Radicalism in the Forties

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

S.A. Longstaff

Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism:
Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s
By Howard Brick
Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986, $30.

OF THE SURPRISING number of neo­conservatives who emerged out of the City College and Trotskyist ambience of the late 1930s and early 1940s including Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Seymour Martin Lipset it is the sociologist Daniel Bell who remains the most contradictory and elusive figure. Bell, whose much-debated End of Ideology (1960) left him with a lot of explaining to do in the 1960s, had joined the staff of the social-democratic weekly New Leader in 1940 at the age of twenty-one. Becoming its managing editor in 1943, he recruited the historian Richard Hofstadter and the sociologist C. Wright Mills, among others, as contributors.

In his own journalism, Bell reported extensively on the cartelization of oil, chemicals and other heavy industries. He also used the pages of the New Leader to cast a grim light on the criminal price­fixing and patent-pooling arrangements that such giants as Dupont and Standard Oil had worked out with their German counterparts.

Writing under various bylines, Bell brooded over the increasing proletarianization of American workers, saw fascist tendencies in the military, speculated darkly about big business interests in a “permanent war economy,” and generally projected a spiritless future of imperial greed and bureaucratic otherness descending on postwar America.

Then in 1944 Bell left the New Leader and, with a publisher’s contract in hand, began preparing a volume to be entitled “The Monopoly State.”

Bell’s Transformation

“I suddenly realized I was very badly educated,” he later explained apropos of the collapse of this project, despite the accumulation of a manuscript of several hundred pages. “I was educated in a vulgar Marxist framework … making imputations about corporate behavior, and I never really knew what was going on.”

In fact, it was more than the patchiness of his education that was troubling Bell. The war and the death camps lay heavily on his mind. With other Jewish secularists and radicals, he began meeting in study groups, poring over recondite texts, groping his way back to some sort of religiously defined commitment.

He also continued to search for a moral community on the left by joining in various short-lived magazine ventures and participating half-heartedly in efforts to launch a labor-oriented third party.

“We are heading towards some form of bureaucratic society in which the only role open to us is that of critics,” he wrote Dwight Macdonald in 1946. Macdonald was doing his utmost to sustain some sort of “post-Marxist” radicalism around the journal Politics. Bell was sympathetic up to a point.

If political action was impossible, Bell at least wanted to provide the kind of criticism that future generations, say fifty years hence, could draw on when meaningful choices presented themselves again. But even as he was making this somber assessment, he was losing interest in the kind of criticism that Macdonald and Politics stood for.

The end of the decade found Bell hailing in Commentary the Truman “Fair Deal” as the culmination of “America’s Un-Marxist Revolution” and also turning out a toothless labor sociology as one of Henry Luce’s editors at Fortune.

And yet something of his old left sympathies remained: as an elegiac undertone in his Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952), and much more noticeably in his sardonic attacks on the “scientific” school of industrial relations spawned by Elton Mayo, which he kept up throughout the 1950s.

“That Daniel Bell turned toward accommodation after 1948 is neither surprising nor unique,” Howard Brick concludes in this wide-ranging and sympathetic book on the fate of intellectual radicalism in the 1940s. “His reconciliation was less a consequence of individual decision, motivated by private dispositions or traits of character, than a particular expression of a general ideological current shaped by a confluence of historical forces reaching a special intensity at this time.”

Brick begins by examining the grievous inadequacies of both the Marxist-Leninist and social-democratic models of political economy and world crisis that Bell and other anti-Stalinist radicals had at their disposal in the late ’30s. He reports extensively (perhaps a little too extensively) on Bell’s journalistic responses to wartime mobilization, paying particular attention to the antinomies and contradictions of his writings during the 1944-52 period. It is here that Bell oscillates between accommodation to and estrangement from American society, or, as Brick describes it, ”between legitimation and critique, progressive rationalism and cultural despair.”

In a pivotal chapter, subtitled “The Death of Socialism,” Brick convincingly charts both the structural causes and the intellectual reverberations of organized labor’s surrender of its oppositional impulses and entry into the cold war consensus. Here Bell’s own tortuous search for ethical-cum-sociological perspective on a reconsolidated American capitalism serves to illuminate the larger story. It is the story of the tragic loss of moral and intellectual direction suffered by the anti­Stalinist left on the eve of McCarthyism.

Somewhat less convincingly, Brick also claims to have uncovered in Bell’s ideologically distraught theorizing in the ’40s the “key” to such mature works as The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

The Crisis of Ideology

What, then, was the crisis of ideology that beset the anti-Stalinist left as the war clouds gathered? Brick locates the origins of the dilemma in the late nineteenth century, as classic social democracy was confronted especially in Germany with huge monopolies and the imperial state on the one hand, and an increasingly pacific labor movement on the other.

