Historian, Critic, Prophet

Christopher Lasch & the American Predicament

Christopher Lasch“There is only one cure for the malady that afflicts our culture,” the late Christopher Lasch wrote, “and that is to speak the truth about it.” Historian, critic, moralist, and truth-teller, Lasch was a uniquely penetrating observer of American life in the late twentieth century. Beginning in 1961 with an intuition of “a possible connection between social progress and human disintegration,” he became both a searing critic of liberals’ faith in progress and a voice of conscience for a complacent nation. Indeed, Lasch may be the last great social critic this country has produced. Sixteen years after his death, at any rate, no one has taken his place.

Lasch is best known as the author of The Culture of Narcissism, the unlikely bestseller that led to an invitation to the White House to consult with Jimmy Carter in advance of Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” address of July 1979. Derided at the time as a gloomy lament over American “malaise” (a word Carter never actually uttered), the speech now stands as a rare moment of seriousness in our recent political history. Upbeat talk about Americans’ can-do spirit has been mandatory since Ronald Reagan, and Lasch must seem to many a curio of that long-ago era before Morning-in-America—a Jeremiah in a country that has slammed the door on its great jeremiad tradition.

The Culture of Narcissism brought Lasch celebrity, but also a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Narcissism, he wrote later, “is a difficult idea that looks easy—a good recipe for confusion.” The problem he had attempted to diagnose in The Culture of Narcissism was not an overweening sense of self, but rather its opposite. Americans as he saw them were haunted by insecurity, dependent on outside experts and the media for validation, and sadly incapable of trust. A “cult of personal relations” masked the poverty of personal life. Narcissus fell in love with his own image, Lasch implied, because image was all he had left.

If Carter and others misread the book’s definition of narcissism as hedonism, they missed its author’s radicalism altogether. Far from indicting American selfishness, Lasch took aim at a new elite that had substituted therapeutic guidance for democratic self-rule. The implications for our political and civic culture were ominous. “American capitalism has rejected priestly and monarchical hegemony,” he wrote, “only to replace it with the hegemony of the business corporation, the managerial and professional classes who operate the corporate system, and the corporate state.” In his analysis, cultural radicals who hailed “liberation” from traditional constraints were the unwitting handmaidens of a new kind of dependency, a “paternalism without father.”

Eric Miller’s new biography, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans, $32, 420 pp.), is the first of several studies of Lasch likely to appear in the next several years. After long neglect, there is palpable excitement once again about Lasch’s work. With the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election giving way to the old dreary debates, younger Americans especially are looking for new political ideas, and the most innovative blogs—Front Porch Republic and The New Inquiry, for example—strike a recognizably Laschian note. As Lasch once said of his undergraduate students at the University of Rochester, “they want to hear some plain words of truth. Like all students, they’re looking for moral wisdom and intellectual guidance about the things that matter, which can be summarized in a single phrase as the conduct of life.”

Readers unfamiliar with Lasch’s work beyond The Culture of Narcissism will find Eric Miller a helpful guide through his pursuit of the causes of human degradation and his courageous efforts to define a politics that might reverse it. Miller aptly characterizes Lasch as a historian who “wrote as an intellectual, with the soul of a citizen, the mind of a scholar, and the eyes of a judge, aiming for the kind of discriminating, learned observation that might offer a way beyond the present.” His study also captures much of what was memorable about Lasch personally—his melancholic yet hopeful disposition, his acute propriety, and his eagerness for intellectual fellowship. (Readers should know that Lasch, who wrote regularly for Commonweal in the last years of his life, was my friend and teacher, and that Miller interviewed me for his biography.)

Born in 1932, Lasch spent his childhood in Omaha and suburban Chicago, growing up in a household full of conversation about politics and culture. His parents Robert and Zora Schaupp Lasch were Midwestern progressives on the left wing of the New Deal coalition. Robert was a maverick journalist and editor whose prescient 1965 editorials against Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won him a Pulitzer Prize. Zora was a philosophy professor and social worker who met the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey while a graduate student. Miller treats the couple as representatives of the secular “new class” of liberal professionals that their son “Kit” would lambaste in his later writings, but in truth, the elder Lasches’ Midwestern progressivism was closer to the neopopulism of Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette than to the technocratic liberalism their son would come to deplore. (Lasch himself later characterized his parents as “anti–Cold War liberals.”)

