The setting is nineteenth century England in the time just before and after Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. The hero is the younger son of an aristocratic family who is persuaded by his mother to run for a seat in the House of Commons. The villain is the hero’s older brother, who has inherited the family title and estate, and who lives up to his reputation as the meanest, skinflint in the country. The heroine is a young woman who has been raised in a convent and is considering becoming a nun herself but who has temporarily returned to live with her father. Her father works in a factory for an employer who is honest and fair but is concerned with the plight of the working poor and has become a leader, along with his best friend, a journalist, of a movement that demands that the rights of the worker be recognized. After an encounter with these three in a churchyard one night, where they shared with him some of their ideas, the hero decides to live among them under an assumed name for a time before taking his seat in Parliament, so that he can see the conditions of the working classes for himself. Later in London, he becomes reacquainted with his friends under his own name. By this time, he has earned a name for himself in Parliament, as a champion of moderate reforms. In speeches to Parliament which receive wide circulation, he calls for government to redress the legitimate grievances of the poor, lest they be become fuel for the fire of revolution. Through these speeches he regains the trust of the heroine. Before finally marrying her, he rescues her twice. The first time it is from the hands of the law, when she is arrested alongside her father when he is accused of conspiracy and sedition. The second time it is from the hands of a mob which has grown out of the movement her father started but which is now beyond his control.
If the story is familiar to you then you have probably recognized it as Sybil, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli that was first published in 1845, and which is the second volume in a trilogy of sorts that begins with Coningsby and ends with Tancred. If you are not familiar with the novel then I have just spoiled the reading of it for you by giving away the plot. If it was the next item on your list of books to read then I apologize, although I am fairly confident such an apology is unnecessary. Most readers today seem to be more interested in books about teenage girls falling in love with bloodsucking re-animated corpses or boys and girls hunting each other down for the amusement of television spectators in a post-apocalyptic world. Of the Victorian era authors who are still widely read, Disraeli is probably the last in a long list including such notables as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, the Brontë sisters and William Thackeray. It is as a statesman rather than as a novelist that Benjamin Disraeli is most remembered, and his novels, especially the three mentioned above, are more often read today for the political views expressed within them than as works of literature.
Benjamin Disraeli was elected to the House of Commons for the first time in 1837, eight years before the publication of Sybil (seven before the publication of Coningsby). He was elected as a member of the Conservative Party which had been re-organized from the old Tory Party in 1834, following the passing of the Whig Reform Bill in 1832. Sir Robert Peel, the leader of the re-organized party, intended by the new name to show that the party now accepted the Reform Bill, which it had vehemently opposed as the Tory Party, as “final and irrevocable.”
Disraeli, who had ran as a Radical prior to joining the Conservative Party and who wished to bring the Radicals into the Conservative Party before they merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party instead, might have been expected to have favoured the new direction the Tory/Conservative Party was taking under Peel. He did not. He expressed his contempt for Peel’s vision in Coningsby and in Sybil eulogized the old Tory Party in these words:
But we forget, Sir Robert Peel is not the leader of the Tory Party…In a parliamentary sense, that great party has ceased to exist; but I will believe that it still lives in the thought and sentiment and consecrated memory of the English nation. It has its origin in great principles and in noble instincts; it sympathises with the lowly, it looks up to the Most High; it can count its heroes and its martyrs; they have met in its behalf plunder, proscription, and death. Nor, when it finally yielded to the iron progress of oligarchical supremacy, was its catastrophe inglorious. Its genius was vindicated in golden sentences and with fervent arguments of impassioned logic by St. John; and breathed in the intrepid eloquence and patriot soul of William Wyndham. Even now it is not dead, but sleepeth; and, in an age of political materialism, of confused purposes and perplexed intelligence, that aspires only to wealth because it has faith in no other accomplishment, as men rifle cargoes on the verge of shipwreck, Toryism will yet rise from the tomb over which Bolingbroke shed his last tear, to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the subject, and to announce that power has only one duty: to secure the social welfare of the people. (1)
In the late 1840s, Peel, who had become Prime Minister, sought to repeal the Corn Laws, which protected British farmers, and to introduce free trade. As with his position on the Reform Bill this was a reversal of a long-standing Tory position and an acceptance of liberal doctrine. He succeeded in repealing the laws in 1846. This brought his premiership to an end for he won with the support of Whigs and Radicals but without the support of his own party. It was at this time that Disraeli rose to prominence in the Conservative Party as one of the leaders of those who supported the party’s traditional position against the free traders.
Twenty years later, in February of 1868, Disraeli succeeded Edward Smith-Stanley, the Earl of Derby, as the leader of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was in office for less than a year, losing the general election later that year to William Gladstone’s Liberal Party. He remained Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition during the Gladstone premiership until winning a majority in the 1874 election, after which he served as Prime Minister again for six years.
Throughout his career in the House of Commons, Disraeli helped to shape the Conservative Party’s response to the changes wrought by industrialization. The process of industrialization, whereby Great Britain was transformed from a primarily rural society with an agriculture based economy to a more urban society with an economy based on manufacturing, had begun in the eighteenth century and continued well into the nineteenth. The economic and social changes this process brought about were so extensive that historians generally refer to this period as the “Industrial Revolution”. These changes were a mixture of the good and the bad. This was to be expected. The Irish have a saying “there are no unmixed blessings in life” (2), although it would perhaps be more precise to say that the blessings in this life do not come without a cost. Industrialization brought about a considerable rise in the general standard of living of industrialized countries. Regarded in itself, this must be regarded as a blessing. It came however, with a heavy cost.
