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The Compulsion of Nonconformist Conscience

To Revive Militant Liberalism and Renew a Culture of Compassion
Institute Bulletin No.33 22.November.2002

"Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist so the world may whip you with its displeasure, but rest assured this has no deep cause, but is put on and off as the wind blows.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"A radical may be moved by many motives, but in the last analysis feels impelled to right existing wrongs. Radicalism may be a compensation for suffering but while others, similarly conditioned, become tyrants and knaves, the radical is driven by a compassion, and a compulsion, that urges him to remake the world."- Charles A. Madison

"The Nonconformist Conscience makes cowards of us all.”- Max Beerbohm, “King George IV”


This is a great time in the business of Canadian politics. Armies of Federal Liberals are all over the land scouting the terrain, negotiating alliances, rallying regiments of supporters to prepare for that great day when they will do battle in the arena of convention. Naturally, as all armies, they need the basic necessities of life---ammunition, intelligence, and supplies. And even while the drumbeats of confrontation thunder in the light of day one can still make out the distant sweet whispers of accommodation in the velvety still of night as the minions of the commanders arrive at the redoubts of the strategic specialists and tactical technicians to assess and assure that their battle plans are flawless and their legions will be well fuelled. As Walter Bagehot wrote, politics will forever be dependant on those in the shadows who are “…as the hyphen that joins and the buckle that binds…”

 The Dilemma

As I said, this is a boom time in the business of politics. And for those of us in this business this is not at all a matter of shame which we need cover with a veneer of false piety. For one of the reasons we went into politics was that we enjoyed the process. But for some of us that sometimes-ignoble process was meant to serve a more noble passion---the politics of purpose.


We engaged in political life not for our own self-aggrandizement but because of the anger we felt at the injustices and inequities that surrounded us. Because we felt others pain---viscerally. Because the course we sought to chart was the relief of suffering and the enfranchisement and empowerment of those too weak to fight for themselves. Because we shared a common humanity.


For that reason we chose not to engage in the narrow parochialism of the right nor in the fruitless dogmatic debates of the left. We meant to be effective. That took power. And power resided in the political center. We were pragmatic. As James Garfield quipped we tried to do two things---daring to be radicals but not fools and “…judging by all available evidence this was a matter of no small difficulty…”. We felt no moral repulsion that the Natural Governing Party, that held the center, had, as all parties have, a primordial obsession with the acquisition and maintenance of elective power. That is the primary function of parties. The acquisition of legislative clout. That is what makes this time special in the Liberal political landscape and behooves us all to engage in a parallel effort at the same time that we are electioneering.


An Historic Pause


Every now and then history gives us a breather. With a right in complete disarray and the left in its usual dormant impotency the Liberals have the luxury to choose a new leader not solely on the basis of strength of might but also on passion of mind. And that passion will be the one factor that renews the liberal spirit and revives the conscience of the nation.


We do not know who will win the Liberal convention. But we do know, save some great cataclysm, who will win the next election. We have a luxury of thought right now. A chance to consider what liberalism means to us as a people. And what we need in a leader, not as Liberals, but as Canadians seeking to maintain the course we have charted of a progressive and compassionate land.


This is an opportunity for basic reflection on the legacy of liberalism and for bold resolution for new departures. A chance to reconsider and reinvigorate that liberal spirit which has been the stalwart steward of the expansion of our liberties and the growth of our nation for the past century. For if this moment of rediscovery is not seized, liberals may find that, regardless of the short-term political success of the Liberal Party, that they will have traded the civility of purpose for the vulgarity of conformity.


The Historic Setting

The past century has been the epoch of liberal triumph in western democracies. No other doctrine spoke with the same authority or exercised the same widespread influence. From Mill to Mazzini to Kossuth it spread as a firestorm across the civilized world. Yet its very inherent contradictions are what demanded constant vigilance. For liberalism was more attitude than doctrine and more aspect than dogma. Representative of the strivings of the middle class to win its place in the sun, Liberals and liberals never forgot that the claims of social justice were never exhausted by electoral victories.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution philosophers and kings and industrial potentates all realized that we entered a new age of inter-dependence. No one could make it alone no matter how much money or majesty they had. Liberalism arose out of this cauldron of change representing a new class with a visceral sympathy for the huge labour masses now lodged in factories and sweatshops rather than agrarian fields, yet economically dependant on the wielders of capital and property for whom they engaged as professionals, merchants and tradesmen--the true “middlemen”. This new “middle” class began the flexing of its muscles of political maturity in the revolutionary cloak, though bloodless no less revolutionary, of liberalism.

