Allan A. Silver

Allan A. Silver






In Memoriam


Allan Silver

Professor Emeritus of Sociology

Columbia University



Allan Silver died on November 14 after attending a performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera.  He was 85. 


Allan joined the Columbia faculty in 1964.  He was a charismatic teacher and an exceptionally generous mentor.  Robert Zussman recalls that while Allan was critical of the student left in the late 1960s, “students on the left flocked to his courses both because of the topics he addressed and because of the intellectual elegance with which he addressed them.”  Among those deeply influenced by studying with Allan as undergraduates in those heady years were Fred Block, Paul Starr, Jeff Weintraub, and Zussman himself (who also did his PhD under Allan’s supervision).  Block found Allan’s lectures on political sociology “riveting” and recalled Allan’s “kindness and generosity; he treated me as a colleague even when I was an undergraduate.”  Weintraub took Allan’s political sociology course in 1967 and is “still learning from what he taught us then.”  Andrei Markovits credited Allan’s “brilliance and erudition” in the same political sociology course, which he took in 1969 as an MBA student, for his decision to pursue an academic career in political science.

Half a century later, even after his formal retirement in 2009, Allan continued to teach every year in the undergraduate Core Curriculum, and he continued to serve as an inspiring and exacting graduate mentor.  Seth Rachlin, Allan’s last PhD student, who left Columbia in 1994 for a career in business but returned in 2013 to work with Allan on finishing his dissertation, describes him – in terms that will be familiar to all who worked with Allan – as “tireless in editing and reediting my various drafts.”  In the intervening years, Allan chaired numerous dissertation committees and served on many others.  Students whose dissertations he supervised teach in departments of history and political science as well as sociology in the US and abroad. 

Allan was a vibrant intellectual presence for successive generations of students. Toby Ditz, who studied with Allan in the 1970s, recalled that while many incoming students arrived “as Marxist humanists of various stripes, Allan by sheer force of intellect and well-chosen reading convinced most of us that the realm of the political had far more autonomy with respect to the social than even a very flexible Marxism could accommodate.  His favoring of historically grounded theory and conceptual work in opposition to the dominant theoretical paradigms in sociology also appealed to the maverick in most of us.”  Robert Devigne, who wrote a dissertation in political theory under Allan in the 1980s, recalls him as “the most generous and open minded scholar I ever met, who was only intolerant to poorly formulated ideas, whether they represented the Left or the Right.”  Prompted by Allan’s death to re-read “Science as a Vocation,” Daniel Levy, a student from the following decade, was struck by the way Allan embodied so fully the ethos Weber described in his great lecture.  And SangJun Kim summed up the thoughts of many in observing that Allan “was more than an academic advisor to me”: “When I first met him at Columbia in 1996, I was a penniless ex-labor movement activist from South Korea. Without his full support and belief, I could not have achieved my academic goals.”


Befitting his remarkable intellectual breadth, Allan’s teaching in the Core Curriculum included both Contemporary Civilization, which addresses social and political theory from ancient Greece to the present, and Literature Humanities, which treats literature and philosophy over a similar time span.  Eileen Gillooly noted Allan’s “passion for the Core texts and their ability to bring into sharp focus the hardest questions about what it means to be human.”  More recently, in the context of Columbia’s recently instituted “Global Core” requirement, Allan worked with Rachel Chung to develop a new course on ideals and practices of friendship in East Asia and the West; they were scheduled to teach it again this coming spring.  As Chung commented, Allan’s “generosity and humility as a scholar were such that even though he'd done a lifetime of research on the topic of friendship and I had done none, he didn't mind the discrepancy and was genuinely grateful and excited to learn what different perspectives East Asian classics would yield up on the subject.  Seeing the immensity – and intensity – of critical reflection he brought to bear on each of his many and wide-ranging interests, everything from Korean celadons of the 13th century to Beethoven's and Berg's piano sonatas, Shakespeare's female nonpareils to the Christian ethics of Kierkegaard, was a continual source of inspiration, as was the generous care with which he wrote copious comments on student papers.  He did not suffer fools or foolish writing gladly, but he was too grateful for the pleasures of learning, I think, not to guide even the least promising student on its path with patience and in painstaking detail.” 