Industrialization meant that many products were now being produced on a much larger scale than before. One of the causes of industrialization was the application of science to production. New tools were invented and new techniques discovered that enabled people to produce larger quantities of goods in shorter periods of time. This kind of production was carried out in large factories and is called mass production.
The production of goods on such a scale meant that there were more goods to go around and that they could be sold at a lower unit cost. This was a large contributing factor in the rising general standard of living but it also contributed to social and economic insecurity. The lower prices made it difficult for smaller producers to compete and they tended to be swallowed up by larger companies. Labourers began to leave the security of rural communities in which they had family and roots to find jobs in the factories in large cities.
Whether or not a producer can make a living depends upon demand for the goods he produces. The demand for goods has always fluctuated but there is a more stable demand for agricultural goods, which have to be constantly replaced, than for manufactured goods. The transition from an agriculture-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy, therefore, meant a tremendous increase in the economic insecurity caused by fluctuations in demand. Furthermore, the scale on which manufactured goods were now being produced, meant that such fluctuations would be much sharper than ever before. When a decrease in demand led to a slowing down of production, large numbers of people could now find themselves out of work, and with nowhere to turn to having been uprooted from their traditional support networks in rural communities.
This increase in economic insecurity threatened the stability of industrialized nations. At the end of the eighteenth century, radicals in France had turned the middle and lower classes against their king, his queen, the aristocracy, and the Church, in a violent revolution that overthrew an ancient, orderly society and replaced it with chaos, terror, and bloodshed which culminated in the rise to power of a maniacal would-be world conqueror. In the nineteenth century the same kind of demagogues that had stirred up this strife in France were more than willing to exploit the grievances of workers who had been alienated from land, community, family and other traditional means of support and left entirely dependent upon employment in factories. Early in the nineteenth century the Comte de Saint-Simon, Pierre Leroux, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and others began to preach the doctrine of socialism, which called for the private ownership of property to be eliminated, for all things to be owned collectively by society, and for each member of society to be employed to the best of his ability. In 1848 a German economist living in London, would combine this idea with a theory of history in which successive revolutions by working classes against propertied classes would eventually lead to Paradise on earth, and in an influential tract, called for such a revolution.
Sybil, Disraeli’s response to the same conditions, was published three years before Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The two responses display both the similarities which one would expect from two thinkers, commenting in the same time and place on the same conditions and the differences that one would expect to exist between a revolutionary and an avowed supporter of the ancient constitution of church and state. Sybil has the alternative title, The Two Nations, which comes from what is undoubtedly its most frequently quoted passage. In the eleventh chapter, just before the hero Charles Egremont sees the heroine and title character, Sybil Gerard for the first time, he has entered into a discussion with her father and his journalist friend which ends with the following exchange:
‘Well, society may be in its infancy,’ said Egremont, slightly smiling; ‘but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.’
‘Which nation?’ asked the younger stranger, ‘for she reigns over two.’
The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
‘Yes,’ resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. ‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
‘You speak of—‘ said Egremont, hesitatingly.
‘The Rich and the Poor.’ (3)
Disraeli’s depiction of the conditions of the Rich and Poor as being so different as to warrant referring to them as two alienated nations clearly bears a resemblance to Marx’s contrast between the conditions of the “haves” and the “have nots”. When reading the two, however, it does not take long for the far more substantial differences to become apparent. Marx identifies class, not just the real classes of his own day but class in general, as a cause of the misery and suffering he observes, and calls for a revolution to abolish class. Disraeli, on the other hand, believed that a harmonious relationship, including mutual respect and obligations between the classes, was an essential part of the traditional constitution he defended and that a breakdown in this relationship was the problem, not the existence of class itself.
The American conservative writer Russell Kirk commented on this contrast between the alternate visions of Marx and Disraeli, saying:
Either propounded a theory of classes. Marx insisted that warfare among classes is inevitable, in time must be catastrophic, and will end with the absorption of all classes into the proletariat, establishing a classless society. Disraeli declared that the real interests of classes are not inimical; that they are bound together in the nation’s welfare; and his aim in politics was the reconciliation of classes, reunion of the two nations of the nineteenth century, rich and poor, into one state—but this reunion a vindication and restoration of class, not its abolition. (4)
Disraeli was not a progressive or utopian who believed that misery, evil, and suffering were the result of flaws in the organization of society which could be eliminated by reform, revolution, government planning or gradual progress. He did see a connection between the specific misery he was observing in his own day and the gradual subversion, by the Whigs, of the constitution of church and state, the history of which, from the confiscation of church lands in the reign of Henry VIII to the Reform Bill of 1832, he traces in the third chapter of Sybil. (5)
The ideas Disraeli expressed in Sybil and the two other novels in the trilogy it belongs to became the basis of the interpretation of the Tory tradition that guided Disraeli when he served as Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister later in the nineteenth century. This kind of conservatism has been called “Tory democracy” because in Disraeli’s own Reform Bill, of 1867 (6), the Tories extended the vote, which the Whigs had given to the commercial classes in the Reform Bill of 1832, to the industrial working classes. For progressives with ideals such as “universal suffrage” and “popular sovereignty”, both bills probably appear as successive steps in the same direction. This is not how Disraeli saw it. The 1832 Reform Bill had appeared to be a death blow to the Tory party because by extending the franchise to the commercial classes the Whigs had seemed to have ensured for themselves a perpetual monopoly on power as those classes were largely aligned with the Whigs. Sir Robert Peel believed that the future of the Tory party lay in swaying commercial class voters away from the Whigs. His strategy for doing so involved reversing Tory positions on matters such as protectionism and moving the party’s ideas closer to those of the Whigs. Disraeli believed that the Peelites had conceded too much and had given up the principles and positions which gave the Tories their raison d'être. He therefore sought to build a support base for the Tories among the working classes.
