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Grant Havers: The Conservative Tradition in Canada

“Yes, as you mentioned, one of the most interesting findings of Lament for a Nation, which came out in 1965—it’s Grant’s most famous book—is that in Grant’s view, there’s really no such thing as American conservatism.”

On December 21st, Merion West contributing writer Henry George and Merion West editor-in-chief Erich J. Prince were joined by Grant Havers for a discussion about the latter’s writings and the topic of Canadian conservatism. Grant Havers is an associate editor at VoegelinView and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University in Canada. He is the author of the 2009 book Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love and the 2013 book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique and has contributed to outlets such as The American Conservative, Chronicles, and Modern Age. During the conversation, Professor Havers discusses the conservative Canadian tradition (yes, there is one, he argues); replies to Leo Strauss in defense of historicism; Marshall McLuhan; and the health of right-of-center politics in modern Canada. With the exception of the final question, which was posed by Mr. Prince, all of the questions were asked by Mr. George. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

I’ll start by asking you to talk about your personal background, your academic background, and what led you to where you are today.

I was born and raised in Alberta in Western Canada, which is really the cradle of conservative populism in the Canadian tradition.

And I think that had an impact on me from the beginning of my life. I was also raised in a loosely Protestant tradition, which I think has stayed with me as an influence when it comes to certain values that I have.

But I suppose my first political emotion was experienced when I studied Marxism in certain courses at the University of Calgary in Alberta. I was taught by a lovely man by the name of Kai Nielsen. He was an American philosopher who became a Marxist during the Vietnam War.

Nielsen then left America for Canada and ended up at the University of Calgary, but Nielsen’s Marxism was much kinder and gentler than, say, Stalinist Marxism and far less cryptic than, say, Frankfurt School Marxism. Nielsen’s Marxism was heavily informed by American liberalism and pragmatism.

In fact, one of Nielsen’s mentors was the late Sidney Hook, who taught Nielsen at New York University. So I mention that because the kind of Marxism that I embraced early on was a very humane and liberalized Marxism, which is probably the only Marxism that I would ever be able to accept. but I eventually veered away from Marxism.

The Left, as you know, became postmodernist and constructivist and even anti-liberal and lost its traditional interest in class issues or the class divide. So I became disillusioned with that, and, by the end of the 1990s, I made the rather counterintuitive discovery that people on the Right were more likely to talk about the limitations of capitalism and the dangers of the class divide than those on the Left.

So I got heavily immersed in the writings of George Grant, the High Tory political philosopher who grew up in Ontario in the early 20th century. George Grant was certainly no fan of capitalism. He wasn’t a Marxist either.

But Grant respected Marxist insights into capitalism and even thought that they were useful from a conservative perspective. So, the more I read Grant and other like-minded voices on the Right who have misgivings about capitalism, the more I was able to move to the Right without necessarily abandoning some of my older, Marxian views about capitalism, if that makes sense.

It makes perfect sense, and that leads nicely into my second question: So, you say that you’re now conservative. And not only are you a conservative, but you’re a conservative in academia, which is a very rare thing. Can you describe the history of Canadian conservatism? There are different branches.

There’s the High Toryism that Ron Dart talks about in his book on the subject. There’s also Red Toryism, which began as a Canadian tradition but then hopped over the Atlantic to us in Britain. Could you talk about Canadian conservatism and how it differs from British conservatism or American conservatism as well?

I would think there are three Canadian versions of conservative tradition. I already mentioned the populist tradition.

The populist tradition emerged out of Western Canada in the early 20th century and which has many family resemblances with American populism. So, of course, Western Canada and the Western United States have quite a bit in common in terms of politics. This populist tradition certainly has a right-wing element, but it can also have a left-wing element.

As you know, populism is kind of a wild card, but Western Canadian populism is not sympathetic to free market capitalism. It does see a role for the state in propping up society or addressing market failures, so it’s no surprise that Western Canadian populism really gained currency during the Great Depression—as a reaction to the instability and problems that came out of the Great Depression. 