Allan published relatively little, and much of his influence was mediated “through conversations with colleagues and students,” observed Pierre Force, with whom Allan co-taught a seminar on “Self-Interest before Capitalism in Literature and Social Theory,” and whose subsequent book on the subject – like books by numerous others – acknowledged its significant debt “to the many conversations I had with Allan.”  But the depth of Allan’s scholarship and the breadth of his learning in history, social and political theory, literature, music, and Jewish thought were held in high esteem by leading scholars in Europe and North America.  Jürgen Kocka recalled being “deeply impressed by his scholarship and his habitus as a scholar and colleague.”  Abram de Swaan noted that “Allan was a real sociologist, always reflecting on what he observed in the world in the perspective of his enormous erudition and profound Jewish learning.”  And as Alfred Stepan recalled, “Juan Linz always told me that Allan was one of the most learned scholars he ever met.” 


Allan was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 1930. His father had immigrated from the Russian Empire just before the First World War; his mother was a native-born American with family roots in Riga. The parents ran a small decorating and upholstery business.  Allan’s strong cultural and intellectual interests – in classical music, English poetry, and book collecting – were evident already in high school.  He was offered early admission to the University of Chicago after three years of high school, but his family did not agree.  Later in life, Allan regretted this as a missed opportunity: he felt he might have found his intellectual calling sooner at Chicago, instead of taking what turned out to be a much more circuitous route.

Allan was not accepted by Columbia or any other Ivy League college, reflecting the persistence of severe unofficial quotas on the admission of Jewish students at the time. Instead he attended Tufts College for two years, initially in a pre-med program, subsequently in English literature, before transferring to the University of Michigan to study psychology.

As he was completing his undergraduate degree in 1951, during the middle of the Korean War, Allan decided to join the army rather than defer being drafted by applying to graduate school.  As a liberal anti-communist, he later wrote, he “saw the invasion of South Korea as echoing the fascist aggressions that had led to the recent world war.”  He was trained as a rifleman, but ironically did not experience combat because of a protracted investigation into his suspected communist sympathies.  Allan remained a committed patriot throughout his life, though always a critical one.  As he later wrote, “saluting the flag to a bugle call, armed, is imprinted in my memory, along with the whole idea of service to the nation – military or not.”

After his military service, Allan returned to Michigan, intending to pursue a PhD in social psychology, though he soon gravitated toward political sociology.  Between 1957 and 1960, Allan lived in England, where he worked for a market research firm headed by Mark Abrams, a wide-ranging social scientist, pioneer in survey research and studies of consumer behavior, and pollster for the Labour Party.  Through Abrams, Allan began collaborating with Robert McKenzie of the London School of Economics, a leading analyst of elections and political parties, on a study of British working-class conservatives.  This study provided the empirical materials for his dissertation, which he completed in 1962. 

From Ann Arbor, Allan moved to Madison, where he taught for two years at the University of Wisconsin.  His years in the Midwest, he later observed, inspired lifelong gratitude “to these great public universities, open to talent from states outside their own, and to the children of minorities. They were without prejudice well before the Ivy League discovered multiculturalism, though they had no such word for this condition.” 

Allan’s dissertation was the basis for his book Angels in Marble: Working Class Conservatives in Urban England, co-authored with McKenzie.  (The title comes from a posthumous tribute to Disraeli’s skill in “discern[ing] the Conservative workingman as the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in a block of marble.”)  Over many decades, about a third of working-class voters had voted for the Conservatives rather than for a party expressly claiming to represent their class interests.  The book explored this tradition of working-class conservatism through interviews with urban voters, an historical analysis of the Conservatives’ longstanding efforts to appeal to the working class electorate, and an appraisal of the changing social basis of Conservatives’ working class support. 

