April 19, 2005


Left Behind: Daniel Bell and the Class of '68 (Paul Berman, April/May 2005, Book Forum)

On cultural matters, something in our cocky self-confidence turned out to be true and justified. And in this mood of anger and utopian expectation, we swelled with disdain for our critics and opponents—and above all for our professors, except for the very few who stood loyally on our side. We looked on the professors as either uncomprehending Mr. Joneses from a Dylan lyric or sinister enemies. We were indignant at the Olympians of Claremont Avenue—at Lionel Trilling (some of my friends drew up a "Wanted" poster of him and pasted it to the walls) and the champions of irony and sophistication, not to mention at Richard Hofstadter and his theories of status anxiety. But I think that the professor who aroused the sharpest indignation may have been Daniel Bell. This was because, in the circles of the Left in the late '60s, sociology was the king of academic disciplines, which had the unfortunate effect of focusing a lot of undiscriminating student wrath on the elders of the field. Then, too, in the '50s Bell had played a role in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an organization of anti-Communist intellectuals, and to quite a few SDSers this seemed like the epitome of evil. But Bell's gravest sin of all was to have written The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. The very title suggested that Bell was trying to tamp down the possibility of a new surge in radical intellectual thought—of any new possibility of a systematic radical challenge to the dominant views of the moment.

Now all this was fairly idiotic. Nothing is more bovine than a student movement, with the uneducated leading the anti-educated and mooing all the way. I'm glad to recall, looking back at those times, that my own radical activities pretty much avoided the student custom of persecuting the professors. I was much too fascinated by them to want to rail against them, except now and then. Besides, the anti-intellectual atmosphere began to weigh a little heavy on the bookish students. Hofstadter, in his study of American anti-intellectualism, had already put his finger on these moods and fads, as if predicting the uprising at his own university. And so I can understand, in restrospect, why Bell chose to flee Morningside Heights. To be sure, though, the student uprisings spread to Cambridge, too. There was no escape. [...]

Marxian Socialism in the United States is a work of great psychological acuity. Martin Luther said of the church that it was "in the world, but not of it," and Bell quoted this remark to evoke a quality of unworldliness in the American Left. He meant that, over the decades, the socialist movement in America had never quite been able to accept the political world as it was, preferring instead to dwell apart, in a world of dreams and moral postures. Marxian Socialism in the United States has received, over the years, mountains of criticism for this one quotation from Luther. And yet something about that phrase has always been on the mark, as I think anyone can see, with a glance at Debs's four presidential campaigns at the start of the twentieth century, and at Ralph Nader's two campaigns at the start of the twenty-first.

The phrase "in the world, but not of it" strikes me as pretty astute on the topic of the New Left, too—the New Left that commanded the allegiance of several million Americans in the '60s and '70s but was never able to break into conventional political life, with a couple of exceptions. For the New Left too preferred to dwell apart, in its own world of dreams and moral postures. This habit did the movement no harm at all, by the way, in regard to cultural issues—which is why it succeeded in capturing whole neighborhoods in a number of cities, and used those neighborhoods to conduct experiments on cultural matters, and sent those experiments orbiting outward to the rest of American society. Nor did a few unworldly habits do the New Left any harm at the universities, once the graduate-student militants had succeeded in shoving aside the populist anti-intellectuals. But the kind of movement that was capable of capturing a student neighborhood or an English department was never going to capture a state assembly.

Bell's book made two additional observations that seem to me on the mark. He noted a strange and repeated tendency on the part of the American Left to lose the thread of continuity from one generation to the next, such that each new generation feels impelled to reinvent the entire political tradition. This was true of his own generation, the young radicals of the '30s, who brought to bear very little knowledge of what their own parents had done in the 1910s. The same observation applied in spades to the '60s and '70s—which is why so many young intellectuals of the New Left dismissed Marxian Socialism in the United States as merely a dusty relic of the discredited anti-Communist past. But I am struck still more powerfully by Bell's third observation.

"Among the radical, as among the religious minded," he wrote, "there are the once born and the twice born. The former is the enthusiast, the ‘sky-blue healthy-minded moralist' to whom sin and evil—the ‘soul's mumps and measles and whooping coughs,' in Emerson's phrase—are merely transient episodes to be glanced at and ignored in the cheerful saunter of life. To the twice born, the world is ‘a double-storied mystery' which shrouds the evil and renders false the good; and in order to find truth, one must lift the veil and look Medusa in the face." [...]

In modern America, an amazing number of people have thrown themselves into the work of researching and writing the history of the American Left—many more than are justified by the relative importance of the topic. These scholars have taken up the subject in order to understand something about their own lives—to explain how and why they came to feel so alienated from the mainstream of American politics, and what their alienation was like, and what uses might be drawn from their experiences. Books on these themes—on the history of the Communist Party USA, on the old Socialists, on the New Left, and so on—make up a main current of the modern historical literature. Yet none of these books has ever managed to eclipse Marxian Socialism in the United States—the classic of classics in this particular field. In any case, as I glance back at Bell's book today, I see in it one of the inspirations for my own adult life and work.

