Socialism in Civil Society


by Erik Olin Wright
Verso, 2010

Near the end of the third and final volume of his masterpiece, Capital, Karl Marx raises an important issue. He writes, “The question to be answered next is: ‘What makes a class?’” Marx had much to say about social class, but he never answered his own question very clearly. The book ends a few lines later with a cryptic note from his long time collaborator, Friedrich Engels: “At this point the manuscript breaks off. —F.E.” Since then countless people have tried to clarify what Marx thought about class. One of the most productive efforts has been sustained by the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. He continues to argue persuasively that class relations constitute a fundamentally powerful force in world history.

From the perspective of “analytical Marxism,” Wright argues that the goals of socialism are both compatible with rigorous empirical sociological research and plausible. In recent writing, he has actively turned toward a more accessible, public orientation, which is best exemplified in his ambitious new book, Envisioning Real Utopias. In this project he seeks to document, in a manner intelligible to a broad audience, the main problems of capitalism and the realistic possibilities for overcoming them. The inherent tension in the phrase “real utopia” is purposeful. Wright aspires “to achieve a clear elaboration of workable institutional principles that could inform emancipatory alternatives to the existing world.”

The book is divided into three loosely related parts. The first offers a concise summary of the problems in capitalism, which have mostly been elucidated in his previous work. Capitalism perpetuates unnecessary human suffering, fosters consumerism, corrodes community, limits democracy, fuels militarism, and damages the natural environment. This part and those that follow are free of naiveté, hyperbole, and hysteria. Wright is diligently candid about tradeoffs and uncertainties.

The second part, the most interesting in my view, delineates a number of “real utopias.” It begins by clarifying the strengths and weaknesses of Marxist theory in addressing the problems of capitalism. Among the shortcomings, we find four key predictions of Marx unfulfilled. The crisis of overproduction in capitalism is not imminent. Society has not polarized into two classes. The working class appears unwilling and/or unable to advance its own interests. Revolutionary transformation has been unsuccessful in realizing socialistic ideals. Therefore, the transition from capitalism to socialism will not unfold the way Marx suggested it might. ...

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John Brueggemann is professor of sociology and Quadracci Professor in Social Responsibility at Skidmore College. His most recent book is entitled Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America.

Source Citation

Brueggemann, John. 2012. Socialism in Civil Society. Tikkun 27(1): 51.

tags: Books, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Global Capitalism   
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One Response to Socialism in Civil Society

  1. Burley Herrin January 16, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    I met Rabbi Lerner in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly exhibitor’s booth. I bought and read “The Left Hand of God” and have found it very helpful.

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