This is the cultural dilemma of capitalist society: it must now acknowledge the triumph (albeit tempered) of an adversary "ideology," the emergence of a new class which sustains this ideology, and the collapse of the older value system which was, ironically, undermined by the structural transformation of capitalism itself. The inimical ideology is not the secular socialism of the working class … but the cultural chic of "modernism" which retains its subversive thrust however much it is absorbed by the system. This new class, which dominates the media and the culture, thinks of itself less as radical than "liberal," yet its values, centered on "personal freedom," are profoundly anti-bourgeois. The value system of capitalism repeats the old pieties, but these are now hollow because they contradict the reality, the hedonistic life-styles promoted by the system itself. … The historic justifications of bourgeois society -- in the realm of religion and character -- are gone. … Yet one of the deepest human impulses it to sanctify their institutions and beliefs in order to find a meaningful purpose in their lives and to deny the meaninglessness of death. … This lack of a rooted moral belief system is the cultural contradiction of the society, the deepest challenge to its survival.
An Independent-Minded Social Democrat
Daniel Bell died in January after a long life of passionate engagement with many of the most important political and cultural issues of the 20th century. He was born just after the First World War on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into a Yiddish speaking immigrant family from Eastern Europe and was raised by his mother and an uncle after his father died while he was still an infant. In 1929, when Daniel was 10 years old, his uncle (and legal guardian) changed the family name from Bolotsky to the more WASP-sounding (and culturally acceptable) "Bell."
As a child of the Great Depression coming from poor, immigrant Jewish stock, it was not surprising that the young Daniel was attracted to socialism and left-wing politics that was so much a part of the milieu in which working-class New York City Jews of his generation grew up. Bell's parents had been employed as garment workers and it was perhaps not too surprising that at the age of 13 the young Bell proclaimed himself a socialist. He liked to explain his political coming-of-age with a story about his bar mitzvah: "I said to the Rabbi: 'I've found the truth. I don't believe in God. I'm joining the Young People's Socialist League.' So he looked at me and said, 'Kid, you don't believe in God. Tell me, do you think God cares?'"
A precocious student who graduated from New York City's famed Stuyvesant High School at the age of 15, Bell entered the City College of New York in 1934 where he majored in sociology. Much of his time at CCNY, however, seems to have been spent not in the classroom but hanging out in Alcove No 1 in the college lunchroom with classmates such as Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Irving Howe -- all of them Trotskyists or other non-Stalinist Marxists. Their time together was largely spent in endless arguments and debates over the issues that preoccupied the socialists and communists of the day. The Alcove No.1 residents stayed clear of, and had virtually no interaction with, the Stalinist communists in neighboring Alcove No. 2, who followed the strict ideological discipline dictated by the Moscow party line (Alcove No. 2's most famous alumnus was the atomic spy Julius Rosenberg).
While Bell caucused with the Trotskyists, he always remained something of the outlier since he seems always to have been, from his earliest college years and throughout his long life, a defender of both parliamentary democracy (what Marxists disparaged as "bourgeoisie democracy") and some degree of private ownership of the means of production. Many years later his friend Irving Kristol would describe Bell's tenure in Alcove No. 1 in the following manner:
Daniel Bell, now professor of sociology at Harvard, was at the opposite pole from [Irving Howe, the leading Trotskyist theoretician of our group]. He was a rarity of the 1930s, an honest-to-goodness social-democrat intellectual who believed in "a mixed economy," a two-party system based on the British model, and other liberal heresies. His evident skepticism toward all our ideologies would ordinarily have disqualified him from membership in Alcove No. 1. But he had an immense intellectual curiosity, a kind of amused fondness for sectarian dialectics, knew his radical texts as thoroughly as the most learned among us, and enjoyed "a good theoretical discussion" the way some enjoy a Turkish bath -- so we counted him in. Over the years, his political views have probably changed less than those of the rest of us, with the result that whereas his former classmates used to criticize him from the Left, they now criticize him from all points of the ideological compass.
