September 21, 2010
This interview was conducted on September 21, 2010, a few months before Daniel Bell’s death, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Who was your adversary when you were writing The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism ?
I’m not sure there’s a single person. It was more against a whole current of writers, against whole ideological ways of thinking.
It goes very far back, to a crucial personal episode which defined my life when I was in City College. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League at the age of 13. It’s crazy, but there it is. And I did so for very basic reasons: my father died when I was an infant; my mother raised me; she worked in a factory. There were two seasons in the year — busy and slack. When it was slack, my mother would be home to take care of me. In the busy season, I was in an orphanage. The orphanage was supported by the Jewish community. There were these personal ties that were important.
I grew up on the Lower East Side, which juts out into the river. Before the highways came, there were these long piers. They still remain on the West Side, these long piers. And they had these so-called “Hoovervilles” on the piers, which were tin shacks, and people living there. Everything was in the open. You could see people fornicating, fighting, everything. There were big garbage scowls which turned up, and we’d jump on the top of these to see if there were bits of food. At 11 o’clock at night we’d go to the West Side markets and we’d break open crates, and run away.
Everything was marked out by turf and ethnicity. The Italians were here, the Ukrainian kids were there, the Polish kids were there, the Jewish kids here. And there was “turf.” Before E.O. Wilson, it was about “turf.” We really believed in biological determinism, with every group having its place. There’d be fights. And — this was particularly true of the Polish kids — they’d take potatoes, and put in the potatoes these double-edged razor blades, and throw them at you. A hail of potatoes with razor blades being thrown at you! What you’d do then is you took the top of the garbage cans, and those were our shields. And then our brave socialist women would go on top of the building and throw down hot water to get the kids scattered. And that was life, life on the Lower East Side.
People talk about “rent checks” and such now. About how poor people are because they don’t have enough to get their rent check. In those days, you didn’t have anything like a rent check! We lived in backyard tenements.
So I looked around, and I said to myself: what’s going on here? Twenty percent of the country was unemployed. At that time, there was no social security, there was no government aid of any kind. No unemployment insurance, no old age pensions, nothing. As a kid of thirteen, I figured capitalism was doomed. And so, through a couple of friends, we all became socialists.
Like a number of my young comrades, we in the Young People’s Socialist League were moving towards the Trotskyists. But I had some anarchist cousins who lived in the Mohegan colony which was near Peekskill, and there was a man named Rudolf Rocker, an anarchist. Even though he was gentile, he learned Yiddish. He was the editor of a magazine called the Freie Arbeiter Stimme , the Free Voice of Labor, and my cousin took me to see him. Rocker said to me: “Look, whatever you do, don’t join the Trotskyists.” I said: “Why?” He gave me a book by Alexander Berkman, called The Bolshevik Myth .
Berkman had been deported during the Palmer raids, during World War I. Anarchists went to Russia eagerly because, as they saw it, the anarchists had made the revolution. This wasn’t completely true, but at that time the country was still being led by the Soviets, or workers’ councils. And this is what the anarchists had always wanted: spontaneous movements by workers and peasants. So they went with great expectations.
But by 1921 sailors at Kronstadt were saying: “Look, you promised us free elections. What’s going on here?” And Trotsky said: “This is mutiny.” And that’s that. The sailors said: “We’re the ones who made the revolution in Kronstadt.” And he said: “Stop. I’ll shoot you down.” And Berkman tells this story, day by day.
He was in Kronstadt. He wrote about how he heard shouting, how he heard shots firing. “Trotsky has shot down the Kronstadt sailors! Thousands of bodies, thousands lie in the streets.” The very next day, Trotsky gave a lecture celebrating the Paris Commune. So I could never become a Trotskyist.
And yet I find myself being labeled at the end of my life as an “ex-Trotskyist.” But I was never an ex-Trotskyist — because I was never a Trotskyist!
But when you talked to Irving Howe, or people who were Trotskyites, were you unable to convince them?
We debated. We debated!
There was a group called the Shachtmanites, in City College. It was underground. The Shermanites were a group of radicals besides Irving Howe: [they] included Philip Selznick, the Berkeley academic who died just recently; there was also Irving Kristol. Marty Lipset was there — he took the name Mark Eden. And there was Marty Diamond. He was an extraordinary man who died young, who became a leading Straussian, probably the leading Straussian in American thought. And there was a man named Peter Rossi, and he took a Jewish name, Rosenthal.
