U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Max Lerner Roundtable Part One: On Revisiting America as a Civilization (Guest Post by Sanford Lakoff)

Dear Readers: Today we begin a series marking the 60th anniversary of the publication of Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization, a work of remarkable sweep and ambition now largely neglected by intellectual historians of the United States. We start with a guest post from Sanford Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at the University of California, San Diego and the author of many books, including Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Professor Lakoff’s entry marks the first in a three-part series here at the blog on Lerner’s America as a Civilization. Our roundtable continues next week with an entry from Stephen Whitfield, and concludes the following week with an entry from Peter Kuryla. Professor Lakoff’s entry offers us a fine introduction to both Max Lerner and his “opus magnum,” including some thinking about its relevance for us some sixty years on from when it first appeared.  

Re-reading Max Lerner’s opus magnum sixty years after it appeared – and even longer since being assigned draft chapters as an undergraduate — is to marvel anew at its remarkable scope and at how thoughtful and sometimes troubling many of its insights remain.

Lerner was acutely aware that he was following the trail blazed by Alexis de Tocqueville over a century earlier. He too set out to identify and describe the design – “the figure in the carpet” –in the country’s ways of life, expressed in its politics, economy, culture, and mores. Relying both on his own observation and a wealth of historical and empirical studies (all cited and discussed in an appendix called “Notes for Further Reading”), he provided astute accounts of many facets of American life. These include the successful if hardship-laden assimilation of immigrants; the persistence of regional character despite homogenizing forces; the movement from agriculture to industry, and with it, from farm to city and suburb; the role of the courts and the interplay of interest groups and parties in defining and redefining the Constitution; the decline of the traditional patriarchal family; and our unique contributions, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, to literature, architecture, and both the fine arts and popular culture. And he recognized, fully and candidly, the “massive fact” that America remained “a divided society” in which racial and ethnic minorities still faced exclusion and hatred.

He also showed convincingly that America is a civilization in its own right, not just an offshoot of Europe, and, with all its faults, a working system — in one of his pet phrases, “a going concern”– combining robust individual freedom with the give and take of pluralistic democracy. This civilization could someday decline, as so many others had before, he admitted, but it had shown a remarkable capacity for self-renewal, for which he coined the oxymoron “extended genesis.”[1]

At the end, he struck a note of warning – one that reflected the liberal zeitgeist at the time he was writing. He pointed to the political intolerance that had reached a fever pitch with “McCarthyism” and the new worship of wealth in what John Kenneth Galbraith called “the Affluent Society.” America, he cautioned, “is still on the rising arc of its world power” but “on the descending arc of its inner social and moral vigor.” The problem was that the country had “allowed itself to be switched off from the main path of its development into the futile dead ends of the fear of ideas and the tenacious cult of property.” In the Age of Trumpery, with its paranoid phobias, susceptibility to “fake news,” hostility to scientific findings, and plutocratic inclinations, this observation has a familiar and disturbing ring.[2]

When it was published, the book received high praise from reviewers, including Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, two of the reigning deans of American historiography. Morison called it “a great book.” Commager wrote to say that it was “the best book on American civilization in my generation.” This encomium is a bit ambiguous because there was nothing at all like it in his generation or before, other than for Tocqueville’s classic. Charles A. and Mary R. Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization (1927) was a history, and they didn’t bother to explain what they meant by civilization or why they thought it distinct from that of the West. Lerner’s opus was sui generis, as in many ways was its author.

Now remembered if at all mostly by historians, Lerner (1902-92) was a prominent public intellectual for most of his long career. He was best known as a left-liberal pundit and polemicist who first wrote for The Nation and New Republic and then did a newspaper column syndicated by the New York Post, lectured widely, and was frequently heard on radio. All the while, he had another full-time career, as a professor (at Sarah Lawrence, Williams, Harvard, and for the longest time at Brandeis) and wide-ranging social scientist. His first job after earning his doctorate at Brookings was as Managing Editor of what became the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Before and after America as a Civilization, he produced a weighty shelf of books, both popular and scholarly. Five were collections of essays or columns (with catchy titles like Ideas are Weapons and Actions and Passions); several presented sparkling introductions to writings by Aristotle, Machiavelli, Veblen, and commentaries on writings by Justice Holmes); one, Nine Scorpions in a Bottle, collected his essays on the Supreme Court; and a final one a memoir of his struggle with cancer. A few others, sad to say, were potboilers that did less than justice to his talents as a thinker and writer.

