Daniel Bell, 1919-2011: The New York intellectual was a stunningly original mind, an ironic observer, and a genial gossip.

Bringing out the dead.
Jan. 28 2011 5:39 PM

Remembering Daniel Bell, 1919-2011

He wrote about everything and was deep about all of it.

Daniel Bell.
Daniel Bell

When I was in college, I wrote a letter to Daniel Bell. I was working on a senior thesis about Dwight Macdonald's little magazine politics, to which Bell had contributed when he was in his early 20s and living in New York. I'd come across Bell's correspondence in Macdonald's papers in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale and hoped he could tell me more.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Within a couple of days I had a somewhat terrifying several-page letter waiting in my college mailbox, typed in the same punctilious style, with handwritten corrections added after proofreading. Bell responded in the most flattering way possible by taking me completely seriously. As I recall, he bracingly disputed what he took to be my thesis that twists and turns in Macdonald's leftist views mattered, told me what he thought he could contribute to my inquiry, and invited me for a "nosh." Something about the letter, which I must have reread a dozen times, left me with the impression that he would welcome some younger company.

Not long after, I called at Bell's house on Frances Avenue in Cambridge, Mass. I doubt I've since heard conversation of that quality—ranging across political literature, the sociology of intellectuals, and the history of various left-wing splits, all spiced with Yiddishkeit wisecracking. Bell was at once a stunningly original mind, an ironic observer of the scene around him, and a genial gossip. To call his memory prodigious would do him an injustice. Interviewing the other survivors of the New York intellectual crowd who had known Macdonald—Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Clement Greenberg, William Phillips, and Irving Kristol—was a delightful undertaking. But the problem with oral history is that most people remember everything wrong. When matched against the archives, most memories about people diverge in every way. Only Bell precisely and accurately recalled his part in dramas from 40 years before.

If I were to revisit the subject of the New York intellectuals today, I'd make the case that Bell, who died this week at the age of 91, was not only the greatest mind in the group but one of the genuinely important American thinkers of the 20th century. At least three of Bell's books are truly durable. The End of Ideology(1960), which is actually a collection of essays, described the post-Cold War political landscape 30 years before the Cold War ended. Bell's thesis that Western societies emerged from the clash of 20th century ideologies with a consensus in favor of democratic process and welfare-state liberalism remains fundamentally persuasive. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society(1973)ismore abstruse, in part because Bell was describing the impact of technologies yet to be invented. Subtitled A Venture in Social Forecasting, that book predicted the emergence of an "information economy," a system of social stratification driven by expertise, and, quite amazingly, something like the Internet. The CulturalContradictions of Capitalism (1976) highlights a crucial flaw in modern conservatism: that by fueling appetites, the free market undermines the very communities, traditions, and values that conservatives hold dear. No one, with the possible exception of his near-contemporary Richard Hofstadter, was better on the sociology and psychology of the modern right.

Bell seemed to write about everything under the sun and managed to be deep about all of it. But that is not what most distinguishes him from his peers, who were nothing if not polymaths. Unlike so many of the writers on the left who grew up in the 1930s, and whose basic political commitments now look fundamentally misguided, Bell was consistently on the right track. He was never a Stalinist or a Trotskyist in the 1930s; didn't flirt with anarchism, pacifism, or the New Left in the 1960s; and had no patience for neoconservatism in the 1980s. Bell memorably described himself as "a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture." Though his thinking certainly evolved over the years—in truth, he was more a socialist in his sociological analysis than in his economic prescriptions—he stayed true throughout his life to a fundamentally reasonable set of social democratic ideals.

I also suspect that Bell was the best human being among the New York intellectuals. When I went to meet their surviving remnant in the late 1980s, these people were still capable of breathtaking backbiting and nastiness when it came to each other. Bell, on the other hand, was a generous and humane character. After founding the Public Interest with Kristol in 1965, Bell left in the mid-1970s rather than breaking up a close friendship over politics. Without him, the magazine's skeptical take on Great Society liberalism calcified into a rigid ideological stance, and it became far less interesting.

That talk we had over lox and bagels shaped not only what I wrote in my college paper about Dwight Macdonald but the understanding I've carried since of what a true intellectual is and does. "I specialize in generalizations," Bell once said. He showed, as well as anyone ever has, the pleasure in thinking big, the necessity of thinking for oneself, and the merits of being interested in absolutely everything. I was meaning for a long time to write him another letter about how much his example meant to me. Now I'm sorry I never did.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.