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Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch
File:Christopher Lasch.jpg
Christopher Lasch discusses The True and Only Heaven during a 1991 interview on Richard Heffner's The Open Mind.
Born (1932-06-01)1 June 1932
Omaha, Nebraska
Died 14 February 1994(1994-02-14) (aged 61)
Pittsford, New York
Occupation Professor of History and best-selling author/social critic/historian.

Christopher (Kit) Lasch (June 1, 1932 – February 14, 1994) was a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic.

Mentored by William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University, Lasch was a professor at the University of Rochester. Lasch sought to use history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness with which major institutions, public and private, were eroding the competence and independence of families and communities. He strove to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and what he famously labeled the 'culture of narcissism.' His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), were widely discussed and reviewed. The Culture of Narcissism became a surprise best-seller and won the National Book Award in the category Current Interest (paperback).[1][a]

Lasch was always a critic of liberalism, and a historian of liberalism's discontents, but over time his political perspective evolved dramatically. In the 1960s, he was a neo-Marxist and acerbic critic of Cold War liberalism. During the 1970s, he began to become a far more iconoclastic figure, fusing cultural conservatism with a Marxian critique of capitalism, and drawing on Freud-influenced critical theory to diagnose the ongoing deterioration that he perceived in American culture and politics. His writings during this period led him to be denounced by feminists[2] and hailed by conservatives[3] for his apparent defense of the traditional family. He eventually concluded that an often unspoken but pervasive faith in "Progress" tended to make Americans resistant to many of his arguments. In his last major works he explored this theme in depth, suggesting that Americans had much to learn from the suppressed and misunderstood Populist and artisan movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[4]

His basic thesis[citation needed] about the family, which he first expressed in 1965 and explored for the rest of his career, was:

When government was centralized and politics became national in scope, as they had to be to cope with the energies let loose by industrialism, and when public life became faceless and anonymous and society an amorphous democratic mass, the old system of paternalism (in the home and out of it) collapsed, even when its semblance survived intact. The patriarch, though he might still preside in splendor at the head of his board, had come to resemble an emissary from a government which had been silently overthrown. The mere theoretical recognition of his authority by his family could not alter the fact that the government which was the source of all his ambassadorial powers had ceased to exist.[5]

Early life

Christopher Lasch came from a highly political family rooted in the left. His father, Robert Lasch, was a Rhodes Scholar and journalist; in St. Louis he won a Pulitzer prize for editorials criticizing the Vietnam War.[4][6] Zora Lasch (née Schaupp), his mother, who held a philosophy doctorate, worked as a social worker and teacher.[7][8][9]

Lasch was active in the arts and letters early, publishing a neighborhood newspaper while in grade school, and writing the fully orchestrated "Rumpelstiltskin, Opera in D Major" at the age of thirteen.[4]


He studied at Harvard, where he roomed with John Updike, and Columbia, where he worked with William Leuchtenburg.[10] Richard Hofstadter was also a significant influence. He contributed a Foreword to later editions of Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition and an article on Hofstadter in the New York Review of Books in 1973.

Lasch taught at the University of Iowa and then was a professor of history at the University of Rochester from 1970 until his death from cancer in 1994.

He also took a conspicuous public role. Russell Jacoby acknowledged this in writing that "I do not think any other historian of his generation moved as forcefully into the public arena".[8] In 1986 he appeared on Channel 4 television in discussion with Michael Ignatieff and Cornelius Castoriadis.[11]

During the 1960s, Lasch identified himself as a socialist, but one who found influence not just in the writers of the time such as C. Wright Mills but also in earlier independent voices such as Dwight Macdonald.[12] Lasch became further influenced by writers of the Frankfurt School and the early New Left Review and felt that "Marxism seemed indispensable to me".[13] During the 1970s, however, he became disenchanted with the Left's belief in progress—a theme treated later by his student David Noble—and increasingly identified this belief as the factor which explained the Left's failure to thrive despite the widespread discontent and conflict of the times.

