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.
Modern life, in Lasch’s conception, is thus predicated on one basic transaction: the exchange of genuine independence for pseudo-liberation. Liberals and reformers will free us from the repressiveness of the patriarchal family, of the closed ethnic community—even of our own unhappiness. All we have to do is to surrender ourselves to the benevolent paternalism of the sociologists, psychiatrists, educators, and corporate and welfare bureaucrats.
But those “helpers” have effectively destroyed the very institutions, such as the nuclear family, through which character and independence were traditionally instilled. The responsibility for raising children has been lifted from the shoulders of parents (thus discrediting their authority) and been placed in the offices of medical and educational professionals and experts; a pattern of “normal” development is now enforced by the public schools, whose purpose has been reconceived as socialization—turning people into good citizens on the liberal model, rather than simply introducing them to knowledge. “Liberating” people has meant, in short, converting them into permanent dependents of the modern state and its “human science” apparatchiks.
Lasch’s argument, at this point in his work, had begun to show some similarity to that of Michel Foucault, whose analysis of modern institutional benevolence as a tyrannical system of social controls Lasch has written about approvingly.13 Perhaps a stronger, or more immediate, influence was Philip Rieff’s notion of “the triumph of the therapeutic”—the idea that the twentieth-century belief in personal liberation has created a new culture organized around a new type of human being, whom Rieff called “psychological man.” It was Lasch’s development of this argument of Rieff’s that yielded the work for which he is famous.
The Culture of Narcissism (1979) was a book of its moment. It appeared at the close of a depressing decade and near the close of an unpopular presidency. Lasch was, in fact, one of the luminaries invited to Camp David to help Jimmy Carter organize his thoughts for the speech claiming that Americans were suffering a “malaise,” and this well-publicized distinction no doubt helped put the book on the best-seller list. Its argument is a little more complicated than many readers may remember. Lasch proposed that the modern developments he had examined in his earlier work—the demise of the family and the erosion of private life generally—had produced “a new form of personality organization.”14 If (as he thought) people were behaving and feeling differently, it was because a fundamental change had taken place not only in beliefs and values—in what people thought moral, or permissible, or desirable—but in the structure of the mind itself. Our “social arrangements live on,” he proposed, “in the individual, buried in the mind below the level of consciousness.”15
The principal evidence for this assertion—beyond sociological observations about a “sense of inner emptiness,” the “decline of the play spirit,” and so forth—were psychiatric reports on contemporary personality disorders, which were (Lasch claimed) increasingly assuming a “narcissistic” pattern. Lasch was not, as some of his more casual readers may have assumed, using “narcissism” in the everyday sense of “self-centered” or “hedonistic.” He was using the term in a clinical sense that had been developed in a psychoanalytic tradition arising out of Freudian theory—in the work of Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, and the object-relations psychologist Melanie Klein. In this literature, a “narcissist” is not someone with an overweening sense of self, but, on the contrary, someone with a very weak sense of self.
In order to make the psychoanalytic data he had assembled fit the case he was making about the emergence of a new personality type in society at large. Lasch made one further assumption: that “pathology represents a heightened version of normality”16—that is, that a clinically disordered personality, of the kind reported in psychoanalytic studies, is representative of the current “normal” personality type.
This made for a rather elaborate theoretical contraption. The reader was being called upon to make the following assumptions, any one of which is clearly vulnerable to challenge: that changes in education, the role of the family, the nature of work, and so on are capable of producing fundamental changes, “below the level of consciousness,” in people’s psychological makeup; that the changes in American life over the last hundred years have been extensive and monolithic enough to create an entire population consisting of this new personality type; that the pathological personality does indeed represent a version of the normal personality; and that the particular examples of narcissistic behavior adduced by Lasch in 1979—among them the Manson Family killings, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the attack on theatrical illusion in contemporary drama, “the fascination with oral sex,”17 and the streaker craze—are evidence of long-term personality disintegration, rather than isolated responses to a confusing but transitory social moment. (There was also the problem that a writer who had elsewhere suggested that psychiatry was, in the hands of some of its practitioners at least, one of the corrupting forces in modern life was relying rather heavily on a psychiatric conception of the “normal.”)