Then there’s the second tradition that you touched on: the Red Tory tradition. Sometimes that’s called “Laurentian Conservatism,” named after the Laurentian shield in Canadian geography. It’s easy to associate this with George Grant. This is a kind of central Canadian traditional conservatism, generally based in Ontario, but there are also elements of that in the Maritimes, especially in Nova Scotia. That springs out of the Loyalist experience.

Generally, Red Tories, including Grant himself, locate their beginnings with the Loyalists who left the United States during the Revolutionary War—often against their will—and eventually made their way either to Nova Scotia or Ontario. They tended to develop—obviously—an animus towards American conservatism, especially what they perceived to be the Lockean version of American conservatism, which stresses free market capitalism and an absolutist approach to property rights. However, from a loyalist perspective, or Red Tory perspective, there was a recurring perception that the United States is just a violent place, which seems to careen from one period of instability to another.

By the time of Confederation—so here I’m thinking of 1867—the Fathers of Confederation, the Founding Fathers of Canada, believed in a very traditional Tory sense that they didn’t want to be part of the United States. They had obviously witnessed the Civil War from afar and then the assassination of President Lincoln. And they concluded that they didn’t want to be part of the United States. There was a genuine fear of annexation at that time. 

The Fathers of Confederation, many of whom were Tories—I’m thinking, for instance, of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada—did not believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, they believed in peace, order, and good government, which has a strong Burkean ring to it. I think that’s what characterizes Red Toryism. I guess what puts the red in Red Toryism is this perception that you do need the state—at times—to intervene in the workings of society so that rapacious capitalism does not demolish the most stable institutions that comprise that society. So there is not that Lockean animus towards the state. 

And, then, finally, the third tradition of conservatism is the Québécois or the French version, which dates all the way back to a time well before the French Revolution. Of course, France lost its claim to North America in 1759, with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

But, under British occupation, the people of Quebec maintained the kind of conservative tradition that once dominated France before the French Revolution. In fact, most of the Québécois, during the French Revolution, opposed that revolution and wanted the monarchy restored. So, throughout the 19th century, Quebec was indeed a bastion of conservatism and that traditional, pre-French Revolution approach.

I don’t think there’s much left of that today in Quebec because Quebec conservatism has always been affiliated with the Catholic tradition. And, once the Catholic tradition was replaced with secularization by the 1960s, that old Quebec conservatism just withered on the vine.

That’s a fascinating overview, so thanks for that. You mentioned George Grant and—like you—I’m a reader of his and a sort of follower of his as well. So, could you briefly discuss who he was; his background; and his philosophical perspective on things? He’s an interesting thinker.

George Grant was born in 1918, two days after the end of World War I. He grew up in Toronto, in a very upper class, Tory family.

Both of his grandfathers were enthusiastic English imperialists, or at least they endorsed English imperialism and even identified the British Empire with the providence of God, working itself out on earth. But not only were they traditional English imperialists; they were also liberal Protestants. I think Grant once said that his mother, Maude Parkin, never believed a word of the Bible but definitely believed in the idea of progress.

Not only were they very sympathetic with the British Empire; they also endorsed the kind of Victorian liberalism that was the philosophical underpinning of that imperial mission. But, like most—or at least the majority of Canadians—between the wars, Grant, growing up in Toronto at that time, became disillusioned with the British Empire because of the carnage of World War I. Canada was not a very densely populated country during World War I, and yet it still lost, I think, around 60,000 soldiers, which was a devastating loss for a country with a small population.

So there was this wave of disillusionment with the British influence after World War I, which, at the same time, led to a greater embrace of America because many Americans, as you know, were also disillusioned in the aftermath of World War I [when reflecting on] the sacrifice involved. So, around that time, Grant, growing up between the two world wars, became—or, at least, considered himself—kind of a liberal and a progressivist. I think you could almost call him a left-Hegelian. 

He eventually made his way to Oxford and studied theology there and eventually converted to Christianity during World War II, which he spent in Oxford. But, after World War II, when he returned to Canada, he discovered, much to his horror, that Canada was becoming Americanized. And that’s when he abandoned what was left of his liberal progressivism and basically developed what today we call his Red Tory conservatism.