It is important to keep Kristol's quite accurate description here in mind in interpreting the oft cited self-description of Bell regarding his views on politics and culture: "I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture." From his college days onward Bell was never a true socialist in any hard sense of that term. He didn't, for instance, believe it would be wise for a government to own the major means of production, didn't believe that workers could adequately manage factories or large scale industries, and always believed in the necessity for individual material incentives to get people to work. In terms of economics Bell is better described not as a socialist but a social democrat -- what in America would be called a "welfare state liberal" or "liberal pragmatist" -- who was more in tune with the thinking of reformers like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Dewey, and Hubert Humphrey than with true socialists like Eugene V. Debbs, Leon Trotsky, or Rosa Luxemberg (or even Norman Thomas, the democratic socialist to whom Bell was first attracted in his high school days).
The God That Failed: On the Exhaustion of Secular Ideology
Bell always remained, as the Kristol description suggests, a skeptic toward all the major ideologies of his time, especially those of the Left that offered seductively attractive visions of a utopian future to be brought about by the chiliastic transformation of human nature from the degraded state to which it had fallen under the conditions of modern capitalism. And it was this skepticism cum commonsense, when combined with Bell's keen intellect and eye for long-term trends, which gave to his political and cultural commentary its great lucidity and long-term shelf life. Few of the major ideas that Bell put forth from the 1940s onward needed to be repudiated in the face of subsequent events, something one could hardly say of so much of the commentary emanating from the left side of the political spectrum in Bell's time.
Bell's most important early book -- the one that elevated him to national prominence and gave him the stature of one of America's leading public intellectuals -- was appropriately titled The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. The book was really a collection of fifteen previously published essays dealing with topics related to the modern labor movement and the ideology and policies of the Left. Its greatest impact was in its claim that the major ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, most derived in one form or another from Marx and other utopian thinkers, had revealed themselves as dangerous illusions which led to many political and humanitarian horrors and ultimately to a loss of faith in their own veracity.
The End of Ideology was often seen as part of the extensive post-World War II disillusionment literature on the Left, a category that included Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, George Orwell's 1984, Whittaker Chamber's Witness, and the R. H. Crossman edited volume, The God That Failed. The many chapters of the book were written in the shadow of all that had become known by the 1940s and 1950s about the Moscow show trials, the extermination of the Russian kulaks, Khrushchev's Secret Speech acknowledging Stalin's paranoia-driven murders of loyal Soviet citizens, the suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the overall drabness of life and lack of hope for a better future found in all countries that had come under the spell of the utopian ideologies of the left. Utopian visions in politics, Bell said, had not served mankind well in the 20th century and were increasingly becoming understood as the bogus religions and religious substitutes that they were. While radical ideologies initially called forth great energies and enthusiasm in their followers, they had become exhausted in Western Europe and America by the 1950s -- though the attraction of such ideologies would continue to be a powerful force for some time to come, Bell predicted, in much of the Third World.
