The Canadian Jeremiad on its Golden Jubilee

1965flagGerry T. Neal

The modern era is the age of progress. “The doctrine of progress is…an open-ended progression in which men will be endlessly free to make the world as they want it”. “The United States is the spearhead of progress”. “The pinnacle of political striving”, in the modern age of progress, is “the universal and homogeneous state”. “This state will be achieved by means of modern science—a science that leads to the conquest of nature”.

These ideas and quotations are taken from George Grant’s Lament For a Nation, (1) which first saw print fifty years ago, but they could as easily have come from his earlier Philosophy in the Mass Age, his last book Technology and Justice, or any of his other writings in between, for this theme, that we live in an age in which man, rejecting the limits imposed upon him by tradition and the eternal unchanging order that men of previous eras believed in, is, through the new science of technology, asserting both his freedom and his rule over himself and nature, was never far from his thoughts. Nor was his scepticism towards the idea of progress.

That we are advancing towards the “universal and homogeneous state”, is a matter upon which both Karl Marx and American political scientist Francis Fukuyama would agree with Grant. Marx and Fukuyama would further agree, despite the radical difference in their visions of what that universal state will look like, that it will be something desirable, something good. Grant, however, sceptically reminds us that “the classical philosophers asserted that a universal and homogeneous state would be a tyranny”. While he does not authoritatively assert that this is so, by taking the position of Socrates and declaring “I do not know the truth about these ultimate matters”, he gives a clear indication of his preference for classical philosophy, the wisdom of the ancients, over modern thought. Modern, progressive, thought, whether that of Marx or that of Fukuyama, asserts that the universal, homogeneous state will be good, because it sees it as being inevitable and necessary, and to modern thought necessity and goodness are one and the same.

This identification of goodness and necessity is a basic assumption underlying the concept of progress. Grant begins the seventh and final chapter of Lament with a rejection of this assumption arising out of a philosophical conservatism rooted in classical philosophy and his Christian faith.

Grant’s conservatism was political as well as philosophical and Lament was the most political of his books. A Canadian patriot, he was a conservative in the classical tradition of Richard Hooker, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and the mature Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This conservatism, predicated on the conviction that above all human arrangements there is an unchanging, transcendent, order established by the eternal God, is a belief in earthly order, grounded in tradition, and manifested in institutions, especially ones such as monarchy and the Church which predate the modern age. In the context of Canada this has historically meant an emphasis upon our country’s Britishness and our relationship to Great Britain, first in the empire then in the Commonwealth, and a resistance to Americanization. This was Grant’s conservatism, as it is mine.

The subject and subtitle of Lament For a Nation is “The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism”. There has been more than one idea to go by the name of Canadian nationalism and it is important, if we wish to understand Grant’s book, that we do not mistake which of these he was talking about.

That a classical conservative at odds with the modern age would lament the defeat of a nationalism seems paradoxical. While Tories have always been patriots, as patriotism, the love of country, has been recognized as a virtue since ancient times, they have historically been suspicious of nationalism. Nationalism, after all, is a product of the modern age which was generally regarded, in the century of its birth, the nineteenth, as a liberal or radical phenomenon. The specific conservative objection to nationalism was that it demanded that loyalty to the nation-state take priority over all other loyalties, no matter how ancient, whether loyalty to the king and the church, the family and the community, or even, it seemed, to God Himself and was an instrument of demagogues for stirring up hostility towards other nations and therefore wars.

The Canadian nationalism of which Grant wrote, bore little resemblance to this kind of nationalism, otherwise it would have held little attraction to him, yet nationalism seems nonetheless, to be the appropriate word for it as it was more than just the heartfelt attachment to country that is patriotism. It was the effort to keep Canada, a country that shares the same continent as the United States, from being dominated culturally, politically, and economically, by the dynamic power to her south. Even by this definition, however, there was more than one “Canadian nationalism” and the failure to distinguish between these has led to many a misunderstanding of Grant.

Professor Ron Dart, in his recently published reflections upon Lament, (2) observes that “The New Left thought Grant’s form of nationalist Toryism had many an affinity with their agenda”. After a brief discussion of Gad Horowitz’s coining of the expression “Red Toryism”, Grant’s dialogue with Horowitz, suspicions of the label “Red Tory”, and doubts about the secular Left, Dart concludes that Grant “was, in most ways, a High Tory which most in the New Left lacked the historical depth to comprehend”. I agree and would add that they did not comprehend his nationalism either.

