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Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
Eric Miller
Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010
420 pp., 42.89

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James D. Bratt

The Legacy of Christopher Lasch

If you think Glenn Beck dislikes Progressives, check out Christopher Lasch. This legend among American historians on the Left—once their leader, then their target, finally an object of their bemusement—made a career out of criticizing the class of reformers who arose under the first Roosevelt and soared with the second to become, on Lasch's telling, the custodians of the American Establishment.

Without being able to manage the rhetoric, Beck would recognize the gist of Lasch's indictment: Progressivism represented the ascendancy of secularized, deracinated élites enamored of the state, dismissive of tradition, suspicious of community, hostile to the traditional family, and antipathetic to the America that had endowed them with privilege. Hell on earth, Beck would agree with Lasch, would be a "society made up of intellectuals." Up with "the people" instead—hard-working, common sense folk who want to protect their families, their neighborhoods, and their inherited wisdom from the meddling of arrogant experts.

True, Lasch's critique proceeded from deep study while Beck is the gunslinger going by his gut. The president who embodied that particular style, George W. Bush, Beck urged on, Lasch would have excoriated. Nonetheless, the appearance of this first full-length study of Lasch coincidentally with the rise of the Tea Party allows us to see how the fragmenting of American liberalism abetted the rise of the Right—and bequeathed it its own image.

Eric Miller, a historian at Geneva College, has written here less the "life" indicated by his subtitle than an intellectual biography. He mines the personal correspondence of Lasch with his parents and an old high-school flame but nothing of his wife, Nell Commager, daughter—not incidentally—of one of the most influential American historians and ardent academic liberals of the mid-twentieth century. In view of the importance Lasch's mature work assigned the family, it would be appropriate as well as interesting to read more about, and from, Lasch's children. That said, Miller follows the central quest of Lasch's life and unfolds its motives, sources, contexts, and complexities with accuracy, thoroughness, and admirable clarity. This will long remain the go-to Lasch study.

In taking on Progressivism, Lasch was excavating native soil. His parents (Robert, a Rhodes Scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Zora Schaupp, Robert's one-time philosophy professor at Nebraska) were the classic iteration of the 1920s-'30s type: secular rationalists and ardent New Dealers who took art and politics as their religion. Entering Harvard in 1950 and then the top-notch doctoral program at Columbia, the precocious "Kit" spent his apprenticeship in American history coming to doubt these confidences. By the time that Herman Kahn's "surreal" nuclear "realism" met the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lasch was radically at odds with Cold War liberalism and went gunning for its forebears. The result was The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963 (1965), the book that made him a star. Its thesis was that, in pursuing a psychic agenda of vital experience to the neglect of structural questions of power, the founders of Progressivism blazed a path into rather than keeping critical distance from the new corporate order.

The rest of Lasch's career amounted to extending that critique to successive waves of the progressive development. For the moment, the Cold War establishment attacked his book just as the emerging ranks of a newer left found in it a revelation and a mandate. This launched Lasch's political-activist period across a succession of university posts, before the lure of joining a cluster of radical historians being gathered at Rochester by Eugene Genovese landed him there for the rest of his days. But not "for good," one might say, for the two leaders of this pack soon fell out despite their shared animus against the now fully fledged New Left. The much bruited counterculture was simply the cult of experience in new garb, Lasch charged, while its apocalyptic sensibility foreclosed the hard organizational work needed to sustain a radical project over time. Which institutions might form the base of a genuine movement constituted Lasch's next question, and his answer marked his permanent break with his erstwhile comrades. It was in the family, the neighborhood, and the traditional culture of work and craft that people might find the resources to defy the hegemony of consumer capitalism. By contrast, the rise of careerist feminism, the universities' new mantra of diversity and exploration, and the triumph of the "helping professions"—the hot spots of the American Left going forward—in Lasch's estimation severed the root of resistance, even as they championed the notion in increasingly abstruse jargon.

