(Sheldon Wolin 1922-2015)

Political theorist Professor Sheldon Wolin died in Oregon at age 92, still writing to the end.   There have been academic tributes to him as the best of American political theorists in the last 50 years, more personal tributes from younger political theorists who trained with him, and still more from former undergraduates who saw him as an extraordinary and interesting teacher and thoroughly personable man with no pretentiousness.  

I knew him first as I worked for him as a teaching assistant in the Department of Political Science at the University of California in Berkeley starting in 1960, and though an arrest and political activism took me from that study, it was precisely that activism that allowed us to stay in touch—an experience of many of his other students and former students—and of faculty too, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement.   He very much believed in popular activism, especially by means of participatory democracy. He himself was later credited for leading the successful Princeton faculty effort to have that university divest itself of investments in apartheid South Africa.

But Sheldon was as much influenced by us as we were by him.  I think he most liked the courage he saw in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War activism.  To show something of the change in him, which paralleled a certain change in the country, I once wrote him when he was in England to say that I suddenly realized I was some sort of socialist.  He wrote back to say he’d come out of the political closet himself, only to discover no one cared. I think it was McCarthyism that made him omit a chapter on Marx in the first printing of “Politics and Vision”, his now well-known history of political thought.  He was in exile in his own country until younger people in the white North, and all ages in the black South, freed him and brought him home—to the subsequent benefit of himself and all of us. It was not his service flying in bombers in World War II that freed him, it was participatory democracy.

His ultimate position on limited hope for democracy has been disturbing to a number of Marxists and he has been criticized for it.  In his last collection of essays in his book “Fugitive Democracy”, he argued that true democracy, because of the control of government by capitalism, selfishness, and its international money, is impossible.  That is, it is possible either only in small settings—like the hospital board of directors on which he once served—or momentarily in other political settings, like Occupy Wall Street, or the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-Vietnam War movement.   There is no promise of ultimate justice and fairness, no communist future, no religious heaven—it is a social democratic position, facing in another sphere the reality parents must who understand there are no guarantees of safety for their children.   It is a grown-up outlook, and for his critics, I leave them with the words of the anonymous grave marker in Greece discovered for Thucydides, who centuries back had his own critics and was exiled:

I am the unfinished tomb of Thucydides the Athenian
whose unfinished work confounds men so much
they try to finish it, undoing what he dying did.
Let them try the facts, but only after first having tried
battle, exile, sickness, and death.
Even empty, mine remains the better end.