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Against Alan Wolfe’s misguided critique of the great historian.

It is hard to imagine a more devastating charge lodged against the life work of an historian-intellectual-social critic than the one Alan Wolfe lodges against Christopher Lasch. His work has become "irrelevant" because he chose the wrong "targets": "Lasch was engaged in an endless war against the leftism of the 1960s when the true enemy of American traditionalism would turn out to be the radical right." As if that were not enough to discredit Lasch's political judgment and historical acuity, Wolfe informs the reader of Lasch's "single most important miscalculation": "From start to finish, his enemy was liberalism." To which Wolfe counters victoriously, "It must be affirmed that against the ignorant conspiratorialism of today's right, liberalism's theory of the good society, however thin, looks downright robust."  

Lasch was wrong about almost everything or at least everything important. This is the considered judgment of Alan Wolfe. As a student of Christopher Lasch's, I take exception to this verdict and to almost every word Wolfe has written in his review. But for those who are not familiar with Lasch's work, I think they would be hard-pressed to disagree with Wolfe. And this is because Wolfe has shirked his obligations as a reviewer. Instead of providing a thorough, accurate account of Lasch's books—the minimum required by the standards of critical rigor and intellectual decency when one is assessing the fruits of a life devoted to trying to push our thinking beyond the stale commonplaces of the present moment--Wolfe treats Lasch's ideas and complicated historical arguments in a breezy, haphazard fashion. One example can stand in for the whole: his treatment of Lasch's penetrating critical history of progress, The True and Only Heaven, which he he rightly calls Lasch's magnum opus. After dramatically announcing, "Underlying it all was a deep transformation in Lasch's thinking," Wolfe does not hesitate to sum up this "deep transformation" in language that moves in the fashion-insider register of what's hot and what's not: "Marx and Freud were out, populism and Calvinism were in."

One would never know from Wolfe's highly selective and therefore misleading account of Lasch's books that Lasch was just as penetrating a critic of the Right and the phony conservatism of the Republican Party as he was of liberal individualism and the phony radicalism of '60s liberationists, or that his primary "targets" were monopoly capitalism, corporate bureaucracy, mass culture, the therapeutic ethos, the ideology of growth without limits, freedom conceived as consumer choice, and progress conceived as the democratization of consumption. One would have no idea that Lasch was one of our most impassioned defenders of democracy, of dignity in work, of common sense and self-reliance. I am at a loss as to why Wolfe produced such a shoddy piece of work and I am speaking not only of its intellectual negligence but also of its nasty, sneering personal tone. Not only is a man's reputation at stake here but also one of our most compelling and convincing historical accounts of how we have arrived where we are today, politically, culturally, and morally.

I would like to set the record straight in regard to Wolfe's inelegantly put question, "What about his legacy?" Unlike most academics and pundits who write about contemporary affairs, Lasch had the rare capacity to capture what it feels like to be alive today. In Lasch's uncannily apt rendering of the narcissist that appeared in the opening pages of The Culture of Narcissism, many readers no doubt registered an immediate shock of recognition, if not of themselves personally, then of people around them—an experience that has not diminished in the 31 years since the book was published. Because Wolfe only rarely quotes from Lasch, in the name of recovering his distinctive tone, I quote at length:

The new narcissist is haunted by guilt not by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others, but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. ... His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. ... He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deep antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future... but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetual desire.

As an historian, Lasch wanted to shed light on the many previously unnoticed ways that the major institutions of modern society—work, the mass-culture industry, the state, the school, the family—have contributed to the creation of the narcissistic personality. In The Culture of Narcissism and in later books as well, Lasch exposed "the social origins of the suffering ... that is painfully but falsely experienced as purely personal and private." For non-academic readers who found themselves engaged by a serious work of history and social criticism, surely it was a revelation, perhaps even a comfort, to discover that one's experience of inner emptiness was not merely a personal, psychological failing but rather a consequence of a violently contested historical development in which America moved from a localized society of independent, self-reliant farmers, artisans, merchants, and entrepreneurs to a mass society of large-scale production, consumption, bureaucracy, and political centralization, administered in every detail by a new class of professionals and managers. Under these new social conditions, the sources of meaning and happiness became increasingly narrow and standardized: fulfilling, non-degraded work, voluntary associations, family, and friendships more and more gave way to commercialized leisure and the consumption of commodities. This understanding has now become a commonplace of American intellectual and cultural history and Lasch's work did much to shape it. Equally importantly--and this is the most original aspect of his thinking—Lasch's work revealed the psychological, moral, and cultural devastation that "progress" with its cult of "no limits" has left in its wake and articulated its political repercussions in terms that did not and still do not fit comfortably into conventional categories of Left and Right.

(For a serious and balanced critical engagement with Lasch's ideas, see Jackson Lears's essay that appeared in TNR shortly after his death. For a sensitive appraisal of Lasch's work from the perspective of a kindred spirit, see Andrew Bacevich's essay in the current World Affairs Journal.)

There are few historians who have had the kind of moral imagination necessary to awaken our critical consciousness so that we might, in turn, develop a political conscience. In my judgment, that is Lasch's achievement and legacy. If you think, as Wolfe does, that the momentary appearance of a Sarah Palin successfully challenges Lasch's analysis of three hundred years of American history, then you would be well advised to accept his verdict that Christopher Lasch has become "irrelevant."

But I think many people who read the following words from Lasch's posthumous The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) will instead regard Lasch as more "relevant" than ever:

Economic inequality is intrinsically undesirable. . . Luxury is morally repugnant, and its incompatibility with democratic ideals, moreover, has been consistently recognized in the traditions that shape our political culture. The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody else is condemned to listen. For that reason a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation. ... We need to remember ... that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.