Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought

Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought

Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought

Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought


This is a significantly expanded edition of one of the greatest works of modern political theory. Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision inspired and instructed two generations of political theorists after its appearance in 1960. This new edition retains intact the original ten chapters about political thinkers from Plato to Mill, and adds seven chapters about theorists from Marx and Nietzsche to Rawls and the postmodernists. The new chapters, which show how thinkers have grappled with the immense possibilities and dangers of modern power, are themselves a major theoretical statement. They culminate in Wolin's remarkable argument that the United States has invented a new political form, "inverted totalitarianism," in which economic rather than political power is dangerously dominant. In this new edition, the book that helped to define political theory in the late twentieth century should energize, enlighten, and provoke generations of scholars to come.

Wolin originally wrote Politics and Vision to challenge the idea that political analysis should consist simply of the neutral observation of objective reality. He argues that political thinkers must also rely on creative vision. Wolin shows that great theorists have been driven to shape politics to some vision of the Good that lies outside the existing political order. As he tells it, the history of theory is thus, in part, the story of changing assumptions about the Good.

In the new chapters, Wolin displays all the energy and flair, the command of detail and of grand historical developments, that he brought to this story forty years ago. This is a work of immense talent and intense thought, an intellectual achievement that will endure.


And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions.

—T. S. Eliot

Nearly a half-century has elapsed since Politics and Vision first appeared, making it difficult, perhaps impossible, for the present volume seamlessly to resume where the original left off. Not surprisingly, the public events and my own experiences of the intervening decades have substantially affected my thinking about politics and political theory. Accordingly the new material is confined to Part Two while the original chapters have been left untouched. This should in no way be viewed as dismissive of the many fine historical studies that have added much to our knowledge of the topics treated.

Changes to the original edition have been confined to corrections of printing errors. I have let stand certain usages that now appear anachronistic, e.g., “man” as a comprehensive term denoting human beings generally. These embarrassments can serve as a general reminder of how common understandings have changed and also alert the reader to the evolution in the author's own understandings and political commitments. These might be summarized as the journey from liberalism to democracy. The first edition's subtitle pretty well summarizes an outlook of four decades ago where the parameters of politics and theory were set by “continuity” and “innovation.” With the exception of Chapter X, which focused on the modern corporation, the preceding chapters were primarily concerned with interpreting the past rather than analyzing the present. The new chapters do not disavow those interpretations but rather try to put them to work by engaging the contemporary political world. The basic conviction that unites the expanded and the original editions is that a critical knowledge of past theories can contribute immeasurably to sharpening our thinking and cultivating our sensibilities should we choose to engage the politics of our own day.

This, then, is not a revision but an envisioning of strikingly different forms of politics and theorizing from those discussed in the original. It is also, however, an attempt to bring to bear upon contemporary politics what I have learned from studying and teaching about the history of political theory. Far from being a handicap, a familiarity with the varied forms that, historically, political theory has taken may aid in the recognition of radically different recent and contemporary conceptions of the political and politics when they emerge.

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