Commentary Magazine


The New Radicalism in America, by Christopher Lasch

Fashions of Revolt

The New Radicalism in America.
by Christopher Lasch.
Knopf. 349 pp. $6.95.

It is becoming more and more difficult to talk cogently about any kind of radicalism, new or old, because there are few common terms, few accepted points of reference, little agreement on what it is we are talking about. It is as if everything—ideas, events, we ourselves—were in motion. The only thing we can count on is that the new radicals will not have much use for the old ones.

In the past it was possible to fit new trends into a radical tradition. Now the very idea of continuity is in question. Many of the new radicals—and some older ones—feel that the thinking of the 30's is inapplicable to the problems created by the bomb, the stalemate with Russia and China, and the civil-rights movement. The younger radicals, particularly, might almost be said to define themselves by their rejection of earlier theories and by the priority they give to activity.

In such an anti-historical atmosphere, how can one write a history of radicalism? One way is to bypass the standard approaches. And this is precisely what Christopher Lasch, himself a product of the new thinking, has done. He has attempted a history of modern radicalism in America through a series of sketches of “representative” radicals. For his cast of characters, Lasch has chosen what he calls “archetypical” figures, by which he seems to mean people who are typical because they are untypical. The book has been praised in the proper places. And, despite its serious faults, it does have a certain value, mainly because of its unorthodox version of radical thought, which is seen as a branch of intellectual history. Such an approach—as I, and others, have suggested in the past—avoids the common practice by historians and sociologists of connecting ideas too literally with events. By its emphasis on problems peculiar to intellectuals, this approach also enables us to see how much of our political thinking reflects the state of intellectual life instead of the state of the world. But the trouble with Lasch's book is that his analyses of radical attitudes—and the world they are presumably directed at—are usually too arbitrary and too superficial. Big chunks of history and certain kinds of people and ideas simply do not exist for Lasch. And many of those he does fasten on are either outside the subject or too eccentric for any kind of social history, even though Lasch has tried to disarm us by arguing that some people speak for their time through their very uniqueness.

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Because he sees radicalism as the occupational disease of the intellectuals, Lasch transforms it into a cultural phenomenon, cut off from politics and economics. This segregation of the subject is not without its benefits, for it does lead to a number of insights into those moods and postures that can be explained best in personal or literary terms. But Lasch pushes the method too far, so that in the end radicalism becomes a life-style instead of a political style for responding to events, based on specific theories and modes of action. It is nice, for example, to know about Randolph Bourne's attitudes to women; but one would also like to know what influence Bourne had on later left-wing thought, especially in the 30's. It is also interesting to observe how Lincoln Steffens's personal life and character affected his views, but not at the cost of omitting the debates about the Russian revolution, which also influenced his thinking. In fact, much of what is normally assumed to constitute the history of radicalism is precisely what is left out of Lasch's book. There is little or nothing about the Socialists, the IWW, the Communists, Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, the civil-rights movement, Marxism, the pacifists, the anarchists, Students for Democratic Society, nor any mention of Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Abel, Granville Hicks, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, etc. There is one reference to Trotsky, as there is to Frank Sinatra.

One of the effects of dissociating radicalism from radical politics is that political distinctions are blurred. Thus Lasch usually brackets liberals with radicals, and, in general, seems to regard radicalism as a variety of liberalism. No doubt, the lines have not always been clear; and many people have shifted from one camp to another. Nor has there been, particularly in this country, a stable political force to which intellectuals could more or less permanently attach themselves. Still, a radical is not the same thing as a liberal, either in theory or in practice, and if the difference sometimes fades in literary circles, it is obviously decisive in many political situations, certainly where power and the course of a society are at stake. A notion that would equate, for example, Juan Bosch and Castro is not our most urgent need.

Similarly, one can carry only so far the idea that politics and culture have been mixed up in this country. Lasch is right in observing that the sense of dissociation from “American culture” felt by many intellectuals led to the merging of cultural and political dissent. Unlike intellectuals in Europe who assumed they were their national culture, Americans often felt threatened by the other culture, out there, claiming to be truly American. But Lasch fails to note that the more hard-boiled strains of American radicalism, particularly those associated with the Communists and the Socialists, and with the labor movement, did not think of themselves as outside “American culture.” As populists, they considered themselves part of it. When Lasch says the “confusion of politics and culture is . . . essential to the new radicalism,” he is thinking of Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman, the liberal weeklies, not of Earl Browder, James Farmer, Walter Reuther, or SDS.

