Daniel Bell at 100

Daniel Bell at 100

Bell never quite reconciled the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical within him. This tension helped generate some of his most important and creative insights.

Daniel and David A. Bell in 1965 (courtesy of David A. Bell)

I always regret that my father, Daniel Bell, who would have turned 100 on May 10, did not write memoirs. In the early 1990s, I spent a long time trying to persuade him to do so. He was then in his early seventies and had just retired, very much against his will, from his professorship at Harvard (they still had mandatory retirement for academics in those days!). For over a decade, books about the “New York Intellectuals” had been appearing at a steady clip, and they usually devoted considerable attention to him: his early years in the socialist movement and at the City College of New York; his career as a prolific intellectual journalist; his development into one of the great modern sociologists. Most of the authors treated him quite favorably. Some had done extensive interviews with him.

Nonetheless, every time a new book arrived at his house in Cambridge, he would call me, fulminating about the inevitable misrepresentations and mistakes. Sometimes he would go so far as to send long letters on the subject to the unfortunate author, typed on his old Smith Corona electric, with shaky, handwritten corrections. If the book had treated him unfairly, as some did, the letter would turn distinctly dyspeptic. “You should write memoirs,” I would tell him on the phone. Get your own story out. Make sure future historians have your side of it. He was particularly annoyed when the authors called him a “neoconservative,” as journalists had done since Peter Steinfels had published The Neoconservatives in 1979. My father insisted that he remained a man of the left, a “socialist in economics,” a “Menshevik.” Don’t tell this to me, I would say. I know it already. Write it.

But he would always demur. He couldn’t write honest memoirs, he insisted, without revealing certain secrets that would hurt people he had known, or their families. This seemed like a transparently false excuse. When I pressed him about the secrets in question, they either involved quite minor peccadillos or were entirely tangential to his own life story and could have been easily left out.

More important, I think, was the entirely human and understandable reason that memoir-writing seemed too much of a last chapter—to a career, to a life. My father was a man who almost never exercised after graduating from high school at age sixteen, generally ate red meat at least twice a day, especially bacon and salami, and developed diabetes in his forties. When he was just fifty-four, he told my mother he didn’t think he would live another decade. I think he was as surprised as anyone that he made it to ninety-one.

In the end, he did leave some shards of memoirs. One is a brilliant essay called “First Love and Early Sorrows,” which he published in Partisan Review in 1981. It begins with a tender and vivid account of the way he became, at age thirteen, what he called a right-wing socialist. The other is Joseph Dorman’s wonderful 1997 documentary Arguing the World, about him, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe. There, he told stories about his childhood, and about the fabled days in “Alcove 1” in the cafeteria at City College where these four poor Jewish boys, sons of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, became friends. Dorman also beautifully traced their subsequent careers, the way they dealt with McCarthyism and the New Left, and their political parting of ways: Howe the democratic socialist (and Dissent founder) on one side, Kristol the unabashed neoconservative and Reaganite on the other; Glazer and my father somewhere in between, with my father eventually tending more toward the left.

The essay and the film help make up for the lack of memoirs. So do the various histories of the New York Intellectuals, not to mention three substantial biographies. But there is still much, inevitably, that is missing. A son’s perspective may be anything but impartial and unfiltered, but it does help me see what has been left out.

He himself left a lot out, even when he did not seem to be doing so. “First Love and Early Sorrows,” for instance, is beautifully, touchingly written, but it says little about his inner life. Except for a brief, affecting vignette about his shock at the pervasive poverty in New York City during the Depression, which he credits with making him a sociologist, the most personal section deals with how he reacted, at age thirteen, to the diary of the anarchist Alexander Berkman, which recounted Trotsky’s brutal suppression of the sailors’ mutiny in 1921 at the Kronstadt naval base, outside what is now St. Petersburg. One passage of the essay has become deservedly famous: “Every radical generation, it is said, has its Kronstadt. For some it was the Moscow Trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for still others Hungary (the Raik Trial or 1956), Czechoslovakia (the defenestration of Masaryk in 1948 or the Prague Spring of 1968), the Gulag, Cambodia, Poland (and there will be more to come). My Kronstadt was Kronstadt.”

