Sheldon S. Wolin, a political theorist whose landmark 1960 book “Politics and Vision” shifted the center of gravity back to politics, rather than economics or sociology, in the field of political science, and who went on to analyze the possibilities and limits of popular democracy in a series of influential studies, died on Oct. 21 at his home in Salem, Ore. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Deborah Olmon.
“Politics and Vision,” subtitled “Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought,” appeared at a time when American political science was under the sway of the behavioralist revolution, which emphasized the quantitative analysis of data rather than political ideas as a way to explain political behavior.
Professor Wolin, then teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, galvanized the profession by gathering key political philosophers, beginning with the Greeks, in a grand debate on democracy and examining their ideas not as historical artifacts, but as a way to criticize current political structures.
“The book revitalized political theory by making its history relevant to an analysis of the present,” Nicholas Xenos, a student of Professor Wolin’s and a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in an email. “It challenged the behavioralists, for whom history was increasingly irrelevant. It also provided a way to criticize the present using the concepts and vocabulary that since antiquity had sustained concern for what he called ‘the possibilities of collectivity, common action and shared purposes.’ ”
In 1985, the American Political Science Association honored the book with the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award in recognition of its lasting impact. It was reissued in expanded form in 2004.
Nearly as influential on the profession was Professor Wolin’s 1969 essay “Political Theory as a Vocation,” a call for political scientists to develop what he called “epic” theories that would change perceptions and, in turn, societies.
With Michael Rogin, Hanna Pitkin and other colleagues, Professor Wolin made Berkeley a leading center for the study of political theory, and the headquarters of what became known as the Berkeley school.
He cast himself and his profession in activist terms, concerned with “the being and well-being of collectives,” as he put it in the introduction to “The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution” (1989). Political theory, he wrote, “is primarily a civic and secondarily an academic activity.”
Sheldon Sanford Wolin was born on Aug. 4, 1922, in Chicago and grew up in Buffalo. His father, an immigrant from Russia, was a clothing designer who started his own manufacturing business. His mother, for a time, ran a small variety store.
He enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio but after two years enlisted in the Army Air Forces, serving as a bombardier and navigator in the Pacific before returning to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1946. He did his graduate work at Harvard, where he received his doctorate in 1950, with a dissertation on English constitutional thought in the late 18th century.
Interested in reaching a nonacademic audience, Professor Wolin, in collaboration with his Berkeley colleague John H. Schaar, wrote frequently for The New York Review of Books in the 1960s on the Free Speech Movement and campus unrest at Berkeley.
The essays were included in their book “The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society” (1970). Professor Wolin later wrote for the review on Watergate, Henry Kissinger, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and American conservatism.
In 1972 he joined the department of politics at Princeton, where he taught until retiring in 1987.
His influence on the profession as a teacher has been enormous. His students include such prominent scholars as Wendy Brown at Berkeley, J. Peter Euben at Duke and Cornel West at Princeton.
In addition to his daughter Deborah, he is survived by another daughter, Pamela Shedd, and two grandchildren. His wife, the former Emily Purvis, died in 2011.
Somewhat unusually for a political theorist, Professor Wolin analyzed political thinkers with a literary critic’s ear, bearing down on telling metaphors or revealing stylistic quirks. That gift was evident in “Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory” (1970) and “Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life” (2001), a blend of political theory and intellectual biography.
In 1981 Professor Wolin founded Democracy: A Journal of Political Renewal and Radical Change, which explored the potential for populist movements in the United States. He was its editor until it ceased publication in 1983.
“The left cannot play politics on terms set by mass media and mass organization,” he told The New York Times in 1982. “A more decentralized and local politics, scattered and diffuse, is the first best hope.”
With time, he took the view that corporate power and political power were becoming so closely intertwined in the United States, and the public so apathetic, that genuine participatory democracy was at best a remote possibility, expressed in rare “fugitive” expressions of the popular will.
