ON THE EXHAUSTION OF THE IDEA OF PROGRESS
The Obsolescence of Left & Right

April 1989By Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester. This academic year he is on sabbatical as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California. His books in­clude Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self. He is the father of four children and a Contributing Editor of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW. The above article is adapted from his forthcoming book on prog­ress and its critics, to be published by Norton next year. Copyright © 1989 Christopher Lasch.

The unexpected resurgence of the political right, not only in the United States but throughout much of the Western world, has thrown the left in­to confusion and called into question all its old as­sumptions about the future: that the course of his­tory favored the left; that the right would never re­cover from the defeats it suffered during the era of liberal and social democratic ascendancy; that some form of socialism, at the very least a more vigorous form of the welfare state, would soon re­place free-market capitalism. Who would have pre­dicted 25 years ago that, as the 20th century ap­proached its end, it would be the left that was ev­erywhere in retreat?

But the characteristic mood of the times, a baffled sense of drift, is by no means confined to people on the left. The unanticipated success of the right has not restored moral order and collec­tive purpose to Western nations, least of all to the U.S. The new right came to power with a mandate not just to free the market from bureaucratic interference but to halt the slide into apathy, hedonism, and moral chaos. It has not lived up to expecta­tions. Spiritual disrepair, the perception of which furnished much of the popular animus against lib­eralism, is just as evident today as it was in the 1970s.

Conservative contributors to a recent sympos­ium on the state of American conservatism report widespread “discouragement” with the accomplish­ments of the Reagan revolution, so called. Like lib­erals, conservatives suffer from “demoralization” and “malaise.” According to George Panichas, the “crisis of modernity” remains unresolved by a “sham conservatism” that merely sanctions the un­bridled pursuit of worldly success. Clyde Wilson writes that the “everyday virtues of honesty, loyal­ty, manners, work, and restraint” are more “atten­uated” than ever. In the early 1960s it was still “possible to take for granted that the social fabric of the West…was relatively intact.” Under Rea­gan, however, it continued to unravel.

Ritual deference to “traditional values” can­not hide the right’s commitment to progress, un­limited economic growth, and acquisitive individu­alism. Conservatives Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming point out that the goal of “unlimited ma­terial opportunity and social improvement” plays a much larger part in contemporary conservatism than a defense of tradition. “Skepticism about progress,” once the hallmark of conservative intellectuals, has all but disappeared. “Political differ­ences between right and left have by now been large­ly reduced to disagreements over policies designed to achieve comparable…goals.” The ideological distinctions between liberalism and conservatism have become increasingly obscure. The old categor­ies no longer define the lines of political debate.


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