Restless Gadfly

The many-sided mind of pioneering Canadian historian Frank Underhill.

Toward the end of Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas, his engaging and perceptive book about the historian, Kenneth Dewar, professor emeritus of history at Mount Saint Vincent University, describes Underhill’s 80th birthday dinner, held in Ottawa’s Rideau Club in November 1969.

Although it is now hard for me to believe, I was there that night and can still clearly remember the speech Underhill gave. With a tongue-in-cheek nod to Cardinal Newman, he entitled it “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” and that was apt, for his aim was to give us a taste of the education of Frank Underhill. That meant describing the shifts in his philosophical outlook from late 19th-century liberalism through democratic socialism to post-1960 liberalism, while at the same time his political stance meandered from liberal imperialism through neutralism and isolationism to Cold War internationalism.

In his book, Dewar explores these same journeys from beginning to end and, in true Underhillian fashion, adds an epilogue that intelligently links them to the present state of Canadian politics.

Now for full disclosure. I liked and admired Underhill. I met him for the first time in January 1967 when as a dissertation-writing graduate student I interviewed him about his involvement in the League for Social Reconstruction, an association of left-wing intellectuals he had helped found and whose national president he was from 1932 to 1935. I also questioned him about the influences that had led him, for a time, to embrace democratic socialism. The last time I met him was in 1970, not long before his death. Between those dates he read parts of my dissertation in draft. I recall little of what he wrote—his friends and sometime associates Leonard Marsh, Frank Scott and Graham Spry responded more usefully and at greater length—but I do remember he objected to my description of his style as “waspish.” As I read Dewar, however, I have decided once again that my choice of the word was not unfair.

Complementing the fine 1986 biography of Underhill by Douglas Francis, Dewar traces not just Underhill’s intellectual development but also the part he played in Canadian intellectual life from the 1920s until his death. He was a gadfly with an inquisitive mind and a willingness to share his views with others in a manner that was direct and not infrequently sharp. “Frank Underhill,” Dewar’s opening sentence reads, “practically invented the role of the intellectual in English-speaking Canada.” This claim is overstated, and Dewar effectively qualifies it when he comes to discuss Underhill’s assessment of Goldwin Smith, the sometime Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford who became a notable resident of late 19th-century Toronto. “[Underhill] found local precedent for his posture of engagement in the Victorian liberal, Goldwin Smith,” Dewar writes. “He found in Smith many of the same qualities of independent-mindedness and contrariness that he admired in John Stuart Mill and George Bernard Shaw, which were all the more resonant since Smith was nominally a historian.”

In an essay Underhill wrote about Smith in 1933, he noted Smith’s discovery that “the influence which an intellectual can exercise in Canadian public affairs is severely limited.” It is impossible to read Underhill’s essay without recognizing that he greatly admired the British historian and his stance as an independent controversialist and pamphleteer, and although he did not share Smith’s conviction that Canada would eventually and inevitably join the United States, he seems to have realized that Smith was in some ways an intellectual model and kindred spirit.

Dewar skillfully traces the early influences on Underhill’s ideas, which he owed to his wide reading at the University of Toronto and subsequently at Oxford. Indeed, Underhill read voraciously throughout his life, both books and periodicals. One memory I treasure is of the magazine rack in his living room in Ottawa, which held the latest issues of numerous British, American and Canadian publications. Among them I recall Encounter, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Statesman, the New Republic and the Canadian Forum, which he had once edited and to which he was still contributing. Shaw was a significant influence; so was L.T. Hobhouse, who expounded a liberalism with a social conscience and who opposed militant imperialism of the kind evident in Britain’s South African war.

Underhill returned to Canada in 1914 to take a professorship in history at the University of Saskatchewan. A year later the young history don volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He ended up a machine gun officer in an English regiment, fought in Flanders and France in 1917–18, and was wounded. Dewar notes that he “survived the war skeptical of high-flown talk of sacrifice and noble democratic purpose, especially where it concerned British foreign policy and the rivalries of the European state system.” Nevertheless, in the early post-war years he sought to find a purpose to the war that would justify the deaths of so many people and the wounds, physical and mental, sustained by so many more. As it became evident that international power politics had essentially been unchanged by the war, he came to espouse a neutralist hostility to Canadian participation in another European war, whether fought to help Britain and its empire or to support the League of Nations, an organization he described in 1935, coining a characteristic phrase, as “a society of retired burglars defending the principle of property.”