Fifty years ago, when Grant’s book was first published, the Liberal Party of Canada had draped itself in the banner of “Canadian nationalism”. This “Canadian nationalism”, however, was an effort to forge a new Canadian identity by throwing Canada’s British traditions and institutions overboard. In the fourth chapter of Lament, Grant considers the Liberals, the “political instrument” of the Canadian establishment, and concludes that it is “absurd to argue that the Liberals have been successful nationalists”. In his second chapter, speaking of an earlier manifestation of the kind of “Canadian nationalism” the Liberal establishment was espousing at the time he wrote Lament, Grant remarks “It is well to remember that the anti-British nationalists of English-speaking Canada in the 1930’s have nearly all shown the emptiness of their early protestations by becoming consistent continentalists later on”. The “Canadian nationalism” of the New Left has largely been of this anti-British type indicating that Grant’s New Left admirers could not have read him that closely.

The book Freedom Wears a Crown (3) had been published eight years previously to Lament. Edited posthumously from the manuscript prepared by its author, John Farthing, Freedom defends Canada’s British traditions, especially our parliamentary monarchy, and lambastes the new nationalism. He calls it “the usurping fallacy” and in the chapter by that title writes that “A very real distinction exists between our present pure-Canada nationalism and a true Canadian nationhood”, the distinction being that the former rejects Canada’s Britishness as being alien to the country, whereas the latter sees the British tradition as being essential to Canadian nationhood. It is significant, that Grant dedicated Lament to two patriots of British Canada, one of which, Toronto journalist Judith Robinson, was the editor of Freedom Wears a Crown.

In Grant’s Lament, the British tradition is as essential to true Canadian nationhood as it is in Farthing’s Freedom. Only by giving the book the most superficial of readings could someone fail to pick up on that. In explaining the defeat of Canadian nationalism Grant points to the facts that the liberalism upon which the American system was built also had its origins in the British tradition and that by middle of the twentieth century Britain herself had come into the orbit of the United States as reasons why that defeat was inevitable. One reading Grant superficially might interpret this as laying the blame for the defeat on Canada’s Britishness if one fails to note that Grant also gives that British tradition, which still retained pre-American Revolution and pre-modern elements, despite its permeation by modern liberalism, as the very reason the project of Canadian nationalism was worthwhile in the first place, and hence worthy of lamentation in its defeat.

There are two threads of thought regarding British Canada that are interwoven throughout the book. In one, the British tradition is a means to the end of Canadian independence from America, which independence stands in the way of the universal homogeneous state. In this thread, the goodness of Canadian independence rests upon the universal homogeneous state being tyrannical rather than good. This thread terminates in the uncertainty of the final chapter, in which, the distinction between goodness and necessity having been drawn, the question of the goodness of the coming universal homogenous state is left open. Grant is doubtful, and has good reasons to doubt that are founded upon the wisdom of the ancients, but since he cannot with certainty proclaim the universal homogeneous state to be bad, he writes:

My lament is not based upon philosophy but on tradition. If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important question, then tradition is the best basis for the practical life. Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know whether or not that loss will lead to some greater political good.

This is the other thread, in which the older traditions of Canada, are loved because they are good in themselves, and the independence of Canada is good because it serves those traditions.

The early chapters of Lament explain why Grant felt that Canadian nationalism had been defeated. The Kennedy administration in the United States wanted the NORAD Bomarc missiles in Canada to be armed with nuclear warheads. The Conservative government of John Diefenbaker said no, on the grounds that Washington should not be allowed to dictate policy to Canada. The Diefenbaker government was then brought down when the Liberals and NDP united against the government in a confidence vote in the House. This demonstrated both that the Americans could bring down a Canadian government that opposed their wishes and that Canada’s elite classes had turned against the idea of a sovereign Canada and set their will towards continental unity.

