The Middling Sort

Alan Ryan

  • The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch
    Norton, 276 pp, £16.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 393 03699 5

Christopher Lasch, who died last year, has been rather undernoticed in Britain. His attention was admittedly focused on American politics and political thinking, but his fears and anxieties translate readily enough to a Britain showing many of the same symptoms of social and political disaffection, while his politics and his polemical style were those of an urbanised Cobbett – radical, popular, egalitarian and quite unplaceable on a left-right spectrum.

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1932, appropriately enough for a curmudgeonly populist. But his family was highly educated, his father a journalist and his mother a social worker and teacher of philosophy. He went to Harvard, where he shared rooms with John Updike and married the daughter of the Harvard historian Henry Steele Commager. He never taught at smart places, however: he taught history at the University of Iowa, then at Northwestern University, and for the last two decades of his life at the University of Rochester. His only practical intervention in American politics was a disaster: Jimmy Carter greatly admired Lasch’s bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism, and in 1979 delivered a speech on ‘the American malaise’ that may have been composed, and was certainly inspired, by Lasch, and whose chief effect was to deliver large numbers of voters to the upbeat Reagan. In the last fifteen years of his life, he seemed to take a curious pleasure in being out of the mainstream; it is impossible to guess what he would have thought of the enormous attention that The Revolt of the Elites has received.

It was a surprise to find that Lasch was only 61 at the time of his death. In the Sixties, he was one of the distinctive voices of the early New York Review of Books. His wonderful second book, The Agony of the American Left, contained some justly famous essays on the decline of populism, on the isolation of the American intelligentsia and the closely connected failures of American socialism, and on the vicissitudes of the Congress for Cultural Freedom – an enterprise that began honourably before the war as a committee of socialist intellectuals opposed to Stalinism, and ended squalidly during the Cold War as a conduit for the covert CIA funding of Encounter and other reliably anti-Soviet journals and organisations.

Even before that, the essays in The New Radicalism in America had revealed the distaste for the secular, scientific and commercial world that also underlies this last, posthumous book. The New Radicalism looked at a variety of liberal and progressive thinkers from the decades between 1880 and the First World War, ranging from Jane Addams to Mabel Dodge Luhan, by way of such major intellectual figures as Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Besides restoring to life some neglected but important names in American intellectual history, Lasch emphasised what many on the left have thought to be the guilty secret of American liberalism: its affection for corporate organisation, and a thoroughly manipulative view of the relationship between the new social sciences and the populace whose lives the liberals wanted to improve.

This is a complaint often heard from the Marxist Left. But Lasch was a populist rather than a Marxist, wholly disinclined to think that the travails of the 20th century would lead to a workers’ paradise. He was, from the outset, deeply suspicious of what the modern age had wrought. More clearly in retrospect, he seems always to have been fighting a rearguard action. Like other anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment writers, he feared the corrosive effects of all science, both natural and social. Confronting modern American liberalism, Lasch was alarmed by Dewey’s insistence that ‘the scientific attitude’ was the only hope for the modern world. The road, it seemed, ran all too smoothly from Newton to Brave New World.

Lasch’s criticism of American radicalism was not fair, and it was laid on with too broad a brush. He thought Dewey had set out to train children for their future role as docile, well-adjusted workers in a corporate industrial America. Levelled against a man who for seventy years was unswervingly hostile to capitalism, and especially to industrial corporations wanting to turn the public education system into a scheme of ‘industrial training’, the accusation was more than slightly dotty. Dewey’s talk of ‘adjustment’ led many others astray, and there was some justification for Lasch’s complaint that if Dewey had been misunderstood it was his own fault for writing so unclearly; still, it didn’t take much investigation to reveal that Dewey was a guild socialist, not a fan of corporate capitalism. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch makes amends. In a world where overconfident bigotry on the left faces over-confident bigotry on the right, a Deweyan emphasis on the need to live intelligently, but without certainty, is, says Lasch, one of the few hopes for a revival of rational public debate.

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