I had the great good fortune to co-direct Chuck Tilly’s workshop with him for a couple years back in the early 1990s, when Chuck was at the New School. As others have attested, Chuck was a masterly teacher and mentor as well as researcher and writer. But never overbearing, like some great scholars. It was an invaluable education to hear him speak for just 10 or 15 minutes on the strengths and (mainly) weaknesses of the paper we were dissecting that week. Chuck would often construct a two-by-two table, or some other kind of “conceptual space,” on paper or on the blackboard, which would neatly indicate where the author’s research or explanandum fell, in the broader scheme of things. And Chuck always thought about the broader scheme of things! His comments invariably shot straight to the heart of the matter. He was also famous for distributing annotated bibliographies, often quite extensive, on the topic of each weekly paper. Chuck seemed to have read and understood everything worth knowing.
I have been fortunate to meet many smart and interesting people in this world, but I must say that I have encountered only a few truly brilliant minds. Chuck’s was one of them. Thankfully, he managed to transfer his best ideas to the written page. The explosion of creative work that Chuck produced in these last few years, when he was well into his seventies, is literally stunning. I don’t expect to see anything like it again in my lifetime. Consider just his final publications: Contention and Democracy (2003), The Politics of Collective Violence (2003), Social Movements, 1768-2004 (2004), Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties (2005), Trust and Rule (2005), Contentious Politics (2006), Regimes and Repertoires (2006), Why? (2006), Democracy (2007), Contentious Performances (2008), Credit and Blame (2008), and Explaining Social Processes (2008). This is an awesome achievement. I don’t think anyone has fully digested this work yet. Chuck produced it too quickly for us to assimilate!
Chuck’s inestimable legacy is his deep influence on us all—and, through us, on our students as well. His rich ideas on state-building, nationalism, revolutions, social movements, inequality, democracy, violence, explanation itself, and so much more have of course been widely appropriated. And criticized. But mainly his ideas have been discussed and grappled with. Across an incredible range of topics, an engagement with Chuck’s ideas has been simply unavoidable for serious scholars.
Of course, anyone as brilliant and ambitious as Chuck is bound to become a lightning rod of sorts. I myself became rather critical of the political process school with which he was associated and have a number of reservations about the dynamics-of-contention approach elaborated in Chuck’s later writings. But so what? Our collective thinking about political conflict would be much, much impoverished without his incredible contributions. We’ll be wrestling with his work for decades to come. I would say, in fact, that the first task of any serious young scholar of politics is to determine what she accepts and rejects in the writings of Marx and Tilly.
I was finishing up a graduate seminar on social movements when news of Chuck’s death arrived. At the start of the semester, I was hoping his health would improve enough that he might visit our final class. This was not to be. At that class, we discussed Tilly and Tarrow’s 2006 book, Contentious Politics—as well as a critique by Richard Flacks. The conversation continues—and will continue, for many, many years.
Professor of Sociology
New York University