In Memory of Sheldon Wolin (1922–2015)
November 2, 2015
Nov 2, 2015
3 Min read time
The revolutionary theorist sought not liberal stability but democratic adventure.
Sheldon Wolin had immense influence on American political theory. / Photograph: Anne Norton
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
—T. S. Eliot
Behind me the rose petals fall into a bed of autumn leaves. Before me the unread, the unwritten manuscripts, the tree that wants pruning. The tangle of present endings, past accomplishment, disappointed hopes, and thwarted aims is a nest for that which is not yet but might be. Time past and time future are sheltered in the present. Time present finds safekeeping for its hopes in time past and time future.
The political theorist Sheldon Wolin, who died October 21, lived in the presence of time past, time present, and time future. Perhaps because he understood time well, he lived fully in his own. He was an airman in World War Two and a pilot, navigator, and bombardier thereafter. He spoke for the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. In his revolutionary text Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (1960), he made a way through the Western canon and beyond it, transforming political theory from a European inheritance into a terrain of labor open to Americans, indeed to all.
He was never the fearful liberal who looked askance at democracy, searching out techniques of governance to compensate.
Politics was opening in the 1960s, but political science had silenced and sequestered theory. Wolin restored political theory, recovering its authority in the discipline and, more importantly, restoring theory as a practice necessary to politics itself. He built his house with his own hands. He worked to maintain the democratic practices and local commons of his hometown in California. He taught students in Princeton’s precincts of privilege to see clearly. He continued to teach and, in 2004, gave us the full version of Politics and Vision.The first edition called readers to commit themselves to theory. The second, released in the midst of war, called us to politics. Both editions were animated by Wolin’s sense of political theory as a vocation and his practice of the willfully examined life. In Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, he defended democratic politics against the rise of neoliberalism and imperial wars.
Listening to Wolin put one in the presence of the past, a past sheltering the future, a past sheltered in the present, a past yet to be fulfilled. Reading Wolin, one came to see forces and structures in the present. With him, one could see into the uncertain future. Time showed itself as manifold. Time became the field in which we worked, the terrain of exploration, a place of discovery and resource, a place to go questioning. No one could see so well in the dark. No one could map the darkness more precisely.
If we find our way in these dark times, we will owe much to his guidance. He gave us courage that does not depend on hope. He taught us to be fearless. Wolin saw the risks to take. He was never the fearful liberal who looked askance at democracy, searching out techniques of governance to compensate for the perceived deficits of popular rule. Never the anxious constitutionalist trying to make the present endure. Wolin had democratic daring. He sought not lasting institutions but a fugitive democracy, not liberal stability but democratic adventure. He saw with clarity the hazards, risks, possible errors, and certain missteps of democrats. He mourned, with Tocqueville, the virtue, beauty, and learning that aristocracies produced. But, like Tocqueville, he saw beyond the loss. Democracy in America closes with Tocqueville’s reluctant praise of the democratic: “in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.” The recognition that came so reluctantly to Tocqueville came passionately to Wolin.
Wolin could account for past and present injustices with clinical precision and a ruthless eye. He had no faith in progress. For him politics was often, though not only, Weber’s “slow drilling through hard boards”: the long work of building a common democratic life. There is no promise of redemption in the future. Yet the possibility of the political, the arrival of the democratic, is always with us.
For Plato and Aristotle, Locke and Tocqueville, Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss, even for Hannah Arendt, democracy was a problem. The imperfections of the European inheritance were evident in the ruins of empire, the Cold War, the rise of the security state, and the Holocaust. But Wolin was an American. He saw promise in the incompleteness of the world, what might hatch and grow in the cracks and fissures of broken things. For Wolin, democracy was not an ancient Athenian legacy; it might be ours.
May his memory be a blessing. And a spur.
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November 02, 2015
3 Min read time