A paler shade of red

Reading Trudeau from the left

In 1965, mere months before beginning his meteoric rise in Canadian federal politics by running as a Liberal candidate in Mount-Royal, Pierre Elliott Trudeau met with NDP supporter and J.S. Woodsworth biographer Kenneth McNaught. While entreaties are said to have continued up to the very moment before he threw in his lot with the Liberals, this exchange probably represents one of the last serious attempts to coax Trudeau in the socialist fold. Recalled McNaught:

Our discussion slowly focused on whether or not he should formalize the socialism that had clearly informed his essay [referring to a contribution Trudeau had made to the 1961 collection, “A Social Purpose for Canada”]. Somewhat euphoric, I ticked off a half-dozen of the main CCF planks; after each Pierre said simply, ‘d’accord.’ At the end of this arrogant catechism I said I had a party membership card and would he care to sign it.

Trudeau’s coy response was emblematic: “One at a time, but not all together.”

Trudeau had by the time of his death ascended to a uniquely consecrated perch within our national imaginary, practically synonymous with the values and institutions foundational to contemporary Canada: its constitution, its official embrace of multiculturalism, its liberal political economy. Because Trudeau’s career and premiership coincided with arguably the most formative decades in modern Canadian history, any discussion of his political and intellectual legacy is therefore also a meditation on these values and institutions themselves, his agency and ideas being so central to both.

Christo Aivalis’s The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left makes the apparently commonsensical case that Canada’s fifteenth prime minister is best understood as a philosophical liberal in word, deed, and action. As we shall see, there is more at stake in this assessment than first meets the eye. For one thing, the popular image of Trudeau generally casts him as a figure of the left. This perception holds even more strongly among conservative commentators such as Bob Plamondon, who in 2013 wrote darkly of Trudeau’s lifelong “socialist inclinations,” adding that his “fascination with socialism, even communism, made him unique among Western leaders.” Indeed, to many Canadian conservatives of Plamondon’s generation, Trudeau has come to represent a kind of primordial nemesis: a sinister creature of the Cold War left whose successes compromised a once-noble Tory experiment and put the country on a course toward cultural indolence and economic sclerosis.

Yet, as Aivalis’s book so lucidly argues, the relationship of the socialist and social democratic left to Trudeau’s ideas, legacy, and career is hardly frictionless. How we situate and understand Trudeau’s legacy and ideas is therefore a question with considerably weightier implications than the enterprise may initially suggest.

Drawing on the personal files of key figures and a criminally under-examined body of contemporaneous commentary from labour intellectuals, writers in trade union journals, and CCF/NDP activists, the author excavates an entire parallel tradition and philosophical orientation: one that was frequently at odds with the book’s central character. Just as its subtitle suggests, The Constant Liberal is as much about the ideas and (ultimately) frustrated aspirations of Canada’s socialist and left-labour movement as it is about Pierre Elliott Trudeau—and, by extension, the epochal twentieth-century tug of war between socialists and liberals that eventually saw the latter victorious.

Despite sharing some common ground, liberalism and socialism—which together constitute two of the three most significant currents in modern democratic thought—possess radically different origins and ultimately divergent visions of the good society. The former is older, its foundational ideas gestating within Europe’s ascendant mercantile and professional classes during the eighteenth century. Socialism, by contrast, first flourished amidst the dark satanic mills and intellectual ferment of a rapidly industrializing Britain, spurred by modernist zeal, the ascendency of mass parties, the extension of the franchise, the growing influence of Marxist thought, and the rise of organized labour.

At inception Canadian socialism would possess a strongly Methodist tinge, eventually forging a more secular critique of injustice from an eccumenical strand of Christianity that preached universalism, cooperation, and social welfare over and against the perceived moral shortcomings of a capitalist order it one day hoped to transcend. Liberalism, by contrast, sought to stabilize and consolidate Canadian society through cross-class consensus, embracing the welfare state and its infringements against private property on a purely pragmatic and instrumental basis. While liberal capitalism eventually triumphed in Canada and across much of the world, socialism would reach its peak in the 1960s and 1970s only to find its aspirations dashed amidst the revolutionary insurgency of Reagan and Thatcher (and later the likes of Clinton, Schröder, and Blair).