To say that the young Kit Lasch was precocious is putting it mildly. Talented as a musician, he also started a novel and a history of English poetry, built a printing press for his publications, and gave impassioned speeches at his high school in support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid. Rooming with John Updike while at Harvard encouraged his literary ambitions, but he chose to major in history and wrote a thesis on New England’s anti-imperialists under the direction of Donald Meyer, later a leading historian of liberal Protestantism. Lasch dabbled in religious history and theology, enrolling in courses that dumbfounded his parents: theology was the “dopiest subject” imaginable, his father remarked, while Zora joked that a “religious flare-up” might warrant psychiatric help for her son.

The decision to become a U.S. historian led Lasch to the premier graduate program in the field at Columbia, where he studied with the New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg. Those were dark years for Lasch. The anonymity of New York repelled him, and the “callousness...and the surprising lack of intellectual content” of Columbia’s program left him cold. He later confessed to being unaware of the constellation of public intellectuals among Columbia’s faculty, or even of Reinhold Niebuhr’s presence a few blocks north at Union Theological Seminary. But the time at Columbia nonetheless proved crucial. Serving as research assistant to the famed historian Richard Hofstadter introduced Lasch to a different approach to history, one in which synthesis, interpretation, and attention to public controversy mattered more than amassing archival materials. Hofstadter became “the dominant figure on my intellectual horizon,” Lasch recalled decades later, a historian and political critic whose “reengagement with the progressive tradition” and “compelling blend of analysis and narrative” set a standard Lasch strove to make his own. Hofstadter was friendly with writers at the Partisan Review, and his journey from Marxism to liberal cosmopolitanism paralleled theirs. His Anti-intellectualism in American Life depicted intellectuals as a beleaguered minority, threatened by a populist heartland that rumbled “with an underground revolt against [the] tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.”

Well-connected in the publishing world, Hofstadter helped Lasch get a contract for the book that launched his career. The New Radicalism in America (1965) told the story of twentieth-century social critics and reformers, from Jane Addams through Norman Mailer, with a novelist’s ability to summon up the inner lives of people in the past as if they were contemporaries. Like Hofstadter, Lasch probed the precarious status of intellect in American history, even as he mounted a subtle critique of his hero’s work. It was “the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals” that troubled Lasch. Haunted by fears of their uselessness, intellectuals had fled critical inquiry in pursuit either of intense experience or a politics of “social control.” Portraits of Addams, Mabel Dodge, and other World War I–era progressives revealed a “confusion of politics and culture” that Lasch traced to the disintegration of a nineteenth-century world of Protestantism, patriarchy, and property. While Lasch found much to admire in their radicalism, and would reflect on Addams and Randolph Bourne for years to come, he was not interested in applauding good intentions. He wanted instead to understand the “subjective necessity” of social reform, as Addams called it, the despair that drove intellectuals to crave action as a release from thought.

The rush of intellectuals to man the battle stations of the wartime state especially drew Lasch’s ire. Bourne’s indictment of prowar progressives at the New Republic became the model for many of Lasch’s later essays on Cold War liberals, including one on the Congress for Cultural Freedom that made Bourne look as if he was pulling his punches. The failure of intellectuals to distance themselves from power and establish a durable opposition remained a constant theme in Lasch’s work.

The success of The New Radicalism established Lasch as a public intellectual in his own right. Editors solicited his reviews for journals of opinion, and he became a mainstay at the New York Review of Books, churning out essays that mixed historical synthesis with polemic, part of his ongoing mission to define an intellectual life of integrity and independence. Lasch was as tough on the New Left as he was on Cold War liberals. The teach-ins of the early 1960s had promised a new kind of academic culture that was both rigorous and politically engaged, but the nihilism of what Lasch called the “demented Left” swept all that away. The absence of a conservative intellectual opposition was equally disastrous. In his 1973 essay “The Moral and Intellectual Rehabilitation of the Ruling Class,” Lasch explored how the Atlantic mercantile elite had shed its provincial origins and embraced the nationalizing forces of industry and empire. In the process, its intellectual leaders remade themselves as modern management, forgoing the creation of “centers of culture” that would uphold older standards of public conduct and “give direction and clarity to the national life.”    

