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Robert Dahl as mentor

- February 11, 2014

The essay below, on Robert Dahl’s role as mentor and his intellectual relationship with the left was written by Jeff Isaac, professor of political science at the University of Indiana in Bloomington and editor of Perspectives on Politics
Robert Dahl (Yale University)
I first met Bob Dahl in the fall of 1979 when, as a new graduate student in the Yale political science department, I enrolled in what I came to learn was his most “famous” seminar: “Democracy and its Critics” (Bob’s 1991 book “Democracy and its Critics” shares the basic structure of the seminar). While I had not previously met the man, 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.”
The first thing I encountered in Dahl’s class was his calm smile and his genuine pleasure at all manner of questioning, criticizing and arguing. The first thing I learned in his class was that “democratic theory” was challenging, and interesting, and here was a place where I could really engage the topic with one of its foremost experts. The second thing took a bit longer to learn: That this guy asked really hard questions and was possessed by a depth of thinking and an extraordinary range of knowledge that defied the label “pluralist.” The third thing I learned came rather quickly: 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. He welcomed me. He welcomed my incredulity and my critical questions. He welcomed me with a unique combination of utter seriousness and warm-hearted humor. I learned so much in “Democracy and its Critics,” and in his follow-up seminar the next year on “Worker’s Control and Democracy.” I learned an enormous amount about democratic theory, about the workings and the limits of actual liberal democracies — oops, I mean polyarchies! — and about the importance of asking hard questions and of linking empirical and normative inquiry. And I was still unconvinced by either Dahl’s social scientific empiricism or his seemingly sanguine view of the play of interests in societies like our own.
And so I decided to write a dissertation critiquing this empiricism and this “pluralism” and forwarding an explicitly Marxist alternative. A number of my Yale professors were puzzled and indeed skeptical about such a project. Only one was enthusiastic: Bob Dahl. And so Bob Dahl supervised my dissertation, “Power and Marxist Theory” (published, revised, by Cornell University Press in 1987 as “Power and Marxist Theory: A Realist View”). And so Bob Dahl invested countless hours in reading all kinds of material that was far from his comfort zone — Nicos Poulantzas’s “Political Power and Social Classes,” Roy Bhaskar’s “A Realist Theory of Science,” Anthony Giddens’s “A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism” — so that he could talk with me about what I was interested in. And so Bob Dahl spent countless hours in his office talking with me about my principal theoretical antagonist—him! We would discuss this guy “Dahl” in the third person, considering the limits of his arguments, speculating about how he might respond to my arguments. This really happened.
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. He did not coddle me (I am not the coddling type). He often conceded that some of the things I was writing were interesting. He sometimes indicated that I was making a strong argument—and he would always advise me on how to make it stronger. He never told me that he “bought” my overall thesis. Because he didn’t buy it, and I knew that and he knew that I knew that. He simply welcomed me as an interlocutor, and respected me as my own person, and offered me that fine balance of criticism and support that is necessary if a graduate student is to come into his or her own and to complete a dissertation in a meaningful way.
I completed my dissertation and received my doctorate in 1983. I then got a job teaching at Fordham University and eventually set about the task of revising my dissertation for publication as a book. As I undertook these revisions, I discovered that in some important respects I was beginning to rethink aspects of the neo-Marxism that had grounded my work in graduate school. My book contains a final chapter that was not part of the dissertation. This chapter bears a tortured relationship to the rest of the book. In it I gesture towards a perspective that could be better characterized by the adjective democratic than the adjective Marxist. What I had discovered was that my agonistic dialogue with Bob Dahl persisted, a permanent feature of my own mental landscape. I realized that I had learned more from him, taken more from him, than I had ever imagined possible or was even aware of at the time. This was the first time I experienced something that I have often experienced—the insight that something I was thinking or writing could be traced to my conversations with Bob long ago, to questions posed to me back then by him, or to things I had learned through the arduous process of thinking with and against him.
Douglas Martin’s New York Times obituary on Bob (Feb. 7, 2014) states that Bob taught generations of students how to think about politics and power, and that his conceptions thus became “standard.” It is true that Bob taught many generations of students. It is also true that he had conceptions, and that he shared them with his students. But these conceptions were never treated as standard. There was no “Dahlean political science” to be learned from Dahl, except this: think hard; work hard; engage the range of arguments; care as much about what is actually happening in the world as about any concept, method or theory; and think for yourself and do your own work.
To this day, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I was Bob’s student and that “Power and Marxist Theory” was written under his supervision. But this is only because they never really knew Bob. For if they had known Bob, they would know that he really was an egalitarian, and a true intellectual, and he took delight in helping his students do their own things, and then in watching them do their own things on their own.
In 1986, the Yale political science department organized a conference in honor of Bob Dahl’s retirement. I was honored to be one of the invited speakers. 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. Fortunately, I went on, he soon realized the error of his ways, and returned to being a critic of the U.S. political system.
The talk was half serious. Dahl loved it, he smiled throughout, and he laughed at all the right moments. One of his colleagues from the “Who Governs?” days, who I will not name, interrupted me from the floor, shouting “why don’t you take your socialism back to New York?” Bob didn’t defend me. He didn’t need to; I was quite capable of handling myself, and he knew it. But how could he? Here was one of his beloved students, facing off against another. What was he to say? I never asked him what he thought at that moment, but I’ve always suspected that he was happy, not that we were arguing over his legacy, but that we were arguing about democracy and socialism and the things about which he cared so much.
