in the preface of his book Envisioning Real Utopias, “Students studying in seminaries were given a draft deferment and so seminary enrollments rose dramatically in the late 1960s.”

While his decision to enroll was influenced by his desire to stay out of uniform, Wright’s year at the seminary was fruitful. His experience serving as a student chaplain at San Quentin State Prison led him to write – alongside some prisoners and prison-rights activists — his first book, The Politics of Punishment. He also organized a student-run seminar called “Utopia and Revolution,” which planted the seeds for his future endeavor and saw him make explicit his own pragmatism.  

He suggested to his seminar peers:

It would be undesirable, I think, for the task of constructing an image of utopia, as we are doing, to be seen as an attempt to find definitive institutional answers to various problems. We can perhaps determine what kinds of social institutions negate our goals and which kind of institutions seem to at least move towards those goals, but it would be impossible to come up with detailed plans of actual institutions which would fully embody all of our ideas. Our real task is to try and think of institutions which themselves are capable of dynamic change, of responding to the needs of the people and evolving accordingly, rather than of institutions  which are so perfect that they need no further change.

“In due course,” he wrote, “the system of conscripting young men into the army change to a draft lottery and I got a good number, so in 1971 I was able to begin my graduate studies in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.” He received his Ph.D. in 1976 and accepted a post in Wisconsin.

Wright’s doctoral thesis was on class structure and income inequality, and for many years that accurately forecast his focus on ways of reconstituting socialism. “Wright never abandoned his commitment to socialism,” Szetela wrote, “even when the Cold War made his political stances unpopular in the academy and the general public.” Wright did deviate from some of the popular understandings of Marxism, for example by not considering the Soviet Union a socialist state, accepting that there were many degrees of class and therefore there was such a thing as the middle class, or that markets weren’t automatically shorthand for abuse.

His published output over the next 35 years reflects this interest, including 1994’s Interrogating Inequality, Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis, his 2001 contribution with Burawoy on “Sociological Marxism” to the Handbook of Sociological Theory, and 2005’s Approaches to class analysis. All those created the platform on which he built his definitive work, 2010’s Envisioning Real Utopias.

The book included his pragmatic cri de coeur:  “Incremental tinkering may not be inspiring, but it is the best we can do.” That statement, which echoes his suggests at the seminary seminar so many years before, set up his definition of “real utopias” as “real-world alternatives that can be constructed in the world as it is that also prefigure the world as it could be, and which help move us in that direction.” As a result, he saw Wikipedia, for example, as something that was democratic and egalitarian – and which actually functioned.

“The short version of Wright’s thesis [in Utopias],” wrote Szetela, “is that the left can erode capitalism with these institutions, while taming capitalism in the political sphere. The long-term result is socialism.”

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