U.S. Intellectual History Blog


The post below is from Christopher Shannon and is part of an ongoing exchange between Shannon and Michael Kramer.  This exchange began with a guest post from Kramer based on his essay published in the print journal, The Point Magazine.  Kramer’s original guest post, entitled “Reflections on Christopher Lasch’s Reflections,” looked at Lasch’s somewhat neglected “middle years” and built a bridge between the two books most people probably know, The New Radicalism and The Culture of Narcissism.  If you take a look at this first post, please take the time to read the exchange that took place in the comments section–a feature of this blog that consistently impresses me.

Kramer’s reflections struck Christendom College historian Christopher Shannon as another  expression of academia letting liberalism off the hook.  Shannon contributed his own guest post entitled, “Stuck in the Middle with Lasch,” in which he took issue with Kramer’s characterization of Lasch’s views, offering a critique of Kramer’s critique of Lasch.  For Shannon, Lasch’s later books brought a much needed pluralism to the debate over issues that shaped American society.  Taking issue with what he saw as Kramer’s declension narrative, Shannon’s post clearly welcomed further discussion.

Kramer obliged with another excellent post, this time parsing out and expanding upon the idea of liberation in post-1970s America.  Kramer approaches the term “liberation” with some scholarly heft, having written a very well-conceived and received book entitled, Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford, 2013).  Kramer’s second post in this exchange is entitled, “Liberation Struggles.”  With this post, Kramer more fully engaged Shannon’s own project to produce a devastating critique of liberalism, something he has been wrestling with since his first book, Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (1996, revised 2007).  Kramer’s long post invited Shannon to respond with the post below.  Enjoy!



I would like to begin by first thanking Michael Kramer for his thoughtful and thorough response to my “Stuck in the Middle with Lasch.” I could not have asked for a better dialogue partner.  Dialogue across difference of course requires some common ground. We two could not have asked for a better common ground than the writings of Lasch—early, middle or late.  Kramer began this exchange by making distinctions within Lasch’s writings; my comments lead him to make further distinctions within Lasch’s work and between Lasch’s views and my own.  In my response, I will begin with his critique of my account of Lasch, and move on to the questions that he has posed to me concerning my own somewhat idiosyncratic, “conspicuously conservative” development of Lasch’s thought.

On the charge of my misrepresentation of the mid-career Lasch as a “free-floating intellectual,” I plead guilty. It was a poor choice of words, given that phrase’s genealogy in the work of Karl Mannheim, who did indeed invoke it to suggest a model of detached, neutral inquiry that definitely does not apply to Lasch’s mid-career writing.  Kramer’s emphasis on the breadth and dynamism of Lasch’s work during his middle period, the way in which the essays in The Agony of the American Left and The World of Nations heroically resist any neat ideological categories, conjured up images in my mind of a free-ranging, if not quite free-floating intellect. Still, Lasch was undoubtedly engaged in the politics of his day and never pretended to address these issues from behind the veil of social-scientific detachment.  At the same time, there are different degrees of engagement.  Though he shared many common enemies with those on the Left—the Vietnam War, racism, sexism and consumer capitalism—he could not take his stand with any one of the movements that arose in opposition to these enemies.  Though he was definitely of the New Left moment, I do not think we can properly call him a New Left intellectual.  He was engaged with all of the great issues of the day, yet is almost impossible to locate within any particular camp.

On this issue, I think it is instructive to compare Lasch to the late-sixties intellectual he seemed to admire most, Harold Cruse.  In his introduction to the essays collected in Agony of the American Left, Lasch pointed to Cruse’s 1967 work, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, as the most important book on American radicalism to emerge from the upheavals of the late 1960s.  Cruse’s book is “engaged,” but in a very idiosyncratic way.  Published in the same year as Carmichael and Hamilton’s Black Power, it is a scathing critique of Black Power and every form of Black nationalism that had emerged in America since emancipation—in addition, of course, to the by- then-standard critique of the liberal integrationist ideals of the civil rights movement.  For reasons that would take us too far afield from our current discussion, Cruse infuriated those he “engaged” in a way that Lasch (at that time) never did.  Still, Lasch’s invocation of Cruse may perhaps be seen as a foreshadowing of things to come, of a time in which he would play a role similar to Cruse’s with respect to the white left during the late 1970s and 1980s.  During the late-sixties, the wide range of Lasch’s criticism and the shared common enemies worked to obscure these fault lines.


