Edited by Paul Starr & Julian E. Zelizer

Columbia University Press. 332 pages. £28.  ISBN 978-0-231-20367-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns


Daniel Bell was one of the New York Intellectuals, a specific group, albeit not one with a fixed membership or agenda. It’s possible to place them in a period, roughly 1935 to around 1985, though again I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about the details. The 1940s and 1950s were the key years in many ways and what might be called their house magazine, Partisan Review, was read by anyone of consequence in the intellectual world. There were other publications – Dissent, Commentary, Encounter, Politics, to name several – but I suspect Partisan Review was the one that largely set the pace. Its anti-communist stance was of importance in the battle of ideas during the Cold War.

Bell was born in 1919 in the Lower East Side of New York and grew up in poverty. His father had died when Bell was young, and his mother worked in the garment industry. They (Bell, his mother and brother) lived with relatives in cramped conditions. When he was thirteen he joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), and in 1935 enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY). It was open to Jews who were often barred from other educational establishments. And it was a hotbed of political radicalism, with different groups gathering in the dining-room alcoves according to their various left-wing leanings. Bell was a socialist of the social democrat persuasion and suspicious of communist intentions. He had been encouraged to read the anarchist Alexander Berkman’s memoirs which included an account of the suppression of the Kronstadt sailors’ rising in 1921 when Red Army troops under Trotsky’s command brutally put down the rebellion. It horrified him.  

Moving to Columbia University after graduating from CCNY in 1938 Bell gained an MA, and then decided to go into journalism rather than any further education.  He edited the socialist magazine New Leader between 1941 and 1945, and in 1948 became Labour Editor at Fortune, “the nation’s leading business magazine”. It was a post he held until 1958. In 1959 he began working on what was to become his first book, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952), an informative history of the numerous groups claiming to represent socialism and the way in which it would be established in America. How and why the dream failed to come to fruition was also dealt with by Bell. Looking at how America was developing, he said : “ Whatever the character of that new social structure may be – whether state capitalism, managerial society, or corporative capitalism – by 1950 American socialism as a political and social fact had become simply a notation in the archives of history.” 

Bell did take up posts in the educational system, teaching sociology at Chicago and Columbia universities, and finally moving to Harvard until his retirement in 1990. He also worked for the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organisation which, it turned out, was financed by the CIA as part of its anti-communist cultural programme. The scandal that ensued in intellectual circles when details of CIA involvement came to light also affected magazines like Partisan Review and Encounter, the latter published in Britain. I think it was in its pages in the late-1950s that I first came across Bell writing about “The Capitalism of the Proletariat? : American Trade Unionism Today”. I still have the magazine. He was criticised and condemned for his links to the CCF, and for publishing in Encounter, but it always seemed to me that it printed a lot of interesting material which was well worth reading. Critics made it seem as if the entire contents were geared to attacking communism, or at least persuading us that America was always on the side of the angels, but that certainly wasn’t ever the case.

The list of Bell’s books is quite extensive, with two or three of them standing out for the interest they attracted when published and for the way in which they have retained their value today. Saying that doesn’t imply a criticism of his other books. But it is a fact that some of them have material which focused on aspects of the time when they were written – the student activism of the 1960s, for example – but which now may only appeal to cultural historians. However, it needs to be made clear that Bell was primarily an essayist, and his books are often collections of inter-related pieces.

In The End of Ideology (1960) Bell put forward a theory of “political deradicalisation”. Jan Werner Muller, in an essay, “The End of Ideology, the Long Nineties, and the History of the Present,” says that “comprehensive doctrines – ideology in the narrower sense of dogma – appeared to be depleted, if not in the process of disappearing, at the end of the twentieth century”. This, in a way, seems to bear out what Bell had predicted years earlier. And the current situation throughout much of the Western world would appear to support the idea that very few people now give allegiance to a particular ideological position. The reasons are complex and don’t simply come down to the facts that communism collapsed, and many people in the West are financially more secure than in the past. Even when that security is at risk they’re not likely to turn to a party with a specific ideological programme in the hope of making it safe. And few people believe in the notion of utopia and the dream of a better and more-balanced society. I doubt that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards is likely to be on anyone’s reading list these days. And it could be that, contrary to what Marx said, “alienation is a fact of human existence”, as PauL Starr puts it in his essay, “Daniel Bell’s Three-Dimensional Puzzle”.  Bell himself wrote: “Alienation is not nihilism but a positive role, a detachment, which guards one against being submerged in any cause”.

Bell’s views on contemporary society, and it has to be accepted that he’s largely looking at the West, can be found in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism where he expresses doubts about the hedonistic impulse that has taken over throughout Europe and America. In an earlier book about Bell and his ideas, Howard Brick’s Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism (1986), there is a useful summary of what he thinks has happened: “Bell points to the rupture of traditional identity of culture and social structure, whereby a character structure suited to the capitalist norms of productive activity is built upon a Protestant ethic of work motivations, frugality, impulse renunciation, and delayed gratification. Now, as culture in the wake of modernism repudiates impulse renunciation and seeks ‘immediacy, impact, sensation, simultaneity’ in the boundless cultivation of the self, capitalism has proved ‘ideologically impotent’, has lost the ‘transcendent ethic’ that gave it legitimacy”.  And there is no seemingly viable radical ideology to take its place.

It might be asked what Bell’s own position was in terms of politics and other matters. He liked to describe himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture”. It’s suggested in the introduction to Defining the Age that Bell’s ideal may have been “a modified form of capitalism with a strong role for government in managing the economy and protecting workers and consumers”. In an engaging memoir of his father Bell’s son David says that he was frequently angered by allegations that he had swung to the right and become a neoconservative: “My father insisted that he remained a man of the left, a ‘socialist in economics’, a ‘Menshevik’ “.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve raced around Defining the Age, Bell’s ideas, and those of the various contributors to the book. There is much worth reading in its pages,  as for example Fred Turner’s “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Then and Now”, where he takes a close look at “What Daniel Bell Got Wrong”, “The Coming of Bohemian Technocracy”, and “A New Kind of Capitalism and a New Contradiction”. It’s a provocative piece and one wonders how Bell might have responded to it. Margaret O’Mara’s “Assessing Daniel Bell in the Age of Big Tech” has useful things to say about how Silicon Valley doesn’t have all the right answers to his questions.