Red Tory?

by Roberta Bayer on September 1, 2011 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

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Red toryism claims to be re-defining the political landscape, moving beyond the old hegemonic debates as to whether the best kind of government is socialist and statist or liberal and individualistic. In the context of English politics, Philip Blond and others have advocated a new type of conservatism different from big business, big government conservatism. They have argued that localism, community action, ethics and environment should be the first concern of true conservatives.

The choice of the name ‘red tory’ would appear to be an attempt to situate these ideas outside of the usual ideological categories. It signifies approval of a bottom up conservative culture combined with a dedication to social justice. The political label ‘red tory’ is imported from Canadian political culture. There its usage has been somewhat varied, and given its intellectual pedigree I have wondered if that history is what Philip Blond wants it to be. As I have some sympathy for this movement and its attempt to leaven the dough of our technological and hegemonic society, I would like to relate a little of the history of this term in Canada.

George Parkin Grant is the conservative Canadian philosopher who was most often identified as the quintessential red tory because his ideas were not easily categorized within normal party politics: he was a friend to the left while being a conservative, and hated the liberal party for its toadying to big business and American power, and bringing forth an alliance of government and market forces that he thought had seriously weakened constitutional government. But he said a number of times that he was not a red tory.  He was a tory or conservative, simply, but more than that, a philosopher.

I believe that he thought that the label red tory inadequately described what he was about, which was to place before his readers a philosophical critique of modernity, not a plan for practical politics. He did not advocate political solutions, but rather taught his students to think more deeply about how to live well, and to think outside of those ‘isms,’ those paradigmatic categories that dominate politics. So not only did he dislike liberalism, which identifies the primary good with the making of money, and marxism, for its utopian dream of dominating both nature and human nature through technology, but he disliked all easy ideological solutions to the problems of the day.

This latter point is important — it was Gad Horowitz, the socialist professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who first called Grant a ‘red tory’ in an article published in 1966, entitled “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada.” In so doing Horowitz gave intellectual respectability and explanatory power to a theory which attempts to account for why conservatives in Canada shared some practical political goals with socialists on some matters of public policy.

In this article Gad Horowitz following the American socialist (some might say liberal) political historian Louis Hartz, author of The Liberal Tradition in America, argued that the political culture of North America was shaped by ideological fragments carried in the thinking of European immigrants when they came to the new world. The American colonies were settled by people who were for the most part adherents of an English brand of whig-liberalism, and this became more pronounced after the Revolution of 1776 when the loyalists, who had a ‘tory streak’ to their thinking, left the country.  Thus all politics in the United States falls within a whig-liberal paradigm. Canadian culture was influenced in part by the loyalist ‘whigs with a tory streak’, but also by whig-liberals, and eventually by English socialists, hence giving it three distinct political parties.

According to this theory, tory-loyalism is organic-corporate-hierarchical in nature, it is sympathetic to government corporations that promote national unity.  For example, Conservative Canadian governments had been friendly to the creation of national institutions supported by tax money, such as the CBC, because such institutions strengthen the organic unity of the nation. In legislating these institutions Canadian conservatives had allied with socialists who are egalitarian-rationalist-corporate in their thinking. This common corporate and organic bias made the red tory the friend to the socialist against the individualist, free market liberal, or so the theory goes.

Whatever one makes of this theory as a whole, it presumes a progressive paradigm. Each ideological wave would advance political liberty and equality through new government regulations and public corporations until finally an egalitarian society would be attained through socialist party influence and the eventual demise of old tory ideas of hierarchy. Horowitz’s theory, therefore, presented conservatism as a precurser to liberalism and to socialism, no more, and necessarily part of the same project. There was to be a grandfathering of socialist public policy through the help of corporatist-organic tories in government, and that grandfathering was the peculiar role assigned to the red tory. From my standpoint, it seems a perfectly legitimate reading of the Hartz-Horowitz thesis to say that it gives no place to the tory, understood as a serious critic of social utopianism, progressivism, or public planning. The red tory seems to offer no intellectual critique of progressivism that has merit. I suspect that put in this light, Hartz’ read on toryism has few serious takers among English red tories, and they might want to situate their red toryism outside of that theoretical framework.

