The Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright died of leukaemia last week. He was 71 years old.
During his last months he wrote a lucid and stoical blog, calmly contemplating when “the stardust that is me will dissipate back to the more ordinary state of matter”.
Although we were both students at the same Oxford college at the end of the 1960s, I only got to know Erik much later. I particularly remember the conference on class organised by Kate Alexander at the University of Johannesburg in which we both participated in June 2009.
Class indeed was the main theme of Erik’s intellectual career, which he largely spent teaching sociology at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. He sought to marry Marx’s theory of classes to the empirical and quantitative methods of the mainstream social sciences. Usually Marx disappears in such attempts, but not so in Erik’s case.
He never lost sight of Marx’s central claim, that class is a social relationship based on the exploitation of one part of society by another. Particularly in three books—the brilliant Class Structure and Income Distribution (1979), Classes (1985), and Class Counts (1997), he produced work that combined great conceptual elegance and empirical rigour.
Perhaps his best-known innovation was the theory of contradictory class locations. Erik argued that in modern advanced capitalist societies a significant section of the workforce share some of the properties of capitalists and some of those of workers.
For example, managers and supervisors are
wage-earning employees, but act on behalf of capital to ensure the exploitation of the mass of the workers. For Erik this was a sign that the class structure of capitalism was more complex than Marx had predicted and so the road to socialism would prove more difficult.
Whatever the political consequences one draws, to my mind the concept of contradictory class locations is a fruitful one. Unfortunately, Erik was influenced by debates among Marxist economists during the 1970s to abandon Marx’s labour theory of value. This had two negative effects.
First, Marx’s own analysis of capitalist exploitation is based on the labour theory of value. He argues that all new value is created by labour, but that capitalists appropriate some of it—surplus value—as profits.
If you abandon this theory, you have to come up with a different explanation of exploitation. Erik took his from the economist John Roemer who argued, for example, that skilled workers exploit the less skilled.
This approach tended to reduce class to differences in income rather than positions in the relations of production—exactly the kind of mainstream treatment of class that Erik had started off rejecting. To his credit, he resisted this implication of Roemer’s theory through his career.
Secondly, the labour theory of value underlies Marx’s argument that capitalism is inherently liable to regular economic crises rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Erik argued instead—in this case with Harry Brighouse, in a debate we had about my book Equality—that capitalism has “considerable flexibility and capacity to muddle through”.
We disagreed again at the Johannesburg conference, which took place at the height of the global recession precipitated by the crash of 2007-8. I thought Erik underestimated its significance.
He believed there was much more scope for reforming capitalism than revolutionary socialists such as I argued.
In his later years Erik’s main intellectual focus was on exploring possible reforms and strategies for achieving them. Envisioning Real Utopias (2009) was devoted to this.
Its complex arguments are summarised in an article in the Jacobin magazine called “How to be an Anticapitalist” (2015), where he appealed to socialists to “give up the fantasy of smashing capitalism” and concentrate on “taming and eroding capitalism”.
These texts, like all Erik’s work, were argued with great care and subtlety. He was clearly an exemplary, painstaking teacher, widely loved by his students. My sympathies go to them and above all to his family, and his friends. All socialists should mourn the passing of a very creative Marxist intellectual.