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Contrarian’s Wisdom

An anguished journey to understanding America.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JAMES SEATON
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Hope in a Scattering Time

Contrarian’s Wisdom

Photo Credit: Courtesy Codysbooks.com

A Life of Christopher Lasch
by Eric Miller
Eerdmans, 420 pp., $32

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) first became well-known with the publication of The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963 in 1965. The book criticized both radical and liberal intellectuals from a viewpoint that was never specified but was clearly on the left.

Lasch praised Jane Addams for condemning society’s “indifference” to the problems of youth but criticized her failure “to attack the indifference at the source .  .  . capitalism itself, which values individuals only for their labor power.” Noting that Lincoln Steffens, toward the end of his life, “became increasingly uncritical of the Soviet Union,” Lasch hastened to add that “Steffens’s choice of Communism in the thirties was no more reprehensible or misguided than the anti-Communist liberals’ choice of the ‘free world’ in the forties and fifties.” Lasch asserted that Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, was misguided when he concluded “in the late forties, that Soviet totalitarianism was a greater menace than American capitalism.”

Arthur Schlesinger was not all wrong when he protested that the book amounted to an attack on “liberalism which is critical of communism.” The authority of intellectuals, Lasch explained, derived from their “presumed capacity” to discuss social issues from an independent perspective, unlike “those more directly caught up in the practical business of production and power.” Intellectuals were supposed to be “critics of society,” but their criticism was worth listening to only if it could be “presumed to rest on a measure of detachment from the current scene.” If Niebuhr and other “Cold-War liberals” saw “the Cold War as a struggle between Marxist ‘despotism’ and the ‘open society’ of the West,” that could only mean that they had surrendered their intellectual independence. After all, in Lasch’s independent, detached view, “Even during the Stalinist period the distinction between ‘despotism’ and the ‘open society’ was hardly an accurate description of the differences between Russia and America; by the fifties and sixties it had become completely unreal.”

It might be possible to maintain “a measure of detachment” and still find some good things to say about capitalism and American society, as George Santayana, a model of philosophical detachment, demonstrated in Character and Opinion in the United States (1920). But in The New Radicalism approval of either capitalism or the United States was taken as evidence of a betrayal of the intellectual’s vocation. Yet Lasch was no kinder to radicals who refused to take sides in the Cold War, observing that “in a world divided between Communism and liberalism, American radicalism tended to become increasingly shrill, increasingly desperate, and increasingly bizarre.”

But it was not its politics that made The New Radicalism a revelation for so many. Lasch’s biographer Eric Miller is quite right when he observes that the book’s impact derived first of all from “the power of Lasch’s writing.” If his portraits of Jane Addams and others were done with “small doses of sympathy and high levels of chagrin,” they also “pulsed with discriminating judgment, psychological perception, and descriptive flair.” Yes, Miller concedes, Lasch’s historical case was flawed by his penchant for “unproven generalizations and routine rhetorical overkill,” but The New Radicalism was finally not so much a work of history as a “literary endeavor,” exhibiting a “vision, sensibilities, and style honed and sharpened by poets, novelists, and other agents of the imagination.”

Lasch himself was an intellectual whose vision, in Miller’s words, “placed a great burden on and trust in intellectuals to be the guides of society,” a “trust” that was betrayed by almost all those he discussed. Lasch’s narrative conveyed a “subtle yet palpable sense of desperation” that suggested without histrionics the “personal vulnerability” of its author, who became a spokesman for readers sharing his conviction that radical change was necessary and his distrust of radicals.

Lasch’s next book, The Agony of the American Left (1969), drove both ideas home with increased urgency—and a much less subtle, more palpable sense of desperation. Lasch reaffirmed his belief that “radicalism—socialism” was “the only long-term hope” for America, and that “socialism in the West oscillates between capitulation and a mindless revolutionary militancy.” What was needed was “an intellectual class committed not only to the most rigorous standards of critical scholarship but to a thoroughgoing transformation of American institutions.” 

