George Grant’s vision of Canada increasingly attenuated (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the publication of one of George Parkin Grant’s most popular and more accessible books, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). George Grant (1918-1988) is probably the leading Canadian traditionalist philosopher. That work has remained almost continuously in print in Canada.
Lament for a Nation mourns what George Grant sees as the end of real Canadian independence in the 1960s. As George Grant tells the story, Canadian Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had refused to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil – with the result that all the instrumentalities of the North American managerial capitalist classes were turned against him, in the crucial 1963 Canadian federal election. Diefenbaker’s lost campaign is characterized in the book as “the last strangled cry of his pre-modern Loyalist ancestors”. (The Tories were already officially called the Progressive Conservative party, having added the adjective in 1942.) The Liberal Lester B. Pearson won the election.
Grant is highly prescient in mourning the passing of a more traditional Canada, although his focus is not exclusively on the impending destruction of what would later come to be called social conservatism. Rather, he is more concerned with the dangers of corporate liberalism, and corporate technocracy, which he sees as emanating from America to undermine a more traditional Canada. Grant’s outlook lies somewhere between that of a traditionalist conservative, and of a “social conservative of the Left”. There are a number of illustrious figures who embrace the latter outlook, notably John Ruskin, William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, Christopher Lasch, and, in Canada, the noted constitutional scholar and union adviser Eugene Forsey.
The work seems to express a deep pessimism, and certainly does not offer any pat answers in regard to what is to be done to redeem Canada.
Certain sectors of the Canadian Left, including George Grant’s close friend, Gad Horowitz, were greatly impressed with the book, and understood it as a clarion call for the creation of infrastructures of a “more compassionate” society in Canada – their idea of fighting for Canadian nationalism. Gad Horowitz had also, in the 1960s, severely criticized the onset of multiculturalism policies in Canada, arguing that they would undermine the sense of nationhood that he saw as a prerequisite for the flowering of real social democracy in Canada.
George Grant, who was sometimes called a “Red Tory”, clearly gave that term one of its most positive and philosophical interpretations. As expressed in his major books, including Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (1969), English-Speaking Justice (1974/1985), and Technology and Justice (1986), Grant took his stand against the encroaching technological dystopia, or “empire of technology” which – as he put it – “speaks with an American accent.” He put forward a thoroughgoing critique of technology – what he called “the spirit of dynamic technique” – which, he said, “makes all local cultures anachronistic”. In such a world, prior notions of the good and the beautiful would become increasingly impossible.
George Grant embraces outlooks that, in today’s ever-narrowing spectrum of discourse, appear to be contradictory. As a conservative, Grant supported the Canadian Tory party and valorized the British roots of Canada. As a Canadian nationalist, Grant found much to admire about the Canadian Left, and enunciated a nuanced criticism of America and capitalism that is far more subtle than that usually found on the Left. As a Christian, Grant upheld traditional morality and wrote frequently against abortion – which he saw as evil, seeing it as the triumph of a Nietzschean-like exercise of radical will that would have terrible, dystopic consequences for the notion of human dignity.
He also considered that the only possible basis for maintaining the notion of human equality in the future – rather than giving ourselves over to maximizing our own pleasure and power – is the notion that all human beings are equal before God.
Some of Grant’s central themes include a profound critique of the social, cultural, and ecological impacts of technology; a confident patriotism (it is only “by loving our own” that we can come to any further comprehension of a more universal good); a subtle defense of Christianity, seen as one of the last barriers against a technological dystopia; and a genuine compassion for human suffering and the negative effects of war, expressed especially through his reflective pacifism.
He also sees the interconnection between the “right” and “left” of a technological society – “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” Grant anticipated the critique that was later made of the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime. A hyper-technological and hypermodern society would make any notions of human ethicality increasingly impossible.
Nevertheless, Grant’s profound belief in God ultimately gives him a sort of optimism. Because of this belief in an ultimate, unchanging standard of justice, he could say that, whatever horrors technological society has waiting for us, and however hopeless the situation appears, “At all times and in all places, it always matters what we do.” For him, the imperative to act morally remains very real.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.