Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) was a prominent American historian and social critic. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s his writings defined the role of the intellectual and explored the source of the ills of society.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1932, Christopher Lasch received his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his graduate degrees at Columbia, where he was a student of William Leuchtenburg and Richard Hofstadter. Lasch taught history at Williams College, Roosevelt University, the State University of Iowa, Northwestern, and, after 1970, the University of Rochester until he died on February 14, 1994 from cancer. According to former student, Casey Blake of Indiana University, Lasch saw himself as a historian and a public moralist, someone who could help Americans come to terms with their own contemporary situation.
Lasch's first book, published in 1962, was a study of the reaction of American liberals to the Russian Revolution. It was an analysis of the ideas of intellectuals, and it can also be seen as a study in the public opinion of foreign policy. Monographic and scholarly, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution showed the careful constraints of a doctoral dissertation. At the same time, the book was an investigation of the origins of the American formulation of the Cold War, and it revealed Lasch's skepticism concerning United States government policy.
Lasch's second book, The New Radicalism in America (1965), was a collection of biographical sketches which interpreted "the estrangement of intellectuals" in terms of opposition to conventional styles of middle-class life as well as conventional politics. Lasch provocatively suggested that unsatisfying family and other personal relationships led intellectuals to try to experience abstractly in public political stances satisfactions that had not been experienced personally. This complex and unprovable psychological interpretation was explanatory, but did not form the bulk of the subject matter of the book, which was a thoughtful analysis of the ideas of female as well as male intellectuals during the previous century. Power, American foreign policy, the role of women, the relationship between personal concerns and public policy, and the relationship of intellectuals to government all received extensive and stimulating discussion.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lasch wrote The Agony of the American Left (1969) and The World of Nations (1973) which were comprised largely of essays he had written in response to the pressures of national and international crises. Characteristically thoughtful, the essays necessarily had the marks of the events and polemics of the time. Lasch's ongoing political interests, involving a sympathy for democratic socialism and a criticism of American intervention overseas, became more immediately focused upon current affairs during these years. Yet, despite his perspective, his essays devoted much space to what he regarded as narrow, dogmatic, or otherwise wrong-headed views of socialists and other critics of dominant American policies and practices. Lasch functioned as a radical critic who spent almost as much of his time during the late 1960s criticizing other radicals as he did criticizing the existing social and economic order.
Family and the Larger Cultural Context
As the dramatic conflicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s subsided, Lasch returned to his interest in the family and its larger cultural context. He conceived a study in the history of marriage and family in Western Europe and America since the Middle Ages, and began it by reading the literature that had been developed by socialists, psychologists, and family counselors. Not one to read a book without writing about it, Lasch published his interpretation of this family scholarship as Haven in a Heartless World (1979). There was some overlap between this book and the essays written at the same time and published as The Culture of Narcissism (1979), which became a best-seller and made Lasch an intellectual household name. In 1984 he published The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, in which he elaborated upon these books and clarified his views.
Although Lasch was highly respected by scholars who knew him and his work, his reputation was more that of social critic than historian. His public fame was associated with the popularization of the idea of "narcissim" during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Crudely translated as "selfishness" in the Reagan years of self-aggrandizement, narcissism became a notorious catch-all characterization for American sins.
Lasch's most widely distributed writings on narcissism and the family were, like many scholarly best-sellers, complicated. Lasch explored psychoanalytic theory and its historiography. But he also characterized the symptoms of narcissism in a way that allowed readers to understand the manifestations, if not the causes, of their contemporary personal and social predicament.
Lasch developed the perspectives of intellectual traditions emanating from Karl Marx, as well as from Sigmund Freud. Lasch shared the view that the nature of culture, including its structure of values and of power, were related to the economic order. The family was the creator of psychoanalytic development, but the family, according to Lasch, was also the creature of historical development. Thus, when industrial production took the father out of the home, his role was diminished in the conscious life of the child. When the mother relied upon experts in child-rearing, she was dependent upon the "organized apparatus of social control." As the changes in the outside world reformed the family, so changes in the middle-class family reformed the outside world. Organizations took on some of the characteristics of the new family. There came to be "a therapeutic view of authority": less authoritarianism, more collegiality, thus more subtle attempts to manipulate. Resulting narcissistic symptoms of contemporary life, according to Lasch, were vague, diffuse dissatisfactions; personal oscillations of self-esteem; avoidance of long-term close relationships in favor of temporary commitments; an inability to connect with the past, combined with a fear for the future; and an exclusive preoccupation with daily psychic survival.
A Criticism of Society
In 1990 Lasch's The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics questioned the desirability and inevitableness of progress. He maintained that the idea of progress rests on several untenable propositions and that "the earth's finite resources will not support an indefinite expansion of industrial civilization."