In contrast to populist demagogues, who gather followers by preaching popular sovereignty and attacking the constitutional order, Disraeli was trying to gather support for the constitution among the people.
As Peter Viereck put it:
Disraeli in 1867 argued strongly for his bill giving the vote to urban workers. He based his argument not on a radical faith in innovations or a liberal faith in the masses but on the need for providing a broader base for the same old traditions of monarchy, constitution, established church. (7)
The Disraeli interpretation of the Tory tradition is also called “One Nation Conservatism”. This title is a direct allusion to the two nations of Sybil. As Prime Minister, Disraeli introduced a number of reforms designed to alleviate the misery of the lower classes. The basic idea of One Nation Conservatism was that such reforms, like the extended franchise, would rally the working classes behind the Tory Party, the traditional constitution, the Crown, and the Church, and prevent them from joining subversive, revolutionary, and socialist movements.
That the One Nation concept had as its goal, the security and stability of British society and the thwarting of revolutionary and socialist causes cannot be stressed enough, because there were many in the twentieth century and are still many today who point to Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism in an attempt to give a conservative pedigree to the welfare state and contemporary left-wing, egalitarian politics. The “Wet Tories” who dominated the Conservative Party in Britain during the 1950’s, ‘60’s and 70’s and the “Red Tories” in Canada are examples of these. The “Wet Tories” supported the “post-war consensus” in which all parties agreed to accept the socialism and welfarism introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in the 1940’s. The “Red Tories” supported the “New Canada” of social liberalism, welfare socialism, and political correctness which the Liberal Party under the leadership of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau had sought to build in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Both groups laid claim to be the heirs of Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism. Both groups were closer in thought and spirit to the movements Disraeli was trying to thwart.
Of Disraeli’s reforms, Robert Nisbet wrote:
[W]hen, after becoming Prime Minister, he introduced reform bills in 1874, they were hardly the stuff of popular welfare. They were mostly concerned with sanitation, and Disraeli’s own wry, self-mocking comment upon his ‘reform’ bills was: Sanitas, sanitatum, ominia sanitas. Beyond sanitation the bills concerned some shrewd redistricting of voters and contracts between employers and employees. (8)
Nisbet wrote this in the context of explaining how Disraeli, in neither thought nor practice, diverted from Edmund Burke’s position that charity and mercy, while an obligation upon all Christians, was not the province of the magistrate. He may have overstated his case. The bill concerning contracts between employers and employees was the Employers’ and Workmens’ Act of 1875, which provided for lawsuits against employers for breach of contract. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of the same year decriminalized peaceful picketing and legalized trade unions. Disraeli also outlawed the employment of children under 10 and made education compulsory for the same. Referring to Disraeli’s reforms, Labour MP Alexander MacDonald remarked “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have done in fifty.” (9)
Nevertheless, Nisbet’s point that the Disraeli reforms do not add up to anything remotely resembling twentieth century welfarism is valid. In the decade after Disraeli’s five year premiership another aristocratic, right-winger, Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the new, united Germany, introduced social assistance programs, including social security pensions and a national health plan, for basically the same reasons Disraeli brought in his reforms. Even these programs, limited as they were, did not add up to twentieth century welfarism.
The difference between the two is not just one of degree, nor is it merely the fact that the social legislation of Disraeli and Bismarck was passed by men trying to strengthen and preserve their societies’ traditional institutions and constitutions whereas welfare state legislation was passed by men who wished to bring about radical change through progressive social engineering, although it is that. In the welfare state, the distinction between what a man is responsible to do for himself and his family and what the state is responsible to do for him is severely compromised, if not altogether obliterated. There are some things which must necessarily be provided by the state. Government is responsible for passing laws, enforcing them, and dispensing criminal and civil justice, by necessity of definition. Government is responsible for the administration of public property by necessity of definition, and some public property, such as highways and police stations, is publicly owned by necessity of convenience. There are other things which each man is responsible to provide for himself and his family. These include the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing, and luxuries beyond that. Government should never take over this responsibility from a man unless he is incapable of fulfilling it and has no other support network – extended family, community, church – to fall back upon. When government takes over those responsibilities from a man, in any other circumstances, it harms him more than it helps him, because it undermines his character, particularly his sense of duty or responsibility, and over the long run this hurts him more than his suffering from want will.
If a man is incapable of providing these things for himself, and if he has no other support to fall back upon, then government is responsible to provide at the very least the basic necessities for him and his family. The reforms Disraeli and Bismarck introduced were designed to ensure that their governments fulfilled that responsibility at a time when it was particularly necessary that they do so. The welfare states, of the twentieth century, however, have extended their social legislation and programs so far that they are doing the damage described above – the evidence is plain to see all around us.
