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Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch | The Nation

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Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch

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Born in Omaha in 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, Christopher Lasch graduated from Harvard in 1954, during the Eisenhower era’s mood of anxious complacency, and from there went directly to Columbia to do graduate work in history. Lasch’s career as a historian began as it would end forty years later with his death, with a search for the moral resources for the next New Deal. Lasch rejected the liberal history of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—whose legitimation of the cold war he disliked, and whose view of the permanence of the New Deal’s achievements he found naïve. He learned much of modern social science as well as European political and social thought, and took psychoanalysis and theology seriously. He became one of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals, but he increasingly doubted the capacity of his colleagues to guide their fellow citizens. His first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, a critique of liberalism’s early capitulation to imperialism, sold a few hundred copies when it appeared in 1962. His next book was published three years later. Called The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type, it depicted intellectuals’ sometimes unintended subservience to power, and it made him famous. Lasch regarded his success in part as a burden, and throughout his life he would insist on the importance of his ties to family, friends, colleagues and students.

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...

Also by the Author

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His parents were Midwestern progressives. His mother, Zora, was a university teacher, social worker and persistent feminist; his father, Robert, was a prominent newspaper editor and commentator at the Chicago Sun and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Lasches were determinedly secular, and read American history as it had been written by Charles and Mary Beard and the progressive historians—the struggle of a resolutely enlightened people against the lies and malevolence of the wealthy and powerful. The social legislation of the New Deal years confirmed Zora and Robert’s belief that American history proceeded in a straight line, its occasional jaggedness entirely the result of temporary accidents that could be remedied by right-thinking people like themselves. They were immensely proud of their son, an only child, but when he became fascinated with history’s temporary accidents they grew anxious that he would abandon familial convictions. Lasch remained in close and loving touch with his parents throughout his life, but he discarded their intellectual and political pieties as he grew older. He had considered a literary career and experimented with short stories and a novel. His historical writing, at once sparse, even parsimonious, in narrative yet rich in analogies, asides and metaphors, was intended for the educated public and those historians not shackled to disciplinary conventions. He distinguished historical background from political foreground, he was a master of argumentative clarity and he possessed unusual cultural sensitivity. His literary style and intellectual demeanor were of a sort that has become rare.

Given the large changes in Lasch’s thoughts and the wide range of his intellectual and personal friendships in our divided public culture, Eric Miller deserves thanks for having brought a spiritually difficult career to life so sympathetically. Hope in a Scattering Time is meticulous in its workmanship, lucid in exposition and honest about the biographer’s assumptions. Miller regrets that Lasch, unlike him, did not recover the Protestant beliefs of his forefathers in suitably modern forms. Imagine a book on Lasch written by Michael Wreszin, the admiring biographer of Dwight Macdonald, or by the historian Jackson Lears. They would not have scolded Lasch for failing to attend church. Miller is tactful, sometimes too much so; for instance, he tiptoes past Lasch’s frequently sardonic responses to contemporaries. When upbraiding the intellectuals who took CIA money when it was disbursed by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Lasch wrote, “We have heard a great deal about the ‘credibility gap’ that is supposed to have been created by the Johnson administration,” with its double-speak about Vietnam, “but what about the credibility of our most eminent intellectuals?” The sheer chaos and craziness of our national existence is present in Miller’s narrative but somewhat faintly, like a blaring radio murmuring on the other side of a thick wall. Lasch encountered many different intellectual and political milieus during his life, about which one would have welcomed a bit more color and detail (Miller does not mention his period on the board of Partisan Review). Miller succeeds splendidly in his essential task, however, tracing the development of Lasch’s thought as it became ever more complex.

* * *

When Lasch arrived at Harvard in 1950, the university was taking final leave of genteel tradition and patrician snobbery. His roommates were John Updike and a future research physician, James Finkelstein. The latter, a person of strong social convictions, is unmentioned in the biography. (Finkelstein later counseled Lasch during his struggles with cancer.) Lasch chose to study history instead of political science, law or sociology, or to follow his muse into writing fiction. He did an undergraduate thesis on anti-imperial movements in modern American history. He read and thought about St. Augustine and the theologians, who were taught to undergraduates in the new General Education program.

