The book: Have sociologist Daniel Bell’s theories stood the test of time? That’s the question at the center of Defining the Age (Columbia University Press), edited by Princeton professors Paul Starr and Julian E. Zelizer. Three of Bell’s best books — The End of Ideology, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism — capture his philosophies on various social subjects. Through this collection of essays from a variety of thought leaders — including historian Jenny Andersson, sociologist Steven Brint, and Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Mueller, among others — the book examines the ways Bell’s writing continues to provide profound insights into today’s world.The authors: Paul Starr is a Princeton professor of sociology and public affairs. His work addresses various questions in politics, public policy, and social theory. He is also the co-editor of The American Prospect. Julian E. Zelizer is a Princeton professor of history and public affairs. He is among the pioneers in the revival of American political history. Zelizer is the author of more than 20 books and the co-host of the Politics & Polls podcast.
The sociologist Daniel Bell had a singular ability to put his finger on critical changes in the United States and other Western societies in the twentieth century. The ideas summed up in the titles of his major books — The End of Ideology (1960), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) — became some of the most hotly debated frameworks for understanding the era when they were published. As a social theorist, Bell also sought to identify the structural forces and long-term direction of the United States and other technologically advanced societies. Defining the Age: Daniel Bell, His Time and Ours is about Bell’s legacy: how well his ideas capture their historical moment and have continued to provide insight into the contemporary world.
We would not have brought together a group of distinguished historians and social scientists to explore Bell’s contributions if we did not think they had durable interest. Bell has often been cast as a representative and influential public intellectual of his time. But he was also a distinctive figure who stands out from his contemporaries as an original interpreter of American society and as a theorist of the great transformations of the modern world. His work holds interest from both of these perspectives — as a representative intellectual of the mid-twentieth century, and as a critic and theorist with ideas of continuing interest.
As a representative intellectual, Bell exemplifies the story of a generation that rose to influence after World War II. He was an important figure among a group known as the “New York intellectuals,” most of them the children of Jewish immigrants who came of age during the Great Depression, were active in left-wing circles opposed to Stalinism in the 1930s and 1940s, and played a central role in American intellectual life and literary culture over the next several decades. He was also one of an international group of social democratic intellectuals in the 1950s who defended liberal principles, opposed the extension of the Soviet Union’s influence in Europe and elsewhere, and were denounced by their critics as “Cold War liberals” and “NATO intellectuals.” From the 1970s on, he was lumped together with the neoconservatives, an identity that has trailed after him even though he rejected it. That label has probably done more than anything else to diminish and distort the historical understanding of his thought and politics.
Bell’s substantive interests have put him in other company. As a result of his pioneering history of American socialism and his studies of work and unions, he ranks among the foremost analysts of the development of the American left and labor movement. The interpretation that he and his colleagues introduced to account for McCarthyism in the 1950s remains one of the most influential accounts of the “radical right” in the United States. His formulation of the theory of postindustrial society puts him among the principal thinkers about the information revolution and social forecasting. His work on capitalism’s “cultural contradictions” puts him among the leading theorists of capitalism and modernity.
The various ways of grouping or labeling Bell locate him within broader intellectual and political currents and help explain the attention that his work has received. Bell’s work opens a window into the political culture of the United States and the history of ideas in Western societies in the twentieth century. But to reduce him to any of the usual labels or categories or to confine him to the postwar American moment would be a mistake. Readers who get beyond the titles and secondhand descriptions of his books discover that his work is more complicated and far-ranging than they expect. That is partly why it also has held more continuing interest than much other writing of his era.
Bell stands out from his generation in part because of how he both maintained and revised his early left-wing commitments. Many others who began as socialists or communists in the 1930s became liberals in the postwar decades and ended up as conservatives by the 1970s. In contrast, Bell came to say that he was “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” He continued to adhere to the social democratic values he had stood for in his twenties as a socialist journalist, even after he turned to liberal politics and to a more conservative understanding of literature, the arts, and religion. Today, with the revival of interest in socialism in the United States, Bell’s writing on the subject should have a new audience.
Bell was also distinctive in how he combined different intellectual roles. He moved from journalism to the academy, but throughout his career, he was concerned with both contemporary social criticism and social theory. During the 1960s, he gravitated toward more practical issues as he became a leading policy intellectual, and in 1965, with Irving Kristol, he cofounded and for eight years coedited an influential policy journal, The Public Interest. But, as Kristol moved to the right, Bell parted ways with him, and instead of becoming immersed in policy research, Bell turned more squarely to theoretical concerns in his two books of the 1970s, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Together with The End of Ideology, these volumes give Bell’s account of how the European tradition in social theory, originating in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, needed to be revised in light of contemporary, largely American developments. Few scholars have left as formidable a body of work to be reckoned with by those who want to understand the trajectory of the modern era.
Bell’s work commands attention for another reason as well. The United States and the world changed in fundamental ways from the 1930s through the turn of the twenty-first century. Anyone who lived as long as Bell did — ninety-one years, from 1919 to 2011, sharp until the end — was entitled to change his views, and his views did evolve. Nonetheless, his work shows a remarkable constancy of moral judgment and temperament. In an interview for a 1998 documentary on the New York intellectuals, he said, “I think I’ve been consistent all the way through. It’s not that my politics haven’t changed. Politics is basically a response to particular situations. I think my fundamental values have remained.” To understand what that moral framework was, we have to start where Bell started.
From Defining the Age by Paul Starr and Julian E. Zelizer Copyright © 2022. Reproduced with permission from Starr and Zelizer.
“Defining the Age captures like no other book on Daniel Bell the range of his interests, the reach of his learning, and the drama of the historical moment in which he lived. Anyone interested in Bell and modern social theory will have to read this book.” — Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics