Robert Dahl, Scholar of Democracy and Democratic Socialist
A Tribute to Bob Dahl (December 17, 1915 – February 5, 2014)
By Jeffrey Isaac
I first met Bob Dahl in the fall of 1979 when, as a new graduate student in Yale’s political science department, I enrolled in what I came to learn was his most famous seminar: “Democracy and its Critics.” I was familiar with some of his work, especially Who Governs?, and also familiar with his reputation as a “pluralist.” Having studied at Queens College, CUNY with a group of brilliant left-wing professors, I was steeped in neo-Marxism and eager to learn everything I could, and also to argue as much as I could, especially with “pluralists.”
This world famous “expert” put on no airs, claimed no intellectual privileges and was extraordinarily down to earth. This guy was no “corporate liberal” (another pejorative of my youth). He genuinely seemed to walk the talk of “democracy,” in the classroom, in the world of Brewster Hall where the political science department he helped to create was housed, and in the world.
I was an energetic, fast-talking, left-wing kid from Queens, a first-generation college student drawn to “radical democracy” and “radical political economics” and “radical sociology” and radical politics. I often felt out of place at Yale. But I never felt out of place in Dahl’s classroom or in his office.
And so, I decided to write a dissertation critiquing this empiricism and this “pluralism” and forwarding an explicitly Marxist alternative.
For two years, I wrote a dissertation, and then a book, that delivered what I then thought was a “fundamental” critique of Dahl’s democratic theory. And Dahl was my biggest supporter! He supported me with real intellectual engagement and with genuine warmth and humor.
In 1986, the Yale political science department organized a conference in honor of Bob Dahl’s retirement. I gave a deliberately provocative talk in which I argued that Bob had always been a democratic socialist but that unfortunately he had a brief period in the early sixties when he took leave of his senses, wrote his most unfortunate book — “Who Governs?,” the book for which alas he is best known! — and became known as a pluralist.
The basic point was simple: the view that Bob was long a pluralist defender of the American status quo was simply wrong. Since his earliest scholarship — his dissertation was entitled Socialist Programs and Democratic Politics: An Analysis — Bob had both engaged the political and theoretical traditions of the left and been a critic of capitalism and the ways it “impeded” democracy. Dahl’s 1986 Democracy, Liberty, and Equality, a collection of essays ranging from the early 1940’s to the 1980’s, illustrates the striking continuity of his concerns about the complicated relationships among capitalism, socialism, and democracy. The volume includes his first published essay, “On The Theory of Democratic Socialism” (1940), a critique of both Soviet-style economic planning and marginalist economics, and a defense of the model of market socialism developed by Oskar Lange; “Workers’ Control of Industry and the British Labor Party,” an article on exactly what its title suggests, originally published in the American Political Science Review (vol. 1, no. 5, October 1947); “Marxism and Free Parties” (1948), a nuanced critique of Marxist thinking about political parties written on the occasion of the centennial of The Communist Manifesto and originally published in The Journal of Politics (vol. 10, no. 4); and articles published in the 1980’s on the theme of procedural democracy and the limits of contemporary “polyarchies.”
When Dahl published A Preface to Economic Democracy in 1986, he was doing nothing new, except perhaps making clearer to those less familiar with his work that these had always been his concerns. And when he published a number of essays in Dissent magazine about “Democracy in the Workplace” (1984), “Social Reality and ‘Free Markets’ ” (1990), and “The Ills of the System” (1993), he was simply continuing to write about the things that had always interested him. Indeed, I vividly recall one particular conversation with Bob about Irving Howe’s autobiography, A Margin of Hope, shortly after the book was published in 1984. Bob admired Howe and thought the book was terrific, and he took particular pleasure in sharing this with me, along with his support for Democratic Socialists of America, because he knew that I was a former student, and friend, of Michael Harrington, another man for whom Dahl had enormous respect.
Bob Dahl was one of a kind. He was also a member of a generation of political scientists who contributed so much to the political science discipline, and who then came to worry about the limits of that contribution and about the ways it had gone awry. He was a “problem-driven” political scientist if ever there was one. He wrote on a wide range of topics — urban politics; the control of nuclear weapons; the normative bases of democratic legitimacy; economic democracy; political parties; democracy; and democratization in comparative perspective. He employed a wide range of methods. He published innumerable articles and books, and wrote major books that were seminal to three subfields of political science: A Preface to Democratic Theory (political theory), Who Governs? (American politics) and Polyarchy (comparative politics). Indeed, his work straddled and bridged the conventional subfields, none of which could encompass his thinking. His work was animated by three convictions: that the problem of democratization — the institutionalizing and deepening of democracy — is the preeminent problem of our time; that political science ought to be broad, and think big, and creatively combine empirical and normative inquiry into the problems of our time; and that political science research, if it is conceived sharply and written well, can make a difference in the world.
Bob Dahl was a towering political scientist who was also a down-to-earth man and citizen. He was a mensch. And in his rich life he bequeathed to us ideas and values and an exemplary way of being in the world. He will be missed. And he will also always be present for those of us who had the privilege of knowing him and learning from him, and for our students, and for all who participate in the modern discipline of political science that he did so much to help to create.
Jeffrey Isaac is a political theorist and the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. He is editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics, a leading journal of the American Political Science Association. In the mid-1970s, as an undergraduate at Queens College, he was a student of Michael Harrington. The chair for his Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University was
the late Robert Dahl.
This tribute is edited and used with permission of the author. For the complete text, see: