[Marxism] Sheldon S. Wolin, Theorist Who Shifted Political Science Back to Politics, Dies at 93
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 29 08:48:45 MDT 2015
(Corey Robin wrote about Wolin:
NY Times, Oct. 29 2015
Sheldon S. Wolin, Theorist Who Shifted Political Science Back to
Politics, Dies at 93
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Sheldon S. Wolin, a political theorist whose landmark 1960 book
“Politics and Vision” shifted the center of gravity back to politics,
rather than economics or sociology, in the field of political science,
and who went on to analyze the possibilities and limits of popular
democracy in a series of influential studies, died on Oct. 21 at his
home in Salem, Ore. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Deborah Olmon.
“Politics and Vision,” subtitled “Continuity and Innovation in Western
Political Thought,” appeared at a time when American political science
was under the sway of the behavioralist revolution, which emphasized the
quantitative analysis of data rather than political ideas as a way to
explain political behavior.
Professor Wolin, then teaching at the University of California,
Berkeley, galvanized the profession by gathering key political
philosophers, beginning with the Greeks, in a grand debate on democracy
and examining their ideas not as historical artifacts, but as a way to
criticize current political structures.
“The book revitalized political theory by making its history relevant to
an analysis of the present,” Nicholas Xenos, a student of Professor
Wolin’s and a professor of political science at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in an email. “It challenged the
behavioralists, for whom history was increasingly irrelevant. It also
provided a way to criticize the present using the concepts and
vocabulary that since antiquity had sustained concern for what he called
‘the possibilities of collectivity, common action and shared purposes.’ ”
In 1985, the American Political Science Association honored the book
with the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award in recognition of its lasting
impact. It was reissued in expanded form in 2004.
Nearly as influential on the profession was Professor Wolin’s 1969 essay
“Political Theory as a Vocation,” a call for political scientists to
develop what he called “epic” theories that would change perceptions
and, in turn, societies.
With Michael Rogin, Hanna Pitkin and other colleagues, Professor Wolin
made Berkeley a leading center for the study of political theory, and
the headquarters of what became known as the Berkeley school.
He cast himself and his profession in activist terms, concerned with
“the being and well-being of collectives,” as he put it in the
introduction to “The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the
Constitution” (1989). Political theory, he wrote, “is primarily a civic
and secondarily an academic activity.”
Sheldon Sanford Wolin was born on Aug. 4, 1922, in Chicago and grew up
in Buffalo. His father, an immigrant from Russia, was a clothing
designer who started his own manufacturing business. His mother, for a
time, ran a small variety store.
He enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio but after two years enlisted in
the Army Air Forces, serving as a bombardier and navigator in the
Pacific before returning to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1946. He did his
graduate work at Harvard, where he received his doctorate in 1950, with
a dissertation on English constitutional thought in the late 18th century.
Interested in reaching a nonacademic audience, Professor Wolin, in
collaboration with his Berkeley colleague John H. Schaar, wrote
frequently for The New York Review of Books in the 1960s on the Free
Speech Movement and campus unrest at Berkeley.
The essays were included in their book “The Berkeley Rebellion and
Beyond: Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society”
(1970). Professor Wolin later wrote for the review on Watergate, Henry
Kissinger, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and American
In 1972 he joined the department of politics at Princeton, where he
taught until retiring in 1987.
His influence on the profession as a teacher has been enormous. His
students include such prominent scholars as Wendy Brown at Berkeley, J.
Peter Euben at Duke and Cornel West at Princeton.
In addition to his daughter Deborah, he is survived by another daughter,
Pamela Shedd, and two grandchildren. His wife, the former Emily Purvis,
died in 2011.
Somewhat unusually for a political theorist, Professor Wolin analyzed
political thinkers with a literary critic’s ear, bearing down on telling
metaphors or revealing stylistic quirks. That gift was evident in
“Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory” (1970) and
“Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and
Theoretical Life” (2001), a blend of political theory and intellectual
In 1981 Professor Wolin founded Democracy: A Journal of Political
Renewal and Radical Change, which explored the potential for populist
movements in the United States. He was its editor until it ceased
publication in 1983.
“The left cannot play politics on terms set by mass media and mass
organization,” he told The New York Times in 1982. “A more decentralized
and local politics, scattered and diffuse, is the first best hope.”
With time, he took the view that corporate power and political power
were becoming so closely intertwined in the United States, and the
public so apathetic, that genuine participatory democracy was at best a
remote possibility, expressed in rare “fugitive” expressions of the
“Democracy in the late modern world cannot be a complete political
system,” he wrote in a 1994 essay, “and given the awesome potentialities
of modern forms of power, and what they exact of the social and natural
world, it ought not to be hoped or striven for.”
His last book reflected this dark interpretation of politics in the
United States. It bore a sobering title: “Democracy Incorporated:
Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”
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