Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch | The Nation


Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch

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After Columbia, Lasch searched for a welcoming academic setting. He moved from place to place, settling for a while at Iowa and Northwestern before finally moving to the University of Rochester in 1970. He wrote The New Radicalism in America while on leave at Cambridge, England, in the 1963–64 academic year, living in a house lent by his father-in-law, the historian Henry Steele Commager (an iconic liberal of the post–New Deal years, who is hardly mentioned in the biography). By then, Lasch and his wife, Nell, had three small children, and he was absorbed in family life. He did not seek contact with the British New Left intellectuals or the radical historians grouped around the journal Past and Present. (I was at Oxford then and a member of both groups: we would have been very glad to meet him.) Instead, he used his geopolitical distance from the United States to write about American intellectuals from 1889 to 1963. The argument, that intellectuals neglected their responsibilities to educate the nation, was not new. What was distinctive was his portrait of intellectuals not as utopians but as self-indulgent strivers. In the pursuit of modern freedoms (especially in the realm of sexuality), they grew even more distant from ordinary Americans. Offering their fellow citizens guidance in a common struggle against capitalism, they seized their share of power and status. Hence the transformation of the thinkers of the Progressive movement from adversaries of bigness to propagandists for Woodrow Wilson’s war, and for the migration of New Deal reformers from universities and statehouses to Washington.

Hope in a Scattering Time
A Life of Christopher Lasch.
By Eric Miller.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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The New Radicalism in America appeared in 1965, after the civil rights movement, the Berkeley free speech movement and the protests against the Vietnam War had given some intellectuals connections to living history. Lasch severely criticized intellectuals like Kennan who volunteered for frontline ideological duty in the cold war. Even dissenters from the cold war consensus were rebuked. In a caustic examination of the antics of Norman Mailer, Lasch suggested that the novelist’s drive to surpass all limits consigned him, in the end, to a role as national jester. The book was received as an endorsement of the new wave of activism, even though it warned the nation that the intellectuals were singularly deficient in constancy and clarity (not least in their enthusiasm for Kennedy). Lasch was especially acute about the ambiguities and paradoxes of cultural emancipation and the contradictions of early feminism. The New Radicalism preceded Noam Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins by four years, André Schiffrin and Theodore Roszak’s The Dissenting Academy by three.

I reviewed The New Radicalism for Partisan Review, positively but uneasily. I had left the United States in 1952 and remained in Europe to teach in Britain. I was on the faculty at Strasbourg and struggling over a return home when the book appeared in 1965. I could no longer justify remaining in Europe as a rejection of a reactionary nation. My French colleagues and students were envious of the new American excitements, if largely uncomprehending of their causes; de Gaulle dominated France, and neither he nor his adversaries could envisage anything like the French uprising of 1968. Now, it seemed, a new American generation was coming around to thoughts I had long held. One of the effects of reading Lasch was to hasten my packing for home.

Later we met. Living in Amherst from 1968 to 1979, I often visited the Lasches at their summer house in Vermont. A friendship full of stimulation and warmth ensued. We saw each other mainly in summers, but often telephoned and corresponded (in those days one still wrote letters). We planned a journal in company with friends like Christopher Jencks and Richard Sennett. The possibility of a rival publication so alarmed William Phillips that he put us on the editorial board of Partisan Review in 1971. By then Lasch had moved to Rochester, where he would endure the disappointments of attempted collaboration with Eugene Genovese, an extremely gifted historian but—quite apart from his fulminating alteration of his political views—a very difficult colleague. Lasch had hoped that with Genovese he could build a house for a new approach to history. Instead, he found that he had to seek refuge in his own circle from the tempests conjured up by Eugene. One memory of those years stands out: the richness of the family life of the Lasches. It was a source of Christopher’s remarkable independence of the many academic and political pressures to which, as a major intellectual, he was exposed. It was also, for friends, fun. After he and I, in the Vermont kitchen, recorded a dialogue that we published in 1975 in Partisan Review, Nell assured me that her doubts had been dissipated: I was intelligent after all.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s Lasch sought to shape the New Left into the redemptive movement he and many of the rest of us were seeking. Decentralization, local autonomy, a distrust of doctrines of efficiency and technocratic calculation were crucial issues on the New Left. Lasch thought of a reinvigorated citizenship, and sought contact with revisionist historians and activists like Gar Alperovitz, Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd. He joined the socialist historian James Weinstein in a group intended to develop a large project for democratic renewal. As the New Left succumbed to sectarianism and self-immolation and Lasch’s disappointment with it grew, I decided to explore profane American politics by working with the United Auto Workers and the New Deal’s heirs in the Democratic Party. I was impelled to do so by the lessons being offered by Europe. Enrico Berlinguer in Italy, Willy Brandt in Germany and François Mitterrand in France were persuading the makers of a culture of protest to accept the burdens of a long march through the institutions of society. Lasch took a different approach, sensing—correctly—that the analogy to Europe was shallow. By the time I moved to Washington in 1979, we had taken very different paths. Miller’s biography confirms my regrets. I missed a very great deal in not confronting Lasch’s thought after our common immersion in the New Left.