Harvard in those years was seriously divided. The undergraduates and the graduates in the humanities explored the Western tradition, and even learned something about it. Young technocrats like McGeorge Bundy, Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger were already indentured to the cold war state apparatus, sponsored by Harvard’s senior professorial servants. Commuting to Washington was common. Lasch would later describe the Kennedy administration as a union of Cafe Society and Route 128 (the Boston corridor where Harvard and MIT professors tend to their private consulting ventures). His criticism of the technocratic deformation of democracy and the university came after his undergraduate years. Lasch publicly refused to attend the twenty-fifth reunion of his class, declaring Harvard to be deficient in the pursuit of the common good. Those at Harvard in the 1950s who had the same thoughts were remarkably discreet or, as I did as a graduate student, crafted circumlocutions to disguise their doubts.

Harvard was divided in another way. In crowded fields, few undergraduates had direct and continuous contact with the university’s better-known professors. Lasch was taught by a graduate student who was concluding a doctoral thesis for Schlesinger on American Protestantism and politics. Still, Lasch acquired some sense of scholarly rigor and critical distance. In the meritocracy that imperial Harvard had become, overt opposition to American empire was rare. Harvard gave Lasch just enough protected space to inquire into the American consensus rather than join it.

When he moved on to graduate study at Columbia, the New Deal historian William Leuchtenberg became his very supportive teacher. Lasch did not like the narrow professionalism of academic history and did not find New York appealing. Columbia at the time had striking figures who defied academic narrowness—Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, Lionel Trilling. Lasch clearly learned much from Hofstadter without having been close to him. He complained about the absence of community among the graduate students, but he did not attach himself to any of the groups outside the university (such as the newly formed journal Dissent) that might have welcomed him. He became tongue-tied during his doctoral oral examination and failed. For someone who went on to become one of his generation’s most influential historians, the failure surely expressed his ambivalence toward academic life.

Lasch returned to the charge, strenuously encouraged by family and by Leuchtenberg, and rapidly produced a thesis on American liberals and the Soviet Revolution. It avoided cold war clichés, concentrating on the liberals’ response to a world so different from their own. Even then, he had an irrepressible iconoclastic streak, a stubborn skepticism about dominant schemes of historical interpretation, a capacity for asking the questions no one else had quite posed. One of his earliest published articles was a critical sketch of George Kennan [see “The Historian as Diplomat,” November 24, 1962]. In general, Lasch argued that the nation’s intellectual and social legacy made American triumphalism in crude or sophisticated form inevitable: if we were a vanguard nation, went the triumphalist argument, then others were duty bound to accept our commands, poorly disguised as benign advice, and domestic dissenters could not be taken seriously because they had obviously missed the point. Still, Lasch said, intellectuals who kept criticism alive could save what small chance there was of a larger political change. In 1962 Partisan Review had published a symposium in which some contributors had expressed doubts about US foreign policy. There was a public opening to criticism.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

Many of these questions were raised between the lines, some in footnotes, some in asides. On the way to answering them, Lasch took a very public detour with The Culture of Narcissism (1979). It built on the legacy of cultural criticism that went from Thoreau, if not Jefferson, to John Kenneth Galbraith (Lasch found The Affluent Society compelling). He saw in the self-seeking prevalent in the culture not simply a false moral choice but a perversion of psychology that was bound to generate pathologies, one being self-absorption in the spurious guise of self-fulfillment. The book was a bestseller, and it earned its author an invitation to the White House when President Carter sought advice on the national malaise in 1979 (Daniel Bell and Robert Bellah were also invited). Lasch liked Carter’s open quest for a redefinition of moral community in the United States, and later wrote the president long letters, which went unanswered.

In The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch thought he had begun to sort out the questions of the 1960s and ’70s. The Minimal Self had much less resonance than The Culture of Narcissism, even if it was a rhetorical continuation, identifying a Party of Narcissus. Lasch again used psychoanalytic ideas, tinged with the historical pessimism of the sort found in Freud’s later writings. He argued that modern people strove for the restoration of primitive or imagined early experiences of union, of oneness, but these were impossible to attain. They had therefore to learn renunciation while not abandoning themselves to the impulsiveness and momentary gratifications of consumer culture. Where, however, could they be fortified and rewarded for so much inner strenuousness?

