It is a great advantage in life to have had a god that failed. Nothing human, and certainly nothing modern, will be alien to you.
Daniel Bell’s god that failed was Marxian socialism. My god that failed was God. When I first met Dan at Harvard in 1979 I had just emerged from the haze of Pentecostal fanaticism that clouded my adolescence and early twenties. I knew and had read nothing except the Bible, which I had absorbed, not studied. There were good teachers in college but no one like Dan, who had a passion for conversation alien to a midwestern gentile. I spent a lot of time in his office that year, and the next, mostly listening and taking notes while he digressed from his digressions and gave me my education. He was not in great demand. The neo-Marxist grad students stayed away because he challenged them, and they resented being read quotations from the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, which was just behind Dan’s desk. They also couldn’t figure out why, when they went in to discuss revolutionary theory, he turned the conversation to gnosticism and hidden messiahs and Kabala. To me, it all made perfect sense. He spoke my language.
Dan’s political conversion took place at the age of thirteen, as did mine. That was when he announced to the rabbi preparing him for his bar mitzvah that he was a socialist and no longer believed in God. (“You think God cares?” was the reply.) He was never a Communist and had zero illusions about the muzhik utopia being constructed on the Great Steppe. A few years after he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the Moscow show trials began, and not long after that the Hitler–Stalin pact was signed, and not long after that Trotsky lay in a pool of blood in a Mexican villa, an ice pick buried in his skull. Dan’s illusions were intellectual and short-lived. Growing up in the 1930s, he felt the need to make sense of a present that made no sense at all. And Marxism made everything connect.
Making it all connect was the grand ambition of the nineteenth-century system builders whose multivolume masterworks on Nature and History now lie unread in library basements. On or about August 1914, that ambition died in Europe—or nearly. While in the arts all that was left of history was shards, Marx, a half-forgotten man in 1914, was given a second life by the unlikely success of the Russian Revolution and, a decade later, by the discovery of his 1844 Manuscripts, which added a patina of humanism to his unforgiving materialism. An intellectual cult grew up around this archaic nineteenth-century prophet, and for a very short time Dan belonged to it. While he was editing the socialist magazine The New Leader during World War II he spent evenings in the New York Public Library…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.