Erik Olin Wright, Marxist sociologist with a pragmatic approach, dies at 71

NEW YORK — Erik Olin Wright, a Marxist sociologist who helped bring to light the complexities of social and economic classes and explored alternatives to capitalism, including a universal basic income, died Jan. 23 in Milwaukee. He was 71.

His wife, Marcia, said the cause was acute myeloid leukemia.

Dr. Wright, a research professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, spent his entire teaching career at Madison, starting in 1976. His presence was a draw for students and helped the university’s sociology department maintain its place as one of the premier departments in the country.

While immersed in theoretical aspects of social class and social change, Dr. Wright also delved into real-world challenges such as poverty, income inequality, and unemployment. His venue was often the A.E. Havens Center for Social Justice, which he established to bring in visiting scholars to discuss progressive ideas.


He wrote hundreds of research papers and published 15 books. A 16th, “How to Be an Anti-Capitalist for the 21st Century,” is set to be published this year.

Part of a circle of intellectuals that prided itself on being nonideological — as distinct from doctrinaire Marxists — he believed in open debate and empirical evidence.

One of his most ambitious books was “Envisioning Real Utopias” (2010), in which he offered alternatives to capitalism. He championed such ideas as automatic, periodic cash payment from the government to all adults, regardless of their economic standing, known as a universal basic income. He also promoted participatory budgeting, in which community members decide how to spend a portion of a public budget.

“His ideas captured the imagination of audiences, intellectuals, and activists across the globe, making him one of the most distinguished critical social scientists of our era,” Michael Burawoy, a friend and a leading Marxist sociologist at the University of California Berkeley, said in an e-mail.


“With the collapse of Soviet communism,” Burawoy added, “Wright reinvented the meaning of socialism with his research program into ‘real utopias.’”

Dr. Wright saw one such utopia in Wikipedia, which relies on unpaid editors and is free. He likened it to worker cooperatives and community land trusts.

“What is needed are hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our institutions,” he wrote. “Instead of indulging in utopian dreams, we must accommodate to practical realities.”

Dr. Wright’s other main interest was class structure, which underwent a major transformation in the 20th century with the expansion of the middle class.

“He pushed leftist thinkers as well as social scientists to think in more nuanced ways about broad categories like ‘class,’” Gay W. Seidman, a sociologist at Madison, said in an e-mail.

Dr. Wright posited that, for example, many managers participate in controlling the working class, while simultaneously they are controlled by capitalist owners — which means these managers are essentially exploiting others while also being exploited.

This ambiguity of position led to his theory of “contradictory class location,” now a core concept in sociology textbooks for understanding class conflict and political alignments.

“He brought the Marxist theory of exploitation up to date, by recognizing intermediary classes between capitalists, workers and self-employed,” Burawoy said.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., Dr. Wright grew up in Kansas, received his bachelor’s at Harvard and his doctorate at the University of California Berkeley. He trained to be a Unitarian minister in California and served as a student chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.


In recent years, Dr. Wright’s focus had shifted “to the democratization of the economy and to the ruling class,” said Mitchell Duneier, a former Madison colleague who is now chairman of Princeton’s sociology department.

Duneier, who interviewed Dr. Wright in December for a sociology textbook, quoted him as saying:

“If I were to write a 50-page text on how to think about class in the 21st century, I would begin by saying the problem of class is not the problem of the poor, the working class, or the middle class. It’s the problem of the ruling class — of a capitalist class that’s so immensely wealthy that they are capable of destroying the world as a side effect of their private pursuit of gain.”