Arguing the World seems to offer a much more personal, unrehearsed portrait. Personal, yes; unrehearsed, no. As everyone who knew my father could testify, he was an enormously well-practiced and experienced raconteur. He had a huge stock of stories, jokes, and quips that he could sprinkle into his talk with perfect timing and delivery. “What do I specialize in?” he would ask. The answer: “I am a specialist in generalizations.” “Why did I give up a career in journalism for academia? Three reasons: June, July and August.” “What is an intellectual? Someone who asks, if something works in practice, does it also work in theory?” By the time I went off to college I could almost always predict which of these bon mots was coming several sentences in advance (and, in good adolescent fashion, start rolling my eyes at it). They were a performance. But they were also a shield of sorts, allowing him to deflect the conversation away from areas where he felt uncomfortable.

The shield was there, in part, to cover some very deep-seated vulnerabilities and pain, some of which he readily acknowledged, and some of which he did not. When he was less than a year old, in early 1920, his father had died of the Spanish flu. He, his older brother Leo, and his mother Annie, a poor immigrant garment worker, spent the next few years squeezing into the already-overcrowded apartments of other family members, and relying on Jewish charities for support. His mother regularly took him and his brother on the long subway ride from the Lower East Side into deepest Queens, to visit their father’s grave.

As a toddler, he spent his days in a so-called Jewish Day Orphanage, and if his mother could not pick him up early enough, he would have to spend the night there as well. He could describe in heart-rending terms the fear he felt, every day, standing at the door of the Day Orphanage, waiting for his mother to come, and not knowing if she would make it on time. It was one of his well-rehearsed stories. He was more reluctant to discuss his feelings toward the stepfather his mother had married when he was thirteen, and with whom he never got along (I never met his two step-siblings). Only late in life did he talk to me about the agonizing break-up of his second marriage in the early 1950s, which sent him tumbling into depression and intensive Freudian psychoanalysis.

Still, he made his way out of that labyrinth, thanks in large part, as he always said, to his analyst. In my own lifetime, while I could see my father sad, or frustrated, I rarely saw him in the grips of something worse, and I remember many moments of real joy (especially of him beaming uncontrollably at my own children). There was emotional scar tissue aplenty, but mostly old, settled, and overgrown with healthier material. At least this was the case until my mother, Pearl Kazin Bell, had a terrible fall and suffered serious brain damage in the spring of 2002. The accident crushed his spirit for a long time and left him bereft. But he did eventually recover, somewhat, and struggled heroically to take care of her, building an extension onto their house in Cambridge so that she could stay at home with twenty-four-hour nursing care. I am sure one reason he lived as long as he did was because of his need to take care of her.

The performances were not just a shield, of course. The sport of the New York Jewish intellectuals was competitive talking, and they all needed their stories, their performances, to be contenders. Cocktail and dinner parties tended to turn into intellectual jousting matches, and while loud male voices usually dominated, Diana Trilling and Bea Himmelfarb Kristol easily held their own in the company (my mother was somewhat—not always—more reserved). Like any child who has heard his parents’ stories a thousand times, I groaned at the repetition, but I also grasped that his stories were, in fact, very good ones: entertaining, witty, and also thought-provoking. One of the best ones made its way into Arguing the World. It recounts the moment when my father, with his orthodox Jewish background (his paternal grandfather was a cantor), told his rabbi that after his bar mitzvah he would no longer attend shul because he did not believe in God. “Tell me,” the rabbi replied. “Do you think God cares?”

As with this story, the performances always centrally involved Jewish humor. My father liked to tell the story of a Jew who had a conversation with God. “Lord, is it true,” the Jew asked, “that in your scale of reckoning, a thousand years is like a minute?” God said: Yes. “And is it true that in your weights and measures, a thousand dollars is like a penny?” The Lord again said: Yes. So the man continued: “Lord, I am poor, can you give me a penny?” The Lord replied: “All right. Just wait a minute.” Then there was the story of the Jew who volunteered to serve in the Israeli Navy. “Do you know how to swim?” the recruiter asked him. “I know the theory of it,” the man replied. There were many, many other such stories.

It would be easy to see this humor as incidental to understanding a man who was, of course, a deeply serious thinker, author of long tomes of often difficult social analysis. In fact, it is absolutely central. Humor is of course a classic kind of emotional shield, a way to deflect from hurt and vulnerability. But there was also much more to the stories my father told, which he always insisted could never just be reduced to mere “jokes,” to Borscht-belt comedy.

