Published: January 25, 2011, NY Times
Daniel Bell, the writer, editor, sociologist and teacher who over seven decades came to epitomize the engaged intellectual as he struggled to reveal the past, comprehend the present and anticipate the future, died on Tuesday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 91.
His daughter, Jordy Bell, confirmed the death.
Mr. Bell’s output was prodigious and his range enormous. His major lines of inquiry included the failures of socialism in America, the exhaustion of modern culture and the transformation of capitalism from an industrial-based system to one built on consumerism.
But there was room in his mind for plenty of digressions. He wrote about the changing structure of organized crime and even the growing popularity of gangsta rap among white, middle-class, suburban youth.
Two of Mr. Bell’s books, “The End of Ideology” (1960) and the “Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1978), were ranked among the 100 most influential books since World War II by The Times Literary Supplement in London. In titling “The End of Ideology” and another work, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (1973), Mr. Bell coined terms that have entered common usage.
In “The End of Ideology” he contended — nearly three decades before the collapse of Communism — that ideologies that had once driven global politics were losing force and thus providing openings for newer galvanizing beliefs to gain toeholds. In “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,” he foresaw the global spread of service-based economies as generators of capital and employment, supplanting those dominated by manufacturing or agriculture.
In Mr. Bell’s view, Western capitalism had come to rely on mass consumerism, acquisitiveness and widespread indebtedness, undermining the old Protestant ethic of thrift and modesty that writers like Max Weber and R.H. Tawney had long credited as the reasons for capitalism’s success.
He also predicted the rising importance of science-based industries and of new technical elites. Indeed, in 1967, he predicted something like the Internet, writing: “We will probably see a national information-computer-utility system, with tens of thousands of terminals in homes and offices ‘hooked’ into giant central computers providing library and information services, retail ordering and billing services, and the like.”
Mr. Bell became an influential editor of periodicals, starting out with The New Leader, a small social democratic publication that he referred to as his “intellectual home.” He joined Fortune magazine as its labor editor and in 1965 helped found and edit The Public Interest with his old City College classmate Irving Kristol, who died in 2009.
Though The Public Interest never attained a wide readership, it gained great prestige, beginning as a policy journal that questioned Great Society programs and then broadening into one of the most intellectually formidable of neoconservative publications.
“It has had more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the country — by far,” the columnist David Brooks wrote in The New York Times in 2005.
Mr. Bell also maintained a distinguished academic career, teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, at Columbia as a professor of sociology from 1959 to 1969 — the university awarded him a Ph.D. for his work on “The End of Ideology” — and then at Harvard, where in 1980 he was appointed the Henry Ford II professor of social sciences
As both a public intellectual and an academic, Mr. Bell saw a distinction between those breeds. In one of his typical yeasty digressions in “The End of Ideology,” he wrote: “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’
“The intellectual,” he went on, “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”
In some measure Mr. Bell may well have been referring to himself in that passage — his intellectual persona self-consciously winking at its detached scholarly twin with whom it conspired in a lifetime of work and experience.
Daniel Bolotsky was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on May 10, 1919, to Benjamin and Anna Bolotsky, garment workers and immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father died when Daniel was eight months old, and Daniel, his mother and his older brother, Leo, moved in with relatives. The family changed the name to Bell when Daniel was 13.
Mr. Bell liked to tell of his political beginnings with an anecdote about his bar mitzvah, in 1932. “I said to the Rabbi: ‘I’ve found the truth. I don’t believe in God. I’m joining the Young People’s Socialist League.’ So he looked at me and said, ‘Kid, you don’t believe in God. Tell me, do you think God cares?’ ”
Mr. Bell did join the League and as an adolescent delivered sidewalk speeches for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president. By the time he had graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and entered City College in the late 1930s, he was well grounded in the Socialist and Marxist canon and well aware of the leftist landscape, with its bitter rivalries and schisms.
At City College, he had no trouble finding his way to Alcove No. 1 in the cafeteria, where, among the anti-Stalinist socialists who dominated that nook, he found a remarkable cohort that challenged and sustained him for much of his life as it helped to define America’s political spectrum over the last half of the 20th century.
Its principal members, in addition to Mr. Bell, included Mr. Kristol, whose eventual move to the right as a founding neoconservative led Mr. Bell to leave The Public Interest in 1972 while steadfastly affirming his friendship for his old school chum.
There was Irving Howe, the late critic, professor and editor of the leftist journal Dissent, who remained a Social Democrat. And there was Nathan Glazer, who would become Mr. Bell’s colleague in the Harvard sociology department, the author, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of “Beyond the Melting Pot,” and the architect of strategies for school integration. In 1998 the four men were the subjects of a documentary film by Joseph Dorman titled “Arguing the World.”
The atmosphere of City College in the ’30s was supercharged with leftist ideology. There were Communists and Socialists, Stalinists and Trotskyites, all giving vent to their views in the years of the Spanish Civil War just before Hitler’s pact with Stalin paved the way to world war.
In the film, Mr. Bell described the atmosphere in the cafeteria as “kind of a heder,” referring to the Jewish religious schools where arguing a variety of views and redefining positions was the basis of learning. He graduated in 1939.
The associations Mr. Bell made at City College were fundamental. He also met the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and the literary critic Alfred Kazin, whose sister, Pearl Kazin, Mr. Bell married in 1960. She survives him.
Besides his daughter, Jordy, of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., Mr. Bell is survived by a son, David, of Princeton, N.J., four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Mr. Bell never hesitated to expand and revise his thinking through the years. New editions of his older books often include new prefaces and afterwords that look at his old arguments in the light of new developments in politics and society. And he was always quick to point out what he regarded as misconceptions about his work and his life.
In 2003, for example, an article by James Atlas in The Times described him and Mr. Kristol as neoconservatives who had felt that the Vietnam War had a “persuasive rationale.” He answered with a letter that declared, “I was not and never have been a ‘neoconservative.’ Nor did I support the war.”
Indeed, for all the ideological wars he had witnessed, Mr. Bell disdained labels, particularly as they were applied to him. Over the years he would offer his own political profile, declaring what he called his “triune” view of himself: “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture.”