An American “Centrist”
The End of Ideology.
by Daniel Bell.
The Free Press. 416 pp. $7.50.
For nearly two decades now articles and reviews by Daniel Bell have been appearing in our better journals of ideas and opinion. He has been so ubiquitous a figure, expressing himself on so many subjects, that readers must have occasionally wondered if there were more than one person writing under the name. Bell has in fact had several different careers: youthful radical journalist in the early 40’s, teacher of social science, labor editor of Fortune, globe-trotter for international committees of intellectuals. Now that he has returned to academic life as associate professor of sociology at Columbia, the publication of this collection of his more ambitious essays suggests an effort to indicate his intellectual resting places.
Range, variety, and versatility are the talents with which Daniel Bell is commonly credited. Yet the grouping together of his essays in The End of Ideology reveals his intellectual concerns to be rather more consistent and narrowly focused than regular readers of his magazine pieces might have anticipated. Two main themes predominate. One is what used to be called “American exceptionalism”: the view that political and sociological concepts derived from the study of European societies seriously distort our vision if applied to the American scene. The other is the “end of ideology” of the title: the abating in our prosperous post-bourgeois era of the ideological conflicts between left and right which have for so long dominated Western politics. Marx and Dewey, especially as interpreted by Sidney Hook, to whom the book is dedicated, are Bell’s chief intellectual mentors in developing, exploring, and illustrating these themes in their bearing on a range of topics including the bureaucratization of American capitalism, the decline in the militancy of the labor movement, the inadequacies of Mills’s theory of an American “power elite,” the rapid swings of the intellectual Zeitgeist since the 30’s, and the continuing boredom and emptiness of industrial work and what might be done to alleviate it.
It is possible to discern a certain formal inconsistency between the two themes. If the end of ideology applies to the Western world as a whole and reflects the stability of mature, increasingly egalitarian industrial societies, then the American immunity from divisive ideological passions which Bell consistently emphasizes as the unique virtue of our political system is no longer exceptional. There is, in fact, a dialectic between European and American experience that Bell misses—the much advertised postwar “Americanization” of Europe and the belated American adoption of reforms long advocated and in some cases long instituted by European socialist parties both helped dampen the fervors of the 30’s, the decade whose epitaph Bell is writing once more in so many of these essays. In an often penetrating discussion of the “New Left” here and abroad—Dissent, the British “angries,” the post-Hungary defectors from Communism on the continent—Bell fails to note the paradox that American radicals denounce mass culture in accents echoing European elitist or “Establishment” values, while young British leftists manifest immense sympathy and curiosity about American culture and are envious of the fluidity of status and the absence of stuffy, gilded institutions like the monarchy on this side of the Atlantic. Each group seems to wish that its own country resembled more closely its image of the other.
Except for this discussion of contemporary radicalism abroad, a review of theories of Soviet society, and some reflections on the thought of the early Marx, the essays in The End of Ideology deal with American life. Bell is perhaps our most conscientious and reliable historian of the return from the 30’s, of the assimilation of once-radical intellectuals and trade unionists into a society which they succeeded in modifying without transforming. But by now we know this story so well in so many of its ramifications that several of these essays have inevitably lost the flavor of originality they had when they first appeared. One is struck, nevertheless, with how good the best of them are, a category in which I would place those dealing with the U.S. economy. Probing the point at which economic problems of wage determination, national mobilization policy, technological rationalization, and shifts in business leadership and the sources of investment funds become or touch on political conflicts, Bell refuses to be frightened by the formidable abstractions or the arrogant professionalism of the economists and determinedly locates what they have to say in its larger social and historical context.
I have more reservations about his treatment of political and cultural issues. Dwight Macdonald recently described Bell as a congenital centrist. If so, and Bell good-naturedly accepted the designation, we are here confronted with the spectacle of a centrist engaged in finding his own image reflected in the society around him, a society founded, he argues, on the politics of moderation and the culture of the middle class, yet strong and vital enough to blunt the critical assaults of both the cultural aristocrat and the Utopian radical. Bell is aware of the intensity with which many intellectuals “ache for the lost Arcadia” of the 30’s; he recognizes the widespread hunger for heroism, passion, a transfiguring cause. Nor is he lacking in sympathy for such an outlook, observing that the young intellectual unavoidably feels that “the middle way is for the middle-aged, not for him.” And he is careful to note that “a repudiation of ideology, to be meaningful, must mean not only a criticism of the Utopian order but of existing society as well.”
