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Hilarious review of Erik Olin Wright’s latest book, by Russell Jacoby in Dissent. Excerpts:

… 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.

… We are only on page thirteen and already we have utopias that depend on a social science that depends on a theory of justice that breaks down into two parts, social and political, the first of which subdivides in three ways.

… Wright has to be given credit for parading his anticapitalist sensibilities, but his critique reads like a lecture at the hootenanny weekend of the Socialist Hiking Club, Berkeley Chapter… “Capitalism is efficient in certain crucial aspects.” “Capitalist commodification supports important broadly held values.” What sinks Wright’s little boat is exactly such vacuous and clumsy statements coupled, as they are, to a relentless faux precision of definitions, diagrams, and graphs.

… Wright [now warms] up for his ensuing discussions of “interstitial” and “symbiotic” transformation, which are numbingly baroque and that he clarifies with diagrams that might as well be satires. He gives us a graph of “Interstitial Transformations Paving the Way to Rupture” with one axis: “Historical Time.”

… [Wright] says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.

… In a blurb, Michael Burawoy, a previous president of the American Sociological Association and a prominent leftist sociologist, calls the book “encyclopedic” in its breadth and “daunting” in its ambition. He states, “Only a thinker of Wright’s genius could sustain such a badly needed political imagination without losing analytical clarity and precision.” With the correction that Wright is no genius and that the book is suffocatingly narrow in scope, impossibly cramped in imagination, and irreparably muddy in execution, the blurb is accurate.


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19 Responses to ““We should all fear … what [this book] suggests about the contemporary university and its scholarship.””

  1. bfa Says:

    it’s not wrong. I know that in medieval history (although not necessarily other subfields), you can’t publish from a Marxist point of view without getting laughed out of the room. My adviser once asked if I was a Marxist because I did a quasi-favorable review of a book by one. Only an idiot would be an open Marxist- and apparently only idiots are.

  2. Conservative English PhD Says:

    Hmm. I had one open and confirmed Marxist on my dissertation committee. In rhetorical and literary studies, it can be a badge of honor (even the members of my committee that weren’t avowedly Marxist tended to have semi-dewy eyes when talking about Marxist theory).

    My dissertation wasn’t Marxist in approach, but I did deal with some American socialists for a chapter or two. Honestly, most of the writing I had to read for those chapters was just as terrible as what this reviewer fears.

  3. Shane Street Says:

    Has sociology ever been a serious academic discipline?

  4. Tony Says:


    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.

    Pure comedic gold.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Tony: Yes, I saw that. You’re right.

  6. Farah Mendlesohn Says:

    Shane: sociology got us things like public health. The entire sanitation system in late Victorian England was advocated for by social scientists and medics combined. In contrast Hamburg, worried by the expense, decided to ignore these two groups and ended up with a cholera epidemic.

    Marxist historiography remains very important: but good academics use empirical evidence. Bad ones don’t. It’s irrelevant what ideological position they claim (ref. Bush and his faith based scientific advisors).

  7. Mr Punch Says:

    Is there actually such a term as “jimmy-rigged”? It sounds like a conflation of “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built.”

  8. theprofessor Says:

    In my undergraduate days, the Marxists were a good deal more direct. I remember one in particular who spat the word “bourgeois” so often that we imagined the podium was covered with spittle by the end of class. The guy was straight out of academic central casting: pronounced German accent, Leninist beard, the short-billed little “Commie Cap” hat so beloved of the trendy…the whole nine yards. The valuable information he imparted included that East Germany was rapidly eclipsing West Germany economically, and that all those reports about Soviet gulags were just Western propaganda. Nearly everyone who got killed by Communists deserved it. The US, on the other hand, had not ever killed anyone justly, except during the time they were helping Joe Stalin pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Shows up in the Urban Dictionary…

  10. GothamSociologist Says:

    There’s a response from one of Wright’s students that’s making the rounds in sociology here:

    The takeaway: this fight goes back 30 years. Jacoby’s got no problem with Marxists — actually, he more or less is one. But he’s doctrinaire and of a different doctrine (think Monty Python and the Life of Brian). Mostly though, it’s classic academic pettiness: he had a temper tantrum at the keyboard because Wright wrote a book about utopias that is getting a lot of attention but that didn’t pay any attention to HIS book on utopias/paean to his own erudition/love letter to the Jewish intellectual tradition.