In his earlier work, notably It is Later Than You Think (1938; revised 1943), the first of his books, he had warned that this country would have to reform and bridle capitalism if it hoped to avoid revolutionary movements like those in Europe that had produced totalitarianism. What was needed, he thought, was a “democratic collectivism” – not socialism in the form of nationalization, or communism in its totalitarian Bolshevik apparition, but a peaceful pragmatic effort, relying on the ballot box, to turn capitalism into an economic system for the common good.

Two decades later, in the wake of the New Deal and the expansion of the national role in the economy during World War II, he thought that America had reached a good compromise. The managed economy was a reasonable approximation of what he had called for. “For all its individualistic slogans, he wrote, “the business class in America has effectively substituted its own form of collectivism for the old individualism.”  Contrary to the prophecies of Marxism, American capitalism had not altogether captured the political system; its power is checked by countervailing forces. Thanks especially to the trade unions, America had achieved “the government of industry by constitutional means.”

All that was now needed to preserve prosperity and extend its benefits was for the government to maintain “the New Deal amalgam of state capitalism and business collectivism.”  More planning was advisable, but in this country planning occurs in a roundabout way: “That is to say, instead of nationalization or codes of regulation and control by government administrators, the planning is mainly by pressures, nudges, and prods.[3] The Keynesian revolution in economic theory has largely taken over American economic policy.” Ours is therefore “a loosely planned and indirectly controlled progressive capitalism” giving the biggest prizes to the rich (whether by their merit or from inheritance) but also generating prosperity for the nation as a whole. As a result, the society was committed to equality of opportunity and a distribution of the benefits of industry that would assure rising standards of living for all, along with rewards for entrepreneurial activity and excellence in every field of human activity. So transformed, America would serve as a model to the world and, provided a nuclear holocaust were avoided, it would survive, even as the Soviet Union succumbed to its internal strains.

In Retrospect, However…

It all sounds so right, and in fact it was, for the rest of the twentieth century, apart from the struggle to end segregation and the turmoil over the Vietnam war and the counter-culture of the 1960s. Even the conservative backlash under Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes only modified but hardly abolished the reforms for the better wrought by the New Deal. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it’s clear that a new edition would need some major revisions to take account of developments that had just begun to take effect or were not yet in evidence. Radio and television had already challenged the primacy of the print media as means of communication, but the advent of satellite broadcasting, the internet, and the social media have wrought radical changes, with more likely to come. “Women’s lib” had only just begun to assault the “feminine mystique” and the movement for gay rights was still cowering in the closet.

Otherwise, two issues in particular merit special attention. One is that the question of economic inequality that Lerner thought had been largely resolved by the 1950s has gotten more acute and is now destabilizing democratic politics here as elsewhere. (President Obama called it “the defining issue of our time.”) Another is that the country’s engagement with science and technology that began during and after World War II has become far more critical – to global peace and national security, economic growth, and health and welfare — than it was in the 1950s, except for the rising fear of nuclear war, which, as he recognized, was already a deadly serious concern.

In recent years, studies by economists—notably Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2015) — have shown that the generally rising prosperity of the postwar years may have been an aberration. While these studies have called for remediation via tax reform, redistribution of wealth, and revival of trade unions in the private sector, others – notably Robert F. Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth (2016)– have warned that the rate of increase in productivity, the engine of economic growth, has lately been persistently low, mainly because the latest technological innovations have been far less stimulating than those like electricity, the internal combustion engine, and powered flight that lifted the economy from 1870 to 1970.

Piketty’s evidence, a formidable battery of cross-national and longitudinal data, shows that economic inequality (including inequality of opportunity) has increased in recent decades, especially in the United States. The reduction in inequality that took place from 1910 to 1950 and was maintained for several decades, he explains, was due to government policies aimed at coping with the shocks of war and depression. Since then, the gap has been allowed to widen. If present trends continue, he warns, capitalism will generate “arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities” which will “radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based,” with consequences that are “potentially terrifying.”