Published posthumously, The Revolt of the Elites amd the Betrayal of Democracy tersely and scathingly attacks the failures of modem society, notably the elites who direct, interpret, and feed off of it—what he calls "the dark night of the soul" through which the whole world seems to be passing. As several reviewers noted, Lasch has nothing good to say about American contemporary elites, who owe their promotion to an ideology and practice of meritocracy that, in his view, has drained American society of the last vestiges of true democracy and the human communities from which it emerges.
Lasch was criticized as being pessimistic and negative, but that may stem from his often severe criticisms of the United States and Americans. To Lasch, it was important to try and hold Americans to the standard of a professed moral and political code and to create a realization of how far they had fallen short of those values.
Straddling Marx and Freud, Lasch also mediated a tension between scholarly detachment and an intellectual call to action. Lasch's invocation of irony and paradox served to remind readers of his intellectual coming-of-age in the 1950s, as his activist preoccupations revealed his attempt to engage the world of his maturity.
Lasch drew heavily on a tradition that he inherited from his parents, a tradition of Midwestern progressivism, which he in many ways criticized in much of his work but which still was a powerful influence on his career. First in this tradition was a strong strain of Protestant moralism, which led him to be skeptical of all claims to human perfectibility and benevolence. Secondly, he inherited from that tradition a kind of faith in local-level democracy that was much closer to the populous movement of the 1890s than it was to the liberalism of the 1960s. And thirdly, what he inherited from his parents' brand of progressivism, which remained a life-long influence on him, was a deep and abiding hostility to all expansive, even imperialist conceptions of America's role in the world.
Christopher Lasch is best understood not in relation to other historians and the historical writing of his time, but in relation to other intellectuals and the social issues of his time. Reviews, essays, and letters concerning books by Lasch, and by him of books by other writers, during and after the 1960s can be found in virtually all of the leading periodicals. See, in particular, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times "Book Review" for January 27, 1991. □
(b. 1 June 1932 in Omaha, Nebraska; d. 14 February 1994 in Pittsford, New York), social critic and historian who attacked the modern culture of consumerism and narcissism and who, though he remained a political leftist, sharply critiqued what he saw as the self-indulgence of the American Left.
Lasch was the son of Robert Lasch, a newspaper editorialist for the Omaha World Herald, and Zora Schaupp, a part-time social worker and professor with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Lasch was brought up as a liberal and Midwest progressive, traditions he professionally debated in his writings, but he continued to characterize himself as a liberal throughout his life.
His family, which included one sister, moved to Barrington, Illinois, shortly after he was born. At Barrington High School, from which he graduated in 1950, Lasch edited the school paper and was politically engaged on behalf of the Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign for the U.S. presidency. He gained a scholarship to the University of Chicago but chose to attend Harvard, from which he graduated in 1954 with summa cum laude honors in history. He went on to Columbia University in New York City, where he gained an M.A. degree in history in 1955 and a Ph.D. in 1961 under the guidance of the New Deal historian William E. Leuchtenburg. His first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), grew out of his dissertation.
Also while at Columbia, in 1956 Lasch married Nell Commager, daughter of the eminent historian Henry Steele Commager. She became an accomplished potter, and together they raised four children. Lasch taught at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Roosevelt University in Chicago while finishing his doctorate. He moved to the University of Iowa, where within four years he became a full professor. He then went on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1966. He began teaching at the University of Rochester in New York in 1970 and remained there until his death in 1994. In 1979 he was named the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of History, and in 1985 he became chairman of a department that was rated one of the best in the nation.
His first book established something of a pattern, delineating the fault lines in liberals’ perception of the 1917 Russian Revolution as the establishment of an earthly paradise—a belief so strong that they dared make only faint criticisms of Soviet brutality. Lasch’s reputation as an intellectual of substance was enhanced with his second book, The New Radicalism in America (1889–1963): The Intellectual as a Social Type (1965), in which he examined the careers of social activists such as Jane Addams. In the book, he developed the idea, derived from his studies of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, that religion lay at the base of progressive ideas and was a source of weakness in them, encouraging the perversion of education into a means of social control rather than of broadening and enhancing the life of the mind.
American radicals came up for further criticism in Lasch’s The Agony of the American Left (1969), in which he chastised American leftists for what he saw as their infatuation with personal liberation and vague notions of wholesale revolution. He believed that liberals had become tied to the society of corporate greed and had unwittingly used education to lead the middle classes into greater depths of materialism. Lasch did not merely curse the darkness of misguided thought, however, but attempted to counter the misguided progressive notions of the Left with ideas of his own.
In addition, Lasch became concerned with a society of individuals absorbed in self but incapable of establishing control over their own personal lives. The weakness of faith, community values, personal discipline, and family structure became the stuff of his next three books, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977); The Culture of Narcissism (1979), his most commercially successful work; and The Minimal Self (1984). His Haven was significant in that it coldly illuminated the role of educated elites, allied with the forces of corporate capitalism, in crippling and depersonalizing the individual. The family in Lasch’s view was subverted by a communal acquiescence to elements contributing to its breakdown, including divorce, single parenthood, the substitution of day care for traditional child-raising, and forms of social disarray celebrated as evidence of diversity in a supposedly revolutionary society.
