In 1970, Alvin Gouldner could confidently announce that the golden age of Western sociology was over.footnote1 The civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, anti-war protests and a growing anti-state radicalism had served to deflate post-war American triumphalism and the sociology it had spawned. The proclaimed ‘end of ideology’—the notion that the us had overcome the major challenges of modernity—proved to be the ‘illusion of the epoch’ (a phrase hitherto reserved for Marxism). The shoe was now on the other foot: for the new generation, mainstream sociology was seen as ideology, plastering over the deep pathologies of us society. Demonstrable injustices belied the claims of the dominant ‘consensus theory’.footnote2

Gouldner was right to identify the crisis of sociology, but he did not anticipate how the social movements of the 1960s and the ideas they generated—feminism, Critical Race Theory and Marxism—would catalyse a renewal of the discipline. Reflecting on that renewal a decade later in The Two Marxisms (1980), Gouldner discerned two opposed but also interdependent tendencies: Scientific Marxism and Critical Marxism.footnote3 In brief, Scientific Marxism begins from a rational understanding of society that postulates the determinism of objective structures. It uncovers historical tendencies leading to socialism when conditions are ripe. Concepts reflect real mechanisms; politics are epiphenomenal; ideology is distortion of the truth. Critical Marxism, on the other hand, starts out from the ubiquity of alienation obstructing the potential for human self-realization. It highlights human intervention against the obduracy of objective structures—history has no pre-ordained end, but is the product of collective mobilization. In the view of Critical Marxism, concepts exist to interpret social processes; politics is an arena for the realization of ultimate values; ideology is a moral force. In revolutionary times Critical Marxism and Scientific Marxism may form a contradictory unity, but in non-revolutionary times they more easily go their separate ways.

Intended to capture the entangled history of Marxism, these two Marxisms also frame the intellectual biography of Erik Wright. In the 1970s his Scientific and Critical Marxisms were joined, but later they came apart as each developed its own autonomous trajectory. Erik’s Scientific Marxism was the programme of class analysis that first brought him international fame. Begun in graduate school, it tailed off in the last two decades of his life, when it played second fiddle to the Critical Marxism of the Real Utopias Project that Erik began in the early 1990s. Erik’s writings show remarkably little cross-pollination between the two as they each developed independently of the other. He moves from a class analysis without utopia to utopia without class analysis. Why did his intellectual life run along these separate tracks, especially given their convergence in the beginning? Are Critical Marxism and Scientific Marxism ultimately inimical, displaying the binary oppositions identified by Gouldner? Or, as I shall argue, do the reasons for the divergence lie in the political context in which he wrote and his changing relation to sociology? The separation is not inevitable. Indeed, at the end of his life there are intimations of a reconnection of science and critique that call for further elaboration in continuing his legacy.

What follows is therefore divided into four parts: Erik’s early Marxism, where science and critique are joined; the Scientific Marxism of class analysis; the Critical Marxism of real utopias; and my proposals for rejoining science and critique.

We first have to retrace Erik’s path to Marxism. After graduating from Harvard in social studies in 1968, Erik spent two years at Oxford pursuing a second ba degree, imbibing sociology and politics from Steven Lukes and history from Christopher Hill. These were turbulent years with Marxism thriving on both sides of the Atlantic, capturing the minds of a new generation of social scientists. In order to avoid the draft Erik had enrolled in the Unitarian-Universalistic seminary at Berkeley. That was even before he went to Oxford, where he would claim to study religion—the Puritan Revolution in England! When he returned to the us in the Fall of 1970 he enrolled as a full-time student at the seminary. As part of his studies, he organized a student-run seminar called ‘Utopia and Revolution’. As he recalled:

For ten weeks I met with a dozen or so other students from the various seminaries in the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union to discuss the principles and prospects for the revolutionary transformation of American society and the rest of the world. We were young and earnest, animated by the idealism of the civil-rights movement and the anti-war movement and by the countercultural currents opposed to competitive individualism and consumerism. We discussed the prospects for the revolutionary overthrow of American capitalism and the ramifications of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as well as the potential for a countercultural subversion of existing structures of power and domination through living alternative ways of life.footnote4

Another part of the seminary programme was a field assignment to prepare him for ministerial work. As his site Erik chose San Quentin prison where he became a student chaplain. Just as he recorded and typed up each session of the ‘Utopia and Revolution’ seminar, so now he assiduously wrote the field notes that he would turn into his first book, The Politics of Punishment (1973), with additional contributions from lawyers, prisoners and journalists. Here Erik set out a radical conception of crime and punishment, and a critique of the correctional model as ‘liberal totalitarianism’, followed by detailed descriptions of conditions in San Quentin. There followed four chapters on the violence, racism and revolt at Soledad Prison in California, written by the head psychiatrist, a prisoner, a lawyer representing the Soledad Brothers and a writer from the Prison Law Collective. The last part of the book has three chapters written by his collaborators on prisoner revolts, legislative changes and the courts. Erik writes a concluding chapter on prison reform, arguing that any meaningful change would require the transformation of society. The Politics of Punishment took a radical stance against prisons, and in many ways anticipated the critical standpoint of contemporary incarceration studies. Science and critique were joined in Erik’s precocious ethnography of prison life.