It might be said that, for liberals, equality and freedom are best enshrined through a regime of political and economic rights characterized by markets, civil freedoms, and representative government. For those in the classical socialist tradition such as Woodsworth, David Lewis, Tommy Douglas, or their contemporaries in other countries, by contrast, a significantly greater measure of the former is required to meaningfully guarantee either: So long as the market and its inequalities are permitted to impose hierarchy on the community, the democratic promise of freedom remains substantively unfulfilled.

Using his life and career as its heuristic, The Constant Liberal expounds on how the complex interplay and conflict between these two visions of the good society both shaped Trudeau’s life and informed the modern Canada he helped to create.

As an intellectual history, it is straightforwardly chronological. Beginning its story in the mid 1940s during Trudeau’s ideologically formative early years, it proceeds to chronicle the most significant debates and struggles of his career: from his time as a modernizer within the postwar Québécois intelligentsia, adversary of Maurice Duplessis, and ally of the Fédération des unions industrielles (later the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses) in the years preceding the Quiet Revolution; through his various dalliances with the CCF, the short-lived New Party, and the NDP; through the decisive national policy debates in the 1970s, from tax reform and poverty reduction to the controversial National Energy Program (NEP) and the collapse of Keynesianism amidst the turmoil of stagflation; concluding with his successful creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and post-political career. In detailing these events and their accompanying debates Aivalis is methodologically forensic: persuasively situating Trudeau’s relationship to socialist ideas within its historical context and finding an alternatively non-committal and antagonistic attitude in the process.

The most challenging test of his thesis comes early on, when the book deals with Trudeau’s path in the 1940s and ’50s, decades in which he was clearly engaged with socialist analysis and exposed to the ideas of Marxist scholar Harold Laski during his studies at the London School of Economics. To any observer, especially a contemporary one, the views espoused by Trudeau during this period indeed appear genuinely radical. For example, he supported Quebec’s increasingly militant trade union movement during the 1949 Asbestos strike, later writing of the affair:

The memorable asbestos strike occurred because the industrial workers of Quebec were suffocating in a society burdened with inadequate ideologies and oppressive institutions; because the national importance of the working class was out of all proportion to its low prestige. The asbestos strike…occurred…precisely at a moment when our social framework—the worm-eaten remnants of a bygone age—were ready to come apart.

Nonetheless, as Aivalis shows, Trudeau’s eventual strategy in Quebec—despite bringing him into close quarters with socialist radicalism and inspiring his ultimately ephemeral support for the CCF—was primarily motivated by a desire for a united front against Duplessis and the governing Union Nationale, coupled with an understanding that the labour left and industrial working class would be necessary allies in the endeavour.

Aivalis’ task grows simpler in the 1960s for it was then that Trudeau finally joined the Liberal Party, bringing the contrasts between his vision of the good society and those of the labour and socialist left into much sharper relief. Availis writes:

That Trudeau initially fought for liberal ideas by invoking socialist and labour traditions was one reason why his liberalism was seen as a variant of socialism…However, as Liberal leader and prime minister, Trudeau reoriented his liberalism in terms of rhetoric and policy toward more conservative directions.

It is here that the book begins to more clearly highlight the significant divergences between the liberal and socialist traditions and how they shaped political debates in Canada throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The author contrasts Trudeau’s famous idiom of the “Just Society” and its conception of an egalitarian nation with the markedly different one articulated by the socialist left. In Trudeau’s words, justice required that Canada “move forward towards a more equal division of our abundance, towards better relations between the various groups that make up our ethnic mosaic, towards a more vital democratic system and towards more certain guarantees of our fundamental freedom.” However, this new society would be founded on the principle of “equality of opportunity” so that the individual would be empowered “to fulfill himself in the fashion he judges best” and would be “rid of his shackles.” Trudeau would further temper the allusion to a more equitable division of the country’s collective abundance by ranking increased productivity ahead of redistribution. Without improved economic well-being, he argued, Canada could never have “the basis for a society from which poverty has been eliminated.”

Labour and the socialist left had a very different idea of what the just society would entail. David Lewis, for example, held that Trudeau’s emphasis on equality before the law was insufficient in a society that remained structurally unequal and charged him with wishing to maintain “the inequalities in income” such that “low wage and salary earners must be satisfied to make no more relative progress than the high wage and salary earners.”