The Culture of Narcissism continued themes outlined in Haven, this time by critiquing Americans’ emphasis on self-gratification. Perhaps surprisingly, given its attack on contemporary ways of life, the book became a best-seller and earned the admiration of President Jimmy Carter. The latter consulted with Lasch in 1979 on the topic of “America’s crisis of confidence,” and the result was Carter’s widely criticized “malaise” speech. Lasch, too, increasingly found himself under attack both from the Left and the Right. Conservatives, while they may have admired his emphasis on the family, rejected his attacks on capitalism.
As he had done earlier in The New Radicalism, Lasch examined the work of famous social critics and activists in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991). This time he used Thomas Carlyle, Reinhold Niebuhr, Orestes Brownson, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Luther King Jr. to display the value of religious purpose in public life. Again he took liberals to task, portraying the civil rights movement of the 1960s as a victim of liberal sociological and scientific arguments, and contrasting these with the moral and spiritual vigor of King’s principles. He was chosen to write the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It; the introduction established much of what history as an intellectual exercise meant to Lasch.
Lasch’s final work, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 1995 after his death from renal cancer, took up issues that included the erosion of the middle class, the betrayal of democracy, the role of global capitalism and its impact on social divisiveness, and the revolt of new elites against the verities of common life. With the help of his historian daughter, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch devoted his final year to assembling a series of essays on the role of women in society, and in 1997 these became Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism. He is buried in Pittsford, New York.
Lasch stands as one of the most profound and original intellectual historians of his time. A courageous thinker, he did not shy from the obligation to seek out the meanings behind historical developments and the need to discern the underlying ideas that propelled society. He was an engaged critic, a man who retained the ability to stand apart from and above the arguments he developed, while maintaining a passion for his cause.
Lasch’s papers are at the University of Rochester. Interviews with Lasch include Casey Blake and Christopher Phelps, “History and Social Criticism: Conversations with Christopher Lasch,” Journal of American History (Mar. 1994), and Richard W. Fox, “An Interview with Christopher Lasch,” Intellectual History Newsletter (Sept. 1994). Articles on Lasch and his work include Jean Bethke Elshtain, “The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story,” Salmagundi (spring—summer 1995); Robert Coles, “Remembering Christopher Lasch,” New Oxford Review (Sept. 1994); Jackson Lears, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” New Republic (Oct. 1995); and James Seaton, “The Gift of Christopher Lasch,” First Things (Aug.—Sept. 1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Feb. 1994).
Jack J. Cardoso
In his later years Lasch launched a defence of American populism and communitarianism. For example, in the posthumously published The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) he attacks America's governing and wealthy élites, who have insulated themselves from the wider society, and feel no responsibility for the welfare of either the poor or the middle classes. The members of this ‘new aristocracy of brains’ or ‘knowledge class’ inhabit an ‘artificial world’ of restaurants, health clubs, and aeroplanes. They are ‘at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to a grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort’. They favour a fashionable social-issue liberalism' ‘obsessed with the rights of women and minorities, with gay rights and unlimited abortion rights, with the allegedly epidemic spread of child abuse and sexual harassment, with the need for regulations against offensive speech, and with curricular reforms designed to end the cultural hegemony of “dead white European males”’. As a result, according to Lasch, cities decay, minorities are marginalized, politics are trivialized, crime increases, and society moves towards anarchy. Lasch traces this breakdown (in a somewhat uneasy admixture of ideas) to both the ideology of economic liberalism (which, in his view, justifies unfettered self-interest and the abandonment of civic virtue) and the left-wing culture of educational institutions (schools and especially universities) which have given up teaching facts in favour of fashionable theories expressed in (as he sees it) politically correct and incomprehensible jargon. Relatedly (and no less controversially), Lasch also penned one of the most provocative critiques of modern feminism, which he saw as contributing to various damaging aspects of late capitalism (Women and the Common Life, 1996).
Critics have argued that Lasch himself sometimes pays scant regard to facts and tends to use evidence loosely; for example, liberals have long recognized that the market needs regulation, and that the poor need some protection by the state. Lasch is also unclear about precisely who are the members of the offending élite—although his depiction of modern America carries strong echoes of Milovan Djilas's critique of communism (The New Class, 1957—see REAL SOCIALISM) and Michael Young's satire on meritocracy (The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1958). Like many modern communitarians, Lasch was also vague about concrete suggestions for improvement, although as a populist he identified himself with the lower middle class of ‘small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen and farmers’, whose culture he saw as valuing the community (rather than personal ambition) as the highest good, and whom he admired for its ‘moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its scepticism about progress’ (see, for example, The True and Only Heaven, 1991