Lasch laid out this argument most concertedly in Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977), and the bestselling Culture of Narcissism (1979). That is, at the dawn of the culture wars he came out on the side of some sort of family values. Exactly which sort got obscured in conversations on the Left and went unheeded on the Right. For all its success and for all its debt to an embattled Freudian psychology, The Culture of Narcissism owed much to the neo-Marxist dons of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Miller adds some nice comparisons of Lasch to Red Tories in other times and places: socialist in economics, traditionalist in culture, ascetic in style, and quite more open to religion than Marxists of the old Left. Lasch felt kinship with Marxists gone Catholic, like Alasdair MacIntyre, who became an important guide, and Dale Vree, who published some of his later work in The New Oxford Review. He preferred his Protestants off the Augustinian page, albeit in secular translation: Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, eventually Jonathan Edwards. He published in the radical southern Christian voice of the civil rights movement, Katallagete. In sum, Lasch's defiance of the conventions of the culture wars and his tapping of deep and disparate conceptual wells were the qualities that made him attractive to searchers from both Christian and secularist sides amid the polarizations of the 1970s and '80s.

Perhaps this very complexity explains why Lasch's later following never matched the size of his first. Miller brings out some other difficulties too. A traditionalist who liked Foucault, Lasch never finally defined a position on the epistemological battles of postmodernism. This, to me, is par for the historian's course; we're almost all realists operationally whatever our formal doubts on the level of high theory. Miller's theological critique, though charitably delivered, is more telling. "Atheists for Niebuhr" sooner or later have to decide whether to stay with the atheism or accept an irreducible substrate of theistic teaching. In Lasch's case, he bought original sin, the divided self, the need to accept—even to rejoice in—human finitude beneath a transcendent sky. But does that sky house a personal being traditionally known as God? Can one be Edwardsean without believing in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ? Sin is easy for historians to grasp; salvation is the rub, and here Lasch was finally more of a Stoic than anything else.

To me Lasch's greatest shortcoming in the last phase of his career lay in a certain shortsightedness on the issue of class. In the Reagan-Thatcher '80s, with the attack on labor unions and the acceleration of income stratification in American society (one reason that divorce rates were climbing and that all sorts of women, not just careerist feminists, were entering the paid work force), was it strategically most important for Lasch to keep on belaboring the "new class" of progressive professionals? A new class was aborning indeed, one that is now fully ensconced in multinational corporations with their helping professionals on Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the White House-Capitol-K Street circuit of Washington, D.C. Admittedly, the scale of this hegemony became apparent only in and after the foreign policy and financial disasters of the second Bush Administration, but Lasch first distinguished himself as a seer of where old liberals had gone wrong. The later equivalent for him would have been to predict where the neoliberals known in America as "conservatives" were bound to land.

His last great work, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), takes up this theme in its final section. Perhaps this would have been Lasch's swelling chorus had not metastatic cancer claimed him in 1994 at 62 years of age. A tighter focus on social class would have saved the volume from the perception that its eclectic assemblage of American voices amounted to less than the coherent "populist" tradition Lasch claimed it to be, and more an anxious effort on his part to find as many precedents as he could for the hope he held in the face of all contemporary evidence to the contrary.

As it is, the model of a good society left by True and Only Heaven shows how fully American evangelicalism forfeited its potential for being a truly alternative community. A politics genuinely of the people needs to be by and for them, Lasch repeated after Lincoln. It would require Christians to build local churches for neighborhood needs, not follow celebrity preachers to exurban megachurches to worship under high production values. It would shun the Christian version of helping professionals whose books and media plays are the dominant industry in evangelical conversation. It would in its politics need to recognize limits: the limits of American power, as opposed to willful invasions of nations halfway around the world, and the limits of wasteful growth, instead of adamantly denying global warming. Perhaps out of the detritus of this conformity something is being salvaged in the emerging wave of post-evangelicals' community building. Its leaders could do worse than read up on Christopher Lasch.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College.

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