The Culture of Narcissism was thus an easy book to misunderstand. Lasch was not saying that things were better in the Fifties, as conservatives offended by countercultural permissiveness probably took him to be saying. He was not saying that things were better in the Sixties, as former activists disgusted by the “me-ism” of the Seventies are likely to have imagined. He was diagnosing a condition that originated, he believed, in the nineteenth century.
The Minimal Self (1984) was written to correct the misapprehensions of the earlier book’s admirers. The “narcissistic” self, Lasch explained, was really a type of what he was now calling the “minimal” self—“a self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to remake the world in its own image” (as in the case of technocratic reformers and other acolytes of “progress”) “or to merge into its environment in a blissful union”18 (as in the case of counterculturalists, feminists, and ecological utopians). Authentic selfhood lies between these extremes, he wrote—in an acceptance of limits without despair. But the conditions in which such a self might be forged were being destroyed.
What is distinctive about Lasch’s criticism of modern life, besides its unusually broad scope, is its moral and personal intensity. For it is one thing—and not an uncommon thing among academic intellectuals—to analyze modern democratic society as a system of social controls masquerading as personal freedoms, without concluding anything more radical (or less banal) than that all societies must hold themselves together somehow, and that an officially “open” society will find means for doing so that are designed to appear as uncoercive as possible. But Lasch has shown no interest in this kind of analytic detachment, which he regards as just the kind of superior sociological “expertise” he associates with the bureaucratic and professionalist mentality he abhors.19 He is (or he gives, in his work, the impression of being) a man who believes he has caught “the modern project”20—his phrase for the group of social and political tendencies he has analyzed—in an enormous lie, and who cannot rest until the lie has been exposed. There is an invasion-of-the-body-snatchers urgency about his writing; and this has given it, over the years, an increasingly aggrieved, and sometimes paranoid, tone. It has also drawn him to a style of relentless and contentious assertion which can be, to put it gently, extremely off-putting. It is an unusual style for a scholar to resort to, and I think he means it, quite deliberately, to be offensive: an affront to the modern taste for cool and logically seamless forms of persuasion. If he does mean it this way, it works.
The True and Only Heaven is the first place in which Lasch has tried to suggest, with some degree of comprehensiveness, a way out of the regrettable condition he thinks the modern liberal view has left us in. It is much the longest of his books, and it suffers from many of the faults one has come to associate with Lasch’s work: it lingers pedantically on minor matters and dashes through major ones; it makes much of points almost everyone would concede and ignores obvious objections to its more controversial assertions; and it is written from a position that has hardened into something like dogmatism. This is, after all, a writer who, over the last fifteen years, has argued that “all medical technology has done is to increase patients’ dependence on machines and the medical experts who operate [them]” 21 ; that “new ideas of sexual liberation—the celebration of oral sex, masturbation, and homosexuality—spring from the prevailing fear of heterosexual passion, even of sexual intercourse itself”;22 that the reliance on medical intervention during pregnancy “helped women in their campaign for voluntary motherhood by raising the cost of pregnancy to their husbands—not only the financial cost but the emotional cost of the doctor’s intrusion into the bedroom, his usurpation of the husband’s sexual prerogatives”;23 that the imposition of child labor laws “obscured the positive possibility of children working alongside their parents at jobs of recognized importance”;24 and that “the prison life of the past looks in our time like liberation itself.”25
Like all of Lasch’s books, The True and Only Heaven is clearly responsive to contemporary anxieties—in this case, to concern about the ecological dangers that are bound, it seems, to accompany the spread of capitalist economies across the globe. Lasch thinks that if we continue to believe, as the religion of progress encourages us to believe, that somehow everyone in the world can be given the standard of living of a middle-class American, the planet will be used up long before we ever arrive at that dubious utopia. He is not the first person to sound this warning, but he has, as usual, sounded it in a provocative manner.