For this reason and more I believe that George Grant, despite his friendship for Horowitz, did not want to be labeled a red tory. His serious study of historical philosophy and his love of Plato’s dialogues had not led him to believe that the western world was advancing toward some kind of perfectly just man-made regime, or that people today were more capable of constructing a just regime today than in the time of Socrates or Christ.

Grant did have a great love of those on the left who worked for the poor and the weak, particularly those on the Christian left like Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement.  Grant had praised the youthful revolutionaries of the 1960s who wanted to ‘opt out of the culture’, because they stood for a kind of protest against technological modernity which Grant thought important. His hatred of the liberals, and the corporate culture being imported into Canada from the United States was visceral. In this he looked like Horowitz’s red tory, an enlightened, anti-liberal, quasi-socialist.

However, when asked by Gad Horowitz in an interview, if he thought that the cultural revolution of the 1960s might be a way out of the liberal dominance of society, the technological trap, that it might be leading somewhere (the predictable question of a progressive), Grant replied:

“’Leading anywhere?’ Not if you mean change of the society as a whole. The society is given over to mammoth technological institutions and there are certain requirements given in the nature of these institutions that you cannot escape. But it is, luckily, a very rich society, therefore a lot of people can drop out and take its benefits while living outside of it…. I think people who try to make new living institutions – you know, family schools, and other forms of institutions – in this society are just magnificent.” (“Technology and Man: An Interview of George Grant by Gad Horowitz”, Collected Works, III)

Socialism could offer no better solution for the evils of society than liberal individualism. There was no possibility of obtaining substantial and permanent improvement of the human situation. The good life is a continual struggle to be just, to protest what was unjust, to act justly, think truly, in contemplation of the good. It was not attachment to a particular party program.

So, if all the red tory is, is a progressive conservative who is half-way to becoming a socialist, then possibly it lacks that really critical edge, that yeasty leavening, which would mark a serious critique of contemporary politics. But if a person calling him or herself a red tory wants to question the justice of a technological, hegemonic state in the name of living well and wisely, as have philosophers and Christian saints of the past, then it would seem that they might want to distinguish themselves more completely from socialism and political conservatism in name.

Ironically, insofar as Grant was admired by socialists for his genuine attachment to a view of the world which went beyond simple ideological association, and expressed great respect for the life of philosophy and Christian sainthood, maybe then what those socialists were really seeking was the kind of philosophical understanding, the knowledge of the good, provided by the life of the philosopher.  If so, that would make socialists (and indeed all contemporary seekers after ideological solutions) a variety of poor philosopher in search of the knowledge of that good which the Grantian philosopher might provide.

Roberta Bayer is Assistant Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College and editors of Mandate: The Magazine of the Prayer Book Society.

 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox September 1, 2011 at 6:47 am

This is an excellent piece, and expresses well a point which all of us who cross back and forth from the realm of ideas to the realm of politics need to keep in mind: that something is always lost in the transition. I actually tend to think that Red Toryism has real potential as an ideology and platform for political action, but the author is correct that I’d be in the wrong to simplistically connect the dots between Grant–a thinker I greatly respect–and any such movement. (Philip Blond has done some good thinking himself, but he’s hurt his own ideas, or so I think, by engaging in such a simplistic connection between his proposed localist/Tory reforms and David Cameron’s conservatives, and in particular with the potted intellectual history which conservatives often tell themselves to justify their position.) I do think the author goes too far in making “social utopianism, progressivism, and public planning” all the same phenomenon; you can have some of the latter without all of the former, and I think Grant’s own ideas about the necessity of protecting Canada’s ability to support the “new living institutions” he speaks of support this distinction. But in any case, a great read; my kudos to the author.

(A perhaps fairer examination of the limitations of Philip Blond’s Red Toryism is well revealed in his exchange with the Labor thinker Maurice Glasman, here.)

avatar love the girls September 1, 2011 at 9:07 am

Russell Arben Fox writes : “Red Toryism has real potential as an ideology and platform for political action”

True, because it looks all too much like the kind of political action which can be used by the establishment to blunt real reform. Strengthening the organic unity of a nation reads all too much like consolidation masquerading as subsidiarity when all is said and done because money and power will rule the day.