I realize here that I may be reading too much of the later Lasch into this middle period, so now I would like to consider Kramer’s effort to link this Lasch to the work of Ellen Willis. At one level, it is clear that Lasch’s mid-career writings are much more open to and engaged with Willis’s brand of feminism.  Here again, common enemies go a long way.  Lasch shared with early second-wave feminism a revulsion against 1950s suburban domesticity as an unnatural, and historically unique, perversion of healthy gender relations.  He supported feminists in their revolt against this set of social arrangements, yet with socialists he realized the class bias of much of mainstream feminism.  Still, even in this middle period, he was aware that the stakes were higher than simply equalizing or democratizing the opportunities available to the political daughters of Betty Friedan.  It was in fact the specter of universalizing this model of liberation that gave Lasch reason to pause.   Lasch’s suspicions of what he called the “urban commune,” the dual-career family in which both parents work outside of the home, were exactly what would set him against feminists in his later period.  Of this model of home life, Lasch wrote:  “it is not clear that it is more than a dormitory—in particular, it is not clear whether it can successfully raise children.” By the late-1970s, it appeared much clearer to Lasch that this home was in fact little more than a dormitory and could not successfully raise children.

How one judges the development of Lasch’s thought depends in large part on how one judges his assessment of these changes.  For Kramer, Lasch’s rejection of the dormitory home and two-career marriage was a retreat from the challenges of modernity, a refusal to listen to alternative views, a shift from a humble uncertainty to the arrogant affirmation of the “traditional” family.  Against this, Kramer affirms the ideological stance of Lasch’s erstwhile, hypothetical dialogue partner, Ellen Willis.  For Kramer, Lasch lapsed into a nostalgia that blinded him to “how the family itself had been a patriarchal institution whose inequities themselves undermined the common life,” part of a broader nostalgia that led Lasch to overlook the “xenophobia, racism, sexism, and paranoia” of his culture heroes, the nineteenth century populists.  Willis, in contrast, looks these power relations straight in the eye, declares there is no turning back, and leads us on to a brave new socialist-feminist future in which the liberation experienced by her generation of middle-class feminists will be democratized for all. Between these two alternatives, we are to believe that it is Willis who provides a model of humility, listening and dialogue.


I find it curious and revealing that historians, of all people, can be so ready to dismiss the past. For a time, post-E.P. Thompson social history seemed to be willing to listen to the pre-modern world.  That time appears to have passed, and it has passed largely as issues of gender have overshadowed issues of class within historical scholarship.  We seem to have moved from acknowledging power relations in the past to reducing the past to those power relations.  In the interests of balance, I would like to ask where defenders of Willis’s (and Kramer’s) vision of gender liberation stand on the power relations of modernity, capitalist or socialist?  The modernity that created a world where Willis can indulge in sex and drugs with impunity was created courtesy of the revival of slavery, the extermination of native Americans, the imperial domination of the world by Western powers, the horrors of industrial capitalism, the rape of nature, two unprecedentedly destructive world wars, death camps, the gulag, and the long wars of modernization we call the Cold War. I hear very little acknowledgment of, much less apology for, the crimes of modernity in Kramer and Willis’s assessment of the stakes of the pre-modern/modern divide.

Focusing more narrowly on gender and power, the last forty years that have seen the liberation of women of Willis’s class has also seen the feminization of poverty, a problem that cannot be addressed simply by waving the magic wand of socialism. The whole insertion of socialism into this debate calls to mind Kurt Newman’s use of Gramsci’s analysis of the relation between northern Italian workers and southern Italian peasants: brought in as strike breakers, the southern Italian peasants could come to see themselves in solidarity with northern workers as part of a common class of the “exploited” aligned against the common enemy of the “exploiters.”  All well and good for neo-Marxist theory, but history has shown that, despite sharing a certain common exploitation, workers and peasants/farmers in fact had very different interests that were obscured by the common category of the “exploited.” The advance of industrial capitalism to its mid-century welfare-state zenith came at the expense of peasant/farmers in relation to industrial workers.  By the 1970s, the developed world would in turn abandon industrial workers in favor of a new class of knowledge workers, the class of the daughters of Betty Friedan (and all of us who participate in this website).  Our postindustrial economy continues to create and exacerbate class hierarchies that no real existing socialism has ever been able to correct, beyond providing the benefits of a more generous welfare state (which in Europe has been subsidized by America’s role as policeman of the world).  Egalitarian socialists promise uplift through education and job training, but the demands of growth and innovation persistently leave the mass of those at the lower end of the class spectrum right where they began, socio-economic “failures.”  Progressive democratic socialism in fact favors one class over another.  It is ideological in that it presents the liberation of this one class as the liberation of all classes.  In the end, there is no equality without some kind of hierarchy.  Can we agree on that and start talking about legitimate hierarchies versus illegitimate hierarchies, good hierarchies versus bad hierarchies?