Lasch now regards the belief in progress not as simply an interesting paradox in twentieth-century liberal thought, but as the dominant ideology of modern history. It is in the name of progress, he thinks, that traditional sources of happiness and virtue—work, faith, the family, even an independent sense of self—are being destroyed; and he begins his book with an analysis of the false values of the modern liberal outlook, proposing, for each value or attitude he rejects, an alternative. This discussion is filled with references to various thinkers and ideas, as is the case throughout The True and Only Heaven; but references to specific policies or social arrangements are scarce, so that the analysis has a theoretical or abstract cast. Lasch’s purpose, evidently, is to establish a vocabulary.
Lasch says, as he had in his first book nearly thirty years ago, that liberals are optimists: they believe in an unlimited ability to provide for an everexpanding array of human wants. A worthier sentiment, he feels, is “hope”—an acceptance of limits without despair (as he had described it in The Minimal Self). Liberals espouse a kind of Enlightenment universalism; they regard their truths as self-evident to all reasonable people, and therefore as applicable to everyone. He recommends instead an emphasis on particularism—a recognition of the persistence of national and ethnic loyalties. Nostalgia, he argues, is progress’s “ideological twin,” since it is a way of thinking about the past that makes it seem irrecoverable, and change seem inevitable. He proposes “memory” as an alternative, a way of seeing the past and present as continuous. Instead of the modern conception of people as consumers, working only to provide themselves with the means to satisfy material wants, he suggests a conception of people as producers, working in order to acquire the virtues labor instills—among them independence, responsibility, and self-sufficiency. And in place of “self-interest,” which defines the economic man of liberal individualism, he proposes “virtue,” which defines the citizen ready to take an active part in community life.
This much of Lasch’s argument, directed at the mentality, certainly recognizable, that sees no limits to economic growth, and that understands the ends of social and economic policy to be simply the creation and satisfaction of more consumers, has a timely appeal. The collapse of the communist economies has been greeted in some quarters, as Lasch in 1962 suggested it would, as evidence of the inevitable global triumph of liberalism—the theoretically predicted “end of history,” in the catchphrase made popular a few years ago by Francis Fukayama. And on these matters, as Lasch quite rightly points out, there is no longer an appreciable difference in mainstream American political thought between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The “New Right,” in this respect, has proved a sham: Ronald Reagan is no less a worshiper of progress—no less an optimist, a nostalgist, and a global crusader for the American way—than any classic liberal Lasch might name.
Much of the attention Lasch’s book has already received has therefore, as might be expected, been preoccupied with its attack on the “progressive” world view; and the general terms that define the substitute world view he proposes as a substitute are plainly attractive. Who would want to defend “optimism” against “hope,” “nostalgia” against “memory,” “self-interest” against “virtue”? So long as the discussion remains at this level of abstraction, there is very little to argue. But Lasch has a broader purpose: he has undertaken to reconstruct a political and moral tradition in which his “alternative” values are rooted. This tradition he calls “populism,” and it is not possible to engage his argument in a serious way without confronting the challenges that tradition makes (or Lasch understands it to make) to modern liberal assumptions.
Lasch means by “populism” something more than the late-nineteenth-century political movement the term ordinarily denotes; indeed, the book contains very little discussion of William Jennings Bryan, for instance, or of the Southern populist leader Tom Watson.26 The populist tradition Lasch describes has been transmitted through an oddly assorted sequence of thinkers. These thinkers all share one attitude, of course: an antagonism to the modern liberal outlook as Lasch has defined it. This may express itself in an appreciation for the “civic virtues”—the virtues derived from personal independence, political participation, and genuinely productive labor; in an acceptance of “fate” (one of Lasch’s key terms in this book) and of the idea of limits; or in an admiration for a set of characteristics Lasch identifies with lower-middle-class, or “petty-bourgeois,” culture: moral conservatism, egalitarianism, loyalty, and the “struggle against the moral temptation of resentment” (that is, the capacity for forgiveness).
