Lessons from Charles Norris Cochrane on the problem of domestic radicalization

Defence & Human Security, News

John Siebert
Project Ploughshares
March 2, 2015

Islamism or radical Islam or jihadism, as a violent international ideology at odds with Canadian society and its values, is not the first challenge of its kind, nor is it unique in attracting Canadian adherents.

During World War II Canada faced the dilemma of how to handle homegrown Canadian radicals. The insights of a University of Toronto classics professor engaged by the federal government hints at how we could respond to problems we face today.

While perhaps beyond the comprehension of most Canadians, then and now, it is the case that, during the Second World War, the Communist Party of Canada included fervent members with connections to the worldwide Marxist-Leninist movement. This revolutionary, apocalyptic, and violent form of Marxism had its real-life state sponsor in the Soviet Union, then a state of 100 million souls. With some intellectual flexibility and manipulation of fact, Canadian Communists accepted and worked to advance the philosophy of inevitable violent revolution that would resolve the class contradictions of bourgeois capitalism and usher in a worldwide socialist utopia.

Between 1939 and 1941, 135 members or adherents of the Communist Party of Canada were interned under provisions of the Defence of Canada Regulations. A three-person Advisory Committee, headed by Judge Roland Millar, was struck to hear and make recommendations on objections from 69 internees to their continued detention after events in 1941.

One of the members of the Advisory Committee was Charles Norris Cochrane (1889-1945), a University of Toronto classics professor who had served as a Canadian military officer in Europe in the First World War. Cochrane viewed his work on the panel as his contribution to the war effort and, in 1943, wrote a 135-page Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada. Addressed to the Minister of Justice, it explained the party’s history in Canada and made recommendations on how these dissenters should be treated in light of Marxist theory and Soviet sponsorship of international communism.

Who was C.N. Cochrane?

Now little known, in his day Cochrane was celebrated for works that included his magnum opus, Christianity and Classical Culture. Originally published in 1940, it is still in print. Those with even a glimmer of knowledge of Cochrane will be interested to learn that many of his previously unpublished papers will soon see the light of day.

After Cochrane’s death, his personal papers were tightly controlled by his son, Hugh. Only after Hugh Cochrane died were his executrices—two nieces—able, in 2002, to accession C.N. Cochrane’s papers to the University of Toronto Archives. Political scientist Dr. David Beer at Malone University is now preparing many of Cochrane’s previously unpublished works for publication. The planned book will include three chapters that were written for Christianity and Classical Culture, but not included in the 1940 publication.

The U of T Archives have only incomplete drafts of the Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada among Cochrane’s papers. I secured a copy of the final version that was given to the Minister of Justice in 1943 through a 1989 Access to Information and Privacy request. Although in contact with Hugh Cochrane, I was unable to convince him at the time to make C.N. Cochrane’s personal papers available to the wider scholarly community. In 2014 I accessioned a copy of the final version of the Memorandum and related correspondence from the Department of Justice to the U of T Archives so it would be available to others.

My interest in Cochrane stems from research on my 1988 MA thesis on George P. Grant’s appropriation of the ideas of Martin Heidegger from The Question Concerning Technology, completed at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. C.N. Cochrane was a family friend and mentor to the younger Grant, a Canadian political philosopher best known for his book, Lament for a Nation (1964). In 1954 Grant described Cochrane as “the most remarkable thinker Canada has produced” (The George Grant Reader, p. 214). Grant praised Christianity and Classical Culture for “rais[ing] up the simple facts of history into the highest questions of philosophy and theology” (p. 215).

A pivotal event: Germany invades the Soviet Union, 1941

Cochrane’s Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada needs to be put into context to understand the lessons it might hold for us today.

From October 1939 to June 22, 1941, the Communist internees had, as the Advisory Committee reported, “by their own admission … done everything in their power to obstruct and impede the war effort of Canada.” Hence their detention. The attack on the Soviet Union by Germany in 1941, and the subsequent alliance pact between the Soviet Union and Great Britain (which was to last 20 years beyond the cessation of hostilities), resulted in an about-face by Canadian Communists. They became enthusiastic supporters of Canada’s efforts to defeat Nazi Germany. Hence their request for freedom.

The Canadian Communists were not deprived of their civil liberties for their revolutionary philosophical commitments and published Marxist pronouncements, but for their publishing and organizing activities to subvert Canada’s war effort, which were criminal acts. Their post-1941 stand put the denial of their civil liberties in question. If they no longer opposed the war against the Nazis and acted accordingly, should they be in jail?