Revolutionary change was pushed through because all understood the historic thrust of the incontestable inevitability of the need for a society of equity as well as equality. The process of engagement in this development has always seemed the most exhilarating expression of what we were about as educated and enlightened people who by their refusal, in Dante’s words, to “…place themselves with those cold and timid souls who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis…”, propelled our society to lionize the nobility of courage and conscience and repel the decay of hatred, jealousy and greed. The liberal struggle was never for the sake of philosophical notions of an idealized humanity but for the very pragmatic and immediate relief of the human being.

 The Need for Courage

The liberal legacy is a proactive one. With its own formulas and aims. But their achievement requires the courage of conviction not the caution of conformity. It is instructive that someone of courage, Sir Winston Churchill, as Secretary of Social Welfare in the Liberal Asquith government of England in 1910, instituted the first broad based social security programs in the West. Not out of parochial political interest as Bismarck had done a quarter century earlier in instituting a narrow retirement scheme to rid the newly unified German government of political opponents in the civil service. Nor out of fear for the safety of the capitalist system as Roosevelt did a quarter century later in the United States. But simply because it was right. England faced no great social crisis. It was simply considered the decent policy to pursue. The decent thing to do. And decency more than anything is the litmus test of fidelity to the liberal ideal.

Churchill’s “five foundations” of liberalism are as vital today as when he first penned them. He wrote:

“Liberalism does not seek to pull anyone or anything down. But it does seek to raise people up from poverty. Liberalism does not seek to destroy private interests. But it demands that they be reconciled with public rights. Liberalism does not attack capital. But it does attack monopoly. Liberalism does not mean the stifling of enterprise. But it also does not reward it with untrammelled privilege and preference. Liberalism does not exalt the rule or the regulation. Liberalism exalts the man above the state.”

Through all the attacks on him he did not flinch. For the liberal is constantly engaged in an ongoing social experiment. And that requires courage, for in politics, as Disraeli wrote, experiment is always considered revolution.

 Our National Context

Our natural national liberal attitude is one borne of a political civility where passions are controlled by a vigorous will and emotions become the servants of a tender conscience. Where competing claims of all groups are balanced in a crucible of resolution allowing each a stake in the process---the price of the stake is compromise by all in order to achieve a lasting and binding national consensus. Our political genius in the past century is that we have engineered a liberal democratic framework that recognizes that in a society that is generally upwardly mobile with generational revolutions of rising expectations, a political system that is inclusionary and accessible is the only way to encourage the national compromise necessary for the maintenance of the vital political center. We have nurtured the ideal of a body politic that abhors vileness and treats all with respect.

Laurier called Canadians people with “…natural liberal hearts…”. What is this “liberal heart”. Fundamentally, Lord Russell defined it as an attitude the chief characteristics of which are “… human sympathy, receptivity to change and a willingness to follow reason over rhetoric, deed over dogma…”.

What needs to be done to protect and progress the liberal ideal? We must preserve, as we have in the past, the free enquiring spirit and to allow it to flourish. Everything of importance in our nation has been accomplished by that spirit and the preservation of it is more important than the imposition of any doctrinaire definition of family values or moral codes or political platforms. Liberalism is not a philosophy that provides a mould into which human life is to be formed. It does not force people to adapt to an ideology. Rather it is an ideology that adapts itself to people.

This perhaps is the most radical testament of liberalism. For underlying all the specifics which people espouse who think of themselves as liberals, there is always the overriding importance of remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances. This is why liberalism has always been associated with a passionate commitment to freedom of thought and speech, to experiment, and to the liberty of a political process where it was always understood that though stability was provided by continuity, vitality flowed from non-conformity. It sought the redistribution of access and opportunity without the enslavement of the individual to government intrusion and regulation.

 A Legacy of Progress and Purpose

What then can this generation of Liberals take from the authentic legacy of liberalism not only to propagate their own power, but more importantly, to continue the ardent advocacy of the liberal revolution into the 21st century?

