The prominent sociologist and writer Daniel Bell, who died in 2011, would have celebrated his one-hundredth birthday last Friday. In a thoughtful reminiscence, his son David A. Bell argues that his career was characterized by a constant, creative tension between radicalism—absorbed from the Yiddish-speaking socialists of his childhood on the Lower East Side—and a fundamentally conservative temperament. But the latter, writes the younger Bell, was as much a product of deeply held Jewish commitments as the former:
[M]y father’s political experiences after 1932 only seemed to confirm what he had first felt on reading [as a teenager about the Soviet regime’s bloody repression of dissenters]. There was the unfathomable degree of murder, pillage, cruelty, and suffering of Stalin’s purges, and the show trials, and the Great Terror, followed by the war and the Holocaust. And even after the Holocaust ended and the war was won, a threat still remained. Stalinists took power in Eastern Europe, with more purges, more show trials, more terror, and even, at the end of Stalin’s life, the threat of renewed persecution of the Jews. . . .
He continued to recoil against political extremism throughout his life, because of a deeply personal revulsion at the violence and cruelty that could so easily overwhelm civilization’s weak defenses. . . . This conservatism found its way into his work, above all in [his 1976] The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. From its very first paragraphs, he warned about “the unraveling of the threads which had once held the culture and the economy together,” and about the destructive effects of the “hedonism” he saw embodied in popular culture. . . . While he may have been referring most immediately to the youth culture of the 1960s, it is hard for me not to hear in the words an echo of [what he elsewhere called] the “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” that he saw Jewish theology as struggling to contain. The law mattered. Order mattered. . . .
At the same time, there was also, still, much Yiddish radicalism in him. He did not himself encounter the sort of fierce, radicalizing humiliation that his Jewish counterparts had earlier faced in Poland and Russia. . . . Even so, especially when he traveled outside New York, he encountered his share of genteel anti-Semitic humiliation. He didn’t like to talk about these moments, but they were certainly there, and they stung. [But] he often spoke, with a certain mischievous pride, of the time he and a friend broke out into a loud chorus of “The Internationale,” in Yiddish, in that inner sanctum of Englishness, the Reform Club in London. For him, the response to humiliation was to force the people who wanted to exclude him to accept him.
It was this stubborn Yiddish radicalism which, as much as anything, kept him from following his friend Irving Kristol into neoconservatism. . . .