"Today," Bell said, writing at the end of the Eisenhower era, "these ideologies [of the past] are exhausted. The events behind this important sociological change are complex and varied. Such calamities as the Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the concentration camps, the suppression of the Hungarian workers, form one chain; such social changes as the modification of capitalism, the rise of the Welfare State, another. … Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down 'blueprints' and through 'social engineering' bring about a new utopia of social harmony. At the same time, the older 'counter-beliefs' have lost their intellectual force as well. Few 'classic' liberals insist that the State should play no role in the economy. … In the Western world, therefore, there is today a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of a Welfare State; the desirability of decentralized power; a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism. In that sense, too, the ideological age has ended." (EI, 202-203)
And in an Afterword to The End of Ideology written in 1987 Bell added to this cache of ideas another of equal importance: "Painfully, painfully, socialists learned during World War II and after that democracy and legal rights are an inviolable condition for a decent society and that liberty, necessarily, has to be prior even to socialism." (EI, 447)
The disillusioned socialists and communists of his time, Bell said, came to realize not only the importance of democracy and individual (i.e. "bourgeois") rights to the achievement of a decent society, but came to appreciate the ambiguity, complexity, irony, and paradox which are always woven into the fabric of real world politics. The utopian political or religious ideologist "wants to live at some extreme, and criticizes the ordinary man for failing to live at the level of grandeur." But one can seriously try to do this, Bell explained, only if "there is the genuine possibility that the next moment could be actually a 'transforming moment' when salvation or revolution or genuine passion could be achieved. But such chiliastic moments are illusions. And what is left is the unheroic, day-to-day routine of living." (EI, 301-301). Thankfully, Bell observed, Americans usually do not try to live at such levels of grandeur -- or to achieve grandeur through politics. "That is why, perhaps, we have avoided some of the ideological extremes that have wrecked Europe." (EI, 308)
The major political ideologies of the 19th and 20th century, particularly communism and fascism, functioned as secular religions, Bell believed, insofar as they provided simplifying beliefs, a claim to truth, and a path to action, just as Christianity and Judaism had always done. They also tapped into the same emotions as the historical religions, but they came to resemble those religions in their extreme periods of fanatical frenzy rather than in their more subdued, ritualized, and pacifistic modes. What was to give an ideology like Marxism and fascism its force, Bell said, was its ability to tap the kinds of human emotions that religion had always dealt with. "One might say, in fact, that the most important, latent, function of ideology is to tap emotion," Bell explained. But whereas traditional religion, in its more peaceful stages, "symbolized, drained away, [and] dispersed emotional energy from the world onto the litany, the liturgy, the sacraments, the edifices, the arts" etc., an ideology like Marxism or fascism "fuses these energies and channels them into politics." (EI, 400) And the politics that ensues inevitably becomes not only more highly charged, but prone to every sort of fanaticism and irrationality.
It was by the recognition of all this after painful and traumatic historical experience that Bell could predict that for thoughtful Westerners, the older political ideologies that had so inspired many of the best minds in the 1920s and 1930s were forever discredited and would be replaced in the future by a more down-to-earth pragmatism and piecemeal political reformism. Bell may have been a little premature in his prediction given the rise of a New Left among college students in the late 1960s in America and Europe, but he surely gauged well the trajectory of the trend -- a trend completed when communism was abandoned throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and a younger generation came of age for which the older revolutionary ideologies had little appeal.
Bell's criticism of ideology was not only of the revolutionary utopianisms of the Marxist variety, but of any fixed and unchanging conceptual structure through which people tried to grasp the complexities of social dynamics and social change. One had to leave one's interpretive structures open to change just as history and human social development were open to change. Bell came to believe that an ongoing pragmatism and flexibility must govern how the social scientist and social critic comes to understand social reality in all its unpredictable and often contradictory dynamism. For this reason he was just as opposed to certain tendencies on the conservative and libertarian Right as he was to the rigidities of Marxist ideology
Indeed, it was because of this perceived conceptual and ideological rigidity that Bell, one of the co-founders of The Public Interest, resigned from the editorship of that august journal when Irving Kristol, its chief editor, began to speak publicly of the need for a coherent ideology on the Right to combat the power of the ideologies of the Left. Kristol would later write: "Neoconservatism has the kind of ideological self-consciousness and self-assurance -- most of its original spokesmen, after all, had migrated from the Left -- and even ideological boldness which has hitherto been regarded as the legitimate -- indeed exclusive -- property of the Left." Kristol would eventually go on to support Ronald Reagan and much of his conservative political agenda, something the more centrist Bell could never do.
