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Liberalism Takes a Licking : THE TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN, By Christopher Lasch (W. W. Norton: $25; 576 pp.)

January 27, 1991|Godfrey Hodgson | Hodgson is foreign editor of the Independent of London. His most recent book is "Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson" (Knopf)

From the New Deal until the 1970s, liberalism in all its variants was the public philosophy of the United States. And what brought together a whole coalition of interests, classes and temperaments under the banners of liberalism was a shared belief in the idea, indeed the ideology of progress.

Since the 1970s, with bewildering speed, liberalism has been rudely unseated from that position of hegemony. This is not just a swing of the political pendulum, or of shifting fashions in graduate schools, publishing houses and the editorial pages of newspapers. Liberalism, once arrogantly confident of its solutions for all manner of problems, has turned defensive, and all its enemies have been on the attack.

The most familiar assaults, of course, come from the various tribes of conservatives. Christopher Lasch, the historian and long an adherent of the American Left, does not march under any of their banners. Instead, in this difficult but learned and subtle--perhaps too subtle--book, he digs down to the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and exhumes a whole cluster of rival traditions that always have challenged the liberal assumptions.

At the heart of the liberal tradition, says Lasch, is the idea, the ideology of progress. In its origins in the 18th-Century Enlightenment, this was the noble doctrine of the perfectibility of man and his institutions. At the height of Victorian confidence, liberals saw no contradiction between moral and material progress, and sought to bring the whole world the blessings both of Protestant Christianity and of capitalism. But in the late 20th Century, the liberal idea coarsened until liberals often confused the ideal of progress with the pursuit of economic growth.

In form, therefore, Lasch's book is an essay on the history of ideas, an analytic catalogue of the chief successive enemies of the idea of progress. In the beginning, the idea of infinite progress and perfectibility ran counter to the grand tradition of republicanism, or "civic humanism," as Lasch names it, that traces back through Rousseau, Montesquieu and James Harrington to Machiavelli, whose concepts of "virtue" and "fortune" embodied an awareness of limits that was the antithesis of the liberal confidence in progress.

Then Lasch looks at a whole series of ideas and traditions in European and American thought that militated against the all-conquering power of progress. There was nostalgia for a Golden Age in the past, whether it was the Arcadian idyll that haunted the Renaissance imagination, the idealized Middle Ages of the pre-Raphaelites or the gentrified Frontier of James Fenimore Cooper.

There was the ideal of "community"-- Gemeindschaft as opposed to Gesellschaft , mere "society" without the communal bonds of obligation and duty--held out by Toennies, Max Weber and the other founders of sociology. And there was the long, stern line of 19th-Century prophets who denounced the false gods of progress, from Thomas Carlyle thundering forth his denunciations of Mammon worship amid the coal-smoke fogs of Victorian London to Emerson and William James in a Boston that felt its puritan heritage just as much threatened by the accelerating machines of the Gilded Age as were its banks by the triumph of New York.

And so Lasch leads the reader on, sure-footedly negotiating the intellectual bogs and potholes of the late 19th- and early 20th-Century Left, never losing sight of the bearing he has drawn on the distinction between those writers who accept, and those who reject, the idea of progress as their guiding star.

It is done with remarkable skill. Lasch's reading is vast, his insight into what a writer is trying to say penetrating. Still, there comes a point where many readers may stop and ask themselves: Why is he telling me all this? Adam Smith and Orestes Brownson, Henry George and Jonathan Edwards, Georges Sorel and G. D. H. Cole: The menu is so long and many of the dishes so unfamiliar that the reader may find the meal indigestible.

I myself had almost reached the point Winston Churchill had arrived at during the famous dinner party where he is said to have burst out, "Waiter! Take this pudding away; it has no theme !" when I began to catch on to what Lasch was about. Two clues hinted to me what Lasch's real purpose is. The first lies in a brief intellectual autobiography he provides early in the book.

Lasch explains that he grew up in the tradition of Middle West progressivism. In the 1970s, he reacted to the excesses and absurdities of the 1960s "New Left" by embracing Marxism, not in its straitjacket form, but as taught by such Western Marxists as Gramsci, Marcuse, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson. But in the mid-1970s, influenced by his experience and concerns as a parent, he began to see that most liberals did not really believe that ordinary Americans shared their values.

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