Christopher Lasch 1932–1994
American social critic, historian, essayist, and professor.
The following entry presents an overview of Lasch's career through 1995.
A historian and social critic, Lasch was a controversial and often misunderstood theorist of contemporary American culture. Speaking from a position generally sympathetic to the intellectual left, he united political radicalism and social conservatism in his disturbing but thought-provoking analyses of American society, which he viewed as increasingly bureaucratic, consumption-oriented, and politically driven by a "new," elite economic class. His works—including The New Radicalism in America (1965), The Culture of Narcissism (1977), and The True and Only Heaven (1991)—examine how late nineteenth-century capitalism, progressivism, and the consequent social problems of that era evolved during the twentieth century, and demonstrate how traditional institutions and values have been dismantled and replaced by confusion and despair. Although his thought generated strong disagreement as often as high approbation from both rightist and leftist critics, most agree that Lasch brought a fresh perspective to the debate about the American cultural crisis at the end of the twentieth century. Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed: "Christopher Lasch was a man of grace who found much of late modernity graceless; a man of wit who found much of our politics witless; a man of purpose who lamented our culture's frenetic purposelessness; a man of hope who saw in boundless optimism a deep despair."
Lasch was born June 1, 1932, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Robert and Zora Lasch, a journalist and philosophy professor, respectively. Little is known about his childhood and adolescence until his entrance into Harvard University in 1950, where he was novelist John Updike's roommate. Lasch received a B.A. degree in history in 1954, after which he enrolled at Columbia University for postgraduate studies, earning his master's degree in 1955 and a Ph.D. degree in 1961. While he pursued his doctoral studies, he taught history at Williams College, Columbia, and Roosevelt University and published a number of essays on historical trends in American culture and politics. As a history professor during the 1960s, first at the University of Iowa and later at Northwestern University, Lasch wrote The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), The New Radicalism in America, and The Agony of the American Left (1969). In 1970 Lasch accepted an appointment as professor of history at the University of Rochester, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Following the publication of The World of Nations (1973) and Haven in a Heartless World (1977), Lasch gained national attention with the best-selling The Culture of Narcissism, which received an American Book Award in current interest in 1980. That year, he delivered the Freud Lectures at University College in London. Lasch wrote three more books—The Minimal Self (1984), The True and Only Heaven, and the posthumously published Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995)—before he died of cancer on February 14, 1994.
The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, based in part on Lasch's doctoral dissertation, argues that a blind faith in progress obscured the distressing effects of the communist revolution in Russia in 1917 and suggests that similar consequences await the unrestrained optimism found in modern American liberalism. The New Radicalism in America identifies in a series of biographical sketches the early twentieth-century foundations of a socially aware radicalism, tracing its development through mid-century as a force for social and political reform that ultimately produced the American welfare state. These themes emerge again in Haven in a Heartless World, which suggests that the industrial revolution produced ideological justifications for state interference in private, family life. The Agony of the American Left, comprising five essays on populism, socialism, black power, and students' rights, describes how post-World War I radicalism had co-opted progressive ideology, which has diluted radicalism's political influence. The World of Nations, divided into "The Limits of Liberal Reform," "Alternatives to Liberalism," and "The So-Called Post-Industrial Society," contains eighteen essays and book reviews published between 1958 and 1972. Lasch turned from considered aspects of modern society to focus on the modern individual in his next book. The Culture of Narcissism examines contemporary narcissism, a personality structure characterized by self-absorption and a stern superego, and analyzes historical and cultural patterns to account for its widespread emergence during the latter half of the twentieth century. The Minimal Self, a sequel to The Culture of Narcissism, clarifies argumentative points made in the previous book by analyzing the ethic of "survivalism" and radical feminism. Returning to criticism of liberalism, The True and Only Heaven rejects the modern ideology of progress in favor of petty-bourgeois values and an acceptance of limits without despair, or "hope." The Revolt of the Elites discusses the differences between populism and contemporary "communitarianism" in terms of changes in late twentieth-century capitalism.
Elshtain has remarked that Lasch "was better at putting the questions than at providing the answers," and most critical commentary on his works has made similar conclusions. As a radical historian in his early career, "his trenchant analysis of modern liberal and radical ideology made Lasch a darling of the New Left," observed Steven Watts. The critical reception of Lasch's social criticism since 1975, however, has been marked by contention and controversy, mainly since his "commentary has defied confident ideological categorization," according to Watts. Watts also has noted that Lasch's "social criticism has raised as many angry rebuttals from ostensible allies on the Left as from evident targets on the Right…. Misunderstood more than any other contemporary critic, he has been praised and condemned for all the wrong reasons." Rightist critics generally have endorsed Lasch's writing for upholding traditional values, while leftist critics have accused him of betraying the liberal cause. Some commentators have faulted Lasch's books for lacking humor and assuming a tone of self-righteousness; others have responded to his treatment of gender issues and the cultural meaning of feminine with cries of "authoritarian" and "hallucinatory." Economists also have noticed the vagueness of Lasch's agenda for a return to small-scale production in the face of global competition, questioning its practicality. But Watts has concluded: "The fact that [Lasch] has mystified and infuriated so many only supports the suspicion that he must be on to something."