Kramer and Willis seem to insist on absolute equality as a precondition for the common life. By this standard, the answer to the above question would clearly be no. The later Lasch’s willingness to take some forms of hierarchy seriously grew out of his frustration with the political question of his middle years:  “Is this what we want?”  That politics and culture are simply expressions of individual or collective desire was precisely the empty center that Lasch found at the heart of modern liberalism. Willis’s insistence that “collective liberation” without “individual autonomy” is a contradiction is hardly axiomatic. The politics of Reagan and Thatcher successfully asserted just the opposite.  The collectivist language of the welfare state has never quite fully recovered from this blow, while in different ways those on the left and the right scream ever more loudly for their individual autonomy (NARAL and the NRA as brothers/sisters under the skin).  Mid-century constraints on capitalism have fallen just as assuredly as mid-century constraints on gender, sexuality and the family.  This seems to be what “we” as a polity want, to judge by election results.  It may not be exactly what Willis and her like-minded socialist feminists want, but they are simply one interest group among many.  Politics is the clash of wills, of competing individuals and groups. Kramer seems to want more than this, a common life that transcends mere individual or group interests, but I do not see how he can get it with his acceptance of Willis’s understanding of individual autonomy.  Willingness to sacrifice has to be something more than an individual choice or preference (I will sacrifice my tax dollars but not my right to a divorce; I refuse to sacrifice my tax dollars but I will submit to the permanence of marriage). True sacrifice requires a surrender to something outside of one’s self.  The very concept of individual autonomy renders everything outside of the self as a potential threat to freedom.  Once again, I ask the question:  how can we demand commitment to a common good when we cannot even demand that people keep their commitment to their marriage vows?

Not all who cry “sacrifice” and “limits” will enter the kingdom.  For Lasch, these words rang hollow when reduced to technical or utilitarian strategies (I will sacrifice some of my freedom to gain greater freedom within the social contract; I will humbly accept the limits of the possible).  In his later work, he embraced limits that were ontological, essential and rooted in human nature.  He asked not “what do we want?” but “what should we want?” or “how should we live?”  This language remains toxic to the left, for it smacks of moral authoritarianism.  Lasch failed to persuade his socialist and feminist interlocutors that there is authority distinct from authoritarianism; he also failed to persuade them that the freedom they affirmed was in fact anarchy.  Here again, the family was ground zero for this debate.  I cannot add anything to what Lasch has written on this issue.  I feel in a position much like a socialist arguing with a Manchester liberal in the middle of the nineteenth century; any evidence that I could possibly invoke as a symptom of disorder could be spun as the emergence of a new freedom.  People who are willing to believe that there is some natural, trans-historical norm for the temperature of the planet cannot accept that there is anything natural or necessary in relations between men and women.  To those people I can only say: if there is no human nature, there is only power; where there is only power, there is no possibility of a common life.


Throughout his essay, Kramer was kind enough to make some comments on my own work in relation to Lasch’s, and I would like to conclude by addressing some of his comments.  First, I suppose at one level I stand justly accused of “conspicuous conservatism,” at least as far as I presented my views in my first book.  The strident tone and sweeping condemnations seem to leave me as rootless and lost as any of those I criticize.  I tried to counter that rootlessness by at least taking my stand within a particular tradition, Catholicism.  I also tried to bridge the gap between that tradition and modern social science by writing in a modern idiom (which Kramer acknowledges) and by taking social science on its own terms, trying to tease out internal contradictions rather than simply judge it by the external standards of my own tradition.  I first came to the thinkers I studied as part of my effort to understand the modern world.  I learned much from them, but increasingly found their texts arguments mired in aporias often unacknowledged by the authors themselves. Yes, Mills’s file is exhibit A of thought in motion—motion without direction.  In the rhetoric of his day—and perhaps ours too—clear direction threatened to close off future possibilities.  Direction is, in the end, as inevitable as hierarchy.  The rhetoric of motion becomes ideological when it refuses to acknowledge direction.  The direction of the last fifty years seems to be incorporation of the world into the whirlwind of global capitalism.  I was unable to find anything in the social scientific tradition so indebted to that whirlwind that was capable of challenging it in an intellectually coherent manner.

