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Bell, Danielfree

(10 May 1919–25 Jan. 2011)
  • Howard Brick

Bell, Daniel (10 May 1919–25 Jan. 2011), sociologist and public intellectual, was born Daniel Bolotsky in New York City, son of Benjamin Bolotsky and Anna Kaplan, immigrant Jewish garment workers living on the Lower East Side. His father died when Daniel was an infant; around 1930 the family name was changed to Bell by his paternal uncle. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in 1935, he enrolled at tuition-free City College of New York, graduating with a B.S. in 1939.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Bell joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party (SP); when he was tempted to jump over to the young Communists, an anarchist relative dissuaded him. Instead, he veered to the SP’s more conservative, anticommunist faction, reorganized as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1936 and dominated by an “Old Guard” of orthodox Marxists (more evolutionary in temperament than revolutionary). At City College he frequented the lunchroom alcove where Trotskyists and other radicals (including Irving Kristol and Irving Howe) debated politics and theory. Throughout his life, Bell straddled competing political milieus in this fashion. In the Old Guard circle, several exiled Russian Mensheviks held influence, including Samuel (Sol) Levitas, who ran the SDF weekly, the New Leader, and recruited Bell in 1940 to write for and edit the newspaper. By then New York University philosopher Sidney Hook had converted Bell from the left-wing peace sentiment of the late 1930s to a position supporting US intervention in World War II on antifascist grounds.

Bell straddled journalism and academic life as well. He had left graduate studies in sociology at Columbia University after one year to work at the New Leader, staying there until 1944. At the newspaper he balanced prowar and anticommunist politics, on the one hand, with a critique of ever-more centralized capitalist power, on the other, that he shared with the antiwar radical Dwight Macdonald and the dissenting writers of Macdonald’s politics magazine, including C. Wright Mills, later a well-known iconoclast among sociologists. He married Nora Potashnick in 1943; as father of a young daughter, he took a post as instructor of social sciences at the University of Chicago in 1945, but returned to New York in 1948 to write the “Labor” column for Henry Luce’s business magazine, Fortune. For the next ten years, excepting a year’s leave working for the liberal anticommunist Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) in Paris (1956–1957), Bell’s columns both covered labor news and offered a sophisticated sociology of industrial labor and the union movement. His marriage to Nora ended in divorce, as did a second marriage, in 1949, to Elaine Graham.

Meanwhile, he published his first scholarly work, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952), which ended on a solemn, valedictory note: “By 1950,” he wrote, “American socialism as a political and social fact had become simply a notation in the archives of history” (p. 193). His friendship with C. Wright Mills went sour due to personal and political differences: Bell had drifted away from his radical critique of state monopoly capitalism toward a version of Cold War liberalism, while Mills persisted in challenging the illusions of American democracy in his book, The Power Elite (1956), and to denounce the complacency of CCF intellectuals like Bell.

In 1960 Bell married literary critic Pearl Kazin; their son was born in 1961. Having become a professor of sociology at Columbia University (which awarded him a Ph.D. in 1960 based on his published and forthcoming work), Bell published The End of Ideology (1960), a collection of his essays over the prior decade assessing the sea-change that had occurred in Western thought since the war, as most intellectuals surrendered allegiance to “extreme” ideologies—left or right—of social transformation. A more cautious temperament, Bell argued, was appropriate to the times not only because of the calamities brought to the modern world by fascist and communist mass movements but also because analysts had yet to plumb the precise nature of the Western liberal-democratic societies and governments then emerging, which mixed capitalist markets with social-welfare or, in Europe, social-democratic commitments. Along with the other leading lights of the CCF, Bell thought “absolute” doctrines committed exclusively to state planning or to laissez-faire were outmoded, as a rough consensus emerged that policy-making could draw on tools offered by both sides of that old divide.