Bell's reasons for resigning from The Public Interest were similar to those of Whittaker Chamber's in resigning from the editorial board of the conservative National Review a decade and a half earlier. Both men, whose early thinking was structured by the Leftist politics of the inter-war period, found the journals for which they wrote to be developing an ideological orthodoxy with which they were increasingly at odds. The very idea of a fixed ideology or orthodoxy was one they met with considerable skepticism as a limitation on critical thought. Chambers explained his resignation from National Review in a letter to its editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., that is probably just as valuable for grasping Bell's thinking in resigning from The Public Interest and distancing himself from Kristol and the neoconservative ideology Kristol was attempting to articulate: "You [Bill] stand within, or, at any rate, are elaborating, a political orthodoxy. I stand within no political orthodoxy. … The temptation to orthodoxy is often strong, never more than in an age like this one, especially in a personal situation like mine. But it is not a temptation to which I have found it possible to yield." Whatever one may say of Bell's thinking in his post-Public Interest period, it was fresh and creative, and not stale or orthodox, though many admirers of The Public Interest would say (as older National Review writers said of Chambers) that little of what he wrote throughout his later life would be out of place in that journal, which was hardly narrow in its ideological sweep.
The Modernist Assault on the Protestant Ethic
Bell remained a prolific writer for many years after the publishing success of The End of Ideology, with his later interests focused on the structural changes that had taken place in late capitalism, and the increasing importance of cultural change to understanding how societies functioned in America and Europe. One must understand the all-pervasive influence of the Marxist analysis of culture on the Left to realize just how far Bell had moved away in his two most influential later works, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, from the kind of thinking that was almost universal in the circles in which he had earlier moved in the period before the Second World War. For Marx and legions of leftist thinkers influenced by Marx, the ideas, thoughts, moral principles, normative judgements and the like that people entertain are seen to have little if any independent power or efficacy in shaping the course of human history. They are, rather, the ideological "superstructures" or facades (in German Uberbauen) concealing the real determinative forces influencing how people think and act, namely, the positions they hold within the productive process. Capitalism, according to the Marxist view, was destined to self-destruct because it would alienate the legions of property-less proletarians, who would eventually revolt and institute a communist society. Since cultural forces, including religion and philosophy, had little independent force in determining social outcomes for the Marxist mind, they were of little interest except as the secondary excrescence of the true basis of life in the material forces of production.
Bell in his later works came to reject out of hand this common Marxist viewpoint, and to recognize that while economic developments can influence culture, culture can influence economic developments, and both can have profound effects on the way people experience their existence and find (or don't find) meaning in their lives. Much of Bell's focus in his later writings was on the erosion of the older Protestant value-system -- which stressed such bourgeois-Christian virtues as chastity, sobriety, frugality, delayed gratification, and self-control -- and its replacement by the more hedonistic and antinomian values that Bell associated with literary modernism. Bell used the term "modernism" to cover what he saw as a common sensibility that permeated much of the literature, philosophy, poetry, painting, theater, and film of the 19th and early 20th century in America and Europe. Although key elements of the modernist sensibility, Bell said, could be found in Rousseau, the Marquis de Sade, and other 18th century thinkers, and although modernism had its analogues in certain Gnostic, hermetic, and Dionysian cults of antiquity, modernism only began to flower as a literary movement, according to Bell's account, in the 19th century, and was to reach its peak of creativity, Bell claimed, in the period from 1890 to 1920. Its great apostles were such anti-bourgeois artists and writers as Byron, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautreamount, Nietzsche, Alfred Jarry, and Antonin Artaud.
At the heart of cultural modernism, said Bell, is a rage against bourgeois orderliness and traditional religious restraints on personal behavior in the name of the absolute freedom of the individual to explore through the medium of art every avenue of personal experience. Under the impact of the modernist ethos, according to Bell, poetry, painting, literature, and music no longer sought to harmonize with Christian religious sensibilities and conventional norms of morality (as was the case with much pre-modern art), but sought to overthrow all existing moral and religious taboos in order to act out in the imagination -- and frequently in life itself -- all that previously had been considered sordid, licentious, criminal, and perverse. Modernism, Bell explained, involved a Faustian urge to explore the most forbidden regions of the demonic in order to find in this exploration a renewed source of psychic vitality and energy. Cultural modernism, he went on, was a radical attempt to detach the individual from all traditional authority, whether in the form of custom, tradition, sacred books, venerated institutions, or objective standards of rationality, in order to make one's own personal experience the touchstone of what is real, important, and morally valid in life. All institutional and communal ties, and all continuity with the past were to be abandoned in order that the individual could be free to explore the furthest reaches of human experience unhampered by the restraints of traditional religion and morality, which modernist artists felt to be intensely oppressive and constraining. Cultural modernism thus contained a radically antinomian and anti-institutional thrust, Bell said, as it sought to ground its understanding of reality in the radical subjectivism of each individual's own unique experience.