“Democracy in the late modern world cannot be a complete political system,” he wrote in a 1994 essay, “and given the awesome potentialities of modern forms of power, and what they exact of the social and natural world, it ought not to be hoped or striven for.”
His last book reflected this dark interpretation of politics in the United States. It bore a sobering title: “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”
Sheldon S. Wolin (//; August 4, 1922 – October 21, 2015) was an Americanpolitical theorist and writer on contemporary politics. One of the most original and influential American political theorists of the past fifty years, Wolin became Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, where he taught from 1973 to 1987....
After graduating from Oberlin College, Wolin received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1950, for a dissertation entitledConservatism and Constitutionalism: A Study in English Constitutional Ideas, 1760–1785. After teaching briefly at Oberlin, Wolin taught political theory at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1954 to 1970 and built a political theory program by bringing Norman Jacobson, John H. Schaar, Hanna Fenichal Pitkin, and Michael Rogin into the department.
One of Wolin's central concerns was how the history of political thought could contribute to understand contemporary political dilemmas and predicaments. He played a significant role in the Free Speech Movement and with John Schaar interpreted that movement to the rest of the world. During the seventies and eighties he published frequently for The New York Review of Books. He also wrote opinion pieces and reviews for The New York Times. In 1980, he was the founding editor of the short-lived but intellectually influential journal democracy (1980-83). At Princeton, Wolin led a successful faculty effort to pass a resolution urging university trustees to divest from endowment investment in firms that supported South African apartheid.
Wolin left Berkeley in the fall of 1971 for the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught until 1972. From 1973 through 1987, Wolin was a professor of politics at Princeton University. Wolin served on the editorial boards of many scholarly journals, includingPolitical Theory the leading journal of the field in the Anglo-American world. He consulted for various scholarly presses, foundations and public entities including Peace Corps, American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council. Wolin also served as president of the Society for Legal and Political Philosophy.
Wolin was instrumental in founding what came to be known as the Berkeley School of political theory. His approach to the history of political thought offered an original perspective that constituted a formidable challenge to more classical approaches to the study of the history of political thought. It equally challenged Behaviorism, the reigning orthodoxy in political science departments. Frequently compared to thinkers like Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss, Wolin’s classic Politics and Vision formulates an interpretative approach to the history of political thought. It combined careful study of different theoretical traditions and paid particular attention to how these contribute to the changing meanings of a received political vocabulary, which included notions of authority, obligation, power, justice, citizenship, and the state. Wolin’s approach also had a bearing on contemporary problems and questions and he notoriously defined the inquiry into the history of political thought, and the study of different traditions and forms of theorizing that have shaped it, “as a form of political education.” Wolin’s approach to the study of political theory consisted of a historical-minded inquiry into the history of political thought to inform the practice of political theory in the present. A consummate reader of texts, he carefully combined attention to both the intellectual and political contexts in which an author intervened and the genres of writing he deployed, with an eye to understanding how a particular body of work shed light on a specific political predicament.  But this was no antiquarian exercise. It rather consisted of an attempt to "understand some aspect of the historical past [that] is also conscious of the historical character and locus of [the inquirer's] own understanding. Historicity has to do with the convergence of the two, and the inquirer’s contribution of his present is crucial.” Similarly, his classic essay "Political Theory as a Vocation," written in the context of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement mounted a searching critique of Behaviorism and how it impaired the ability to grasp the crises of the time. Thirty years later, he explicitly formulated the importance of political theory and the study of political thought as “primarily a civic and secondarily an academic activity.”  His 2001 study of Alexis de Tocqueville, Tocqueville Between Two Words, constitutes his second summa. Cornel West has called it Wolin’s masterpiece, the crowning achievement of “the greatest political theorist of and for democracy of our time.” 
