Review: The North American High Tory Tradition

The North American High Tory Tradition Ron Dart American Anglican Press (2016)

The North American High Tory Tradition
Ron Dart
American Anglican Press (2016)

What can the Tory tradition mean for us today, in this age of multinationals and American hegemony, and half a century after we were taught “the impossibility of Canada in the modern age?” What would a 21st-century Tory philosophy look like, and what would be its historically new role or vocation?

“Love,” it was written, “is inseparable from memory, which seeks to preserve what must pass away,” and it is to memory that Ron Dart turns in The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016), his fourth and most ambitious book on the subject. Memory of “an older vision of faith and society” (232), of “a large and organic view of life, … in which … religion, education, culture and politics were all organically connected” (66), of a time before the much-lamented “disenchantment of nature, soul and society” (91).

In the most sustained thesis found in these pages, Dart applies tremendous energy advancing the centrality of the Anglican faith (through a succession of figures from Bishop Strahan to Stephen Leacock) to any Red or High Tory1 historical vision of Canada; and further, states the case for the traditionalist wing within an Anglican fold too eager to sip, he argues, from the poisoned chalice of liberalism and relativism. This isn’t to suggest we have here a narrowly sectarian or theological treatise: Dart’s Anglicanism is, first and foremost, co-substantial with “a passion for the people, a concern for the common good”; and anyway, did Chesterton not teach us that the merest drop of Christianity is political enough “to boil all modern society to rags?”2

In any case, Dart’s overriding “religious” concern turns out to project an imperative which should be profoundly appealing for secular readers as well: the defence of the transcendental, of the contemplative life. This, I would argue, is simply to reaffirm the value of philosophy itself, since any philosophizing must perform at least a minimal transcendental/idealizing thrust beyond the purely empirical knowledge which forms the sick addiction of our technological society. In this world of mechanical mastery over the human and non-human, isn’t philosophy itself — the longing for a fixed system of truths and universals — a kind of rebellion?

Perhaps rebelliousness, then, is the most fitting description for this contemporary form of Toryism, pervaded as it is with Dart’s disdain for the self-satisfied bourgeois life — materialism, money, “possessive individualism” —, his hostility to U.S. imperial politics, and his defense of a distinct Canadian identity. Certainly, Dart’s voluminous work places him in that “radical” Tory tradition historically composed of the most unlikely bedfellows, from the ultramontane Bourassa, thundering against Laurier’s imperial entanglements, to the preachers of social gospel in drought-ridden Prairies.

But if Toryism is to mean anything but “a defence of class interests, attractively packaged as an appeal to the past,” then it must harbour, above all, a critique of the Enlightenment programme, and it is for the liberal philosopher from Locke to Hegel — the “bloodstained minions of liberty” — that Dart reserves his most withering scorn. At stake here is a rewriting and rebuke of the Enlightenment as the destroyer of a harmonious feudal ethos in the name of a “freedom” which turned out to be that of the “possessive, competitive, accumulating, market-driven autonomous and atomistic individual.” (198) Thus Dart has little patience for the Whig Burke (85), that eager apostle of the age of progress who exalted revolution in the colonies before recoiling in horror at its ultimate truth in the French Terror (“God,” wrote Bossuet, “laughs at the man who deplores the effect while celebrating its cause.”)

Here, a short excursion into philosophical history may be useful. In violently rejecting the “matrix of liberalism” at the root of modernity, Dart must appeal to an “older fountainhead of conservative thought,” and it’s in assembling this intellectual canon that Tory philosophers have traditionally stumbled. For doesn’t the quest for pure, unvarnished tradition miss Chesterton’s crucial insight that conservatism is always-already caught up in the dynamic of change and revolution?

All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. 3

This dilemma suggests analogies with The North American High Tory Tradition’s distinguished predecessor, Lament for a Nation, recently commemorated by Dart in a collection of retrospective essays. George Grant’s quest for a conservative canon that “predates the age of progress” was similarly Quixotic in the sense that Tories were originally compelled to mobilize their intellectual and polemic energies only in response to the abuses of Enlightenment reason: “O 18e siècle! Inconcevable siècle! qu'as-tu donc cru? qu'as-tu aimé, et qu'as-tù vénéré? Tout ce qu'il fallait contredire, honnir, ou détester.” 4 This is what accounts for the sheer scarcity of conservative texts prior to the emergence of the Enlightenment public sphere or “republic of letters,” with its great literary output of social contracts and written constitutions (in defiance of which Tory philosophy emerged). Before this shift, “conservatism” was simply the unchallenged organic texture of society, which had no need to articulate itself consciously:

The medieval world had their end discovered and their goal chartered. We build skyscrapers as a means - democracy as means - socialism as means. This [the Salisbury Cathedral] was the medieval end; they built this as their goal. We have no goal like that, no ends, and yet we cannot take theirs. We are hungry; yet we cannot eat their decayed meat. We must find something different. 5

This would seem to shed some light on the vexing question of why Grant, for a canon, could produce only shards of John Donne or Richard Hooker: conservatism, like all concrete thought, starts not with the good old days, but with the bad new ones.

So what might it mean, in these bad new days, to renew Canada’s syncretic and radical Tory tradition?

