Daniel Bell, influential sociologist, dies at 91

Daniel Bell, a leading sociologist of the past half-century who wrote groundbreaking books about the demise of revolutionary politics and about the economy and lifestyle of what he helped label ...

Daniel Bell, a leading sociologist of the past half-century who wrote groundbreaking books about the demise of revolutionary politics and about the economy and lifestyle of what he helped label a "post-industrial" society, has died. He was 91.

Bell died Tuesday at his Cambridge, Mass., home after a short illness, said his son, David Bell.

Daniel Bell was a teen radical who in middle age became an apostle of pragmatism. He is credited for at least two seminal works: "The End of Ideology," which predicted a post-Marxist, post-conservative era, and "The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society," in which he prophesied the shift from a manufacturing economy to one based on technology.

"Many people would testify to his influence, and I am one of those," said Nathan Glazer, his longtime friend and fellow sociologist. "He always had large ideas. He was enormously energetic and had an amazing memory of names and dates. And some of his ideas about what was happening to society were very much on target."

Bell's other books included "Work and Its Discontents," ''The Reforming of Education" and "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism," which explored how a bourgeois economy coexisted with an anti-bourgeois culture.

"A corporation finds its people being straight by day and swingers by night," he wrote.

Bell was extremely proud that a new edition of "The Reforming of Education," originally published in the 1960s, was recently released, David Bell said.

For decades, Bell was a public intellectual, a "New York intellectual." He was a widely quoted essayist; a co-editor of The Public Interest, a founding neo-conservative journal; and a professor of sociology at Harvard University and Columbia University, where he helped mediate a campus rebellion in 1968.

Bell's influence sometimes reached the White House. In 1979, "Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" helped inspire pollster Patrick Caddell to have President Jimmy Carter give a speech, what became known as the "malaise" speech, on the country's apparent spiritual crisis. Bell himself was among the many intellectual and political leaders Carter would summon for advice on what to say.

Although Bell was linked politically to Public Interest co-founder and neo-conservative "godfather" Irving Kristol, he left the magazine after a few years and followed no single line of thinking. He believed in free elections and a regulated economy, but also valued cultural and moral tradition and scorned contemporary art. He defined himself as a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics and a conservative in culture.

His story was archetypal: The son of Jewish immigrants, his first language Yiddish and first religion politics. Growing up poor on Manhattan's Lower East Side, his father having died when Bell was 10 months old, made him a dedicated socialist — at age 13.

"When I had my Bar Mitzvah," he once recalled, "I said to the Rabbi, 'I've found the truth. I don't believe in God ... I'm joining the Young People's Socialist League.' So he looked at me and said, 'Kid, you don't believe in God. Tell me, do you think God cares?'"

By his teen years, he knew English well enough to read Marx and John Stuart Mill and study dialectical materialism. At City College of New York, he received a degree in sociology, but otherwise was steeped in debates with classmates Irving Howe, Kristol and Glazer, their gatherings recalled in the 1998 documentary "Arguing the World."

After graduating from CCNY, Bell briefly attended Columbia as a graduate student but dropped out to write for the liberal journal The New Leader, where he soon became managing editor. In the 1940s, he taught at the University of Chicago and served as labor editor of Fortune Magazine.

Skeptical of Marxist formulas, he was more of a "socialist," with a small "s," than a Socialist. His first book, "Marxian Socialism in the United States," was an exploration of why a Marxist revolution never occurred in the U.S., even during the Great Depression. His conclusion: Socialists were too rigid, too programmed, for what was an essentially unprogrammed country.

Bell was writing essays throughout the 1950s and they were collected for "The End of Ideology," published in 1959 and the source of debate for years after. Bell believed that the disasters of Stalin and the Nazis and the rise of the welfare state had made extremism of both left and right obsolete. He predicted an era of more practical dreams, based not on theory, but on experience.

"The ladder to the City of Heaven can no longer be a 'faith ladder,' but an empirical one," he wrote, "a utopia has to specify where one wants to go, how to get there, the costs of the enterprise, and some realization of, and justification for the determination of who is to pay."

His book was celebrated as a manifesto of common sense and mocked as delusional for predicting ideology's demise on the eve of the century's most rebellious decade. Sociologist C. Wright Mills called Bell's book "a celebration of apathy" and insisted radical change was under way, led not by workers, but students.

"Let the old women complain wisely about 'the end of ideology.' We are beginning to move again," Mills wrote.

But Bell defended "The End of Ideology," calling the uprisings of the '60s more cultural than economic and arguing that the decline of the Soviet Union and its influence on Eastern Europe had indeed finished off an era of slogans and personality cults.

"Ideology has become an irretrievably fallen word," he wrote, adding, sadly, "and so is sin."

His later works offered closer looks at a world with a smaller manufacturing class and, in his opinion, a decline in standards of art. "The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society," published in 1973, was a "venture in social forecasting" that anticipated an economic shift from muscle to knowledge, from horse power to brain power, from "a goods-producing to a service economy."

Bell noted a decline in the percentage of blue-collar jobs, of the proletariat that would lead a presumed Marxist revolution. He envisioned "the pre-eminence of the professional and technical class," and that the manufacturer of computers would be as central to the final decades of the 20th century as the maker of automobiles had been to the middle decades.

In 1980, he would call the new society "an information society" and foresee "the emergence of a new social framework of telecommunications" that would determine "the way knowledge is created and retrieved, and the character of the occupations and work in which men engage."

"The Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism" came out in 1976 and extended upon his ideas about post-industrial culture, an increasingly structured economy coexisted with ever more unbounded private life. "The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan, or instant credit," he wrote.

Bell was an admirer of such early modernists as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, but he disdained the 1960s counterculture and its "preachments of personal freedom, extreme experience ... and sexual experimentation." Whatever boundaries challenged by Joyce and others in the 1920s had long vanished, Bell believed. What remained was "the shambles and appetite of self-interest."

Bell's own life was not without experience. He was married three times, most recently, in 1960, to literary critic Pearl Kazin, who years earlier had been involved with poet Dylan Thomas.

"He was a terrific father, a wonderful friend and a generous individual," his son said Wednesday. "He was an extraordinary talker with a huge range of jokes, that he called stories, that he'd deliver with perfect timing. He was always able to hold everyone's attention."

He is survived by his wife, son, daughter Jordy Bell, and four grandchildren.

A private burial service is planned for Friday, his son said. A memorial service in the spring is pending.


Associated Press Writer Mark Pratt in Boston contributed to this report.

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