I do not, however, reject all of modernity in the name of retreat into an ideal pre-modern past.  I have no choice but to be modern in some sense, given the place and time in which I live. The issue is not the acceptance or rejection of modernity per se, but the terms of the acceptance.  Charles Taylor long ago argued of the need for a “Catholic modernity” capable of incorporating the best of the modern world into the Catholic tradition.  I am currently working on a book that will argue that this is in fact what a significant tradition of Catholic thinkers, such as Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou and Jacques Maritain, were doing in the first half of the twentieth century.  In different ways, these thinkers were willing to see natural science, historical and cultural consciousness, and political democracy as developments capable of enriching the Catholic tradition.  Open to the modern, they nonetheless insisted that Catholicism should provide the normative framework for the engagement: a Catholic modernity would be a modernity within the limits of Catholicism.  This may strike non-Catholics as reactionary obfuscation and no real modernity at all.  It is, however, in its form not so different from how liberal modernity has engaged the traditions of the world.  As I argued in A World Made Safe for Differences, Cold War liberals were open to sustaining the traditional cultures of the world, so long as those traditional cultures conformed to the norms of liberal modernity—i.e., modernization. In terms of freedom and tolerance, I think it is safe to say that nineteen hundred years of Catholic evangelization allowed for more cultural continuity and diversity than the past one hundred years of liberal modernization.

Catholic inculturation (the adaptation of different cultures to Catholicism) and liberal modernization are, in the end, two different ways of looking at historical change.  They are also two ways of imagining what Kramer has called “thought in motion.”  I am not arguing against motion, merely against motion without direction, which usually masks some direction more troubling than any would care to acknowledge openly.  The Catholic and broader Christian tradition understand proper motion in terms of pilgrimage.  Pilgrims have their sights set on a destination at which they have arrived, paradoxically, “already” but “not yet.” Between heaven and earth, pilgrims too are in a sense stuck in the middle.  It is, however, a particular kind of middle with a different direction than that posed by modern liberation. The political and intellectual challenge of our time is to imagine a peaceful co-existence among many paths that is not simply an ideological mask for the dominance of one over the others.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It still seems to me, as I put it way back when, you want to have your cake and eat it to. I’ll try to explain why.

    “To those people I can only say: if there is no human nature, there is only power; where there is only power, there is no possibility of a common life.” The real question for many, however, is not is there a human nature or no, but how determinate should a rough approximation of the most common expressions of human nature be in terms of what we demand of one another? Human nature exists in aggregate, but, not universally. Most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex; some are not (and this is clearly not a phenomenon of modernity or liberalism). Most women want to have children; some do not. So, what to do with these people? Shall we send them off to misfit island? Well, according to your vision of the common life, as far as I can tell, we tell them to deal with it and endure; “we’re sorry the sacrifice for the common life falls 100 times more heavy upon you than most, but, that’s how the cookie crumbles.” That’s what we’ve done, basically, in the past; and as a result, some endured and took the comfort they could from the common life, others lived lives full of unspeakable psychic agony, and still others killed themselves. They were, quite literately at times, sacrificed to the vision of the common life.

    Now, if you were to say to this, “it is regrettable but, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” you would at least take a position that is consistent, and not ridden with its own internal contradictions – and then I would be more content to just disagree with this choice and continue with my other comrades in our attempts to work towards a common life that doesn’t require this type of violence nor the violence of the marketplace. But you seem to shy away from this – indeed I think you once told me you don’t want to force anything on anyone. Well all right. So instead we simply want a space for those people and those communities that aren’t down with the liberation project to flourish; we don’t want liberalism and capitalism so completely dominating our world as it does today. (No argument here). And so then we have you closing with something like this, “[t]he political and intellectual challenge of our time is to imagine a peaceful co-existence among many paths that is not simply an ideological mask for the dominance of one over the others,” which sounds indistinguishable from something a good liberal pluralist of a certain bent would say! But how can you argue for the reality – indeed the necessity! – of hierarchy without domination on the family level, but imagine a larger political framework ultimately based in a kind of relativistic equality and pluralism? (It would have to be, if all are to peacefully co-exist.) It almost seems that the contradiction of liberalism that you criticize is also your own; you just relocate it to outside, rather than within, the family.

    And while you do, at times, seem to suggest that you are just trying to imagine spaces for enclaves; some kind of hegemony which is actually pluralistic rather than liberalism simply claiming to be so; the failures of liberalism you constantly point to – unemployment, homelessness, the feminization of poverty, etc – are not going to be solved simply through a true tolerance of traditional communities. Surely you know this. So do you actually want liberalism to just stop being so hegemonic – one option among many in a truly pluralist, almost anarchist paradise? – or do you want to replace it completely with something else that would actually have the clout and the national expanse to make a thorough difference in our contemporary world? What, in other words, are you imagining here or trying, however futilely, to accomplish?

