Canadian Historians in Search of a Narrative

The room was packed at last week’s CHA meetings for the discussion of Ian McKay’s new interpretative framework for the study of Canadian history. People were propped against the walls. There’s something about McKay’s bold proposal that’s very attractive.

He first advanced the argument in an essay entitled, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” (Canadian Historical Review, 2000). In 2006, Michel Ducharme and Jean-François Constant organized a colloquium on McKay at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Ducharme and Constant have now edited the colloquium papers. Liberalism and Hegemony, Debating the Canadian Revolution (University of Toronto Press) appeared this spring, just in time for the Canadian Historical Association session. It includes McKay’s original essay, and – surprise – a long and equally impressive second one on the same lines.

Liberalism and Hegemony is long (over 450 pages); there are twelve chapters, each a substantial essay, and, in all, fourteen authors. If your time is limited read at least Ducharme and Constant’s excellent Introduction, “A Project of Rule Called Canada.” They point out for one thing that McKay uses a definition of liberalism akin to C.B. Macpherson’s “possessive individualism,” and they ask – I’m grateful – why this definition of liberalism “should prevail over Janet Ajzenstat’s essentially political definition, which bases itself on British constitutionalism.”

Mckay is indebted to Antonio Gramsci as well as Macpherson. Perhaps we need an essay on Canadian historians’ debt to Marxists. In the 1960s the great influence was Louis Hartz. His views on historical determinism were attractive to some historians and many political scientists.

Feudal conservatism, classical liberalism, socialism: Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz taught us that the progression was inevitable – as sure as the day follows the night. (They made an exception for the United States, which, they told us, may well be doomed to wander forever in the dim twilight of classical liberalism.)  Equally influential in the 60s and still read today is the eminence C.B. Macpherson, a man who never abandoned his enthusiasm for the twentieth century’s deadliest philosophies of government. His admiration for the Soviet Union’s form of rule knew no bounds, and he  had a soft spot for the one-party systems that emerged in post-colonial Africa. (Think of the Congo. Think of Zimbabwe. Weep.)

And now Gramsci.  Canadian historians are looking for new ways to write and teach Canada’s national story. I’m paying attention.

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4 Responses to “Canadian Historians in Search of a Narrative”


  1. 1 george June 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Fascinating comment. I remember a professor of Political Thought once seriously asking me (a History major) if there were still any Marxists in the History department at our university. Turning the tables, I asked if there were any in Political Science, and he replied that the last one was probably C.B.Macpherson. Can you please explain this huge difference? I am really curious.

    Thanks.

  2. 2 John June 9, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Everyone wants to be a political philosopher. They’d even rather be a bad political philosopher than an historian, I guess.

  3. 3 janetajzenstat June 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Macpherson was probably the last, or almost the last to identify himself as a member of the Party. But sympathies linger. Louis Hartz is still an influence in Political Science Departments.

  4. 4 Colin Pearce June 7, 2011 at 10:06 am

    In his overview of Professor Ajzenstat’s interpretation of the Canadian Founding Professor McKay quotes her as saying that the “Fathers and Founders were Lockean revolutionaries (who)… were following a political philosophy that taught that ‘there are no natural kings and no natural slaves. Kings may rule but only with the sovereign people’s consent. One person may serve another but does not relinquish – the right to walk away from servitude.’” McKay then jumps immediately to the “Parliament versus Referendum” question discussed fifteen pages later in Ajzenstat’s book. [Ian McKay, “Canada as a Long Liberal Revolution” in Jean- Francois Constant and Michel Ducharme eds. “Liberalism and Hegemony” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) p.391]
    But the sequel to the passage quoted by McKay about ‘the right to walk away from servitude” reads as follows: ‘Freedom and equality are the human inheritance, our natural right. I do not need to say that the real world of politics falls short: tyrants flourish, slavery continues. But against the overwhelming evidence of the gulags, genocide, tortures, heedless slaughter and human misery, we continue to believe that political absolutism and slavery run counter to the right order of things – counter to human nature and God’s intent. Even tyrants, to their eternal shame, use the language of popular sovereignty and human rights.” [“The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament” (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007),p. 26-7]
    Why would Professor McKay leave off where he did before this dramatic presentation of the evils of the world and the nobility and humanity of the liberal project? I think the answer comes in his other essay in the same volume. Here McKay explains that the “Canadian project of liberal order” contains a “multitude of liberalisms.” And while these liberalisms might conceivably share a “definitional family resemblance” they do not in fact share an “essential identity.” He goes on: “The realities of class, ethnicity, nation, regionality, gender, religion and sexual orientation, which both Hartzians and their civic-humanist critics might treat as inessential, would be re-described in this (liberal order) strategy as distinct, but also related categories of analysis.” [“The Liberal Order Framework,” in Constant and Ducharme, p. 627]
    What we see here is McKay contracting the field of vision compared to Professor Ajzenstat. Within the liberal framework we can see all kinds of “liberalisms” which some might say are “inessential” to the meaning of the original and fundamental idea but which have been unjustly overlooked as part of the programme. “Sexual orientation,” “gender” or “ethnicity” liberalisms deserve a place at the table along with “life,” “liberty” and the “pursuit of property” “liberalisms.” To heighten the strength of these claims it is important to suggest that the liberal democracy is essentially rather than incidentally unjust. In order to this the “gulags, genocide, tortures, heedless slaughter and human misery” in “the real world of politics” have to be left in the shadows. Compared to such horrors liberal democracy’s alleged tardiness in seeing to it that all “liberalisms” are receiving their share of recognition and influence seems a less than fatal criticism indeed. Compared to the litany which Professor Ajzenstat catalogues the liberal democracy can lay a claim to elementary justice and freedom at the very minimum. McKay’s case that the liberal democracy has come up short in certain respects would be weakened if he had followed through to the sequel of his quotation from Ajzenstat speaking of “slaves” and “Kings” where she presents her measurement of liberal democracy against a universal standard of justice and humanity. For the claims of the “marginalized” liberalisms to loom large a parochial “intra-liberal” standard is required. It was Burke who said that that an agriculturalist committed to “an idea full of equality” who complained that “his sheep did not plough or his horses yield wool” would be an “indifferent farmer.” Likewise a liberal with “an idea full of postmodernist Gramscio-Foucaultianism” who complained that the “popular front” of “liberals, Marxists, anarchists and indigenous activists” was insufficiently represented in the political process, or that the candidates in his riding were all insufficiently “post-individualist” (McKay, “Canada as a Long Liberal Revolution,”p.418, p.420,) might be considered an “indifferent” liberal. This is because such a liberal’s complaints have presupposed an overlooking of the reflection that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Winston Churchill, “Speech in the House of Commons,” 11 November, 1947).

    – CP
    ————————————————————-


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