Commentary Magazine

Political Man, by Seymour Martin Lipset

Things as They Are
Political Man.
by Seymour Martin Lipset.
Doubleday. 432 pp. $4.95.


Collections of essays that were previously published in various magazines usually make unsatisfactory books. Newly-written opening and closing chapters seek to develop a common theme, but the topics discussed are generally too diverse and the transitions too forced to impose a persuasive continuity. Yet there are a few heartening exceptions—by writers whose observations are sufficiently perceptive to be brought together between hard covers and so put on one’s shelves. Some recent examples are David Riesman’s Individualism Reconsidered, Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, and now, Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man.

With the publication of this book, Lipset has once again demonstrated his preeminent position in the fields of both sociology and political science; and there is little doubt that the book is already stirring the minds of many students in our colleges and universities. Political Man attempts to isolate the conditions which sustain democracy in the modern world. The opening chapters deal with the relation between economic development and political instability, and ask such questions as: Is constitutional democracy viable in countries where material want is pervasive? Later essays deal with the internal structure of trade unions; here Lipset asks: Does the development of bureaucracy undermine self-government by union members as well as the accountability of officials to the rank and file? A further section analyzes the status of intellectuals in modern society: Are men of ideas threatened by pressures—such as those created by majority rule and increased social mobility—which could be contained in more class-bound societies?

Lipset’s answers to these questions cannot be summarized in simple yes-or-no terms, for he always attempts to take account of the diverse—and often contradictory—facts of modern politics and of life in modern society. One of the criticisms of academic sociology is that its empirical research is not overarched by theory, that its theory is not underpinned by research; Lipset is one of the few individuals who has intellect and energy enough to work in both vineyards. He can analyze the experience of new states, both historically and comparatively; he can also refer to the classic literature of the social sciences. On yet another occasion he will employ the statistical data of recent opinion surveys, or will treat the propositions of Alexis de Tocqueville and Karl Marx as hypotheses to be tested by contemporary experience. (In one instance, the number of telephones per 1,000 population in Uruguay and the literacy rate in Norway become useful indices for verifying these hypotheses.)

There is no pretentious nonsense in Political Man about sociology-as-science. Scientists (and occasionally lawyers) can “prove” propositions by adducing facts-as-evidence; for evidence in general consists of hard facts—amassed by a settled method and acceptable to one’s professional colleagues. But Lipset recognizes that sociology has no rules defining which data are admissible and which are not; his only claim is that he illustrates his points by means of a survey of our existing knowledge. At the same time, Lipset understands that citing illustrations is not the same thing as producing evidence. What distinguishes him even more from many other sociologists is his willingness to commit himself on significant propositions. He has the courage to take a stand, knowing full well that his conclusions will be branded as too hasty, too simplified, and too subjective by his colleagues who stick to the straight and narrow.



Lipset’s approach is remarkably free of moralizing. Though temperamentally a democrat and a liberal, he harbors no illusions about human rationality or social progress. His viewpoint can, I think, be illustrated by reference to one of his best chapters, “Working-Class Authoritarianism,” for it analyzes a fact of political life which has been neglected for far too many years.

In a large majority of Western countries, the most articulate and energetic proponents of the liberal cause have been members of the middle and upper-middle class. This was true in the time of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and it remains true today. In recent years, however, liberals have been fighting their political battle on two fronts. They have been concerned with correcting certain economic inequalities, and have attempted to do so—putting it simply—by redistributing the wealth of society. In this respect, they have lent their support to the poor, the ignorant, the victims of prejudice and discrimination. At the same time, liberals have also sought to defend political freedom and deviant behavior: here they have defended the heretic, the dissenter, the nonconformist.

Taken as a whole, the liberal cause has had its ups and downs; and its representatives periodically attain political power by wooing the vote of working-class constituencies. There are, in a word, more poor people than rich people; and because enough of the former see the liberal parties as agencies of economic redistribution, they put these parties into office. But the latter pay a price in the process. For the working class is liberal only as it is a group of Have Nots who want some of the things the Haves have.

