An introduction to the thought of George Parkin Grant, on the centenary of his birth (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
George Grant is a conceptually complex Canadian critic of technology and America who may appeal to different parts of the political spectrum.
George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) is one of the rarest of birds -- a conservative Canadian nationalist philosopher. George Parkin Grant (who usually called himself George Grant) is virtually unknown outside Canada, and should not be confused with the American conservative writer of the same first and last name. The exploration of the combination of the four words used to describe George Grant – conservative, Canadian, nationalist, philosopher -- will be the backbone of this series.
George Grant is not a narrowly partisan politician confined to the day-to-day mud-slinging and hurly-burly of "practical politics" -- rather, he is a political philosopher who looks at society from a high and abstruse standard which may fairly be termed as "world-historical" in its perspective. Although Grant did endeavour to write to be widely understood, his writing is far more abstract and abstruse, and far less crudely biased, than that found in "practical political" discourse.
George Grant is also not an analytic philosopher (i.e., Grant loves broad vistas rather than minutiae); nor is he a political scientist (in the narrow sense of the kind of person in political studies who aspires to put on a lab coat to lend themselves prestige); nor is he a student of international relations; and certainly not an administrative or management theorist. By his preference for political philosophy, Grant has set himself against the rising tide of these disciplines today, which are proceeding – despite some exotic postmodern fraying at the edges -- in the direction of analytics, the scientific model, a mathematical modelling of international relations, and administrative and managerial approaches. Grant does not care about the "micro" of politics and society (such as that expressed in interminable statistical analysis), but about the "macro", the really big picture. Specific historical instances are used by Grant to illustrate his "macro" thesis, rather than analyzed in themselves. Grant does not care about quantitative analysis of picayune events, but rather looks at why, rather than how, certain things happen.
George Grant, like all political philosophers, derives his views of all human societies from a carefully defined set of first principles. These most noticeably include a conception of human nature which differs from that of most modern thinkers.
To Grant, there are deep and fundamental distinctions between premodern and modern societies, which transcend the particular features of individual societies. This assertion of a distinction between the premodern and modern (and an explanation of what these terms mean in a philosophical sense) could be seen as the core of Grant's political philosophy. The premodern and modern viewpoints or "world-views", make different assumptions about human nature, the purposes of human existence, and the place of humankind in the world, and therefore determine the type of society in which we live. In particular, Grant pays an enormous amount of attention to what technology, and the interaction of humanity and technology, means. Because of the negative conclusions which he reaches about technology and the "ideology of technology", which he identifies with the modern world-view, Grant is generally critical of modernity and modern societies.
The second crucial point to be made is that the term "conservatism", as used by George Grant, has almost nothing in common with its various current, conventional meanings and definitions. He uses the term in a special sense, which emerges from his "holistic" view of human history and social development. Today, most people associate "conservatism" as a political term mostly with "neoconservatism", the advocacy and espousal of the so-called free market (i.e., of capitalism), with tax-cuts, budget-reductions, big corporate profits, etc., as well as with a certain harshness, rigidity, and anti-idealism. In Canada, neoconservatism is often seen as an American import.
To George Grant conservatism, properly defined, is almost the exact opposite of these -- he is, in fact, vociferously anti-capitalist, because capitalism is seen by him as identical with that dominance of technology to which he is opposed. His own definition of "conservatism" is a highly eclectic one, which portrays it as a highly positive, life-affirming viewpoint, rooted in traditional philosophy and religion, especially Platonism and Christianity, as he sees them.
It should also be noted that meaning of the word "Tory", as which George Grant could in some sense be described, has undergone an incredible evolution throughout history. Like the word "conservatism", this word has an extraordinarily large number of different meanings, virtually all of which have nothing to do with the way the word was being employed to describe the "Tory" government and party of Brian Mulroney in Canada in 1984-1993 -- roughly meaning "political fat-cats and friends of big business".
A better term to describe Grant would be "Red Tory" or "radical Tory". However, one must be careful to include the reflective component in it, as many unreflective Progressive Conservative party hacks in Canada, who simply wanted to adopt a left-liberal program to gain votes, have also been called "Red Tories". Another term which could be applied to Grant is "high Tory", the word "high" connoting both the sense of the philosophical and the religious.
The third point to be made is that George Grant calls himself a Canadian nationalist. This is clearly at odds with the conventional contemporary definition of conservatism in Canada as pro-American, pro-capitalist, and pro-Free Trade, but is, of course, entirely consistent with the definition of "conservatism" which George Grant adopts for himself. George Grant's view of himself as both a conservative and a Canadian nationalist is rooted in a certain view of modernity, modern history, and the development of Canada and the United States on the North American continent, which will be explained further below.
The fourth point to be made is that, in the same way that there are many definitions of "conservatism" and "Toryism", so too there are many definitions of nationalism. Nationalism is often a principle which virtually all persons in the national community, regardless of other political beliefs, can agree to. For example, in the Polish Second Republic, virtually all Poles believed in the necessity of a strong Poland, an effective military, and the strengthening of Poland's place and position in the international order, regardless of party affiliation. Many of the minorities of the Second Republic, however, were against the Polish national consensus – although they were also citizens of the Polish state. There can be various types of nationalism, which usually fall somewhere along a continuum based on “ethnicity”, to an identity based purely on “state”. All the Anglo-American societies (including Britain and the United States) have heavily tended in the direction of “state” nationalism – which should have theoretically made them more tolerant and less exclusivist – although this in practice has not always been the case. And, as is discussed below, the prevalent form of Canadian nationalism today actually attacks the traditions of the British-inspired state, and of “the two nations” (English and French), in Canada. Grant’s version of Canadian nationalism, however, is as a truly conservative, traditionalist tendency. According to Grant – in contrast to some political theories that usually see nationalism as something distinctly modern -- some types of nationalism can indeed be the expression of a premodern ethos or its residues in modern times.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.