Into the Cave: Sheldon Wolin’s Search for Democracy

Into the Cave: Sheldon Wolin’s Search for Democracy

Sheldon Wolin dedicated his career to championing not just a new politics but a new kind of politics—one that refused to substitute top-down administration for the messy uncertainties of democracy.

Wolin pictured in the Daily Princetonian, March 1982 (courtesy Mudd Library, Princeton University)

Sheldon Wolin published Politics and Vision in the early months of 1960. He was thirty-seven and a junior ranking professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He had written a few academic articles here and there, and an unpublished dissertation on English constitutionalism, but no one was really sure what to expect from his first book.

It wasn’t exactly a good moment to be publishing in the field of political theory. Most of his political science colleagues had by the late 1950s turned toward more quantitative and empirical fields. Those who hadn’t—figures like Judith Shklar, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin—were lamenting its fading significance. After a half century of total war and economic calamity, political and moral thought appeared to have lost its mooring. “The grand tradition of political theory that began with Plato is . . . in abeyance,” wrote Shklar in 1959. Added Strauss in a book that came out the same year, “Today, political philosophy is in a state of decay…if it has not vanished altogether.” Even one of the discipline’s leading figures at the time—Isaiah Berlin—went so far as to ask, “Does Political Theory Still Exist?”

But Wolin did not want to join in the rueful panegyrics to a dying discipline. He wanted to give the “political theory enterprise” a new sense of meaning and purpose—a new vision. “In many intellectual circles today there exists a marked hostility toward, and even contempt for, political philosophy in its traditional form,” Wolin wrote in the programmatic opening of Politics and Vision. “My hope is that this volume, if it does not give pause to those who are eager to jettison what remains of the tradition of political philosophy, may at least succeed in making clear what it is we shall have discarded.”

This was an ambitious prospectus, especially for a young scholar who had only recently turned his full attention to political theory. (While teaching political science at his alma mater, Oberlin College, Wolin had primarily considered himself a “generalist.”) What followed was of an even less modest scope: a 529-page survey of Western political thought from its origins in Plato and Aristotle to contemporary social science. Wolin was not only working within the tradition of political philosophy; he was writing a history of the entire corpus, what he called politics’ “tradition of discourse.”

Beginning with a critical survey of Greek philosophy, detouring into studies of Roman law, Augustinian theology, and Lutheran Protestantism, Politics and Vision concluded with a wide-ranging critique of the modern tradition—a tradition that Wolin believed began with Machiavelli and Hobbes, reached its apex in the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, and ended with the “sublimation of the political” into the political economies of Smith, Saint Simon, Marx, and the postwar welfare state.

One of Wolin’s central arguments was that the Western tradition of political philosophy was often antidemocratic and antipolitical in nature. Classical political philosophy and modern political economy emerged in moments of institutional crisis, when the reigning powers were becoming increasingly illegitimate and civil war was on the horizon. They sought, therefore, not to democratize politics but to close it off. Classical thought attempted to do this by substituting philosophy for public opinion, philosopher kings for participation. Liberal and Marxist theorists hoped to use economic policies in order to create societies that were no longer riven by social divisions. The constitutive features of democratic politics were neglected if not intentionally suppressed.

There was a sense of tragedy and disappointment cut into the narrative of Politics and Vision, which seemed strange for a book that was also trying to salvage political philosophy. Plato, in Wolin’s reading, began the tradition with the hope of finding what was political—that is, what was common and public—but ended up developing a theory that curtailed politics’ more democratic impulses. As city-states and empires collapsed, Augustine sought to fashion a new kind of polity—a City of God—that subsumed politics into the kingdom of heaven. Saint Simon and Marx hoped to replace the conflict—the contestation, the differences and disputes—inherent in political life with classless societies. Even in the modern era, none were spared. Lenin, Lippmann, the Webbs, the Progressives of the 1910s, and the liberals of the New Deal had all succumbed to social and economic understandings of political activity. For them, the central task of politics was organizational; political institutions needed to “manage” a society’s economic and social welfare. Politics was the art of overseeing society from on high, rather than enabling a polity to realize its potential through political—that is, participatory—means.

