A Beautiful Human Link
When it was unfashionable to talk about capitalism, Erik Olin Wright taught generations of students to think about how class actually works — and was curious, enthusiastic, and endlessly generous while doing it.
Vivek Chibber, Michael Burawoy, and David Calnitsky have expressed better than I can what Erik Olin Wright brought to Marxism, and to his life: his relentless curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas, paired with an enduring set of ethical and political commitments; his infectious love of life and the generosity and joy with which he shared it. I only want to add a few things.
First, an anecdote. Erik was in possession of an unusual resource: a position as director of a center (the A. E. Havens Center for the Study of Social Change) that had money to bring in guest speakers and put on events. Energetic and intellectually voracious as he was, he brought in a regular series of guests, each directed to lead a punishing schedule of two lectures and an informal seminar.
One year, a group of grad students in Erik’s sociology department at Wisconsin decided that we wanted to make use of Erik’s resource to hold a year-long “Socialism Series” of events with outside speakers that we would choose. We met several times and argued amongst ourselves over who to bring, and then brought Erik a proposal for eight speakers — a number that would dominate the center’s activities for a full year.
I know for certain that some of the speakers were not who he would have chosen (because, for example, they advocate a vision of revolutionary socialism that he found outmoded). But — as we had been confident he would — he gave us the money and let us run with it.
I don’t think I even grasped, at the time, that ours might be considered an audacious request, and although Erik was famously generous, I don’t think it was generosity in a generic sense that led him to say yes. I think it was generosity in a very specific sense: the kind of generosity that tells you that a group of students trying to figure out for themselves what they want to take from the socialist tradition is worth supporting, even if their answers might not be yours, and even if it comes at some cost to you.
It’s the generosity that let Erik, to a remarkable degree over the course of his life, achieve two things that to a lesser spirit might have seemed to be in contradiction: clarity in his own thought and deep openness to the divergent thinking of others.
That’s how he was with ideas, and it’s how he was with everything else. At the annual sociology meeting last August, when I knew he was sick but did not believe he would have so little time left, a few of us former students were talking about him. I commented that Erik was always exactly himself.
Then I thought about it a bit more, and I revised my remark. A lot of people — especially a lot of men — are “themselves” in a way that forces the people around them to conform: we all are supposed to contour ourselves around however they are. But Erik was the opposite of that: he was always really himself in a way that invited all of us to be ourselves, too.
It’s a wonderful trait in anyone, but especially in someone who worked so closely with students, at a stage in our lives when so many of us were figuring out who were are and who we wanted to be. It certainly made a difference in my life.
My last reflection is less narrowly personal, but not less personally important. Erik began his position at Wisconsin — the school where he would spend his entire career as a professor — in 1976. Almost his entire academic career unfolded during a long era of ascendant neoliberalism.
During exactly the period when class was being written out of so much social thought, Erik was devoting himself to understanding what class really means. Just when it became utterly unfashionable to talk about capitalism, Erik taught generations of students to think systematically about how capitalism actually works.
It is profoundly unfair that Erik will not get to be part of the bigger, more powerful socialist movement that I believe is just beginning to emerge. He had so much to teach, and he would have been so eager to learn.
In recent years, historians have helped us to better see the gifts, so often hidden, that each generation of radicals and revolutionaries gives to the next: the roots of the New Left in the Old Left; the roots of the 1930s Communists’ best antiracist traditions in the 1910s Socialist organizations. Linking these generations of struggle and dissent were people who learned the lessons of one era and taught them to younger people, who would refashion those lessons for their own generations’ struggles.
It is far too early to know what will become the best of the next Left. But I think we will remember Erik as one of those beautiful human links, carrying our past into our future through decades of dedicated, warm, generous work.