During the 1968 Columbia protests, Allan was part of a small group of liberal faculty who sought – ultimately without success – to mediate between the administration and the radical students who had occupied four buildings.  Allan was sympathetic to the concerns of the students,but he was critical of radical leaders for their political immaturity and manipulative tactics. He was sharply critical of the administration and of many more conservative and distant faculty colleagues as well, yet he remained deeply committed to the University as an institution.  In one tense exchange, Allan asked SDS leader Mark Rudd whether there was anything about Columbia, with all its faults, which he considered “precious, and even indispensable.”  And if so, did that place any limits on the tactics he was prepared to use, or the lengths to which he was prepared to go?  Rudd himself was later quoted as saying that “we had no answer to this huge question.”  As Douglas Chalmers recalled, “We were both in the organization of faculty who stood between the radical students and the nay-sayers among students and the administration – at times, literally between, helping to keep the students from fighting. Allan always had a clear view of that event, neither swept up in the enthusiasm for the radical cause nor impressed by the official rejection of it.” Allan wrote two extended essays about the events the following year, and in later years figured in a number of documentaries about the protests. 

Allan’s writings spanned a wide geographic, temporal, substantive, and disciplinary range.  Informing all of them, however, was a deeply sociological imagination that combined theoretical sophistication, historical depth, and insightful attentiveness to the subtle interplay between social structure and cultural understandings. 

Allan’s most influential work – recognized as foundational by historians – addressed ideals of friendship and trust in historical perspective.  In modern societies, widespread understandings of friendship as a relationship ideally uncontaminated by considerations of interest or advantage contrast strikingly with the forms of association prevalent in the wider society, dominated by the division of labor, contract, exchange, and impersonal bureaucratic institutions.  Yet Allan challenged the prevailing understanding of such forms of friendship as survivals from an earlier era, threatened and corroded by the impersonal spirit of modern society.  He showed that ideals of friendship as purified of interest are distinctively modern, emerging precisely in the context of what Adam Smith called "commercial society."  Paradoxically, modern friendship “requires the very impersonality of administration, contractualism and monetized exchange over against which it is culturally distinguished.”  For it is the routine workings of those impersonal institutions in providing security, order, and livelihood that make possible the emergence of a new ideal of friendship premised exclusively on voluntary ties of affection, trust, and intimacy and freed from calculations of interest or advantage

More recently, Allan also pursued two other lines of research. One, reflecting the influence of his mentor Morris Janowitz, concerned the historically changing relation between military institutions, war, and democratic citizenship. Allan analyzed the implications of the decline of mass conscript armies in the post-World War II era for the practice of democratic citizenship.  The increasingly tenuous relation between military institutions and democratic citizenship – and what he called the “shameful absence of socially advantaged citizens, and the universities they attend, from the military aspects of citizenship” – was a matter of political as well as intellectual concern.  Allan led a long-quixotic campaign for the return of ROTC to Columbia and other elite universities from which it had been banned after 1968; to his disappointment, he found few allies on the left.  But he was gratified when – in the aftermath of the opening of the military to gay recruits – Columbia and other Ivy League campuses voted to allow the return of ROTC in the last few years.

The second line of research that preoccupied Allan late in life was the analysis of traditional Jewish texts in light of the concerns of modern political theory.  Pierre Birnbaum observed that while it is “less known, his work on Jewish theory, on the king tradition, is superb.”  Michael Walzer commented that Allan “wrote beautifully about the moment in biblical history when the Israelite elders come to Samuel to ask for a king – in place of God. This, he said, was the critical political moment, for politics requires the rejection of divine help and a readiness to rely on human coping.” 

Allan was a teacher of the highest order, a scholar of the deepest learning, and a person of consummate integrity and extraordinary delicacy of feeling and insight – a beautiful and noble soul.  I had the great privilege of being Allan’s student in the 1980s.  After completing my dissertation, I wrote to Allan about the Simmelian problem of "irredeemable" gratitude that is generated by the experience of working with a generous mentor: a form of gratitude, as Simmel observed, that consists "not in the return of a gift, but in the consciousness that it cannot be returned."  Allan observed in reply that the only solution consists in doing for those who follow what has been done for oneself: "that this is the only reciprocation possible is not an imperfection, but in the nature of these matters, where gratitude consists in the giver's certainty that the receiver will pass on knowledge, value, and sentiment, contending with darkness, contingency, and time."

To “pass on knowledge, value, and sentiment, contending with darkness, contingency, and time" – can one imagine a finer description of the calling of the teacher?  There is no more shining example of devotion to this calling than Allan.

Allan is survived by his wife of 15 years, Victoria Koroteyeva, and by two nieces, Marilyn Kravitz and Elaine Arena. A commemorative celebration of his life and work is being planned for the spring. 

Rogers Brubaker