Consequently, as Trudeau came to favour aspects of means-testing in relation to the welfare state, Canadian socialists responded by declaring their support for a guaranteed annual income (GAI) that would provide a social minimum to every citizen. Ed Broadbent called the GAI plan “the single most effective and efficient means of attacking…both material and spiritual poverty” and many Canadian unions seemed to agree. The United Automobile Workers, meanwhile, chastised Trudeau for supporting the means-test and for derogatorily dismissing universal programs as “free stuff” that disincentivized citizens.

The philosophical chasm would widen still further during the national debate surrounding wage and price controls. As inflation imperiled the prosperity and profitability of Western economies, the respective socialist and liberal responses indicated fundamentally different diagnoses, both of the problem and its solution. This was evidenced by Trudeau’s conception of inflation as a predominantly moral crisis, born of excessive middle class expectations and the increasingly unsustainable bargaining of wages upwards. His eventual response consisted in an ultimately successful attempt at reining in the power of trade unions and stifling demands for a more equitable distribution of material wealth—demands he was coming to regard as an unacceptable threat to the stability of the social order. As Aivalis puts it: “When one reads the speeches and writings emanating from Trudeau and his government, it becomes clear that they worried less about inflation than about a powerful working class and left challenge to the liberal order.” To this end, Trudeau would promote the establishment of a tripartite system of industrial relations undergirded by a new liberal constitution that sought to enshrine individual rights through the courts.

Labour journalists and activists, unsurprisingly, saw the anti-inflationary efforts and increasingly corporatist tinge of the Trudeau government as a reactionary offensive against workers and collective bargaining. For socialists like Broadbent, Trudeau’s analysis and prescriptions represented a contemptible effort to “create an atmosphere in which it has been made to appear…unrealistic for working people to insist on higher incomes, on secure employment, on decent social programs, and on greater control over their economic environment,” as he said in an address to the NDP’s federal council. The left, in contrast to Trudeau, sought to reduce industrial unrest and economic instability by democratizing the workplace and empowering workers. And, when it came to the Charter, elements within the increasingly beleaguered left would unsuccessfully argue for the inclusion of more sweeping economic rights.

Here, the ideological divide between Trudeau the liberal and those to his left couldn’t have been clearer. Amid the formative crisis of the postwar political and economic model, his response would again strongly emphasize liberal themes culminating, on the one hand, in a new constitution and, on the other, in the final defeat of the transformative aspirations held by his erstwhile allies in the socialist and trade union left.

Relegated to a somewhat secondary role in the book are the specific links between Trudeau’s liberalism and his attitudes toward issues of identity; attitudes which, among other things, ultimately led him to split from some other members of the Quebec intelligentsia when it came to the question of sovereignty and vociferous advocacy of civic nationalism. While Aivalis is certainly cognizant of this theme, his emphasis is overwhelmingly on economic debates. But it is worth considering another, altogether more ominous, example of how Trudeau’s commitment to liberal philosophy occasionally informed his political outlook.

Not mentioned in the book, though indirectly in accord with its thesis, is the controversial 1969 White Paper which sought to eliminate Indian status. This episode illustrates a much darker side of Trudeau’s individualistic, anti-communitarian liberalism than even the critical account found in The Constant Liberal suggests. It was one thing, after all, to be skeptical of Québécois elites and their demands for autonomy within or outside of Canada’s federal structure (Quebec might have once been a quasi-colony within British North America, but this mindset should arguably have died with the Quiet Revolution). It was quite another, however, to suggest that the country’s Indigenous peoples, victims of both English and French settler aspirations, should simply abandon their languages, heritage, and identities and be absorbed into white modernity.

The Constant Liberal is a worthy and useful contribution to the considerable body of literature surrounding the life and career of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It offers a partial corrective to popular perceptions of Trudeau, illustrating the more conservative aspects of his beliefs and thinking in the process. Above all, in drawing from an often neglected body of source material, The Constant Liberal serves as an exposition of a once powerful and influential current of Canadian political thought, now largely tamed or dormant.

As the Canadian national experiment came of age and clarified itself during the reign of Pierre Trudeau, the country’s trade unionists and socialists—the spiritual descendants of nineteenth-century industrial radicalism—articulated their own vision of the good society largely in opposition to the one he would successfully champion.  In doing so, this assortment of working class dreamers, idealists, intellectuals, and trade union firebrands may have at times been excessively evangelical in their quest to transcend liberalism.  But, in a society as manifestly unequal and riven with injustice as ours is today, it’s absolutely our loss that most Canadians are probably unaware even of their attempt.