The Unconventional Tory

In an age beset by anxiety over the survival of the nation-state and social traditionalism, the Canadian thinker George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) is an indispensable guide to making sense of the modern predicament. Although he contributed to the field of political philosophy, his major works feel more like the stuff of prophecy. In advancing a High Tory critique of modern ideology, Grant fully anticipated how both the modern leftist and rightist versions of liberalism would turn against true conservatism. Whatever their differences, both sides of the political spectrum had embraced the ideology of technological progress. The haunting question that his writings posed over 50 years ago is even more relevant today: Can conservatism survive the excesses of modernity?

Grant was raised in a liberal, Protestant tradition that cherished the British character of Canada and enthusiastically identified the British Empire with God’s providential design in history. He was also the descendant of Loyalists who had fled revolutionary America. In his most famous book Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), Grant referred to the Loyalists’ “inchoate desire to build, in these cold and forbidding regions, a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow.” 

Yet this ethos was fading fast in early 20th century Canada. Grant, who was born in Toronto two days after the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, came of age in a country that had been horrified by the carnage of this conflict. This horror gradually turned into disillusionment with the motherland that had enticed so many Canadians to join the fight against Wilhelmine Germany. In Grant’s view, it was unsurprising that so many Canadians would seek to replace the influence of the declining British Empire with the benign hegemony of the American imperium. After all, many Americans also questioned the wisdom of their nation’s entry into the slaughterhouse of the Great War.

In the post-World War II era, however, Grant gradually came to believe that America’s embrace of liberal progressivism not only sealed Canada’s fate as a sovereign nation; it also sealed the fate of conservatism. Lament for a Nation was a lament for the conservative tradition which Grant believed made Canada possible. The traditional, Loyalist desire to make a country based on “peace, order, and good government” was yielding to the managerial liberalism that had dominated America since the New Deal era.

0820-GRANT-2Grant revealed his great admiration for the Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s doomed efforts to resist the pressures of the Kennedy administration to place nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. This contempt for Canada’s national sovereignty understandably provoked the old Loyalist suspicion that Canada was becoming a satellite of the empire to the south. Worst of all, this process was aided and abetted by pro-American business and political elites in Canada who eventually conspired to throw the nationalist Diefenbaker out of office.

American conservatism did not offer Canada a real alternative to the ascendant liberalism of Kennedy’s Camelot, in Grant’s view. He saw American conservatism as Lockean to its core, an older version of liberalism that Barry Goldwater’s Republicans failed to revive in the 1964 electoral contest against Lyndon B. Johnson’s Democrats. Although both parties embraced the liberal ideal of “freedom,” LBJ’s statist version of liberalism won the day. Grant wrote:

Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ expressed the new American ‘freedom’ far better than Goldwater’s talk of limited government and free enterprise. The classes that had once opposed Roosevelt, the remnant of the old Constitutional liberalism, were spent forces by 1964. The leaders of post-war capitalism supported Johnson. Goldwater’s cry for limited government seemed as antediluvian to the leaders of the corporations as Diefenbaker’s nationalism seemed to the same elements in Canada.

Grant’s portrayal of American conservatism as bourgeois liberalism should not suggest that he saw no value in this tradition. With his keen historical sense, Grant observed, “Harvard liberalism was surely nobler when William James opposed the Spanish-American war than when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., advised Kennedy on Cuban policy.” Yet Grant was convinced that anti-imperialist liberalism had given way to a new liberalism that embraced global interventionism, the technological mastery of nature, and the integration of corporate interests with the political realm. 

In the decades following the publication of Lament, Grant felt isolated in his own country. As a professor of religion at McMaster University in the 1960s and 1970s, Grant was well-aware that he was fighting a last-ditch battle against the intellectual forces of secular modernity. As a pacifist, he opposed the Vietnam War, which did not endear him to anti-communist voices on the right. Grant’s socially conservative views on abortion and sexual libertinism ended up irritating many of his admirers on the left who sympathized with his opposition to the war.

Grant also managed to alienate both sides of the political spectrum in one fell swoop when he increasingly associated liberalism and leftism with capitalism. As he wrote in Technology and Empire (1969), “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor (Herbert) Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” In other words, Grant believed that the left, despite its anti-capitalist rhetoric, actually advances corporate interests. The leftist assault on the traditional family, biblical morality, and the nation-state fit quite well into the agenda of global capitalists, who are increasingly determined to shatter all barriers to the free flow of commerce.

It is little wonder that Grant looked back to Tory writers like Richard Hooker, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Coleridge, venerable figures who stressed the “love of one’s own,” namely the preservation of tradition, organic social relations, and historical particularity. 

Besides the precarious status of conservatism, Grant was recurrently preoccupied with the survival of Christianity in the age of technological progress. He had been an observant Christian since World War II, when he had studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Grant and his wife Sheila joined the Anglican Church of Canada in the late 1950s. Still, he never shared the opinion of many conservatives that a simple return to Christian mores was the most effective way of combating a nihilistic modernity. 

In Philosophy in the Mass Age (1960), he noted that the “Protestant self-made man who was the linchpin of early industrialism has, of course, been replaced by an increasingly technical and slick set of managers among whom the old Protestant ethic [has] disappeared.” Although early modern Protestantism had contributed to the rise of capitalism and the scientific revolution, this faith tradition became steadily passé in an age that emphasized the primacy of the human will to create: This will to power had no room for belief in a God-given order of things.

The fact that technocratic liberalism no longer needed or wanted the leavening influence of Christian morality increasingly preoccupied Grant in the decades following the tumults of the 1960s. In English-Speaking Justice (1974), Grant warned that liberals who were confident that technological progress would have no deleterious effect on cherished moral beliefs in dignity or human rights were kidding themselves. In a long discussion of how legalized abortion threatened to “raise a cup of poison to the lips of liberalism,” he emphasized how the termination of human fetuses raised nagging questions that technocratic liberalism could not address. If a fetus is not a human being, then what is it? If the fetus is an “inconvenient” life, what value do other inconvenient lives enjoy in modern society?

Yet the real “darkness” of which Grant warned was the fact that these matters of justice would be addressed by politicians, corporate leaders, and intellectuals who felt no qualms about using technology to destroy or reinvent human nature altogether. The “woke” capitalism of today that calls for the creation of new gender-identities in the name of “equality” and “tolerance” would not surprise him in the least. More than once, Grant warned of the “tyranny” that technology would unleash.

Despite his Christian faith, Grant did not look forward to an apocalyptic showdown that might shake the foundations of modernity. Current talk about a populist uprising against the “deep state” would have struck Grant as a sign of a futile resistance unlikely to overcome the seductive power of global capitalism.

If Grant has any words of hope to offer today’s beleaguered conservatives, it is this: “love of one’s own must ultimately be a means to love of the good.” Loyalty to one’s tradition, in other words, was a means to the rediscovery of virtue. Still, Grant threw down the gauntlet. If the citizens of modern democracies are loyal only to their parochial self-interest or the changeable values of the age, then conservatism will truly belong to the past.