Grant defends Diefenbaker as a man of patriotic principle against attacks on his character while criticizing what he saw as weaknesses in the Diefenbaker government that undermined their own position, foremost among these being their reliance upon the business class. These criticisms do not imply that had the Diefenbaker government not made these mistakes their defeat could have been avoided. The only alternative courses to becoming a client state of the United States, he argued, were Castroism, a left-wing nationalism that would “establish a rigorous socialist state that turns to the Communist empire for support”, and Gaullism, a right-wing nationalism that would “harness the nationalist spirit to technological planning” and “insist internationally that there are limits to the western ‘alliance’”. Although his preference is clearly for Gaullism, of which he says Sir John A. MacDonald’s “National Policy” was an early form, he argues that neither option was actually available to Canada in the 1960s.

He begins his fifth chapter, however, by asserting that the actions of politicians and businessmen “cannot alone account for Canada’s collapse” and that it “stems from the very character of the modern era”. This launches him into a discussion of the nature of the modern era of progress and the “universal and homogeneous state” the striving towards which “gives content to the rhetoric of both Communists and capitalists” in which he defends his assertion that the United States is “the heart of modernity” and “the spearhead of progress” against the denials of Marxists and American conservatives. Here his reasoning is at both its strongest and its weakest.

The Marxists maintain that the United States is a reactionary rather than a progressive force. This is the logical conclusion of their view of history. Their basic mistake, Grant argues, is to misunderstand the nature of progress. It is not, he says, “the perfectibility of man”, but “an open-ended progression in which men will be endlessly free to make the world as they want it”. Fifty years after Grant wrote this, in a day in which men declare themselves to be women and instead of considering them to be crazy we attempt to reshape reality to fit their delusion, it is apparent that Grant understood far better than Marx where the modern age was headed and what progress looks like in practice.

American conservatives, on the other hand, regard their country as “the chief guardian of Western values” because it retains “certain traditional values that have been lost in Communist societies”. Their argument is based on an interpretation of the history of modern political philosophy – an interpretation that Grant accepts, it should be noted – that separates it into two waves, the first including such thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, and Hume, and the second beginning with Rousseau and including Kant, Hegel, and, of course, Marx. The second wave was much more revolutionary than the first which still retained something of an understanding of human nature, so, the American conservative argument goes, the United States, which was founded on the thinking of the first wave, “should be called a conservative force” and “must be accepted as the guardian of Western values against the perversions of Western revolutionary thought as they have spread into the East”.

Grant’s answer to this is to acknowledge the truth in the argument since American “society does preserve constitutional government and respect for the legal rights of individuals in a way that the eastern tyrannies do not”, but to argue that these traditions are “no longer the heart of American civilization” and that they “become more residual every year.” Such “older aspects of the Western tradition” as “the Church, constitutional government, classical and philosophical studies” are becoming “more like museum pieces, mere survivals on the periphery”. This too, seems to be much more evident in our own day than it was fifty years ago.

Grant contrasts American conservatism with the conservatism of Britain and Canada, noting correctly that American conservatives are actually “old-fashioned liberals” and that the Tory Loyalists who founded English Canada “were Anglicans and knew well that in opposing the revolution they were opposing Locke” and who “appealed to the older political philosophy of Richard Hooker.” “Traditional conservatism”, he writes, “asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of the common good”. As true as this is, the greatest weakness that I see in Grant’s reasoning in this book, is that he can come across as reducing traditional conservatism to little more than this assertion, which does not exactly make it sound appealing. Traditional conservatism was not based upon the idea that freedom is something bad, dangerous, and scary, and Grant, who in his later book English Speaking Justice says that freedom is good and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a nut did not think that it was, but this is not as clear as it should be in Lament.

Conservatism and liberalism have different understandings of the nature of freedom as a good. It is not enough to point out the flaws in liberalism’s understanding of freedom, the conservative needs to explain his own. King Charles I in his final speech before his martyrdom did just this when he said: “for the people and truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and their freedom consists in having of Government; those laws, by which their life and their goods may be most of their own.” Roger Scruton, in his The Meaning of Conservatism, written on the eve of the Thatcher/Reagan era, explained that conservatism was not about freedom itself but about the order, traditions, and institutions that generate the context in which freedom is possible. George Grant tells us in Lament that liberalism sees freedom as being the essence of man and the emancipation of his passions but he does not tell us where the good that is freedom fits into the conservative order. Indeed, at times he seems to go out of his way to avoid doing so, such as when in discussing the possibility that the universal state will be a tyranny, as the ancients thought, he defines tyranny as “a society destructive of human excellence”, which is not a wrong definition, per se, but one that noticeably avoids the concepts of usurped power and stolen liberty that ordinarily define the term.