Wolin was a child of the Depression and the New Deal and had fought in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. The first experience drew him toward the beneficence of the liberal administrative state. The second made him rather skeptical. Serving as a bombardier in America’s B-24 “flying boxcars,” Wolin was haunted by the ways in which the managers of this same liberal administrative state could so easily abstract questions of life and death into data sets and matters of technical proficiency. If he had begun Politics and Vision a liberal, he was a critic by the time he finished it. As he later recalled, the book marked the beginning of his “journey from liberalism to democracy.”

What “democracy” meant for Wolin in Politics and Vision was never entirely clear. Even in his later work, when it became a more explicit topic, it remained more of a problem than a political program. Like Plato’s Good, it was an image, an aspiration, that helped Wolin interpret and judge the outcomes of Western thought. But at the same time, it wasn’t some empyrean abstraction extracted from the heavens. Neither was it the idealized musings of a philosopher king. Rather, its contours were defined by experience, by one’s encounters in the world. Democracy, for Wolin, was what happened inside the cave.


When I first read Politics and Vision, I was near the end of college. Like the mid and late 1950s when Wolin wrote the book, the early 2000s had a certain end-of-ideology feel to them. Many of my contemporaries were still reeling from the shock that there would be another four years of the Bush administration. Left politics appeared to be loosely organized into two—sometimes intersecting—camps: the antiwar and civil libertarian activism around our so-called “war on terror” and the anti-globalization activism around NAFTA and sweatshops. Almost all politics, it seemed at the moment, was oriented around a set of rejections rather than any kind of affirmation. While many of us resisted the idea that we were at the “end of history” in the Clinton and Bush years, none of us had any clue about how to make history begin anew. There was an alternative, we all insisted, but which alternative—for whom, and when?—was entirely unclear.

Wolin’s Politics and Vision came, for me, at just the right moment. The programmatic features of Wolin’s ambitions immediately sunk in. He was insisting that not only had something gone terribly wrong with the way in which we had conceptualized politics but that we needed a new kind of politics, one that did not substitute the messy uncertainties of the cave with some kind of static philosophical standpoint. We could neither escape the cave nor really transcend it. The public contestations, the arguments and debates, the acts of disobedience were what life in the cave—what democratic politics—ought to be, what it could be, what it might one day still be. While other political theorists in the 1950s were turning back to the past—to classical antiquity or religion or tradition—in the hope of finding some kind of anchor for the drift and uncertainty that appeared to characterize the modern age, Wolin was committed to working out a moral and political outlook that was in and of this world.

Like John Dewey, who served as a lodestar for much of Wolin’s life, Wolin did not want to eschew the present in favor of the past. Neither did he want to acquiesce to the view held by many liberal intellectuals and politicians of his time that politics should be more instrumental in nature, that after the totalitarian furies of the first half of the twentieth century, what a modern society needed was not more but less politics—a society built on sound economics and stable rule of law rather than the heat and conflict of public participation.

Wolin did not offer any alternatives in Politics and Vision for my generation or for his own. He did not defer to Marxism or liberalism. Nor did Wolin take comfort in the post-Marxist images of socialism evoked by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser. But he did remind us that history was not over—that, in fact, there was an imperative to seek out new ways to make politics and, more specifically, democracy, alive again. As Corey Robin observed in his memorial to Wolin last week, “politics . . . never really goes away. It just assumes, as Wolin was the first to teach us, a new key.”


Wolin lived this imperative as much as Politics and Vision articulated it. Later in life he penned an essay titled “Fugitive Democracy,” and I think this nicely captures his political activities throughout much of his adult life: he was always on the hunt for those democratic experiences that remained subterranean in a mass bureaucratic society. In the 1950s, as the country was swept up in a wave of anti-communist paranoia, he became active in various civil libertarian organizations and he also began to publicly debate his liberal and conservative colleagues on issues as diverse as academic freedom and foreign policy. But it was not until 1964, when a series of protests erupted on the Berkeley campus, that democracy—it seemed—had found Wolin instead of the other way around.

