Remembering Erik Olin Wright: A Real Utopian in Practice and Theory

By |2019-01-30T04:46:48+00:00Jan 29, 2019|

Erik Olin Wright died just after midnight on January 23, in Milwaukee’s Froedtert Hospital. He was seventy-one years old. The world lost one of its great social scientists, practitioner as well as thinker. He died as he lived — to the fullest. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia the previous April, throughout the subsequent ten months, he exuded optimism about the world that he was devastatingly sad to leave.

Not knowing if and when the end would come, but knowing his life was in grave danger, he created a real utopia around him, beautifully described in the book-length blog that enchanted multitudes of followers, often leaving them in tears. Always an inveterate recorder of his life, whether through photography or writing, this time he took his life public.

Every day or two he recounted his thoughts on living and dying, memorably referring to himself as among “the most privileged, advantaged, call it what you will, stardust in this immensely enormous universe.” He was of that special stardust, miraculously “turned into conscious living matter aware of its own existence.” And then, “this complex organization ends and the stardust that is me will dissipate back to the more ordinary state of matter.”

The blog tells of the ups and downs of the battle with the blasts — cancer cells — that were attacking his body, that then devoured the new and defenseless transplanted immune system; he describes his faith in the powers of meditation to control pain; he evokes the poignancy of a fellow patient disappearing from one day to the next, a fate he knew could catch up with him too; he examined reciprocity in generosity and love; at the same time, he was not inhibited to talk of bodily functions we too easily take for granted, the challenges of pooping and peeing. And his last post was on the art of being goofy.

But he also told of his nightmares — that his closest and dearest were collectively laughing at his silly blog — the fear that life and love had deserted him. In a moving exchange Dr Michaelis, head of the hematology oncology team, a Catholic by faith, recalled the words of Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Erik, Marxist atheist, understood the universal significance of the utter abandonment that haunted his sleep.

That was by night; by day, Erik welcomed all comers into his real utopia. He wrote of the joy of seeing visitors. Friends and students (past and present) would crowd around his bed, listen to his stories, and leave in tears.

But the first place was always family — Marcia, his wife and partner for fifty-three years, their two daughters Jenny and Becky, and their three grandchildren, Safira, Vernon, and Ida. Erik was devoted to his mother who doted on him, while she always wanting to make him better. He visited or called her almost every day until she died in the middle of those ten months, not knowing Erik’s life was in jeopardy.

Erik didn’t fear death; nonetheless he desperately wanted to live, to be with his grandchildren who gave him such ecstasy. He was composing a long letter addressed to them about the lessons of his own life — and sometimes he would allow readers of his blog to enter this inner sanctum.

He was often most lively when conducting seminars over Skype with colleagues and activists. He reflected on the meaning of Marxism, and on his latest book on how to be an anticapitalist — a book that he only completed in July, when already under treatment. Erik rarely looked back on his enormous accomplishments, but instead looked forward, planning for a better world. Until December he was still thinking of teaching in the spring. And to the very end he was worrying about the future of his department, his students, and the Havens Center he had created.

As he openly acknowledged, the blog was his realm of freedom. It gave meaning to his disappearing life. It turned out to be a spontaneous archive of his multiple talents. But this realm of freedom rested on an expanding realm of necessity. Yet, even here, Erik managed to organize a community of associated producers, engaging the medical staff — the teams of doctors and nurses who tended to his punctured body — in ongoing conversation about their lives as well as his.

Marcia was the chief organizer of this realm of necessity. She was on twenty-four-hour call to comfort him. She oversaw the scene, organized visits, monitored his medications, questioned the doctors, and slept in the same room as him. At the end, she read to him the last chapter of The Clearing, one of his favorite books. She shared everything he did as she always had done. Even when he was in some far-off land, they kept in touch every day. Now she wanted him to have his mental freedom, keeping the realm of necessity at bay for as long as she could. He would have done the same for her.