American social democrats and the European social democratic parties failed to offer a truly radical alternative. The only real hope lay with the New Left’s reinvigoration of “an indigenous tradition of radical populism” that pointed toward a socialism whose central values would be “decentralization, local control, and a generally antibureaucratic outlook.” That hope, however, was short-lived, as the New Left degenerated into “dogmatism, an obsession with factional purity, vilification of opponents, hysterical gestures of alienation, the cult of violence.”

The experience of the 1960s left Lasch more convinced than ever that American culture and society urgently needed a radical transformation from capitalism to socialism. Political and cultural revolution was morally necessary but practically impossible. The masters of the Frankfurt School—
Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer—had come to the same conclusions when confronted with the rise of fascism and Nazism in the thirties. Marxism remained true, but the failure of the workers to rise up in revolution could not be explained unless Marx were supplemented by Freud.

Eric Miller suggests that the example of Adorno, in particular, inspired Lasch’s best-known book, The Culture of Narcissism. The book was written, claims Miller, “with a critical passion and literary verve similar to Adorno’s.” If Adorno “reacted to the culture of industrial capitalism with bitter repugnance, deeming it, in the most bitter of tones, a vast moral failure,” Lasch’s “sophisticated jeremiad” rendered much the same verdict on his own society. For Miller the comparison is all to Lasch’s credit—“Adorno’s honesty, acuity, and pessimism bore striking resemblances to Lasch.” 

It is possible, however, to draw different conclusions from the comparison. Adorno was so sure of his own moral and intellectual “acuity” that he rarely saw any need to find evidence, or even offer an explanation, for his condemnation of capitalism and all popular culture, including, notoriously and specifically, American jazz. If the great majority of the population took no interest in revolution, that was because they were victims of “false consciousness.” For a thinker who had placed his political hopes almost entirely in “an indigenous tradition of radical populism,” Adorno was strange company.

In Haven in a Heartless World (1977), however, Lasch had already sketched out the intellectual basis of his own “radical populism” in a scathing critique of the ways in which the “helping professions,” supported by academic social science and progressive opinion, had come to exercise ever greater control over ordinary citizens, always for benign reasons but with results that (as Lasch put it) “benefited the ‘helping professions’ far more than they helped the family.” 

If Lasch took on the liberal academic orthodoxy, he also criticized “the so-called counterculture” whose “ideas of sexual liberation—the celebration of oral sex, masturbation, and homosexuality”—seemed to Lasch to derive not from the overcoming of old prejudices but from a much less admirable source: “the prevailing fear of heterosexual passion, even of sexual intercourse itself.” Small wonder that the book was condemned in the Harvard Educational Review and praised by National Review. As Eric Miller perceptively points out, however, Lasch’s populism was flawed not by his powerful analysis of progressive elitism but, rather, by his “own fundamentally sentimental stance toward ‘the people,’ ” who appear in the narrative only as “victimized masses.” Miller fails to observe that in regarding “the masses” as innocent but deluded victims of the capitalist juggernaut Lasch was, despite his avowed populism, still following the Frankfurt School.

In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), his longest and most ambitious book, Lasch left behind not only the Frankfurt School but Marx and Freud as well. American history now became, as Miller puts it, “a strange and gripping struggle” between “those of progressive orientation and those of populist inclination.” Progressivism Lasch rejected entirely, especially “the basic premise of progressive thought—the assumption that economic abundance comes before everything else, which leads unavoidably to an acceptance of centralized production and administration as the only way to achieve it.” Progressivism was the creed of the educated classes, while populism was the political expression of “the petty-bourgeois or working class ethic of limits.”

 In a series of portraits of figures ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Lasch explored the possibilities of a populist tradition “grounded in loyalty to families and friends, to a particular piece of earth, and to a particular craft or calling,” a tradition that, refusing to accept science as the last word, persisted in an attitude toward reality that Lasch characterized as “wonder—an affirmation of life in the teeth of its limits.” 

