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Michael Burawoy and Russell Jacoby head to head over Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias

Clara Heyworth11 February 2011

Following quick on the heels of publication of Russell Jacoby's review of Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias in Dissent, Michael Burawoy has written a detailed reply stressing the importance of Wright's project and rescuing it from the tangle of Jacoby's at times ad hominem attack, an excerpt of which reads:

Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber's 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber's book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a "real utopia" with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron's suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled "Awakening from Utopia," sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the "real utopias" in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He 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. 

Burawoy argues that, to the contrary, Erik Olin Wright is a model of meaningful empirical engagement, in a profession that is otherwise more remote than ever from the real world:

The context of [Wright's] project is important. These days, social scientists are concerned with what is, perhaps with what has been, but very rarely with what could be. We spend our time building elaborate explanatory models of how things work, albeit with limited success—as we know from the mess economists have made of the world. The limitations of social science have led some to abandon it altogether, while others have intensified their commitment to an ever-purer science, remote from the concrete world in which ordinary people live. Most social scientists continue to tread the blind alleys of positivism, and those who deviate from this path often turn to navel gazing or esoteric modeling.

Burawoy is careful to acknowledge Jacoby's "own important contributions to the study of utopias," but cannot avoid the conclusion that, 

Sadly in his review [Jacoby] chose to ridicule Wright rather than to engage constructively with one of the most important projects of twenty-first century social science. Jacoby loves to be a bad boy, but here he is just an anti-intellectual.

Visit Dissent to read Jacoby's review and Burawoy's response in full. And should you feel so inclined, you can also read Jacoby's reply to Burawoy's response

For other worthwhile responses to Jacoby's review, please see "Disingenuous Men Write Disingenuous Reviews" and "Dueling Utopias."

Filed under: reviews