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Radicals and Intellectuals

The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type

by Christopher Lasch
Knopf, 349 pp., $6.95

History is haughty to writers not of the first quality; to crusading intellectuals who write their names in causes—programmatic intellectuals, idealistic, liberal, radical, utopian—it can be devastating. Mr. Lasch sees modern American radicalism as the expression of intellectuals, and these intellectuals as typically rebels against their own middle-class backgrounds; by the time he gets through analyzing the careers of Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lincoln Steffens, and on a smaller scale those of Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Sidney Hook, Dwight Macdonald, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Norman Mailer, one recognizes the full extent of the snub, the classical stare of non-recognition, which one generation administers to another. I have been awaiting for some time a rejoinder to the veterans of the Thirties by a young historian born in the Thirties—and here it is, cool as you please, brilliantly thought out and sharply written, scholarly yet committed and open. This is a book to take seriously. Mr. Lasch is a careful and self-dependent thinker, he has no newer radicalism to offer but does have a great many subtle observations to make about the old, and his keen sense of the limitations of politics in our era of the bigger and bigger state tells a great deal about the overriding sense of American limitations from which this book arose.

Mr. Lasch is not of the “new left”; he is not, despite his use of a close biographical method, psychoanalytical; he is a social historian. What this means to me, on the evidence of his book, is that he believes in the objective reality of middle-class radicalism at a certain time and place, in the social truth of analogous careers around the turn of the century. It is not the “representative” intellectual, a sample intellectual, who interests him; it is the intellectual who literally, by the force of his own testimony, characterizes his situation and so helps us to understand the response of other intellectuals in his generation. Where the sociologist would pick some one more “typical” than neurasthenic Jane Addams, deformed Randolph Bourne, narcissistic Mabel Dodge, elusive Lincoln Steffens, Mr. Lasch has picked these figures precisely because they tell us more about themselves and others. These people were articulate and self-realizing in their writings; the social historian has to listen. Yet their entire concern with causes shows that they are not exceptional; they are significant to the social historian because they lived so much for causes, because they sought through the remaking of American culture the liberation of so many people like themselves.

A subject exists for a writer when the writer can show that it exists for him in form and substance. Mr. Lasch does not have to prove the validity of any “methodology”; he starts off by getting into the career of Jane Addams, and makes her live, in his terms, as one of the “new” intellectuals of the Eighties and Nineties—unable to work up any interest in theology; in revolt against gentility, “repression,” uninhibited laissez-faire; heading for the key belief of the pre-war renaissance that knowledge must be applied to life in the interests of “social control,” “life adjustment,” “education for citizenship.”

Mr. Lasch is perfectly sure that his detailed account of the personal unrest behind so many idealists does not constitute an “explaining-away” of their earnestly held beliefs. But since the whole point of his biographical method is to refute the older and more usual thesis that his subjects were more sensitive than others to social outrage, his sense of what really happened when the “new” intellectuals from the genteel middle class came into contact with suffering in the big cities is that these intellectuals experienced a “cultural crisis played out against the increasingly audible sounds of revolution.”

What was achieved by this cultural crisis does not impress Mr. Lasch. Mabel Dodge Luhan and other American leaders of the first Freudian generation were unable to understand, even when they were in contact with D. H. Lawrence in America, that Lawrence’s prime interest was in writing. The “religion of experience” was deep in these intellectuals who felt “different” from the bustling extroverts around them; they were enthusiastic about “instinct,” they felt that cultural self-liberation was “an objective to be strived after with all one’s powers,” if possible to be promoted by politics. Like so many beatniks, hipsters, and moral libertarians in our day, they were too busy defying the opposition ever to achieve works of art or to attend patiently to those who do.

Mr. Lasch is very good on this religion of experience, which has never been more intense than in our post-genteel age, but which remains the same series of defiant gestures, from the first Freudians to the latest Reichians, against what theoretically excludes the intellectual from the “vital” and “dangerous” and “real.” But Mr. Lasch does not fairly show the provincialism and moral anxiety against which so many fine writers in the Middle West rose seventy years ago, and which they made their subject. After all, the reason we know the difference between Mabel Dodge Luhan and D. H. Lawrence is that Lawrence had the genius to make his frustrations in Nottingham at the end of the nineteenth century seem everyone’s frustrations even now, while Mabel Dodge merely said that she was too good for Buffalo. But Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and many others did prove that they were too good for the mean, gossipy, sterile towns in which they grew up. Does this mean that the “religion of experience” is inglorious and self-concerned only when relatively ungifted people preach it? Was there nothing real for Lawrence’s friends and Dreiser’s friends to revolt against?

