Man of the People

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics

by Christopher Lasch
Norton, 591 pp., $25.00

Christopher Lasch began his career as a historian and critic of American liberalism. His analysis of liberalism led him to an analysis of some of the alternatives to liberalism in American political thought and, eventually, to a long excursion into social history and cultural criticism. It is clear from this work that he is unhappy with the dominant political and intellectual traditions in American life, and distressed by the mess he thinks those traditions have gotten us into. But it has not been clear what he thinks we might do to organize our thoughts and our lives more propitiously. With The True and Only Heaven, he returns to the criticism of liberalism with which he started, but this time he offers a prescription.

What does he mean by “liberalism”? The term is used to describe such a variety of political views that it has become a vexing one to define. Some people we call liberals—those associated with the War on Poverty in the 1960s, say, or with George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign—believe that the government should provide, in some measure, for the basic welfare of its citizens. Others—Michael Dukakis, for instance—think that a vigorous and expanding free-market economy is more likely to produce prosperity. Some liberals want foreign policy to be dictated by a concern for human rights and democratic values, as Jimmy Carter did; others, like Richard Nixon—in this respect a traditionally liberal president—believe that our relations with other nations should be governed by an unsentimental assessment of our own interests.

These disagreements among liberals are not a recent development, a splitting up of what was once a unified core of beliefs. Liberal thought has been divided along similar lines since at least the early years of the century, when liberals argued about America’s entry into the First World War, about the growing dominance of large corporations in the American economy, and about the nature of Soviet communism. But in Lasch’s view, all liberals, whether they dislike corporate capitalism or welcome it, whether they approve of American intervention in foreign conflicts or deplore it, share a common attitude: they are all optimists, believers in moral and material progress. Liberals believe that as civilization advances (by which, Lasch thinks, liberals usually mean “as people become more liberal”), more wants and desires are satisfied, and fewer prejudices and superstitions inhibit us. Once life was made miserable by bad kings and bad teeth; now we have democracy and dentists, political freedom and physical comfort, and thus, liberals believe, we can say that people have become happier, and that life is improving.

It was this faith in progress, Lasch argued in his first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), that made it so difficult for many liberals in 1917 to understand the Communist revolution in Russia as the malign event it was. For to do so would have meant calling into question this central tenet of liberal faith: that history is …

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