Liberals must remember that demands for social justice and equity must never be answered with charitable condescension; partnership of power must not be viewed as concessions to the maintenance of supremacy; liberalism’s initial visceral empathy with labour must now be formalized into a bold new political partnership; and the way of response to the alienation of the citizenry must be found in a sharing of the instruments of governance in order to avoid a popular flight from the suffocating tyranny of the legislative controls and regulatory burdens which are the inevitable outgrowths of modern government.

In brief, more participation by the governed combined with temperance of the hands of the governors. With these commitments we could see a generational renewal of the party and a revival of the spirit of our nation. Without them, liberalism may become the prisoner of the ends it seeks to serve.

The new Liberal leadership must always be vigilant in remembering that the very empowerment and enfranchisement they take for granted, is too often inaccessible to the citizens they govern. Not because the people are too stupid and lazy. But because the vast majority are still simply too tired from the daily struggle for survival. Too tired to become, in Malraux’s words, the quintessential “…citoyens d’engagement…”

They must remember that the “Just Society” men of goodwill seek to build is predicated on a recognition of an equal claim on the stock of welfare of the land by all, and that this recognition has not yet found full expression in the social contract between the government and the people.

They must remember that differences in reward must be capable of justification in terms of relevance to the common welfare and not to the priorities of the preferred few.

And that the anguish the people suffer is a price too high to high to pay for the retention of place of the privileged.

All this and more. In all political endeavours, when something bold and brave is proposed that cannot be placated by the worn platitudes of political rhetoric, small minded souls concerned with nothing more than the protection of their own parochial fiefdoms will use any petty excuse, will exercise all manner of mendacity, to obstruct the growth of an inclusionary equality based on equity and not on elitism.

The approaches proposed herein come from the very heart that gave purpose to the first stirrings of the liberal spirit. A leadership true to that spirit can cause a revival of purpose in our nation that would be a glow for the world. For in this good and gentle land we have come close to the realization of so much that was noble and essential in the liberal revolution. But we cannot simply remember, we must continue to observe, for if we sit smugly at harbour rather than continuing the course we charted, we will forever be buffeted by the raging tides of challenge and respond with nothing more than resignation.

 The Current Climate

Perhaps the most important advice that political men must heed is Santayana’s admonition that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Since the fall of Communist Europe, Western democracies have struggled to redefine the parameters of their traditional definitions of right, left and center. In Britain there is a “New” Labour. In America the “New” Democrat as defined by the Democratic Leadership Council. And in France the historic “Compromise” has been utilized yet again, until recently, by a President of the right and a Prime Minister of the left. All three countries have seen the proactive agendas of their “liberal” parties infused and diluted with caution and conservatism.

We in Canada have not been completely spared. Not because we had similar political dislocations and elections as the other three nations, but because a rightward bent was considered expedient.  Though we are faced with the same historic economic, political and moral issues of distribution and equalization, unification and separation, inclusion and division, that Liberals and liberalism had managed before, it was quite clearly felt that to maintain the vital political center, and thereby legislative power in Canada, accommodations were to be made.

We would suggest that these changes have gone too far. The political center in this land has held because of our national respect for, and allegiance to, the twin traditions of equity and equality not only in the political but also in the economic ordering of our land. More than any, these have been the centrepieces of industrial liberalism set in place more than a century ago. This is an important time, as a new Liberal leader is chosen, to remember these obligations and to recommit to their observance. If any more accommodations to the right are made, we may see, unfortunately, weakened Liberals instead of a reinvigorated liberalism. The people may be more progressive than the politics.

 The Required Response

Canadians, as heirs of a grand tradition, as citizens, must now maintain our vigilance against all the “neo-theologies” that have arisen. We in this good and gentle land are the heirs of a social contract without peer in the world. We do not say to our citizens that they will go bankrupt if someone in their family has a traumatic illness. We do not say that college is only for the rich. We do not pander to base bloodlust on the issue of capital punishment.  And we hold out a helping hand to the poorest and neediest in the world---the refugees. This is who we are as Canadians. This is what we must demand of the next Liberal leader.

If we do not see a compelling conscience of compassion, a radical renewal of the liberal revolution, by the new Liberal leader, then the very word may become suspect. We should not allow a great ideal to be converted to serve a false philosophy. In order to have continued political success Canadian liberalism must be more than a search for ends and a slavish devotion to party. Liberals should never forget the needs of the very people liberalism was meant to empower and enfranchise. As Churchill warned:

“It is very easy for the rich and powerful to preach the virtues of self-reliance to the poor and unempowered. It is also very foolish, because, as a matter of fact, the wealthy and privileged, far from being self-reliant, are dependant on the constant attention of scores, and sometimes even hundreds, of persons who wait upon and minister to their needs.”