There’s much more to be said about Erik’s extraordinary last ten months. He gave us lessons in both dying and living; he showed us how to be a real utopian in spirit and in practice. The blog speaks for itself and it deserves to become a book. My words cannot begin to express its power, its inspiration. Each of us will have our favorite parts, appealing as they do to different sensibilities.

But this wondrous ethnography of the struggle between life and death didn’t appear from nowhere. All I can do is to offer a short history of this Marxist utopian.


Where did it begin? It’s difficult to say. Maybe it was at the childhood dinner table where each member of the Wright family had to give an account of their day’s activities. Or was it as a Harvard undergraduate, enticed by the systemic elegance of Talcott Parsons’s structural functionalism? Perhaps it was at Oxford where he studied at the feet of the great Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, and by the sociologist and political theorist, Steven Lukes.

Perhaps he was a Marxist utopian all along. Erik’s animated film The Chess Game, made in 1968, expresses the dilemmas of revolution, dramatically played out on a chess board. His unpublished manuscript, Chess Perversions and other Diversions, completed in 1974, has a similar character. It disturbs the vested interests behind the arbitrary rules that define chess and other games by introducing a series of modifications with transformative consequences.

“This book,” he wrote in the preface, “is an invitation to that kind of freedom and delight that comes with invention and straying from the conventional path. Running a maze efficiently has its pleasures, as any laboratory rat could tell us. But changing the maze is reserved for the experimenter.” Harking back to his youth, perhaps unconsciously, Erik’s last book shows how changing the rules of capitalism can, indeed, be a revolutionary move.

Erik himself liked to trace his interest in utopias to 1971 when he was a student at the Unitarian-Universalist seminary in Berkeley, avoiding the draft. It was then that he organized a student-run seminar called “Utopia and Revolution” to discuss the prospects for the revolutionary transformation of American society. He then worked at San Quentin as a student chaplain, joining an activist organization devoted to prison reform. From this emerged his first book, The Politics of Punishment, co-authored with some of the San Quentin prisoners and prison-rights activists.

This prepared him well to be a graduate student at Berkeley in the heady days of the early seventies. In those times, especially at Berkeley and especially in sociology, students were more concerned about changing the world than pursuing academic careers. The Free Speech Movement, Third World Strike, antiwar movement, and Civil Rights Movement had left faculty at war with each other, opening up spaces for graduate students to demand greater control of their education.

Erik and his fellow graduate students put together their own courses, the most important of which was Controversies in Marxist Social Science, whose descendent Erik would later teach in Madison. Erik was also an energetic participant in the Marxist collective around the journal Kapitalistate, led by Jim O’Connor and a principle organizer of “Commie Camp” — an annual retreat to discuss pressing issues in Marxist theory and practice. Again he took this project with him to Wisconsin where it became known as RadFest. Sociology itself became a real utopia.

Class Analysis

Erik became a major figure in the intellectual project of those days: to reinvent sociology as a Marxist discipline. So Erik’s dissertation challenged mainstream sociology not on ideological grounds but on scientific grounds. He demonstrated that a reconstructed Marxist definition of class could explain income disparities better than existing models of stratification and human capital theory.

He and others effectively put an end to ideas of “stratification” (gradation based on socioeconomic status), then at the heart of sociology, with a notion of “class” based on exploitation. This prefigured sociology’s more recent concern with social inequality. One might even say that Erik’s critique of human-capital theory contributed to the acceptance of Bourdieu’s varieties of capital (social, cultural, political, as well as economic) — a path very different from Erik’s.

At the same time as he was challenging sociology, Erik was reinventing Marxism. The middle class had long been a thorn in the side of Marxism — it was supposed to dissolve yet it seemed to get bigger. Together with his friend Luca Perrone, Erik solved the problem by introducing the concept of “contradictory class locations” — class positions that were located between the three fundamental classes: capital, labor, and petty bourgeoisie.

