U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Daniel Bell: Neoconservative?

Daniel Bell has been remembered twice here in the past week. First, briefly by Ben Alpers, and second by Andrew Hartman in a reflection on Bell’s 1992 analysis of the Culture Wars.

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

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just to clarify my comments re: Bell and neoconservatism.

    When I described him as a charter neoconservative due to his role in co-founding The Public Interest in 1965, I meant just that: when “neoconservatism” entered the political discourse in the 1970s, Bell was almost always considered among the leading neoconservatives, in large measure due to his relationship to The Public Interest, a journal that virtually defined neoconservatism in its early days.

    There’s nothing very idiosyncratic about this definition of (early…or in Vaïsse’s terms “First Age”) neoconservatism. Nor did I say that it was idiosyncratic to so classify Bell. What I said (and what was commonly said by others, including Irving Kristol in the early 1970s) was that Bell’s version of neoconservatism was idiosyncratic.

    None of this is remotely refuted by Jacob Weissberg’s assessment of Bell. That Bell “had no patience for neoconservatism in the 1980s” says nothing about his relationship to neoconservatism in the 1960s or 1970s.

    Bell’s leaving the journal–and the pale of neoconservatism–says more about how neoconservatism evolved in the 1970s than about whether or not Bell should be considered (to have been at one time) a neoconservative.

    I guess for me the take-home point is that neoconservatism is a complicated and evolving phenomenon, not a single, unchanging ideological position. And, especially in its early days, who was and wasn’t a neoconservative was as much a function of political sociology as ideology.

  2. Ben,

    I did not mean to call you out in particular. Rather, I only meant to raise the issue of “Bell’s neoconservatism” in a larger fashion. Even so, the clarification is much appreciated since break point wasn’t supplied in your prior post. Plus—and Andrew can clarify for himself here–I felt his post left open-ended the question of the chronological endurance of Bell’s neoconservativsm (i.e. Was Bell’s essay on the Culture Wars constructed from a neoconservative viewpoint? Or, was Bell’s version of new class thinking for that essay uttered from a neoconservative vantage-point?)

    I’m still getting my mind around the players in, and extent of, neoconservative thought in order to delineate the precise boundaries of Mortimer Adler’s late 1960s and early 1970s reactionary tendencies. Those tendencies have been falsely attributed as a kind of political conversion that turned him into a middle-right conservative. Because Bell was in the far outer circles of Adler’s community of discourse, I need to understand the full extent of the neoconservative signifier.

    – TL

  3. There are several elements to neoconservatism. The earliest indicators were an antipathy to the counterculture and sixties radicalism in general, as a hyper-extension of cold war liberalism, and a distaste for liberal social policy aimed at ameliorating poverty, both indicators related to the “new class” thinking I attribute to the neocons. Bell evinced these elements of neoconservatism early and often, making him one in my book, despite his protestations, despite the fact that he remained a mild social democrat in economics, and despite the fact that he never became an aggressive, Wlisonian, pro-Israel hawk. In short, Bell was no Kristol and no Podhoretz. But he was a neocon.

  4. Andrew,

    I need to reword the question above (in fact I’m going to delete it as soon as this is posted):

    In your political taxonomy of the late 1970s and 1980s, after Bell’s move away from Kristol’s politics, what’s the difference between a right-leaning liberal and leftish neocon? Based on the final sentences in your comment above, it appears there were no right-leaning liberals in that era. Did all the right-leaning liberals become neoliberals? Were there no old-school Fifties and Sixties liberals?

    – TL

  5. That’s a good question Tim. How about the JFK circle, those like Schlesinger who maintained steady support for the New Deal and New Frontier and, to a lesser degree, the Great Society, but were Cold War hawks who never disapproved of Vietnam until it was fashionable to do so.

  6. I responded to your question about taxonomy in the 60s. But the same would apply in the 80s. Schlesinger’s take on the culture wars, in the “Disuniting of America,” basically cuts a vital center path similarly to the one he cut through the early cold war.

  7. Sorry, Andrew. I deleted the former question because my time frame was faulty—it didn’t account for Ben’s point above about Bell’s late 1960s/early 1970s association with The Public Interest and Weisberg’s point about Bell’s disavowal of Kristol’s politics in the mid-1970s. – TL

  8. Recently read End of Ideology and Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism for first time. Both very interesting, the first rather Marxist in some ways, but later is very representative of 70s anxiety about ungovernability. The specific cultural criticism now seems very dated and arbitrary: rock music is too loud, too much sex in media etc. The core thesis of Cultural Contradictions would be popular with both the left and right but really was refuted by events. To maintain the mood of crisis that Bell evoked in Contradictions neoconservatives became more and more fanciful.

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