Daniel Bell–sociologist, editor, writer, and public intellectual–died on Tuesday at age ninety-one. Here, Michael Kazin, Morris Dickstein, and Daniel A. Bell remember his life and career.
My uncle Dan Bell was always a man of the Left—from the day when, at the age of thirteen, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League to the final weeks of his life. Early in January, I visited him at his house in Cambridge. He suggested several new writers for Dissent, offered an acute judgment about a forthcoming article I told him about, and bemoaned the lack of sharp, informed political debate at Harvard.
For Dan, to be an intellectual was to be engaged, rationally but intensely, in the unending effort to define and realize a better world. His unstinting critiques of American Marxist parties, of C. Wright Mills, and of the “narcissism” of the New Left were all meant to rescue the ideals of socialism from anyone who excused the tyrannies done in their name or thought a brave new world could be achieved against the will of the wage-earning majority. The same purpose animated Dan’s repugnance toward “holistic” thinking—whether Marxist or functionalist. In the modern West, he argued, the economy, politics, and culture were three different “realms,” each one driven by a different principle—efficiency, equality, and self-fulfillment, respectively. Not merely an innovative theory, this was an attempt to liberate the minds of radicals and liberals from reductionist theories that neither explained society very well nor helped to change it in beneficial ways.
And Dan was always intrigued by what was happening in the precincts, celebrated or obscure, of the American Left. Whenever I saw him in the late 1960s and early 70s, he would pepper me with questions about the radical world I had recently joined. Who were the leaders of the Spartacist League? How did SDSers in the Bay Area differ from my comrades in Cambridge and at Columbia? Were the Black Panthers active on campuses? Did anyone my age still grasp the raison d’être of the Socialist Labor Party? I came to understand that such questions were driven by his fascination with the husky details of a politics whose essential beliefs, whatever bizarre or reprehensible form they might take, he still shared. The man who liked to say, “My Kronstadt was Kronstadt,” had never quite given up on the utopian dream.
Here’s how Dan concluded the afterword he wrote, in 1995, to a new edition of his first book, Marxian Socialism in the United States:
Socialism remains a moral ideal independent of a theory of history. The moral ideal is one of equality and opportunity for each of us to fulfill our self and use our talents…I closed my book with Max Weber’s injunction that he who seeks the salvation of souls should not seek it along the avenue of politics. But what we have learned is that the need to provide resources to individuals who have been excluded from society, and who can participate fully as citizens only if they have the resources that give them self-esteem, necessarily involves politics.
One has to be within the world, even if one, understandably, rejects much—in the grossness of bourgeois society—of the world. But it is not naked self-interest that can tell us how to act, but the moral justifications of a proposed policy.
May such thoughts continue to instruct and inspire. L’dor V’dor.
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 de-radicalized, 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 seemed 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 toward 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 Talmud says, 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.
It is with great sadness that I learn of the death of Daniel Bell. I first communicated with Dan the Elder in 1993, and we developed an extensive correspondence over the next few years. I last communicated with him about a year ago to ask him if it was OK to use part of our correspondence in a coauthored book that combines personal history and theorizing about the ethos of a city (The Spirit of Cities, to be published by Princeton University Press in September). The following passage appears in the context of an argument about the importance of immigration for New York’s success:
Singapore, November 1993. Daniel receives a fax from the distinguished New York intellectual Daniel Bell. It begins: “I suppose that anyone named John Smith is accustomed to seeing that name in many places, even on books when each of the John Smiths are authors. But it was quite a surprise to see an advertisement in the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] by Oxford University Press for a book by Daniel Bell on “Communitarianism and Its Critics”, and not have that Daniel Bell identified other than by that name.” Bell goes on to explain that he has also written on communitarian themes and ends his letter by saying, “In any event, out of obvious curiosity, I would like to learn a bit more about your background and thinking.”