Among the social and political critics Lasch regards as populists are writers who defend small-scale producers (farmers, artisans, and so forth), who despise creditors, and who oppose the culture of uplift and universal philanthropy because of its disruptive intervention in personal and family life. These sentiments are, he thinks, particularly strongly expressed in the writings of Tom Paine; the English radical William Cobbett; the nineteenth-century editor, transcendentalist, and controversialist Orestes Brownson; and the author of the classic of populist political economy, Progress and Poverty, (1879), Henry George. Two labor-movement theorists from the turn of the century are important to Lasch’s tradition as champions of small-scale producers: the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, whose Reflections on Violence (1908) was admired by critics of the Third Republic in France and of liberalism in England, and the British guild socialist G. D. H. Cole. By proposing to restore control over production to the worker, Lasch argues, syndicalism and guild socialism represented genuine alternatives to corporate capitalism. What socialists and the labor movement generally ended up settling for, he feels (and Cole is his example), was a top-down welfare system that turned the worker into a consumer, and left him, though more secure in his job, even more dependent.
This tradition of political and economic criticism is complemented, Lasch argues, by a parallel tradition of moral criticism—and this proposal is the chief novelty of his book. The major figure in this line is Emerson, whose recognition, in the late essay on “Fate” (1860), that “freedom lies in the acceptance of necessity” Lasch regards as the philosophical centerpiece of populist thought. Emerson’s fatalism has been ignored, he thinks, by the Emersonians—“those professional Pollyannas,”—and he proposes to restore us to a proper understanding, principally by reading Emerson by the lights of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards. Two other writers, both readily associated with Emerson, are said to share the populist moral vision: Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus (1834) and the essays on heroes and hero worship, published in 1841, and William James, in the discussion of the “twice-born” in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and in the essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910).
Lasch traces the course of populist ideals in a group of twentieth-century American writers: Josiah Royce, Randolph Bourne, Herbert Croly, Waldo Frank, John Dewey, the New Dealer Thurman Arnold, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In some of these cases, he is reconsidering writers whose ideas he had once criticized. Croly, for instance, whose book The Promise of American Life (1910) Lasch once regarded as a typical example of the progressive’s naive understanding of the nature of corporate power,27 is now praised for recognizing, in a later book Progressive Democracy (1914), the importance of endowing the worker with a sense of responsibility—and for perceiving that the specialization required by big business and mass production would destroy the possibilities of meaningful work. Niebuhr (one of the heroes of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center) was attacked by Lasch in The New Radicalism in America for taking an uncritical and Manichean view of the struggle between American liberal democracy and Soviet totalitarianism—for assuming too readily the inherent virtue of the American way and the monolithic evil of Soviet communism.28 In The True and Only Heaven, though, Niebuhr is seen as a critic of liberalism. His defense of “particularism”—of the innate desire of groups to protect their difference and autonomy against the liberal inclination to force compromises on competing interests—now seems to Lasch to make him a misunderstood antagonist of liberal ideology.
Niebuhr is also important to the populist tradition, as Lasch interprets it, because of his insistence on the desirability of forgiveness, and the futility of resentment, in struggles for social justice; and Lasch’s consideration of this aspect of Niebuhr’s thought leads directly to the only political success story in the book: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the Southern civil rights movement. King succeeded, Lasch believes, by appealing to the populist virtues of lower-middle-class communities in the South—both black and white—and by preaching the doctrine of “spiritual discipline against resentment.” Blacks in King’s movement did not seek revenge for the injustices they had suffered, since they understood (or King, who had studied Niebuhr as a divinity student, understood) Niebuhr’s teaching that to combat injustice and coercion with more injustice and coercion is only to perpetuate a cycle of conflict. But, Lasch argues, when King and his associates attempted to mobilize victims of poverty in the inner cities of the North, they could no longer appeal, as they had in the South, to communities of people who understood the value of forgiveness. Resentment against the powerful became instead the motivating emotion of the struggle, with disastrous results.