By the fall of 1964, the Berkeley campus was a hotbed of activism. Many students had participated in the flurry of organizing and voter registration in Mississippi that previous summer, and the campus had also been the site of a heated confrontation between faculty and the administration over academic freedom and civil liberties (the university administration required all of its instructors to sign so-called “loyalty oaths”). The campus had become such a cauldron of activism that by mid-September 1964, the Berkeley administration decided to ban all political activity on campus, except for the activities of the Young Democratic and Republican clubs. The student response was not long in coming. On October 1, a group of students associated with the civil rights group CORE set up a table in front of the administration building in protest. The police were called shortly thereafter and, after one activist—Jack Weinberg, a former graduate student—refused to pack up the table or show his ID, he was detained in a police car.

Over the next thirty-two hours, three thousand students gathered around the car to prevent Weinberg’s arrest. While the CORE table was a planned provocation, the gathering that followed was spontaneous. A young man by the name of Mario Savio took off his shoes and climbed onto the roof of the police car to address the crowd, and for the next two days, the roof became a makeshift podium. Berkeley students and community members signed up to speak on topics ranging from local segregation policies to the relationship between the university and the defense industry.

At the center of many of the speakers’ complaints was a common theme: not only the issue of free speech on campus—or, for that matter, the various systems of discrimination and suppression in postwar America—but the constrained nature of political life more generally. On and off campus, in the South and in the North, the laws and norms of American democracy appeared to often be everything but democratic. African Americans in the South suffered, in particular, under Jim Crow and the everyday threat of violence. But many young and black Americans in the North also felt they had also been left out of the political decision-making process. “The same rights are at stake in both places,” as Savio explained, referring to his time in the South as a Freedom Summer activist: “the right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of law.”

Eventually Weinberg was released and the crowd dispersed. But a movement had begun. The activists’ central demand was no longer only free speech but a more democratic, more participatory society. As Weinberg himself put it: “free speech was what we were after, and what we organized around but one of the things in essence we were fighting for was to develop a sense of community, a sense of comradeship and purpose.”


Wolin was in front of the administration building that Thursday in the fall of 1964, and he and a group of faculty members became central in the struggle that followed. With the historians Charles Sellers, Carl Schorske, and Kenneth Stampp, fellow political theorist John Schaar, and several others, Wolin organized a faculty committee that offered support to the growing number of undergraduate and graduate students and began to lobby the administration to recognize the students’ claims.

Along with Schaar, Wolin also became one of the first interpreters of the campus protests that were now emerging at many major research universities. Wolin and Schaar echoed the complaints of the student protesters that October morning: what was at stake was not just free speech. The confrontations on campuses throughout the country—and, for that matter, throughout much of the North Atlantic—were emblematic of a more significant failure in postwar politics. “The student problem,” as they argued in a series of articles for The New York Review of Books, should not be interpreted of as only “a policy question, but as a symbolic fact . . . a state of affairs intimating a more general disorder.”

Wolin and Schaar elaborated on the students’ grievances in a series of essays on the highly bureaucratic and technical society nature of postwar American society. Policymakers at midcentury, they argued, had come to realize that the political and economic crises of the first half of the twentieth century were the result of the state’s inability to govern industrial society. As a result, politicians in the United States and in much of Europe began to reorient policymaking so that society was more easily administered from the top down, by an expert class of technically knowledgeable elites.

This may have helped fuel the propulsive economic growth of the postwar years. But for Wolin and Schaar it also caused many Americans to feel left out of the political process. “The institutions of our national government have become bureaucratized to an extraordinary degree,” they argued in 1970. “They are huge in size, hierarchical in structure, and impersonal.” “Even though the stakes are limited,” they added a couple months later, “the rules of the game are many and confining.” The basic fact is “that the last decade has seen a profound ‘de-authorization’ of many of the major institutions.” From universities and other sites of cultural production to the presidency, there was a growing sense that those in power could no longer provide the democratic experiences needed to legitimize their authority. “The coalition that has governed this land since 1932 is shattered,” Wolin and Schaar lamented. “On all sectors of the political spectrum there is a growing doubt that the liberal myth and logic will dominate the American future.”


