The following post is from Christopher Shannon and is a response to Michael Kramer’s essay on Christopher Lasch that appeared a week ago. This exchange should continue next week with another post from Michael.
Christopher Shannon is an associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of two books on the history of American social science, Conspicuous Criticism (1996) and A World Made Safe for Differences (2001). His most recent book is Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (2010).
Christopher Lasch was arguably the most important U.S. intellectual historian of the last third of the twentieth century. Michael Kramer acknowledges that most of Lasch’s enduring reputation rests on his early work The New Radicalism in America (1965), which examined the intellectual as a social type, and his later works such as The Culture of Narcissism (1979), which offered a jeremiad against the moral decline of American culture. Kramer’s appreciative and illuminating article argues for the need to reconsider a forgotten middle period, covering the late 1960s and early 1970s and captured in Lasch’s two essay collections, The Agony of the American Left (1969) and The World of Nations (1973). These books reflect a time when Lasch was, in Kramer’s words, “one and the same time a penetrating analyst of the liberal establishment, a firm opponent to the startling rise of reactionary right-wing politics, and an independent ally of the younger New Left.” Kramer contrasts this period favorably with Lasch’s later period, marked by a full-scale rejection of liberalism as well as the liberationist movements that emerged from the left-wing revolt against liberalism in the 1960s. I fully share Kramer’s appreciation for this period in Lasch’s career, but wish to explore the implications of privileging this period both in terms of our understanding of the intellectual as social type and the substance of Lasch’s thought.
First, the intellectual as social type. There are of course many types of intellectuals. Lasch’s New Radicalism skewered one type that he found dominant in early twentieth-century American life: the alienated middle-class intellectual, searching for authentic, vital experience and willing to abandon the life of the mind in order to achieve fulfillment through participation in a mass political movement. Lasch saw many of these tendencies reproducing themselves in the late 1960s, and his essays were merciless in exposing the self-destructive irrationalism of the time. Lasch avoided these errors by seeming to be everywhere and nowhere politically. This lack of a fixed position—one might well call it intellectual liminality—is precisely what attracts Kramer to this period:
“Its searching quality, its empathetic but fierce scrutiny of ideas relevant to pressing matters of the day, its lack of polemics or set judgments, its reflexivity instead of simple reflex responses—in sum, its evidence of thought in motion, forceful but open to subtle shifts and cross-cut lines of possibility in the thinking of others, makes it more significant, in its odd way, than Lasch’s more realized arguments and positions earlier and later in his life.”
This is a fairly accurate description of Lasch’s work during this middle period, and its appeal is understandable. To be an intellectual is in many ways first to be a critic. At this time, Lasch seemed to have a critique of everything, while being notoriously hard to pin down. He was indeed the embodiment of thought in motion, yet it was a motion that seemed to lack any clear sense of direction. This positionless position is in effect another social type of the intellectual, one that I have examined in my Conspicuous Criticism and A World Made Safe for Differences. That Lasch grew dissatisfied with this constant intellectual wandering and finally took his stand with a set of values he called “populism” is, for Kramer, a retreat into the very romanticization of the common man that Lasch had so thoroughly critiqued in The New Radicalism.
Well, if Lasch be a sentimental romantic, he is not the only one in Kramer’s article. The ideal of the free-floating intellectual who stands as an independent judge of society is surely a close second to the intellectual as a man of the people. It is an ideal, moreover, generally blind to the power relations of its very specific class setting—that of the professional managerial class Lasch attacked in The Revolt of the Elites. No wonder Kramer sees this later work as shrill, cranky, polemical, etc. (I am objectively a member of this class as well, so my criticism here is not from any position of class purity). Where most intellectuals are content to critique someone else’s class (the dirty capitalists!), Lasch saw the complicity of his own class in some of the worst developments of late twentieth century America, most especially the decline of what he called “the common life.” For this, Kramer accuses Lasch of lapsing into nostalgia; curiously, he also criticizes Lasch for failing to address “the outrageous attacks from the right on the any sense of the common good whatsoever.” Well, who is nostalgic and who is critical depends on how one defines terms such as the common life and the common good.
Nowhere have such definitions been more contentious than in the area of family life and gender relations. For Kramer, “Lasch’s rather tin ear for the range of positions articulated within second wave feminism . . . undercut what made his work so powerful.” Lasch argued that so much of post-1960s feminism simply demanded for women the same access to middle-class professionalism enjoyed by men. Conceding this critique, Kramer follows Ellen Willis in accusing Lasch of failing to see how feminists had acknowledged and corrected this limitation and developed socialist alternatives to mere liberal feminism. In looking at Willis’s review of Lasch’s Women and the Common Life, I fail to see what Kramer calls an “amazing takedown” of Lasch’s position. Willis concludes her “critique” of Lasch with an unapologetic affirmation of the very state and market individualism that Lasch rejected as undermining the common life:
. . . few would disagree that the advent of the liberal state represented real progress for women. The capitalist marketplace opened up the possibility of a livelihood independent of fathers and husbands. Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and inalienable rights enabled women to fight for basic perquisites of citizenship and ultimately to make the far more radical demand for control over their sexual and reproductive lives.
Well, Lasch was one of the few who did disagree, largely because he realized that a world in which women are independent of men is one in which men are independent of women, and if everyone is independent of everyone else, then we do not really have a properly “common” life. For Lasch, the common life is rooted in a mutual dependence best captured by the traditional home economy. Whatever men’s social power relative to women in pre-industrial times, the male farmer who owned land could not survive without the productive labor of women. One might argue that the dual-income marriage is a rough modern equivalent of this pre-modern dependence, except that independent incomes have helped to facilitate divorce, itself lauded as yet another achievement of second wave feminism. How can one argue for broader social commitments to public life when one is under no moral or legal obligation to honor the most intimate and personal commitment of one’s private life? This is a question Lasch raises in his work, and it is not one that Ellen Willis or Michael Kramer has answered.
By all means, let us revisit Lasch’s middle period. But let us not fall into the trap of reading his intellectual career through yet another declension narrative. To dismiss Lasch’s later work is to reinforce the “clunky left or right, liberal or reactionary, categories” that Kramer seeks to avoid by turning to his middle period. One may not agree with Lasch’s anti-capitalist cultural conservatism, but it is the most intellectually compelling alternative to the liberalism that has dominated mainstream intellectual life—and intellectual history—for the past quarter century. If intellectual history is to be a dialogue rather than a monologue, we need more, not less, of the voice of the later Lasch.