One Nation Conservatism’s strength is that it made its social programs do the double duty of both providing for the poor and bolstering the strength of traditional institutions and the constitution. Its’ weakness is the dilemma of how to prevent such programs from growing into a welfare state that saps responsibility and undermines character.
Part Two: The Dominion
The One Nation idea has historically had a strong influence over conservatism in Canada. Unlike the United States, which cited liberal ideals in declaring its separation from Great Britain, Canada was founded as a conservative country, built upon conservative principles such as allegiance to royalty. The foremost among the Fathers of Confederation, Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald was leader of the Conservative Party. MacDonald was a Conservative of the Disraeli school, although he became Prime Minister of Canada in the year prior to Disraeli’s becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain for the first time. Interestingly, not only were the two men’s ideas very similar, they also resembled one another in appearance.
The influence of the One Nation concept in Canada can especially be seen in three traditional Canadian conservatives – the dean of Canadian humourists, Stephen Leacock, the premier Canadian philosopher George Grant, and Canada’s last decent Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker.
Stephen Leacock had the rather singular distinction of being both a professor of economics and a humourist. He taught economics and political science at McGill University in Montreal but he is more often remembered for his volumes of humourous short stories, the first of which, Literary Lapses, was published in 1910, and the most famous of which, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, is now a century old (10). Leacock was a member of the Conservative Party and the Church of England in Canada, and was an outspoken supporter of such traditional Tory causes as the British Empire, Canadian nationalism, and the tariff.
In 1920, Leacock wrote a small book or a long essay entitled “The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice” (11). In ancient Athens, Aristotle had raised the question of distributive justice in his Nicomachean Ethics. That question is simply this: how is a society’s wealth rightly distributed among its members? In the nineteenth century, theologians in the Roman Catholic Church asked the same question in response to the conditions of early industrialism, only now they called it social justice rather than distributive justice. Discussion of this question spread and in 1891 Pope Leo XIII decided that it deserved and required a papal response, which he gave in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. At the time Leacock wrote his essay the discussion of social justice was still largely an ethical discussion among theologians. Leacock tackled the question from the perspective of a professional economist.
His essay included an evaluation of two distinct answers to the question, that of liberal individualism and that of socialism. He found both answers to be lacking. The answer the liberal individualist gives is:
If there is everywhere complete economic freedom, then there will ensue in consequence a regime of social justice. If every man is allowed to buy and sell goods, labour and property, just as suits his own interest, then the prices and wages that result are either in the exact measure of social justice or, at least, are perpetually moving towards it. (12)
Leacock’s response to the liberal position consists of a refutation of the idea of the “fundamental equality of value” in which “each thing and everything is sold (or tends to be sold) under free competition for exactly its cost of production.” Leacock said:
This was the central part of the economic structure. It was the keystone of the arch. If it holds, all holds. Knock it out and the whole edifice falls into fragments. (13)
While that may have been true of the economic structure of liberal individualism as framed by classical economists like Adam Smith, it was not true of that framed by Austrian school economists like Carl Menger, and it would have been interesting to have seen what Leacock would have said in response to an equation of economic freedom with social justice on the grounds of the subjective theory of value. Leacock’s evaluation of socialism is much more interesting.
He began by distinguishing socialism the economic doctrine from the revolutionary violence that often accompanies it. “In its essential nature socialism is nothing but a proposal for certain kinds of economic reform”. As such, Leacock said, the law should have no quarrel with it and should only step in when criminal violence is involved. He then went on to say:
For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong at all except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. (14)
Even in his serious non-fiction writing Leacock’s ironic sense of humour was on display!
Why won’t socialism work? To answer this question, Leacock describes the utopian society American socialist Edward Bellamy had depicted in his novel Looking Backward:
Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers – as every socialist has to do – as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their gray heads – for Bellamy prefers them old – are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own particular fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favour their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found? (15)
At this point his indictment of socialism kicks into high gear. At every turn human nature will prevent socialism from achieving its Utopia. If the goods produced in a socialist society are distributed unevenly those doing the distributing will allot the larger share to themselves, if they are distributed evenly then people will be motivated to be idle rather than work. The state might solve the latter problem by outlawing idleness and forcing everyone to work. Commenting on this scenario, to which the idea of socialism logically leads, Leacock states that “Socialism, in other words, is slavery”. (16)
In the final chapter Leacock offers his suggestions as to a practical alternative to socialism and liberal individualism. He writes:
Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children. (17)
The reforms and social assistance programs proposed by Leacock were far more extensive than those of Disraeli or even those of Bismarck for that matter. His proposals were inspired by the measures government had taken during World War I, which had ended a couple of years before the publication of his book, to ensure that the country’s economy supported the war effort. He reasoned that if government could raise taxes and pass laws to support something destructive like war, it could and should also do so in peacetime to alleviate human misery. In this his reasoning was similar to that of American liberal Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the similarity does not extend further than that. FDR was sympathetic to the socialist Left, to the extent that he recognized the Bolshevik government in Russia in his first year in office, ordered the creation of propaganda glorifying the Soviet Union (18), and fawned all over the Communist dictator Stalin into whose greedy clutches he placed Eastern Europe and much of Asia. Leacock despised Communism (19) and his proposals arose out of a sense of justice combined with a fear of socialism on the part of a man who otherwise favoured private enterprise. (20) In this he clearly fell within the One Nation tradition of Disraeli.