The experiences of the 1960s at Berkeley transformed Wolin into an activist and public figure. After university officials dropped their ban of on-campus political activity, Wolin turned his eye to higher education itself. He and a group of faculty and student activists organized a “reconstitution” movement that hoped to reorganize Berkeley into a collection of more local and more participatory academic bodies, and he also became an outspoken critic of the professionalized nature of higher education, insisting that undergraduate and graduate programs should have a more civic component to them. Like Dewey, he believed that education should be a laboratory for training democratic citizens.

Wolin’s understanding of political theory was also transformed. After the publication of his and Schaar’s articles for the New York Review as a book in 1970 (The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society), Wolin began to see more clearly how political theory could contribute to American politics. Political theory not only could help conceptualize the public; it could call it into being. It could lend its analytical categories to intellectuals and politicians and popular movements. It could serve as a guide to contemporary questions of justice and obligation, in particular in moments of war and economic crisis. It could shed light in our dark times.

Just as Wolin and Schaar were preparing The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond for publication, Wolin also gave a lecture at UCLA. Peter Laslett, a British political philosopher, spoke on Locke and Wolin was supposed to offer a new reading of Hobbes, a figure that he was at times critical of in Politics and Vision. Wolin used the lecture as an opportunity to modify the criticisms of the political philosophy tradition that he had made in his first book. Not only Hobbes but Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx were given a new position in his understanding of the role political thought could play in expanding public life. “For Plato, Marsilius, More, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx, theory is the means for making a great political gesture and action is looked upon as a vehicle for rendering a great theoretical statement. In this they stand at the opposite pole from our contemporaries, whether it be the philosopher who believes that ‘philosophy leaves everything as it was,’ or the empirical political scientist who hesitates to cross the mythical line between fact and value.” The political theorist ignores “formal protocols which, in every age, thought has decreed for its own sanity and certitude. If anything, he has resembled the bisected lover of Plato’s Symposium, who has forever searching for his other half. The theorist’s wholeness awaited that deed which would unite idea and act.”

Political theory was not merely to be an academic enterprise but a public one. It not only outlined the complaints and demands, the excitements and disappointments, of politics; it was politics.


Between The Berkeley Rebellion, his Hobbes lecture (which eventually had a small print run as Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory), his often-cited essay “Political Theory as Vocation,” and his many essays in the New York Review of Books, Wolin’s arguments really began to sing by the early 1970s. His career came to reflect one of the main tenets of Politics and Vision: that the political theory enterprise was far from dead; on the contrary, it was capable of continuous innovation. Whatever antidemocratic features were imbricated in the history of the discipline’s classical and modern traditions were exactly that—history. Wolin now began to see how political theory could itself help bring about a new politics, how it could hunt down those fugitive moments of democracy.

I was lucky to have interviewed Wolin for my dissertation research over several days this past spring. From my small post on the ninth floor of Columbia’s Butler Library and from his on the other side of the country in Salem, Oregon, we talked about his Siberian-born father, his middle-class childhood in Buffalo, the rampant of anti-Semitism in the 1940s, his frightening time in the “flying fortresses” of the Second World War, the boredom and frustrations of his graduate years at Harvard, his short stint at Oberlin College (where he was a member of a political science department of three), and his long career at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Princeton.

What stood out was not only the fast-paced staccato of his speech, the sharp-witted allusions, the confidence and sagacity, but also a pronounced generosity. He asked about my dissertation, disagreeing with some points, counseling new directions on others. He wondered how a magazine like Dissent broke even. He observed how easy it was for his generation to make it as academics and worried about how hard it had become for mine.

Political theory really was a calling for Wolin, not an occupation or a discipline. It was a vocation, an enterprise that required moral and political commitment. He wore his commitments on his sleeve, and he believed all political thought should. One disappointment, that can be found in many of his later essays, was how the political theory enterprise he had helped bring back to life and back into the public in the 1960s had become so Alexandrian: how it had retreated into an elite body of knowledge and ideal theories that were reserved only for its community of inquirers. One can only imagine his wonder at the title of a forthcoming book by one of political theory’s leading deans, Political Political Theory. For Wolin, political theory needed no additional adjectives. It already was exactly what it purported to be: political.