He believed that after World War II, not only was Canada becoming a satellite of the United States, it was losing the kind of conservative tradition that he believed was central to the Canadian identity. So, it was a double blow: Not only was Canada becoming kind of a vassal state, but it was also losing its conservative tradition, which he believed that at one time could have offered a third way between Americanism on the one hand and Marxism or Sovietism on the other. 

Again, the kind of conservatism he had in mind was a conservatism of a strong Loyalist background, which believed in a conservatism that serves the common good. This always seemed a little abstract in terms of the way that Grant described it. But, certainly, it was a conservatism that rejected Lockean individualism in the American sense and one that was also quite open to using the state to serve the common good.

His most famous book is Lament for a Nation. If people are interested in political philosophy, they should read it because it’s very short, but it’s very punchy and very dense. Philosophically, it’s worth reading.

Yes, as you mentioned, one of the most interesting findings of Lament for a Nation, which came out in 1965—it’s Grant’s most famous book—is that in Grant’s view, there’s really no such thing as American conservatism. I think that was one of the most interesting features of his book, but, basically for Grant—and he’s not the only one who believes this—America never had a conservative tradition. It was born in a revolution.

The only conservatism that America has ever imagined itself to have is actually Lockean liberalism. So, for Grant, there’s no such thing as Toryism in the American sense. For Grant, Americans have always had a choice between an older liberalism, which is Lockean, and a new liberalism, which is post-Lockean and progressivist and statist. 

But, at the end of the day, it’s still liberalism. So, for Grant, writing in Lament for a Nation, this kind of liberalism or liberal hegemony that America was, in a sense, inflicting on Canada, was alien to the Canadian experience. We were not Lockean; the Fathers of the Confederation were not Lockean. So I wanted to mention that. That was one of the arguments of his book.

Absolutely—as I said, it’s a great book, and people should read it if they’re interested in political philosophy. And, linking to Grant, you’ve also written on the German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss, and Grant is quite influenced by Strauss. You have a book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique. Could you give a brief summary of Strauss’s ideas and background, and then why you disagree with him and what your critique of him is? 

I’ve always read Strauss not as a conservative or as an adherent of the far-right. Both of those portrayals were nonsensical. I take Strauss at his word, that he is a liberal. He calls himself a liberal.

In fact, he wrote a book, at least an anthology of essays, entitled Liberalism Ancient and Modern. I don’t think he’s a liberal in the Lockean sense, but he’s certainly a liberal who believes that any society that allows freedom to philosophize is a good society. And I’m speaking very simplistically here, given the fact that philosophers have been persecuted throughout history; that’s one of the themes of Strauss’s thought.

But certainly Strauss liked American liberal democracy. He uses that term over and over again. But the kind of liberal democracy that Strauss is endorsing is a post-World War II phenomenon. It doesn’t have much to do with the old Lockean limited democracy that the early moderns or American Founders had in mind. So it’s very much a post-World War II version of liberal democracy. I wasn’t critical of Strauss on that point, but I did believe—and I still believe—that Strauss, being a 20th century philosopher, saw an inevitable opposition between faith and reason. He did not believe that any philosopher, any honest philosopher, could also be religious. That’s a typical 20th-century understanding of philosophy. So, for Strauss, most philosophers of history, who write in a religious tone, are faking it. This is central to his idea of persecution and the thesis in his book Persecution and the Art of Writing. Philosophers in the past had to conceal their most subversive thoughts behind religious language. So, for Strauss, a religious philosophy is an oxymoron.

I think the effect, the implication of that teaching, is to downplay the importance of Christianity in shaping the politics of Western civilization, including the United States—or, Britain, for that matter. So it’s not that he had a personal animus toward Christianity. I think he just believed that religion and philosophy have nothing to do with each other. Religion can be useful in terms of teaching ethics or teaching the virtues, but religion itself has no real philosophical basis. So, for Strauss, it’s no surprise that most of modern philosophy owes a debt to Machiavelli. Strauss, I think, had a very ambivalent appreciation of Machiavelli.

He called him a teacher of evil, but he never says that Machiavelli’s teachings are wrong. They’re unethical, but they’re not wrong. They’re not untrue.

So, for Strauss, modern philosophy is unintelligible, apart from the influence of Machiavelli, who, of course, believed that religion is useful but, at the same time, false in any intellectual sense. I don’t think Grant understood that, as a reader of Strauss. I think he saw Strauss as a conservative, first of all: as a defender of tradition.

