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For Harvard's Daniel Bell, respect from left and right

Harvard's radical students avoid Daniel Bell's sociology classes -- because he's far- right, say students; because left-wingers are uncomfortable with a balanced approach, says Professor Bell.

But not all of the left avoid Dr. Bell. Editor Peter Steinfels of Commonweal magazine identifies him as one of "the intellectual leaders of a national turning to the political right." In a new Steinfels book, "The Neoconservatives, " Dr. Bell is cited as an example of the conservative commitment "to stability as the prerequisite for justice rather than the other way around."

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And inside the economics department at the University of Massachusetts, books by and about Daniel Bell have their place alongside Marxist texts in the office of Samuel Bowles, considered one of the leading radical economists in the United States today.

Professor Bowles explains his respect for Professor Bell simply: "Daniel Bell has interesting things to say because he has spent much of his life trying to answer the questions that Marx raised, the really important questions at orthodox economists have avoided."

Stripping off his jacket, sweater, and watch to get ready for action in front of his packed "Sociology 102" lecture auditorium, Professor Bell quickly showed how seriously he does take Marx.

Marx was an activist in all that he wrote," Dr. Bell explained, turning to the texts to show how Marx used the term class, read it back into history despite inherent contradictions, and used this "class rhetoric as a way of exhorting people."

"Marx opened a window on the social world," said Dr. Bell -- and then moved on to look at the practical effects of Marxism: "Those who shout power to the people want power go to to the people who shout power to the people."

After his lecture, Dr. Bell told me that he is not bothered by strong viewpoints, whether they are radical or not. What he fights against is rigidity. This holds true in his own beliefs -- which he described as socialist in economics, liberal in politics, and conservative in cultural terms.

"Any good college," he says, "should be constantly challenging a student on the basis of his own upbringing, making him think through his assumptions."

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Increasingly, he finds himself dealing with students looking for right answers, whom he describes as coming to him saying, "As an engineer, I know there is a right answer, and if you tell me there is no right answer it rattles me."

His objective, he explained, is "to rattle students," adding that "any kid is going to become stronger from having to defend his own views."


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