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Seymour Lipset, Class of 1939

From the New York Sun, January 4, 2007 By: Stephen Miller

Seymour Martin Lipset, who died Monday, January 1, 2007 at 84, was among the most important sociologists of his generation and the author or editor of 50 books, many of them concerned with democracy and American exceptionalism.

Combining a clear writing style with an often unfashionable empiricism, Lipset mined the great veins of American social science that ran from Richard Hofstadter back to eminences such as Alexis de Tocqueville — with themes including individualism and the immigrant experience. Lipset’s questions were big ones: Why don’t Americans vote? Why have American Jews tended to assimilate in the absence of anti-Semitism? And why is there no socialism in America? He provided answers in “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States” (2000).

This last question and its answer were part of a scholarly concern that stretched back to Lipset’s earliest days in the academy, and even to his family, growing up in the Bronx. His father, a typographer, was a Russian immigrant who had been active in Russian trade unions before the revolution. In the 1930s, he applied to return to the Soviet Union but was denied. Some of Lipset’s earliest studies were of the International Typographical Union — of which his father was a member — later published in his book “Union Democracy” (1956).

Lipset attended Townsend Harris High School and got involved in the political discussions of the time. He told an interviewer in 2000, “But you never heard of Democrats or Republicans; the question was communists, socialists, Trotskyists, or anarchists.”

Despite still-fresh memories of the Depression, he resisted his parents’ urgings that he study dentistry and instead opted for a sociology degree at City College. There, political discussions intensified. His fellow students included Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazier, Irving Kristol, and others who would help set the tone for postwar sociology and political science.

After graduation from City College, Lipset in 1943 enrolled as a graduate student in the Columbia University sociology department, where Robert Merton was among his teachers. His dissertation, on the Canadian Social Democratic Party, would become his first book, “Agrarian Socialism” (1950), as well as a touchstone of the rest of his career: Why is Canadian democracy so different from that in America? He would write at length on this topic in books such as “The First New Nation: The U.S. in Historical and Comparative Perspective” (1963) and “Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada” (1989).

Lipset taught first at Columbia and then occupied a series of increasingly prominent chairs at Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University. He was also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution from 1975 until his death.

Beginning in the 1960s, Lipset published a series of studies of student activism and academic politics, culminating in “Rebellion in the University” (1972) and “The Divided Academy” (1976). A longtime consultant to the American Jewish Committee, he also was interested in the decline of Jewish identity in America, which he addressed with co-author Earl Raab in “Jews and the New American Scene” (1995). Wrote David Singer in Commentary magazine, “Lipset and Raab argue forcefully that American Jews have become victims of their own success, achieving integration and acceptance in the larger American society at the price of a declining sense of their own Jewishness.”

For what made America the “First New Nation,” Lipset stressed certain core values, such as liberty, egalitarianism, and individualism — each of which could produce positive or negative results. In “American Exceptionalism” (1996), he wrote that egalitarianism, for example, could foster initiative and voluntarism, but also “self-serving behavior, atomism, and a disregard for communal good.” One former student praised Lipset’s “constant search for equilibrium,” although such a concern doubtless made him less popular with academic colleagues who took their social models from the more popular revolutionary politics of the 1960s.

His ecumenical dislike of extremism was manifest in a story he told in the 2000 interview about a 1964 encounter in which radical students tried to prevent police from arresting a Trotskyist demonstrator by surrounding the police car. “Nathan Glazer and I got on top of the police car, and we made speeches arguing that when you engage in civil disobedience ina democracy, what can you say to the Ku Klux Klan? Why can’t they [also] engage in civil disobedience and violence?”

Long active in professional societies, Lipset was apparently the only person ever to serve as president both of the American Sociological Association (1992–93) and the American Political Science Association (1979–80).