So vague and so broad is Lasch's notion of radicalism that almost anyone can be stuffed into it. Surely some stretching of the common definition is necessary to group such diverse persons as Margaret Sanger, Robert Herrick, Randolph Bourne, and John Dewey. What Lasch seems to have in mind is a mood of dissatisfaction and dissent, mostly moral, frequently sexual, sometimes social or political, that is expressed in personal rebellion and intellectual unorthodoxy, and in various kinds of progressive crusades. Such a loose formula really could cover single-taxers, beats, addicts, pacifists, ideologists of sex, fellow-travelers of all sorts, and some revolutionists. It would, of course, also take in the youth at all times, particularly since youth for Lasch always stands for revolt.

Now such an idea could make for an interesting and useful book. But it is not the book Lasch claims to have written; his book is supposed to be about radical politics, not radical temperament. Thus Lasch's apparent subject is often not his real subject. Though he seems to be talking about the make-up of the Left, he is preoccupied with what he calls “the rebellion of intellectuals against middle-class culture,” and with its manifestations in “the alienation of women” and their “rebellion against the family claims,” “the experimental life,” the “beatniks,” “bohemians,” and “hipsters,” and in “the emergence of an autonomous youth-culture.”

This confusion of genres runs through the book. Jane Addams, who is interesting as a feminist reformer, as a neurasthenic who discovered the principle of useful social work for middle-class women doomed to pleasure and comfort, is presented as a forerunner of the modern radical. Mabel Dodge Luhan, who sought sexual salvation—and a salon—in exile, hardly belongs at all in a history of new radicalism. Nor do Lincoln Concord or Colonel House, whose radical credentials are not at all clear, and who at most might be thought of as White House radicals, that is, as members of the left wing of some amorphous brain trust.

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The weakest part of the book is its treatment of the modern period. Somehow we can be lulled into acquiescence by a re-creation of the past. But everything we think and do is being constantly challenged by the political ideas and the people who advance them in the present. As his representative moderns Lasch features Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, and Sidney Hook—a choice that would make sense only if Lasch were illustrating the decline of the Left, for he seems to regard all of them as ex-radicals. In any case, the account of their thinking is so thin that one gets only a glimmering of why they took the stands they did, what effect they had, or what their contemporaries thought of them. In this context Niebuhr, after all, is a peripheral figure, and means something only in terms of the ups and downs of liberals who followed the swing from Communism to anti-Communism. Hook, on the other hand, is a more central character, who has both influenced and reflected the evolution of many radicals who came out of the 30's. Had Lasch gone into the questions and dilemmas that led Hook to his present position, he would have been able to indicate, too, how other people, facing the same problems, took different courses and managed to maintain more radical views. On the whole, Lasch is not very discriminating about Communism or anti-Communism, treating them as ideological blocs, without regard to variations of opinion or differences in time. Thus he fails to distinguish between the anti-Communism of the 30's, which was an attempt to hold on to socialist ideals, and the popular, cold war anti-Communism of today.

Macdonald and Mailer are given the same quick once-over. There is no effort to investigate the twists and turns in Macdonald's public stands, no explanation of the shift from his earlier Trotskyism, no indication that in his Politics period (with which Lasch is most impressed) Macdonald's thinking was a blend of anarchism, pacifism, and moralism, no reference to the fact that more recently Macdonald's views have been generally conservative and not simply anti-Communist. Lasch does not seem to be aware that to understand Macdonald one has to understand the way he reflected or reacted to the ideas around him and to the people who held them. As for Mailer, Lasch's method breaks down completely. For he takes Mailer's violent associations at their face value, instead of regarding them the way a historian should, as symptoms of a general reshuffling of values, or the way a critic would see them, as expressions of Mailer's literary personality. In either case, he would have had to go deeper into Mailer's work and into the current situation.

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Unfortunately, the current situation is something Lasch never gets to. The book ends with Norman Mailer at the Patterson-Liston fight. This event, Lasch reminds us, happened “half a century after James delivered his first lecture on pragmatism”; and its importance comes from the fact that between James and Mailer, according to Lasch, there is a “curious line of descent.” But whatever unsuspected affinities Mailer and James might have, what a way to close a history of the new radicalism! Much as I admire Mailer as a writer and a person, I must say he is not the embodiment of the New Left, and one can't find out what it is up to by following Mailer around. After all, even if, as Lasch claims, “modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals,” still the radical intellectuals, themselves, can be understood only as they relate to political issues and events. Otherwise we get a cultural history indistinguishable from high-class literary gossip. And no matter how typical we might believe eccentrics to be, cultural biography is no substitute for politics.

Obviously, a history of the new radicalism has to deal with two things: the movement and the system. Lasch has played up only one side of the picture. What he has done is to explore some of the more flamboyant and more marginal, really the more literary, aspects of the movement. What he has mainly left out are the people and the theories that have challenged the system. The most serious omission is that of the “new radicals” of the last few years, on the campuses, in the freedom movements, and in such organizations as SDS and PLP—for whom many of Lasch's favorite radicals are relics of an unusable past.

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