In his later years, I think, Wolin despaired a bit over the way radical democratic aspirations of the 1960s appeared to splinter and grow more diffuse in the 1970s and ‘80s. He remained politically involved, supporting student activists organizing against South Africa’s apartheid. He helped educate a new generation of political theorists, from Peter Euben and Hanna Pitkin, who were his students at Berkeley, to Wendy Brown, Nicholas Xenos, Dana Villa, and Cornel West, whom he taught at Princeton. He also founded a magazine, democracy, in 1981, which may have had a short print run but—like one of its inspirations, Dwight Macdonald’s politics—helped carry the torch of democratic radicalism during a period between social movements and political generations. Its task, as its subtitle suggested, was that of political renewal, and it did help to, at least, renew the energies of many radicals—Christopher Lasch, Lawrence Goodwyn, Michael Rogin—who had felt dispirited by the disappointments of the 1960s.

Courtesy Mudd Library, Princeton University

Still, much of Wolin’s sense of hope and possibility appeared to have become somewhat diminished by the 1980s. Democracy in America was now truly fugitive. Like Wolin’s tragic figures in Politics and Vision, American democrats had originally set out “to solve problems, but as we have seen, in place of an active demos [the political system that developed in the Untied States] substituted professionalized representation of interests. By splintering the demos into disparate interests, it scotched the possibility of collective action.” Democracy in America could now only have an “occasional character” in Wolin’s opinion. Movements and campaigns could now only come in short bursts. Democracy could only exist outside formal political institutions—as transgressions and isolated acts breaking from the norms of public life.

I have always struggled a bit with his later work, including his last book, Democracy Incorporated (2008). Wolin still seemed to carry the torch of democratic radicalism, but he had also come to believe it was no longer capable of leading to substantive change. “Any prospect of revitalizing democracy in American should not assume that we can start afresh,” Wolin wrote near the end of Democracy Incorporated. “It is not morning in America. The first step should be to reflect on the changes of the past half century that have distorted the cultural supports of democracy and eroded its political practices while preparing the way for a politics and political culture favorable to inverted totalitarianism.” But this was an uphill task—the work of political renewal even more so.

In retrospect, however, Wolin might well have been right. If not the “inverted totalitarianism” that Wolin predicted, we certainly are, after Citizens United and, living in something close to it. Inverting the way authoritarian regimes politicize other spheres of life, twenty-first century capitalism has not only come to economize those public domains that had once given us a collective sense of meaning; it often now rules them. The Greeks believed public life was corrupted when the demands of another sphere—the family, the market, interpersonal relations—intruded on the commonweal of the political domain. Today, capitalism intrudes into virtually every sphere of life. Politics has revealed itself more clearly than ever to be the domain not only of the interests but of elite interest. “Democracy Incorporated” is pretty close to the mark.


One of the interesting features of Politics and Vision—and one often missed by those who only read its first edition—is that Wolin wrote the book twice: first in 1960 and then again in 2004. The second edition is listed as an “expanded version.” But it includes an entirely new book within it—over 300 new pages that make several significant revisions to its predecessor (he opens his second edition with old Prufrock’s line: “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions”). Perhaps one of the most pronounced changes is Wolin’s attitude toward Marx and his critical view of political economy. In his first edition, Marx represented just one more example of the economizing tendencies of the modern political tradition: the ways in which nineteenth- and twentieth-century social science subsumed politics into economics. In the second, as Wolin’s student Nicholas Xenos has pointed out, Marx goes from villain to prophet, foreseeing how the administrative features of the state become those of the private sector and how public life becomes restricted to those elite bodies with accumulated economic power. “For theory to grasp politics, Marx argued, it must first relocate politics in the economy,” Wolin wrote in his second edition. It now needed to also recognize and critique “the power-nature of economic formations.”

By constructing the terms and desires through which the proletariat could recognize itself, by offering the political gestures needed for action, Marx also helped “revive the dormant ideals of a politically active demos.” Like many of Wolin’s tragic theorists—Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Weber, Dewey—Marx may have been caught “wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born.” * But Marx wandered nonetheless, a prophet of despair and an incorrigible optimist hoping to carry our hopes and desires into a new age. Returning every so often to Wolin’s work this fall as I prepare for my own seminar on these tragic theorists, I realize that this can be said of Wolin as well.

David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent.

* This was how Wolin, invoking the English poet Matthew Arnold, described Plato.