The Homeless Radical

Daniel Bell was the prophet of a failed centrism. By the end of his life, he was revisiting the leftism of his youth.

Daniel Bell
Daniel Bell at Harvard University, October 26th, 1992. Photo: Jane Reed, via the Harvard Gazette

WHEN PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER decided in 1979 to invite a group of intellectuals to the White House to advise him on how to save his floundering presidency, Daniel Bell was one of the first on his list. Bell warned Carter that after a decade of culture war, mass protest, and economic crisis, a “religious revival” might radically alter the country’s politics. He urged the president to communicate a bold new moral vision to reassure the American public, and thereby helped inspire Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech. Carter’s call to confront a “crisis of the American spirit” ultimately fell flat, and was widely mocked by the conservatives who rose to power with Ronald Reagan’s victory the following year—decisively shifting American politics to the right.

A distinguished sociologist and public intellectual, Bell helped to define the Cold War American political center over the course of a long career, for which his encounter with Carter might serve as an allegory: He was highly influential, and yet his ideas frequently backfired. Bell, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday this year, was both valued for and stymied by his political restlessness. When asked to define his beliefs, he would describe himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” Yet Bell was never quite content to be a member of any of these political families.

Raised in the left-wing Jewish circles of 1930s New York, Bell gradually lost his faith in radical class politics. He became a central figure in postwar networks of liberal anti-communist intellectuals, but came to question the precepts of Cold War liberalism—particularly its triumphalist notion of progress—as well. Shaken by the political revolts of the 1960s, he determined that the booming postwar consumer economy he had once celebrated had in fact produced cultural discontent and youth revolts against established authority; in 1976 he published a book on the subject, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that was widely admired among members of his milieu who shared his increasing pessimism. Yet here he once again parted ways with his many of his peers: while compatriots like Irving Kristol swung to the right, and indeed adopted The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism as a founding text of neoconservatism, Bell remained attached to the ideal of social democracy. He refused to follow these new conservatives into the Reagan coalition—though he too disliked the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”-obsessed counterculture, he could not stomach an alliance with Christian fundamentalists and others far to his right.

At first glance, Bell’s politics may appear simply incoherent—but a closer look reveals that they served as a blueprint for a distinct form of 20th-century American centrism. In his most productive years, in books such as The End of Ideology (1960) and The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), Bell theorized a social order in which the great ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries—namely Marxism and fascism—were no longer necessary in order to achieve the good life. The political and technical innovations of the postwar world made it possible to realize the ideals he had held as a young radical, without any need of mass politics or social conflict. In many of his writings, Bell embraced the “predictive sciences” and “social forecasting” as tools for rational governance. Bell’s theory of the “end of ideology” was a utopia of the center, governed by statesmen with the aid of social scientists—a theory that risked sacrificing mass democracy for the wisdom and expertise of elites. 

As it turned out, Bell’s centrist utopia proved to be a failure, no less than the radical ideas that had disappointed him in his early life. Indeed, Bell should matter to us today in part as a reminder that centrism itself has a history. By the century’s end, Bell’s vision for the political center had been displaced by the Third Way consensus, which normalized the neoliberal economics of the Reagan years. In his final years, as that consensus broke down in turn, Bell came to terms with the limits of his own worldview, and anticipated the return of religious fanaticism and right-wing populism that has become familiar today. Today’s centrists would do well to emulate Bell’s self-scrutiny. With any luck, this might lead some to follow him in revisiting, before his death in 2011, the radical Jewish socialism of his youth.

MANY JEWISH THINKERS of Bell’s generation are said to have grown up on the radical left, and in his case this was quite literal: with a mother working full-time, and a father he had never known, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League at age 13—it was either that, or his mother would send him to the local Jewish orphanage after school. At City College in the 1930s, he frequented the famous Alcove 1, where a number of Jewish students on the anti-Stalinist left met for informal study and debate (the PBS documentary Arguing the World profiles Bell along with his Alcove 1 comrades Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer, all of whom would go on to careers as prominent public intellectuals). Unlike many of his peers, however, Bell never subscribed to Trotsky’s view of revolution. As the historian Howard Brick notes in his monograph on Bell’s early work, from a young age Bell was more closely aligned with the social-democratic “right wing” of the Socialist Party. He harbored a deep suspicion of any would-be vanguardist revolutionary cliques, whom he suspected would form the basis of a new “oligarchy” after defeating the old. 

