The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics

By Christopher Lasch , 1991

Christopher Lasch is the most unusual of creatures—a conservative Marxist.  Like Marx, he hates wage employment and the division of labor, and he blames these things for most of the world’s ills.  However, among those ills, he is especially bothered by moral and cultural breakdown.  Weakening of the family and attacks on “lower middle class” morality horrify him.  Lasch thinks that the “bourgeois” morality he admires is disappearing because we have lost the economic order to which it corresponded.  This order was one of widespread ownership of productive property:  family farms, self-employed artisans and craftsmen, etc.  The ownership of productive property fostered discipline and independence; indeed it was once universally believed that the existence of a large wage labor class is incompatible with American freedom, and Lasch thinks there was something to this belief.  What most upsets him is that we have lost, not only the reality, but the very ideals of proprietorship and of disciplined excellence in a craft.  He accuses both the political left and right of trading this ideal for an ideal of perpetual “progress”, understood in the degrading sense of ever higher levels of material consumption.

The bulk of the book is a retelling of key episodes in the social and intellectual history of the United States.  Lasch’s disenchantment with the contemporary U.S. (including both its political parties) gives him a particularly good perspective for this.  He is able to break free from the standard—one might call it the “Whig”—narrative that all of American history was a buildup to today’s New Deal managerial capitalist democracy.  Instead of the triumphant march of progress, Lasch sees both gains and losses, unheeded warnings and tragically lost opportunities.  I found it a most illuminating tour of American history, and I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand our country more deeply.

Given his perspective, it’s not surprising that Lasch gives a good deal of attention to lost causes like populism, syndicalism, guild socialism, and agrarianism.  His distillation of recent research on the populist movement is particularly interesting, in particular by showing how populism had been misunderstood by Marxist historians too eager to fit it into their preconceived narratives.  Populism was not the first stirring of the incipient working class; it was the last stand of the small producer class.  What’s more, social agitation became much less radical once it did come to be dominated by socialists and wage laborers.  Unlike the populists, the unions had resigned themselves to the wage labor system, and only wanted to get the workers a larger share of the spoils.  In Lasch’s retelling, the roads not taken (e.g. syndicalism) get their due attention, and Cassandras like William Cobbett, Orestes Brownson, and G. D. H. Cole get their due respect.

The book also has some pretty easily identifiable villains.  In the mid-twentieth century, educated liberals lost faith in the American people.  They came to see the mass of their fellow citizens as ignorant, “authoritarian” bigots who needed to have their lives and their beliefs reconstructed by enlightened experts.  Thus was born that obnoxious entity, the therapeutic state, where the government tells the people what to believe rather than vice versa.  Lasch reviews the role of thinkers like Robert Lynd, Thurman Arnold, Gunnar Myrdal, and Theodor Adorno in bringing about this therapeutic mentality.

Finally, let me especially recommend the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.  According to Lasch’s analysis, the movement was successful in the south because it was build on the strong black communities organized around the black churches.  The movement floundered when Martin Luther King began agitating in Chicago and found no such social capital to build upon.  Instead of making an attempt to build social capital in the ghetto, King turned left—essentially turning into a communist—and began demanding that the government step in to smash white ethnic communities and radically redistribute the country’s resources.  In this, King was betraying his earlier and better instincts.

No question about it—you should get this book.

4 Responses

  1. “Instead of making an attempt to build social capital in the ghetto, King turned left—essentially turning into a communist—and began demanding that the government step in to smash white ethnic communities ,,,”

    This reminds me of of E. Michael Jones’ thesis in “The Slaughter of Cities.”

  2. That reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write about Jones sometime.

  3. It is great to see Lasch get a positive review here. He is one of the figures that has much to teach both the left and right today not to mention neo-reactionary network.

  4. […] his great work The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch devotes a chapter to nostalgia.  He points out that, although it is a favorite […]

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