Lower-middle-class virtues persist. Lasch thinks, but as an endangered moral species, preyed upon by the social-engineering schemes of the liberal professional classes. The controversy between suburban liberals and working-class city residents over the busing of school children to achieve racial integration and the struggle over abortion rights are, he suggests, recent instances of liberal imperialism. In the Boston busing wars, and in the struggles for open housing in the suburbs of Chicago, lower-middle-class white communities were reviled, and even demonized, by liberals; yet their “only crime,” Lasch says, “so far as anyone could see, was their sense of ethnic solidarity.” The populist solution, apparently, would have entailed an attempt to transform the inner city into a “real community,” rather than to compel people to ignore their ethnic and racial differences—though Lasch is vague about how this transformation would take place.
In the case of abortion rights, one might imagine that pro-choice advocates, because of their insistence that the decision to have an abortion should be left to the individual woman rather than foreclosed by the state, would have the stronger case for Lasch. But Lasch regards the procedure of abortion itself as an instance of technological intrusion into the natural process of reproduction, and he accuses the proponents of abortion rights of advocating social engineering—of trying to use medical advances to eliminate the “unwanted” in the name of social improvement. (This view of the pro-choice mentality derives mainly from a single sociological study, Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood .)
And yet in these cases there is at least some engagement between the classes. In general, Lasch thinks, “neither left- nor right-wing intellectuals…seem to have much interest in the rest of American society.” A revived populist tradition, he concludes, would challenge the ideologues of progress, and help to answer “the great question of twentieth-century politics”: how we are to restore a spirit of civic virtue to our lives.
This does not mean that Lasch is proposing a resurrection of the populist political and economic program (though his lengthy and often quarrelsome elaboration of that program sometimes makes it appear otherwise). As he concedes, much of populist economic theory—with its hatred of creditors and landlords, its monetary gimmicks and paper money schemes, its call for a return to smallscale production—was anachronistic even in the nineteenth century. Many populist political convictions are similarly outdated: the belief that armed conflict breeds virtue in the citizenry, for example, surely died in the Battle of the Somme. Lasch is not suggesting that all the facts of modern history can be repealed, or that someday we can all become yeoman farmers, with our ancestral rifles hanging next to the fireplace—though he would perhaps like us to think more respectfully of yeoman farmers.
The real argument of the book is a more philosophical one, having to do with the juxtaposition of populist economic theory, such as it is, with the tradition of moral criticism Lasch finds in Edwards, Emerson, Carlyle, James, Niebuhr, and others. His point seems to be that we need a political economy that matches the moral economy (as Lasch believes those writers understand it) of the universe. The universe, in this conception, is a place in which we earn our way, and do so in part by recognizing that there are limits to how far we can go, and forces militating against us which we cannot control. Character is built by striving to perform the role fate has assigned us, and a society that recognized this truth would be one which understood that conditions a modern person finds oppressive—obedience to family discipline, acceptance of the restrictions of place and class, military conscription, demanding or unremunerative work—are really the conditions that make a full and independent life possible.
The reason populists give for agitating against capitalists, creditors, and landlords is that those are classes of people who profit without producing. In doing so, they violate the principles of an economics based on a labor theory of value—the foundation of not only populist and Marxist, but even liberal economic theory in the nineteenth century. More than that, though, they violate the universe’s moral principle of just compensation. You must give something to get something back. Only if we are producers will we deserve to consume. And to be a “producer” in the larger, moral sense means to feel oneself responsible for all of what one does in one’s life.