Yet there is an irritating cageyness about all this. For Bell will not finally concede the reality of anything out there in the world to justify rebellion and rejection. His tone becomes avuncular: ah yes, young intellectuals naturally want to be fired with romantic passions—that is a rite de passage of their vocation. But unhappily history is unable to accommodate them, for the Age of Ideology has ended and anyway we have learned that “the tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to invest them with moral color and high emotional charge, is to invite conflicts which can only damage a society.”
Now if one equates “ideology” with secular messianism few will want to deny the essential rightness of this judgment after all that has happened in this century. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to believe Bell’s claim that, for himself at least, it represents a bitter, hard-won wisdom, that in giving up the delights of ideology he is really surrendering something for which he has a strong appetite. His references to the pessimism, disenchantment, et al. of his “generation” (he is a great player of the generations game) therefore ring hollow, and he simply sounds smug when urging the young to renounce this evil fruit. It is all very well to affirm with Machiavelli that “men commit the error of not knowing when to limit their hopes” (this quotation heads the final and title chapter of The End of Ideology), but the reality and indestructibility of their hopes need to be insisted on with equal force. Especially if one sees history as tragic.
But these are essentially matters of sensibility and are perhaps of secondary importance in what is not, after all, a personal testament but a series of uncommonly knowledgeable political and sociological interpretations. I find, however, that on at least two occasions Bell’s centrism and “moderationism” lead him rather seriously astray on substantive questions.
In an essay which has already acquired justified celebrity as one of the very few available critiques of the fashionable notion of “mass society,” Bell ably traces the origin of the idea to European reactionary and aristocratic-elitist thought. He catches Jaspers, Ortega, and other mass theorists in a number of extreme and romantic overstatements before turning to a defense of American society against the charges of social atomization, cultural mediocrity, and compulsive conformism leveled by these thinkers and their epigoni. So the American habit of establishing and joining a multitude of voluntary associations serving all conceivable purposes is invoked to refute the view that we are a rootless, alienated mass, although the very disposition to create such “artificial” social groups might as readily be considered evidence for as against our rootlessness. And then we are told for the umpteenth time how many good books are sold and how many symphony orchestras flourish in the United States, as if these conceivable indications of the average cultural level were in any way relevant to the arguments of Ortega and T. S. Eliot which bear solely on the opportunities for high culture. While Bell, finally, is right to chide leftist critics of mass culture for ignoring the possible conflict between the claims of cultural excellence and social justice, he himself then suppresses the issue by descending to the sorriest level of apologetics in defense of American culture.
Bell argues that socialism failed as a movement in the United States because American socialists of all breeds never resolved the contradiction between ethical idealism and the requirements of effective political action. Perhaps by stressing this somewhat esoteric consideration he is simply trying to avoid another rundown of the usual causes cited to explain the failure of American socialism: the lack of a feudal past, the influx of immigrants, the high standard of living, and so on. But he manages seriously to distort and oversimplify the thought of Max Weber, from whom he borrows the notion of an inevitable tension between ethics and politics. In his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber contrasted an “ethic of responsibility” with an “ethic of absolute ends.” By the former he meant the recognition that to make changes in the world one must take into account its imperfection and be prepared to use ethically questionable means, i.e. force, for all politics involves the use of force at some level. The proponent of absolute ends, on the other hand, refuses to separate means and ends: he may simply recommend exemplary conduct or he may argue that “from good comes only good, but from evil only evil follows.” Arthur Koestler’s dichotomy of the Yogi and the Commissar refers to the extreme versions of each ethic.
Bell quite illegitimately identifies the Communist, the fanatic, the totalitarian extremist with the ethic of absolute ends. In fact the Communist does not, like the saint, “live his end,” but is at the very opposite pole, completely dissociating means from ends, and ultimately, in his worship of the “organizational weapon” of the party, collapsing the latter into the former. Bell wants to reserve rational, expedient, “responsible” conduct for the politics of compromise and moderation which he favors, so he stands Weber’s distinction on its head and obscures the fundamental dilemma of means and ends in politics which Weber grasped more profoundly than anyone else, the dilemma, in Weber’s words, that “if one makes any concessions at all to the principle that the end justifies the means, it is not possible to bring an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility under one roof or to decree ethically which end should justify which means.” Koestler’s pseudo-tragic polarity is also a false one because though a man acts by following an ethic of responsibility somewhere, unless he is a totalitarian, “he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ ”
Perhaps it is a measure of the ultimate limitations of centrism as a political philosophy that it so obscures the central, utterly irresolvable dilemma of politics. But this is not to deny the illumination it casts on particular issues and these essays amply attest to that.