[Marxism] Sheldon S. Wolin, Theorist Who Shifted Political Science Back to Politics, Dies at 93

Louis Proyect 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

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 
popular will.

“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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