One might be tempted to look upon the modernist writers and artists that Bell describes as having only marginal significance on the course of Western social and historical development, as Marxists and others would. But this would be a great mistake, according to Bell, for the cultural impact of modernism since the 1920s, he claimed, has not only been significant, but virtually all-pervasive, at least in America. As many intellectuals in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century began to abandon their traditional religious attachments and the general outlook of the small-town environments in which they had been raised, modernist novelists, poets, philosophers and artists, Bell explained, were increasingly looked upon as the hierophants of a new vision and a new truth that would supplant what was felt to be the cramped vision and repressive morality of small town Protestantism.
The period from 1910 to 1930, Bell believed, was particularly significant, for this was not only a period of dazzling achievement in a number of areas of modernist art and literature (including stream-of-consciousness writing in novels; symbolism in literature and poetry; futurism, expressionism, fauvism, cubism, surrealism and dada in painting, etc.) but in America it marked the great transition from modernism in art to modernism in lifestyle. Whereas the modernist impulse throughout the 19th century was primarily confined to art and to the world of the imagination, what happened in the early decades of the 20th century, Bell explained, was that art began to spill over into life as significant numbers of alienated intellectuals, many of them graduates of elite universities, began to gather together in bohemian enclaves such as Manhattan's Greenwich Village in order to experiment with modes of living that would be more in tune with modernist visions. This pattern, said Bell, would later be followed outside of the bohemian enclaves by large segments of mainstream society.
What happened in the many decades following the First World War, Bell said, is that the modernist attitudes and beliefs that were first embraced as a guide to living by small numbers of urban bohemians and intellectuals were eventually adopted as the reigning philosophy by the major cultural institutions of the society, including the leading literary periodicals, museums, universities, film studios, Hollywood script writers, art galleries, etc., such that the anti-bourgeois, anti-traditional, and antinomian quest for personal experience and personal self-gratification would become the dominant cultural message collectively broadcast by these institutions, and this message would eventually come to stamp the character of the lifestyles of ever larger segments of the American public. From the 1920s onward, said Bell, culture became an ever more powerful force in its own right for shaping the American character structure, and this force was generally hostile to traditional bourgeois morality and religion.
While culture in the 20th century became a powerful and independent force for influencing social attitudes, the victory of cultural modernism over the older bourgeois value system was only made complete, according to Bell's analysis, when certain features of the modernist project were taken up by the capitalist advertising and marketing system. The modernist emphasis on the self and its ongoing search for novelty and new experience proved congenial to the marketing thrust of modern capitalism, Bell explained, and beginning in the 1920s a veritable revolution began to take place in American society as the increasingly powerful advertising and marketing industries succeeded in eroding the older Puritan inhibitions against spending, consumption, debt, and luxurious living, and gradually convinced ever larger numbers of Americans that it was alright to live more lavishly and to enjoy the possession of more and more consumer goods and their ostentatious public display. The advertising and marketing industries, Bell explained, were successful in translating the modernist emphasis on self-enhancement and the quest for personal experience into a materialistic-hedonistic ethic of capitalist consumerism, which by the 1950s, Bell claimed, had largely replaced the older Protestant Christian ideals of thrift, frugality, self-discipline, and self-restraint. The institution of credit buying, Bell believed, was particularly important in breaking down some of these older inhibitions and restraints, as it encouraged a live-for-the-day kind of attitude that emphasized present enjoyment rather than provision for the future, and encouraged many people to live beyond their means. From an ethic of work and saving, he said, America rapidly moved towards an ethic of consumption and enjoyment.
