The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd

When David Riesman died this past May at the age of ninety- two, it was something of a surprise to learn that he had still been alive. For an earlier generation of sociologists, such obscurity would have seemed inconceivable. The Lonely Crowd, the book for which Riesman is best known, has sold more copies in the United States (1.4 million since its publication in 1950) than any other book by a sociologist. In the 1950s, his sociology provided a moody contrast to the cold war’s flag-waving, arguing that the return of material prosperity led not to social peace but inner desolation. For Riesman, the country’s confident and patriotic unity after the Second World War only hid—indeed, in some ways it reflected—a sad attempt to stave off cultural despair. Riesman’s critical take on American culture fundamentally shaped the thinking of the postwar generation. It helped to inspire the New Left’s quest for “participatory democracy.” It gave flower children and hippies the courage to live differently. Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism echoed Riesman’s themes, with a touch more Freud. Even today, when The Lonely Crowd is more cited than read, a period piece rather than a contemporary text, Michael Lerner’s pleas for the “politics of meaning” are Riesman Lite.

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