Seminar on "How to be an Anti-capitalist for the 21st Century"

Erik Olin Wright
Visiting Professor

Department of Political economy
University of Sydney
May, 2016


This seminar will grapple with a really difficult question: Is it possible to have a compelling strategy to transcend capitalism with an emancipatory alternative? Here is the way I describe this problem in chapter 3 of the book on which I am working:

Most social change in human history operates behind the backs of people as the cumulative effect the unintended consequences of human action. To be able to have a “strategy” for social change, in contrast, it must be possible to produce desirable social transformation through deliberate, intentional action. There are undoubtedly desirable goals of social transformation for which no strategy is possible, either because the goal itself is not viable – it just wouldn’t work – or because there is no way to get there from here. It therefore may simply be impossible to have a coherent strategy for the radical transformation of something as complex as a social system. This is what Frederick Hayek claimed in his strident attack on socialism, The Fatal Conceit. Intellectuals, he argued, believed in the fantasy that they could imagine an alternative to the existing social system and bring it about through deliberate political action. This was a fantasy because the negative unintended consequences of such massive social engineering inevitably would overwhelm the intended outcomes.

Hayek’s criticism should not be dismissed out of hand simply because he used it in defense of very conservative political positions. What we need is an exploration of alternative anti-capitalist strategies that avoids both the false optimism of wishful thinking and the disabling pessimism that emancipatory social transformation is beyond strategic reach.

Much of the reading for sessions will be draft chapters of the book-in-progress, How to be an anti-capitalist for the 21st century. I had hoped to have a complete draft of the book by the time the seminar began, but (alas) much of it remains unwritten. As in many difficult problems, once you begin getting into the fine-grained details of the argument, certain things you thought were settled begin to unravel.



Session 1. Wednesday, May 4. Why be an anti-capitalist?

How to be an Anti-capitalist for the 21st Century. Chapter 1. “Why be an Anti-capitalist”. Chapter 2. “The Diagnosis and Critique of capitalism

Envisioning Real Utopias. Chapters 1 and 2

Session 2. Wednesday, May 11. Varieties of Anti-capitalism

How to be an Anti-capitalist for the 21st Century. Chapter 3. “Varieties of Anti-capitalism

A debate in Jacobin over these themes:

How to be an Anticapitalist Today”, Erik Olin Wright, Jacobin. December 12, 2015
An Anti-capitalism that can Win”, by Dylan Rile, Jacobin. January 6, 2016. Link
How to Think about (and win) Socialism”, by Erik Olin Wright. Jacobin. April 27, 2016

Alternative typologies of strategic logics” (unpublished memo)

Envisioning Real Utopias. Chapters 9-11

Session 3. Wednesday, May 18, Real Utopias

Envisioning Real Utopias. Chapters 5-7

Session 4. Wednesday, May 25, The Capitalist State and Real Utopias

How to be an Anti-capitalist. Chapter 5. “The Capitalist state and real utopias

Envisioning Real Utopias, chapter 8. “Elements of a Theory of Transformation,” especially 209-302

Andre Gorz, “Reform and Revolution,” The Socialist Register, 1968