U.S. Intellectual History Blog

R.I.P. Daniel Bell, Culture Wars Theorist/Protagonist

Daniel Bell’s intellectual obituary writers will rightly focus on his three most important books, The End of Ideology (1960), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Scholars from an assortment of disciplines frequently cite these three books not only as intellectual signposts, but also for the theoretical and historical insights that they offer, many of which persist in seeming fresh. But in this post, my small attempt to memorialize Bell, who died at the age of 91 earlier this week, I will focus on a much less famous Wilson Quarterly essay, “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992” (1992). This essay gives the historian of the culture wars much to ponder. It exemplifies Bell’s qualities as both a theorist and a protagonist of the late twentieth century battles over intellectual position.

The purpose of Bell’s article was to reflect on why the universities were torn by conflict. The year of the essay’s publication, 1992, was the apex of the culture wars in the universities. “Political correctness” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Bell argued that this particular battle represented the decaying of the detached, public intellectual. In short, Bell echoed Russell Jacoby’s famous lament, elaborated in his bestseller, The Last Intellectuals (1987), that large institutions (otherwise known as universities) increasingly dominated the life of intellectuals, sapping them of their critical spirit. Setting aside the important critique of this contention, made by David Hollinger and others—that the ideal of the detached intellectual is a romantic reading of the past—Bell was in a good position to comment on this shift in intellectual life, since he occupied both positions, as one of the celebrated New York intellectuals, and also as a longtime professor at Harvard. For Bell, the institutionalization of intellectual life walled intellectuals off from the rest of America.

Arguing that intellectual life had changed was not to argue that intellectuals lacked influence. Quite to the contrary, intellectuals came to “constitute the institutional life of the society, and their wars—over positions in the institutions, especially the universities—and their conflicts over the definitions of what is salient in the culture (such as feminism and multiculturalism), constitute the ‘cultural wars’ that are taking place in American life today.”

In the passage below, Bell combined theoretical and historical insight with an implicitly partisan take on university intellectuals:

I begin with an arbitrary yet perhaps useful distinction between a culture and a society, the culture being the regnant attitudes and traditions that are the wellsprings of belief, the society denoting common attitudes and interests that define a people.

In this light, Bell thought culture and society diverged in contemporary U.S. history:

The United States today is a bourgeois society but not a bourgeois culture. It is a bourgeois society in its emphasis on individualism and materialism. But it is, at the “advanced” level, a modernist culture in its acceptance of experiment, new design, and complex forms. The culture of the United States today is permissive in its ethos (especially on moral and sexual issues) and modernist in its willingness to accept new and innovative and trendy expressions in the arts and literature. It is, to use the phrase of Lionel Trilling, an “adversary culture,” in its opposition to the prevailing societal attitudes. Yet that adversary culture is increasingly entrenched within the institutions of the society, especially the universities, and enjoys a cozy nonconformity in parading its new snobbishness, often on the pretense of still being persecuted. Inevitably, those attitudes have produced a reaction within the culture of what Sidney Blumenthal has called “the counter-intellectuals,” or, in the political arena, of the “neoconservatives,” men and women who have come forward strongly in defense of “bourgeois society” and its values. And uneasily between the two is a current of “political liberalism,” which, in separating the public and the private realms, defends the permissiveness in culture, but is more concerned to rectify the deficits of “bourgeois society,” especially on the issues of equality and redistributive justice. In effect, we have a new set of “cultural wars,” or Kulturkämpfe which are not the romantic visions of the intellectuals against the society, but intense disputes between—and within—enclaves of intellectuals whose arguments only occasionally (as now with the debate about “political correctness”) reach the larger public.

This passage demonstrated Bell’s mastery of “new class” thinking, perfected by the neoconservatives (which I previously wrote about here). “New class” thinking, I argue, was both theoretically astute, and partisan hackery. Bell’s genius was making such a contradictory combination possible.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting subject. Certainly has gotten my attention over the past couple years.

    Check out this speech that Sam Tannenhaus gave at AEI on George Bush and the new class:


    Liberal interpretation (maybe tries to pack a bit too much in, but still interesting):


    Conservative interpretation (this guy basically agrees with Tanenhaus’s thesis):


    Tanenhaus gives cliff’s notes version of thesis:


  2. Hijacking of “new class” thinking is more like it. Bell (and others) completely reversed the meaning of the term introduced by Djilas – and Djilas had it right.