He thought deeply about Jewish humor, bringing to bear the considerable Jewish learning that this non-believing and largely non-observant Jew nonetheless managed to acquire over the course of his life. One of the loveliest things he ever wrote, too often neglected by his biographers, was the commencement address he delivered at Brandeis in 1991, entitled “Serious Thoughts on Jewish Humor.” In it, he called Jewish humor “a wisdom literature that draws upon a thousand years of experience and gives one a sense of human yearning, and its limits.” And he explained the way in which it is deeply, inescapably political:

Jewish humor is the tension of two contradictory elements in its makeup: a Hebrew theology, which is deeply conservative, and a Yiddish experience, which was intensely radicalizing. Hebrew theology reads the nature of man in the histories of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Babylon and Rome. It has witnessed the sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law, to unloose murder and pillage on populations, to inflict cruelty and suffering on victims, such as have occurred—and will repeatedly recur—throughout the millennia. But Yiddish experience has been radicalizing, because it has been an experience of humiliation. the humiliation of Jewish students in prewar Poland who had to sit on ghetto benches in the lecture room and chose to stand, rather than accept the condition; the humiliation of being barred from positions in universities despite their evident abilities; to the humiliations of being either pariah or parvenu, a stranger often in a land that could not be their own, when entering the modern age.

I think of this as one of the most revealing things my father ever wrote about himself. Because he was a mix of the conservative and the radical in exactly the way he described here. The humor may have been a shield, and a performance, but it also offers a glimpse into some of the most important impulses behind both his writings and his politics.

Start with the conservatism. My father was fortunate to have been born in New York rather than in his parents’ shtetls in present-day Belarus, so he never had personal experience of the horrific violence of the twentieth century (he did not serve in the Second World War). But the death of his own father, his childhood experiences at the Jewish Day Orphanage, and his battles with depression in the 1950s all left him with a deep fear of abandonment—of the abyss, whether physical or mental, that could sometimes seem all too close.

After he died, I found among his papers a long journal of sorts, written after his second wife, Elaine Graham, left him, that breathes with utter, piercing anguish at the loss, and suggests psychological wounds that went very deep. The phrases repeat: “always in despair”; “anxiety attack”; “I always begin in sadness.” After reading it, I could only think of the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

He often said that what mattered most in politics was temperament, and his own temperament was undoubtedly conservative, precisely because of his painful sense, born out of his own childhood experience and his memories of the Depression, of how fragile the structures of ordinary, civilized life could be. I think he reacted so strongly, at age thirteen, to Berkman’s description of Kronstadt, and continued to recoil against political extremism throughout his life, because of a deeply personal revulsion at the violence and cruelty that could so easily overwhelm civilization’s weak defenses. A person of a different temperament might have been more ready, as so many Communists were in the 1920s and 1930s, to accept Trotsky’s actions as necessary, and perhaps even to take a certain savage pleasure in the crushing of the Revolution’s enemies. That kind of pleasure did not exist in my father’s emotional repertoire.

Of course, my father’s political experiences after 1932 only seemed to confirm what he had first felt on reading Berkman. There was the unfathomable degree of murder, pillage, cruelty and suffering of Stalin’s purges, and the show trials, and the Great Terror, followed by the war and the Holocaust. And even after the Holocaust ended and the war was won, a threat still remained. Stalinists took power in Eastern Europe, with more purges, more show trials, more terror, and even, at the end of Stalin’s life, the threat of renewed persecution of the Jews.

Defeating this threat mattered more than anything. This is why, in the 1950s, he devoted so much time to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was striving to counter Communist influence, especially in Western Europe. A decade later, he sensed something of the same temperamental excess, the same “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” in 1960s student radicalism, and he turned away from it in revulsion as well. But he was no happier with the self-consciously “tough guy” poses adopted by some of his fellow Jewish intellectuals, especially when they became the sort of neoconservatives who never stopped beating the drum for American military action (he often referred to one of the most prominent of them using the Yiddish word grobian, meaning a coarse and vulgar person).

Yet another of his well-known remarks was his definition of himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. That cultural conservatism expressed itself abundantly in his personal life. He detested most popular culture, especially television and rock music (although, oddly, he had a taste for televised football). He was horrified by the love of comic books that I developed as a small child, and when he saw it was a losing battle, he did everything he could to steer me from the garish American variety to the more sophisticated European sort, especially Astérix and Tintin (thereby setting me on the road to my PhD in French history). Although he enthusiastically promoted women students and colleagues, and took enormous pride in my mother’s literary criticism, their marriage was entirely too traditional when it came to the division of household labor. He adored a certain aristocratic sort of Englishness and often said that the year he and my mother spent at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1988–89, was one of the happiest of his life. He had just as deep an attraction to Japan, which he adored for the elegant simplicity of its art and manners. He was not a connoisseur of radical, flamboyant artistic experimentation.