Miller notes that Lasch called Ralph Waldo Emerson “the central figure of the book.” Emerson was central because Lasch’s interpretation allows him to connect, however tenuously, populist social views with a quasi-religious faith in the ultimate “goodness of things.” Emerson’s view of reality, according to Lasch, was not a version of transcendentalism or philosophical idealism but instead amounted to “a kind of theology of producerism.” Emerson, Lasch argued, has been “misunderstood as a radical individualist.” He was, in reality, “a nineteenth century populist” whose writing “transposes the political economy of populism .  .  . into the higher register of moral and ontological speculation.” Emerson retained what Lasch called the “insights” of Calvinism but without the baggage of orthodox Christian doctrine. 

Miller, a sympathetic but shrewd observer, notes that Lasch’s omission of any reference to “the incarnation and resurrection of Christ” in his list of “insights”—the “power and majesty of the sovereign creator of life; the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man’s rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work”—reveals “a telling weakness” in his argument. Lasch, it seems, needed Emerson as a model because he himself wanted the spiritual advantages of Calvinism without paying the price of accepting the creed of Calvinist Christianity. The weakness is all the more telling since “compensation,” Lasch’s primary exhibit for Emerson’s “producerism,” points out that “everything has its price—and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained.”

Miller is surely right both in claiming that The True and Only Heaven is a “high and distinguished achievement .  .  . a work of profound scholarship,” but he is also right to note that “the sweeping nature” of Lasch’s “critique of American culture and society demanded more than what the populist tradition, as he presented it, had on offer.” It was sweeping indeed: Whether as a radical who looked to Marx and Freud or a cultural conservative who turned to “the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition of individualism,” Lasch remained obdurately opposed to capitalism in general and convinced that a capitalist United States required cultural and political transformation.

On the evidence of his own writings and of Miller’s sympathetic biography, Lasch never worked through the moral, political, and economic arguments on behalf of capitalism made by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, nor did he ever confront the practical difficulties of any transition to socialism. More important, he never seems to have paid enough attention to the inarticulated but undeniable conclusions arrived at by his fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom have never, whatever their dissatisfactions, found reason to search for a replacement for capitalism. Life in the United States has never been as morally and spiritually empty as Lasch often seemed to claim, and as Miller acknowledges, Lasch’s failure to carry out “a careful, sympathetic examination of life on the ground made it too easy for critics to dismiss him as a cranky, if brilliant ideologue.”

Eric Miller has written a biography that does justice to its subject, admiring yet thoughtfully critical; he strikes only one false note—and that one is not really his fault. In his epilogue Miller offers George Packer as, somehow, a comparable figure to Lasch. Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is perhaps best known for a September 10, 2010, posting on the New Yorker website explaining why President Barack Obama seemed, in Packer’s opinion, “less and less able to speak to and for our times.” Obama, according to Packer, was “the voice of reason incarnate” and thus “too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia.” Packer lamented that “evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days.” 

On Miller’s behalf, it should be noted that his biography was published before Packer’s words were posted, and no one knows what Lasch’s response to the current political scene might have been. It is tempting but unprofitable to speculate as to whether, for example, Lasch would have considered the Tea Party movement an expression or a perversion of the populist tradition. In the books he did write before his untimely death, however, Christopher Lasch repeatedly demonstrated that “the liberal mind” nowhere reveals its limitations more clearly than when it preens itself on what Lasch called “its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot.” It is thus reasonably certain that Lasch would have considered any attempt to explain away the unwillingness of the lower middle class to embrace liberalism with the claim that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as something other than “the voice of reason incarnate.” 

In any case, Miller is entirely persuasive in arguing for the permanent value of Lasch’s books and essays, whatever one thinks of Lasch’s personal politics. Christopher Lasch was an intellectual whose cultural self-criticism of the intellectuals remains exemplary. He was willing to take his ideas where they led him, even if it meant he would no longer be welcome at the New York Review of Books. Lasch studied Marx and Freud with such seriousness that he eventually recognized their limits, finding that the religion they had criticized and dismissed so authoritatively possessed insights that surpassed theirs. Let us hope that Eric Miller’s well-written, well-researched study will encourage readers to seek out Christopher Lasch’s own works and to emulate in some degree Lasch’s moral seriousness and intellectual integrity.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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