[Leacock] was more famous than this country. -- Don Herron
In Canada, I belong to the Conservative party. -- Stephen Leacock
At McGill, as at Ottawa Collegiate, I was blessed with teachers. Stephen Leacock, head of the department of Economics and Political Science, was one of the most brilliant men I have ever known. He was an ardent conservative and fierce Canadian nationalist. -- Eugene Forsey
Political Science, then, deals with the state; it is, in short, as it is often termed, the “theory of the state”. -- Stephen Leacock, Elements of Political Science (1906)
Who was Stephen Leacock, as a thinker and activist, before the publication of his best selling books of humour such as Literary Lapses (1910), Nonsense Novels (1911), Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), Behind the Beyond (1913) and Arcadian Adventures With the Idle Rich (1914)? There is no doubt that Leacock was launched in a certain direction with these bumper crop book sales. He established himself as the central writer in Canada with these slim missives. But, there is more to the tale to tell. Leacock was 41 years of age when Literary Lapses left the publishing tarmac in 1910. What had he thought and written before 1910?
It is 100 years this year (1906-2006) since Leacock’s first major work on political theory was published. Elements of Political Science, like his later books of humour, sold at a rapid pace. The book was translated into many languages and used as a standard textbook in political science classes at universities in North America and beyond. Elements of Political Science was so popular that it was republished with additions and updates in 1913 and 1921. Leacock had established himself, with the publication of
Elements of Political Science, as one of the most important Canadian political theorists. He was in 1906 the chair of the political economy department at McGill University, and he taught there until his retirement in 1936.
Leacock had completed and defended his doctoral dissertation in 1903 on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire: A Critical Essay on the Evolution of Theory and Practice in Reference to the Economic Functions of the Modern State.
The title is rather long winded and Victorian, but the message is clear and the thesis was compact and to the point. It was vintage Leacock. An unbridled and uncritical attitude towards free trade and a weak and limp state were both an anathema. Such a position came from the soul, mind and pen of a Canadian conservative. Needless to say, this is not exactly the position of Harper and tribe.
The fact that Leacock did his Ph.D. in the area of political economy, the fact he taught at McGill in the political economy department and the fact Elements of Political Science was published in 1906 meant that Leacock, as an aspiring scholar and political activist, was known in Canada, in his 30s, not as a humourist, but as a leading political economist. Leacock the humourist only appeared in substantive print after Leacock had established himself as an important political thinker in Canada and elsewhere.
Elements of Political Science was divided into 3 sections: 1) The Nature of the State, 2) The Structure of the Government and 3) The Province of Government. The book is then divided into subsections that deal, initially, with political theory and conclude with practical applications. The important issue to note here, though, is that politics, in its primary and substantive sense, is about the role and responsibilities of the state (and political parties).
The state, for good or ill, is responsible for the large issues of domestic and foreign policy. It is, in short, the state that is the centre and core of serious political theory and action.
This does not mean protest and advocacy politics are not important, but they are secondary and tertiary; they are not primary. Protest and advocacy groups protest and do advocacy work to political parties in the state, therefore the final court of power, appeal and change is the state and political parties. Those who reduce or understand the meaning of politics as merely advocacy and protest fail to see that change, at its deepest level, does not finally and conclusively emerge from such a place.
Political parties are the ship that moves the vision from one shoreline to the reality of another shoreline. Those who are frozen and embalmed in a one-dimensional approach to politics that embodies cynicism and skepticism about political parties doom themselves to either throwing stones at the ships or mocking those who ferry visions to and fro across the water of time. The tragic thing is this: such idealism and cynicism leads to impotence when it comes to substantive change.
Stephen Leacock as both a Canadian professor of political economy and a Classical Canadian Tory comes as an affront and challenge to those who think conservatives are for a weaker, lighter state and to those who turn from the state to protest and advocacy politics. The state, for Leacock, is the means by which vision is ferried into imperfect reality.
1906 was a pivotal year for Leacock. He moved in 1906 to doing political theory and political economy in a general sense to applying such general and historic ideas to the Canadian context. Leacock’s doctoral thesis, The Doctrine of Laissez Faire (1903) and Elements of Political Science (1906) never dealt with the Canadian context or reality in any serious or substantive way. But, after Elements of Political Science was published, Leacock not only turned to the Canadian context, but between 1906-1910, he became the spokesman, leader and driving force of Canadian nationalism. Leacock’s brand of Canadian nationalism was critical of the USA and Britain, and such an indigenous form of Canadian nationalism was grounded and rooted in the unique Canadian High/Red Tory way.
Needless to say, the republican party of Canada that is in power today has little in common with the older tradition that Leacock knew and lived forth so well. May we, when remembering the 100th anniversary of Elements of Political Science, reflect upon the older and more profound historic Canadian understanding of conservatism that Leacock drew from and furthered within the Canadian political drama.