Another Road to Serfdom

By Alexander Smith

For those interested in the history of human rights in Canada, John Peters Humphrey’s “Another Road to Serfdom” – delivered to Acadia University’s graduating class of 1980 – is a speech worthy of note in several key respects.

Humphrey clearly possessed a keen understanding of his audience and he cleverly adapted his rhetorical strategy so as to be maximally effective in an academic environment. Addressing a reasonably historically and politically literate audience, (they were, after all, college graduates) Humphrey littered the speech with references to ideological movements from across the political spectrum and commented at length on the ways in which each ideology failed to uphold the individual civil and political rights of citizens in a variety of contexts.

While Humphrey’s arguments against the pernicious effects of these ideological movements are certainly worthy of note, the true significance of “Another Road to Serfdom” lay in Humphrey’s skillful navigation of the long-standing tension between collective and individual rights. By equating the privileging of collective rights over those of the individual with nefarious historical forces (Nazism, Stalinism under the guise of Marxism etc.) Humphrey performs a kind of rhetorical power play which grossly obfuscates the complicated interrelation between individuals and their obligations to the larger collectivities in which they live. Nevertheless, by pivoting his argument on past atrocities – particularly those carried out in the first half of the twentieth century – Humphrey takes part in a rhetorical tradition which did a great deal to advance the ‘rights revolutions’ seen from 1945 onward.

However to fully understand the significance of “Another Road to Serfdom,” it is necessary to briefly explore the contentious Canadian political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anxieties brought about by the passage of Bill 101 in August 1977 and the introduction of a slew of linguistic restrictions on Quebec residents – no matter their background or ethno-linguistic identity – were only exacerbated by the referendum on Quebec sovereignty of 1980. Facing the percieved threat of Quebecois nationalism and its potentially damaging effects on non-French speaking Quebeckers, Humphrey depicts the privileging of the collective right of the majority to live and work in French as an affront to the individual right to self determination and linguistic freedom.

Throughout “Another Road to Serfdom,” Humphrey cautioned against conflating what he considered to be legitimate collective rights (broadly conceived of as economic, social, and cultural rights) with ‘the rights of the nation,’ which in actual practice, for him, generally meant the advancement of “the rights of the majority” in the service of narrow, xenophobic aims.

Humphrey’s apprehensions over the potential consequences of the privileging collective over individual rights were fuelled, in large part, by his own keen awareness of human rights abuses borne out by the historical, ideological and political forces of the first half of the twentieth century, many of which were, at their core, antithetical to the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism. According to its critics, Marxist thought – one of the chief targets of Humphrey’s speech – focused on the well-being of the collective (more specifically, the proletariat) at the expense of individual liberties. Likewise, the totalizing ideology of fascism placed the well-being of the nation state above all else –civil liberties and individual freedoms included.

Humphrey’s poignant criticisms of Marxism are especially interesting considering his own personal flirtation with Marxist systems of thought. Humphrey argues that in the context of the financial calamities of the early 1930s, many, including himself, had effectively been “brainwashed” into a belief in Marxism – a system which purported to “scientifically guarantee” freedom and social justice. Humphrey’s willingness to concede his own fallibility and naiveté – no matter how obliquely he may have addressed it – actually proves to be a remarkably effective rhetorical strategy in that it highlights the ways in which difficult historical circumstances (economic hardship, etc.) drive individuals, no matter how sophisticated, well educated or liberally inclined they may be, toward ideologies and modes of thoughts fundamentally incongruous with the advancement of individual civil and political liberties.

Ultimately, by equating the ills of fascism and Marxism to nationalist sentiment and linguistic reform in Quebec, “Another Road to Serfdom” is emblematic of the popular rhetorical tendency to analyze potential domestic human-rights violations through the loaded historical lens of the World War II experience.

 

 

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