The Theorist Who Reached Across Time

When the great radical thinker Sheldon Wolin died this week, he left behind a singular approach to political theory.

Sheldon Wolin during an interview with Chris Hedges last year. Real News Network

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 the City University of New York, we’re always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter College, was the student of Wendy Brown, who was the student 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’ 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.

One moment I remember in particular. In his lecture on The Prince, Wolin stopped and stayed with the dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici that precedes the text. These two paragraphs in particular:

I hope it will not be thought presumptuous for someone of humble and lowly status to dare to discuss the behavior of rulers and to make recommendations regarding policy. Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and the peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes.

I therefore beg your Magnificence to accept this little gift in the spirit in which it is sent. . . . And if your Magnificence, high up at the summit as you are, should occasionally glance down into these deep valleys, you will see I have to put up with the unrelenting malevolence of undeserved ill fortune.

Most readers, if they pay attention at all, focus on that last sentence, where Machiavelli lands, making the passage little more than an extended case of special pleading: cast out of office (Machiavelli had been an adviser to the Florentine republic) after the Medicis came to power in 1512, arrested and tortured, and then exiled to his country estate, Machiavelli wanted nothing so much as to be of use to the men who had ruined him.

Wolin read things differently. First, he noticed the subtle dig at Lorenzo and rulers more generally: standing on the summit, they could only see one side of the art of rule. To truly understand the art of rule, however, one had to see it from both perspectives: that of the ruler and that of the ruled. And who could see both perspectives? The theorist, like the landscape artist who painted from the vantage of the valley and the peaks.

Seemingly a humble plea from a humble servant, the dedicatory letter is in fact a brazen elevation of the letter writer, the theorist, over the ruler, the prince. By attending to the metaphor, Wolin found a deeper statement about the relationship between the political theorist and the political actor.

But then Wolin stepped back even further, asking us to think about that notion of perspective embedded in Machiavelli’s metaphor. Most theorists ask us to look upon the political world sub specie aeternitatis. To properly see things as they are, they ascend or exit to the view from nowhere. Plato leaves the cave, Rousseau (an imperfect example here, I know) is locked outside the gates of Geneva, Rawls removes himself to the original position, to a place where there are no positions.

Machiavelli, said Wolin, takes a different tack: the political art is to see things from multiple positions and places, to adopt the vantage of one, then the other, to see (and draw) the whole as a composite of perspectives. Perspectivalism is the fancy word for this, and it’s usually traced to Nietzsche (who, perhaps not coincidentally, in his notebooks described Machiavelli’s teaching as “perfection in politics”). But Wolin identified it with Machiavelli — and as a result, incidentally, came up with a far more interesting reading of the incommensurability of views in Machiavelli than that which we find in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on Machiavelli.

I remember Wolin doing something similar when we read The Wealth of Nations. He asked what it meant for a political text to open with men making pins in a factory, what it means to make these the leading figures in a political drama. He even might have compared it to the opening of The Prince, asking us to focus on the literary characters that people the one text versus the other. I can’t remember what conclusions he drew from that question, but it was a kind of reading that I was not used to. And that many theorists and philosophers, focused as they are on the formal logic and propositions of an argument, don’t really do.

The second thing to note about Wolin as a reader is his historicism. Historicism today, at least in political theory, is primarily identified with Quentin Skinner and his contextualist method. Political theorists, it’s said, are not in a dialogue across the ages. They are instead local, situated political actors, engaging in a series of moves and counter-moves that are structured by the rules of the game they happen to be playing. That game is the political discourse of the day. Its players are the lesser and greater polemicists and pamphleteers of an argument.

To understand what Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Locke is doing when he writes a text, you have to read the hundreds if not thousands of local interlocutors he is responding to. Pace the claims of many readers, the Second Treatise is not a response to Hobbes, who was dead by the time Locke started to write it. Political theory, like politics itself, is a situated enterprise. To understand it historically, we have to disaggregate it into a series of local, often disconnected enterprises. That’s what it means to recover the pastness of the past.

(Though Skinner in his more recent work has suggested that Hobbes may be directly responding to Machiavelli. That very notion — that a theorist could be reaching across a century, not to mention a continent, in writing a text — is a great no-no among Skinner’s followers, which is why some of them seem so scandalized by it, as I discovered at a seminar last year. Hell hath no fury like an acolyte scorned.)

