“Gramsci once described the struggle for social justice as requiring ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ I believe in the world today we need an optimism of the intellect as well: an optimism grounded in our understanding of the real potentials for emancipatory alternatives which can inform our practical strategies for social transformation.” (Erik Olin Wright)
Erik Olin Wright, an eminent sociologist and one of the great public intellectuals of our time, has died at 71 from myeloid leukemia. Wright, a brilliant scholar and Marxist thinker, has not just convincingly taught us so much about class, exploitation, and power, but he has also envisioned way to democratic and egalitarian alternatives to the capitalist system and its pathologies. Erik Olin Wright was passionately and equally earnest about intellectual rigour and political relevance.
In a deeply moving and sincere blog post “Clarifying my final weeks”, he wrote:
“Sometime in my late teens to early twenties, I decided… not to live a life of self-indulgence but to create meaning for myself and others by trying to make the world a better place. The particular way in which I did this of course is historically bounded by the intellectual currents and turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s. I don’t think that means it should be thought of as merely an effect of that historical moment. I think my dogged attempt to revitalize the Marxist tradition and make it more deeply relevant to social justice and social transformation today is grounded in a scientifically valid understanding of how the world actually works. But without being embedded in a social milieu where those ideas were debated and linked in both sensible and misguided ways to social movements, I would never have been able to pursue this particular set of ideas. But I was enabled, and it’s made for an incredibly meaningful and intellectually exciting personal life. So no complaints. I will die in a few weeks, fulfilled. Not happy that I’m dying, but deeply happy with the life I’ve lived, and the life I’ve been able to share with all of you.“ (
published more than a hundred research papers, and wrote and edited about 20 books. Many of them are free to download from his personal website. In his last book How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21s Century (2019) Wright has masterly distilled decades of work into a concise and tightly argued manifesto, showing how capitalism corrodes the foundational values of equality/fairness, freedom/democracy, and community/solidarity, and elaborating on how to gradually displace capitalism with evolutionary socialism and economic democracy.
Wright’s quote at the beginning of this post is from the overview of the tremendous Real Utopias Project, which culminated in his