George Grant was a philosopher and professor who taught first at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Soctia, then at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, then finally at Dalhousie again. He initially taught in the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie, became Professor of Religion at McMaster, then finally joined the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie. He became well known throughout Canada in the second half of the twentieth century through his talks on CBC and through a number of books. Some of his books, such as Philosophy in the Mass Age were edited from the scripts of his CBC talks. The book for which he is most often remembered, however, Lament for a Nation, was written as a monograph.
Grant was the grandson of Sir George Parkin, after whom he was named. Parkin like Grant’s father, had been principal of Upper Canada College in Toronto. Leacock, who had taught at the school under Parkin was a family friend. If the humourist had any influence on the formation of the philosopher’s ideas, his biographer does not say, but Grant too was a Conservative in the One Nation tradition. “One cannot understand the Conservatism of Canada” he wrote, “without thinking of Disraeli”. (21) Grant’s conservatism crossed the boundaries of the three fields in which he taught, philosophy, religion, and political science, and indeed, those three fields merged into one in Grant’s thought.
As a critic of the Modern Age, Grant was a philosophical conservative, even a reactionary. This did not mean that he thought everything that was a product of modernity was bad – he was always careful to qualify his critique of technology, for example, by noting the benefits he and others enjoyed because of technology which had not been available to previous generations. It meant that he was critical of general trends which characterized the Modern or Mass Age that he saw as carelessly sweeping away much that was valuable from older, pre-Modern, traditions. For example, traditional restraints upon both the passions and the will of man, were being swept away. In an interview with David Cayley for CBC radio, he described the “emancipation of the passions” as being “absolutely central to modernity”. (22) It was a discussion of the sexual liberation movement and the papal response which had prompted the remark, but Grant explained that it was not just the emancipation of sexual passion but of greed and the passion for power in capitalism and modern politics as well. In the CBC talks which became his first book, Philosophy and the Mass Age, Grant explained how the concept of progress, the driving idea behind modernity, had arisen as a secularization of the Christian view of history in which history is conceived of as being under God’s direction and moving towards the Kingdom of God. In the concept of progress, man takes the place of God:
Nevertheless, in its moral connotation there is nothing more important to its understanding than to recognize how the Christian idea of history as the divinely ordained process of salvation, culminating in the Kingdom of God, passes over into the idea of history as progress, culminating in the Kingdom of Man: how Christianity’s orienting of time to a future made by the will of God becomes the futuristic spirit of progress in which events are shaped by the will of man. ( 23)
Thus the modern concept of progress is a removal of traditional restraints upon the will of man. Grant’s understanding of this was the basis of his criticisms of technology and empire, which were both recurring themes throughout his writings. Man, freed from traditional restraints upon his will, seeks to impose that will upon all of creation. Empire is the expression of the liberated will in pursuit of domination, technology, the synthesis of science with art, of knowing with making/doing, is the means of domination.
Grant’s criticism of empire might seem to be inconsistent with his stated political philosophy. Support for the British Empire was a key element of traditional Canadian conservatism. Traditional Canadian nationalists had sought to strengthen Canada’s position within the Empire and then, after the Statute of Westminster, had sought to strengthen her relationship with the other Commonwealth nations. This inconsistency is not as big as it first seems. It was fear of American imperialism, of the Manifest Destiny sort, that had led to Confederation (24) and American imperialism was inseparable from modern progress because the United States, as Grant pointed out in Technology and Empire, had no tradition that antedated the age of progress. Canada, ironically, is a younger country than the United States, having been established almost a century after the American Revolution. Canada, however, as Grant pointed out in the same book, was founded as a conservative country within the older British tradition which had pre-modern roots to draw upon, rather than as a revolutionary country in rejection of the older tradition.
In Lament For A Nation he explained this at length:
English-speaking Canadians had never broken with their origins in Western Europe. Many of them had continuing connections with the British Isrles, which in the nineteenth century still had ways of life from before the age of progress. That we never broke with Great Britain is often said to prove that we are not a nation but a colony. But the great politicians who believed in this connection—from Joseph Howe and Robert Baldwin to Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Robert Borden, and indeed to John G. Diefenbaker himself—make a long list. They did not see it this way but rather as a relation to the font of constitutional government in the British Crown. (25)
Grant’s purpose, in writing Lament for a Nation, was to bewail the failure of the Canadian project. The incident which prompted this jeremiad was the defeat of the Diefenbaker government. Diefenbaker had refused to accept nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missiles stationed in Canada against pressure from the Kennedy administration to do so. To Diefenbaker the pressure from the American government had turned it into an issue of national sovereignty. The Liberals, with the support of the NDP and Social Credit parties, were able to bring down the Diefenbaker government in a vote of no confidence over the issue. It was not that Grant saw this incident as the cause of the collapse of Canadian nationalism but rather as its signifier. The causes Grant identified, were the collapse of British power in the first World War, and the fact that the entire course of history in the modern age was on the side of progress and against conservatism:
The impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada. As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth. The current of modern history was against us. (26)
In the progressive way of thinking a statement like the one above is an admission that one’s cause is both foolish and wrong. Grant did not think this way and he was at his most conservative when, in the midst of this talk of defeat, he declared, in defiance of the Whig theory of history:
I must dissociate myself from a common philosophical assumption. I do not identify necessity and goodness. (27)
Where Grant departed from the One Nation tradition was in his discussion of socialism. Disraeli had some sympathies with the Chartist labour movement, but the Chartists did not embrace socialism, and Disraeli’s entire One Nation philosophy was built upon the idea of convincing the working classes to support the constitution and the Crown instead of the radical socialist movements he hated. Grant, on the other hand, spoke positively of socialism. He brought up the subject of socialism in chapter five of his Lament For a Nation. After calling the United States the “spearhead of progress” he identified two groups that would object to that characterization for opposite reasons, Marxists and “American ‘conservatives.’” (28) He then proceeds to refute the Marxist position.