These findings compel a reconsideration of the common assumptions about economic growth prevalent in the 1950s that informed Lerner’s views.  In 1953 Simon Kuznets published his monumental Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings which seemed to show that in the United States, as in other economically advanced countries, earlier pessimists like David Ricardo and Karl Marx were altogether wrong in supposing that capitalism would benefit the owners of capital at the expense of farmers and the industrial proletariat. Kuznets contended that inequality increased at first and then decreased in the course of industrialization and economic development. The message was summed up in a reassuring message: “Growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats.” In 1956 Robert Solow drew on later data confirming the Kuznets thesis and showing that during balanced economic growth every social group would benefit from growth in the same degree.

More recent work has shown that the reduction of inequality between 1910 and 1950 was, as Piketty puts it, “above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war.” Wages for the vast majority of American workers have stagnated or declined since 1979 even as the Gross Domestic Product and net productivity have greatly increased. And a comparative study of “intergenerational mobility” – the measure of equal opportunity – shows that Denmark ranks first and the United States last of eleven economically comparable countries.[4] Gordon’s contentions make the Piketty thesis all the more worrying because they suggest that economic growth may be too low to allow for the kind of expansion of the economic pie that eased social tensions in the past.

The importance of science and technology is another issue that would require serious editorial revision. One 58-pages-long section of America as a Civilization stresses the importance of the American engagement with science and technology, noting that America has become “an Enormous Laboratory.” But apart from the capitalization it does not explain how and why or what the results were likely to be. The chapter makes it seem that developments within the sciences created a fascination with the “scientific outlook” that jolted both government and industry to recruit and support science and scientists. This is true as far as it goes but it hardly goes far enough.

In particular, there is hardly any recognition in the book of the specific ways in which the advent of nuclear weapons had begun to shape our Cold War foreign policy of containment and the acceptance of the new strategic doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.” Nor is there any mention here or elsewhere in the book of Vannevar Bush’s The Endless Frontier (1945), or Don K. Price’s Science and the Federal Government (1950). Had he looked into these two seminal accounts, Lerner might have gotten some appreciation of the way in which the success of the Manhattan Project led to the creation of the military-industrial complex in the Cold War and beyond that to an unprecedented change in relations between the federal government and both high-tech industry and the research universities that has become so critical to the American economy and our very way of life.

Already, the federal government’s support for science and technology was transforming the economy and with it our way of life.  In the 1940s the “stagnationist” school of economics (led by Alvin Hansen) worried that the closing of the frontier meant that the greatest stimulus to economic expansion (via the cultivation of new farmlands, encouragement of immigration, and discovery of new resources) was at an end. Bush argued that basic and applied research would not only strengthen national security but also yield an endless cornucopia of new products and processes. Until then, research in universities had gotten outside support only from philanthropic foundations like Rockefeller. Now, in 1950, the federal government established the National Science Foundation, to support basic research and higher education in the physical sciences and engineering and greatly expanded the National Institutes of Health to support the life sciences (by relatively unrestricted grants based on the project system and peer review) and indirect costs which helped the universities sustain themselves. At the same time, the mission-oriented agencies, notably the Defense Department (renamed from the War Department), used R&D “cost-plus” contracting to subsidize the design of new defense technology, and the newly created Atomic Energy Commission did the same for military and civil nuclear projects. Finally came NASA for space and NOAA for earth science and the oceans.

The net result was, as Price saw, “federalism by contract,” or in other words an American model that relied to some extent on in-house science (at the national labs like Livermore and Los Alamos) but much more on a pluralistic approach whereby the national government supported research at both public and private universities and with defense contractors. The work had myriad spillover benefits (alias “fallout”) for the civilian economy. It led to the development of the computer (both hardware and software), applications of the transistor and integrated circuitry, the jet airframe, space communications and mapping, and the internet (originally the DOD Advanced Research Project or ARPAnet). It encouraged venture capitalists to invest in start-ups like Microsoft, Apple, and Google that led to major innovations and enormously profitable industries. The “Route 128 Effect” in Boston and “Silicon Valley” in California became bywords for the new high-tech economy.