Wolin’s involvement in the events of the sixties represented a formative experience that set the stage for the transition from an imaginative and erudite scholar of political thought to an original political thinker in his own right.  In essays dealing with major thinkers of the recent past, including some of the most formidable bodies of work of the twentieth century, Wolin probed different approaches to both understanding the nature of theory and its bearing on the political from a perspective clearly aligned with the principles of participatory democracy. From this perspective, Wolin engaged with a vast array of thinkers: Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, Michel Foucault, Leo Strauss, Harvey C. Mansfield, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Oakeshott, Karl Popper, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Max Weber.  Politically, Wolin penned essays on a variety of themes and figures, including terrorism, conservatism, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald Reagan. His The Presence of the Past offered an original critique of Reaganism, its discourse and practice, and a series of searching reflections on the bicentannial of the American Constitution. His last book, Democracy Incorporated (2008) formulates a scathing critique of the administration of George W. Bush and its war on terror and a plea for the recovery of democratic values and practices.
In these interventions, Wolin formulated an original non-Marxist critique of capitalism and the fate of democratic political life in the present. In his effort to think about the fate of democracy in the United States, he formulated a novel theorization of modern and postmodern forms of power and how these shaped the limits and horizons of political life in the late twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries. While influenced by Marx's critique of capitalism as a form of power, Wolin's political thought is decidedly non-Marxist in his insistence on participatory democracy, the primacy of the political, and the conviction that a radical theory of democracy requires mapping the forms of power beyond the economy. Wolin's political thought is particularly concerned with the fate of democracy at the hands of bureaucratic imperatives, elitism, and managerial principles and practices. His ideas of “inverted totalitarianism” and “fugitive democracy” constitute well-known signatures of his reflections. Another signature contribution is his account of the liberal-democratic state, which Wendy Brown has characterized as a "neo-Weberian" account of the state, "heavy with rationalities and bureaucratic domination; it is a Marxist-structuralist state, neither identical with nor a simple instrument of capitalism but complexly entwined with it. It is an administrative and penetrative state - those tentacles are everywhere and on everyone, especially the most disempowered; they do not honor public/private distinctions, political/economic distinctions, or even legal/extra-legal distinctions...the contemporary state is a complex amalgam of political, economic, administrative and discursive powers."  Out of this diagnosis of the state and its complex relationship to capitalism, Wolin forged the idea of "fugitive democracy." In his view, democracy not as a fixed state form, but a political experience in which ordinary people are active political actors. In this construction "fugitive" stands for the ways in which contemporary forms of power have made this aspiration an evanescent and momentary political experience. 
Wolin was born in Chicago and raised in Buffalo, New York. Interrupting his studies at Oberlin College, he became a US Army Air Force bombardier/navigator serving in the Pacific during World War II. He was married to Emily Purvis Wolin for over sixty years.
- Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded ed. (1960; Princeton University Press, 2004). ISBN 978-0-691-12627-2
- The Berkeley Student Revolt: Facts and Interpretations, edited with Seymour Martin Lipset (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1965).
- The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics & Education in the Technological Society, with John H. Schaar (Vintage Books/New York Review Books, 1970).
- Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles: University of California, 1970). (Spanish translation: Hobbes y la tradición épica de la teoría política, Colección Rétor, Madrid: Foro Interno, 2005. ISBN 978-84-933478-1-9)
- Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution (1989)
- Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton University Press, 2001). ISBN 978-0-691-11454-5
- Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008).ISBN 978-0-691-13566-3 (Trad. esp.: Democracia S. A., Buenos Aires/Madrid, Katz editores S.A, 2008, ISBN 978-84-96859-46-3)
- "Inverted Totalitarianism" by Sheldon Wolin Article published in The Nation magazine May 19, 2003
- "A Kind of Fascism Is Replacing Our Democracy" by Sheldon S. Wolin Article published on Friday, July 18, 2003 by Long Island NY Newsday, archived at Common Dreams website
- "Political Theory as a Vocation": The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp. 1062-1082. (Spanish translation: "La teoría política como vocación": Foro Interno, vol. 11 (Diciembre, 2011), pp. 193-234).