This is not an unattractive philosophical conception. But what happens when it touches ground in the thought and practice of a particular “populist” writer? Consider the case of Georges Sorel, whose militant version of socialist syndicalism appeals to Lasch because of its rejection of both liberal and Marxist utopianism. Among the less attractive features of Sorel’s thought, Lasch notes in passing, is “probably” anti-Semitism. But a man who compared France’s struggle against the Jews to America’s against the “Yellow Peril,” who wrote that “the French should defend their state, their customs, and their ideas against the Jewish invaders” and that “the so-called excesses of the Bolsheviks were due to the Jewish elements that had penetrated the movement,” and who referred, in two of the works Lasch cites, Reflections on Violence and The Illusion of Progress, to “big Jew bankers” is not only “probably” an anti-Semite.29 Nor was Sorel’s anti-Semitism simply a detachable element of his general outlook. It was the obvious, if not the unavoidable, consequence of an economic theory that demonized financiers and creditors.
And this side of populist thought is of a paranoid piece throughout: the dislike of professional armies, as an instance of specialization that deprives citizens of the virtue-making activity of war; the dislike of those who lend the state the money to pay its armies, and who therefore supposedly find it in their interest to foment war; the defense of local religious and ethnic communities—these are all classic sources of anti-Semitism.
They are also among the sources of fascism, particularly in France. “The intellectual father of fascism,” one French admirer called Sorel in the 1920s;30 and although Lasch notes Sorel’s close association with the Action Française and his enthusiastically reciprocated admiration for Mussolini (later complemented by an equally fervent admiration for Lenin), he does not explain why this aspect of Sorel’s thought, of which he plainly does not approve, should be regarded as irrelevant to the aspects he praises. And the same is true of the racism, jingoism, and demagoguery associated with populist political movements generally: Lasch acknowledges these tendencies, but asks us to ignore them—occasionally by the discreditable tactic of throwing our suspicions back in our faces. He addresses the question of Sorel’s connections to fascism, for instance, simply by remarking that “liberals’ obsession with fascism…leads them to see ‘fascist tendencies’ or ‘proto-fascism’ in all opinions unsympathetic to liberalism.” This may or may not be true, but it is not an argument.
The True and Only Heaven will provoke—and is, one assumes, intended to provoke—many such arguments about the selective readings and unorthodox interpretations of various figures. But there are two larger criticisms I think Lasch invites, and they have application not only to this book, but to his work generally.
Of the many peculiarities about the moral tradition Lasch has constructed, the most astonishing is the omission of Freud—a writer who has played an important part in Lasch’s thinking in the past and is still, one presumes, a figure he admires. For surely the Freudian notion of psychic economy involves exactly the principle of compensation, and exactly the tragic sense of life, that Lasch so passionately admires in thinkers of far smaller intellectual stature. But a writer like Freud cannot figure in Lasch’s account, because Freud has already been accepted as one of the heroes of modern culture. And this is also, it seems to me, why the writers who do have a prominent place in Lasch’s tradition are either minor and eccentric figures, like Brownson and Sorel, or major ones who are supposed to have been misread by everyone else, like Emerson and Niebuhr. For to concede that the “populist” moral conception is simply a limited and somewhat cranky version of a moral conception we find everywhere in modern culture would mean conceding that values modern society is supposed to have made obsolete are actually to be found at the very heart of modern life.
If, as Lasch suggested in his work on the family, there is a “deal” on which the modern liberal society was founded, it is that we shall have the freedom to criticize the conditions in which we live. This bargain has given us an enormous body of literary and intellectual work, fiercely protected by liberal institutions, whose moral intention is to complicate all the issues that traditional liberal theory makes too simple. Lionel Trilling wrote a famous book to make this point; but The Liberal Imagination is not mentioned by Lasch. He seems, and not only on the evidence of The True and Only Heaven, simply deaf to literature. “Misgivings were destined to be confined to a shadowy half-life on the fringes of debate,” he writes of the spread of specialization and the division of labor in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. It is as though Wordsworth and Dickens had never written, or their books been read.
