Obituary: Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch, historian: born Omaha, Nebraska 1 June 1932; member, history faculty, Williams College 1957-67, Roosevelt University, Chicago 1960-61, University of Iowa 1961- 66, Northwestern University 1966-70; member of faculty, University of Rochester, New York 1970-94, Don Alonzo Professor of History 1979-94, chairman, Department of History 1985-94; Freud Lecturer, University College London 1981; married 1956 Nell Commager (two sons, two daughters); died Pittsford, New York 14 February 1994.

CHRISTOPHER LASCH was a cultural historian who moved from the position of a radical critic of American society to a stance, neither liberal nor conservative, in which he stressed the importance of what might be called 'basics': self- reliance, community and family. Few writers described with greater honesty the disappointments and dilemmas which the past 40 years held for American intellectuals of a progressive bent who came of age in the Eisenhower years.

One of Lasch's few interventions in public life, if it can be called that, was disastrously misinterpreted. He was one of the gurus called in to advise President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and diagnosed a 'national malaise'. The phrase backfired and helped Ronald Reagan to defeat Carter in the 1980 presidential election.

Born in Omaha in 1932, the son of a journalist (who at the age of 87 outlives his son), Lasch graduated from Harvard College, where he met his wife Nell, the daughter of the pre-eminent historian Henry Steele Commager. He went on to do his master's and doctoral degrees at Columbia University and taught at a number of colleges until he settled at the University of Rochester, where he was chairman of the history department.

Lasch began as a man of the Left; specifically as a Middle Western radical, whose early books, among them an account of American liberals' response to the Russian Revolution and The Agony of the American Left, published in 1969, reflected this orientation. In 1979 his book The Culture of Narcissism was a best- seller; even before the high tide of the 'Me Generation' and 'Greed is Good', in the 1980s, Lasch portrayed the United States as full of self-absorbed, unconfident people easily manipulated by advertisers and politicians.

In a later book, The True and Only Heaven, a work of vast learning, published in 1991, in which he accused both Old Left and New Right of being led astray by blind faith in the idea of progress, Lasch described his own political evolution with a historian's precision. He described how his study of the family (published as Haven in a Heartless World, 1977) had led him to question what he saw as the programme of the Left: 'sexual liberation, careers for women and professional child care'. He admitted that the events of the 1960s first pushed him further to the Left. Rejecting the liberalism of the Kennedy administration, he identified what he saw as the predominant themes of contemporary America: 'the pathology of domination; the growing influence of organisations (economic as well as military) that operate without regard to any rational objectives except their own self-aggrandisement; the powerlessness of individuals in the face of these gigantic agglomerations'.

Convinced that America was suffering from a collapse of legitimate authority, that 'work had become a disagreeable routine, voting a meaningless ritual', he turned to the various teaching of reform Marxism, especially to the Mannheim School's synthesis of Marx and Freud, and to the writing of British Marxists such as Raymond Williams and EP Thompson.

His disillusion came to extend even to the family, in which he and his wife had invested much emotional capital. 'My generation,' he wrote, 'invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interests in each other's lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to recreate in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which could no longer be found in politics or the workplace.'

It became clear to him, he wrote, 'that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success'. Rewards, he concluded, went to those who 'knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules'. He went so far as to speak of 'the unwholesomeness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence and the pornography of 'making it' '.

Holding such views, in many ways those of an Old Testament prophet, Lasch found himself, not unsurprisingly, the centre of continuous controversy. In spite of that he continued to find a ready audience for his uncompromising views, and a new book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, is to be published posthumously, in the autumn.

(Photograph omitted)

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