He begins by arguing that because Marxism teaches that in the future state of communism men will no longer be alienated, it must distinguish between a non-preferable state (alienation) and a preferable one (non-alienation) and so “Marxism includes, therefore a doctrine of human good” which means that “Marx is not purely a philosopher of the age of progress; he is rooted in the teleological philosophy that pre-dates the age of progress”. This is so because in modern thought “man’s essence is his freedom” and therefore modernism rejects “any conception of good that imposes limits on human freedom” but instead believes that “the human good is what we chose for our own good”, belief expressed more accurately by North American liberalism than by Marxism. Marxists believe socialism to be “a more progressive form of organization than state capitalism” because Marx taught “that when scientists had eliminated scarcity as the cause of greed and oppression, a society would arise in which the freedom of each to pursue his desires would not conflict with a happy social order” and so socialism “would create a society of freedom in the sense of the emancipated passions”. Marxists, however, are mistaken in this because “it is difficult to deny that greed in some form is a desire that belongs to man qua man” and therefore “to emancipate the passions is to emancipate greed.” (29) Following this line of reasoning he declares:
Yet what is socialism, if it is not the use of the government to restrain greed in the name of social good? In actual practice, socialism has always had to advocate inhibition in this respect. In doing so, was it not appealing to the conservative idea of social order against the liberal idea of freedom? (30)
This entire line of reasoning is absurd, although brilliant, and leads to inevitable conclusions which are fundamentally at odds with Grant’s own stated values. The argument that Marx held to a pre-modern concept of “the good” was incredibly strained, and its conclusion, if we take into consideration what the “teleological philosophy that pre-dates the age of progress” was, translates into the assertion that Marx, who was ethnically Jewish (albeit anti-Semitic) and religiously an atheist, was a Christian. His identification of absolute freedom from all limitations as the essence of the modern would be true if liberalism and modernity were one and the same. Liberalism, however, is only one side of the coin of modernity, and not only did Grant himself know this, he went into great detail about it himself a few paragraphs later when he turned from discussing Marxism to discussing American conservatism and said that at the heart of the American conservative’s argument that his country is conservative rather than progressive is “an interpretation of the history of political philosophy with which the present writer would agree”, (31) i.e., the interpretation that there were two waves of modern political philosophy, the first being the wave of liberalism including Locke, Smith and Hume, the second being the wave beginning with Rousseau that produced Marxism. If this interpretation is correct, and Grant agreed that it was, then this completely undermines Grant’s argument that Marxism is really pre-modern thought that misidentifies itself as being modern.
The answer to Grant’s question “what is socialism, if it is not the use of the government to restrain greed in the name of social good?” is that it is a revolutionary doctrine, invented not to bolster and support social order, but to overthrow it by inspiring envy, which is on par with greed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (32). This is historically obvious. It was not conservatives, interested in preserving traditional order from the ravages of liberalism who thought up the doctrine of socialism, but revolutionaries who wished to tear that traditional order down, and if socialism insists upon order rather than unlimited freedom it is not conservative order, rooted in tradition and religion but the order of the totalitarian state. Conservatism supports order, to be sure, but not order of any kind.
The social order which traditional conservatives support limits freedom, but is not hostile to freedom. Freedom, after all, is a value, not just of modern liberalism but of pre-modern Christianity as well, as anyone who has read St. Paul knows. Grant himself was well aware of this and wrote:
Liberalism in its generic form is surely something that all decent men accept as good—‘conservatives’ included. In so far as the word ‘liberalism’ is used to describe the belief that political liberty is a central human good, it is difficult for me to consider as sane those who would deny that they are liberals. (33)
This makes his tortured reasoning about socialism seem all the more bizarre. It was not necessary to argue that socialism and Marxism , contrary to the way socialists and Marxists themselves conceive of their movements, are pre-modern, conservative forces, bolstering the traditional social order, in order to argue that large-scale, American corporate capitalism, was and is a force for radical change, the breakdown of tradition and order and progress. The latter argument, which is Grant’s main argument, is certainly true. His argument about socialism is unworthy of him and seems to be an example of the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” style reasoning. His answer to American conservatism’s position, which followed immediately after, displayed much sounder reasoning. He argued, correctly, that American conservatives, like Barry Goldwater, were actually defending an older, republican form of liberalism against the more modern, progressive form. It is noteworthy, that he considered the defeat of Goldwater to Johnson in 1964 to have demonstrated the triumph of modern progressive liberalism over the older republican liberalism, and declared “The American election of 1964 is sufficient evidence that the United States is not a conservative society”. (34) That judgement is not consistent with his assessment of socialism.
