Christopher Lasch

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.

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Published Works

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.

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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.

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Further Reading on Christopher Lasch

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.