My contribution to this conversation is to point you toward a Slate.com essay on Bell by Jacob Weisberg. Weisberg worked on a project about Dwight Macdonald, and had an occasion to interview Bell (among other New York Intellectuals). The article paints Bell as an engaging, honest, skeptical, and predictably bright member of his intellectual community. But Weisberg adds to our ongoing discussions about neoconservatism and neoliberalism by taking issue with Ben’s characterization of Bell as a “charter neoconservative” (though Ben calls that classification “idiosyncratic). Here are the money passages from Weisberg (bolds mine):
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.
Bell…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.
So it looks like one of the debates that will play out in the future historiography of neoconservatism is whether Bell qualifies as a true member. And even if his name has been associated with the movement in the past, historians (and historically-minded biographers) usually consider a full life’s work before making a final judgment.
Finally, for your reading pleasure, I offer this group remembrance of Bell from Dissent. The contributors include Michael Kazin (nephew of Bell), Morris Dickstein, and Daniel A. Bell (who called Daniel Bell “Dan The Elder”). – TL