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The Red-Tory Philosopher of Canadian Nationalism

George Grant’s eclectic thought made him an unlikely figure in Canadian intellectual life: a Tory philosopher who exerted a profound influence on the 1960s socialist left.

Matthew Fells / Flickr

Even for the mid-century heyday of Canadian public intellectuals, few stand out quite like George Grant.

Figures like Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye are better remembered, but for all of his relative obscurity both at home and abroad, Grant’s influence remains unique thanks to the radicalism of his thinking and its remarkable synthesis of ideas and narratives usually considered disparate.

Taken as a whole, in fact, his intellectual corpus looks like a series of paradoxes: a Christian-Platonist committed to universalism, Grant’s most famous essay was a defence of national and cultural localism; an Anglican Tory with socially reactionary leanings, he was also a pacifist who loathed the American empire and opposed the Vietnam war on moral grounds; an intellectual conservative fascinated by ancient philosophy, he nevertheless eschewed the market fanaticism ascendent in conservative intellectual circles and developed sympathies with the socialist left.

Parsing the various strands in Grant’s thought is therefore a clarifying exercise, and one still worthwhile for leftists today given the surprising influence he exerted on Canada’s socialist movement throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Canada’s Red Tory

Born in Toronto in 1918, Grant studied at Queen’s University before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford in the late 1930s. A committed pacifist even as a young man, he enlisted in an ambulance unit following the outbreak of World War II and witnessed the worst of the Nazi blitz in London’s east end. After the war he spent time at Dalhousie University in Halifax before eventually joining the Department of Religion at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

It was during his stint here that he would publish Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), by far his most famous and influential work — a book which can be said without much hyperbole to have created modern Canadian nationalism. While other notable works like Technology and Empire (1969) and (the newly republished) Technology and Justice (1986) would find a smaller audience than Grant’s 1965 bestseller, all three would draw on the same basic concerns about the supremacy of technology in the modern age, the triumph of liberal capitalism, and the erosion of community in a mass society.

From the 1950s until his death in the 1980s, as both an academic and public intellectual, it might be said that Grant’s overriding preoccupation was the singular nature of the human experience under what he called the “reign of technology.” “Reign” being the operative word, Grant believed there was something unique about the character of modern life which owed to the legacy of the Enlightenment and the rational, industrialized societies that had followed in its wake: “technology” now being less an instrument than a governing regime regulating almost every part of collective and individual life. As he wrote in the introduction to Technology and Justice:

These writings centre around the modern paradigm of “knowledge”: behaviourist explanation in terms of algebra. This account is at the core of the fate of Western civilization. Because the conquest of human and non-human nature is at the heart of modern science, I describe that science as “technological” . . . We close down on the fact that modern technology is not simply an extension of human making through the power of perfected science, but is a new account of what it is to know and to make in which both activities are changed by their co-penetration.

The “modern age,” for Grant, can therefore rightly be called unique: not a different stage of the human experience but rather an entirely novel version of it altogether unlike anything lived before. Put another way: whereas technology once implied a series of discrete tools crafted for specific purposes, capitalist modernity turned it into an order unto itself — one which, or so Grant believed, was trending towards a “universal, homogenous state in which empires and nations [would disappear]”.

Thanks to the sweeping nature of this critique, Grant’s polemics were often directed at targets shared by the Left and at times intersected quite naturally with them. Take the following passage, written in 1961:

The most dangerous result of state capitalism is that our society recruits its chief leadership from the executives who have been most successful in living out the capitalist ideal . . . the top executives of the corporations will not only control our economic life, but also decisively control other institutions of our society — our political parties, our universities, our churches, our charities . . . Is it likely that men trained to manage corporations whose chief end is maximum profit will be people of wide social vision?

Grant would similarly converge with the Left when it came to the imperial slaughter in Vietnam, which he condemned in a forceful 1966 essay denouncing Lyndon Johnson.

While these aspects of his thinking undoubtedly helped popularize it within the socialist left, it was his writings on nationalism — particularly Lament for a Nation — that made him an unofficial house intellectual during the 1960s and 70s. Given the reactionary connotations we tend to ascribe to nationalism today, this at first seems puzzling. But in the 1960s and 70s radicals in both French and English-speaking Canada would embrace different versions of it as potential bulwarks against the perceived threat of absorption from without.

In the early 1970s, the politics of the New Left coupled with fears about rising American ownership of the Canadian economy eventually converged to create The Waffle: a radical faction on the left wing of the New Democratic Party that wedded the rhetoric of progressive nationalism to that of industrial democracy. James Laxer, a founding member who stood unsuccessfully for the party leadership in 1971 and later became a distinguished socialist historian, explicitly cited Grant as an inspiration:

Lament for a Nation was the most important book I ever read in my life. Here was a crazy old philosopher of religion at McMaster and he woke up half our generation. He was saying Canada was dead, and by saying it, he was creating the country.

Swinging wildly between condemnations of the American empire, qualified praise of socialist planning, and romantic celebrations of various Tory politicians, Grant’s famous essay lamenting the death of Canadian nationalism is still a seductive, dizzying, and frustrating read. But neither its intermittent conservative undertones nor the resigned fatalism of its thesis (it is, after all, a lament rather than a program or a prospectus) prevented it from exerting considerable influence while nationalism still remained an influential current on Canada’s left.

Even the more muted nationalism that would accompany Canadian opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003 probably owed something to Grant: a Tory philosopher and professor of religion, then dead for fifteen years.

No More Laments

Though he fell out of fashion long ago, parts of Grant’s thought remain both urgent and prescient.

Capitalism quite visibly does erode the foundations of community as most societies knew it for thousands of years. Globalization, for all its promises of bringing about a cosmopolitan utopia, homogenizes more than it fosters pluralism and, barring a radical transformation of the global order, whole nations and cultures are probably destined to be drowned by the tidal forces of multinational capital. State and market increasingly fused under neoliberalism, with the latter subordinating everything in its path to the reign of technology as Grant understood it — the most powerful inventions of the last half-century promising only new and more repressive forms of social regulation in the hands of tech monopolies.

Insofar as the socialist left can draw anything from Grant’s thought today then, it is from his critique of technology — a critique which, in critical respects, is synonymous with the Marxist critique of capitalism. Nationalism, however, cannot ultimately provide solutions to problems and injustices that are universal in character — the nationalism of mid-twentieth-century Canada even less so. And, while many of Grant’s denunciations of liberalism still resonate, wistful romanticism about the pre-liberal age is a poor foundation upon which to mount an egalitarian project.

Communitarian conservatism, after all, is still conservatism — and the ultimate task of the socialist left is not to salvage the best of a time before capitalism or to destroy liberal society, but to transcend the limitations imposed by both: rejecting fatalism and lamentation for what’s been lost in favor of fearless optimism about the future that remains to be won.