Retired MIT political science professor Lucian W. Pye, one of America’s leading China scholars, died Sept. 5 in Boston after a long illness. He was 86.
Pye, Ford Professor of Political Science Emeritus at MIT, was a leader in studying the politics of modernization in the Third World. He was author or editor of more than 25 books including “Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority,” “China: An Introduction” and “Mao-Tse Tung.”
He served as a mentor to several generations of influential political scientists and as an active public intellectual and policy adviser to presidential candidates, including John F. Kennedy. In additional to serving as president of the American Political Science Association from 1988-89, Pye participated in a variety of private organizations where scholars, government experts and lay leaders met to discuss Asia-related research and policy. These included the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.-China Relations Committee and the Asian Foundation.
“Lucian was a giant in the intellectual world that went well beyond our field of political science,” said Charles H. Stewart, head of MIT’s Department of Political Science. “For anyone ever called ‘hero’ or ‘scholar’ by Lucian, we must now live up to those titles he so cheerfully bestowed upon us.”
His dominant intellectual concern was to explore the cultural differences that help explain why the game of politics differs so greatly from one nation to another. Widely regarded as one of the foremost contemporary practitioners and proponents of the concept of political culture, Pye attempted to penetrate beneath the surface of political life to the deeper layers of attitude, value and sentiment that motivate political behavior.
The unique understanding that he brought to his studies of China, in particular, came in part out of his experience of growing up as a child of Congregational missionaries in Shansi Province, in northwest China. Born in 1921, he lived primarily in China until he went to Minnesota to attend Carleton College. There, Pye met fellow student Mary Toombs Waddill of Greenville, S.C., whom he married in 1945. She would become his partner in both life and work for the next 63 years, often traveling with him throughout Asia and helping edit his books.
After graduating from Carleton, Pye returned to China at the end of World War II to serve as an intelligence officer in the 5th Marine Corps, achieving the rank of Second Lieutenant. He returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school on the GI Bill at Yale University. During these crucial years of Pye’s intellectual formation, he was a part of a significant contingent of political scientists including Harold Lasswell, Nathan Leites and Gabriel Almond. Together, the group explored the psychological, sociological and anthropological elements of international affairs -- a departure from the standard “realism” of the day. Almond, his mentor at Yale, recalled his student Pye as “generally leaving me a little breathless; he had so much energy and enthusiasm.”
Pye himself became an important mentor and teacher to scores of political scientists since his arrival at MIT in 1956, where he helped found the Department of Political Science. With his encouragement and oversight, many of his students have gone on to prominent positions in both academia and government.
His studies of the politics of modernization in the Third World made theoretical and empirical contributions to our understanding of the development process and his participation in many social science and advising organizations were broadly influential. As one of a handful of scholars who studied Asian politics from a comparative standpoint, he was listened to in the policy world as well as the classroom.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, of Lexington, Mass., and his three children, Lyndy and Chris, both of Northampton, Mass., and Virginia, of Richmond, Va., as well as three grandchildren, Anna Swann-Pye and Eva and Daniel Ravenal. The family would like to encourage contributions to the Lucian W. Pye Memorial Graduate Fellowship Fund in the Department of Political Science at MIT. Memorial services will be held both in the town of Belmont, Mass., and at MIT at a future time.