Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism

Modern life, to some of its critics, looks like a giant wreck¬ing yard of traditions, with no one around to pick up the mess. In the middle of the yard there is a small tin shed, and inside the shed the apologists of fragmentation sit. These are the liberals. They explain how it is that we are better off without guides to conduct that are any more substantive than the right of each of us to pick up whatever pieces catch his or her fancy, and why it is that life inside the yard counts as liberation.
People who are unhappy with modernity, on this description, have two alternatives: they can gather together bits of the failed tra¬ditions and construct from them a philosophy of conduct that might supplant liberalism’s emptiness, or they can choose, intellectually at least, to live outside the yard altogether. The first way is the perilous way, since it runs the risk of producing simply another trophy of lib¬eralism’s sterile value of “inclusivity,” another sign that the system is working for everyone, even for the people who pretend to hate it. This is why it is not enough for the opponents of liberalism simply to construct alternative models; they must never cease to insist that liberalism is actively the enemy—that it is not the consequence of modernity, but its original mad inventor.
Christopher Lasch began his career as a historian and critic of American liberalism. His analysis of liberalism led him to an analy¬sis of some of the alternatives to liberalism in American political thought and, eventually, to a long excursion into social history and cultural criticism. It was clear from this work that he was unhappy with the dominant political and intellectual traditions in American life, and distressed by the mess he thought those traditions had got¬ten us into. But it was not clear what he thought we might do to or¬ganize our lives more propitiously until the publication of The True and Only Heaven (1991), in which he returned to the criticism of lib¬eralism with which he started, but this time offered a prescription.
What did Lasch mean by “liberalism”? Beyond the broad idea that liberalism is the philosophical foundation of the modern condi¬tion, the term has been used to describe such a variety of specific 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, and with George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign—be¬lieve that the government should provide, in some measure, for the basic welfare of its citizens. Others—Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, for instance—think that a vigorous and expanding free- market economy is more likely to produce prosperity. Some liberals want foreign policy to be dictated by a concern for human rights and democratic values, as Jimmy Carter did; others, like Richard Nixon—in this respect a traditionally liberal president—believe that our relations with other nations should be governed by an un¬sentimental assessment of our own interests.
These disagreements among liberals are not a recent devel¬opment, a splitting up of what was once a unified core of beliefs. Liberal thought has been divided along similar lines since at least the early years of the century, when liberals argued about America’s entry into the First World War, about the growing dominance of large corporations in the American economy, and about the true character of Soviet Communism. But in Lasch’s view, all liberals, whether they dislike corporate capitalism or welcome it, whether they approve of American intervention in foreign conflicts or de¬plore it, share a common attitude: they are all optimists, believers in moral and material progress. Liberals believe that as civilization ad¬vances (by which, Lasch thought, liberals usually mean “as people become more liberal”), more wants and desires are satisfied, and fewer prejudices and superstitions inhibit us. Once life was made miserable by bad kings and bad teeth; now we have democracy and dentists, political freedom and physical comfort, and thus we can say that people have become happier, and that life is improving.
It was this faith in progress, Lasch argued in his first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), that made it so difficult for many liberals in 1917 to understand the Communist rev¬olution in Russia as the malign event it was. For to do so would have meant calling into question this central tenet of liberal faith: that history is a continuous progression from tyranny toward freedom, whose advance is marked by a series of democratic revolutions. Lib¬erals are themselves the heirs of a revolutionary tradition, Lasch pointed out; how were they to accept the fact of a revolution that re¬jected the liberal ideal? And even if Soviet Communism proved to be antiliberal and antidemocratic (as, of course, it did), liberals in¬sisted on regarding its emergence as only a temporary setback in the advance of progress. In the end, liberalism must triumph even in Russia, because the triumph of liberalism was destined to be uni¬versal. The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution is a de¬tailed study of the political debate during the years of the First World War—from 1914 to 1919. But the argument was clearly ad-dressed to the liberals of Lasch’s own day. When Lasch wrote that “liberalism in America, no less than communism in Russia, has always been a messianic creed, which staked everything on the ultimate triumph of liberalism throughout the world,” he was de¬scribing, he thought, not only the liberalism of 1919—of Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann—but the liberalism of the Kennedy administration, as well.
This was an ingenious and antithetical point to make. For to describe liberalism as a messianic creed in 1962 was to call the vam¬pire killer a vampire—as the titles of two standard expositions of lib¬eral political theory in the early cold war era suggest: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center (1949) and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960). Contemporary liberalism, for those writers, was precisely not an absolutist, world-transforming politics. It was a problem-solving, consensus-reaching politics, one that “dedicates itself,” as Schlesinger suggested, “to problems as they come.” Such pragmatism could only be impeded by prior ideological convictions, which Bell analyzed specifically as displaced religious and mes¬sianic impulses. “Ideology, which once was a road to action, has come to be a dead end,” he claimed. “Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down ‘blueprints’ and through ‘social engi¬neering’ bring about a new utopia of social harmony.” “People who know they alone are right find it hard to compromise,” was the way Schlesinger put it; “and compromise is the strategy of democracy.” A little utopianism might be fine as a spur to political engagement, but the business of politics lay in fine-tuning the machinery that maintains social and economic freedoms, and in resisting ideology and messianism wherever they threaten those freedoms. Liberals were not supposed to become obsessed with the ends (or “the end”) of history.

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