Dr. Bradley J. Birzer’s recent essay about the late Daniel Bell is faulty. Professor Bell was one of the most gifted and independent-minded scholars of the last century. Although he was more a man of the left than a conservative, he was a valuable ally to conservative traditionalists.
Dr. Birzer’s piece describes the late Professor Bell as a cultural critic who, unlike Russell Kirk, apparently, was outside the very same culture he criticized. Leaving aside the question of why Kirk, as great as he was, has to be the standard by which everyone else is evaluated, we must ask: On what basis does Dr. Birzer lay this claim? Was Bell not there to witness the student revolt at Columbia University in the 1960’s? Did he not deal with students everyday who challenged every vestige of tradition and authority? Did he not see firsthand the effects of youth counterculture? Is Dr. Birzer really to have us believe that Bell was not personally affected by the major changes taking place in the American ethos?
I would recommend that Dr. Birzer listen to Bell’s emotional account of the day the students stormed the president’s office at Columbia. He and Lionel Trilling tried to quell the radicals, but to no avail. In Arguing the World, Bell explains it with considerable candor: “I can only tell you, when that happened at two o’clock in the morning, Lionel Trilling and I walked down the hill…and I came home and burst into tears.”
Dr. Birzer’s primary criticism of Bell surrounds substantive errors in The Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism. His complaint is that Bell exaggerates the extent to which the Protestant Ethic influenced early America. Dr. Birzer writes, “First, in what way was the American economy only built on the Protestant work ethic? Yes, this ethic mattered. But so did all the traditions of the West: Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and pagan. Second, whereas Protestantism might have seemed on its way out of the world in the late 1960s, no legitimate scholar could continue to make that claim in 1990 or 2020. Protestantism thrives as it nears its 500th anniversary, only two years away.”
But Bell never says that the American economy was only built on the Protestant work ethic. Obviously he knows that there were Catholics, Jews, and pagans living in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a devotee of Max Weber, Bell only means that the Protestant ethic used to dominate. Nor would Bell, if he were still alive, deny that the Protestant ethic still exists. He would only say that as the dominant ethos it has been replaced by a technocratic tenor. He is saying that the American economy once rewarded honest ambition but an economy that values only proficiency and competence has now replaced it. Technocracy, he says, devalues moral character, family and community bonds, and self-dignity. These things have been removed from the supply and demand picture.
It is true that Bell was not a conservative. He was a three-dimensional scholar: an economic socialist, a political liberal, and a cultural conservative. As such, he was critical of moral decline in virtually every quarter of American society—the political class, the captains of industry, and the labor force. While his fellow leftists were critical only of bourgeois America, Bell also lodged complaints against the American working class as well. In Bell’s eyes, the technocratic free market is supplying hedonism and moral licentiousness while the consumers are demanding it. He also felt that though the dominant white elite needed to do more for blacks, blacks needed to also do more for themselves. Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and his “neoconservative ilk,” as Dr. Birzer calls them, were rare among leftist intellectuals in that they did not believe sociology is a one-way street. Traditionalist, Kirkian conservatives ought to be able to appreciate Bell’s wisdom. The fact that Bell was culturally conservative and had valuable contributions to cultural conservative discourse ought to make The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism a significant book for traditionalists to read and to cite.
It is also important to bear in mind that Bell’s intended audience was not conservatives. Although it seems that conservatives tend to appreciate The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism more than academics on the left do, he wrote it primarily for liberal sociologists and economists to read, as one of them warning his leftist colleagues. And these were people who were unlikely to ever read Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Wilhelm Roepke, and especially Milton Friedman. The “neoconservatives and their ilk” were interested in reaching leftists and speaking to them in their language to convince as many as possible that there are unintended social consequences of their reforms. This was the mission of The Public Interest, the journal that Bell and Kristol co-founded in 1965, in the midst of the “Great Society.” For Dr. Birzer to say that the neoconservatives had to abandon domestic policy for foreign policy is also wrong. The neoconservatives remained interested in social problems well into the 1990’s, and Bell himself never really commented on foreign affairs.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.