The dark vision of a small-town US democrat

Politics and Vision
February 11, 2005

The new edition of a 40-year-old classic betrays its author's bitterness about the loss of the political struggle, writes John Dunn

On its first appearance in 1960, Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance and, despite a handful of acerbic asides, displayed an exemplary patience in the face of the efforts of less searching or more openly partisan interpreters.

On its reappearance in a new edition, little changed by four decades of other scholars' efforts, that first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing. But it is now accompanied by what is in effect a second and very different book as much about Wolin's personal experience of politics since 1960 as about the change in the ways he envisages politics.

His experience has been overwhelmingly one of political defeat, which has left the taste of ashes in his mouth. If the first edition was a masterpiece of political education, the new edition is the intellectual testament of a lifetime devoted to the struggle to understand politics. Its message is chilling: not, as Peter Laslett brashly suggested in 1956, that political philosophy is dead, but that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from human societies.

Each edition is a remarkable achievement, and there is no real intellectual tension (or contradiction) between the two. But they can scarcely fail to make very different impacts on the reader. The original Politics and Vision formed the intellectual imagination of a generation of American political theorists, inspiring many of them to take up political theory as a vocation. The new version is at least as potent, but the intense despondency it radiates, and the open contempt it conveys for self-indulgent adventures in political theory, come across more as a warning against the miseries of that vocation than as an exhortation to follow it.

It is hard to do justice to Wolin's book in either edition. His colleagues have clearly failed to take its measure since 1960. It would be a bold reader who hopes to do better in a hurry with the new edition. What can be registered with confidence is that which remains distinctive in Wolin's original approach.

From the outset, Wolin saw politics historically, as an imaginative invention in a particular setting, explored across time and space on terms set by that arbitrary starting point but never tightly confined by it. He recognised the profound and abiding pressure of historical Christianity and the disruptive impact within it of the forging of science. More strikingly, in the last two chapters of the first edition, he traced a certain depletion of the political through the shaping of Liberalism and the coming of what he called the "age of organisation". When set beside the works of better-known contemporaries such as Karl Popper, Friedrich von Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, Wolin presented a more coherent and deeply thought-through picture of politics. But in contrast with later scholars who have attempted to trace the development of political understanding as a consecutive historical process, he was unapologetically selective in what he chose to focus on or ignore. He was also disinclined to wear his political colours on his sleeve.

Since 1960, Wolin has written extensively about the nature of political theory and played a part in some of the major political conflicts of the US. But it was not until 2001 that he published a second major book, Tocqueville between Two Worlds, which joined his interest in political theory with his deep engagement in US politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more continuity in perception and attitude between the Tocqueville book and the new components of Politics and Vision than between the old and new parts of the second edition.

But the new chapters do fill large lacunae in the original edition, with massive studies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche alongside incisive treatments of fellow Americans John Dewey and John Rawls, who enjoyed less emphatic academic acclaim in 1960 than they do now. The account of Dewey - sympathetic and vivid, but in the end intellectually merciless - is as close to a personal affirmation as Wolin cares to get, and an exhilarating read. The account of Rawls is the most politically searching interrogation I have yet seen, and verges on a denunciation. Read in context, however, these chapters seem less like an effort to fill gaps in a consecutive attempt to understand politics than as traces of Wolin's loss of a political struggle. They complement the sober political detachment of the closing chapter of the first edition, "The age of organisation", with a far more agitated picture of the surging, erratic momentum of the juggernaut of global capitalism.

For Wolin, this picture is a personal glimpse into the Heart of Darkness: "The horror! The horror!". It is not clear if he is trying to compel others to share this vision. As a whole, the chapters are directed less at the goal of educating others than at bearing witness to the truth. If one sees the two editions as tracing historical processes, the first records, in spare outline, the creation and refinement of an inspiring vision of human possibility, while the second, in its new material, records the brutal eviction of that possibility from the world. Wolin, however, appears uncharacteristically hesitant to affirm or deny this verdict, which makes the message of his book considerably more elusive than most of its individual contentions. Anyone of a more sanguine (or vulgar) political disposition is almost certain to dissent from his verdict or view it with unruffled indifference.

While Wolin's intellectual tastes are fastidious, his political sensibility remains that of an American small-town democrat, imaginatively at home in the warm and intimate activities and flurry of associational life that Tocqueville celebrated. In the first edition, this did not narrow his vision of what created a Western conception of politics, but it does cast a heavy shadow over the way he sees the politics of the past half-century. In some ways, the later Wolin is quite parochial, responding far more to the domestic political experience of the US than to the more convulsive but transformative experiences of many other areas of the world. The growth of democracy in East or South Asia since 1960 has seemed to many there to be more of a pathway to a less constricted and demeaning future than the ever-emptier charade visualised by Wolin. Even in Europe or the US, the political outcomes he views with such revulsion have been the product of the judgements and preferences of very large numbers of people.

No one who cares about politics will view it exactly the way Wolin does. But they can only deepen and chasten their own judgement by confronting unblinkingly what Wolin has come to see over a long, strenuous and dedicated life.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

Politics and Vision: Innovation in Western Political Thought

Author - Sheldon S. Wolin
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 761
Price - £26.95
ISBN - 0 691 11977 5

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