I think like many readers of Strauss, Grant saw Strauss as a defender of the natural law tradition, even though Strauss is very critical of natural law. Of course, he prefers the term natural right, which is a term that Aristotle used, but Aristotle never used the term “natural law,” as you know; that originated with Aquinas. Strauss is not a Thomist in any sense, precisely because Thomism synthesizes Christianity with philosophy in the Aristotelian sense. For Strauss, that’s incoherent. Philosophy and religion have to be kept separate. So the problem with that argument, which I don’t think Strauss points to, is that that’s not a conservative view at all.

From a conservative perspective—I would think even from a conservative Enlightenment perspective—religion is important in shaping the practice of virtue or basic ethical principles. But religion is also true. It’s not just useful; it’s true. So I would think Strauss was offering a position that fit the 20th century very well but devalued the contribution of Christianity both to politics and to philosophy throughout the modern era.

Obviously, Strauss is known for his critique in his 1953 book Natural Right and History of historicism, which to brutally simplify it, is saying that values change with the passage of time and history. And there’s no external measure of the good, according to historicism, so you just judge by your time and place, which, “Okay, to some extent, yes.” But it might have helped Strauss if he’d done more history to see what wasn’t actually the case and looked at the historical context of what he was commenting on. And maybe that’s another point to your argument about the fact that he wasn’t a conservative because a conservative would say that history is important for understanding certain periods and certain ideas, even if it’s not the determinant of those moral underpinnings. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Strauss’s critique of historicism and why it’s flawed from a conservative perspective.

As you just pointed out, Henry, Strauss associated historicism with relativism, which I don’t think he succeeded in demonstrating. I think he is like many critics of historicism, and here I have in mind Isaiah Berlin but also Karl Popper, neither of whom Strauss necessarily respected. But I think they all agree that historicism is the same as determinism, or even a kind of fatalism.

Their view of historicism is that it teaches that you’re trapped in your own historical context; you can’t think beyond it, and your very life is at best an epiphenomenon of that context. I think that’s true of crude versions of historicism. For example, Marxism-Leninism often gives that impression.

So I’m willing to concede that Strauss, Berlin, and Popper understood crude historicism. But other historicists—I include myself, Paul Gottfried, and others on the Right—are more than willing to emphasize that while historical context determines who we are, there is a dialectic involved: We also determine history.

And here I can’t do any better than Marx, who said we create history but not always in ways that we intend—I think that’s a rough paraphrase. But I think that paradox is right: that human beings have the freedom to engage history, but, of course, history creates us as well.

And that element of historicism doesn’t receive much attention in Strauss. I think he believed in freedom, but he did not pay much attention to what I would call the more enlightened historicist view that, of course, we create history. Burke, as an historicist in the good sense, believed that the French revolutionaries created history.

Boy, did they ever—in the worst possible way. But they certainly were not fatalists or determinists. So I think Strauss, along with Berlin and Popper, got that wrong. I think that was a stereotype of historicism. I’m willing to concede that someone like Locke was shaped by his historical context. I think historicism in that sense is true, but Locke also transformed, rightly or wrongly, his historical context. So the best historicists—I’m thinking of [Giambattista] Vico and others—acknowledge that we create history as well as being created by it.

And, of course, the other bugbear of Berlin was Hegel. I remember you wrote a very interesting article for Modern Age more than two years ago now about your being Right Hegelian. This is such a complicated topic, and we can’t do it justice in the time that we have remaining, but could you give a brief distinction between a Left Hegelian and a Right Hegelian? 

Yes, and, of course it’s important to recognize that you can find both sides in Hegel. Hegel’s not always consistent himself. The original Right Hegelians were defenders of the Prussian monarchy, which they believed was a bastion of strength against the French Revolution, whereas the Left Hegelians, of course, welcomed the French Revolution with open arms.

But I think the main difference between them is that Left Hegelians believe that religion, specifically Christianity, is something that was once important and was once progressive in a egalitarian sense, teaching the universal equality of all human beings. But we have to get beyond that. So Marx, of course, and [Ludwig] Feuerbach are Hegelians who believe that religion is passé or a discredited phenomenon and some version of secularism has to replace it.

