Christopher Lasch: The Radical as Cultural Conservative


As my Sans Everything colleague A.M. Lamey  has observed, there are certain strands of radical thought, even forms of Marxism, which are surprisingly sympathetic to cultural conservatism. One of the best examples of this tendency is the late historian Christopher Lasch (1932-1994). In works like The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The True and Only Heaven (1991), Lasch was a bracing and far-reaching critic of mainstream American life, in particular the comfortable illusions of liberal thought. As I pointed out in my previous posting, Lasch was particularly effective in dissecting the shoddy way liberals think about foreign policy, their tendency to become entrapped in the snares of militarism and imperialism.


Yet Lasch’s very stance as a radical anti-liberal made him susceptible to his own brand of illusions. When writing about family life he tended to be a nostalgist, celebrating the home as a haven and distrusting all modern attempts to reform domestic life in the name of gender equality. A good example of Lasch’s cultural conservatism is the chapter on late 19th and early 20th century feminism in his 1965 book The New Radicalism In America. In criticising these pioneering feminist, Lasch fell back on the cheapest sort of stereotyping, describing them as man-haters motivated by envy.


In one remarkable passage Lasch wrote: “Whatever one thinks of the justice of the feminists’ cause, one has to admit that the envy of men was very pronounced in American feminism. Sometimes it amounted to outright antagonism. The feminists talked a great deal abut the need for a freer and more spontaneous companionship between men and women, but in practice they often seemed to assume a state of perpetual war. Even when the envy of men did not reach the point of hostility – and it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt – the envy nevertheless remained.”


Especially revealing in this quote is the qualifying clause (“it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt”). When he wrote it Lasch no doubt thought he was being magnanimous and gallant but in retrospect it’s an amazing example of offhand, unthinking chauvinism.

One thought on “Christopher Lasch: The Radical as Cultural Conservative

  1. I agree with your point about Lasch, especially the offhand sexism of that remark. I would argue that he was critic of modern life rather than any particular political philosophy, but that is a minor point.

    What struck me most was the different approach of this post compared to the previous one. When you write about New Republic editorialists of 1917, you use them as an example of a larger problem with liberalism. When it comes to Lasch’s shortcomings, however, you treat them as an individual matter, and not indicative of any larger problem on the part of radicals (Lasch in 1965 being a more orthodox leftist than he would later be).

    I can’t help seeing this as a double standard running through your posts about liberals and leftists. Your posts on liberals would be more persuasive, in my view, if you showed the same kind of restraint as when you write about left-wing authors.

    As a side note, Lasch eventually became a regular writer for The New Republic, even authoring a few cover stories. I can’t think of any other U.S. magazine of the 1980s or 1990s that gave him such play–one reason it was such an interesting publication back then.

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