The old hipster method of tuning in and dropping out, i.e. dropping out of the materialism as best able, can actually accomplish the desired result specifically because it can’t be co-opted because there’s no money or power to be gained by it.

avatar Peter S. September 1, 2011 at 9:58 am

Dr. Bayer, it’s good to see you writing on FPR. I regret never having the opportunity to take a class of yours while I was at PHC. “Red Tory” is a distressing name and I agree with you that it is likely to beget misconceptions and even bring along fellow-travelers who do not really have a conservative cast of mind.

avatar EB Nagle September 1, 2011 at 10:07 am

Hipster methodology rocks the voluntarist side of reform. Corporations can’t co-opt an altered sensibility.

Nonetheless, subcultural opposition to globalist and materialist consensus does not sport the same teeth other, more influential movements employed to transform society. We need more radical Blond kind of characters, people in media, think tanks, academia, the art world who critique the neoliberalism consensus.

Controversy surrounding Blond spirals around this notion that Red Toryism and The Big Society are nothing more than mood music used to maintain the status quo. I don’t buy into this criticism.

Blond, from my angle, looks like a Fabian localist/distributist. I long for a modernist rupture that gives rise to Christian communities that oppose bureaucratic structures generally: state or corporate. Red Toryism does not go all the way, but, theoretically, it moves in a good direction.

avatar Marchmaine September 1, 2011 at 10:07 am

I rather thought Blond had the better of the exchange…illustrating that Glassman is not really all that blue, just and older shade of Red.

But this is the problem with Politics… we see levers and knobs all around us and imagine that had we access to these devices things would go better; I think Blond is learning (has learned?) that Cameron and the Conservatives are a slippery device.

I do not believe that anyone can grab the levers of power and pull them; we have not the leverage.

The very best thing a man like Blond might accomplish is to plant a handful of seeds, somehow shelter them in their early growth, teach others to see their potential, and then perhaps future generations will be able to leverage the grown institutions to provide sufficient counter-balance to pull the levers of power (which will break before yielding).

In that sense, Grant is spot on… this is not an incrementalist whig project.

If your political time horizon does not start somewhere near the birth of your grandchildren, you are doing it wrong.

avatar Russell Arben Fox September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Peter S.,

…fellow-travelers who do not really have a conservative cast of mind

I think your judgment is equally applicable from the other side of the usual ideological divide; the label “Red Tory”, as provocative and as perhaps filled with possibilities as it may be, may unfortunately attract fellow-travelers who aren’t really socialist–who don’t, in other words, really see the need to attack the locality-destroying social power of capital as vigorously as they should. (I would put Blond in this category, as much as admire much that he says.) If Dr. Bayer is correct that serious thinkers should “distinguish themselves more completely from socialism and political conservatism”, then it would appear that Red Toryism fails on two counts at the same time.

Marchmaine,

If your political time horizon does not start somewhere near the birth of your grandchildren, you are doing it wrong.

Great line; I’m going to remember that one.

avatar Roberta Bayer September 2, 2011 at 11:43 am

I thank Russell Arben Fox for directing me to the article in Prospect. To add to this discussion, I must remark on how the language of political discussion of this kind reveals an overpowering concern about what ‘we’ (the political class) can do for the ordinary people by encouraging local organizations, legislating this or that, etc. (This was particularly true of the labour interlocutor). But, somewhat ironically, at the same time there was praise for the idea that people should govern themselves by the formation of civic and political associations.

This points to a difficulty with the modern ideological paradigm in which politics operates, which is that it presumes that ordinary people are not capable of exercising power rightly in their own interests and so must be brought into some larger plan of action.

But the foundational presumption of a free country, a democracy, as imperfect a form of polity as it is (even according to de Tocqueville who also sings its praises), is that it is self-governing and that even the poor and uneducated may know their self interest.

De Tocqueville, writing about America in the nineteenth century, argued that citizenship in a democracy is learned (although not by school learning), and it is founded on a habitual way of thinking (a habit of their heart). This habitual way of thinking is also described as self-interest well understood. By contrast, selfishness leads to tyranny. Self-interest well understood is a kind of enlightened selfishness — it is defined as the capacity to see that something needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve a kind of general material happiness for oneself. The man who puts off buying something today so that he can save his money for something better, for example. The person who sacrifices some of their hard earned leisure time at the end of a busy day to attend local meetings so that they might participate in self-government. It was characteristic of the life of democratic man in America in the nineteenth century and seemingly was adopted without conscious intent.

