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Spring 2012

Christopher Lasch, Conservative?

book cover imageHope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
by Eric Miller.
Eerdmans, 2010.
Cloth, 394 pages, $32.

Seth J. Bartee

Christopher Lasch (1932–1994) has often posed a categorical problem for conservatives despite his insightful criticisms of liberalism. On many issues, conservative intellectuals find common cause with him. He castigated trendy postmodern relativism, the death of the family, the insularity of academics, bloated bureaucracy, and a culture saturated by an endless feel-good industry, which included everything from obsession with fitness to psychiatry. Following his death, conservatives have appreciated the work of his daughter, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who took on the Laschian mantle as a scholarly critic of liberal anti-intellectualism. These aspects of his legacy, conservatives laud.

However, Lasch’s conservative turn was more (Wendell) Berry than (William) Buckley. He never proclaimed his allegiance to the Republican Party or wrote for such hallmark conservative publications as National Review. Capitalism, Lasch thought, was more often a bane to freedom than its guarantor. Neither was Lasch a traditionalist who found consolation in the ecumenism, for example, of the Catholic Church. He favored a return to populism rooted in a wide array of thinkers as varied as John Calvin, Orestes Brownson, Reinhold Niebuhr, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jonathan Edwards—a peculiarly Laschian theology founded on the notion of anti-progressivism and the virtues of middle-class mores.

During his tenure at the University of Rochester, Lasch influenced a number of prominent intellectual historians. His students have been integral in reintroducing intellectual history to the wider field of history through the formation of The Historical Society and through their heavy involvement in the new and influential Society for U.S. Intellectual History. To the disappointment of most conservatives, Lasch’s students—while critical of many aspects of liberalism and postmodernity—have not abandoned ship for rank-and-file conservatism. These are among the reasons why many conservatives are suspicious about including Lasch in the canon—and why his recent biographer is so hesitant in claiming Lasch as a “conservative.” (It should be noted that American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia includes an entry on Lasch.)

Historian Eric Miller has grappled with Lasch’s strange career in his intellectual biography, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch. The picture Miller paints is one of a conflicted prophet as he witnessed and lived through the end of the modern age. Lasch was not interested in building on someone else’s architectonic scholarship, choosing instead to engage the public and its problems—especially the dissolution between America’s elites and the middle class. Intellectual life for Lasch was a strenuous measure in soul searching and personal revelation, a point Miller demonstrates excellently throughout. In thirteen chapters and an epilogue, Miller sheds light on one of America’s most perplexing twentieth-century thinkers.

Miller begins Hope with Lasch’s upbringing by two progressive parents with hopes in “the left-leaning social vision of the early New Deal.” Lasch’s loyalties waned as a Harvard undergraduate. Admittedly, he was no friend to religion or backward-thinking traditionalism in his youth, but when he took a course in theology, Lasch began to reconsider his youthful progressivism. He was most taken with the revival of European humanism and religion after the Second World War, Miller writes. This created a lifelong tension between the progressivism of his childhood and a new fervor for faith. Lasch concluded his graduate career with a distaste for the liberal worldview thoroughly grounded in resentment towards Enlightenment rationality encapsulated as “liberal optimism.” This is not surprising since the Frankfurt School became the darling of the left after mid-century.

By the middle of the 1960s, Lasch was still experimenting with ideas. He initially found hope in the New Left but became disappointed with the movement’s lack of conscience. He lingered longer with British Marxism because of its essentially conservative central tenet of the application of culture. British Marxism was a contrast to doctrinaire Marxism, which fell into ill repute in the sixties as the promised revolution did not spread as expected and as despotism came to replace the cause of the workers. Communism’s Stalinesque tendencies became irresistible to numerous would-be dictators. But British thinkers like Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson offered a less rigid version of Marxism that claimed culture as the new superstructure. This appealed to Lasch’s impending determination to curb an unwarranted sense of progress and eschatology from history.

What little fealty Lasch had for leftist ideology crumbled in the 1970s as America endured what amounted to a national identity crisis. American historians were producing literature to demonstrate either the viability or inevitable destruction of the American project. Lasch’s contributions were neither defeatist nor optimistic. Before the publication of Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged in 1977, Lasch was already trying a new approach. In a three-part series published in the New York Review of Books in 1975, Lasch affirmed the family as the last strong pre-capitalist institution. This put him at odds with cultural radicals, his former allies on the left, because he was advocating traditional roles based on the idea of a nuclear family. Haven earned applause from such unexpected places as National Review and marked the beginning of what became what Miller explains as a sort of de-conversion experience for Lasch. From the mid-seventies onward Lasch was no longer a leftist but a sort of scholarly reactionary, a trend that became more evident with each subsequent publication.