There were three such contradictory class locations: small employers between the petty bourgeoisie and large-scale capital; supervisors and managers between capital and wage labor; and semi-autonomous employees (professionals) between wage labor and the petty bourgeoisie. Having established these conceptual distinctions, he went on to use them to map the changing US class structure. In an early piece that he wrote when he was still a graduate student, published in New Left Review, he challenged the Marxist giant Nicos Poulantzas, who had proposed his own class categories, but without Erik’s empirical or analytical rigor.

Taking up a position as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1976, Erik began to develop a research program of class analysis. As existing surveys were not designed to map his new categories, he applied for and received funding to administer his own national survey, designed to capture his class categories. In this era of Marxist ascendancy, his ideas spread and soon he had organized teams in a dozen other countries, fielding parallel surveys. Even the Soviet Union could not resist entering this Marxist world, but that’s a story for another time.

Erik’s class analysis sparked many invigorating debates about the meaning of class. Through these debates and in response to criticism, Erik revised his scheme over the years, sometimes with small adjustments, sometimes by shifting its foundations. If there is one trait that threads through his scholarly work — and indeed through his life — it is the determination to get things right. This not only entailed developing a close dialogue between theoretical elaboration and empirical research, but also deepening the internal logic of his analytical schemes. You can trace the evolution of his thinking through a series of books, starting with Class, Crisis and the State(1978), followed immediately by the publication of his dissertation, Class Structure and Income Determination (1979), and then to the deeper shift that came with his adoption of John Roemer’s notion of exploitation in Classes (1985), and his response to his critics in The Debate on Classes (1989). The summation of the international project in Class Counts (1997) establishes the effects of class on such issues as intergenerational mobility, friendship patterns, gender relations, and class consciousness. His final contribution on this topic, Approaches to Class Analysis (2005), fittingly enough, was recognition of the multiple Marxist but also non-Marxist approaches to class analysis that had sprung up on the ruins of stratification theory where he had begun.


Erik’s fame spread far and wide, so in 1984 the university gave him funds for the creation of a center for critical social science that he named after Gene Havens, his close colleague who had recently died of lung cancer. The Havens Center invited visiting scholars and activists and invested in broad left-wing projects. Over its thirty-four years countless national and international figures on the Left visited the Havens Center, working with students and colleagues.

These visitors will remember Erik, not only for his incisive intellectual contributions, but for his hospitality. They will remember his home and his cooking, they will remember outings to concerts or theater. Through the Havens Center Madison radiated to the furthest corners of the world.

In 1981, Erik joined a group of brilliant social scientists and philosophers, among whom he was most influenced by the philosophers G.A. Cohen and Philippe van Parijs and the economist John Roemer. They pioneered “Analytical Marxism.” known more colloquially as “no bullshit Marxism,” clarifying the foundations of Marxism in a no-holds-barred grilling of each other’s work.

Over the last four decades the composition of the group has changed and drifted from its Marxist moorings, but Erik remained, a stalwart Marxist in its midst. It became a second intellectual home for Erik, and one source of inspiration for his subsequent turn to the moral foundations of Marxism.

A second inspiration was rooted in the changing historical context. Even before the collapse of Soviet communism, the Marxist resurgence within academia had begun to subside. As Erik’s class analysis became part of mainstream sociological orthodoxy, marked by its required presence on prelim reading lists, his work attracted a bevy of critics who announced the end of class (reminiscent of the “end of ideology” in the 1950s) and the plurality of identities.

Sociology took a neo-institutional and cultural turn; conservative readings of Durkheim and Weber overshadowed the radical Marx. The issue was no longer capitalism vs socialism, but the varieties of capitalism. With the extinction of really-existing socialism and the ascendancy of neoliberalism, alternatives to capitalism were discredited. Indeed, as Fredric Jameson has said, it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

From its beginning Marxism had an allergy to utopian thinking, but now the political conjuncture called for just that. Erik took up the challenge. Directly contesting the pathos of the new conservatism he advanced a socialist agenda by laying out alternatives to capitalism, but discovering their nuclei within capitalist society.

Real Utopias

The new project began in 1991, the very year the Soviet Union collapsed. Erik inaugurated a series of conferences to discuss “real utopias” — not some speculative ideal world but real alternatives that can be found within actually-existing societies. Held at the Havens Center at Madison, each conference assembled scholars from various disciplines to respond to specific proposals.