The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (history) 1962
The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (history) 1965
The Agony of the American Left (essays) 1969
The World of Nations (essays) 1973
Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (social criticism) 1977
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (social criticism) 1977
The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (social criticism) 1984
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (social criticism) 1991
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (social criticism) 1995
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SOURCE: A review of The Minimal Self, in Southwestern Humanities Review, Spring, 1986, pp. 181-83.
[In the following review, Voelker compares the themes of The Minimal Self to those of The Culture of Narcissism, concluding that, while The Minimal Self "seems guilty of the same cultural shallowness it sees around it," the book has "occasional sharp observations."]
There is something meretricious in the title to Christopher Lasch's sequel to his often precise and powerful The Culture of Narcissism. A reader unacquainted with Lasch's work who comes across a book sub-titled "Psychic Survival in Troubled Times" is likely to mistake it for a success manual—one of those hot-selling cynical paeans to the very "minimalism" Lasch decries. "Meretricious" is perhaps too strong a term for what is wrong with the rest of The Minimal Self. Lasch works in an impressionistic field, extrapolating cultural observation from psychoanalytic terminology, and in The Culture of Narcissism he brought a degree of rigor to the application of a much-used word. "Narcissism," Lasch insisted, is not self-love but love rejected that turns back toward the self as hatred. His was a timely reminder that we are not well-served as historians or clinicians when we apply "Narcissism" loosely to all contemporary forms of selfishness. Critics of Narcissism, he wrote,
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SOURCE: "Liberalism Takes a Licking," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, pp. 2, 11.
[In the highly positive review of The True and Only Heaven below, Hodgson discusses the book's critique of the ideology of progress and some strategies used by Lasch.]
From the New Deal until the 1970s, liberalism in all its variants was the public philosophy of the United States. And what brought together a whole coalition of interests, classes and temperaments under the banners of liberalism was a shared belief in the idea, indeed the ideology of progress.
Since the 1970s, with bewildering speed, liberalism has been rudely unseated from that position of hegemony. This is not just a swing of the political pendulum, or of shifting fashions in graduate schools, publishing houses and the editorial pages of newspapers. Liberalism, once arrogantly confident of its solutions for all manner of problems, has turned defensive, and all its enemies have been on the attack.
The most familiar assaults, of course, come from the various tribes of conservatives. Christopher Lasch, the historian and long an adherent of the American Left, does not march under any of their banners. Instead, in this difficult but learned and subtle—perhaps too subtle—book [The True and Only Heaven], he digs down to the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and exhumes a whole cluster...
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SOURCE: "Man of the People," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, April, 11, 1991, pp. 39-44.
[In the following review, Menand surveys Lasch's critique of liberalism throughout his works, including The True and Only Heaven, and concludes that Lasch's insightful but sometimes limited cultural criticism neglects the influence of both literature and "the political doctrine of rights" on twentieth-century society.]
Christopher Lasch began his career as a historian and critic of American liberalism. His analysis of liberalism led him to an analysis of some of the alternatives to liberalism in American political thought and, eventually, to a long excursion into social history and cultural criticism. It is clear from this work that he is unhappy with the dominant political and intellectual traditions in American life, and distressed by the mess he thinks those traditions have gotten us into. But it has not been clear what he thinks we might do to organize our thoughts and our lives more propitiously. With The True and Only Heaven, he returns to the criticism of liberalism with which he started, but this time he offers a prescription.
What does he mean by "liberalism"? The term is used to describe such a variety of political views that it has become a vexing one to define. Some people we call liberals—those associated with the War on Poverty in the 1960s, say, or with...
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SOURCE: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Critic: Christopher Lasch's Struggle with Progressive America," in American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 113-20.
[In the review below, Watts summarizes the themes of and the critical responses to Lasch's works from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, offering a general assessment of the weaknesses and strengths of his arguments.]
In the volatile cultural politics of late twentieth-century America, the only thing worse than an opponent is a traitor. In many ways, Christopher Lasch has acquired precisely that image. He began his career as a radical historian in the 1960s—one of his essays, for instance, appeared alongside those of Eugene Genovese and Staughton Lynd in the 1969 dissenting manifesto Towards a New Past—and his trenchant analysis of modern liberal and radical ideology made him a darling of the New Left. Within a few years, however, the young critic began heading off in a direction quite alarming to many of his admirers. The transforming nature of his view of American life brought growing controversy in its wake.
Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing over the next decade and a half, Lasch would publish four highly contentious books. They examined a number of crucial issues in modern America: the disintegration of the family as part of a larger crisis of culture, the corrosive psychological effects accruing to...
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SOURCE: "Modernity and Progress: An Exchange," in Salmagundi, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter, 1992, pp. 82-116.
[Below, each writer separately explains the themes of The True and Only Heaven. In the first essay Isaac offers a point-by-point analysis of Lasch's social criticism in his book, concentrating on what he perceives as omissions and dismissals in Lasch's otherwise astute observations. In the second essay Lasch responds to specific criticisms of his book made by several reviewers, focusing especially on those by Isaac about Lasch's treatment of "the problem of democracy."]
I. On Christopher Lasch
Both the facts which justified my indignation and the moral motives which demanded it stemmed directly from the district where I was born. This explains … why everything I shall ever write, although I have traveled and lived abroad, is concerned solely with this same district or more precisely with the part of it which can be seen from the house where I was born…. It is a district, like the rest of the Abruzzi, poor in secular history and almost entirely Christian and medieval in its formation…. The conditions of human existence have always been particularly difficult there; pain has always been accepted there among the laws of nature, and the Cross welcomed and honored because of it…. The ashes of skepticism have never suffocated, in the hearts of...
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SOURCE: "Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism, and the Vocation of Intellectuals," in Reviews in American History, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1995, pp. 176-91.
[In the essay below, Westbrook examines the influence of The New Radicalism in America on the American intellectual community.]
The New Radicalism is really a brilliant book, a book of such importance that people will be talking about it as long as they are talking about 20th Century history. It is an unconventional book, because it is based not on massing evidence but on thinking about history, an endeavor that has largely gone out of fashion.
—William Leuchtenburg to Christopher Lasch, July 5, 1965.
In a foreword to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Richard Hofstadter's American Political Tradition (1973), Christopher Lasch paid tribute to the late historian and teacher who, above all others, had provided a model for his own vocation.
Even though his career was cut short in its prime, leaving us immeasurably impoverished by the loss, Richard Hofstadter left a full and rounded body of work, not merely one or two important books, which is the best that most historians can hope for…. Hofstadter's imagination never rested for long, and his thought ranged widely, embracing...
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SOURCE: "The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story," in Salmagundi, Nos. 106-107, Spring-Summer, 1995, pp. 146-61.
[Below, Elshtain, a personal friend of Lasch, relates Lasch's thought to his character, reminiscing about and illuminating Lasch's observations of contemporary American life.]
Christopher Lasch was my friend. That means I called him "Kit." When he died on Valentine's Day, 1994, the loss was a personal one enveloped by a patina of public concern. Who, I fretted sadly, will take his place? I found it hard to imagine a world without Kit's voice, a very particular voice, quintessentially American, rooted in the soil of this strange and wonderful country with its vast and lurching empathies and antipathies. Lasch believed in the responsibility—shorn of condescension and vanguardist elitism—of the intellectual to and for his or her particular time and place. Sadly contemplating a world without Kit, I recalled the words of Susan B. Anthony when she learned that her great friend and indefatigable colleague, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had died. "Well," she said, "it is a great hush." It will, I decided, be a great hush. There is no other voice quite like his.
Lasch courted controversy. He once told me that he thought the "jeremiad" as a form of public expression was worth recuperating—he was thinking of Jonathan Edwards. There were those who hissed at the sound of...
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Beatty, Jack. "Beyond Narcissism." Washington Post Book World (16 December 1984); 6.
Finds The Minimal Self "a book stronger in ad hoc criticism than in sustained argument."
Bentley, James. "Looking after Number One." New Statesman (5 July 1985): 28.
Focuses on Lasch's attitudes about victimization and survival in The Minimal Self.
Brinkley, Alan. "Putting the Community First." Times Literary Supplement (20 September 1991): 24.
Concludes that "The True and Only Heaven, for all its intelligence, erudition, and passion, evades [the] crucial obligation" to explain the rationale for "the relative weakness of the values [Lasch] is devaluing."
Clare, Anthony. "Hidden Dependence." Times Literary Supplement (13 September 1985): 1006.
Analyzes the new concept of selfhood that seems to emerge in The Minimal Self.
Fraser, C. Gerald. A review of The Minimal Self. The New York Times Book Review (29 September 1985): 54.
Briefly notes "the unrelieved negativism of [Lasch's] diagnosis of our time."
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