The death of sociologist Daniel Bell was remarkable for several reasons, the first being that there is no such thing as a New York intellectual anymore, the second being that his concept of the post-ideological age -- to which Francis Fuyukama’s more journalistic ode to the “end of history” is badly indebted -- was birthed at the threshold of a new age of ideology: the sixties. And Bell himself was nothing if not a reconstructed thinker in every way, with a bit of Trotsky, a bit of Kropotkin, and heaping dollops of Mills and Weber tossed into the mix.
Also, he was quite funny. Morris Dickstein (all right, there are still some New York intellectuals about) remembers Bell’s fondness for Yiddishkeit humor which is less an art form than a social science, depending more on the weight of human experience that goes into it than on the joke’s intrinsic wit. Having never met Bell in person, I have to rely on documentary evidence for his proficiency here.
In Arguing the World, the short film made about the combative geniuses of City College’s Alcove 1, Bell is shown returning to anarchic, honking Manhattan after decades spent among the dreaming spires of Harvard. Instantly we’re back in turn-of-the-century Russia being told of a former emigre’s similar experience upon returning home. The emigre puts down his bags at the train station and exclaims, “Oh Russia, how you’ve changed!” He looks down and sees that his bags have been stolen. “Oh Russia, how you haven’t changed!” You didn’t have to be there.
How often it was said of Bell’s generation that the political arguments fought and won in the cafeterias and on the soapboxes of "Moscow on the Hudson" were exactly the kinds of arguments that ought to have been had in Moscow -- were it not for the gulag and the firing squad. As for the uneasy exchange between a striving immigrant class of Eastern European Jews and their assimilated yet radical issue, Bell was similarly memorable:
[He] 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?’ ”
I can't help but feel that the roles in this exchange would be reversed today...
Of all the clever maxims that came out of the faction fights and blood-feuds of the thirties and forties, Bell’s are the only ones that leave indelible scratches on the brain. When asked the symbolic question of the precise moment of his “split” with Marxism-Leninism, “Comrade, when was your Kronstadt?” -- a reference to the once pro-Bolshevik sailors who mutinied for food and pay and whom the Red Army mowed down like rabbits -- Bell’s reply was as simple as it was indicting of his entire radical cohort: “Kronstadt was my Kronstadt.” He later described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” No doubt this orientation sounds “neo” to some, but it still sounds impressively old-fashioned to me.
There was another aspect to Bell's postwar liberal anti-Communism that marked him out from the rest of the pack, particularly Irving Howe, who clung to his radicalism even unto his denunciations of show trials in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary. Like Irving Kristol and Sidney Hook, Bell had spent time in Europe as part of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and witnessed first-hand what fighting Stalinism meant in countries where it exerted its strongest intellectual influence outside of the Eastern bloc. He's quoted in Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons, a collective biography of the New York intellectuals:
Living in London and Paris, we became aware of the power of Communist domination in the intellectual milieu. Anti-Communist intellectuals were isolated, with no possibility of finding outlets. We may have overreacted, but Irving could maintain a more distant stance. Irving never has had the feeling of being harassed—a tangible feeling of conflict. People on the sideline never get involved.
Bell got involved.
His death at 91 leaves one terribly depressed at the prospect that we face fewer and fewer obituaries that carry sentences such as this: “Daniel Bolotsky was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on May 10, 1919...”