Saturday, December 18, 2010

Daniel Bell

In Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology (1960) he waits until the epilogue to deal the final death blow to the 1930s. Much of the book implicitly denigrates the "chiliastic" passions and utopianism of intellectuals of that decade. The fifties and, he predicts, the 1960s will be a quiet time or moderated passions and adult choices, compromise and centrism. Here, below, are the first paragraphs of a subsection of the epilogue:

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The Loss of Innocence in the Thirties

FOR A SMALL GROUP, the thirties have a special meaning. These are the individuals who went through the radical movement and who bear, as on invisible frontlets, the stamp of those years on their foreheads. The number is small. Of the four million college and high-school youths, less than twenty thousand, or one-half of one per cent, took part in radical activity. But, like the drop of dye that suffuses the cloth, this number gave the decade its coloration.

A radical is a prodigal son. For him, the world is a strange place whose contours have to be explored according to one's destiny. He may eventually return to the house of his elders, but the return is by choice, and not, as of those who stayed behind, of unblinking filial obedience. A resilient society, like a wise parent, understands this ritual, and, in meeting the challenge to tradition, grows.

But in the thirties, the fissures were too deep. Seemingly, there was no home to return to. One could only march forward. Everybody seemed to be tramping, tramping, tramping. Marching, Marching was the title of a prize-winning proletarian novel. There were parades, picketing, protests, farm holidays, and even a general strike in San Francisco. There was also a new man, the Communist. Not just the radical--always alien, always testing, yet open in his aims -- but a hidden soldier in a war against society.

In a few short years, the excitement evaporated. The labor movement grew fat and bureaucratized. The political intellectuals became absorbed into the New Deal. The papier-mache proletarian novelists went on to become Hollywood hacks. And yet it is only by understanding the fate of the prodigal sons and the Communists that one can understand the loss of innocence that is America's distinctive experience of the thirties.

Murray Kempton, in his book Part of Our Time, has looked at the small band who dreamed, and who--because of having a dream "possessed no more of doubting"--sought to impress that dream into action. But in action, one defies one's character. In some, the iron became brittle, in some it became hard; others cast the iron away, and still others were crushed. In the end, almost all had lost the dream and the world was only doubt.

The story opens, naturally enough, with Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. Kempton retells the familiar story, but with a special nuance. What united the strange pair was their symbiotic relation to Baltimore, a mildewed city which was Kempton's home and whose musty character he captures so well. Hiss, from a shabby, genteel Baltimore family, fled its faded elegance to meet Chambers, the tortured man from the underground, who settled gratefully into its Victorian dust. Each found, in the secret craving of the other, the lives they were rejecting, until, locked in defeat, they both sank beneath the waters.

The story spreads out and touches on the writers attracted by the myth of the revolutionary collective, the "rebel girls," the militant labor leaders, the youth movement, and others who were riding the crest of history's waves. it is not a formal history of the left, but a series of novellas. What gives it its special cast and enormous appeal is the elegiac mood, the touch of adolescent ache in the writing.