Erik Olin Wright: An Appreciation

January 15th, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized

It is with great sadness that I've learned that one of my major intellectual influences, the Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, is in his last days. But as he bravely narrates his last weeks, I can at least offer my own appreciation of his intellect while he is still with us.

Those who recall the last time I wrote something like this may find a surprising juxtaposition here. Both Wright and Moishe Postone, of course, are prominent contributors to Marxist theory. But they came from very different corners of the Marxist philosophical bestiary. Postone worked in the knotted, dialectical and post-Hegelian tradition of Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, and came out of the scene associated with German value-form theory.

Wright, meanwhile, was a proponent of the school of "analytical" or "no bullshit" Marxism. Along with figures like Jon Elster and G.A. Cohen, he promoted an approach that paired Marxist political commitments with the tools of analytical philosophy and mainstream empirical social science. Particularly in his theoretical work on class relations, he drew as much on Weber as on Marx, promoting elaborations of the core distinction between capitalists and workers that could encompass complex concepts like "contradictory locations within class relations" to explain various aspects of the petit bourgeoisie or the professional-managerial class.

Most formative for my own development, however, was Wright's later work, which eventually developed into the "Real Utopias Project". This was an attempt to, as Wright described it, "combine serious normative discussions of the underlying principles and rationales for different emancipatory visions with the analysis of pragmatic problems of institutional design." The books produced by the project tacked questions of democracy, markets, equality, and, of most interest to me in the two later books, distribution (particular the proposals for Universal Basic Income and stakeholder grants), and gender equality (in a book edited by my former adviser, Janet Gornick.)

Before engaging with any of that, however, I found a 2006 New Left Review essay called "Compass Points", which briefly and elegantly describe's Wright's own "real utopian" conception of the socialist project. Anyone familiar with my project in Four Futures will find the schematic structure of this essay familiar, as it engages with many themes found in my work, though from a different perspective.

His explication of different modes of economic regulation---state socialist, social democratic, capitalist, etc.---is built out of different configurations of the civil, economic, and state spheres. Though not one I completely adopt, I found this clear and refreshing, an application of "no bullshit Marxist" principles that was actually clarifying and precise, rather than crude and one dimensional as that approach sometimes feels.

More influential on me, however, were the other two components of the essay: the criteria for evaluating alternatives, and methods of historical transformation, even if I ended up putting this theoretical material to quite different purposes.

The three criteria, once again elegant but powerful, were those of desirability, achievability, and viability. I've written elsewhere about my appropriation of these terms, which correspond simply to the question of whether a given utopia was somewhere we wanted to get to, somewhere we actually could get to, and somewhere we could maintain and stay with once we did get there.

My break with Wright's approach, conditioned perhaps by the more dialectical side of my intellectual inheritance, was essentially just to reject the viability criterion as mis-specified. In my view, the places we want and can get to from capitalism are inherently not places we can stay. In the specific instance of social democracy, I elaborated this in the above essay in terms of the "Kalecki point" and the inherent tension between socialists challenging the foundations of capitalism and capitalists trying to impose discipline on the working class. This reflects something of an ideological difference: whereas Wright's perspective tended toward a Polanyian vision of humanized social democracy, I have always attempted to inject the Marxist perspective of crisis and rupture into my analysis of reformist politics.

This also relates to the final part of the Compass Points formulation, the distinction between ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic transformation. These correspond, roughly, to the concepts of a revolutionary break and seizure of power, a building of alternative institutions and dual power in the interstices of capitalist power, and reformist class compromises that simultaneously win class power and solve contradictions internal to capitalism.

Again, I took these ideas in somewhat different directions, but I think I have always shared an emphasis on these being historically contingent and strategic distinctions, not matters of principle. And so in the analysis of the welfare state mentioned above, winning social democratic reforms, building dual power, and preparing for the inevitable moment of destabilization and rupture, all have their role to play.

Now to turn to another aspect of Erik Olin Wright, unfortunately one I only had brief personal experience with. He has been, rare among prominent academics, extremely generous and encouraging to those of us less experienced and established. Which is not to say that those sharp analytical instincts, honed in years of seminar combat, would not be turned on you at the slightest provocation. My first meeting with him, arranged through Janet Gornick, quickly turned into an interrogation of the ideas I was working on at the time, as Erik poked and prodded at the weak points of my arguments.

But Erik was also someone who, back before anyone knew or cared about me and my writing, wrote unsolicited to me praising my early work in Jacobin, and telling me to keep up the good work. And he was someone who, years later when I self-effacingly described my book as being about a 2x2 diagram, lit up at the thought in a way that only he could.

Finally, Erik Olin Wright has been someone who is equally serious about intellectual rigor and political relevance. He might not initially be everyone's ideal of the Gramscian organic intellectual. By his own accounts, his initial exposure to Marxism came in academia, where he remained for the rest of his career. You can find that story in his lovely little essay, "Falling Into Marxism, Choosing to Stay". Though I must warn those of you from my academic generation and later: you may find yourself a bit exasperated as Erik narrates his almost accidental journey from Harvard to Berkeley to Madison to the crowning heights of academic sociology, the kind of charmed career that was only available in a certain time and place, notwithstanding Erik's formidable talents.

But beyond the campus, Erik Olin Wright traveled the world listening to students, organizers, and anyone else willing to seriously engage with his work, listening and learning all the while. That, along with the body of work, is what he will leave behind, and that we will sorely miss.