How Christopher Lasch Left the Left

From Marx and the Frankfurt School to Social Conservatism

“Since he is the son of a liberal, he has a low opinion of liberalism.” This was the newspaperman Robert Lasch’s assessment of his son Christopher, shortly after the release of the latter’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. The younger Lasch was an influential but untimely figure during his lifetime, which coincided with the decline of the midcentury liberal order, the rise and fall of the New Left, and the rightward shift of national politics in the 1970s. Today, despite our distance from these developments, Lasch reads to many of us like a contemporary. In particular, his acerbic account of the legacy of postwar liberalism anticipated many of the concerns that now animate the array of tendencies grouped under the heading of ‘post-liberalism’.    

As his father’s remark implies, Lasch’s prolonged critical engagement with liberalism was deeply rooted in his family background. Both of his parents were exemplary members of the twentieth-century progressive intelligentsia. Robert Lasch was a Rhodes scholar, journalist, columnist, and eventual Pulitzer Prize winner; Zora Schaupp Lasch, his mother, was a social worker and philosophy professor. They came into maturity in the heyday of FDR and the New Deal, and Lasch’s early years were shaped by the idealism of that period. His turn towards an idiosyncratic social conservatism later in life was never in a simple sense a break with his family: he always remained close to his parents, and despite his growing misgivings he even held onto a tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party all the way up until his death in 1994.   

A considerable number of American intellectuals moved from the left to the right over the course of the mid to late twentieth century, and Lasch has sometimes been grouped with them. However, his ideological transformation did not follow the typical pattern of the period. The first major rightward migration of intellectuals included such luminaries as James Burnham and Sidney Hook, both of whom started out as communists and ended up as conservatives. What triggered their abandonment of the left was a disillusionment with the Soviet Union, which pushed them towards hawkish foreign policy views and crusading anticommunism in the domestic arena. The subsequent generation of apostates, whose emblematic figures were New York intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, roughly followed the same pattern. 

For most of these refugees from the left, Cold War liberalism was a way station on the path to full-fledged conservatism. For Lasch, conversely, the intellectual and moral failings of liberal anti-communism were the target of some of his early polemics. His debut 1962 book, American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (based on his doctoral dissertation), set the tone for this critical stance. The book was an account of how US progressives’ response to the Bolshevik rise to power vacillated between uncritical boosterism and Manichean hostility. Liberals’ hubristic confidence in universal progress and in their own moral rectitude, Lasch charged, left them incapable of a realistic assessment of the politics of a culturally and historically distinct nation. His cutting judgments about the moral myopia of liberals of his parents’ generation proved prescient as two successive Democratic administrations mired the country in the Vietnam War. 

Lasch’s attack on Cold War liberal anticommunism became even more forceful in the subsequent years. In a 1968 essay, he targeted the Congress on Cultural Freedom, a clearinghouse for intellectuals including Burnham, Hook, and Kristol and a major patron of the arts and literature in the 1950s and 1960s — and, it turned out, a recipient of CIA funding. In line with its propagandistic function, Lasch alleged, the Congress had “in effect… defined cultural freedom as whatever best served the interests of the United States government.” No less than those they accused of being in the pocket of the Soviet Union, “the Cold War intellectuals revealed themselves as the servants of bureaucratic power.” Lasch similarly attacked the ‘realist’ postwar foreign policy consensus, and faulted the intellectuals who promulgated it for surrendering their independence to the interests of the national security apparatus. 

As the 60s wore on, the liberal establishment Lasch had criticized met with vigorous challenges from both the left and right. Moreover, this establishment seriously undermined its own credibility not least because it proved incapable of extricating the country from Vietnam — the disastrous consequence of the Cold War anticommunist creed. In a period when other university professors gradually distanced themselves from the radical left in reaction to student revolts that overtook campuses, Lasch saw initial promise in the New Left’s rupture with liberal dogmas and its vigorous attack on the co-option of the university by corporate and state power. For a time, he later remarked, the “glacial rigidity of American politics appeared to be breaking up.”

Lasch’s optimism on this front did not last long. By 1971 he viewed the left as largely moribund, and declared that “the political scene has seldom looked more dreary.” However, the 60s New Left’s positive re-evaluation of European Marxist social theory, and especially the work of the Frankfurt School, proved decisive in his subsequent intellectual evolution. Ironically, given their largely negative reputation on the right, it was in part his engagement with these neo-Marxist thinkers that brought Lasch closer to conservative social views. In particular, Max Horkheimer’s nuanced re-evaluation of “bourgeois domesticity” as “the last defense of a rich and autonomous inner life” inflected Lasch’s mordant assessment of the impact of the counterculture.