Two years later in 1979, Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. It too gained approval from conservatives for its striking revelations about American culture, uncovering the therapeutic nature of postwar liberalism and its grand, but ultimately futile, attempt to make the world safe for democracy. But Lasch was on to something grander. He eventually abandoned Marxism too, and found new insight from philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty. Miller does not diminish what might appear to be contradictory intellectual influences in Lasch’s life. He demonstrates that what Lasch found useful in both Rorty and MacIntyre was a rejection of the supremacy of analytic philosophy and its attempt to separate philosophy from tradition and history. Although Lasch stood firmly against the terminology of postmodernism and relativism, his work took on a postmodern theological flavor. Miller shows that he was unquestionably postmodern in the sense that the tradition was reborn as a new form of accepted cultural criticism. In other words, tradition was no longer anathema as a tool of cultural criticism, and, in a way, no longer the exclusive ground of the traditionalist wing of American conservatism either. Whereas such conservatives as Russell Kirk had long recognized the power of history to renew the modern imagination, Lasch arrived at his conservative moment decades after Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind in 1953.

Lasch reflected a new generation of neotraditionalists who again recognized the perils of progress and ideology. In particular, Lasch seems to have adopted the new Protestant fervor that grew in the mid-1970s to counter progress driven by elites, although Miller notes that his Protestantism was closer to Niebuhr than Carl Henry. His historical methodology took on an Augustinian flavor by the 1980s as he worked to recover human depravity as a lost tool of understanding human history.

In the latter part of his career, Lasch scourged both liberal anti-intellectualism and the elites who believed in spreading American-style global democracy. In effect, by the 1990s he became openly critical of his past and the ideas the first defined him. In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, published in 1991, Lasch argued that progress was an illusion: The growth of material wealth had become confused with the notion that human nature improved. He saw this illustrated in American history in a perpetual struggle between progressives and populists—conservatives will recall Wendell Berry’s distinction between “boomers” and “stickers.” The True and Only Heaven is a theological history in which Lasch demonstrates through a host of theological thinkers—as different as Emerson and Edwards—that there has always been a small remnant of communitarian anti-progressivism throughout American history. This remnant is usually ignored in favor of improving material conditions. Miller notes that Lasch failed to flesh out his theology and argues that he should have given more significance to faith than politics in the book. Even with these weaknesses, as Miller wrote in the Fall 2011 issue of Fides et Historia, The True and Only Heaven is a great historical work that has not yet had its due among mainstream academics.

Miller clearly does not consider Lasch a conservative out of respect for Lasch’s originality. There were philosophical and theological contradictions in Lasch’s view of the populist tradition in America. Yet Lasch did not identify with what is considered “conservatism.” One could make the case that conservatism is now having a Laschian moment through the popularity of the likes of Wendell Berry and the recent fascination with the Red Toryism movement in England.

Lasch was not an outspoken pro-lifer nor a Reagan enthusiast, but neither were many conservative intellectuals of the postwar era. And faith is somewhat amorphous in his account of history; orthodoxy and doctrinal clarity were not high priorities. His biographer seems to lament that Lasch never took the final step of conversion to a doctrinaire faith, not least because such a move would have added force to his scholarship. Despite these qualifications, Miller does not diminish Lasch’s role as scholar and leading cultural critic.

There is still room for further fleshing out Lasch’s relationship to American conservatism and conservative thinkers without forcing that label upon him. Russell Kirk found conservative currents in thinkers who were not always conservative politically and socially, the most outstanding example being his inclusion of Spanish philosopher George Santayana in the conservative canon. Much research is still to be done on the great complexity within postwar conservatism and the true extent of its symmetry. Recognition of the depth of this complexity may reveal that Lasch does deserve a place in the canon, especially after 1975, and that historians may need to rethink important intellectual shifts in the seventies. Already some conservatives, such as Paul Gottfried and Jeremy Beer, find affinity with Lasch.

Miller demonstrates that there are no easy conclusions concerning Lasch’s intellectual life. Where others see, with Daniel T. Rodgers, an Age of Fracture, Miller finds Lasch’s prophetic voice sobering for what it reveals about the present democratic age. “(O)ur political pluralism makes it harder and harder to listen, especially to voices emerging from a deep and thoughtful silence,” Miller writes. The virtues of the prophetic life led Lasch to deeper scholarship. Miller appropriately refuses to downplay the tensions and ambiguities and so leaves us with a profound portrait of American intellectual life in a postmodern age. 

Seth Bartee is a doctoral student researching postwar conservatism at Virginia Tech.

Posted: May 13, 2012

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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