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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 a continuous progression from tyranny toward freedom, whose advance is marked by a series of democratic revolutions. Liberals are themselves the heirs of a revolutionary tradition, Lasch pointed out; how were they to accept the fact of a revolution that rejected the liberal ideal? And even if Soviet communism proved to be antiliberal and antidemocratic (as, of course, it did), liberals insisted on regarding its emergence as simply a temporary setback in the advance of progress; in the end, liberalism must triumph even in Russia, because the triumph of liberalism was destined to be universal.

The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution is a detailed study of the political debate during the years of the First World War—from 1914 to 1919. But the argument was clearly addressed to the liberals of Lasch’s own day. When Lasch wrote that “liberalism in America, no less than communism in Russia, has always been a messianic creed, which staked everything on the ultimate triumph of liberalism throughout the world,”1 he was describing, he thought, not only the liberalism of 1919—of Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann—but the liberalism of the Kennedy administration as well.

This was an ingenious and antithetical point to make. For to describe liberalism as a messianic creed in 1962 was to call the vampire killer a vampire—as the titles of two standard expositions of liberal political theory in the early cold war era suggest: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center (1949) and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960). Contemporary liberalism, for these writers, was precisely not an absolutist, world-transforming politics. It was a problem-solving, consensus-reaching politics, one that “dedicates itself,” as Schlesinger suggested, “to problems as they come.”2 Such pragmatism could only be impeded by prior ideological convictions, which Bell analyzed specifically as displaced religious and messianic impulses. “Ideology, which once was a road to action, has come to be a dead end,” he claimed.

Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down “blueprints” and through “social engineering” bring about a new utopia of social harmony.3

People who know they alone are right find it hard to compromise,” was the way Schlesinger put it; “and compromise is the strategy of democracy.”4 A little utopianism might be fine as a spur to political engagement, but the business of politics lay in finetuning the machinery that makes social and economic freedoms possible, and in resisting ideology and messianism wherever they threaten those freedoms. Liberals were not supposed to become obsessed with the ends (or “the end”) of history.

It is possible to be messianic in the effort to root out messianism, though. Even pragmatists can suffer from hubris; and Lasch’s detection of a self-aggrandizing impulse, a secret determination to convert the world to its own “anti-ideological” ideology, in the ostensibly instrumentalist politics of mid-century liberalism, was an insight whose accuracy was confirmed, for many people, by America’s subsequent entanglement, under a series of liberal administrations, in Vietnam. Lasch’s accusation was also, of course, one that any liberal disenchanted with the self-righteous certainty of some of his fellow liberals might have made.5 It need not have led anyone to abandon liberalism. After all, a liberal might reasonably have asked, so long as we don’t force people to become like us, why shouldn’t we hope that liberal institutions—democratic societies and free markets—become universal?

For Lasch, however, the point had a different consequence. He began to see not only liberalism, but the whole march of “progress” itself as a creeping tyranny of centralized social and political control. Though liberalism was the ascendant political theory of this historical process, even many of the adversaries of liberalism, Lasch concluded, shared its optimism and its passion for transforming people’s lives. In The New Radicalism in America (1965) and The Agony of the American Left (1969), he considered some of these adversaries: the “cultural radicals,” such as Mabel Dodge Luhan and Randolph Bourne; the turn-of-the-century populists and socialists; and the leaders of the progressive movement, which, during the first two decades of the century, sought to restore a (somewhat ill-defined) sense of “civic virtue” to American political and economic life. Among these, only populism and socialism—“two broad patterns of opposition to corporate capitalism, occasionally converging but ideologically distinct”6—seemed to Lasch to have offered a genuine alternative to the corporate economy and the liberal state; their failure, early in the century, marks for him the death of all real dissent.

For the reformers and cultural radicals were, he decided, in the end only participating in the general effort to “enlighten”—and thus to remold—the citizenry from the top down, through public education and artistic and literary culture; and this was an enterprise so congenial to the liberal mentality that liberals found it easy to adopt the radical style, and to patronize intellectual culture, in a way that rendered those traditions powerless. The Kennedy administration, with its indulgence of artists and intellectuals enthralled by the illusion that they were having an influence on the exercise of political power, represented, for Lasch, the culmination of this process. As for the progressive movement, associated with the early followers of Theodore Roosevelt and with liberal militants such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and William Weyl, it was progressive “chiefly in attacking the archaic entrepreneurial capitalism the existence of which impeded the rationalization of American industry,” and thus “actually served the needs of the industrial system.”7 In seeking to reform the system rather than to resist it—to discover ways for more people to partake of the material prosperity capitalism provided rather than ways to prevent big business from turning people into well-fed “wage slaves”—the progressives only smoothed capitalism’s path. So that by mid-century, Lasch concluded, it had become “almost impossible for criticism of existing policies to become part of political discourse. The language of American politics increasingly resembles an Orwellian monologue.”8

Having come to the bottom of the political barrel, Lasch turned first to social history and then to jeremiad. Haven in a Heartless World (1977) proposes that the history of modern society can be described as “the socialization of production, followed by the socialization of reproduction.”9 By the first phrase, Lasch meant the division of labor that accompanied the emergence of industrial capitalism, and that, by depriving people of control over their work, deprived them as well of the virtues unalienated labor instills. A day on an assembly line spent fixing the heads on pins, to use Adam Smith’s famous example of specialization in The Wealth of Nations, is not likely to lead a person to an elevated conception of life, or to give him a sense of independence and self-confidence. (This was a warning about the moral effects of specialization that Smith himself recorded elsewhere in his writings.) By “the socialization of reproduction,” Lasch meant the proliferation, beginning in the nineteenth century, of the so-called helping professions: the doctors, psychologists, teachers, child guidance experts, juvenile court officers, and so forth, who, by their constant intervention in people’s private lives, “eroded the capacity for self-help and social invention.”10

This second development constitutes, in Lasch’s view, liberalism’s worst betrayal. For liberalism, he argued, had struck a deal: in return for transforming the worker from an independent producer of goods into a fixer of heads on pins, it was agreed that people would be free to pursue happiness and virtue in their private lives in whatever manner they chose. The work place was thus severed from the home, and the family became the “haven in a heartless world.” But no sooner was the deal made, Lasch argued, than liberalism reneged. Private life was immediately made prey to the quasi-official helping professions and to the “forces of organized virtue,” led by “feminists, temperance advocates, educational reformers, liberal ministers, penologists, doctors, and bureaucrats.”11 “From the moment the conception of the family as a refuge made its historical appearance, the same forces that gave rise to the new privacy began to erode it…. The hope that private transactions could make up for the collapse of communal traditions and civic order”12 was killed by organized kindness.

  1. 1

    The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1962), p. xvi.

  2. 2

    The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Houghton Mifflin, 1949), p. 256.

  3. 3

    The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Free Press, 1960), pp. 370, 373.

  4. 4

    Schlesinger, The Vital Center, p. 174.

  5. 5

    Bell himself, in fact, criticized the messianic character of liberal anti-communism in the Fifties; see The End of Ideology, pp. 108–112.

  6. 6

    The Agony of the American Left (Knopf, 1969), p. 5.

  7. 7

    The Agony of the American Left, p. 10.

  8. 8

    The Agony of the American Left, p. 29.

  9. 9

    Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Beseiged (Basic Books, 1977), p. xv.

  10. 10

    Haven in a Heartless World, p. xxi.

  11. 11

    Haven in a Heartless World, p. 169.

  12. 12

    Haven in a Heartless World, p. 168.

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