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…

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