Sheldon Wolin, 1922-2015

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2015

Sheldon Wolin, the political theorist, has died.

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the exit of an entire generation of scholars: David Montgomery, Carl Schorske, Peter Gay, Marshall Berman. This was the generation that taught me, sometimes literally. But Wolin’s death hits me hardest. I took two courses with him as an undergraduate: Modern Political Theory (Machiavelli to Smith) and Radical Political Thought (Paine to Foucault). The first in my freshman year, the second in my sophomore year. I would have taken more, but Wolin retired the following year. Those courses set me on my way. I would never have become a political theorist were it not for him.

There will be many texts and appreciations in the days and months to come. Wolin taught generations of students, many of whom are now leaders of the field, and their students are now teaching other students. At CUNY, we’re always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter, was the student of Wendy Brown and Nick Xenos, both of whom were students of Wolin. John Wallach, also at Hunter, and Uday Mehta, at the Graduate Center, were both students of Wolin. There’s probably no more powerful a demonstration of Wolin’s vision of political theory as a tradition of continuity and innovation, as a transmission across time, than these students of students of students.

While many of these texts and appreciations will focus, and rightly so, on the political side of Wolin—as mentor and participant and commentator on the student movements of the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley; as leader of the divestment movement at Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s; as searching public critic of technocratic liberalism, market conservatism, and American imperialism, in the pages of the New York Review of Books and his wondrous though short-lived journal democracy; as a theorist of radical or “fugitive” democracy—I want to focus here on the way he did political theory. Less the substance (though I’ll come to that at the end) than the style.

The first thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how literary it was. It’s hard to see this in some of his texts, but it was on full display in his lectures. I don’t know if Wolin was at all trained in New Criticism—I seem to recall him citing I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism somewhere—but he read like a New Critic. The opening paragraph or page of every text was the site of an extended exploration and explication, as if the key to all of the Second Discourse was to be found in that arresting image of the statue of Glaucus which Rousseau mentions at the outset.

Chekhov has a line somewhere about how if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, you damn well better make sure it goes off in the second. Wolin paid attention to those guns, especially when they didn’t go off. He was endlessly curious about a theorist’s metaphors, asides, slips, and allusions, and mined them to great effect. Long before we were reading de Man and Derrida, he was reading like them. But without all the fuss. He just did it. [click to continue…]