Though the young Bell was hostile to revolutionary movements and the ideologies underlying them, he remained a radical. As the editor of the socialist magazine The New Leader and then a labor reporter for Fortune, he advocated for the workers’ movement to take charge of the American economy. Bell’s studies in sociology while on faculty at the University of Chicago, however, dispelled his hopes for mass politics. Bell gradually lost his faith in the working class as an agent of change, believing that class struggle was a lost cause in a social order increasingly controlled by large bureaucracies. At the same time, he began to wonder whether social scientists like himself might be better suited for the role of change agent. Bell’s transition to what he saw as his mature intellectual career, as Brick puts it, involved abandoning a posture of “estrangement,” or “alienation.” In his 1946 essay “A Parable of Alienation,” Bell identified with the figure—intimately linked to his Jewishness—of the “homeless radical,” someone whose deep critique of the world around him meant that he was never at home in that world. Bell’s postwar writings indicated that he was ready to come home, reconciling himself with the realities of liberal capitalist America. 

The book that best embodied Bell’s transition away from radicalism was The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, published in 1960.  Like the intellectuals he got to know in Cold War liberal organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), Bell believed that ideologies were not only irrational—grounded in passion or fanaticism—but also carried with them the threat of violent conflict. Following Raymond Aron—France’s most famous liberal thinker of the 20th century, and a colleague of Bell’s at the CCF—they could be understood as “secular religions.” Bell agreed that, whereas traditional religious institutions could stymie revolutionary impulses by transferring the human desire for salvation to another world, ideologies channeled these impulses directly into politics, seeking to achieve salvation on Earth.

The two ideologies that liberal intellectuals saw as having most directly produced the catastrophes of the early 20th century, fascism and Marxism, were products of the 19th century, a time of deepening misery for the industrial proletariat. Bell believed that the social order that emerged after the war—marked by a prosperous economy, rising standards of living for the middle class, and a growing white-collar sector—had made both obsolete. If fascism had been defeated on the battlefield, the aims of socialism could be fulfilled by the postwar economy without any need for confrontational mass politics. The welfare state could deflect revolutionary passions through redistribution; Marxist theories of class struggle would be rendered defunct. 

Bell’s “end of ideology” thesis was not a celebration of the radical free market capitalism we now call “neoliberalism” (as is often assumed of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 declaration of the “end of history,” a phrase that deliberately echoed Bell). For Bell, attempts to return to laissez-faire economics expressed yet another antiquated attachment to the ideologies of the 19th century. He criticized the godfather of neoliberal thought, the economist Friedrich Hayek, who was one of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s favorite thinkers. “The end of ideology was aimed at Hayek’s apocalyptic notion that socialism will lead to serfdom,” as well as “the apocalyptic notion of Stalinism,” Bell wrote later. He believed that the postwar social order had reconciled capitalism and socialism, meaning that zealots for both systems were no longer needed.

Bell’s famous 1973 study The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting provided further sociological backing for the end of ideology thesis. Predicting the rise of the service sector over heavy industry, Bell believed that workers in the new economy would not “speak the old language of labor,” and thus could not be “appealed to in the old class-conscious terms.” For Bell, though, what made this new society “post-industrial” was not only the composition of the labor force, but also the new and even more deeply penetrating role played by knowledge, science, and technology. “Instead of a machine technology,” he explained, “we will have, increasingly, an intellectual technology in which such techniques as simulation, model construction, linear programming, and operations research will be hitched to the computers and will become the new tools of decision making.” This line of Bell’s thinking is what has led some to consider him an advocate of technocracy—a society run by managers, bureaucrats, or scientists. The complex systems of post-industrial society radicalized the “end of ideology,” leaving more and more social decisions to “technical decision-making.” In this context, only those with specialized social scientific knowledge could hope to keep the system running.   

But Bell is perhaps better described as an elitist than a technocrat. He believed that post-industrial society requires not only experts to ensure that the social machinery was accomplishing its ends, but also political elites—heads of “The Public Household,” as he put it—capable of determining what those ends should be in the first place. Bell believed that a return to rule by responsible elites would be a stabilizing force for American politics. Despite his longtime fear of right-wing populism, he only later recognized the danger of a right-wing backlash mobilized against this very idea of elite rule.

IN THE LATE 1950s AND EARLY 1960s, Bell began constructing the theoretical framework for this utopian vision of a social order that would replace violent struggles over economic distribution with rational technical governance. But to realize this dream would require, at the very least, cultivating the elites responsible for its most important decisions. This was the mission of The Public Interest, the magazine Bell founded with Irving Kristol in 1965. The magazine’s first editorial explained its ambition to ensure that this elite, “when we discuss issues of public policy [would] know a little better what we are talking about—and preferably in time to make such knowledge effective.” Bell and Kristol’s essay lamented that too many “arguments over public policy” fell flat due to “prior commitment to an ideology.” Though in principle the “end of ideology” had already arrived, the editors of The Public Interest—“a middle-aged magazine for middle-aged readers,” they proudly declared—believed that it was necessary for a journal to make social scientists’ interpretations readily available to those in positions of power.