In the 1970s, Lasch worked hard to carve a niche for himself free of the reigning political orthodoxies. Essay after essay probed the connections between ideology, public institutions, and personal life; everything had to fit together, from the ascendancy of “corporate liberalism” to the degradation of work and the decay of humanistic learning within the “knowledge industry.” His reading led him to combine two currents of European thought—Marxism and Freudianism—which, taken together, promised a fuller account of modern degradation. Western Marxists like Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, and Raymond Williams had challenged mechanical models of economic “base” and ideological “superstructure,” making contests over ideas, meaning, and legitimacy central to analysis of capitalist “hegemony.” Marxism was not enough, however; the Left, Lasch believed, needed Freud to understand “how coercion is internalized in the psyche.” The “hard,” biological Freud that progressives had long shunned—of the Oedipal complex, instinct theory, and the inevitable conflict between culture and biology—explained the psychic origins of domination. Psychoanalysis also disclosed a limit to the social claim in the very nature of the divided self.

Marx and Freud joined forces in Haven in a Heartless World (1977), a book that confounded many admirers and marked Lasch’s transformation from intellectual historian to social critic. Careless readers missed the irony of the book’s title. Lasch did not in fact view the contemporary family as a haven; on the contrary, the burden of his argument was that the family had long ago ceased to be a bulwark against the marketplace. The pre-industrial family, grounded in a household economy that integrated work and home life, had indeed served as a refuge of sorts. But the removal of work eviscerated family life. American homes now seethed with emotional conflicts that seemed to require intervention by therapists, juvenile reformers, and other “helping professionals.” Just as the corporate “socialization of production” had “proletarianized the labor force,” so in Lasch’s view had “the socialization of reproduction proletarianized parenthood, by making people unable to provide for their own needs without the supervision of trained experts.” The result, he believed, was a new and insidious form of dependence. “Today the state controls not merely the individual’s body but as much of his spirit as it can preempt,” he warned; “not merely his outer but his inner life as well; not merely the public realm but the darkest corners of private life.”

Feminists charged Haven in a Heartless World with sentimentalizing family life and deriding professions in which women had come to play a leading role—though Lasch, as Miller points out, was generally harder on fathers, castigating them for fleeing the home. A stronger critique might have questioned the connection the book made between corporate control of workers and experts’ intervention in the home. In fact, the two processes differed in important respects: while skilled workers and craftsmen resisted the imposition of the assembly line, the socialization of the family rested on a different political dynamic, as women often welcomed the intervention of outsiders when confronting abusive or absent husbands. But Lasch’s concerns lay elsewhere, in the attenuation of the family’s responsibility for rearing adults capable of moral discrimination and self-government. The formation of character was at risk in the dissolution of family life, he believed. Only through the arduous process of working through their dependence could children internalize parents’ standards and ultimately master them—and in so doing, master their own rage at the inevitable constraints of culture on instinct. Outsourcing family functions to professionals made it “more difficult than ever for the child to become an autonomous adult.” What resulted were adults who alternated between delusions of grandeur and deep despair, and who were left vulnerable to manipulation by the media. Hardly the character traits required of a robust democracy.

Lasch’s dark vision in Haven and The Culture of Narcissism may have won him a popular audience in post-Watergate America, but the books made him a pariah to the Left. No less enamored of happy endings than Reagan, the Left hammered his “nostalgia.” Progressives who embraced the “rights revolution” had little patience with his claim that weakening the family contributed to the degradation of politics and public morality. One review in Dissent likened his position to fascism. Against this backdrop, in 1984 Lasch issued one more statement of his position on narcissism, The Minimal Self. His final foray into Freudianism identified the central “contradiction held in tension by the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism: namely, that all of us, men and women alike, experience the pain of separation and simultaneously long for a restoration of the original sense of union.” “Selfhood,” he asserted, “is precisely the inescapable awareness of man’s contradictory place in the natural order of things.”