There were these debates. I had read a book before the others had, by Robert Michels, called Political Parties . Michels had been a student of Weber and he wrote a famous book which Lipset used in his book on Union Democracy , about the bureaucratic tendency in every organization. That no organization is immune to the bureaucratic tendency. And it targeted the Social Democratic leadership. The Iron Law of Oligarchy. So I would debate Irving Howe, I would say — we would adopt this tone — “And you think, Comrade Sherman, that James P. Cannon is immune to the Iron Law of Oligarchy?” These were my rhetorical smashes against Howe.
Howe was a Commissar at that time. A real Commissar. His real name was Horenstein. My name was Belotsky, originally. And Howe took as his Party name Hugh Ivan. Hugh for the gentleman that he wanted to be … and Ivan for the Muzhik that he was. ( Laughs .) Then when he married Arien Mack, he became humanized. Unfortunately, he was later cuckholded and that almost destroyed him.
II. A Liberal Utopian
Are you a utopian?
In a way, I consider myself a utopian. There’s a book I’ve started to write — I’m not sure I’m ever going to finish it — about the historical tension between messianism and utopianism. And it is an attack on messianism. Because I would argue that too many problems of the last two thousand years or so are due to messianism. A messiah has a great vision, usually of redemption. Messianism requires following a leader. It requires pulling everybody into the scheme of a leader. Whereas utopianism basically consists in co-opting people to build things together. There is no overall, overarching scheme.
But the historical difficulty of utopianism is precisely that it doesn’t have a messiah, or a similarly overarching, emotionally powerful actor. So that the tension between utopianism and messianism is frequently to the unfair advantage of the messianic. I believe more and more that if we can have utopian movements we’ll do better than if we have messianic movements.
Is there a place for utopianism in a liberal society?
I think utopianism is a necessary framework. People want some ideals. And that’s why in the book I’m planning the only antagonist to utopianism is messianism. Take the example of what I suspect would be one of the worst examples of messianism — the Jonestown episode, where 700 people simply drank a drug that killed them, at the command of Mr. Jones. The point about messianism is that it always leads to a system of command: you have to follow the messiah. Utopianism has no such system of command. It has only a cooperative imperative: to build.
The problem with utopianism, historically, is that it has a tinge of going back to some presumed ideal. There’s a source of utopianism which is somewhat beautiful in its way, but pulls it back — back to arcadia. Historically, the tension has been between utopianism and arcadia. What I want to do is to say: I don’t want to go from arcadia against messianism. I’d rather have utopianism. So there’s a triangulation there.
But the nineteenth-century utopians — men like Fourier — were not backward-oriented utopians. Were they somehow different?
It depends. Fourier was a madman. A real madman. A brilliant genius of a madman.
The best utopian was Saint-Simon. He had these schemes, these triangular schemes. You know how they Saint-Simonians would get dressed? They dressed with the buttons on the back of their suits. That way, you couldn’t dress yourself. You needed someone to help you. So that’s a wonderful situation, where you are creating communities because you can’t get dressed without them.
What did you take from the Saint-Simonians?
Theories of development. If you look at the theories of development, there are two streams which have never been worked out completely. One is the idea of capitalism, which comes from Marx. The other is industrialism.
The whole stream of “industrial society” begins with Saint-Simon, and from there you have Auguste Comte; then you have the positivism which develops from that, and then in modern times you have Raymond Aron, and finally someone like myself, following from Aron. Instead of capitalism, which in its own way is based upon notions of exploitation, and industrialism, which is based on the idea of technology, one can think of the development of society; of a positive scheme. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the theme of “industrialism” has come forward, and it is largely through the efforts of Aron.
I’m curious to hear you say this, because I don’t see you fitting in with this French line. There’s a deep Weberian pessimism in your work, and a sense of history that seems to owe more to Vico than to these enthusiastic Frenchmen.
That’s completely true. I think you are right that Weber is the lynchpin of my ideas. But no ideas are ever simply lineal. You always have a variety of influences. In a way, the other sort of pole is Durkheim, because Durkheim at bottom had a religious foundation.