  3. AH,

    Between this post, particularly its conclusion, and the prior post wherein you referenced on “new class” thinking, I remain puzzled. I am wondering if you can help me get my story straight—either here in the comments or with a fresh post? For starters, tell me what is right or wrong with this off-the-cuff narrative (literally given right now) of the evolution of the notion of a/the “New Class”:

    The notion of a “New Class”–referring to Western intellectuals—was a construct of Gramscian inspired Marxist thinkers (i.e. neo-Marxists) in the 1960s. They created this to explain how intellectuals become co-opted by the capitalist state. “New Class” thinkers are, in effect, anti-intellectual intellectuals who use their minds for professional services (i.e. engineering, lawyers, civil servants, higher edu professionals): namely, “technocrats” (think Robert McNamara). Or, they are distracted by the mid-century liberalism that remains friendly to the capitalist state. In the end, it is this class that directs Western states and controls “The Establishment.”

    But in the late 1960s the notion of “New Class” is co-opted by neoconservatives to explain how liberalism has become the unchallenged paradigm of politics and culture (i.e. autonomous individualism). Kristof and others posit this.

    By the late 1970s and 1980s, neoconservatives and Gramscian-inspired Marxists agree that a “new class” of less-than-thoughtful, narrow-minded “smart people” exist (i.e. technocrats), but they disagree on the effects of this new class. One side, the Marxists, think that the “new class” is overly preoccupied with the culture wars as a kind intellectual intramural sport. Whereas the new conservative, thoughtful Reaganite types use “new class” to describe the people they want to ferret out of government and politics.

    And to tie this to your post, you see Daniel Bell—despite his roots as a real critical thinker in the 1960s, and his substantial, thoughtful criticism of the culture wars outlined above—as part of the “new class” being criticized by Marxist thinkers. Bell was ignoring class/capitalism as the driving issue and playing along with the culture-wars-are-real-and-not-a-distraction “new class.”

    Finally, to wrap this up, the notion of a “new class” has basically been dropped—or at least is not regularly discussed—by either conservatives or neo-Marxists.

    Okay, how much have I messed up the story? I’m totally game for fraternal correction. 🙂

    – TL

  4. AH & Others,

    Okay. Now that I’m poking around on my own*, I see that “New Class” has deeper roots in Communist theory (or theories about Communism, hence the Trotsky references. But I’m confused about how Gramsci might’ve thought about this, per Michael Kramer’s comment on the November post. I’m also confused about how J.K. Galbraith and other liberals used the term, unless they took Trotsky’s idea and deformed it. It looks like we/you could do another “Strange Career of…” posts in relation to “new class.”

    – TL

    * Once again, I’m surprised that Wikipedia has an entry on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_class. Based on that entry, it looks like Milovan Djilas is the man to explore.

    – TL

  5. Lawrence Peter King and Iván Szelényi’s Theories of the New Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) is far and away the most comprehensive thing I’ve seen about the idea of the “new class” and its history.

  6. Ben: Thanks! I saw your citation of that work when I revisited Andrew’s old post. But I wanted to lay out my early sense of things here before picking a book (many were mentioned at that old post—awesome) and tackling this in more depth. I’m trying to see, of course, how and if some variation of this “new class” sensibility made it into Adler’s community. I’m thinking if it did, it would’ve perhaps been via the J.K. Galbraith angle (i.e. necessity of a new class to rule an increasingly complex industrial state). – TL

  7. Thanks all for the comments and additional links and reading sources. Every time I post something about “new class” thinking it brings a host of comments, often seeking clarification or just as often countering my take. So obviously there is some interest in the concept.

    @ Mr. Punch: I agree with you that US neocons essentially hijacked (or co-opted) “new class” thinking from Djilas and I won’t argue with you that Djilas had it right. I don’t think the neocon use of the concept is technically correct in any sociological sense. But it does help us understand the culture wars–that’s my central contention.

    @ Tim: I’m going to post something new right now. It’ll be a short post–hopefully providing some clarification.

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