In 1991, in a remarkable examination of much of the Western tradition of social thought and historical interpretation, Lasch proposed an answer. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics perplexed many of his earlier admirers, as he put much of American (and contemporary) radicalism behind him. He argued that movements of social change, whether seeking reform or revolution, had been gravely mistaken in supposing that they were on solid historical ground when treating their definitions of progress—higher standards of living, maximum social mobility, ruthless rejection of convention and tradition—as absolutes. His understanding of progress was rather like that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who many years earlier in Tristes Tropiques had treated Western views of progress (and therewith, the designation of others as “primitive”) as a supreme example of ethnocentrism. Even Sartre, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, had posited a human substratum to historical events and did not use the rhetoric of progress but of authenticity. As Lasch described the path from the Enlightenment to modernity, he argued that secularization was not historically inevitable or self-evidently true, and found reason to attribute moral value to religion. His was a rather general image of religion, which included social Catholicism and prophetic Judaism (and ignored the religions of the rest of the world). Religion in his view taught gratitude for the gifts of life, forbearance of its disappointments.

* * *

Lasch acknowledged his debts to critics of progress, from Edmund Burke to Lewis Mumford, the latter much read in the New Deal years and forgotten in the postwar ones. Lasch now emphasized the value of continuity. He insisted that rejection of the obligations of family and community led to inner emptiness and desperate and often destructive social experimentation. He accepted the view that the many servitudes entailed in advanced capitalism should be overcome, and doubted that industrial society—with its Promethean habits, its obsession with conquering new heights and building ever larger cities—could be reformed. That led him to the older critics of scale and the newer ones of environmental destruction.

In the 1960s Lasch gravitated from criticism of the liberalism incorporated in the postwar American welfare state to hopes in the New Left. What was different about Lasch’s thought in 1991 was that he no longer accepted a belief in historical progress as benign. Forty-six years after the end of World War II, he had concluded that humanity unrestrained was more likely to enchain itself or self-destruct than construct a new moral community. To answer the question of what sort of restraints were needed, he turned to moral philosophy, joining it in his own way with what he had learned from Freud.

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994) was the last book Lasch would complete before dying of cancer. (He refused chemotherapy because he had concluded that it would not save his life and would destroy his capacity to write.) It was a work with two messages. The most obvious was his denunciation of the moral isolation of the nation’s elites, their sense of superiority and justified privilege, their claim that they represented a triumphant modernity, the universal acceptance of which was delayed by the philistine shortsightedness of the less educated and less fortunate. The second message was that hope for a different life had to begin with an affirmation of ordinary life—the business of living, the rhythms of the life cycle—and not from the endorsement of a metahistorical project dispensed from on high. In his last years, Lasch, notwithstanding his lack of religious belief, traded intellectually with theologians. He decided that they were using concepts like being, suffering and redemption to describe the permanent structures of human existence that he had approached empirically. He was drawn to the Protestant existentialists, whose hero was the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rather than to the Catholic visionaries, with their exalted notions of community. Perhaps that was an oblique tribute to his familial origins, and to the American past.

Miller attributes to Lasch a final philosophy rooted in reverence for life, but it is unclear that Lasch would have tolerated so simple a formulation. He could accept neither secular progressivism nor the consolations existential Christianity offered. Lasch was a spiritual pilgrim, reminding others of the unshared past they had lost but might be able to recover. He was a reformer in a society in which the most elemental of reforms, the democratization of economic life, has not been accomplished. When he died he was planning a book on class in the United States, which might have brought together some of the separate strands of his work: the failure of democratic citizenship, the miseries of emotional life in our commodity culture, the deformations of mass culture and the inadequacies of our educational institutions. Lasch was a distinctly American figure, yet he was a true contemporary of Jürgen Habermas, the German advocate of a new public sphere, and of Pierre Nora, the French historian who insists on the indispensable contribution of memory to civilized politics. That American culture could bring forth so relentless a critic is perhaps one of the reasons to still think well of it.

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