That awareness opened a new door for Lasch, one that led him to religious inquiry. Following Niebuhr, he now recommended a revival of what he considered “valuable” in Judeo-Christian individualism—namely, “the definition of selfhood as tension, division, conflict.” The believer’s agonized conscience served “as a reminder both of our fallen state and of our surprising capacity for gratitude, remorse, and forgiveness, by means of which we now and then transcend it.” Prophetic religion offered the ethical foundation for a radicalism Lasch now identified with populism and the environmental movement. He found Wendell Berry more useful than Marx: Marxists remained in thrall to industrial progress. Conservatives were no better, with their faith in godless capitalism making a mockery of “traditional values.” Historian Gar Alperovitz later recalled Lasch’s “sense that you had to follow the trail.” The trail took Lasch to a politics “beyond left and right.” “What if we reject the equation of industrialism with democracy,” he wondered, “and start instead from the premise that large-scale industrial production undermines local institutions of self-government, weakens the party system, and discourages popular initiative?”

Prophecy and populism pulsed through Lasch’s writings in the 1980s, culminating in his 1991 magnum opus The True and Only Heaven. This was history written in the grand style, a work that drew on a lifetime of reading and thinking about the resources necessary for a robust democratic politics and a rigorous, honest life. Lasch began by recasting liberalism as a philosophy of desire. Eighteenth-century political economists had held “that human wants, being insatiable, required an indefinite expansion of the productive forces necessary to satisfy them.” Human progress accordingly was measured in the consumption of luxuries. Such a worldview, Lasch presciently held, was not only morally repellent, but would ultimately prove unsustainable. “The belated discovery that the earth’s ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces,” he wrote, “deals the final blow to the belief in progress.”

And so Lasch took off down another trail, in an attempt to rescue populism—the tradition that ran from Tom Paine’s artisanal radicalism to the “cooperative commonwealth” envisioned by the Knights of Labor and the People’s Party of the Gilded Age. Marxists had long derided populists as “petty-bourgeois,” while liberals like Hofstadter warned against the “paranoid style” that snaked through modern history from agrarianism to McCarthyism. But Lasch insisted that populism represented the last, best defense of democratic politics, one that combined the opposites he had increasingly sought to reconcile. Populism “was anticapitalist but not socialist or social-democratic,” he reminded his readers, “at once radical, even revolutionary, and deeply conservative.”

That way of thinking was not altogether new for Lasch. His socialist politics had always been more populist than Marxist, but he now drew a bright line between the two positions. Populists understood that democracy required the widest distribution of property. As always, character and conduct remained uppermost in Lasch’s mind. The welfare state provided no compensation for the loss of independence that followed on the destruction of small-scale production. Character traits once engendered by small family enterprises had likewise dissipated, with commercialized leisure deadening the souls of a population of “wage slaves.” In Lasch’s view, the best argument for a robust democracy was the life it promised of “moral combat” and “superabundant vitality.” He assembled a pantheon of heroes, from Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Luther King Jr., who recommended hope and wonder in the face of life’s disappointments. Edwards and his successors identified civic virtue with “consent and good will to Being in general.” Recognition of human limitation was the precondition for a hope that transcended promises of plenty: it was hope against hope.

Lasch’s case for a prophetic populism made for exhilarating reading, but it also raised questions. Was Emerson, a central figure in the book, really a populist? Whitman would have better served his purposes. Did the populists themselves adhere to an ethic of limits? Limits were what they combated every day, as bankers and landlords assaulted their livelihood. The book’s treatment of King was far more compelling. No sentimental dreamer, King (as Lasch presented him) was a theological conservative whose nonviolence combined political realism with forgiveness. What Niebuhr called the “spiritual discipline against resentment” held out the possibility for a common repentance among former adversaries, as both sides came to recognize their frailty and brokenness. King knew better than anyone the moral demands of his position; to struggle for justice meant living a life of agonized conscience. “We are gravely mistaken,” King said, “to think that religion protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence. Life is not a euphoria of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease.... To be a Christian one must take up his cross.”

The True and Only Heaven comprised Lasch’s final answer to Hofstadter and other intellectuals who believed they were a “civilized minority” in a nation of reactionaries. Writing as a “connected critic,” in Michael Walzer’s phrase, he reminded Americans of their country’s democratic promise. In the end, the book’s most profound contribution was its mustering of hope as a spiritual discipline against progressive optimism. “The disposition properly described as hope, trust, or wonder,” Lasch wrote, “asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits. It cannot be defeated by adversity.” The book marked the culmination of a profound journey. Lasch had followed the trail all the way down, from the new radicals to Edwards, King, and Christ on the cross.