While Americans by mid-century had lost most of their Puritan inhibitions on buying and consuming, such was not the case, Bell explained, with regard to sex, which took another decade or two before it too succumbed to the forces of cultural modernism and the hedonistic lifestyles promoted by the marketing system. But succumb it did, and very rapidly so, Bell noted, such that by the late 1960s a new "fun morality" centering on sex had firmly established itself within large segments of the middle class, with the state of California leading the way. In addition, commercialized sex in the form of pornographic movies and magazines -- much of it of the crudest and most perverted kind -- became a mass industry during this period, and for significant segments of mainstream society, permissiveness and an "anything goes" attitude regarding sex became the order of the day. The 1950s cult of mammon, Bell remarked, would gradually be supplanted in the decades which followed by the newer cult of orgasm as the dominant organizing passion of much of American life.
This victory of cultural modernism and capitalist-promoted hedonism and consumerism over the older bourgeois value system produced, Bell believed, a fundamental contradiction in the American social order. The capitalist system of production, which was largely taken over by large-scale corporations that produced goods more efficiently than smaller enterprises, still demanded of its employees a certain level of regularity, dedication to work, competence, and often a career orientation, while the advertising and marketing system, Bell said, together with the major cultural institutions of the society, encouraged a life of hedonistic self-indulgence, instant gratification, and a generally negative and antinomian attitude towards work, discipline, company loyalty, and dedication to one's career or calling.
Within the world of capitalist production, the general ethos, Bell wrote, is "still one of work, delayed gratification, career orientation, [and] devotion to the enterprise. Yet, on the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose promise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. … One is to be a 'straight' by day and a 'swinger' by night." This, Bell explained, was "the cultural contradiction of capitalism," a situation brought about by "the interplay of modernism as a mode developed by serious artists, the institutionalization of those played-out forms by the cultural mass, and the hedonism as a way of life promoted by the marketing system of business." (CCC, xxv, 71-72, 84)
The Return of the Sacred
Given Bell's indictment of cultural modernism and the hedonism fostered by the capitalist advertising and marketing system, one might suppose that the greatest harm caused by these "cultural contradictions of capitalism" involved such work-related problems as employee absenteeism, on-the-job-substance abuse, irregular work habits, lack of international competitiveness for American-produced goods, etc. Swingers obviously make unreliable straights when they return to work the next day after a nighttime debauch. Yet these sorts of problems, serious though they are, were not the most serious ones created by the conjunction of modernism with late capitalism, according to Bell's reckoning. For not only have modernist developments destroyed the older Protestant Ethic, but more seriously still, Bell claimed, they helped to undermine the entire Protestant-Christian understanding of man's place in the universe and the transcendental system of meaning that alone provided coherence and purpose to the older bourgeois way of life. Under the impact of hedonism and modernism, Bell contended, life for middle class Americans has become increasingly disenchanted and de-spiritualized.
Modernist art, particularly in its painting and film, produced constant stimulation and disorientation, Bell explained, but there was rarely any insight, progression, or resolution -- there was no transcendental calls, no transfigurations, no purgations through tragedy and suffering. The modernist contempt for limits destroyed the older transcendental orientation, Bell said, and replaced it with an unceasing quest for ever newer and more varied personal experience. The Hippie generation of the late 1960s and early 1970s carried to its extreme this modernist impulse, according to Bell, but it was merely acting out on a mass stage what the avant-garde artists of a much earlier period had carried out in their work. And Bell did not deny that the modernist lifestyle -- with its rage against limits, its ostentatious contempt for bourgeois values and bourgeois living, its imaginative embrace of the most forbidden regions of the demonic and perverse, and its plunge into the world of sex and drugs -- had its excitement and allure. But sooner or later, he said, life on such a merry-go-round becomes terrifying and there is a frantic urge to get off.