Mr. Lasch has his advantage over the sociologist who works in samples and categories; he does not have the advantage that the historian of the times has. He does not admit the past as an historical dimension, an objective presence; he is too intent on showing the comparative shallowness and abstractness of the intellectuals’ revolt against it. One can grant him everything he says about American intellectuals who were not artists and thought that they could enlist even politics in the service of cultural improvement—ridiculous in the Eighties, even more ridiculous now. What Mr. Lasch does not do, however, is to show the actual prohibitions, gentilities, sterilities, and complacencies against which the “new” intellectuals arose at the turn of the century. Santayana, who was here when the genteel tradition was more than a phrase, once wrote in a letter that

the old genteel America was not happy; it was eager to know the truth and to be “cultured,” and to love “art,” and to miss nothing that made other nations interesting or distinguished, and it was terribly and constitutionally unhappy, because with its handicap and its meagreness of soul and its thinness of temper and its paucity of talent, it could not attain, nor even approach, any of those ideals.

That was the situation out of which the new radicalism came. Yet Mr. Lasch’s criticism is that the intellectuals tried to supplant this culture by abstract slogans and “progressivism” in politics and education; he is surely right. American intellectuals have produced all the radicalism we have; visitors like George Lichtheim think that American “liberalism” does not exist outside the colleges and universities. This liberalism-radicalism is, however, bound to the society that has produced it—never more so than today, when among the middle-aged and now prosperous children of the depression, Russia serves as an alibi for complacency about their condition, while among the newer, or hipster radicals, obviously the children of affluence, the fear of being left out of anything leads Norman Mailer to “force himself into the thick of the Patterson-Liston fight.”

What I like about Mr. Lasch’s tough and acute last chapter—on hipsters airily méchant, ex-Communists still morally obsessed by Russia, New-Frontier “realists,” and Washington “young executives” stupefied by the inescapability of money and the access to power—is that he relates the polemicists, the abstractionists, the cold-war philosophers, the hipsters, and the new computer-age intelligentsia squarely to the realities of American life and the frustrations created by the omnipresent state. He does not nag the radicals occupying position A from the newly acquired self-righteousness of position B. He is, in fact, pretty hopeless.

…the desperation which underlies American radicalism—the sense of futility, in a gigantic country in which political debate is dominated by the organs of mass communication and in which public opinion, misinformed and even deliberately misled, seems at once powerless, when it is a question of persuading government to pursue more liberal policies, and omnipotent, when it is a question of compelling it to pursue policies even more illiberal than the ones it wants to pursue (as in the case of Cuba)…

He says clearly that the supposed alliance between Kennedy and the intellectuals rested, among the intellectuals, on enthusiasm for the money, the chic, the power, the “style” that became the obvious mark of success. “…intellectuals not only admired these things, they associated them with intellect.” Intellectuals have in many sectors attained the status of a privileged class, are now jealous of their recognized position in the social order, especially as the trained specialists who alone can handle the vast apparatus of systematized data on which both business and government depend under the pressure of technological revolution, expanding population, and the indefinitely prolonged emergence of the cold war. The intellectuals of the mass media, of Broadway, of the universities, are really talking about themselves when they talk about “society.”

It was about time that someone made a categorical definition of the stake that so many intellectuals now have in the inequalities of our society, in the perpetuation of the cold war, in the often trivial but protected differentiation of professional functions; about time that someone held the mirror up to American intellectuals and showed us the extent to which we are implicated in our wars as in our prosperity—for it is also us, and not just President Johnson and General Taylor, that other people are thinking of when they level the charge that is unintelligible to most American intellectuals—“American imperialism.” Mr. Lasch is able to make his definition convincingly. He is a scholar, and likes the truth. He does not come out of this book politically superior to other people. American radicalism is what American society, mass society, and the all-powerful state have made and are making of our intellectuals.

The most telling comment on the situation of the American radical in the middle of the twentieth century is that although sabotage, resistance, and rebellion never seemed more appropriate, they were at the same time out of the question, if only because of the incalculable power of the nation states, the overthrow of which seemed to have become the precondition of survival. Revolution, as always, remained the remotest of political possibilities.”

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