The Legendary Political Theorist Harlem’s Seymour Martin Lipset 1922-2006

November 26, 2022

Seymour Martin Lipset, March 18, 1922 – December 31, 2006, was a Harlem sociologist and political scientist.

In addition, Lipset was President of the American Political Science Association.

His major work was in the fields of political sociology, trade union organization, social stratification, public opinion, and the sociology of intellectual life. He also wrote extensively about the conditions for democracy in a comparative perspective.

A socialist in his early life, Lipset later moved to the right and was often considered a neoconservative.

At his death in 2006, The Guardian called him “the leading theorist of democracy and American exceptionalism”; The New York Times said he was “a pre-eminent sociologist, political scientist and incisive theorist of American uniqueness”; and The Washington Post said he was “one of the most influential social scientists of the past half-century.”

Early life and education

Lipset was born in Harlem, New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His family urged him to become a dentist.

He grew up in the Bronx among Irish, Italian and Jewish youth. “I was in that atmosphere where there was a lot of political talks,” Lipset recalled, “but you never heard of Democrats or Republicans; the question was communists, socialists, Trotskyists, or anarchists. It was all sorts of different left-wing groups.” From an early age, Seymour was active in the Young People’s Socialist League, “an organization of young Trotskyists that he would later head.] He graduated from City College of New York, where he was an anti-Stalinist leftist,. He received a PhD in sociology from Columbia University in 1949. Before that, he taught at the University of Toronto.

Academic career

Lipset was the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and then became the George D. Markham Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. He also taught at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Toronto, and George Mason University where he was the Hazel Professor of Public Policy.

Lipset was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the United States National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He was the only person to have been President of both the American Political Science Association (1979–1980) and the American Sociological Association (1992–1993). He also served as the President of the International Society of Political Psychology, the Sociological Research Association, the World Association for Public Opinion Research, the Society for Comparative Research, and the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Society in Vienna.

Lipset received the MacIver Prize for Political Man (1960) and, in 1970, the Gunnar Myrdal Prize for The Politics of Unreason.

In 2001, Lipset was named among the top 100 American intellectuals, as measured by academic citations, in Richard Posner’s book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

Academic research

“Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”

One of Lipset’s most cited works is “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” (1959), a key work on modernization theory on democratization, and an article that includes the Lipset hypothesis that economic development leads to democracy.

Lipset was one of the first proponents of the “theory of modernization”, which states that democracy is the direct result of economic growth, and that “[t]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” Lipset’s modernization theory has continued to be a significant factor in academic discussions and research relating to democratic transitions. It has been referred to as the “Lipset hypothesis” and the “Lipset thesis”.

The Lipset hypothesis has been challenged by Guillermo O’Donnell, Adam Przeworski and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.

Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics

Political Man (1960) is an influential analysis of the bases of democracy, fascism, communism (”working-class authoritarianism”), and other political organizations, across the world, in the interwar period and after World War II. One of the important sections is Chapter 2: “Economic Development and Democracy.” Larry Diamond and Gary Marks argue that “Lipset’s assertion of a direct relationship between economic development and democracy has been subjected to extensive empirical examination, both quantitative and qualitative, in the past 30 years. And the evidence shows, with striking clarity and consistency, a strong causal relationship between economic development and democracy.”[2] In Chapter V, Lipset analyzed “Fascism”—Left, Right, and Center, and explained that the study of the social bases of different modern mass movements suggests that each major social stratum has both democratic and extremist political expressions. He explained the mistakes of identifying extremism as a right-wing phenomenon and Communism as a left-wing phenomenon. He underlined that extremist ideologies and groups can be classified and analyzed in the same terms as democratic groups, i.e., right, left, and center.

Political Man was published and republished in several editions, sold more than 400,000 copies and was translated into 20 languages, including Vietnamese, Bengali, and Serbo-Croatian.

Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments”

In this 1967 co-authored work with Stein Rokkan, Lipset introduced critical juncture theory and made substantial contributions to cleavage theory.

The Democratic Century

In The Democratic Century (2004), Lipset sought to explain why North America developed stable democracies and Latin America did not. He argued that the reason for this divergence is that the initial patterns of colonization, the subsequent process of economic incorporation of the new colonies, and the wars of independence varied. The divergent histories of Britain and Iberia are seen as creating different cultural legacies that affected the prospects of democracy.

Public Affairs

Lipset left the Socialist Party in 1960 and later described himself as a centrist, deeply influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, George Washington, Aristotle, and Max Weber. He became active within the Democratic Party’s conservative wing, and associated with neoconservatives, without calling himself one.

Lipset was vice-chair of the board of directors of the United States Institute of Peace, a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute, a member of the US Board of Foreign Scholarships, co-chair of the Committee for Labor Law Reform, co-chair of the Committee for an Effective UNESCO, and consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the American Jewish Committee.

Lipset was a strong supporter of the state of Israel, and was President of the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, chair of the National B’nai B’rith Hillel Commission and the Faculty Advisory Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, and co-chair of the Executive Committee of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. He worked for years on seeking solution for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as part of his larger project of research on the factors that allow societies to sustain stable and peaceful democracies. His work focused on the way in which high levels of socioeconomic development created the preconditions for democracy (see also Amartya Sen’s work), and the consequences of democracy for peace.


Lipset’s book The First New Nation was a finalist for the National Book Award. He was also awarded the Townsend Harris and Margaret Byrd Dawson Medals for significant achievement, the Northern Telecom-International Council for Canadian Studies Gold Medal, and the Leon Epstein Prize in Comparative Politics by the American Political Science Association. He received the Marshall Sklare Award for distinction in Jewish studies and, in 1997, he was awarded the Helen Dinnerman Prize by the World Association for Public Opinion Research.

Personal life

Lipset’s first wife, Elsie, died in 1987. She was the mother of his three children, David, Daniel, and Carola (“Cici”). David Lipset is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He had six grandchildren. Lipset was survived by his second wife, Sydnee Guyer (a director of the JCRC), whom he married in 1990.

At age 84, Lipset died as a result of complications following a stroke.

Photo credit: 1) Seymour Martin. 2) Youtube.

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