By the 1970s, Bell said, America had reached the end of cultural modernism, for the traditional bourgeois value-system which modernism sought to attack no longer existed to any extent worth mentioning, and the creative impulse of modernism as a movement in art and literature had played itself out long before. Since the secular system of meanings provided by the political utopias and the Enlightenment religion of progress proved to be illusory, and the older religions no longer provided the existential anchorages and orientations that they had in the past, modern culture, Bell said, was increasingly incoherent and disjointed. Above all, it suffered, he said, from the death of the sacred and the lack of a living language that could relate human beings to some kind of transcendental system of meanings that would provide purpose and coherence to their lives. "The real problem of modernity," Bell wrote in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, "is the problem of belief. To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism: lacking a past or a future, there is only a void." (CCC, 29)
Elaborating further on this theme, he wrote:
The pervasive sense of disorientation which has spread through the culture (and which is the source of the crisis of modernity) is attributable to the lack of language that can adequately relate one to transcendental conceptions -- a philosophy of first causes or an eschatology of final things. The religious terminology which pervaded our modes of comprehension has become threadbare, and the symbols which soaked our poetic and rhetorical modes (compare the King James Version to the New English Bible) have become attenuated. The poverty of emotive language in our time reflects the impoverishment of a life without litany or ritual. (CCC, 86)
Despite the spiritual impoverishment of advanced capitalist societies, some kind of "return of the sacred," Bell claimed, was inevitable, for religion is as natural -- and as necessary -- to human life, he thought, as language and social organization. Human beings in all cultures and time periods, Bell said, are confronted with perplexing questions and dilemmas arising out of the very nature of the human condition. These existential questions and dilemmas center around such topics as the finitude of human existence, the inevitably of death and suffering, the nature of love and courage, the meaning of tragedy, and the nature of social obligation. Religion, in its various forms, is an attempt, Bell said, to provide some kind of answer to these perplexities, and it will continue to exist, he believed, as long as the human condition remains what it is. Contrary to what Enlightenment progressives, Marxists, and Hegelians, believed, History is no substitute for God or the purposeful life, said Bell, since History has no immanent telos and can provide no ultimate meaning. The same, he said, is true for the Nature of the Romantics.
In addition to providing an answer to core questions of human existence, religion satisfies other indispensable human needs, Bell believed, which will ensure its future survival. Religion traditionally, he explained, provided the foundation of the moral order of a society, and equally important, served to maintain continuity between the generations. One of Bell's major criticisms of cultural modernism is not only that it encourages normlessness and anomie but that it destroys all cultural continuity across generations and ages. In its contempt for the traditional, its emphasis on self-expression, its focus on "doing one's own thing," cultural continuity is obliterated and the generations cannot link up with one another. Children can no longer relate to the mental world of their parents, and each generation is set adrift in an ever-changing sea without landmarks or a storehouse of past experiences to guide their way. Through the common culture provided by its rituals, belief systems, patterns of holy days and worship, etc., traditional religion, Bell explained, had been a major force throughout history in preventing this generational fragmentation, and he believed that it will once again assume this role following the exhaustion of cultural modernism and the loss of faith in political utopias.
Some kind of religious revival, Bell predicted in the early 1970s, would take place in the near future, and the religions that would become prominent would probably be those of the traditionalist sort that seek to maintain continuity with the past. In his Hobhouse Lecture on "The Return of the Sacred," which he delivered at the London School of Economics in 1977, Bell said that if there is to be such a revival, it will not turn to the involuted self of modernism, or to the nature-worship of romanticism, but to "the resurrection of Memory." On a distinctly Burkean note, he remarked at that time that "if there are to be new religions -- and I think they will arise -- they will, contrary to previous experience, return to the past, to seek for tradition and to search for those threads which can give a person a set of ties that place him in the continuity of the dead and the living and those still to be born."
