U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rethinking History II

Dear Colleagues:

I have reconsidered the nature of my proposal for the “Rethinking History” CFP, which is due in three days. My previous idea — to compare a number of different left and right historians — seemed too problematic, as some of you astutely pointed out. Let me know what you think about this proposal, which I hope to submit in the next day or two:

“Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice”
Proposal for issue: “Liberalism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Historical Materialism.”

Proposed title: Christopher Lasch and the Historiography of Political Reorientation

Andrew Hartman

One of the best methods for understanding the relationship between political ideas and historical practice is to examine scholars whose political commitments shifted during their lives. Few historians better fit this mold than Christopher Lasch, the controversial U.S. historian and social critic whose eclectic oeuvre spans four decades.

When he began writing in the early 1960s, Lasch was prototypical of the coming New Left revisionism in his unsparing critique of corporate liberalism and the intellectuals who supported the new order. In The New Radicalism in America (1965), Lasch argued that liberal intellectuals such as John Dewey, by wrongly assuming culture was politically transformative, unintentionally helped prepare docile subjects for the corporate order. In The Agony of the American Left (1969), Lasch castigated those intellectuals who knowingly accepted CIA money, thus abdicating their duty as intellectuals to critique the imperialist state.

But by the publication of his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch no longer affiliated with the left, “new” or otherwise, and, in a move that surely would have drawn the ire of his former self, accepted an invitation from President Jimmy Carter to advise on the national malaise. Although the later Lasch cannot be reduced to a simple conservative – he continued to conceptualize immense wealth as an affront to basic morality – clearly he had reordered his political commitments, so much so that by the early 1990s Susan Faludi labeled him a leading anti-feminist intellectual. My essay will compare and contrast the early Lasch to the later Lasch as a means to remark on how political turmoil affects how we reconstruct the past.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. To me, this seems much clearer than the previous one. I haven’t read enough of Lasch’s work to say much about your read of him, but it doesn’t look like you offered that here anyway. Overall, it looks good!

  2. Andrew,

    I apologize for the delay in replying. I do agree with Mike that this proposal seems more workable.

    It seems that Lasch moved more to the center than the right, yes? The Faludi comment lends some credence to your argument, however, so perhaps it needs to be played up? But I know that Faludi (through my reading of Backlash) can be somewhat critical in general. What of Lasch’s work in the 1980s and 1990s? Does that era of his development provide more evidence of conservatism?

    I recall from my recent reading that that Lewis Perry offers something on Lasch’s 1970s incarnation. But I don’t remember whether Perry offers anything in support of your transition argument.

    Still, this seems quite interesting!

    – TL

  3. I must gently say that there are reasons disagree with this characterization of Lasch in the 1970s and later, at least based on his published writings. A constant enemy in his work is capitalism (this is the real culprit for the rise of narcissism in consumer society, he holds). But the Marxism and socialism or the New Left, or then the Frankfurt School (as in his 1970s work) stop being his answer to capitalism, so he turns to a kind of romantic anti-modernism in his final works, hence the critique of technological progress and “optimism” and such. Thus the new words populism, republicanism, and the warm glow of melancholic Puritanism appear more and more in his final books. Whether this is a successful turn, intellectually speaking, is another matter. It’s hard to knit together cultural conservatism with economic radicalism, as those who became neo-cons learned. But was Lasch a neo-con? Hmm. He was certainly a critic of power and Bigness (in the important, if sentimental, Williams James tradition). He was certainly a critic of laissez-faire capitalism, consistently. The anti-feminism of his 1970s and later work is disappointing and palpable, though, especially because he regards it as a version of radical individualism (and his collectivist/republican tendencies recoil from intense individualism, I would argue). Obviously, these are complex matters, as Lasch was a subtle thinker at times, one well worth wrestling with.

  4. Hi Paul:

    I agree with your assessment entirely — that Lasch was not a conservative (or neo-con) in any typical, modern American sense of the word. I use “Lasch the conservative” as a straw man. But my main point is that he made a rather profound political and intellectual shift, and that these shifts were not, obviously, mutually exclusive.


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