At this point Lasch began to formulate what would become his signature style of social critique - a syncretic synthesis of Freud and the strand of paleoconservative thinking that remained deeply suspicious of capitalism and its effects on traditional institutions.

Besides Leuchtenburg, Hofstadter, and Freud, Lasch was especially influenced by Orestes Brownson, Henry George, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Philip Rieff.[14] A notable group of graduate students worked at the University of Rochester with Lasch, Eugene Genovese, and, for a time, Herbert Gutman, including Leon Fink, Russell Jacoby, Bruce Levine, David Noble, Maurice Isserman, William Leach, Kevin Mattson, as well as David Chappell.[15]


Lasch's earliest argument, anticipated partly by Hofstadter's concern with the cycles of fragmentation among radical movements in the United States, was that American radicalism had at some point in the past become socially untenable. Members of "the Left" had abandoned their former commitments to economic justice and suspicion of power, to assume professionalized roles and to support commoditized lifestyles which hollowed out communities' self-sustaining ethics. His first major book, The New Radicalism in America: The Intellectual as a Social Type, published in 1965 (with a promotional blurb from Hofstadter), expressed those ideas in the form of a bracing critique of twentieth-century liberalism's efforts to accrue power and restructure society, while failing to follow up on the promise of the New Deal.[16] Most of his books, even the more strictly historical ones, include such sharp criticism of the priorities of alleged "radicals" who represented merely extreme formations of a rapacious capitalist ethos.

Lasch's most famous work, The Culture of Narcissism (1979), sought to relate the hegemony of modern-day capitalism to an encroachment of a "therapeutic" mindset into social and family life similar to that already theorized by Philip Rieff. Lasch posited that social developments in the 20th century (e.g., World War II and the rise of consumer culture in the years following) gave rise to a narcissistic personality structure, in which individuals’ fragile self-concepts had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships (including religion), a dread of aging (i.e., the 1960s and 1970s "youth culture") and a boundless admiration for fame and celebrity (nurtured initially by the motion picture industry and furthered principally by television). He claimed, further, that this personality type conformed to structural changes in the world of work (e.g., the decline of agriculture and manufacturing in the U.S. and the emergence of the "information age"). With those developments, he charged, inevitably there arose a certain therapeutic sensibility (and thus dependence) that, inadvertently or not, undermined older notions of self-help and individual initiative. By the 1970s even pleas for "individualism" were desperate and essentially ineffectual cries which expressed a deeper lack of meaningful individuality.

Most explicitly in The True and Only Heaven, Lasch developed a critique of social change among the middle classes in the U.S., explaining and seeking to counteract the fall of elements of "populism." He sought to rehabilitate this populist or producerist alternative tradition:

The tradition I am talking about ... tends to be skeptical of programs for the wholesale redemption of society... It is very radically democratic and in that sense it clearly belongs on the Left. But on the other hand it has a good deal more respect for tradition than is common on the Left, and for religion too.[17]

and said that

...any movement that offers any real hope for the future will have to find much of its moral inspiration in the plebeian radicalism of the past and more generally in the indictment of progress, large-scale production and bureaucracy that was drawn up by a long line of moralists whose perceptions were shaped by the producers' view of the world.[18]