Too often Liberals and liberals forget this. They do so at the peril of the very philosophy they serve and espouse. The radical heart of liberalism must always be reenergized. President Franklin Roosevelt once wrote that the electoral success of the Democrats would always be in direct proportion to the “militant liberalism” they exhibit. How much more so  for Canada’s Liberal Party.

 New Leadership?

The new leader will also have to balance the age-old problem, still in such sharp relief, that there is nothing liberal about the constant expansion of government regulation that strips citizens of their ability to understand, much less participate in, public affairs due to the stifling tyranny of petty regulations posing as practical policy that seem to intrude into every aspect of their lives while at the same time that very government seems to stand idle and impotent while millions have empty lives and  empty hopes, empty stomachs and empty pockets., And that frustration will tear at the very heart of our society. This is not the fault of one leader or one generation of leadership, but has been the undercurrent that has preoccupied Liberals and liberalism from the beginning.

 For in the end we are all human. We have all stared into the abyss. And we have all felt, in the words of Aeschylus,

 “…pain which falls drop by drop upon the heart until through the awful grace of God we acquire wisdom…”

Liberals should not allow the historic courage, character and convictions of liberalism to be replaced by caution, conservatism and conformity.

In our land today too many who call themselves liberals fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past, which, in fact, never existed. They use this as a pious excuse for inaction. The new Liberal leader must guard against, and actively cleanse, the party  of this false piety. It is self-evident that in this land, change, though it involves risk, is the law of life. Without it we are mired in a conformity that, in President Kennedy’s words, is a jailer of freedom and an enemy of growth.

Liberalism should never be moved by the fleeting fancies of agendas geared to appeal to our lowest and basest instincts nor to what political leaders think is in momentary vogue. The success of liberalism is that it has always emphasized the dignity of the individual making the latter so supreme as to make the state his servant. The liberal has always proclaimed that all people possess a like liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship that is never to be compromised.

 Un Vrai Rouge

It is for this reason that the compassionate contract of conscience must be protected, and the passionate politics of purpose must be professed, for these are our strongest weapons against those who would turn our national political patrimony to the right for the purpose of short-term political gain.

The compassionate conscience is the very lifeblood of liberalism. The passion of its purpose comes from the fact that liberalism is not so much a party creed or a set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart. A faith in man’s ability, through the experiences of his reason and judgment, to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood, which all human life deserves.

Liberal doctrine will not be trusted and will decline in authority if Liberals are more preoccupied with the political forms they seek to create than in the economic origins that formed the foundations of the political ideals they originally espoused and advocated. Liberalism promised citizens a sovereignty over their democratically elected government unencumbered by any conditions of special considerations to property or capital.

The individual, no matter how unempowered, would have a flow of well being from the state to allow for his fullest development as a human being. Liberalism was the promised champion of the people and the vehicle through which they would, by the exercise of their suffrage, exact their full share from the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labour had so much contributed. As Prime Minister Trudeau put it,

“The liberal is seldom a partisan of the status quo. He tends to be a reformer---attempting to move society and modify its institutions in order to liberate its citizens. He prizes man’s inclination to good but knows it must be cultivated and supported.”

Liberalism cannot survive in the long run simply by the temporary success of outward institutionalized forms of party and platform while allowing an internal decay of passion and purpose. Without generational radical renewal of its character and conscience, without attention to the compelling compassion of its origins, the gravitational pull of party politics will decay and destroy the very foundational constructs that maintained this edifice as the central political expression of the people’s will for more than a century.

Such a generational renewal of Liberalism’s radical roots is what is possible at this time, in this race, for this party. A reaffirmation of the centrality of liberalism’s faith that in the final analysis one must stand, in Gladstone’s terms, with those whose trust in the people is qualified only by prudence and not with those whose mistrust of the people is qualified only by fear.

These are not mere polemics. These are the touchstone issues by which we will judge, in the words of Prof. Harold Laski, whether our political leaders have the vision to perceive that

 “…the people need to feel the warm gentle breeze of compassion that is prelude to the renewal of a bright spring, rather than the cold stinging frost of conformity that signals entry into a long night of winter."

Beryl P. Wajsmann


Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal

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