My transition from once-born to twice-born turned me into someone who was curious and eager to write about the history of the Left—sometimes in order to promote a political agenda, but mostly for another reason: I wanted to discover truths, if I possibly could—about America and other parts of the world; about political movements; about social theory; about human nature. This is a gloomier project than merely advancing a political agenda. Agendas tend to be hopeful; truths, not so hopeful. A triumphal spirit runs through a great deal of American history, but not through the particular subset of American history that contains the political Left.

Falling Into the Generation Gap (Scott McLemee, 3/24/05, Inside Higher Ed)
A few weeks ago, sitting over a cup of coffee, a writer in his twenties told me what it had been like to attend a fairly sedate university (I think he used the word “dull") that had a few old-time New Left activists on its faculty.
Intellectual Affairs

“If they thought you were interested in anything besides just your career,” he said, “if you cared about ideas or issues, they got really excited. They sort of jumped on you.”

Now, I expected this to be the prelude to a little tribute to his professors – how they had taken him seriously, opened his mind to an earlier generation’s experience, etc. But no.

“It was like they wanted to finish their youth through you, somehow,” he said. “They needed your energy. They needed you to admire them. They were hungry for it. It felt like I had wandered into a crypt full of vampires. After a while, I just wanted to flee.”

It was disconcerting to hear. My friend is not a conservative. And in any case, this was not the usual boilerplate about tenured radicals seeking to brainwash their students. [...]

[Daniel] Bell’s book The End of Ideology was the bete noir of young radicals. (It was the kind of book that made people so furious that they refused to read it – always the sign of the true-believer mentality in full effect.) But it was Bell’s writing on the history of the left in the United States that had the deepest effect on [Paul] Berman’s own thinking.

Bell noticed, as Berman puts it, “a strange and repeated tendency on the part of the American Left to lose the thread of continuity from one generation to the next, such that each new generation feels impelled to reinvent the entire political tradition.”

There is certainly something to this. It applies to Berman himself. After all, Terror and Liberalism is pretty much a jerry-rigged version of the Whig interpretation of history, updated for duty in the War on Terror. And the memoiristic passages in his Bookforum essay are, in part, a record of his own effort to find “the thread of continuity from one generation to the next.”

But something else may be implicit in Bell’s insight about the “strange and repeated tendency” to lose that thread. It is a puzzle for which I have no solution readily at hand. Namely: Why is this tendency limited to the left?

Why is it that young conservatives tend to know who Russell Kirk was, and what Hayek thought, and how Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 prepared the way for Reagan’s victory in 1980? Karl Marx once wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” So how come the conservatives are so well-rested and energetic, while the left has all the bad dreams?

The answer is so obvious the question seems like it must be rhetorical, but: the Right better knows history generally and its own specifically because history confirms rather than refutes its ideas. There is continuity on the Right because its ideas are universal, timeless, and true.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2005 2:58 PM

The answer would seem to depend on the assumed dynamic of "Left vs. Right". "State vs. individual"? "Change vs. status quo"? "Secular vs. religious"? "Death-fixated vs. "Life-fixated"? What, exactly?

Those favoring change over the status quo (the second definition of "Left") typically want a bigger piece of the action than the status quo will immediately provide ... whether "the action" means wealth, autonomy, power, or some other asset. One category of folks perennially of this mindset are the impatient young. Many young conservatives fit this definition of "Left" nowadays.

In time, the young acquire various assets of their own, perhaps including wisdom, and become part of the next generation's hated status quo. And the seasons, they go round and round.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 19, 2005 7:06 PM

"And so I can understand, in restrospect, why Bell chose to flee Morningside Heights. To be sure, though, the student uprisings spread to Cambridge, too. There was no escape.":

Actualy there was an escape -- to places like UChicago where adults like President Levy ran the administration and didn't tolerate little pukes playing at revolution.

Levy had the cops escort them out of the Admin Bldg when they tried to occupy it and then kicked the lot of them out of school.

Would've worked everywhere else too.

Let them play at being revolutionaries in the real world.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 19, 2005 8:53 PM

"Karl Marx once wrote that the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. So how come the conservatives are so well-rested and energetic, while the left has all the bad dreams?"

Because Marx was wrong. As usual. Duh.

Posted by: ralph phelan at April 19, 2005 11:36 PM

That's an interesting quote when contrasted to Newton's "I have stood on the shoulders of giants...."

That is, should it "weigh like a nightmare" or ought it prompt, provoke, encourage, motivate the young to continue forward, even beyond earlier generations?

(Very Freudian, of course.) Complex; but I suppose the answer must be, in part, that it depends one's level of maturity, narcissism and respect for tradition. And faith in _______.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 20, 2005 4:35 AM

Looking at past tradition gives a bit of perspective. It's like watching your older brother screw something up, badly, and you say "Note to self: Don't Do That."

Posted by: Mikey at April 20, 2005 10:58 AM

The Right is aware of history because conservatism is explicitly about learning from previous generations' experiences.
Also, young conservatives know more about history then young leftists for the very obvious reason that conservatives are smarter than leftists. (E.g., only a moron could believe that giving the government control of everyting would improve things.) QED.

Posted by: Tom in NY at April 21, 2005 8:55 AM