This conservatism found its way into his work, above all in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. From its very first paragraphs, he warned about “the unraveling of the threads which had once held the culture and the economy together,” and about the destructive effects of the “hedonism” he saw embodied in popular culture. He warned of a world dominated by “impulse and pleasure alone.” While he may have been referring most immediately to the youth culture of the sixties, it is hard for me not to hear in the words an echo of the “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” that he saw Jewish theology as struggling to contain. The law mattered. Order mattered. He was not a frequent reader of Shakespeare, but the play that always spoke most deeply to him was King Lear, where the collapse of order in the realm is matched by its collapse in the family, in the natural world, and ultimately in the mind of its title character.

At the same time, there was also, still, much Yiddish radicalism in him. He did not himself encounter the sort of fierce, radicalizing humiliation that his Jewish counterparts had earlier faced in Poland and Russia. Again, he was fortunate to have been born in New York, at a time when anti-Semitic barriers were dropping, and he could make his way through institutions like Stuyvesant High School, CCNY, and Columbia, to become an editor at Fortune, and then a professor at Columbia and Harvard. Another one of his favorite remarks, humorous but as always bearing a deeper wisdom, was: “Between Rome and Jerusalem, I choose . . . New York!”

Even so, especially when he traveled outside New York, he encountered his share of genteel anti-Semitic humiliation. He didn’t like to talk about these moments, but they were certainly there, and they stung. As late as 1985, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a particularly nasty letter about him. “As for Bell,” he sneered, “whose real name is, I think, much longer, I made up my mind about him at a conference in Venice a few years ago. He pomped away on ‘futurology’ and gave himself great airs. . . . I have a full (illustrated) private record of that conference: most of the illustrations are of D. Bell, in various animal forms.”

My father may have been Anglophilic, but he never tried to make himself into an Englishman, as some of his American Jewish academic contemporaries did. His accent and manners remained proudly those of a New York Jew. And he often spoke, with a certain mischievous pride, of the time he and a friend broke out into a loud chorus of “The Internationale,” in Yiddish, in that inner sanctum of Englishness, the Reform Club in London. For him, the response to humiliation was to force the people who wanted to exclude him to accept him.

It was this stubborn Yiddish radicalism which, as much as anything, kept him from following his friend Irving Kristol into neoconservatism. The defining moment was the 1972 presidential election. He had no love for George McGovern, whom he saw as having given in too easily to the spirit of the sixties, and what he saw as the antinomian ethos of the youth movement. From his time editing The Public Interest magazine (which he had founded with Kristol), he had developed a distinct skepticism about the effectiveness of Great Society social programs, worrying about what he saw as their ideological dogmatism and overreach. But he could not stand Nixon (another grobian), and, more important, could not bring himself to break with the political tradition he had first embraced as a very young teenager, in the Depression.

It was always a matter of pride with him that he had cast his first presidential vote for Norman Thomas. The poverty and despair he remembered from the 1930s also amounted to a form of humiliation, and that stuck with him. He remained, always, a great reader of Karl Marx, whom he often described to me as the most profound social analyst he had ever encountered. One of my own prize possessions is the complete set of Marx and Engels in fifty volumes, published in the Soviet Union, that I inherited from him.

Throughout his life the conservatism and the radicalism wrestled within him. But the moment that best encapsulates that wrestling for me had nothing at all humorous about it. It is one of my sharpest early memories of him, in fact, from the spring of 1968. He was still teaching at Columbia, and it was being torn apart by the student protests. In late April, radical students occupied various university offices, including the president’s. A standoff ensued, and my father was one of the faculty members who tried to negotiate between the protesters and the university administration. He worried about the student movement, feared its wildness, looked askance at the hedonism associated with it, but still could not help sympathizing with its political radicalism.

But on the night of April 29 the negotiations broke down, and the police moved in with nightsticks and tear gas. Many of the students were badly beaten, and hundreds were arrested. I remember waking up early on the morning of the 30th—I was six years old at the time—and finding my father, fully dressed, on the couch. He had been up all night and he was weeping uncontrollably.

Perhaps this is another reason why he never wrote memoirs. He could never quite reconcile the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical within him—never quite decide from what perspective to judge and interpret the times he had lived through. In other ways, though, this same tension (the cultural contradictions of Daniel Bell?) fortunately did not matter so much. In his writing, it helped generate some of his most important and creative insights. In his politics, it kept him sensitive to the dangers of extremism, but also to the dangers of injustice. And in his life, it did not just drive the Jewish humor, but also the endless hours of warm, brilliant, wonderful talk that I remember so keenly. I miss that talk.


David A. Bell is the Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton. His new book, Men on Horseback: Charisma and Power in the Age of Revolutions is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima