- Sheldon S. Wolin and the Historicity of Political Thought
“To refine, to clarify, to intensify . . . there is but one single force—the imagination.”william carlos williams, spring and all (1923)
Long considered one of the most original and influential American political theorists of the last fifty years, Sheldon S. Wolin’s work has yet to receive the sustained critical engagement it deserves. Essays dealing with this or that aspect of his political thought have begun to appear during the last couple of years, a trend that undoubtedly will continue. Out of these efforts, fine elucidations of some of his signature contributions have ensued. Yet, few distinguished exceptions aside, many attempts to probe the critical and political import of Wolin’s ideas, especially his formulation of “fugitive democracy,” end up assimilating Wolin’s thinking into academic trends alien to him without an immanent consideration of the form and content of his original contribution to contemporary political theory or his approach to the interpretation of texts and his views about the historicity of political thought.
It is, of course, impossible to reconstruct the full arc of Wolin’s political thought in one essay. But an essay can sketch a diachronic contextualization of his classic work Politics and Vision, along with some initial jottings on its architecture and form, in order to establish its importance in the development of Wolin’s distinctive formulation of the vocation of political theory. Principally considered an erudite conspectus of the history of western political thought, which without question it is, the actual substance of this book, [End Page 146] and the approach to the historicity of political thought it stages, have gone largely unheeded. Unlike many works of this genre, Politics and Vision is a work of interpretation, not just an erudite history of the eventuation of ideas across space and time. But before reflecting on the architecture of this book and the original approach to the history of political thought it enacts, it is important to briefly consider Wolin’s formative experiences and his writing prior to it, which constitute the obvious point of departure for a proper understanding of his contribution to the study of the historicity of political thought.
Born in 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants, a child of the depression and veteran of the war against Fascism—where as a nineteen year old he was a bomber in the South Pacific and flew fifty one missions—Wolin’s formative experiences were significantly defined by a time of capitalist convolutions, crises and wars, revolution and counterrevolution, and the Judeocide. After the war, he finished his undergraduate degree at Oberlin, where he concentrated on classics, philosophy and political science, and subsequently pursued graduate studies in political science at Harvard, where he wrote a dissertation on seventeenth-century English constitutional ideas, while reading broadly on classics as well as history. An education that combined with a remarkable literary sensibility positioned Wolin to eventually become a world-class historian of western political thought.1
These formative experiences left an imprint on Wolin’s political and theoretical outlook, which found its fullest expression in Politics and Vision. Conceived and written during the Eisenhower era, Politics and Vision betrays a political sensibility largely defined by the official American political discourse of the immediate postwar era. At the time, Wolin’s political outlook was basically that of a New Deal liberal, and had conceived the denouement of World War II through the lenses of American ideology at the time, with the United States cast as leading the “forces of freedom” in an “open society” against the forces of reaction in closed totalitarian political orders. But the late fifties and sixties had already become a period of reflection and radicalization, which he subsequently characterized as “the journey from liberalism to democracy”; a journey that entailed the eventual loss of “liberal innocence.”2
Such innocence was irreversibly shed, as Wolin became a politically involved citizen in the context of the Berkeley protests during the sixties, [End Page 147] primarily in relation to the Free Speech Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. His signature ideas about participatory democracy were forged during this particular...