Remembering Daniel Bell, 1919-2011

Daniel Bell’s death closes out one of the most expansive and impressive intellectual careers of the twentieth century. He was a teacher of mine during my last term at Columbia, a friend for many years afterward, and an amazingly wide-ranging writer who could be both prescient and wrong on key issues. His style, with its staggering breadth of reading and reference, was anchored in intellectual journalism rather than in academe. His essays, he said in 1960, “were written for audiences not specialized but educated, audiences responsive to ideas.” Bell’s initial fame came from his thesis on “the end of ideology,” an argument that seemed haplessly ill-timed when it appeared just at the outset of the 1960s, which was to prove one of the most ideologically polarized decades in American history. It also seemed little more than a rephrasing of the cold war anti-Communism of the postwar intellectual scene. But with the pragmatism of post-Communist leaders, who deploy Marxism as a facade for state-dominated capitalism, and the break-up of traditional liberalism, Bell’s point has held up better in the long run than it did at first. And in his essays on the new American Right in the fifties and sixties, collected and edited in The Radical Right, he was one of the first to see how ideology, above all a populism of resentment, had settled in at the other end of the political spectrum.

I couldn’t have disagreed more with the viewpoint of his influential book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, in which he highlighted every irrational feature of the culture of the 1960s, creating an unrecognizable portrait of the whole era as “an attack on reason itself.” But he was at least consistent in tracing this back to modernism itself, which he saw reductively not as a breakthrough in the arts but as a pernicious outbreak of apocalyptic nihilism. “What the new sensibility did,” he wrote, “was to carry the premises of modernism through to their logical conclusion.” Culture was not Bell’s strong suit. His treatment was coarse-grained and almost embarrassingly indebted to Lionel Trilling’s more nuanced dissent from modernism and his critique of the “adversary culture,” including his notion that the sixties represented a kind of acting-out of modernist ideas. Bell too saw the new culture as “an effort by a cultural mass to adopt and act out the life-style which hitherto had been the property of a small and talented elite.” But even in the 1950s, in an essay chastising but welcoming the new Dissent magazine, he argued that “the problem of radicalism today is to reconsider the relationship of culture to society.” This was in many ways prophetic. The long-range effects of the counterculture were far greater than the impact of the political left, apart from the conservative backlash that it provoked.

Bell’s own politics were nothing if not consistent. As many old friends slid towards Nixon and neoconservatism, he remained a solidly grounded Hubert Humphrey-style liberal – pragmatic, anti-utopian. He was a great believer in the power of temperament over political commitment. He was not at all surprised that some of the most rigid Stalinists of the 1930s became equally rigid anti-Communists. He observed the mellowing of Irving Howe with amazement, describing him as one of the few friends who had actually undergone a dramatic change of temperament. And in his last years he himself actually wrote for Dissent, a journal that seemed to him anachronistic in its radicalism when it first appeared. As a person Dan was a bottomless well of Jewish jokes and sayings. One of his favorites: “As the Yiddish proverb goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” He repeated this with the customary twinkle in his eye and chuckle in his voice.

He had the memory of an elephant. The course I took with him on Victorian culture, which he team-taught with Trilling and Steven Marcus, juxtaposed literary readings with social and political documents as a method of fathoming the “moral temper” of the era, a pregnant concept. With a boisterous laugh, he later loved to remind me of something I supposedly said in the seminar apropos of one of these documentary readings grounded in social fact: “I didn’t know this course was going to be about real estate.” I might have felt literary and superior enough to have said such a thing, though I had no recollection of it. But I suspected I could trust his memory better than my own.