Right Hegelians believe that we can never overcome religion, nor should we try to do so. They believe that Christianity is here to stay in one form or another, especially in a moral sense. Believe it or not, I read Grant as kind of a Right Hegelian. He probably wouldn’t like it, but I think Grant almost sounds like Hegel in some contexts when Grant says that the Christian or biblical version of equality is something that will not go away, and it’s very important to appreciate the religious origins of that principle. Grant was not confident that a secularized version of equality could last unless the religious foundation persisted as well.

And I think that’s what Hegel sometimes believed. The last lecture that Hegel ever gave was on the ontological argument, which, of course, demonstrates the existence of God. So Hegel goes back and forth on that issue. Sometimes he believes we have to get beyond religion, and other times he believes we have to maintain its presence, but I think that’s the key difference between Right and Left Hegelians.

For my last question, you recently had a new essay in a book, Canadian Conservative Political Thoughts, which came out in 2023. Could you give a brief description of the overall aim of this anthology and what your contribution was?

The aim of the anthology, I guess, was to remind people that there is such a thing as Canadian Conservatism—and that there are different versions of it. I thought the anthology did a good job of showing the diversity of Canadian conservatism, as well as how it differs from the American version. My own contribution was a comparative essay on Alexandre Kojève and Marshall McLuhan, who I see as kind of a Right Hegelian as well.

I don’t think McLuhan would be happy with that association. But the main point of my essay was to show that Kojève, being a left Hegelian, proclaimed the end of history and also believed—true to form—that religion was a phenomenon that would just disappear with history, or with the end of conflict between democracy and its enemies. So Kojève believed—at least for the most part—that religion was on its way out.

McLuhan never believed that. McLuhan once said—I think it’s in an interview in the 1960s—that we live in the most religious age that has ever existed. For McLuhan, religion doesn’t disappear. He believed the other argument represented a crude view, which he believed was completely refuted by the advent of the global village. The global village is a place where religions of all kinds are thriving. If any ideology is not thriving, it’s Left Hegelianism. It is on its last legs. Even the Left doesn’t want left Hegelianism.

So even Francis Fukuyama is disowning it now.

Yes, yes. He’s had to walk that back.

Erich J. Prince: Grant, I want to ask you one final question to close with. You alluded to this already when you said that it is sometimes necessary to remind people that there is such a thing as Canadian conservatism.

I think a lot of us living outside of Canada right now have a certain perception about the health of conservatism within Canada, given the response to the trucker protests and the longevity of the tenure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. How powerful or marginal of a force is conservatism in Canada today? 

It’s never been easy to be a conservative in the Canadian experience. Most governments in the history of Canada have been Liberal—the vast majority of them. It’s rare to have an actual Tory government in place.

If you believe George Grant, conservatism died in 1965, and he declared his lament for a nation, or even sooner than that, with the defeat of John Diefenbaker’s government, the last government to stand up to American imperialism in Washington. Of course, that was the Kennedy administration at the time. I would think that there are still remnants of Canadian conservatism in a populist sense in Western Canada.

That seems to be the most serious opposition to the federal Liberal government at this time. The current federal leader of the Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, is trying to advance a version of fusionism. When I listen to him, I’m reminded of Frank Meyer, the great American conservative, who argued that as much as possible, conservatives should try to synthesize moral traditionalism with relatively free market capitalism.

I think that’s the message that Poilievre is trying to advance. Whether that works is another question, though, because fusionism has never really been tried in the Canadian experience, except maybe in Alberta, where I come from. But, nationally, it has not.

I can understand why Poilievre is doing that because many people are tired of the surveillance state that Trudeau and the Liberals have installed. Of course, many opposed the lockdown. People still remember the lockdown measures that were very draconian during the COVID-19 era.

The Liberal Party has nothing to do with liberalism, per se. The Liberal Party is a an authoritarian party that is very intolerant of disagreement, especially from the Right. I think the liberals are vulnerable right now to a message of fusionism. I just have doubts about whether a majority of Canadians would embrace a synthesis of moral traditionalism and free market capitalism.

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