Eric Miller portrays Lasch as a spiritual seeker, a “secular postmodern pilgrim” (in Paul Elie’s words) who moved “to the threshold of belief” even if he could not embrace belief himself. That perspective is both the strength of Miller’s biography and its weakness. Hope in a Scattering Time offers important insights into Lasch’s religious turn after 1980, but its account of the man in the decades prior to that often reads as simply prologue. Miller, who teaches history at Geneva College, an Evangelical school near Pittsburgh, tends to read later concerns back into the early work. All roads lead to The True and Only Heaven in this biography.

Miller is at his best when examining the ambiguities of Lasch’s understanding of religion. He notes the puzzling absence of any sustained meditation on the heart of Christian doctrine in “a series of theological ‘insights’ that did not include the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.” Religion to Lasch meant Niebuhrian prophecy and Edwards’s grateful submission to “Being in general.” Other traditions held little appeal, even when—as in Catholic social thought—they bolstered his position. He never joined a church; indeed, he admired the most anti-institutional strains of Protestantism. It was Christ against culture, as it once had been Freud against culture.

As Miller pushes his critique further, he raises as many questions about his own position as he does about Lasch’s. He believes that Lasch needed “an epistemic basis for his ontological framework,” a foundation for his moral judgments. That may be Miller’s way, but it was not Lasch’s; and it is not self-evident that Miller has the better side of the argument. Lasch looked to the moral narrative of American democracy—not to ontology—for authoritative standards. The difference between a healthy and unhealthy respect for authority may rest on exactly that distinction.

Lasch was more a vitalist than a religious thinker, closer to William James than to Thomas Merton. It was precisely because he hated the deadening of thought and spirit in industrial society that he could write with such insight about the new radicals and their quest for intense experience. He knew what they were looking for, and why. The True and Only Heaven finds its point of departure in a remark in a 1904 letter from James to the British liberal writer L. T. Hobhouse: “Your bogey is superstition, my bogey is desiccation.” Writing history as social criticism and prophecy was Lasch’s response to the desiccation of national memory. For forty years, beginning by studying Addams in 1965 and concluding one of his last essays by invoking “the Founding Fathers of America,” Lasch literally wrote himself into past debates in a grand and generous effort to revitalize them for contemporary readers. He was claiming a place at the table, no doubt, but he was also clearing a place for the rest of us, making us recognize how deeply the past coursed through our own experience.

In June 1993, after receiving the diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him, Lasch wrote his doctor: “I love life, and have tried to live with intensity, passion, and integrity; but for this very reason I am prepared to leave it if called to do so.” He died on Valentine’s Day 1994 at sixty-one. Those of us who were his friends never recognized the media’s caricature of him as a dour misanthrope. Kit Lasch was a man of great warmth and feeling, whose love of life was evident in his astonishing hospitality and in the home he transformed with his own hands into a place of beauty. Lasch upheld an old idea of “home culture” against a superficial cosmopolitanism. His own home culture thrived in the high-spirited gatherings he and his wife Nell hosted for children, neighbors, students, and colleagues—late nights of play and conversation about ideas. The art of sociability went hand in hand with other arts in that household, with writing, music, carpentry, and gardening. At the end of each long, hard Rochester winter, Lasch’s garden exploded in a riot of color, a “superabundant vitality” of flowers that seemed to erupt spontaneously, but was of course the result of careful planting and arduous labor. Lasch seeded and sodded, for hours and for years, to make new life possible.

What Emerson wrote of Thoreau holds true for Christopher Lasch: “wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

 


From the archive: Misreading the Facts about Families, by Christopher Lasch

Related: Cutting Through the Cant, by Andrew J. Bacevich

Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: 

Casey Nelson Blake is a professor of history and American studies at Columbia University. Blake and Christopher Phelps conducted interviews with Christopher Lasch for the March 1994 issue of the Journal of American History.

Also by this author
New Century, Same Crisis

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Books
Collections