Wolin was called by a similar historical impulse as Skinner. He too sought to recover the discrete languages of the past, the situatedness of theory and action. But Wolin’s historicism was different. Without resorting to those thousands of interlocutors, he managed to contrive a much more radical and bracing sense of the past than most contextualists (it should be said that Skinner himself actually manages to do this with great aplomb), in part because he remains loyal to a notion of movement across time, of a dialogue across the ages.

There are so many instances of this sensibility at work in Politics and Vision, Wolin’s greatest book, but one in particular stands out for me. It comes early on, in the third chapter, where he’s discussing the move of political theory from ancient Greece to ancient Rome.

Already, you’re invited into a historicist frame. Wolin was a big one for the specificity of theory’s location in time and space. What effect did it have that political theory arises in the context of the polis, the city-state; moves to an empire radiating out of Rome; resides (and lives a covert life) for hundreds of years in the Catholic Church; and suddenly revives in the form of the modern nation-state? At each step, Wolin was attentive to how the location in time and space alters the vocabulary, the questions, the categories of theoretical inquiry.

Wolin opens his discussion of the move from the Greek city-state to the Roman empire with a quote from Tacitus, where Tiberius contrasts the austere virtue of the early days of Rome with the decadence of the imperium, and ascribes the shift to the fact that originally “we are all members of one city. Not even afterwards had we the same temptations, while our dominion was confined to Italy.”

For Wolin, the passage is filled with intimation: the suspicion that our understanding of politics is inescapably tied to the experience of the ancient city-state, with its “civic intimacy” and “nervous intensity” and “compelling urgency,” such that any alteration of that “spatial dimension” becomes a sign of political dilution and loss.

The essential questions raised by these political thinkers were: how far could the boundaries of political space be extended, how much dilution by numbers could the notion of citizen-participant withstand, how minor need be the “public” aspect of decisions before the political association ceased to be political?

Setting aside what might be seen as an implicit normative claim underlying these questions — this relentlessly local and immediatist understanding of the “political” would dog Wolin’s work on radical democracy for years, though I don’t think we need to accept that understanding in order to see the power of the historicism at play here — what he was pointing to was how significant an effect it was to be confronted, physically, concretely, by such a vast tract of land as that which was contained by Rome, and to attempt to conduct politics on that new terrain.

For Wolin, the vastness of the imperium helped make sense of the extended and elaborated codexes of law, administration, and jurisprudence that entered the theoretical canon with Rome, but even more interesting, the newfound attention to symbols and personae.

In large entities like . . . the Roman Empire, the methods of generating loyalties and a sense of personal identification were necessarily different from those associated with the Greek idea of citizenship. Where loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it was now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified. The person of the ruler served as the terminus of loyalties, the common center linking the scattered parts of the empire. This was accomplished by transforming monarchy into a cult of and surrounding it with an elaborate system of signs, symbols, and worship. These developments suggest an existing need to bring authority and subject closer by suffusing the relationship with a religious warmth. In this connection, the use of symbolism was particularly important, because it showed how valuable symbols can be in bridging vast distances. They serve to evoke the presence of authority despite the physical reality being far removed. . . .

. . .The “visual politics” of an earlier age, when men could see and feel the forms of public action and make meaningful comparisons with their own experience, was giving way to “abstract politics,” politics from a distance. . .

This shift from the visually immediate to the distant and the abstract — one can see it in Machiavelli’s claim that in politics, no one knows who you are but how you appear; in Hobbes’s notion of the Leviathan — would be a recurring theme in Wolin’s analysis, even a lament.

(As Bonnie Honig pointed out to me in an email, Wolin was the master of the in-between: he was at his best when he understood how political beings are located in these in-between modes. He was especially attuned to this in-between-ness when the in-between was temporal. When it became spatial, he tended to be more of a catastrophist, seeing the move from one space to another, or one mode of space to another, as absolute, the portent or picture of a complete loss.)

But if we can step outside the lamentation, we can see in it a stunning reminder of the situatedness and historical specificity of theory. Not in the formal polemical arguments of the Romans or the Greeks (though there’s plenty of that in Wolin, too). But in these deeper idioms and unspoken grammars, in the almost unnoticed backgrounds of space and time (his discussion of the effect of introducing the category of an afterlife, of eternal time, on Christian thought is equally resonant), in the guns that don’t go off in the second act.