In opposition to Eduard Bernstein’s “organic evolutionism,” Karl Kautsky refused to collapse the revolutionary ideal of 1848 and the Commune into a liberal expectation that industrial advance was bound to bring about economic as well as political democracy.

Yet for all Kautsky’s rhetorical allegiance to Marx, his thinking was as shot through with evolutionary and legalist assumptions as was Bernstein’s. By nature, the proletariat was increasing in altruism, rationality and leadership skills, he felt. It was only a matter of time before its majority status, spurred on by capitalism itself, would put it in a position to assume control of the government and usher in the revolution.

World War I and the split in the radical movement consequent upon the October Revolution did much to destabilize the Kautskyian paradigm, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and the prostration of the German working class before Hitler that anti­Stalinist Marxists were forced to confront its basic imperfections.

Meanwhile, the barbarism of that other variant of Marxism was being revealed for all the world to see in the Moscow purge trials. For a time, Trotsky’s personal magnetism, together with his critical readings of developments in both Russia and Germany, managed to keep the Marxist­Leninist insurrectionary idea alive, especially in New York. Nazism, in the Trotskyist view, was a reactionary form of capitalism in decline; the Soviet Union by contrast remained an abortive form of socialism, and as such still merited critical support.

But no sooner had Trotsky been vindicated by the American “Commission of Inquiry” chaired by John Dewey and convened in Mexico in 1937, than a fierce debate broke out in New York over Trotsky’s role in suppressing the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921.

The debate, as Brick points out, linked the heroic age of the revolution with its Stalinist degeneration in the thirties. Trotsky himself was tarred as a kind of “proto­Stalinist,” and the moral standing of any form of Leninist-vanguard politics was now called into question.

Behind the uproar was an inchoate sense of the common properties of the Nazi and Soviet regimes that was summed up in the term totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt was later to suggest, was “entirely original.” It represented a caesura in the continuity of Western experience, obliterating conventional understandings of right and left, of capitalism and socialism, of the very notion of class interest. Indeed, by positing a monolithic political order that had freed itself from all economic laws, totalitarianism seemed to preclude rational understanding of history itself.

Brick conducts this part of the discussion with exceptional poise and resourcefulness, shifting the spotlight adeptly from one set of actor-observers to another: from Lenin and Kautsky, to Hilferding and the Austro-Marxists, to the Frankfort theorists, and thence to various American Marxists: Lewis Corey, Eugene Lyons, Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, and finally James Burnham and Max Shachtman.

American Responses

The Americans, indeed, make a particularly poignant spectacle as, one after another, Brick shows them discarding various notions of dialectics, totality, and other Hegelian-Lukacsian accouterments and retreating back to either a pragmatic laborism, managerialism, or an outright defense of bourgeois capitalism.

For Philip Rahv and other chastened literary radicals around Partisan Review, a narrow preoccupation with the defense of aesthetic modernism now became the hallmark of their wartime retreat. For Daniel Bell and others like him of a more political tum of mind, it was Robert Michels and Max Weber whose theories and insights cast the most light on the political impasse in which they found themselves.

Michels’ Political Parties, with its emphasis on the inevitable contradiction be­ tween democratic-socialist aims and the privileged and usurpatory bureaucracies necessary to their attainment, was indeed on everyone’s mind. But it was Weber’s tragic view of the rationalistic demiurge in modem life that had by far the most extensive sway.

“From the results of its analysis we cannot learn the meaning of the world,” one of Weber’s characteristic statements went. As a graduate student at Columbia in the late thirties, Bell had assented fervently to Norman Thomas’ “Keep America Out of the War” campaign, only to find himself (along with most other anti-Stalinist radicals) drifting into a pro-war position once the fighting had begun in earnest.

For a time Bell grounded his support for the war, such as it was, in anticipation that organized labor would have a leading role to play in both the mobilization efforts and the economic reconstruction that was expected to follow the war. So it is not surprising that, as hopes for a “Peoples’ War” proved chimerical, Weber’s darkest forebodings about the “iron cage” of bureaucracy should find an echo in Bell’s own thinking.

As a draft-age noncombatant, Bell was indeed more susceptible than most of his fellow radicals to such overly spacious concepts as alienation, depersonalization, and the like, which were very much in the air at the time. “We seem to be approaching the ‘era of integration,’ an age where large economic and political units are massed power blocks, and culture is pulverized into faith to serve as a unifying concept in spiritual dress,” he wrote in one of the first issues of Politics, in 1944. Brick marshals evidence of his subject’s profound sense of homelessness, down to 1948 at any rate, in an American “society perceived to be wholly antipathetic.”

