Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 5

Lasch meant by “populism” something more than the late- nineteenth-century political movement the term ordinarily denotes. Indeed, the book contains very little discussion of William Jennings Bryan, for instance, or of the Southern populist leader Tom Wat¬son. The populist tradition Lasch described has been transmitted through an oddly assorted sequence of thinkers. These thinkers all share one attitude, of course: an antagonism to the modern liberal outlook as Lasch had defined it. This may express itself in an appre¬ciation for the “civic virtues”—the virtues derived from personal in¬dependence, political participation, and genuinely productive labor; in an acceptance of “fate” (one of the book’s key terms) and of the idea of limits; or in an admiration for a set of characteristics that Lasch identified with lower-middle-class, or “petty-bourgeois,” cul¬ture: moral conservatism, egalitarianism, loyalty, and the struggle against the moral temptation of resentment (that is, the capacity for forgiveness).
Among the social and political critics Lasch regarded as pop¬ulists are writers who defend small-scale producers (farmers, artisans, and so forth), who despise creditors, and who oppose the culture of uplift and universal philanthropy because of its disruptive intervention in personal and family life. These sentiments are, he thought, particularly strongly expressed in the writings of Tom Paine; the English radical William Cobbett; the nineteenth-century editor, Transcendentalist, and controversialist Orestes Brownson; and the author of the classic of populist political economy Progress and Poverty (1879), Henry George. Two labor-movement theorists from the turn of the century are important to Lasch’s tradition as champions of small-scale producers: the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, whose Reflections on Violence (1908) was admired by critics of the Third Republic in France and of liberalism in England, and the British guild socialist G. D. H. Cole. By proposing to restore control over production to the worker, Lasch argued, syndicalism and guild socialism represented genuine alternatives to corporate capitalism. What socialists and the labor movement generally ended up settling for, he felt (and Cole is his example), was a top- down welfare system that turned the worker into a consumer, and left him, though more secure in his job, even more dependent.
This tradition of political and economic criticism is comple¬mented, Lasch argued, by a parallel tradition of moral criticism— and this proposal is the chief novelty of The True and Only Heaven, and the key to its creation of an alternative to liberal fragmentation. The major figure is Emerson, whose recognition, in the late essay on “Fate” (1860), that “freedom lies in the acceptance of necessity” Lasch regarded as the philosophical centerpiece of populist thought. Emerson’s fatalism is ignored, he thought, by the Emerso- nians—”those professional Pollyannas”—and he proposed to re¬store us to a proper understanding, principally by reading Emerson by the lights of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards. Two other writers, both readily associated with Emerson, are said to share the populist moral vision: Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus (1834) and the essays on heroes and hero worship published in 1841, and William James, in the discussion of the “twice-born” in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and in the essay “The Moral Equiva¬lent of War” (1910).
Lasch traced the course of populist ideals in a group of twentieth-century American writers: Josiah Royce, Randolph Bourne, Herbert Croly, Waldo Frank, John Dewey, the New Dealer Thurman Arnold, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In some of these cases, he was reconsidering writers whose ideas he had once criticized. Croly, for instance, whose The Promise of American Life (1910) Lasch once regarded as a typical example of the progressive’s naive understand¬ing of the nature of corporate power, was praised for recognizing, in a later book, Progressive Democracy (1914), the importance of en¬dowing the worker with a sense of responsibility—and for perceiv¬ing that the specialization required by big business and mass production would destroy the possibilities for meaningful work. Niebuhr (one of the heroes of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center) was attacked by Lasch in The New Radicalism in America for taking an uncritical and Manichean Hew of the struggle between American liberal democracy and Soviet totalitarianism—for assuming too readily the inherent virtue of the American way and the monolithic evil of Soviet communism. In The True and Only Heaven, though, Niebuhr appears as a critic of liberalism. His defense of “particular¬ism”—of the innate desire of groups to protect their difference and autonomy against the liberal inclination to force compromises on competing interests—now seemed to Lasch to make him a misun¬derstood antagonist of liberal ideology.
Niebuhr is also important to the populist tradition, as Lasch in¬terpreted it, because of his insistence on the desirability of forgive¬ness, and the futility of resentment, in struggles for social justice; and Lasch’s consideration of this aspect of Niebuhr’s thought leads directly to the only political success story in the book: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the Southern civil rights move¬ment. King succeeded, Lasch believed, by appealing to the populist virtues of lower-middle-class communities in the South—-both black and white-—and by preaching the doctrine of “a spiritual dis¬cipline against resentment.” Blacks in King’s movement did not seek revenge for the injustices they had suffered, since they under¬stood (or King, who had studied Niebuhr as a divinity student, un¬derstood) Niebuhr’s teaching that to combat injustice and coercion with more injustice and coercion is only to perpetuate a cycle of conflict. But, Lasch argued, when King and his associates at¬tempted to mobilize victims of poverty in the inner cities of the North, they could no longer appeal, as they had in the South, to communities of people who understood the value of forgiveness. Resentment against the powerful became instead the motivating emotion of the struggle, with disastrous results.

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