Though Lipset applies the term “liberal” to the working class in general, he himself shows the Have Nots to be one of the most authoritarian groups in democratic countries. Lipset’s findings, based, quite impressively, on surveys in a variety of democratic countries, are as persuasive as they are unwelcome, “In some nations working-class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic sector of the population,” he writes. “In some they have been in the forefront of the struggle against equal rights for minority groups, and have sought to limit immigration or to impose racial standards in countries with open immigration.” In matters such as free speech, personal privacy, and heretical behavior, the working class is quick to demand that society or the state curb, even punish, unorthodoxy. In short, the working class may or may not feel gratitude to their middle-class leaders for the economic gains won on their behalf, but they certainly feel no obligation to support the middle-class values of civil liberties and civil rights.

Lipset’s findings here are suggestive, and their implications are worth spelling out. For even though there exists a hiatus—both of interest and ideology—between the working class and that segment of the middle class which is on the left, middle-class liberals continue to cherish their illusions concerning the tolerance of those they represent. To maintain this fantasy, however, to suppose that a large constituency for political liberty does exist, can only lead to an eventual moment of truth and an ensuing bitterness of outlook—a disillusionment I once called “the betrayal of the proletariat” (“The Rebelling Young Scholars,” COMMENTARY, November 1960). One drastic means of avoiding such feelings is simply to forgo encouraging political participation among the working class. This proposal can surely be labeled as “conservative”; I would reply only that toleration has never been a favorite outdoor sport of the common man. It may be that unless the political energies of the working class are carefully channeled by institutions like trade unions, they will run riot over such constitutional safeguards as we now have. If the defense of individual freedom is to be sustained by a middle-class minority, perhaps the working-class majority must be kept at bay.



I have said that Political Man is free of moralizing; yet Lipset’s own political stance is not hard to detect. He is a liberal and a democrat. But such rubrics are insufficient, covering, as they do, a multitude of outlooks. One way to place Lipset more specifically is to recognize that liberal democrats, broadly speaking, tend to be of one of two temperaments. Both believe in social reform and personal liberty, but each focuses his mind in a different “direction.” One prefers to talk about the distance traveled, the progress already made. Such an attitude is not “conservative,” of course, for conservatives neither approve of reforms when first proposed nor boast about their acceptance when they become part of the established order. The second group of liberals, on the other hand, prefers to speak about the distance left to travel, the inequalities and injustices which must still be overcome. These liberals, for the most part, do not think of themselves as radicals; they are willing to work within the framework of capitalism and constitutional government.

Lipset clearly belongs in the first group. His temperamental preference is apparent in the areas he has chosen for research. According to Political Man whatever the problems still remaining in American society, they do not result from the excesses of free enterprise, the wrongs of racial discrimination, or the irrationalities of our foreign policy. It may be that Lipset, and others like him, lead two lives, that they keep separate their political commitments and their academic research. But I doubt that this is so. In Political Man, Lipset has defined for us the problems in modern society which he thinks are significant, and at the center of these is the preservation of stability and the amelioration of conflict.

Lipset’s attitude is best seen in his closing chapter, “The End of Ideology.” Ideology here means the myths and visions of the political left, and Lipset believes that its appeal has declined throughout the Western world. He concludes from this point that we have matured, that we are willing to live with the facts. Yet is this decline—which can be observed among academics and intellectuals, and among left-wing parties in general—as salutary as Lipset believes? Lipset hopes to supplant myth with fact. But by definition, “facts” can only be culled from the attitudes and behavior of men and societies, current or past. Empiricism, like it or not, forces one to concentrate on things as they are or as they have been. A description of how things might be were we to embark on changing the social order is bound to be speculative, not factual. Nor has it ever been established that evidence from the past and the present offer storm warnings about how such a future might turn out. The visions of ideologues, then, coupled with their mythologies about the world of reality, should be evaluated not on empirical but on strategic grounds. Even moderate steps forward can only be taken if there exists a section of the community which asks for a whole loaf, settles for half. Those who ask for half—because they know from a study of the “facts” that only half is “possible”—either end up with a quarter or, most often, with nothing at all. Liberals such as Lipset are proud of the progress which has been made in the Western world, but it is curious that they never acknowledge the fact that we have gotten as far as we have precisely because of the ideologies which stirred men to action. If such ideologies are in fact dead, then we have the best explanation of why we in the West are standing still.



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