A Model for Us All

The eminent Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright was serious about understanding and changing the world — and was generous, curious, and kind while doing it.

Portrait of Erik Olin Wright. Aliona Lyasheva / Wikimedia Commons

When I first met Erik Wright, my PhD supervisor, I was an orthodox Marxist. I had just entered graduate school and was about as dialectical as it gets. Now, on the other side of graduate school, I am still a Marxist, but a more ecumenical (and hopefully a more analytical) one. To a considerable extent, Erik is responsible. The logic crushes all resistance; I could only maintain my dialectical twirling for so long.

Erik liked to quote Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (“Hitherto philosophers have sought to understand the world, the point however, is to change it”), but he interpreted it somewhat atypically.

Yes, the point is to change it, and indeed, Erik believed deeply that changing it for the better requires understanding it. But he also emphasized the tension inside the famous dictum: the desire to change the world can infect our understanding of it. For Marxists and fellow travelers, the power of wishful thinking is more seductive than it is for others without such normative commitments.

This is in fact the central tension in Marxism. It has always held a dual role as science and ideology. The first strand aspires towards a scientific analysis of the world; its abstract categories are designed to grasp concrete social realities, as they actually exist. It aims to demystify distortions, unmask social structures, and expose the historical foundations of seemingly natural phenomena.

And the second strand, Marxism as political and ideological practice, is meant to inspire and mobilize. Fiery speeches and condemnations can motivate political action, just as a sense of historical purpose can strengthen the resolve of participants in struggles.

There is no way to honestly describe this duality without conceding the dilemma: the hope to transform the world collides with the impulse to understand it. But for Erik, this did not mean we throw up our hands and give up either our moral commitments or our scientific aspirations. It meant we have to be frank about our predicament rather than wishing it out of existence. The balance to strike is to recognize the appeal of motivated reasoning without letting it paralyze you.

And Erik lived up to it. He changed his positions when his arguments and evidence failed. As a quantitative researcher, sometimes his regression results just didn’t support the hypothesis.

Of course, as anyone familiar with data analysis knows, even with a funky result, you can always weasel out of it if you really want to. But for Erik, this was precisely the appeal of Marxism: that you could be wrong.

Unlike a lot of thinking in the social sciences and on the Left, Marxist hypotheses are clear enough and straightforward enough to be proven wrong. Yes, the world is complex, but if our theory were as complex as the world it would give us no purchase on it. For Erik, a dumb but common critique was the refrain, “Yes, but isn’t it all more complex than that?” No, the point of theory is simplicity, its goal to isolate the causal mechanisms behind some social process. One of the reasons Marxism appealed to Erik was because it provided simple explanatory tools. Sometimes it turned out to be wrong, but it could often explain a great deal.

Erik self-identified as an “analytical Marxist.” The first part of the label meant that when you try to explain the world you ought to avoid obscurantism and the fuzzy, freewheeling theoretical analysis that characterizes a lot of social theory. Instead, your concepts should be defined in crisp and precise terms; their edges should be sharp enough to guard against being non-falsifiable or nebulous. And your explanatory claims about social processes should be fine-grained and causal such that we can imagine the circumstances that would render them false. We should not allow ourselves to dialectically twirl out of serious objections.

But Erik wasn’t just analytical. He was also a Marxist. That didn’t mean he was worried about what Marx really thought about this or that. It meant that his research focused on how social class shapes society.

In short, it meant focusing attention on: (1) How resources are distributed in capitalist economies; (2) How that distribution affects political power; and (3) How that distribution affects social change and social stability.

Erik wanted his intellectual work to be “dually constrained,” to be held accountable both to “bourgeois” social science and to Marxism. The former would hold him accountable to the norms of rigorous research; the latter would hold him accountable to political relevance and to a moral vision of a just society.

Perhaps the most exemplary fact about Erik is his approach to debate and disagreement. If you criticize core aspects of Marxism, but continue to work firmly within the tradition, you will face, as a matter of course, fairly routine and sometimes quite mean denunciations. But Erik would give genuine benefit of the doubt to those who disagreed with him. He would try to understand the core of the disagreement, and render it in its most sympathetic light.

The emotional side of this was that you could disagree with him, even strongly, without making an enemy. He wouldn’t bristle. It wouldn’t shake his ego or threaten his masculinity. He actually seemed to enjoy scrutinizing his most dearly held ideas about the world.

It’s sad that people so often say nice things about other people behind their backs and not to their faces, just like it’s sad that people convey their feelings only when someone faces a life-threatening illness or passes away. But still, I want to express how hugely influential a figure Erik has been in my life and in the lives of many people I know. His intellectual influence is equaled only by its expression: he has consistently been an example of someone who is kind and generous, rather than sharp and snarky, and open-minded about new ideas rather than dogmatic and defensive. This stuff is in short supply in the world, and they are characteristics we should emulate.

I attended an undergraduate lecture of his once, and at the beginning of class he reported that there was a student in his office hours who expressed being intimidated by him. He responded in class by showing childhood pictures – pictures of him at seven in a cowboy hat, pictures with his siblings. But for me, that had the opposite of the intended effect.

One of the reasons Erik was intimidating is precisely because he was so kind, so generous, and so open to disagreement. It sets a high bar. These qualities also meant that he would take your ideas seriously, which meant that you had to take your own ideas seriously. And that’s pretty scary. Intellectuals who are sharp and dismissive strike me as less impressive and less intimidating because that personal style usually betrays insecurity.

The Left has suffered a massive loss with Erik’s passing. More personally, Erik has infected much of my thinking about the world. I’ll forever have a tiny cartoon version of EOW hovering over my shoulder when I’m constructing an argument. He’ll remind me of the eleventh thesis; not only its cautionary aspects but its programmatic ones: to be clear enough so that critics know why they disagree with you, and to remember that understanding the world isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It’s the first step to changing it.