Any new religion -- or any revival of an old religion -- that satisfies the genuine needs of human beings in the aftermath of cultural modernism and the decline of political utopianism, will not only have a strong traditionalist component, Bell claimed, but will most certainly be a religion stressing the importance of human limits and the necessity of maintaining moral boundaries. The great historical religions of the past, said Bell, have been religions of restraint that recognized the great destructive power of human hubris and the need for social sanctions to contain the potentially self-destructive and demonic forces that lie deeply imbedded in the human soul. Any new religion that meets the needs of the current cultural situation, Bell said, must continue in this tradition of restraint. Bell himself seemed to be most strongly attracted to Orthodox Judaism and to the neo-orthodox Protestantism represented by such thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth. These religions were praised by Bell for their tough-minded view of human nature and for their realistic understanding of both the creative and destructive potentials of human societies and of the limits to what can be achieved in human history. By contrast, religions such as liberal Protestantism and Reform Judaism were seen by Bell as shallow and insufficiently religious for meeting the deeper spiritual needs most people have.
Bell too, seemingly alone among leading American intellectuals on the Left, had kind words to say for Protestant Fundamentalism. "A large substratum of society," Bell remarked in his Hobhouse Lecture, "has always felt the need for simple pieties, direct homilies, [and] reassurances against their own secret impulses … but … until recently these people have been derided by the predominantly liberal culture (not society) and, more importantly, abandoned by the clergy, who, coming from the educated classes and subject to the conformist pressures of the liberal culture, had lost their own nerve, and often, as well, their belief in God." "The exhaustion of Modernism and the emptiness of contemporary culture," Bell continued, "mitigate that social pressure, and Fundamentalist ministers can step forward, with less fear of derision from their cultured despisers. These groups, traditionally, have been farmers, lower-middle class, small-town artisans, and the like. In the long-run occupational sense, they are in the decline. Yet in the more immediate future they may be the strongest element in a religious revival." (RS, 444)
Getting the Big Picture Right
As his longtime friend and fellow Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer remarked shortly after his passing, "[Bell] always had large ideas. … And some of his ideas about what was happening to society were very much on target." Bell himself may have phrased it best during his graduate student days at Columbia when he was asked what his specialty was: "I specialize in generalizations." Throughout his life, he did indeed specialize in generalizations -- that is, in the big picture, in exposing long term, sweeping trends over broad cultural terrains -- and in doing so he managed to avoid the narrowness and over-specialization that plagued so much sociological writing in the latter half of the 20th century. His non-ideological openness to viewing things as they are, combined with his acute perceptiveness of human institutions and human nature, lent to his work an air of integrity and authority that came to be appreciated by millions. The London-based Times Literary Supplement listed The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism among the one hundred most influential books of the latter half of the 20th century.
And with his three biggest ideas Bell clearly got it right: 1) Marxism and the radical ideologies that had so stirred Europe in the early decades of the 20th century were thoroughly discredited among thinking people and would eventually die on the vine; 2) antinomian modernism and consumerist hedonism as a focus to one's life's energies leads to spiritual emptiness and an agonizing sense of forlornness in the world; and 3) America was ripe for a religious revival that would assume a traditionalist, even fundamentalist, cast in theology and morals. Three for three -- that's a perfect day in baseball, and while Bell was hardly perfect in his various analyses or prognostications on the micro level, he always got the big picture correct. That's something one surely cannot say for most of the other sociologists and social theorists of his time. Bell never had to retract or recant intemperate or wild things said in his past, and on a personal level those who knew him attest to his genuine kindness and humanity. "He was a terrific father, a wonderful friend, and a generous individual," his son, a humanities professor at Princeton, said at the time of his death. And those of us who knew him only through his writings would add: always a perceptive and profound thinker.
Some of the material in this appreciation is taken from a longer article on Bell and two other authors, which appeared in the 1993 issue of The Political Science Reviewer under the title "Social Conservatives of the Left," 22(1993):198-292.