At the core of Lasch’s condemnation of liberalism is the familiar charge that liberalism is effectively without content—that “liberal man” is a wind-up contraption that chases its own short-term interests, and the liberal state a night watchman that only keeps the streets clean and the fights fair (or, at least, “efficient”). But liberalism does have a moral conception of the self, which is expressed in the political doctrine of rights. There is virtually no mention of rights in Lasch’s attack on the elements of the modern liberal outlook, or in his analysis, in this book, of particular political events, such as the disputes about busing and abortion. Elsewhere, he has linked modern feminism’s attachment to medical technology to the eighteenth-century idea of individual rights: the progressive mentality, he thinks, regards access to reproductive technology as an enhancement of the woman’s right to choose whether to bear children.31 And it is clear that, like many other critics of liberalism, he would replace talk of rights in our political vocabulary with talk of duties—talk of what we owe to our society and to each other, rather than what is owed to us. “Rights-bearers,” he claims in a recent symposium on the subject, “are regarded as autonomous individuals, and that is precisely the style of thinking we are trying to avoid.”32
This seems to me to be an insufficient account of rights. It is insufficient historically because the recognition of individual rights figures crucially in the liberal idea of what counts as progress. And it is insufficient morally, as well, since our notion of exactly what a right entails—to speak freely, or to bear arms, or to travel or own property—and under what circumstances it must give way to other claims, is the subject of continual debate. The history of United States Supreme Court decisions alone is ample evidence of the intellectual and moral complexity of the idea of rights. It is true that from one perspective rights appear to uphold private interests against public goods—to protect my desire to publish obscene material, for example, against the community’s desire to maintain standards of good taste. But from another perspective, a system of enumerated rights against the state, such as the Bill of Rights provides, is precisely an acknowledgment of the general claim of the society as a whole against the individual. This was the view taken by liberal contemporaries of Lasch’s turn-of-the-century populists, such as the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes: that it is only because we recognize the legitimacy of society’s claims generally that we undertake to respect the desire of people to be exempted from those claims in specified kinds of behavior.
Because the subject is dismissed altogether from The True and Only Heaven, rights have no place in the book’s account of the Southern civil rights movement, and this seems to me to be a telling omission. For what saves Lasch’s populist tradition from being merely a souvenir of the values left strewn in the wake of progress is his contention that the populist spirit continues to have a life in real communities. Since the South has been the breeding ground for many populist politicians in this century, and since the South was itself a classic example of antiliberal “particularism”—“the preindustrial society par excellence,” as Lasch has called it33—one would expect him to give special attention to the character of Southern life. But prominent Southern populists go almost unmentioned in The True and Only Heaven. Huey Long’s name, for example, appears only twice, in lists of the sort of people liberals unfairly associate with populism. George Wallace turns up more often; but although Lasch seems to disapprove of the politics of resentment Wallace practiced during his days as a segregationist, his remarks on Wallace are otherwise not unkind, and Wallace’s eventual acceptance of racial integration is noted approvingly as testimony to the ability of one local ethnic constituency—lower-middle-class Southern whites—to respond to a moral appeal from another.
It is true that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which is where the modern civil rights movement began, is one of the noblest political events in our history, and that it was made possible by the religious faith of a lower-middle-class ethnic community—Southern blacks—essentially untouched by legalistic ways of thinking. But it is not true, as Lasch suggests it is, that the boycotters’ victory, or the victories in other civil rights campaigns in the South, came about because lower-middle-class Southern whites understood the justice of the blacks’ moral appeal. Southern whites did not take a notable part in the Montgomery protest, except to oppose it and to humiliate and harrass its participants. The protest succeeded because on the day a local judge issued the injunction that would have broken the boycott, the Supreme Court ruled that the black citizens of Montgomery had the right to sit where they chose on city buses. There was no “local solution” to the problem of racial segregation in the South because the principle at stake was not a local principle.