And, again, the only reason Wolin can notice them is that he’s willing to do what the contextualists say you can’t do: reach across time, force thinkers who never knew each other (maybe never even heard of each other) into a conversation. That is the way we can get at the specificity of their language, through comparison and confrontation. That is the way we can understand the ruptures of historical experience. With the exception of Nietzsche and Hegel, maybe Lukács (those passages on the effect of the changing mode of warfare in The Historical Novel are pretty incredible), I can’t think of a single theorist who understood this, who did this, so well.

The last thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how interested he was in translation. Not the translation from French to German or ancient Greek to English, but the translation of one language of politics into another. While Wolin is often, and justly, associated with the claim that we have lost the language of politics — again, in the style of a lament — what was always more interesting about his approach was how attuned he was to ways in which a political vocabulary or idiom gets translated in a new setting.

We’ve already seen a little of this in his account of the transposition of political concepts from the city-state of Greece to the imperium of Rome, but the most exciting moment, for me, occurs when Wolin turns to the rise of Christianity and its impact on political thought. Where most commentators, says Wolin, treat the political dimensions and elements of Christianity solely in those moments when the religion is forced to confront the polity, Wolin takes a different tack:

The significance of Christian thought for the Western political tradition lies not so much in what it had to say about the political order, but primarily in what it had to say about the religious order. The attempt of Christians to understand their own group life provided a new and sorely needed source of ideas for Western political thought.

What follows is an attempt to reconstruct the politicalness of the early and later Christians’ ideas of membership in the Church, of schism and heresy, of priesthood and papacy, and so on. It’s as if the entirety of the ancient political canon had been sublimated into a religious idiom and context; the task of reading was to recover the modes of that sublimation and to see what remained from the ancients and what was lost.

I can’t say how generative these notions of transposition and sublimation have been for me. In my first book, on fear, I looked at how later, more psychological approaches to fear were sublimations of earlier, more political understandings of fear. More recently, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that economics is a sublimation of an earlier political vocabulary of action, glory, and greatness, how even someone as mathematically inclined as Ricardo may, in his idea of the margin, be transposing and transforming Machiavelli’s ideas of the founding and time.

Where most theorists identify the political moments of these writings in the passages where an economist considers the state, I take my cues from Wolin and look for them in those moments where an economist deals with questions of exchange, risk, interest, profit, and so forth.

Sublimation is also the word Wolin uses when he reaches the nineteenth century and looks at the rise of organization as the central element of contemporary political life. In the last chapter of the book (in the first edition), Wolin takes us from Saint-Simon to Lenin to Elton Mayo and Peter Drucker, and sees in each of these writers and moments of theorizing an attempt to escape from politics.

Again in a declensionist mode, Wolin sets his sites on the ascendancy of economistic modes of thinking. His clear target is the modern corporation and the managerialist discourse of human relations. These are political languages, practices, and institutions; they are the result of centuries of displacement from ancient Greece to the modern nation-state. Yet they evade their politicalness or fail to understand it.

What’s interesting to me about this last chapter is how much it may have missed in its conflation of the economic with the organization and the corporation. Of course, it makes sense that it did. Wolin wrote Politics and Vision in 1960, on the heels of a decade that had seen the publication of such titles as The Hidden PersuadersThe Organization ManWhite Collar, and the like. It was the age of the corporation and middle management; naturally, that was Wolin’s endpoint, which shouldn’t in any way diminish just how surprising and innovative it was for him to write a history of the Western political canon that ends with Peter Drucker!

But what it missed, I think, was the very insight that powered his earlier chapters on the Christians: not that the political vocabulary was lost or eclipsed, but that it got transposed into a new key. For that, to my mind, is how we should be reading thinkers like Schumpeter, Hayek, Coase, Mises, Friedman, even Jevons and Ricardo. Little in the way Wolin dealt with economistic modes of thinking could prepare us for the ferocity of the political assault that economics was about to visit upon us.  But that ill-preparedness was baked into the lament for the lost language of politics.

Politics, even the Grosse Politik of Nietzsche’s imaginings — which lurks, in a quieter, more quotidian vein, in the background of Wolin’s writing — never really goes away. It just assumes, as Wolin was the first to teach us, a new key. Always in-between.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.