Over the years, conference topics included associative democracy, market socialism, participatory democracy, universal incomes grants, and gender equality. The conference papers were published in a book series that Erik assembled and often introduced, culminating in his own magnum opus, Envisioning Real Utopias.

That book starts out by examining a series of pathologies of capitalism: the suffering it creates, the destructiveness it guarantees, the freedom it denies, the communities it corrodes, the inefficiencies it promotes, the inequalities it generates. Socialism is necessary to mitigate those structurally produced deficits of capitalism. But the originality of the analytical project lies elsewhere — in the restoration of the social in socialism.

If early Marxisms were constructed around the collapse of the capitalist economy, and subsequent Marxisms revolved around the creation and critique of some form of state socialism, today’s socialism would be built around the reconstruction and revitalization of civil society, understood as distinct from economy and state. This elevation of the social has its roots in the early writings of Marx, but most notably in Antonio Gramsci’s prison writings. But there was also a convergence with sociology that underscores the standpoint of civil society.

This led him to specify three strategies in the transformation of capitalism: ruptural strategies involving the smashing of the state (which he now largely rejected), interstitial strategies building alternatives outside the state, and symbiotic strategies that engaged the state through struggles on its terrain. Ultimately, his own answer was to combine interstitial and symbiotic strategies, creating spaces against the state and then transforming those spaces in collaboration with the state.

In 2012, Erik became president of the American Sociological Association, and his annual meeting became a platform for real utopias, featuring twenty special panels devoted to specific real utopia proposals, fifty thematic panels on broad topics connected to real utopias and social justice, and three plenaries focused on real utopias in the areas of environment, equality, and democracy.

He also took to the road with “real utopias,” visiting historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Gallaudet University (where he learned to appreciate the rich dimensions of sign language). Never one to dodge a difficult issue, Erik had deliberately set himself up for questions about the inclusion of race or the deaf in real utopias. Sociology was, temporarily, awash with real utopias.

Erik was returning sociology to its founders — Marx, Durkheim, and Weber — who had been less squeamish about building their theoretical architectures on moral values than the professionals of today. Erik was explicit in defining sociology’s project as understanding the institutional possibilities for realizing those values. What institutions might advance equality, freedom, and community? What are the distinctive attributes of those institutions? What are the conditions of their reproduction and dissemination? What are their contradictions and dynamics?

Erik scoured the earth in search of budding real utopias, putting each of them under his analytical microscope and, on that basis, elaborating more general designs. Some of his favorite examples were participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the cooperatives of Mondragon in the Basque Country; and the collective self-organization of Wikipedia.

Erik became an archeologist, digging up institutions, organizations, and social movements with potential to challenge capitalism, placing them in their historical context, translating them into a common language, and thereby linking them to one another across the world. By virtue of its dynamism and its ideologies the dialectic of capitalism inescapably generates alternatives to itself; we just have to grasp them, run with them, disseminate them, and enact them.

On one occasion, unable to find an adequate example in the real world, he turned to a comic strip. In one of the episodes of the Li’l Abner comic strips from the late 1940s, Li’l Abner, a resident of the hillbilly community of Dogpatch, discovers a wonderful creature called the “shmoo” whose virtue lies in providing all the material things human beings need, not luxuries, just the basic necessities of life.

The story starts with employers competing with one another for profit, driving up hours and lowering wages. When the shmoo appears — read Universal Incomes Grant — capitalist relations are turned upsides down and the workers of Dogpatch get their revenge, thumbing their noses to their erstwhile exploiters.

Erik turns the story of the shmoo into a disquisition on the capitalist class structure and its contradictions. Knowing Erik’s love for the shmoo, his former students presented him with a videothat begins with Erik lecturing, followed by their hilarious reading of the comic strip.