By the 1980s, Lasch had poured scorn on the whole spectrum of contemporary mainstream American political thought, angering liberals with attacks on progressivism and feminism. He wrote that "A feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighborly services. It would not make a paycheck the only symbol of accomplishment. ... It would insist that people need self-respecting honorable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families.”[19] Liberal journalist Susan Faludi dubbed him explicitly anti-feminist for his criticism of the abortion rights movement and opposition to divorce.[20] But Lasch viewed Ronald Reagan's conservatism as the antithesis of tradition and moral responsibility. Lasch was not generally sympathetic to the cause of what was then known as the New Right, particularly those elements of libertarianism most evident in its platform; he detested the encroachment of the capitalist marketplace into all aspects of American life. Lasch rejected the dominant political constellation that emerged in the wake of the New Deal in which economic centralization and social tolerance formed the foundations of American liberal ideals, while also rebuking the diametrically opposed synthetic conservative ideology fashioned by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk. Lasch also was surprisingly critical and at times dismissive toward his closest contemporary kin in social philosophy, communitarianism as elaborated by Amitai Etzioni. Only populism satisfied Lasch's criteria of economic justice (not necessarily equality, but minimizing class-based difference), participatory democracy, strong social cohesion and moral rigor; yet populism had made major mistakes during the New Deal and increasingly been co-opted by its enemies and ignored by its friends. For instance, he praised the early work and thought of Martin Luther King as exemplary of American populism; yet in Lasch's view, King fell short of this radical vision by embracing in the last few years of his life an essentially bureaucratic solution to ongoing racial stratification.


After seemingly successful cancer surgery in 1992, Lasch was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 1993. Upon learning that it was unlikely to significantly prolong his life, he refused chemotherapy, observing that it would rob him of the energy he needed to continue writing and teaching. To one persistent specialist, he wrote: "I despise the cowardly clinging to life, purely for the sake of life, that seems so deeply ingrained in the American temperament."[4] Lasch succumbed to cancer in his Pittsford, New York home on February 14, 1994, at age 61.[21]

In his last months, he worked closely with his daughter Elisabeth to complete The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 1994, in which he "excoriated the new meritocratic class, a group that had achieved success through the upward-mobility of education and career and that increasingly came to be defined by rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, a thin sense of obligation, and diminishing reservoirs of patriotism," and "argued that this new class 'retained many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues,' lacking the sense of 'reciprocal obligation' that had been a feature of the old order."[22] In addition, he finalized his intentions for the essays to be included in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism, which was published, with his daughter's introduction, in 1997.


  • 1962: The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution
  • 1965: The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963: The Intellectual As a Social Type
  • 1969: The Agony of the American Left
  • 1973: The World of Nations
  • 1977: Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged
  • 1979: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations[1]
  • 1984: The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times
  • 1991: The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics
  • 1994: The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy
  • 1997: Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism
  • 2002: Plain Style: A Guide to Written English


See also


  1. ^ From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual awards for hardcover and paperback books in many categories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including this one (September 1979), but its first edition (January 1979) was eligible in the same award year.


  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-09.
    There was a "Contemporary" or "Current" award category from 1972 to 1980.
  2. ^ Hartman (2009)
  3. ^ Jeremy Beer, "On Christopher Lasch," Modern Age, Fall 2005, Vol. 47 Issue 4, pp 330-343
  4. ^ a b c d Miller (2010)
  5. ^ Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963 (1965) p 111
  6. ^ Brown, David (2009-08-01) Cold War Without End, The American Conservative
  7. ^ Miller, Eric (2010-04-16). "Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch". ISBN 9780802817693. 
  8. ^ a b Jacoby, Russell (1994). "Christopher Lasch (1932-1994)". Telos (97): 121–123. , p123
  9. ^ Beer, Jeremy (2005). "On Christopher Lasch" (PDF). Modern Age: 330–343. 
  10. ^ Lasch, Christopher. Plain Style : A Guide to Written English. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, p. 6.
  11. ^ Voices: The Culture of Narcissism, Modernity and its discontents. Partial transcribed version available as: "Beating the Retreat into Private Life," The Listener, 27 March 1986: 20-21.
  12. ^ Lasch, Christopher (1991). The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. Norton. p. 26. ISBN 0-393-30795-6. 
  13. ^ Lasch, Christopher (1991). The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. Norton. p. 29. ISBN 0-393-30795-6. 
  14. ^ Beer, (2005)
  15. ^ Thomas J. Misa, "David F. Noble, 22 July 1945 to 27 December 2010" Technology and Culture 52 no. 2 (April 2011): 360-72 DOI: 10.1353/tech.2011.0061
  16. ^ David S. Brown, Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing (2009), 154
  17. ^ Brawer, Peggy; Sergio Benvenuto (1993). "An interview with Christopher Lasch". Telos 1993 (97): 124–135. doi:10.3817/0993097124. , p125
  18. ^ Lasch, Christopher (1991). "Liberalism and Civic Virtue". Telos 1991 (88): 57–68. doi:10.3817/0691088057. , p68
  19. ^ Hopkins, Kara (2006-04-24) Room of Her Own, The American Conservative
  20. ^ Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, p. 281
  21. ^ Beer, Jeremy (2006-03-27)The Radical Lasch, The American Conservative
  22. ^ Deneen, Patrick (2010-08-01) When Red States Get Blue, The American Conservative

