The Last Word

Daniel BellDaniel Bell reflects on Friends, Foes, Influences, Ideologies, the State of the Novel, the State of the Union, and the Old Neighborhood.

By Roberto Foa and Thomas Meaney.

This interview was conducted on September 21, 2010, a few months before Daniel Bell’s death, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I. Adversaries

Who was your adversary when you were writing The End of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism?

I’m not sure there’s a single person. It was more against a whole current of writers, against whole ideological ways of thinking.

It goes very far back, to a crucial personal episode which defined my life when I was in City College. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League at the age of 13. It’s crazy, but there it is. And I did so for very basic reasons: my father died when I was an infant; my mother raised me; she worked in a factory. There were two seasons in the year — busy and slack. When it was slack, my mother would be home to take care of me. In the busy season, I was in an orphanage. The orphanage was supported by the Jewish community. There were these personal ties that were important.

I grew up on the Lower East Side, which juts out into the river. Before the highways came, there were these long piers. They still remain on the West Side, these long piers. And they had these so-called “Hoovervilles” on the piers, which were tin shacks, and people living there. Everything was in the open. You could see people fornicating, fighting, everything. There were big garbage scowls which turned up, and we’d jump on the top of these to see if there were bits of food. At 11 o’clock at night we’d go to the West Side markets and we’d break open crates, and run away.

Everything was marked out by turf and ethnicity. The Italians were here, the Ukrainian kids were there, the Polish kids were there, the Jewish kids here. And there was “turf.” Before E.O. Wilson, it was about “turf.” We really believed in biological determinism, with every group having its place. There’d be fights. And — this was particularly true of the Polish kids — they’d take potatoes, and put in the potatoes these double-edged razor blades, and throw them at you. A hail of potatoes with razor blades being thrown at you! What you’d do then is you took the top of the garbage cans, and those were our shields. And then our brave socialist women would go on top of the building and throw down hot water to get the kids scattered. And that was life, life on the Lower East Side.

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