The so-called “Red Tories” consider Grant to have been their prophet but Grant himself rejected that label. (35) Most people who call themselves “Red Tories” today, would dismiss the social conservative opposition to abortion and euthanasia which Grant championed as part of American “neo-conservatism”, as they would similarly dismiss the views on gender, race, and immigration which Leacock frequently expressed. (36) The Red Tory interpretation of Grant’s views, essentially reduces his thought to his position on socialism which, as we have seen, was not Grant at his best.
The last Canadian conservative in the One Nation tradition that we will consider is also the best Canadian example of tradition. John George Diefenbaker was the thirteenth Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada. Born in Ontario, but raised for the most part in what is now Saskatchewan, Diefenbaker became a practicing lawyer first in the village of Wakaw, Saskatchewan, then later in the city of Prince Albert. He ran several times for the Conservatives, in both federal and provincial elections, and was even the party’s provincial leader for a brief time, but met with defeat after defeat. Then, in 1939, he was nominated the Conservative candidate for the constituency of Lake Centre. Early the next year, Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked for Parliament to be dissolved, and Diefenbaker won his first election. He set his sights on winning the leadership of the party and in December of 1956 was finally chosen as Conservative leader. In the summer of the following year, he became Prime Minister of Canada for the first time with a minority government, and in the spring of the year after that he won the largest majority election in the history of Canada. His government was reduced to minority status in the election of 1962, and defeated the following year, in the vote of no confidence that led George Grant to write Lament for a Nation.
In his memoirs, Diefenbaker described his political philosophy:
My conservatism was rooted in the traditions of Sir John A. MacDonald, of Disraeli, and of Burke. “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” So said Edmund Burke, and so did I believe. (37)
Diefenbaker as a traditional Tory was a strong believer in the monarchy, an economic nationalist who opposed free trade, and a churchgoing Christian (he was a Baptist). As with Grant and Leacock, his Toryism and his Canadian nationalism were intrinsically connected:
I believed in a Canada free from the directing influence of the United States—a belief that served emphasize my devotion to the Monarchy in Canada and to the Commonwealth relationship. Our institutional heritage and our Commonwealth citizenship gave Canada a uniqueness in North America vital to our preservation as a nation. (38)
One does not have to look hard to see the influence of Disraeli upon Diefenbaker’s thought. Indeed, it is evident in the very title of his memoirs, “One Canada”. This title refers to Diefenbaker’s vision of Canada, as a country whose traditions and institutions have the support of all her members, regardless of their particular standing. Diefenbaker thought of this in terms of race as well as of class. He wrote:
I have always considered the official policy of separating our country into various racial groups to be a curse on the realization of a united Canada. One Canada, one nation, my Canada, your Canada, cannot be a hyphenated Canada. (39)
This is a theme Diefenbaker repeatedly and repetitively expounds upon throughout his memoirs. He despised racial intolerance but there is a notable difference between his vision of “One Canada” and the official anti-racism imposed upon the country by the Liberal governments that succeeded him. Diefenbaker emphasized Canada’s British traditions and institutions, such as the monarchy and Parliament, as a national identity to which all Canadians, English or French speaking, whatever their racial or ethnic background, could be loyal, and he believed that to promote such loyalty de jure discrimination, would have to be done away with. The Liberals during the Pearson and Trudeau premierships, in contrast, sought to downplay Canada’s British roots and traditions, and instead promoted a doctrine of “official multiculturalism” that encouraged hyphenated Canadianism. Diefenbaker fought racial injustice by amending or eliminating legislation in which Canadians were treated differently because of their racial origins. The anti-racist liberals tried to eliminate “racist” thinking through name-calling, guilt-by-association, indoctrination in the media and the schools, and outright police state tactics.
Diefenbaker, in the true Disraeli tradition, believed in social legislation but hated socialism. In his memoirs he recalled a conversation he had with Arthur Meighen over old-age pensions, which the latter opposed and Diefenbaker supported. Commenting on their disagreement, he wrote:
I have always been opposed to socialism. I believe that we cannot accept in a country such as Canada any system denying to the individual citizen the courage and initiative necessary to the development of a great country. When a private citizen takes a chance in business or enterprise and loses, he loses. When the state makes a mistake, the taxpayer picks up the loss. There is a vast difference, however, between the state that denies the citizen everything except the right to pay taxes, and the state that denies a decent measure of social security for the aged, the afflicted, and the disadvantaged. (40)
Socialism on the one hand, and the complete absence of a government safety net on the other, are, in other words, two undesirable extremes. The question of how to steer the ship of state away from the Scylla of inadequate support for the needy without falling into the Charybdis of socialism remains the difficulty.
(1) Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, Or the Two Nations, chapter XLVI. The quotation comes from the last two paragraphs of this chapter, which are found on pages 394 and 395 of Volume I of Sybil in The Works of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (M. Walter Dunne: London and New York, 1904).
(2) “Níl aon suáilce gan a duáilce féin”, which is more literally translated “there is no joy without its own sorrow”.
(3) This is found on page 93 in the edition cited in footnote 1.
(4) Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke To Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition (Regnery Publishing, Inc.: Washington, D. C., 1953, 1985 ) pp. 268-269.