In a similar vein, Brick pictures his subject as “increasingly marginalized” during the 1945-48 period. “Estranged from a monolithic order that could not, by its nature, realize his purposes, Bell opted for alienation, a role-defining sense of ‘otherness….”

And yet already by 1946, Henry Luce and Time were beckoning; the University of Chicago was likewise bidding for his services. (Bell was to turn down Time and spend two years at Chicago, teaching in what was then the best social science faculty in the country, before going on to Fortune in 1948.) Meanwhile Elliot Cohen was fitting him into his “Grand Design” for Jewish intellectual reconciliation via Commentary; Princeton and the Rockefeller Foundation were extending funds in connection with the research he was undertaking for Marxian Socialism in the United States.

Young intellectuals “are given to posturing,” Bell was later to say about a piece on alienation that he published in the Jewish Frontier in 1946-around the same time that all these well-deserved, if also surprising, awards and acknowledgements were coming his way. ”There is a need to find large, resonant symbols. In some sense I was given to posturing as well.”

Whatever Bell was opting for in the mid-’40s, he was hardly becoming “increasingly marginalized.” Indeed, the posturing is simply one more sign that just the opposite was taking place. The larger point, of course, is that intellectuals do not live by ideas alone, and that any examination of major shifts in their thinking, and especially their thinking about their own collective fate as radicals and intellectuals, can ill afford to leave their careers and other status considerations out of the equation.

The Clues

Thus Brick looks for the key to understanding Bell’s thinking about the end of ideology in a theory of welfare capitalism that both encapsulates the promise of reason inherent in the socialist ideal and stymies it. This, it seems to me, is really trying too hard to squeeze some sort of plausible argument out of “the many unmediated contradictions, inconsistencies and ambiguities” (Brick’s phrase) permeating the most tendentious sections of The End of Ideology and that, fortunately, are largely incidental to what is best in the book.

Brick is on surer ground when he speaks of the debate that this 1960 work occasioned as one rising out of the movement of “a certain segment of the American intelligentsia … toward an accommodation with [their society’s] standing institutions and prevailing social relations.” All the more reason, then, that the unprecedented postwar accessibility of some of the most powerful of those institutions to a generation that hitherto had been truly “marginalized” should not be overlooked.

Or as Karl Mannheim would have it: “the key to the understanding of changes in ideas is to be found in the changing social background, mainly in the fate of the social groups or classes which are the ‘carriers’ of these styles of thought.” In his concern to “move ‘beyond the author,'” as Brick puts it, to find in the texts themselves “a reality apart from the overt considerations and intentions of their individual authors,” Brick runs the risk of doing just that.

I say runs the risk, because in the course of relating how the “new radicalism” of 1945-48 very quickly turned into a vehicle of political accommodation, he does manage to fit a good deal of Bell’s personal story in around the edges of the discussion. And yet at crucial points one needs to know more.

“The intellectual,” as Bell himself wrote in The End of Ideology, “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.” Though he doesn’t neglect the subject entirely, Brick has little light to shed on the perceptions or on the mingled sense of privilege and deprivation that fueled Bell’s interest in Kabbalah and other aspects of Judaism after 1945. (Religion has of course long figured as a barrier to the demonic and a counterweight to ideology in Bell’s thinking.)

Nor for that matter is there any discussion of the direct impact of the Holocaust on the cultural-political perceptions of youthful radicals like Bell-chiefly, I would guess, because it took them so many years to find a public voice for the unspeakable grief and horror that engulfed them in the final stages of war.

Brick’s approach to intellectual history simply isn’t adequate for an assessment of this important impetus to postwar reconciliation. Still, I wouldn’t want this methodological reservation to overshadow my admiration for how well this work generally orders and illuminates the times with which it deals.

One comes away from Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism with a new appreciation of its principal subject — certainly a fresh sense of the accessibility of various parts of Marxian Socialism and the essays on crime and ethnic mobility, work and alienation, and the status politics of the Radical Right in The End of Ideology. Never mind the squeaking of his hobbyhorse, his carping about the hubris and fanaticism of the intellectuals, Brick seems to be saying.

Rather, Brick shows that we must view Bell’s work as a particularly complex and reverberant response to the terrifying rapidity and opaqueness of the events of 1937-50 and take from it what we can. That, I think, is a message to ponder in a decade that seems almost as paralyzing to radical hopes and initiatives as the forties was.

January-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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