The arguments that eventually made Lasch a congenial figure for social-conservatives, then, did not emerge out of a mere repudiation of the New Left’s attack on the nuclear family. Rather, his shift towards a qualified defense of the family was informed by his methodological embrace of the synthesis of Freud and Marx pioneered by the theorists of the Frankfurt School. In The Culture of Narcissism and Haven in a Heartless World, his major works of the 1970s, Lasch argued that capitalist development, by shifting production away from the household, had hollowed out the family unit and weakened parental authority. The end result was that children were increasingly subject to the external influences of state and market. Thus, the weakening of familial autonomy, far from expanding freedom, hindered the development of independence. Lasch’s famous account of the rise of the “narcissistic” personality type emerged out of this analysis.          

Lasch articulated these views in a period when, due in part to the political success of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, women were entering the workforce in large numbers. The implication that this trend would only further weaken the formative function of the household was taken by many as evidence of a reactionary turn in his thinking. However, as George Scialabba clarifies, “far from idealizing the nuclear family, Lasch portrayed it as a doomed adaptation to industrial development.” For Lasch, Scialabba explains, “it was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult.” He saw the influence of the counterculture as ultimately less impactful than these developments. 

In this sense, Lasch offers a different assessment of the source of the family’s erosion from conservatives who attribute this development to feminism and related forms of post-60s cultural liberalism. He also provides a counterpoint to the tendency on the right to romanticize the stable family of earlier times, arguing that “the glorification of private life and the family” that emerged in the nineteenth century “represented the other side of the bourgeois perception of society as something alien, impersonal, remote, and abstract — a world from which pity and tenderness had been effectively banished.” To sacralize the family is thus to tacitly accept the desacralization of the larger social world by capitalist development. It’s not difficult to see why Lasch, despite his disillusionment with both liberalism and the radical left in the wake of the 1960s, never truly allied himself with American conservatives, whose ideological devotion to the market meant most of them could not accept his assessment of its corrosive social effects. 

American conservatism, for Lasch, took the assumptions of economic liberalism for granted. In a late essay published in the journal First Things, he remarks that “if conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth.” The acquisitive individualism that is inseparable from this ideology instills a set of attitudes and expectations that undermine not only traditions and communities, but the institutions that the right historically revered as moderating influences against greed and excess: the family and small-scale property ownership. Lasch observes that “twentieth-century capitalism… has replaced private property with a corporate form of property that confers none of these moral and cultural advantages. The transformation of artisans, farmers, and other small proprietors into wage-earners undermines the ‘traditional values’ conservatives seek to preserve.” He concludes: “capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism.” 

Taken as a whole, Lasch’s body of writing offers an account of the limitations of the American political panorama of his era. Conservatism, he suggests, tends to provide de facto ideological cover for the economic developments that have eroded the social values it claims to promote. Liberalism, for its part, has overseen the rise of a state bureaucratic apparatus that promises to compensate for the effects of this erosion. However, in the process, it further weakens the autonomy of individuals, families, and communities, and enables the substitution of democracy with technocratic elite rule. While the New Left of the 1960s rebelled against the expansion of corporate and bureaucratic power, the end result of its revolt was not a reassertion of the local and the communal, but the infusion of those structures with a new therapeutic sensibility.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the economic, social, and cultural tendencies Lasch deplored. While small businesses have collapsed in record numbers and average families have found themselves destitute, the major tech companies and retail conglomerates like Amazon have reaped massive profits and the stock market has soared; in response, the political class has delivered aid packages that blatantly favor the interests of the latter. As Alex Gutentag recently argued, “the pandemic is a convenient scapegoat for the largest upward wealth transfer in modern human history.” Lasch’s work suggests that the roots of this crisis extend far back into the last century, during which both liberals and conservatives, for different reasons, became increasingly indifferent to the degradation of average people’s lives and livelihoods. He offers us no easy alternatives, but his writings reveal the scale of the problems anyone attempting to look beyond the failings of liberalism must confront. 

Cover art by Joakim Möller

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at www.outsidertheory.com.

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