(5) This chapter, entitled “The House of Egremont” gives the history of the Whig ascendancy as the background to the story of the aristocratic family to which the novel’s hero belongs. Russell Kirk summarizes the history, as told by Disraeli, on pages 269-270 of The Conservative Mind.
(6) Lord Derby was Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party at the time, Disraeli was his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli is credited with the bill because he introduced it and persuaded his party to vote for it. See Robert Blake, Disraeli, (Eyre & Spottiswoode, Ltd: London, 1966), pp 450-477.
(7) Peter Viereck, Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, (D. Van Nostrand Company Inc: Princeton, N. J., 1956), p. 42.
(8) Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, USA and London, 1986, 2002), p.71 Bold indicates italics in the original.
(9) Quoted in Viereck, op cit., p. 44.
(10) Ron Dart, “Bred In Our Funny Bone”, Anglican Journal, March 2012. http://www.anglicanjournal.com/nc/other/news-items/article/bred-in-our-funny-bone-10502.htmlRon Dart, who wrote this article about Leacock’s life, humour, and the Sunshine Sketches for the centennial anniversary of its publication is, in addition to being a professor at the University of the Frazer Valley in Abbotsford, an advisor to the Stephen Leacock Museum in Orilia, Ontario, where Leacock had his summer home, on which Mariposa, the little town of the Sunshine Sketches, is based.
(11) Alan Bowker, ed., The Social Criticism of Stephen Leacock, (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1973), pp. 71-145. This volume is part of the series “The Social History of Canada”, the general editor of which was Michael Bliss.
(19) Gerald Lynch, in his afterword to the 1989 reprint of the McLelland & Stewart edition of Leacock’s 1914 Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich quotes the humourist as having said “This socialism, this communism, would work only in Heaven where they don’t need it, or in hell where they already have it.”
(20) Ralph L. Curry, Stephen Leacock: Humorist and Humanist (Doubleday & Company: Garden City, New York, 1959), pp. 141-142, 346.
(21) Globe and Mail, 1982.
(22) David Cayley, George Grant in Conversation (Anansi Press: Concord, 1995) , p. 156.
(23) George Grant, Philosophy in the Mass Age (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1995), p. 44, the original edition was published in 1959 by Copp Clark Publishing.
(25) George Grant, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Carleton University Press: Ottawa, 1965, 1989) p. 71-72.
(26) Ibid. p. 68.
(27) Ibid, p. 88.
(28) The scare quotes are Grant’s. He was referring to the kind of American conservative whose conservatism consists primarily of support for free-market capitalism, i.e., liberalism. While Grant does discuss the ideas of conservative intellectuals from Europe, such as Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss who became involved in the American conservative movement, I do not recall seeing him ever refer to Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Peter Viereck, or Richard Weaver. These men were the leaders of the “traditionalist” wing of the American conservative movement. They supported private enterprise and rejected socialism but this was never their focus. They looked to the same British conservatives – Johnson, Burke, Disraeli – that traditional Canadian conservatives look to for inspiration, and their views of the Modern Age, progress, and technology were quite similar to Grant’s.
(29) Lament For a Nation, p. 56-59.
(30) Ibid, p. 59.
(31) Ibid, p. 60. Grant includes a footnote referring his reader to Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History for a detailed rendition of this interpretation of political history. Like Grant, I agree with Strauss’ interpretation. Grant was a great admirer of Strauss. His biographer William Christian writes that Strauss “was one of the most important formative influences on Grant’s thought”. William Christian, George Grant A Biography (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1993), p. 223. Strauss opened Grant’s eyes to the flaws in Hegel’s philosophy and the two corresponded. Grant went to meet Strauss in Annapolis in 1972, a year before Strauss’s death. (Christian, pp. 292-293) Ironically, among American conservatives, Strauss’ influence is nowhere greater than among the “neo-conservatives”, i.e., members of the “New York Intellectuals” group who had began as Cold War liberals then moved to the right in the 1970’s after the rise of the New Left, and who are most noted for being ardent supporters of American militarism and imperialism, believers in a global Pax Americana of worldwide democracy and capitalism enforced by the United States military.
(32) “If Avarice is the sin of the Haves against the Have-Nots, Envy is the sin of the Have-Nots against the Haves”, Dorothy L. Sayers noted in her address “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, originally given on October 23rd, 1941. http://www.lectionarycentral.com/trinity04/Sayers1.html
(33) George Grant, English Speaking Justice, (House of Anansi Press: Toronto, 1974, 1985), p. 4.
(34) Lament For a Nation, p. 66.
(35) William Christian, George Grant A Biography, pp. 266-267. Christian writes “Indeed he had written to Conservative publicist George Hogan to say that what he most disliked in the general economic situation of North America was the concentration of power that was taking place in Washington, and that he would not have found it impossible, were he an American, to vote in 1964 for right-wing Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, as he would also earlier have supported General Eisenhower”. He also notes, on page 292, that Grant welcomed the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968.
(36) The expression “American neo-conservatism”, as Red Tories and their overtly progressive allies use it, refers not just to the wing of the American right populated by militaristic ex-liberals like Irving Kirstol and Norman Podhoretz, but to American conservatism as a whole.
(37) John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada: Volume I, The Crusading Years 1895-1956 (MacMillan of Canada: Toronto, 1975), p. 140.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca