With Christopher Lasch’s death last March, our society lost a probing and principled critic. According to one by now standard biography, Lasch started his career as an antiwar activist and Marxist-Freudian synthesizer and by the end of his life had moved to the right with a defense of traditional communities. There is truth in this account, as anyone who knew and read Lasch can testify, but equally important, there were striking continuities in his work. Whatever else Lasch was, he fought relentlessly against the liberal tradition. And by that tradition he understood not only the latest p.c. outrage but the beliefs in individual gratification and the profit motive as the foundations of social life.
In a cascade of books from the 70’s on, including The Minimal Self, The Culture of Narcissism, and The True and Only Heaven, Lasch lamented the liberal presuppositions of American politics and culture. Americans, he maintained, had sacrificed the value of community to pursue self-centered pleasure and material riches. Our greatest writers, he explained, had observed this problem, and some had come to view it as an inescapable fate. In his later writings, particularly in a spirited piece for Harper’s, Lasch had also gone after the feminists; and in his last book, he even dared to castigate an icon for both liberals and conservatives, neoconservative hero Martin Luther King, Jr., for demanding that the federal government alter the residential patterns of urban ethnics. But all of these strictures, especially those directed against the alliance of big business and the managerial state, reflect a premise found in Lasch’s early work, that liberal individualism saps communal life and prepares the way for administrative, therapeutic tyranny.
Lasch became a personal friend of mine, despite the untoward circumstances of our first meeting. As a candidate for an associate professorship at the University of Rochester more than 20 years ago, I encountered him as an illustrious senior member of the history department. Lasch opposed my candidacy, seeing in me a potential instrument of an enemy faction. (His political judgment was, by the way, entirely correct.) When we met again in what turned out to be the twilight of his career, we discussed his fateful opposition to me. I assured him that he had quite properly acted in self-defense, though his action had ended for me any possibility of professional advancement. Lasch disagreed. He spoke of the need to turn enemies into friends, and he noted that our friendship might have begun sooner if he had supported rather than opposed me.
Balancing his feistiness was the other side of Lasch’s personality, his proverbial kindliness toward family members, friends, and students. A warm disposition was the characteristic that those closest to him remember best. And though descended from a distinguished St. Louis publishing family and the son-in-law of the historian Henry Steele Commager, Lasch reveled in the company of working stiffs. He was a populist not only in his politics but also in his genuine appreciation of unabashed Middle Americans. Unlike those ersatz communitarians who wish to construct victim- friendly settings with the aid of government agencies, Lasch did not look to coercive sensitizers to restore the social good. By community he meant what the Germans call Gemeinschaft, organic associations derived from kinship and a shared history. Though Lasch was willing to accept variations on this model, given the present shattered condition of the real article, he rejected academic redefinitions of what community is about. Least of all did he view it as a collection of itinerant yuppies and sexual deviants looking for an idol to replace the god that failed.
A certifiable Brahmin, he nonetheless appealed to those uncorrupted by wealth or academic pretension. Both his celebration of the lower middle class and his yearning for a localist, family-based socialism show the unseasonable nature of his antiliberal radicalism. More distributist than leftist and more traditionalist than would be tolerable to our official right, Lasch defies simplistic labeling. He also continues to be a source of inspiration to those on the true right, those of us whose conservatism has nothing to do with the defense of multinational consumerism.