  2. Robin Marie,
    It seems to me that if we take human nature off the table (which in a sense is what modern liberal political theory has done), we are all in the position of breaking eggs to make omlete situation. If you equate restriction and constraint, or anything more than procedural social norms (human nature) with violence, then all social orders are inherently violent, and every real existing polity that has promised “liberation” has actually been an agent of domination. Let’s replace your sexual minority with a capitalist who has had his property expropriated in a nationalist, anti-colonial people’s revolution. Are you willing to sacrifice his freedom for your sense of the common good? Will you and your friends permit this violence against the capitalist? Will you affirm violence against the marketplace to abolish the violence of the marketplace? These are not hypothetical questions—they are the questions that revolutionaries and reformers had to ask throughout the twentieth century. You are your friends are in the position to consider your very recent and historically unique version of the common good because of centuries of violence done to traditional communities and ways of life. I don’t think you are okay with that, and I am not proposing some violent pay back. But this discussion will go nowhere if you continue to locate violence in tradition and think that “liberation” can be achieved in any general sense without continued violence.

    I am trying to move the conversation away from liberation or tradition in general, and toward them both in the particular. My vision differs from liberal pluralism in that it would limit the thickest, most hierarchical relations to the local level where they have the most chance of making sense, of appearing natural, to the community that submits to them. Liberalism promises universal freedom from hierarchy and in fact imposes a universal hierarchy of class, and a whole host of other cultural hierarchies. My political vision is one in which our national loyalties to a diverse community would subordinate to our local, more homogeneous (but not uniform) one. Yes, in a sense this is a vision of enclaves, but not Bellah’s “lifestyle enclaves.” These enclaves would have to be based on relatively self-sustaining economies. This is where the real problem of tolerance comes in. Can any pluralist say: “You, person A, are free to live in Wendell Berry-style agrarian communities, while you, person B, are free to live in a post-modern cosmopolis”? Cosmopolis depends upon the destruction of Berry’s kind of communities, as the sexual fluidity of modernity depends upon the destruction of the home economy. Indeed, the modern insistence on the fluidity of identities of all kinds, the “right” to constantly remake ourselves in whatever way we see fit, seems to require a kind of geographic mobility that would make such local life impossible. Such a fluidity, which you seem to endorse on the cultural/sexual level, is moreover possible only within a capitalist economy. You do not seem to accept this part of my argument, and I can’t think of anything more to say to convince you.
    Right now, we seem to have a lot of broken eggs and no omlete. I don’t have a solution to this problem. I just find it curious talk of tradition continues to summon up versions of the Black Legend, as if accepting the possibility that there is a human nature will, before we know it, have us all back on the rack of the Inquisition—even as modern, liberal, democratic America is the most incarcerated nation in human history.

  3. It is indeed true that anyone can play the game of labeling nearly anything that imposes restriction or constraint as violence; but that does not mean all restriction or constraint are, in fact, all violent, or the same type of violence, or the same degree of violent. (And I am aware of the conundrum of the leftist/revolutionary project on this question, in case you think I’m not.)

    But while you refer to “restraint” or “constraint” — and posit the ending of those restraints, in the above post, as “anarchy” — in rather abstract terms, and invoke a pre-modern, traditional family as a way out of the problems capitalism has presented us with, I picture the very concrete consequences to the *particular types* of restraint and constraint that you are insisting are necessary to a particular vision of an alternative arrangement. And when I think very concretely of the real human suffering caused by these “constraints” — which hardly consists of a Black Legend but is extremely well documented nearly everywhere you dig in history, including pre-modern history — compared to the hypothetical suffering of the capitalist stripped of his capital; well, yes, I’d much rather break the latter egg than the former. Priorities, priorities; again, rhetorically treating the loss of capital and thus class power as potentially equivalent to the abuse of women and sexual minorities for the duration of their lives does not make them equivalents. Someone ends up unhappy either way, but are they therefore the same problem?

    Human nature is not off the table in leftist discussions of how to build obligation/a common life – just the portion of it you have decided is the most super important aspect of it, the aspect of it that cannot be sacrificed as the ideal just to prevent actual people from, literately, being sacrificed. So ok, you can never really ally with the left, because we fail to understand that women have to go ahead and submit, or else we are all doomed to the logic of capitalism; and indeed, on this point, you have failed to convince me.

  4. Cosmopolis depends upon the destruction of Berry’s kind of communities, as the sexual fluidity of modernity depends upon the destruction of the home economy.

    Pretty much. With the obviation [or abolition] of traditional civil society–community, church, culture–all roads must lead to the only remaining organizing principle, the state.*
    *As we see with Obamacare, if capitalism is permitted, it will be appropriated by the state for the “general welfare.” Some call this public-private partnership/hegemony a “liberal fascism,” but that mining that vein is likely to be unproductive.

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