The Agony of the American Left

By Christopher Lasch

Spanning the years from the Populist movement of the 1890s to the radical politics of the 1960s, Lasch’s study offers a useful analysis of many of the social, economic, and political forces that have combined to frustrate the American Left in its search for a politically potent mixture of theory and action. Writing during the heydays of the New Left, Lasch argues that such analysis is conspicuously absent from much of the contemporary debate, leading throngs of young radicals toward heroic nihilism and impotent protest, and squelching their potential in the process. Ultimately, though, Lasch’s book, like so much of leftist intellectual thought, is better at theory than action, better at uncovering the faults of past movements than offering workable alternatives. Like the New Left itself, this book peters out near the end, unable to muster the energy for long-term resistance.

Throughout The Agony of the American Left, Lasch suggests that the promise of the Left lies in the establishment of a new brand of socialism, one modified drastically from those modeled in underdeveloped nations and uniquely capable of exploiting America’s machinelike economy toward collective ends. His argument takes root first in his distinction between late-19th century Populism and Socialism. That division, he feels, created too many missed opportunities. In particular, it prevented the formation of larger coalitions around shared progressive interests. Drawing helpful connections between those past mistakes and Nixon-era America, Lasch writes:

Organization, in fact, was achieved precisely by eliminating in advance all who could not be organized with a minimum of effort—immigrants, Negroes, sharecroppers, hillbillies; the ‘culturally deprived.’ Poverty has not been eliminated, it has merely been concealed. Because they are both ‘invisible’ and voiceless, the millions of poor have no way of making their presence felt except by violence; but precisely because they are leaderless and unorganized, violence, once it erupts, cannot be directed by radicals toward political objectives. (30)

As Lasch points out, in the years surrounding WWI, socialism held considerable sway in American politics. “In 1912,” he writes, “the year Eugene V. Debs polled six per cent of the Presidential vote, Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. As late as 1918, they elected 32 state legislators. In 1916, they elected Meyer London to Congress and made important gains in the municipal elections of several large cities” (35). But by the mid-20s, perhaps reflecting the combined influence of America’s booming industrialism and the growing isolationism of its foreign policy, the movement had lost its momentum, and “American radicalism had acquired the characteristics it has retained until the present day: sectarianism, marginality, and alienation from American life” (40). Of course, the liberalism and anticommunist sentiment that characterized so much of the political discourse during the post-WWII years only served to further bury the Left.

In the second and third chapters, Lasch uses two case studies, The Partisan Review and The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), to expose the double-bind facing leftist intellectuals during the most heated of the Cold War years. Members of the CCF, for example, found themselves fighting for “cultural freedom” while maintaining a virulent anticommunist posture, which forced them to stake out an ambivalent position on, say, the Rosenbergs—”[The] pre-eminent fact of the Rosenbergs’ guilt must be openly acknowledged before any appeal for clemency can be regarded as having been made in good faith”—and Arthur Miller, who “had made an unforgivable mistake: he had criticized political interference with art not only in the Soviet Union but in the United States, thereby implying that the two situations were comparable” (87, 90). Ultimately, it was discovered that the CCF’s position was more compromised than anyone had imagined. Like so many other supposed mouth pieces of the Left, the American CCF’s journal, Encounter, was later revealed to have been supported by the CIA. Lasch writes:

The modern state, among other things, is an engine of propaganda, alternately manufacturing crises and claiming to be the only instrument that can effectively deal with them. This propaganda, in order to be successful, demands the cooperation of writers, teachers, and artists not as paid propagandists or state-censored time-servers but as ‘free’ intellectuals capable of policing their own jurisdictions and of enforcing acceptable standards of responsibility within the various intellectual professions.

A system like this presupposes two things: a high degree of professional consciousness among intellectuals, and general economic affluence which frees the patrons of intellectual life from the need to account for the money they spend on culture. Once these conditions exist, as they have existed in the United States for some time, intellectuals can be trusted to censor themselves, and crude ‘political’ influence over intellectual life comes to seem passé. (94-95)

The end result is that American intellectuals found (some would say find) themselves in a Pynchonesque nightmare of absurd miscommunication, all of which masks harsh political realities for the sake of furthering capitalist gains. “’What would a ‘free thinker’ do, asks the Sunday Times of London, ‘when he finds out that his free thought has been subsidized by a ruthlessly aggressive intelligence agency as part of the international cold war?’ According to the curious values that prevail in American society, he should make a redoubled effort to salvage the reputation of organizations that have been compromised, it would seem, beyond redemption.”

The final chapters of The Agony of the American Left examine the strange ties that bound the Black Power movement with the predominantly white New Left. For Lasch, they were most closely united by their failings. They shared, he writes, “romantic anarchism but several other features as well, none of them (it must be said) conducive to its success—a pronounced distrust of people over thirty, a sense of powerlessness and despair, for which the revolutionary rhetoric serves to compensate, and a tendency to substitute rhetoric for political analysis and defiant gestures for political action” (131). For his analysis of Black Power—a really interesting read, I should mention—Lasch relies heavily on Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which argues that the movement is marked by a lack of theory and historical understanding. Like the New Left, it is dominated by emotional rhetoric and generic “resistance,” but the solutions it offers evidence a naïve misunderstanding of the economic forces that shape America’s social structures. For instance, Lasch asks the provocative question: Do ghettos exist because “powerful interests have a stake in perpetuating them,” or because “American society can get along so well without black people that there is not motive either to integrate them by getting rid of the ghettos or to allow the ghettos to govern themselves”? (132). That Black Power had no answer, just as the New Left had no specific, sustainable goals in its disruptions of campus life, only exacerbates the Left’s agony.

For Lasch, the New Left is a failure both for reasons beyond their control and for problems of their own making. Had they been offered glimpses of progress, they may have moved toward more thoughtful analysis and greater cooperation. Instead, their peace movements were met only by further escalations in Vietnam. Their dovish President (Johnson) turned hawk once reelected. Their most promising candidate (RFK) was lost in another in a series of senseless assassinations. And instead, they were left with riots in Chicago and Humphrey as their nomination. Lasch suggests that the last promise of the Left remains in the founding of a new socialist majority. “In other words,” he writes:

the Left has to begin to function not as a protest movement or a third party but as an alternative political system, drawing on the abilities of people who realize that their talents are often wasted in their present jobs. It has to generate analysis and plans for action in which people of varying commitments to radicalism can take part, while at the same time it must insist that the best hope of creating a decent society in the United States is to evolve a socialism appropriate to American conditions. (200-01)

But aside from his thoughtful analysis, Lasch offers little insight into how such a socialist consensus might be formed. “In espousing decentralization, local control, and a generally antibureaucratic outlook, and by insisting that these values are at the heart of radicalism, the New Left has shown American socialists the road they must follow” (211). In the margin I wrote, “Is that it?” Like Lasch, I’m seeking praxis. I only wish that he would have put more of his theory into action.