  11. Roger Mexico Says:

    Wow, nothing brings out the know-nothings — complete with eye-bulging stories about Marxist caricatures sinisterly stroking their Lenin beards — like a little Jacoby. I can’t tell if “theprofessor” is regaling us with childhood memories dimly recollected or if he’s reproducing script pages for “How to Spot a Communist!” (1956).

    For what it’s worth, Jacoby is a man of the left. His heroes are of the New York Intellectual set (Macdonald, Rahv, etc.). His perennial project — he’s been writing versions of this article for decades — can be described as a leftist critique of certain strands of leftist thought. Jacoby’s basic argument is always something like: if these Marxists would only write a little better and climb out of their Ivory Towers then we could have a real revolution.

    And no, Shane, sociology has never been a serious academic discipline. Weber? Durkheim? Veblen? Simmel? C. Wright Mills? Luhmann? It’s all nonsense. You’re better off curling up with something safe and common-sensical like “Successful Strategies for the Upwardly Mobile Middle Manager.”

  12. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I’ve known a number of cheerfully open Marxist or marxian medieval art historians, and more than a few marxian historians of various periods – and not only those old Soviet historians who asked some really interesting questions about Greek and Roman slave-societies. I also knew the Gene and Betsy Fox Genovese before, during, and after their transition from Marxists to Roman Catholics with a recovered-marxian edge.

  13. Shane Street Says:

    Ah, I see, so the answer to my question is: Yes, sociology used to be a serious academic discipline. You know since Herr Mexico’s last in his list of luminaries died in 1998, and really no one outside Russia or some Far East cabals had really ever heard of him, either. And aside from the Frenchman, most of them are better known as historians or economists.

    But I am, alas, a mere know-nothing. If I were to, say, make the thinking of more recent (though old and dried up) sociologists widely known, by for example quoting them accurately, then I would be accused by the NYT of inciting violence. Against them. [See Beck and Fox Piven for a demonstration of the effect.]

  14. GothamSociologist Says:

    Shane – I think you can get away with a mere mention of how you disagree. And so long as you didn’t then go on to name 8 more, add a rant about how sociology is all mind-controlling lies, and put 7 more Jews in that list of 8 more, we wouldn’t accuse you of anti-semitism either. [Put Beck into context — it gets bad quick]

    As to live sociologists — yeah, people in sociology tend to get canonized only after their death, and tend to be polarizing while alive. How odd.

  15. In the provinces Says:

    Shane Street seems to have no idea that Niklas Luhmann was a rather conservative West German sociologist, known for his work in systems theory–not exactly a politically radical discipline. The idea that “no one outside Russia or some Far East cabals had ever really heard from him” is pure fantasy. In view of this evident lack of empirical information, one might want to regard the rest of what Street says with a certain skepticism.

  16. Shane Street Says:

    Who cares what Luhmann’s politics were? There is modern sociology’s problem in a nutshell. Polarizing, indeed.

    Here’s data: of his sixty or so major works, only about fifteen have been translated into English. And yes I doubt many (American, any way) sociologists can read German at a sufficient level to understand his writings.

    Gotham, accusing Beck of anti-semitism is an odd charge. You think he just conveniently forgets his Jew hatred when lauding Friedman? But if Media Matters thinks so, it must be true.

    Finally, my name is Shane Street. I have opinions I express on this blog from time to time. I don’t hide behind catchy noms de plume/de guerre. Thumbs up to Michael and Farah.

  17. Roger Mexico Says:

    Shane — That whooshing you hear is the sound of the goalposts briskly moving downfield.

    Fine. I submit as evidence, then, this blog, which is populated by real live serious academic sociologists: http://www.orgtheory.net

  18. MattF Says:

    … and that plate of green beans zooming past your left ear. Pay no mind.

  19. theprofessor Says:

    Sorry, Rog, not dim childhood memories-I was quite grown up at the time, sitting in the Morse Auditorium on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Professor Vladimir Ilyich Hate-on-the-Bourgeoisie Faux-Lenin was just as real as the Spartacus Youth League posters plastered all over celebrating the mighty deeds of Enver Hoxha. Believe it or not, the same semester I had a class with another self-proclaimed Marxist whose husband was a UN bureaucrat of some kind, and whose driver (is it unrevo to say “chauffeur”?) deposited her in front of the classroom building in a late-model Mercedes.

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