First, there’s still much to be said for a creed which compels us stand on guard against that most cruel form of “politics by other means,” which is to say war itself (whether promoted by the right — “wars on terror” — or left — so-called “humanitarian” interventions), and it’s actually against neoconservatism that Dart most vigorously preaches (237). 6 Those still tempted, after fifteen barren years of “regime change” in the Muslim world, to rally to the American empire as a propugnaculum christianitate in a supposed “clash of civilizations” will find a sobering read here.

But the most pressing lesson in these pages is that nothing can be more foreign to a Tory than an ethic of the self, of isolation from the community — an ethic whose ideologies have never been stronger, ranging from vigilantes and “self-made men” on the right to the politically-correct fear of “harassment” on the left. 7 More practically, this translates to the Tory commitment to “social policy ... as one of the foundation stones of national identity.” The central dilemma for Canada today, as for any federation, remains redistribution (which is to say socialism), from more developed to depressed or impoverished provinces, from resource rents to arts and culture. 8 Canadian and Tory politics thus remain formally bound up, if not in social democracy, then at least in some form of commitment to the social — something which, now as always, will demand sharp opposition to the laissez-faire individualism dominant in the United States.

In effect, much of Canada’s political culture is exposed here as Americanizing if not outright American — noxious to the institutions and strength of the Canadian nation (75). For Dart, all individualizing doctrines (small government on the right, anarchic activism on the left) can only weaken our collective defenses against what Grant called the “barbaric Empire that puts its faith in salvation by the machine”; as for the institutional politics of left and right, Dart naturally unleashes a plague on both houses, denouncing the “the liberal corporate and media power elite” (80) for its historic penchant for “integration with and annexation to the empire to the south” (66), while skewering the Republican-style populism embodied in Stephen Harper — “a colonial of the most worrisome and activist type.” (69) In these most politically charged passages, Dart exhorts us to surmount “the tribalism of left and right” and to “chart a middle path between communism and capitalism” (62), appealing to “that unique Canadian ability to blend both conservatism and radicalism” (71).

These political prescriptions, which also find substance in Dart’s refusal to position Tories as an auxiliary wing of the right in the so-called “Culture Wars” (258), may warrant a few well-meaning probes by way of conclusion. How, precisely, is such a virtuous balance — neither “idealizing society while denigrating the state,” nor “romanticizing the state while demeaning society” (73) — different from the usual platitudes of centrism and liberal-democratic compromise (at which Dart so rightly sneers)? Can the tremendous obstacles to the Tory vision of a harmonious society really be resolved through reasoned debate between representatives in the “marketplace of ideas?” Isn’t this wish-fulfillment at its purest — the desire to reap the benefits of modernity while brushing out the warts (erosion of sovereignty, loss of community)?

Finally, how do we go about reviving traditions which were anchored in an older way of life that has been irrevocably eroded (small proprietors, peasant agriculture, widespread religious observance)? Where Red Tories tend to bang against our own conceptual prison bars is precisely in our difficulty accounting for complex historical change, in our reliance on essentially rhetorical explanations for our defeats — “decadence,” the triumph of rotten ideas and ideologies (“neo-Marxism”), or narratives of a Fall, whether secular (Rome) or spiritual (Eden). Failure to move beyond these tropes will only validate the suspicion, long harbored by our enemies, that we are incapable of fashioning our “host of furious fancies” into a tough and solid philosophical system.

Re-immersing ourselves in the Tory tradition, then, is perhaps not where the philosophical and political hard work ends, but begins.

~Daniel Velarde

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Dorchester Review (Autumn/Winter 2016).

  1. Instead of enshrining them into distinct schools or traditions, I prefer to conceive the taxonomy of “Red” and “High” Tory as essentially rhetorical, a method of bringing into focus different aspects of an organic whole (with “Red” privileging the collective and social aspects of the Tory ethos, and “High” emphasizing its counterrevolutionary continuity with a pre-bourgeois, feudal-clerical England).
  2. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Hoddor & Stoughton, 1996), 173.
  3. Ibid., 168.
  4. Joseph de Maistre, Examen de la philosophie de Bacon (Paris: Poussielgue-Rousand, 1836), 174 : “O 18th century! Inconceivable century! What, then, did you believe? What did you love, what did you venerate? All of the things you should have refuted, reviled, and detested.”
  5. William Christian (ed.), George Grant: Selected Letters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 52. In a sort of inverted Hegelianism, Tory philosophy abolishes itself backward through time.
  6. In British history the Tories were perennially the “peace party,” shunning wars abroad while the mercantilist Whigs pursued an aggressive commercial rivalry with the French monarchy. Louis XIV survived on his throne because the Tories held Marlborough at bay; Napoleon, marching to Waterloo, gambled on a quick victory to usher in a Tory ministry that would dissolve the Coalition with a separate peace. And is it any coincidence that Marx, who so violently disdained the English Tories, experienced his own “neoconservative moment” avant la lettre, zealously embracing Whig imperial wars and the British “civilizing mission” in India?
  7. This Tory longing for a renewed community is not, of course, purely an affair of the right, and counts among several classic left-wing analogs Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. It might be useful then to define as ‘liberal’ any position which rejects both the right-wing, idealistic (ethical, cultural, aesthetic, religious) critique of modernity as well as the left-wing, infrastructural (socio-economic, egalitarian) formulation of that same critique.
  8. Toryism must also have something to say about Quebec’s place within the Canadian federation, about which George Grant’s faith in a nationally awakened — but still Catholic and classically educated — Quebec no longer seems possible. Nor will Grant's conspicuous silence on Canada's indigenous peoples be felt, any longer, to be tenable.