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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.” 

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