We are currently reading an early and relatively obscure non-fiction effort by Christopher Lasch, likely not known or remembered by many reading here. The title is “American Liberals and the Russian Revolution”.
Lasch was one of those brilliant guys who often become historians (as he was) and that command a kind of reverence even among intellectuals, and we’d venture there’s a specific reason for that: he combined insightful analysis of historical facts with an encyclopedic knowledge of those facts. Many very smart people can do one or the other, but not both.
Take us at Lawyers on Strike, for example. If we can be permitted to indulge the supposition – solely for purposes of illustration, of course – that we are “very smart people” then we have a certain talent for analysis of facts but normally do not have a ready command of seemingly limitless facts, as Lasch seems to. Lasch, in his trenchant work that (as we have already said) we are reading, rattles off the names of so many obscure figures, journalistic, political and otherwise, from the relevant period (app. 1917-1918) that it makes us dizzy.
But he is also, as we just noted, trenchant.
Nevertheless, we think he is perhaps missing something even as he alludes to it indirectly, over and over, in his analysis of the events he’s chronicling. His basic thesis is that American liberals had a love-hate relationship with the Russian revolution when it occurred, which is fine as far as it goes, but he also points out somewhat less explicitly but quite clearly how very much the liberal intelligentsia of the United States of the era were in favor of the Great World War then occurring in Europe and overlapping with the Russian revolution. And I think while he hints at it all the time, Lasch is missing this remarkable and anomalous fact – that ‘liberals’ in the US were rabidly pro-war – because he’s not taking a long enough view. The long view – as in really, really long – is quite possibly the only real talent, if any we have, that we occasionally employ over here at Lawyers on Strike.
Which brings us to the point of this post.
The 20th century, for all of its virtues and many blessings and stunning scientific advances, was fundamentally a century of intellectual, moral and political chaos and incoherence in the western (also known as ‘developed’) world. The west was making its definitive transition into its post-Christian phase, a phase that had been underway in earnest since the 19th century. Liberals unreservedly welcomed this de-Christianizing development,* so much so that to the extent they saw its fruition as dependent upon the outcome of a world war they were prepared to support such a war. And did. We’re not sure Lasch quite grasped this in 1962 when he wrote the work we are reading, but we think he began to see it later in life.
And in much the same way that the American Civil War was indeed, and contrary to many facile and cynical interpretations, a war to end the institution of slavery, the great world war near the beginning of the 20th century was seen as being, and in many ways was, the final nail in the coffin of the Christian west, and the birth of the post-Christian west. The post-Christian world-view had already taken hold across nearly every discipline among intellectuals by 1914, when the war began. The war translated the intellectual and academic consensus into the practical reality, and the political mopping up operations spanned the remainder of the century.
The law, certainly, was not unaffected by all this. In fact, in one of those ironies of timing that often characterize historical events the law was really reaching an apogee of benevolent (and a largely Christianity influenced) practical application even as these intellectual underpinnings were being suppressed and even eradicated. Thus, in the 1930’s we had a genuine “due process revolution” where flagrantly indecent and uncivilized practices by state courts would be meaningfully reviewed and annulled by federal courts acting under the authority of the 14th amendment’s due process clause, something that had previously been thought to be a thoroughly radical practice. For a brief period, our country’s even handed application of the laws and principles of justice improved – not just for that reason, but that was part of it.
By the early 1960’s, however, we experienced something that was actually called the “due process revolution” that really wasn’t. Without going into too much detail about it again, this supposed revolution was really a distortion of the progress that had just been made, and wound up undermining and indeed eventually reversing that progress, ushering in an era of less institutional decency, less civilized institutional conduct.
But the pendulum swings. It’s not terribly comforting to us here at Lawyers on Strike precisely because we take such a long view and are forced to recognize that the pendulum swing now underway is not principled or properly grounded; it is merely, in our opinion, a temporary recoiling from the effects of the damage previously done, not a real effort to address and repair the damage. Nevertheless, the upshot is that we see 2015 as the beginning of a respite from what has been a relentless 30 year period of moral, intellectual and political regression in the United States, a regression that will no doubt resume as soon as the swing has panned out – unless something unexpected changes.
We know not, of course, how long or how far this respite may extend. But we welcome it, if only because we are tired.
So we don’t agree with Radley Balko, although we give him a lot of credit for the fact that the pendulum is swinging at all.
Happy new year, everyone.
* While it is true that we lament the de-Christianization of the west overall and that this is a kind of bias, we do not believe that the fact of it is really subject to dispute. We would posit, moreover, and for what it is worth, that some aspects of the west’s de-Christianization are lamentable for cultural and intellectual reasons, not just moral or religious preferences. In other words, an honest atheist or a pagan could be, should be, and probably is saddened by some of the consequences of the de-Christianization of the west. But this is only our opinion, of course.