So although one might sympathize with the frustration of the contemporary social reformer — in the words of Mr Glasman — “As I know from my own work, creating new civic associations is hard. It takes time.You have to work with people, attend meetings and decide on action collectively” — in a democracy difficulty in making associations is unavoidable, and it is the means to freedom. People do have to discover their self-interest for themselves and then act. They do not always immediately know their self-interest. And for that reason, the government worker who is tempted to bring them into a larger plan of his own making — is the founder of administrative tyranny. Truly free associations only come about by leisured talk among the people chiefly affected by some problem, discussion and persuasion, and rational education (although not in the sense of a curriculum, but a culture of learning). For it is only by trial, error, and experience that a free person comes to know their self-interest well understood for themselves, and it is a rather imperfect and flawed task. It should not predispose one to quick legislative solutions.

Two thoughts:
1) How is it possible to limit ideological solutions, which claim to know the whole good for mankind encompassed in a single plan, for the sake of opening up a space for discussion in which individual self-interest can be expressed? This is an extraordinarily difficult question.

2) Secondly, how do people understand and express their self-interest well understood given the conditions in which they live today? Once again, this raises very complex questions about our culture.

So I admire Phillip Blond’s work because he is interested in such questions. But there is a lot of philosophical spade work to be done in thinking about whether democracy, understood as self-government in de Tocqueville’s sense, can still exist, and if it can, how?

avatar David September 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I’m left with a bit of a struggle here because I have a distaste for what still seems to be a virtuous term here, “effective”. I’m not really interested in effective methods of political action or effective political structures.

What I am concerned with is that which informs our political boundaries and mandates political action. I am concerned with the process of thinking which feeds a deliberative (not ideological) civic course.

Would I like to have this meritorious consideration result in compelling policy–to be sure. But if we concern ourselves with what it will look like, rather than the manifest issues of the day, we are necessarily building Leviathan, perhaps more slowly or within certain laudable limits.

The grand plan (right, left, center, tory, socialist, green, whatever) is the source of the problem. It is, itself, modernity. The only way to avoid this tyranny, ultimately, is to fulfill our duties first and let the form resolve naturally from that effort.

Once Red Toryism becomes an -ism the value of its appearance in the political landscape is lost. It needs to remain a set of considerations, traditions and values (it may adopt such things, as too much has been lost to inherit them properly) and avoid the temptation to construct a fabulous (by that I mean fanciful or imaginary) government which should be its right end.

Stop trying to change the world. The world will change. We are here to live rightly, not find the devices by which we can compel other men to live rightly. Give up the artifices of power and take up the challenge of humility. This is not dropping out, but rather engaging in the real battle we would otherwise be distracted away from.

Be the real civic, rather than forever spend your time dreaming dreams of will-o-wisps. This is the testimony of the hemlock Socrates took, and the lesson Plato never learned properly from his beloved teacher.

The more I read FPR the more I realize that true culture leaves no other monument.

avatar EB Nagle September 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Is it not in humility that we oppose centrilization and support participatory localism and a Christian or virtue ethics? The struggle may only result in a remnant, but we must always long for, and work to see, harmony prevail over dissonance

avatar KO September 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm
avatar Elias Crim September 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm

As someone with a vested interest in this topic (I’m part of a team working on a new U.S. affiliate to Blond’s thinktank), I find these comments very insightful. Red Toryism won’t translate, agreed. But economic localism does, whether you’re a Tea Partier or a Vermont separatist. Secondly, be assured: socialists and statists alike will be disappointed with the U.S. version of Blond’s agenda. It’s not what we want government to do: it’s mostly about what we want government to stop doing–so that communities can indeed become free to discover their best interests. David is correct: we must have a politics of virtue (Blond’s phrase), not a Grand Plan.
And Russell, fear not: the attack on “the locality-destroying social power of capital” will be undertaken. (Rush listeners will be saddened.) This is a vision that conserves while not, in all likelihood, your dad’s conservatism.

avatar Nagle September 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Good to hear this sensibility will have an outlet on our shores. I don’t know about everyone else, but I would certainly like to hear more about the ways Elias and his team plan to translate Milbank and Blond’s ideas into the American context. Will federalism play a major role? Has there been much interest or support from folks in the media or government? Will you guys been pulling talent from any academic traditions or universities in particular? Elias, tell us more.

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