Critics called the new venture in public support of R&D “Pentagon capitalism” and even President Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the “Military-Industrial Complex.” They were right in supposing that it fueled the Cold War arms race in nuclear and space weapons, but at the same time it turned out to have incalculable benefits for the civil economy and indirectly also for the advances in the life sciences. Lerner recognized that thanks to the Cold War “The Enormous Workshop Became the Enormous Arsenal” and noted that “The Big Technology has been for Americans what the Cross was for the Emperor Constantine: In hoc signe vincas. It set the pace for an impressively swift and thorough conquest of a new environment and of world leadership.” True enough, but in this case as in others Lerner would have been well advised to forego the grand historical comparisons and explore in detail exactly what was happening. Instead he became fixated on the effects of technology on what Veblen had called the instinct of workmanship and the tensions between scientific management and the workplace and on speculations about what would happen as the workday was reduced and Americans became obsessed with consumerism. The result was that he missed the biggest part of the story.

An Afterword: Why the Book is No Longer Widely Read But Should Be

Although America as a Civilization has not proved to be as continuously studied as Tocqueville’s great work, it made a major and lasting contribution toward the establishment of American studies as an interdisciplinary field – since marred by the unfortunate fragmentation introduced under the headings of ethnic studies, Afro-American studies, women’s studies, “queer studies,” and the like.

Why is it no longer widely read? Perhaps because encyclopedic non-fiction works like this are off-putting even when they are rewarding. The idiosyncratic British historian. A. J. P. Taylor wrote to the publisher expressing thanks for sending him the book but expressing a frustration with it that may well have been a common reaction among more general readers put off by its eclecticism and sheer volume:

I am most grateful for the copy of Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization. I have read large parts thereof, though not all. The industry, grasp and range of the author stagger me. The mere physical effort is more than I could undertake in a lifetime. But all the same: the book is too long and too large at any rate for feeble readers of an old continent. I cannot even hold it comfortably. How then can I read it?

With great respect, American writers and publishers who produce books of this size earn from me condemnation, not praise. You are killing literature. But of course you are an outsize nation; and maybe it is all right for you. We have abandoned projects of this size. We jog along from day to day, enjoying what comes – including books of reasonable compass – until you or the Russians press the button.

On my own new reading, I sympathize with this reaction. It might have been better if the publisher had persuaded Lerner to reshuffle the chapters to put them into a boxed four-volume set in larger type, something like Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization, rather than in a cramped one-volume tome running to over a thousand pages. Still, even as it stands, this monumental secular cathedral of a book remains worth revisiting, if only because of the information it assembles, the reflection it stimulates, and its combination of keen observation and empirically-grounded analysis drawing on the work of countless specialists.

[1] The phrase may have been inspired by the title of Russell Davenport’s USA: The Permanent Revolution (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1951), a book cited in the text.

[2] As do similar warnings of Lerner’s contemporaries, notably the essays by Richard Hofstadter and others in The New American Right (1955), revised as Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right (New York: Doubleday, 1963) and Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace 1955, especially chapter 11, pp. 284-309).

[3] Just as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein would later suggest in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Welfare, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[4] For a discussion of the political implications of rising economic inequality see my “Inequality as a Danger to Democracy: Reflections on Piketty’s Warning,” Political Science Quarterly (130, 3, fall 2015), pp. 425-447.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This site twice rejected comments of mine on this post as spam, possibly b.c I was trying to link a website to my name that I hadn’t linked before.

    So I’ll try a third time, and in much shorter form: I think this generally thoughtful and interesting post might have mentioned the well-documented structural changes in the global economy, starting in the late 1960s and accelerating in the early and mid seventies, that contributed to the end of the (so-called) golden age of capitalism and also to the rising inequality and associated trends that Piketty discusses. I haven’t read Piketty’s book, but the post almost makes it sound as if the trends he notes came out of the blue and were unrelated to underlying and profound changes in how global capitalism operates. That’s not my understanding, fwiw.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the post and am glad to have learned something about Lerner’s book.

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