During the 1960s Bell focused on the question left unanswered by “the exhaustion of political ideas in the Fifties” (the subtitle of The End of Ideology): what revision of modern social theory was needed to take the true measure of the postwar social order popularly dubbed the liberal welfare state? In a mode he called social forecasting, he described the emergence of what he was one of the first to call “postindustrial society.” Like “the end of ideology,” this phrase would be subject to a great deal of misunderstanding. Many years after Bell started writing in this vein, “postindustrial society” came into popular usage either to celebrate the wonders of computer technology and digital communications or to mark the decimation of cities due to factory closures, that is, “deindustrialization”: neither of these images fit Bell’s initial intentions.

Daniel Bell intended his forecast not as a definite prediction but rather as a plausible conjecture that extrapolated from current trends and highlighted key problems and issues social and political actors would likely face in the future. He saw the tertiary sector of advanced economies (“services”) rising to dominance over primary (agricultural/extractive) and secondary (manufacturing) sectors. That trajectory raised basic science and new “intellectual technologies” (such as computer modeling of complex systems) to predominance; these knowledge resources produced in modern universities could not, he thought, be priced, bought, and sold in the traditional “economizing” logic of markets but called for some means (relying on a new, “sociologizing” logic) of centralized decision-making that allocated collective resources with an eye to future social needs. Bell believed that mass welfare was an object of government responsibility, and he argued that some kind of value-consensus, which he called a “public household,” was a necessary basis for reasoned and meaningful debate over postindustrial priorities.

That was a tall order in a modern, complex society. In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and a companion book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Bell recognized both promise and danger in the trends of American society and culture through the 1960s. The passage of the great civil rights acts suggested indeed that in the emerging postindustrial order, as he noted in an earlier book, The Reforming of General Education (1966), “the conscious direction of social change [is undertaken] by the federal government” (p. 71). On the other hand, he thought the sharp conflicts on college campuses, the rise of a range of popular movements demanding redress, and the consumer culture that promoting boundless self-gratification (distrustful of norms that gave order to work life and order to our perceptions of the world) all militated against the common principles of a “public household” that needed to underlie the postindustrial guidance of social resources.

In 1965, hoping to further informed discussion of social policy, Bell co-founded The Public Interest with his old friend Irving Kristol. Skeptical of political enthusiasm, mass movements, and government programs promising more than they could realistically deliver, the journal grew more conservative by the early 1970s. While Kristol thereafter became the main proponent of “neoconservatism” and allied with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bell left the journal in 1972 when he supported antiwar liberal George McGovern for president. Three years earlier he had left Columbia University for a professorship at Harvard University, where he taught until his retirement in 1990.

In the 1980s and 1990s Bell wrote often for the social-democratic journal Dissent, signaling his continued devotion to what he regarded as a “socialist” economic ethic, while he famously declared himself a “liberal” in politics (giving primacy to the personhood of the individual) and a “conservative” in culture (respecting tradition and authority as moral guides). After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, some observers argued that his notion of the “end of ideology” had been fully vindicated, but Bell denied that his argument had anything in common with the conservative writer Francis Fukuyama, who saw the end of the Cold War as “the end [or achieved goal] of history.” Bell never agreed with the resurgent free-market ideology that Fukuyama thought was proven triumphant and correct. Over the last decade of his life, all his major books were reissued with new forewords and afterwords, and he responded to Fukuyama by adding to The End of Ideology an essay entitled “The Resumption of History in the New Century.” He told younger sociologists who were still intensely interested in his life’s work that he had a book manuscript in progress entitled The Rebirth of Utopia; it was left unfinished at his death in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Harvard University Archives holds a large collection of Daniel Bell’s papers; a modest collection of his research files for Marxian Socialism in the United States is available at the Tamiment Library, New York University. In addition to his major works, Bell published an important collection, The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 1960–1980 (1991). On his early career, see Howard Brick, Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s (1986). Bell’s role in the postwar circle of New York–based anticommunist liberals is well-documented in Neil Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America (1990). A late exchange with a younger sociologist, Peter Beilharz, “Ends and Rebirths: An Interview with Daniel Bell,” appeared in the journal Eleventh Thesis 85 (2006): 93–103. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 26 Jan. 2011.