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After the publication of The New Radicalism in America, Lasch’s influence was considerable. He spoke across the nation, wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books and had access to a large public. He thought of himself as a socialist and remained in touch with a wide spectrum of American social criticism. The experience, along with his doubts, took literary form in The Agony of the American Left, published in 1969. He returned to the theme evoked in his acerbic remarks on Mailer: the student movement had to replace acting out with serious social action. To endure, a popular movement would have to draw upon cultural sources deeper than a political agenda (as the African-American protest had done in the South). Above all, new forms for the practice of democracy in everyday life would have to be created by reviving legacies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, erased by the homogenization of mass culture and the corporate colonization of daily life. Lasch thought of these new forms as modern versions of local self-government and the self-education of an independent citizenry. Much of his later work sought to answer the question of why these radical early American practices had dissolved.

The Agony of the American Left described a failed revolution that was ideologically and intellectually contradictory. Lasch’s readers thought of him as one the left’s most effective protagonists, yet he was already struggling to make sense of the ideas that would set him apart from the left. At the high point of secular America’s struggle to dominate the culture, Lasch raised the possibility that secular progressivism was not sufficient for inspiring the constancy and dedication required by an enduring movement for institutional change. He was trying to explain the defeat inflicted upon the Democratic Party in 1968 by the group it had tried so much to integrate into American society: the white working class. No doubt, many in that class disliked racial equality and feminism. Lasch returned to the criticism he had put forward in The New Radicalism: the educated elites were too dismissive of the legacy of populism, and of its democratic potential.

Lasch turned to psychoanalysis after having spent much time and effort on Marxism. He was impressed by the ways the Frankfurt School sought to connect psychoanalysis to a Marxist social analysis. He continued to write on matters political and social, but in 1977, eight years after The Agony of the American Left, he published Haven in a Heartless World. It was a defense of the family against those he thought of as its traducers, the social scientists and therapists who saw it, variously, as oppressive, patriarchal and pathological. Lasch argued that the critics of the family imputed a fundamental desire for cultural experiment to others who did not want to seek new limits, and who may well have been healthier for accepting old ones. Lasch had already rejected the cultural leveling favored by many in the New Left, and he now struck at their emancipatory claims. More than a few on the left found it difficult to situate Lasch politically, and he found their bewilderment reassuring.

He did try to master complex questions that others (myself included) frequently avoided. Was there a human nature that could provide a new standard for a different sort of democratic politics? Was the command of the state, politics in the superstructure, the most effective road to achieving enduring social transformation? Was a larger view of the autonomy of local institutions more revolutionary than the ideas of benign command from the top? Were there practices and values that, so far from being discarded as unprogressive, merited saving as our primary historical inheritance? Had American history taken a wrong turn somewhere, setting the nation on a path that made the failure of democracy inevitable? Given the shallow ambitions of the intellectuals, the failure of the universities and the emphasis of reformers on redistribution rather than moral reconstruction, were there other social groups that could bring about lasting transformations?

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