I vividly recall another experience from that 1986 retirement event in Bob’s honor. It happened over dinner, during a testimonial session. A group of Bob’s older students were sitting together at a table, and one of them rose to toast Bob. He told an off color story about one of the office secretaries “back in the day.” The story was well intentioned. It was also off. I was shocked. And then immediately, without a second to spare, one of the people at my table, Ellen Commisso, leapt up, and offered a brave and brilliant toast: “To Bob Dahl, who taught me about democracy and equality. The Bob Dahl that I studied with treated women as equals, and would never have found such a story funny.” Wow. At that moment I realized something very palpably—that there were different generations of Dahl students, and that they were very different. As I sat there at that table, with Ellen and Jennifer Hochschild and Ian Shapiro, it became clear to me that Bob really had inspired many different kinds of people — and that as the ’60s unfolded, Bob’s strong egalitarian tendencies came more strongly to the fore. I’ll bet that not many people know that one of Bob’s favorite students was the future feminist legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon, and that Mackinnon’s first book, “Sexual Harassment of Working Women,” was published by Yale University Press in 1979 after Bob suggested to the press that they should solicit and review the manuscript. This happened at the same moment that I first met Bob. I had no idea! It was only years later that I learned this story. And it did not surprise me.
The talk I presented at Bob’s retirement event was eventually revised (!) and published, as “Dilemmas of Democratic Theory,” in a festschrift edited by my friend Ian Shapiro and Grant Reher: “Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics: Essays in Honor of Robert A. Dahl” (Westview 1988). I’d be willing to bet that few have seen this volume, for it was not well promoted, and was published at a time when top scholarly presses would not publish festschrifts. I just re-read my piece, and am shocked at how well it stands up, even if I am no longer a democratic socialist provocateur.
The basic point of that piece is simple: the view that Bob was long a pluralist defender of the American status quo, and that his writings from late 1970’s on about worker’s control, economic inequality, and the “impediments” to democracy in the U.S. represented a departure, 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 that 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 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 Bob 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.
In 2003 I was appointed chair of my department at Indiana University. For years I had corresponded with Bob about my frustrations with the department, my belief that I was better off writing for Dissent magazine, and my sense that the political science discipline had become too thoroughly professionalized (he agreed). And now I was chair of a large, research-oriented, Midwestern political science department. One of the first things I did was to invite Bob– along with his devoted wife Ann– to visit Bloomington, and to give our department’s prestigious endowed Hyneman Lecture. Bob was already in his late 80s at the time. He had never before visited Bloomington and he was not traveling much anymore. But he had been a friend of Charles Hyneman’s, and he had a talk on James Madison — a Madisonian critique of American democracy — that he wished to give. And so he came. I am certain the main reason he came was for me, because I invited him, and he knew how important it was to me and for my goals for the department that he come. He was very devoted to this former student of his; I know that I am not alone among his former students in reporting such devotion. His talk was terrific. There were two dinners, some lunches, a number of receptions. Every one of my colleagues got to meet and spend time with him. He was so engaged, so charming.
Three things stand out in my memory.
The first was how kind, gracious and warm he was to my family. He had always asked about my children. Now he was meeting them. He was a mensch, and he and Ann were wonderful to spend time with.
The second was an interval, during one of the dinners, when he and Ann went off to the side for around a half an hour to talk with Lin Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. They talked about self-governance, and Bob’s experiences growing up in Alaska and Vincent’s experiences as a consultant for constitutional reform in Alaska. These people were not old friends. They were old colleagues. They did not know each other well. But they knew that they shared some deep commitments; that they had made major contributions to political science; and that their time was passing. It was an extraordinary, moving moment.
The third was the response of our graduate students. They simply could not believe how intellectually agile, wide-ranging, and genuinely open Bob was. He thoroughly engaged them. He represented, and personified, the best that political science can be.
Bob’s visit was the high point of my career as a political scientist.
In the intervening years I corresponded with Bob a few times a year. I saw him once at an APSA conference. I visited with him on a few occasions when my friend Ian Shapiro invited me to give talks at Yale. In the last few years the contact diminished. The last time I visited New Haven, Conn., Bob was unable to see me.
I was not surprised to learn of his passing. He was old. He lived a long and rich life. He was a towering figure in his discipline. He had a loving family. He had adventures, as a young man in Alaska, and as a still young man serving as a “point man” for his infantry battalion during WWII, for which he repeatedly went behind enemy lines to do reconnaissance. Reconnaissance: That seems appropriate.
Bob Dahl was one of a kind. He was also a member of a generation of political scientists that contributed so much to the political science discipline, and that then came to worry about the limits of that contribution and about the ways it had gone awry. Bob’s first entry into this discussion was early and rather prescient: his famous 1961 APSR article, “The Behavioral Approach in Political Science: An Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest.” Bob was a proud leader of the behavioral revolution. He believed in a certain kind of scientific rigor, and he also believed that quantitative methods were an important tool of political analysis. At the same time, 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 is conceived sharply and written well, can make a difference in the world.
These are personal reflections. And so I’ll end on a very personal note. Jennifer Hochschild studied with Bob Dahl in the mid-late 1970’s. I studied with Bob in the early eighties. Is it a coincidence that two of the first three editors in the history of Perspectives on Politics were students of Bob? When Jennifer and I sat together at Bob’s retirement dinner in 1986, and then contributed to his 1988 festschrift, neither of us could anticipate that she would found a journal like Perspectives, and that each of us would edit it.
But we did know that we were both students of Bob’s and that, along with the many other students of Bob’s in attendance, from across the generations, we were bearers of a special political science legacy. It is humbling to think about this. It is also empowering. 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.