Further reading

  • Anderson, Kenneth. "Heartless World Revisited: Christopher Lasch's Parting Polemic Against the New Class," The Good Society, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1996.
  • Bacevich, Andrew J. "Family Man: Christopher Lasch and the Populist Imperative," World Affairs, May/June 2010.
  • Bartee, Seth J. "Christopher Lasch, Conservative?," The University Bookman, Spring 2012.
  • Beer. Jeremy. "On Christopher Lasch," Modern Age, Fall 2005, Vol. 47 Issue 4, pp. 330–343
  • Beer. Jeremy. "The Radical Lasch," The American Conservative, March 27, 2007.
  • Birnbaum, Norman. "Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch," The Nation, October 3, 2011.
  • Bratt, James D. "The Legacy of Christopher Lasch," Books & Culture, 2012.
  • Brown, David S. "Christopher Lasch, Populist Prophet," The American Conservative, August 12, 2010.
  • Deneen, Patrick J. "Christopher Lasch and the Limits of Hope," First Things, December 2004.
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke. "The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story," Salmagundi, No. 106/107, Spring - Summer 1995.
  • Fisher, Berenice M. "The Wise Old Men and the New Women: Christopher Lasch Besieged," History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, Women's Influence on Education, Spring, 1979.
  • Flores, Juan. "Reinstating Popular Culture: Responses to Christopher Lasch," Social Text, No. 12, Autumn, 1985.
  • Hartman, Andrew. "Christopher Lasch: Critic of Liberalism, Historian of its Discontents," Rethinking History, Dec 2009, Vol. 13 Issue 4, pp. 499–519
  • Kimball, Roger. "The Disaffected Populist: Christopher Lasch on Progress," The New Criterion, March 1991.
  • Kimball, Roger. "Christopher Lasch vs. the Elites," The New Criterion, April 1995.
  • Mattson, Kevin. "The Historian As a Social Critic: Christopher Lasch and the Uses of History," History Teacher, May 2003, Vol. 36 Issue 3, pp. 375–96
  • Mattson, Kevin. "Christopher Lasch and the Possibilities of Chastened Liberalism," Polity, Vol. 36, No. 3, Apr., 2004.
  • Miller, Eric. Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.
  • Nieli, Russell. "Social Conservatives of the Left: James Lincoln Collier, Christopher Lasch, and Daniel Bell," The Political Science Reviewer, Vol. XXII, 1993.
  • Parsons, Adam. "Christopher Lasch, Radical Orthodoxy & the Modern Collapse of the Self," New Oxford Review, November 2008.
  • Rosen, Christine. "The Overpraised American: Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism revisited," Policy Review, Nº. 133, October 1, 2005.
  • Shapiro, Herbert. "Lasch on Radicalism: The Problem of Lincoln Steffens," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, Jan., 1969.
  • Scialabba, George. "'No, in thunder!': Christopher Lasch and the Spirit of the Age," Agni, No. 34, 1991.
  • Seaton, James. "The Gift of Christopher Lasch," First Things, Vol. XLV, August/September 1994.
  • Siegel, Fred. "The Agony of Christopher Lasch," Reviews in American History, Vol. 8, No. 3, Sep., 1980.
  • Westbrook, Robert B. "Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism, and the Vocation of Intellectuals," Reviews in American History, Volume 23, Number 1, March 1995.

External links

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