In the last years of his life Erik discovered that these real utopias were very appealing to activists. He spent much time traversing the world talking to groups keenly interested in hitching his ideological-intellectual framework to their own projects. So he set about rendering Envisioning Real Utopias in an abbreviated and accessible form, removing the clutter of academic chatter, creating a handbook of anticapitalism. He fittingly called it, How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century (forthcoming from Verso).

He gets right down to business: What’s wrong with capitalism today? It corrodes the foundational values of equality/fairness, freedom/democracy; community/solidarity. How to reverse this process? Capitalism can be smashed, dismantled, tamed, resisted, or escaped.

He dismisses the first as incompatible with his three foundational values and argues for a combination of the remaining four, what he calls eroding capitalism, a form of evolutionary socialism — the gradual displacement of capitalism by economic democracy. One appealing feature of this last book is the way each chapter begins by dismantling the capitalist common sense that what exists is natural and inevitable.

His critics will attack him, as they have done before, for being Panglossian. But Erik would respond by saying that today we need not just optimism of the will, but also optimism of the intellect. “It’s easy to be pessimistic,” it’s hard work to be optimistic and realistic under the crushing sinews of capitalism.

Those in the trenches of civil society were enthusiastic to hear this positive message but surprised that it should come from the pen and the mouth of an academic. Here was an intellectual paying tribute to their largely invisible labors, contesting capitalism against all odds, enduring insults and reprisals.


Erik leaves us with both a way of thinking and a way of being. Let me be blunt. I know of no one who thought more lucidly, more cogently, more speedily, more effortlessly than Erik; no one who so effectively cut to the chase as to what was at stake in any issue, any paper, any book.

Gentle and cogent though he was, exposure to him was both elevating and intimidating. He took your own claims, arguments, facts more seriously than you did yourself.

When he argued with others he never resorted to exaggeration, distortion, or oversimplification. Instead, he zeroed in on the best in his opponents’ arguments, often better than what they could offer themselves. He brought all these gifts to the legions of students he taught, calling on them, too, to be logical, rigorous, and imaginative, but no less important, to be decent and honest, to give others the benefit of the doubt.

We can’t be like him, but we can be inspired by what he has laid down, to follow in his footsteps, guided by his map, refashioning it as we move forward.

His way of thinking bled into his way of being. There was something remarkably innocent about his engagement with the world. That’s why he loved to be with children, to entertain them with his magical stories. It made him a great theorist — like a child, he was able to get to the root of things, to call into question what the rest of us, inured to the world, take for granted. He didn’t just read stories to his children, he created a world in which children created their own stories and even played them out. He loved to distort old games, like his animated version of class struggle on the chessboard. He had no cookbook, he followed no recipes except his own, manufacturing low-cholesterol fantasy dishes. It was that inventiveness that defined his existence; it was also the principle behind real utopias.

The values he espoused — equality, freedom, and community — were not only the substrata of a new society, they were moral principles to follow. We can’t wait for the future, we must demonstrate our faith by our actions in the here and now.

Erik sought to be supremely egalitarian in his dealings with those below him as well as those alongside and above him. There was not an evil bone in his body, nor a jealous fiber in his soul. I never heard him swear — he wondered how anyone could turn the most beautiful act of love into a curse. The rapidity and clarity of his mind gave him an enormous advantage in any deliberative process, and so he recognized the importance of constraints on individual participation. You could call him on his blindness, and he would try to make amends — not always successfully.

Still, he was a sort of Modern Prince, a permanent persuader, an indefatigable builder of community that enabled people to flourish or, as Marx would say, to develop their rich and varied abilities. As one former student wrote to Erik: “You are always yourself in a way that invites all of us to be ourselves too.” He was a great conductor not only in life but in music. But he didn’t go solo, at the end of every party he’d get out his fiddle and have us all square dancing together in unison. And I’ve no doubt, wherever he is, that’s what he’s doing right now — a sparkling stardust in the heavens.

Michael Burawoy is Erik’s close friend and literary executor. He is a professor of sociology at the University of California – Berkeley.

Cross-posted at Jacobin.

Image: Mike Young, University of Copenhagen