This vision of leadership hit a major hurdle only a few years later, when, as Bell and Kristol wrote, an “onrush of anger, rancor, and generational rage . . . against all existing authority” swept the nation’s universities. In 1968, students at Columbia University, where Bell was by then a professor, staged one of the most iconic demonstrations of the decade, occupying administration buildings to protest plans to build a segregated gym in Harlem, as well as the university’s contributions to military research during the Vietnam War. Appalled by this revolt against authority, Bell responded by leaving Columbia for Harvard.

The student politics of the 1960s brought out Bell’s cultural conservatism, which extended far beyond his distaste for rock music or blue jeans. For Bell, the cultural sentiments of the decade represented a radicalization of the individualism and “hedonism” that had characterized aesthetic modernism. Bell believed these sentiments were incompatible with a just economy and a functioning civic life, and hoped that the restoration of elite rule could rein in their worst excesses. The anti-authoritarian student movements were maddening for Bell because they took as their target the very training grounds for America’s elites.

To Bell, the radical movements of the 1960s signified that running an intellectual journal for the governing elite was no longer sufficient—the elite was under attack, and its legitimacy would have to be restored. As it turned out, Bell was less well-suited for this task than his co-editor. While Bell sought to describe analytically what had brought these revolts about, Kristol used his ideas to begin organizing the counter-revolt. If, as Bell argued in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, shifts in American capitalism had led to the spread of “anti-bourgeois” cultural trends among the younger generation, Kristol’s new project was to bring together right-wing “counter-intellectuals” alongside allies in business and government to make the case for capitalism and traditional values. 

Bell’s sociological analysis certainly helped lay the groundwork for Kristol’s organizing efforts, and did not go unnoticed; as early as 1979, in the first book written on the subject, the journalist Peter Steinfels identified Bell as a founding father of neoconservatism. Yet Bell was quick to distance himself from Kristol’s movement-building project, and never called himself a neoconservative. For him, the final straw was the neoconservative entry into the Reagan coalition alongside politicized Evangelical Christians and other social conservative populists of the New Right. As Bell wrote in 1985, the New Right’s “revolt against modernity” flew in the face of The Public Interest’s anti-ideological project. But Kristol and other neoconservatives had given up “the hope that a public philosophy would emerge out of reasoned discourse,” and instead—billing themselves as the intellectual wing of Reaganite right-populism—embraced a politics grounded in what they considered traditional cultural values and common sense. Soon after, Bell resigned his editorship of The Public Interest.

The neoconservative decision to join forces with both neoliberals and right-wing Evangelicals solidified the ideology of the Republican Party for the next several decades, and left Bell in the cold. Bell envisioned his own cultural conservative values as not only compatible with redistributive economics, but as a necessary condition for the social democracy he still sought. The triumph of conservative ideology in the 1980s would ultimately make Bell’s vision of “conservatism” impossible.

THE REALIZATION that his post-ideological utopia would never materialize would preoccupy Bell until his death in 2011. He declined to join his many contemporaries whose intellectual habits had already ossified at the height of the Cold War—such as the much younger Fukuyama—in celebrating the triumph of liberal capitalism in the 1990s. His skepticism of neoliberalism was evident in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when he asked, “how can people, very smart people at Goldman Sachs and others, go on with the idea that you can leverage a whole society?” And his frustrations with the rise of the religious right had long made him wary of the return of fanatical ideologies in American politics. In one of his final interviews before his death, he presciently denounced a “messianic” style of politics that he feared was growing stronger. The man who had once declared the “end of ideology” was perhaps the best positioned to see that after the “end of history,” there would remain an urge to follow a leader promising to restore the country’s past glory, to Make America Great Again.

Bell never quite found a political project in his lifetime that did not end in disappointment. Rare among those who saw their youthful ideals thwarted, however, he had the clarity to realize that his “middle-aged” attempts to build a world free from ideology were no less utopian than his youthful attempts to build socialism. The answer for Bell was not to conclude that disappointment was inevitable—this sense of despair was what fueled the destructive politics of messianism, following a leader promising impossible visions of redemption. The only possible antidote to messianism, for him, was to remain committed to utopianism, which “basically consists in co-opting people to build things together.”

Despite his mid-century efforts to reconcile himself to the existing institutions of American society, Bell always remained the “homeless radical” he had described back in the 1940s. As he had written of his fellow Jewish intellectuals in his early years, “The deepest impulses urge us home. But where are we to go? Our roots are in a Yiddish immigrant world . . . that has faded and cannot be recreated. All that is left is the hardness of alienation, the sense of otherness.” But this alienation is not the same as cynicism or nihilism: “It means the acceptance of the Jewish tradition . . . the use of its ethical precepts as a prism to refract the codes and conduct of the world. As long as moral corruption exists, alienation is the only possible response.

Jacob Hamburger has written about politics in France and the US for various news outlets as well as Tocqueville 21, where he is a founding editor. He is also a practicing immigration lawyer based in Chicago.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is currently a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. His is writing a book for Columbia University Press, titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.