The First World War marked Underhill. So did the Great Depression. To him as to other progressive Canadian intellectuals such as Eugene Forsey, King Gordon, Leonard Marsh, Escott Reid, Frank Scott and Graham Spry, it demonstrated the economic and ethical failure of what they saw as monopoly capitalism. In 1931–32 they banded together in the League for Social Reconstruction to propose economic changes that would improve the lives of the mass of people while maintaining political democracy and individual freedom. Underhill reinvented himself as a democratic socialist, and he produced the first two drafts of what became the 1933 Regina Manifesto of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, known to history as the CCF. For years he was a strong supporter of that party, but this caused him less trouble than his politically incorrect views about foreign policy and especially Canada’s role in the British Empire/Commonwealth. It was these that almost got him fired from his University of Toronto teaching position in 1940–41.

Dewar chronicles Underhill’s development away from the positions he adopted in the 1930s. In September 1939 he opposed active participation in the war that began in Europe, but the Blitzkrieg in Western Europe and the fall of France prompted a change of view, and eventually he confessed to having been “one of the foolish isolationists” of the time who had not believed reports of the strength of the German armed forces. After the war he became strongly pro-American as he became convinced of the menace to the West that the Soviet Union represented. This put him increasingly at odds with other CCF adherents, among them his former student Ken McNaught, who, without being in any way pro-Soviet, did not see the United States in as positive a light as did Underhill.

Underhill was also having growing doubts about the prospects and efficacy of the CCF. In 1956 he welcomed the party’s updated program, the Winnipeg Declaration, and its elimination of the concluding sentence of the Regina Manifesto: “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” He described this as having been “too emphatic” even in 1933. In 1956 he noted that the capitalism of the Depression era had been “heedless of the impact of widespread unemployment, and without any means of dealing with it.” This had changed, Underhill claimed, due to the constraints provided by state regulation, labour unions and the impact of the theories of John Maynard Keynes. It was time for Canadian socialism to accommodate the new reality of a mixed economy.

Underhill found a good deal to like in the Liberal Party as it changed in the aftermath of the double defeat of 1957–58. Under William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent it had clung to several vestiges of 19th-century liberalism. Led from 1958 to 1968 by Underhill’s long-time friend Lester B. Pearson, the party moved to the left. Underhill approved: “In the federal election of June 1962, he voted Liberal for the first time since 1911,” says Dewar.

When the Liberals came to office in 1963, they were led by those who had learned the harsh lessons taught by the Depression and the war. To stay in office, moreover, the Liberals had to gain the support of the New Democratic Party, founded in 1961–62 to succeed the CCF. The result was the most fruitful period of social legislation in Canadian history and the creation of a wide-ranging welfare state that provided improved social services to the mass of Canadians. While Underhill approved, he sometimes noted with prescient concern the revival of a conservatism, especially in the United States, that might threaten the achievements of the new liberalism. He had become an elder statesman, receiving honorary degrees from six universities and being made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Others among his former League for Social Reconstruction associates honoured in that way were Forsey, Reid, Scott and Spry.

Underhill died just before the reaction against the changes of the 1950s and ’60s began to grow. The capitalist beast he thought had been constrained did not stay that way. The Great Depression and Second World War had indeed prompted increased regulation and constraint of business corporations, but the counterattack began in earnest in the 1970s. The reaction of the corporate world was reinforced by conservative social critics disdainful of or appalled by the more relaxed social and moral climate of the 1960s, and it was also facilitated by a fading of the collective memory of hardships suffered and sacrifices made between 1929 and 1945. Dewar’s epilogue, tellingly introduced with a quotation from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, paints a distressing picture of how much has been undone during the last 35 to 40 years, not least by our current federal government, with its tax initiatives aimed at groups whose support the government wants, reduced regulation of business, declining support for departments and programs that would enable evidence-based decision making, and a solicitous concern for the oil and gas industry and its perceived needs. “Underhill may be turning over in his grave,” Dewar writes.

This is a valuable book, both for what it says about Underhill’s ideas and their development, and for what it reveals about the context in which they developed. An important part of its value, however, lies in its demonstration of the relevance of those ideas today. Dewar’s book should be compulsory reading for politicians and political commentators.