Idealist Politics from Plato to Ed Broadbest

Idealist Politics from Plato to Ed Broadbest

Ed Broadbent has been much in the news lately. One short-term reason was that, as a widely-respected former leader of the NDP, he made it loudly clear that he did not favour Tom Mulcair as its new one, apparently fearing that Mulcair will be more interested in broadening the party’s Canada-wide appeal than with preserving what remains of the party’s traditional socialist pieties. This may not much worry Mulcair, or many other Canadians, for the present.

However, Broadbent also got some new publicity with a separate initiative that may become a more enduring problem, not only for Mulcair, but possibly even for the for the Harper Conservatives. He has created, and is actively promoting, a new left-wing thinktank, the Broadbent Institute. Its arrival has been signalled with the publication of a poll carried out for it by Environics, which purports to show that a broad majority of Canadians, of all regions and all income levels, are ‘willing to pay slightly higher taxes’, if that will ‘save social programs’.

The polling questions were loaded in the customary fashion of such enterprises, but they will probably still attract the attention of professional politicians and their spin doctors, including Conservative ones, since even the respondents who identified themselves as Conservative voters included well over half who gave similar answers to those given by over two-thirds of the NDP and Liberal voters, favouring tax increases in general, larger bites for higher income taxpayers, a 35% inheritance tax on estates above $5 million, and ‘returning corporate taxes to 2008 levels’.

These results are presented as an opening salvo of a continuing ‘Broadbent Institute Equality Project’ with large ambitions: ‘Our research shows that..Canadians of all political stripes want income inequality resolved, [sic] are ready for solutions [sic], and see the problem as decidedly un-Canadian [sic]. The report concluded, ‘It’s time to tackle income inequality once and for al,. and Canadians are prepared to do their part.’

Kelly McPartland dismissed these claims in the National Post, observing that politicians of all parties were unwise to take too seriously polls of this kind. He pointed out that Ste’phane Dion, in particular, had found out the hard way that Canadians tend to sound a lot greener on polls than they turn out to be in actual voting behaviour. But this is a little too quick. Even among Conservatives of free-market inclinations, there is a great deal less gusto for unabashed ‘Reaganism’ than there was worldwide before the 2008 Crash. Bay Street has not aroused as much resentment as Wall Street has, but it is still quite possible that some degree of Canadian economic nationalism and egalitarianism may now be in for a renewed run. It is easy enough to see why this prospect would not be warmly received by, say, Alberta oilmen. But understanding why it should not win over, say, unemployed Eastern university graduates either, requires a reminder of where Ed Broadbent is coming from.

University courses in political science sometimes have a way of being misleading at the very outset, because they often start by contrasting the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. This has long set the stage for a loaded argument, since the more instructive contrast would be between Plato and Thucydides, or even Pericles. That is, the really fundamental argument about thought and action in politics has always less been one between rival philosophical schools than between thinkers, however labelled, who begin with an ideal notion of the good society, and who then try to project it on the one in which they live, and opposing thinkers, mainly historians rather than philosophers, or men of action, who start with the historical and empirical analysis of the societies in which they find themselves, and then construct any theories accordingly.

Permanent disciples of the philosophically idealist traditions in political philosophy have never been much shaken by centuries of accumulating empirical evidence that while they may succeed in introducing some enduring particular reforms, all attempts to achieve their grander objectives, state-imposed egalitarianism above all, have not only been unsuccessful in practice, but have frequently been the cause of epic human catastrophes.

The dangers of coercive utopianism were already recognized well before the 20th century by English political thinkers, both liberal and conservative. But the middleclass and gradualist Fabian leaders who appeared at the end of the Victorian age, Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, attempted an end run around these apprehensions, roughly synthesizing reformist liberalism with socialism, although with little concern for individual freedom. The Webbs were not only diligently industrious researchers and pamphleteers, but also created two enduring institutions, the London School of Economics and a popular middlebrow weekly review, The New Statesman. Both of these provided a venue for their most influential disciple of the following generation, Harold Laski. Laski, who was sometimes a very foolish man, was nonetheless an inspiring teacher of politics at LSE throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Shocked by the 1931 Crash, he also thereafter moved from being a fairly liberal Fabian to becoming a quasi-Stalinist without ever becoming an orthodox Marxist; like Shaw and the Webbs themselves in their old age, it was mainly the Saint-Simonian ‘planning’ of the Soviets that all of them came to gullibly adore. Laski deeply impressed large numbers of the intellectually and politically ambitious young throughout the first half of the 20th century, including many who would later be the largely destructive leaders of the new states carved out of the disintegrating British Empire.

He had the same kind of impact on a wide variety of Canadian students, from Pierre Trudeau to Dalton Camp. One of these, who came to study with him in 1933, was C. B. Macpherson (‘Brough’ to his friends). Macpherson became a professor of political philosophy at the University of Toronto a few years later, and like Laski, was a highly popular professor, who spent his own decades impressing on young Canadians the desirability of a democracy based on economic equality. Today, outside of university political science departments, most Canadians have probably never heard of him, but by the 1960s, he had become renowned and much-honoured in the academic world, especially for his quasi-Marxist interpretation of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, and his 1964 Massey Lectures, The Real World of Democracy. In a little-read later book called Essays in Retrieval, he also wrote a trenchant criticism of Milton Friedman, who was himself a sort of idealist philosopher, but of the ‘possessive individualism’ that Macpherson loathed.

One of Macpherson’s admiring students was Ed Broadbent, who later became yet another university political science professor, writing his doctorate on John Stuart Mill’s idea of the good society. When Macpherson died in 1987, Broadbent wrote him a warm tribute in This Magazine, which declared of his former teacher that ‘He made the most humane and significant contribution by any Canadian to modern political thought’. No doubt he would be disappointed to learn that the Bibler of modern undergraduates, Wikipedia, does not include Macpherson in its elaborate lists of notable Canadians under either ‘Educators’ or ‘Scholars’, although room was found for figures like Northrop Frye, George Grant, and Marshall McLuhan.

But Broadbent’s tribute gave away a major reason that Macpherson is not that widely remembered now, in writing that Macpherson’s one great theme was his concept of ‘possessive individualism’, his term for what he saw as the underlying 17th century philosophical basis for modern societies built around inegalitarian capitalist democracy. Broadbent, still awestruck with admiration, thought that made Macpherson an insightful authority on practically everything.

But Laski, Macpherson, and Broadbent never seem to have grasped the possibility that one might just as well make an ide’e maitrise out of ‘the political theory of academic idealism’, the preservation of a kind of eternal world of Platonic forms that are imagined as both shaping past political and economic history and providing a program for making its advocates the heralds and builders of the good society, taught to generation after generation, while ‘the real world of socialist democracy’ went right on delivering disaster after disaster. Broadbent will devote his new institute to carrying on this sisyphean enterprise; conservatives will continue to prefer the evidence of actual history, and what their own eyes and ears tell them.


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