Daniel replies with a fax explaining his family heritage: “Fleeing the Russian pogroms with little more than a shirt on his back, my great-grandfather Daniel Belitsky disembarked at Ellis Island in 1905 along with thousands of other Jewish immigrants to the new world.” Daniel explains that his grandfather shortened his name to Bell so as to better fit with the Gentile mainstream, and that he hoped that one of his sons would name a child “Daniel” in honor of his father. So that’s how Daniel got his name.
Within a couple of hours, Daniel receives another fax from Daniel Bell: “There are many extraordinary parallels in your account. My grandfather, Avram Bolotsky, came to Ellis Island ca. 1905 from the triangle of Lithuania-Poland-Russia….My uncle, who was my legal guardian, was a dentist, Samuel Bolotsky, who took the name Bell, when I was about ten years old in 1929. So, from 1929, I was Daniel Bell.”
The two Daniel Bells pursue an almost daily faxed correspondence. The younger Bell says that his book on communitarianism had been classified in the Library of Congress as sociology instead of political theory, as it should have been. The elder Bell replies: “Leave it for two reasons: one, if you apply for a job in “democratic” China, you can cite a long and thick bibliography (I am appending an abbreviated CV)* The other reason is that since you will be writing for a long time, a Chinese scholar in the future may be astounded by the discovery of the incredible longevity of a Daniel Bell with over ninety years of productivity.”
Bell the younger replies: “Thanks for your CV I’ll definitely make use of it if I apply for jobs in a democratic China, but even if my potential employers find it plausible that I could have written so many books there’s the larger problem that we’ll most likely have to wait several hundred years before we see a democratic system in China.”
The two Daniel Bells eventually agree that the younger one should use the initial “A” in future publications so as to avoid further mix-ups. It doesn’t always work out as planned, however. Daniel A. Bell finds a job in not-so-democratic China and still gets confused with the “real” Daniel Bell when he is invited to give lectures at Chinese universities.
Last February, I sent Dan Bell a draft of the New York chapter with this passage, and he replied the following day:
I assume this is the “other” Daniel Bell who has a son Julien who is betrothed to my granddaughter Elana and who has a wife Bing in Beijing and who reputedly owns two restaurants in Beijing.
That is the only way the letter I received makes sense.
On “Cities” your project sounds very much like the work of Saskia Sassen who is the wife of Richard Sennett. Does any or all of this make sense? Please let me know.
The original Daniel Bell. (I thought that the “other” Daniel Bell had agreed to sign his letters Daniel A. Bell to differentiate himself from the original Daniel Bell even though now they may be confused by the fact that my son David Bell now signs all his work as David A. Bell, the A standing for Avrom which he uses as a middle name. My son David A. Bell has been Dean of Faculty at John Hopkins but is now going to Princeton where is some point if I remember correctly you were a Laurence Rockefeller fellow. Or is all this confounding the confusion.)
And here’s my reply:
Yes, it’s me, and I look forward to the wedding!
Dan (Daniel A. Bell)
On Wednesday morning, I read Daniel Bell’s obituary in the New York Times. (When I first saw the name, I worried it would be about myself, but then I remembered that I’m not famous enough to merit an obituary in the New York Times.) The obituary refers to Dan Bell’s “self-deprecating modesty.” I confess it’s not the first character trait that comes to mind when I think of Dan Bell. Personally, I was most struck by his wit and kindness. His faxes were the highlight of my days in Singapore. May you rest in peace, Dan, and I promise to continue fulfilling the mission you set out for me (but I’ve yet to inform my son of his mission).
-Daniel A. Bell
*Bell the Elder actually faxed a four-page CV, “which mentions the books I have done but omits the many, many hundreds of articles I have written, a number somewhat deceptive since in my youth, as a managing editor of a social democratic weekly, The New Leader, at a tender age, I wrote (according to a count by a grad student), over 250 articles in five years, understandable, if you figure one a week.” Bell the younger realized he could never compete on that front, so he calculated how many years it would take to match Bell the Elder’s book total. Bell the elder replied that it’s not just about quantity: two of his books had been chosen by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most influential books since the Second World War.