This is not the only noticably singular definition to appear in the book. “Yet what is socialism”, Grant asks, “if it is not the use of the government to restrain greed in the name of social good?” That is a question that would have sounded very strange to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the nineteenth century socialist who is credited as being the father of anarchism, i.e., the rejection of the legitimate authority of government. Ordinarily socialism is defined as the idea that the means of production should be collectively owned by the public rather than privately owned. Grant, however, is making an argument that socialism is “appealing to the conservative idea of social order against the liberal idea of freedom” and the rejection of private ownership, while it might appeal to some idea of social order, certainly does not appeal to a conservative one. Just as there is a conservative idea of freedom as well as a liberal one so there are ideas of social order that are not conservative.

Grant’s determination to present a conservative side to socialism, even though Marxists and socialists regard themselves as progressive, would seem to be behind his reluctance to acknowledge a conservative idea of freedom and non-conservative concepts of order. The evils in capitalism were clear to Grant. The pursuit of the economic integration of the North American continent on the part of corporate capitalists was the biggest threat to Canadian cultural and political independence. Capitalism was the instrument of progress, the system that most effectively accomplished technological change, obliterating traditions and what was left of the classical concepts of social order and the common good, in the process. Grant’s indictment of corporate capitalism rings true, for the most part, especially today, fifty years later where in virtually every cultural battle the large corporations can be found lined up against tradition, religion, and morality.

The evils of capitalism do not prove socialism to be good, however, nor does showing capitalism to be progressive thereby prove socialism to be conservative. The idea that rejecting capitalism means embracing socialism to some degree or another reflects the assumptions that capitalism and socialism are the only possibilities and that they are polar opposites of each other. These assumptions were widely held in the Cold War era in which Lament was written but have since been discredited by history. With the end of the arms race, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, American capitalism was triumphant and socialist parties around the world from Tony Blair’s New Labour to the Communist Party of Red China began to accept neo-liberal market economics. If socialists were now adopting the market policies of their conqueror, capitalism, that capitalism had already adopted most of the policies of socialism. It has been noted that the ten measures advocated by Marx and Engels in the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto, such as “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax” and the “centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly” have almost all been implemented in the United States and the other Western democracies. Dr. Tomislav Sunic has remarked that “Some European authors observed that communism died in the East because it had already been implemented in the West” (4) Capitalism and socialism have clearly converged and, I would argue, that this indicates they were never truly polar opposites to begin with, but two sides to the same coin.

Grant was not oblivious to the fact of this convergence. Note that he rests his case that the United Sates is “a dynamic empire spearheading the age of progress” on the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election. Goldwater, who stood for the older small town, small business version of American liberal capitalism, with the backing of the besieged regional culture in the South, was defeated, Grant argued, by the same forces that defeated Diefenbaker in 1963, the capitalist corporations behind the new liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson. The newer liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson, incorporated a much greater degree of socialism into its capitalism than the older classical liberalism of Goldwater, and it was this newer liberalism that had the corporate power behind it.

Today, this corporate-backed synthesis of capitalism and socialism is, even more so than it was fifty years ago, the dominant power in the world, and the extent to which it has rolled over local cultures, ancient traditions, and venerable institutions in Canada and the United States alike is much more advanced than it was then. Some might say that this makes Grant’s book irrelevant and out-of-date. I would suggest, however, that it is even more reason for us to contemplate the distinction he makes between what is necessary in the sense of being unavoidable due to the forces of history and what is good, to question the assumed goodness of the dynamic changes going on all around us, and to look back to the classical pre-modern, ideas that Grant loved and which were embodied in the older traditions of our country, to find a truer vision of goodness.

Happy Dominion Day!
God save the Queen!

(1) George Parkin Grant, Lament For a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, (Toronto: Carleton University Press, 1965, 1978, 1989).
(2) Ron Dart, Lament For a Nation: Then and Now, (New York: American Anglican Press, 2015).
(3) John C. Farthing, Judith Robinson (ed), Freedom Wears a Crown, (Toronto: Kingswood House, 1957).
(4) Tomislav Sunic, Homo Americanus: Child of the Postmodern Age, (Book Surge Publishing, 2007), p. 34.

Originally published on Throne, Altar, Liberty 1 July, 2015.