Lasch is at his most acerbic in his criticism of middle-class liberals who impose the values of their culture on lower-middle-class communities and families, and he has much to say in his discussion of the busing controversy and the contemporary abortion debate about the attitude of moral superiority some liberals assume toward the less articulate and less educated people who oppose them. There is indeed some ugliness in the middle-class attitudes he describes; but to take note of that ugliness does not dispose of the matter.
Back in the 1960s, a group of film makers, Drew Associates, was invited by the Kennedy administration to film its enforcement of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama—the incident that culminated in George Wallace’s famous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The film that was produced, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, covers events both at the White House and in Alabama. It is sometimes shown on public television, and it dramatizes the cultural friction Lasch writes about. Robert Kennedy, in the White House, and his deputy Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, in Alabama—Ivy League liberals, supremely assured of their virtue—are seen discussing their strategy for handling Wallace as though Wallace were an inconvenient road hazard, a man, in their calculus, of no moral account whatever. And Wallace is seen arriving at the university and accepting expressions of support from the people waiting to greet him with the easy familiarity of a man who knows them and is part of a genuine community.
Wallace was as successful a populist politician as the postwar era produced, and the Kennedy administration was undoubtedly the incarnation of the modern liberal mentality as Lasch conceives it. There is something slightly chilling about the confrontation, as there is when you watch any ancient and deeply rooted thing smoothly and expertly obliterated by the forces of “progress.” But Kennedy and Katzenbach were right, and Wallace was wrong.
April 11, 1991
The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1962), p. xvi. ↩
The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Houghton Mifflin, 1949), p. 256. ↩
The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Free Press, 1960), pp. 370, 373. ↩
Schlesinger, The Vital Center, p. 174. ↩
Bell himself, in fact, criticized the messianic character of liberal anti-communism in the Fifties; see The End of Ideology, pp. 108–112. ↩
The Agony of the American Left (Knopf, 1969), p. 5. ↩
The Agony of the American Left, p. 10. ↩
The Agony of the American Left, p. 29. ↩
Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Beseiged (Basic Books, 1977), p. xv. ↩
Haven in a Heartless World, p. xxi. ↩
Haven in a Heartless World, p. 169. ↩
Haven in a Heartless World, p. 168. ↩
See “Life in the Therapeutic State,” The New York Review, June 12, 1980, pp. 24–32. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, 1979; 1991), p. 94. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism, p. 51. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism, p. 175. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism, p. 50. ↩
The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (Norton, 1984), p. 19. ↩
See his remarks on professional historians in “Consensus: An Academic Question?” Journal of American History. 76 (1989), pp. 457–459. ↩
“The Saving Remnant,” The New Republic, November 19, 1990, p. 33. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism, p. 42. ↩
Haven in a Heartless World, p. 183. ↩
“Life in the Therapeutic State,” p. 27. ↩
“The Crime of Quality Time” (an interview), New Perspectives Quarterly, 7 (Winter 1990), p. 48. ↩
The Culture of Narcissism, p. 99. ↩
Lasch has written sympathetically about populist political movements before; see The Agony of the American Left, pp. 3–31, and “Populism, Socialism, and McGovernism,” in The World of Nations: Reflections on American History, Politics, and Culture (Knopf, 1973), pp. 160–182. ↩
See “Herbert Croly’s America,” The New York Review, July 1, 1965, pp. 18–19. ↩
See The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (Knopf, 1965), pp. 299–303. ↩
See Eugen Weber, Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France (Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 74, and Michael Curtis, Three Against the Republic: Sorel, Barrès, and Maurras (Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 211–12. ↩
Georges Valois, in Le fascisme (1927); quoted in Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (University of California Press, 1986), p. 9. ↩
See “Birth, Death, and Technology: The Limits of Cultural Laissez-Faire,” in The World of Nations, pp. 294–307. ↩
“Who Owes What to Whom?” Harper’s, February 1991, p. 49. ↩
The New Radicalism in America, p. xii. ↩