Real Men Find Real Utopias

By Jacoby, Russell | Dissent, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Real Men Find Real Utopias


Jacoby, Russell, Dissent


Real Men Find Real Utopias Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright Verso, 2010, 394 pp.

A book on Utopias by a Marxist sociologist seems promising, perhaps even courageous. In Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright seeks to counter widespread cynicism about radical social transformation. To do this he offers what he calls "real utopias," which might appear a contradiction or oxymoron. For Wright, however, utopias are not fantasies, or not only fantasies. In the current period we need "hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our lives" or Utopian ideals grounded in reality. Wright not only provides examples of "real utopias," but situates them within the broader framework of an "emancipatory social science," a task that involves understanding how capitalism can be transformed.

Even more promising, Wright wants his book accessible to those "not steeped in academic debates." Everything suggests Wright has the talent to pull it off. After all, he is no old-school Marxist crank or outsider. He is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across the globe. He teaches in what many consider the finest sociology department in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Madison department is where C. Wright Mills received his doctorate, and it housed his mentor, Hans Gerth, an émigré scholar who was a student of another sociologist, Karl Mannheim, whose 1929 Ideology and Utopia remains a touchstone study. These men were steeped in history and sociological thought. Gerth translated Max Weber, and together with Mills put out a collection of Weber's writings. Mills also published an anthology, Images of Man, that contained selections of social thinkers from Durkheim to Michels and Veblen. At their best these sociologists addressed contemporary social issues with an enviable lucidity, theoretical savvy, and historical acumen.

With Wright that sociological tradition, alas, is dead. The book is startling and depressing evidence of what has happened to American academic Marxism, at least its sociological variant, over the last thirty years. It has become turgid, vapid, and self -referential. Wright lives in a bubble of like-minded sociologists and political theorists. On page 322, he thanks Marcia Kahn Wright, his wife, for suggesting to him "the term 'interstitial'" as a way of expressing something about "strategic logic," whatever that is. Apart from Mrs. Wright, Erik Wright's favorite source is Erik Wright. He has read all of his works and finds them remarkable. He moves fluidly between Wright of 1985 and Wright of 2010, as if history has not changed. Actually, for Wright, history has not changed. The issues that rivet Wright unfold in an eternal graduate sociology seminar where the clock has stopped. In a memoir elsewhere, Wright comments that every September since kindergarten in 1952 he has been in school. It might be time for him to take a break.

Wright's gargantuan theoretical edifice, with its multiple appendages, add-ons, and attachments steals all attention from "real utopias," about which he shows little enthusiasm. He is more eager to pronounce on how to think about how to approach the preconditions that underlie the claims that support "real utopias" or on the numerous principles and subprinciples of social transformation they infer than to tell us anything about these practical ventures. "Real utopias" for Wright exist as a subset of the broader enterprise of developing an emancipatory social science. It is dirty and difficult work but some conceptually rugged professor has to do it. In fact a macho element wafts through his "Real Utopias Project," which Wright has launched as an ongoing discussion and series of books. Real Men think about Real Utopias - or at least their punishing theoretical implications and lessons. The Real Utopian Project name came to him, he reports, while he walked his golden retriever in the early 1990s. …

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