Paul Berman on Daniel Bell and the American Left

“In modern America, an amazing number of people have thrown themselves into the work of researching and writing the history of the American Left—many more than are justified by the relative importance of the topic. These scholars have taken up the subject in order to understand something about their own lives—to explain how and why they came to feel so alienated from the mainstream of American politics, and what their alienation was like, and what uses might be drawn from their experiences. Books on these themes—on the history of the Communist Party USA, on the old Socialists, on the New Left, and so on—make up a main current of the modern historical literature. Yet none of these books has ever managed to eclipse Marxian Socialism in the United States—the classic of classics in this particular field. In any case, as I glance back at Bell’s book today, I see in it one of the inspirations for my own adult life and work.

My transition from once-born to twice-born turned me into someone who was curious and eager to write about the history of the Left—sometimes in order to promote a political agenda, but mostly for another reason: I wanted to discover truths, if I possibly could—about America and other parts of the world; about political movements; about social theory; about human nature. This is a gloomier project than merely advancing a political agenda. Agendas tend to be hopeful; truths, not so hopeful. A triumphal spirit runs through a great deal of American history, but not through the particular subset of American history that contains the political Left.

A shadow fell across my dinner with Dan when we reminisced about the strike of 1968—the shadow of what had happened to him at Columbia; what had happened to the left-wing movement that emerged from the strike; and what had happened to our common friend, his fondly remembered student and my SDS “brother,” who had concentrated in his own person all the disasters of the era. But it is in the nature of the second-born to live in the shadows. The blue sky, in Emerson’s phrase, belongs to the first-born, and afterward comes the lifting of the veil and the gazing at Medusa’s face.”

From Bookforum.

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