The Advisory Committee heard submissions from the detainees. At Cochrane’s suggestion and through his authorship of the Memorandum, it took up an additional task: to review and recount the history of the Communist Party of Canada, at least from 1914 forward, and the nature of Marxist first principles and their realization, however controversial, in the Soviet Union.

Lessons from Cochrane in 1943

From the Memorandum produced on Canadian Communists in the Second World War come a number of lessons that might be useful for us in Canada today.

Lesson #1: To understand a movement, you must take the time and effort to seriously examine its intellectual roots, even if you deem the proponents of the movement delusional, comically naïve, or ineffectual.

The narrow question of releasing the detainees from jail could not, in the opinion of the panel, be divorced from “the larger questions of Communism as a factor in Canadian public life.… For an adequate understanding of the Canadian problem, it must be examined in the light of the international proletarian movement of which it forms a part” (Memorandum, p. 2).

It is clear from comments in the Memorandum that the Advisory Committee was not inherently sympathetic to the detainees and largely dismissed their arguments as rationalizations:

It should perhaps be stated that the Advisory Committee was not greatly impressed with the arguments brought forward by interned Communists in support of their objections to detention. These arguments, so far as they were valid, were in no sense a monopoly of the Communist Party. Otherwise, they consisted mainly of a tiresome reiteration of Marxist common-places, which served merely to throw into relief the characteristic limitations of Marxist political thinking and, with a few notable exceptions, the detenues exhibited a strong tendency to justify their conduct throughout. (p. 1)

Much later in the Memorandum there are disparaging comments about the Communist Party members’ capabilities. For example, Cochrane writes: “Stalin also denounces the tendency of Marxists to indulge in abstract generalizations without regard to the concrete circumstances which alone give them validity; a tendency which, we may note, has been particularly evident in the intellectual efforts of the Communist Party of Canada” (p. 122).

Lesson #2: The degree of scrutiny of Canadian citizens’ commitments—however odd or even abhorrent you believe them to be—should be directly proportional to the danger posed to the state and its citizens, with primary consideration given to respecting individual civil rights.

The terms of reference for the three-person committee were narrow: “whether … the release of the interned Communists would in any way prejudice the public safety or the safety of the state. If there existed no reasonable doubt on this point it followed that they should not [sic] longer be denied their personal liberty and civil rights” (p. 2).

When this Memorandum was written, all the sturm und drang of the Gouzenko affair in Canada and the advent of the Cold War, with all its paranoia and excesses, were still several years in the future.

Cochrane had a cool head on his shoulders and was farsighted. Although a classics professor, he was never a mere trafficker in the oddities of antiquity, as the term “classics professor” might imply to some. He was a philosopher, grappling with the thought and political implications of Greek and Roman civilizations and the emergence of the Christian West. Christianity and Classical Culture pointed to the writings of Augustine of Hippo as pivotal in this process. Beer’s forthcoming book will contain chapters by Cochrane on decidedly non-classical thinkers such as Machiavelli and Gibbon.

Cochrane approached Marxism in the same vein in the final 30 pages of the Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada. It was a philosophical system concretely realized in the Soviet Union.

Marxism, in the strict sense of the word, is a logical construction and, like all similar edifices of human thought, it has its roots in actual human life or ‘experience’, of which it claims to provide a satisfactory interpretation. As such its philosophical affiliations are fairly evident. Central among these is the fact that it rests on a presupposition which it shares in common with modern Liberalism, viz., ‘the idea of progress’. (p. 111)

Lesson #3: The third lesson is a bit more sensitive for 21st-century citizens. We know that the cooperation envisioned in the 1941 pact with the Soviet Union was replaced by a deadly Cold War rivalry that lasted until 1990. Cochrane advocated adopting an attitude of humility with respect to our own failings as democracies and to be well informed before judging the Soviet Union.

The inherent difficulties of collaboration between the Soviet Union and the democracies of Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and others are forecasted by Cochrane. He recommended that democracies pay attention to their own failures as they worked with the Soviet Union in the newly minted era of cooperation:

It would, for instance, be nothing less than fatal if the democracies fell victim to self-complacency in their attitude to the Soviets. Indeed, there could be hardly anything more offensive to decency and common-sense than for them to assume, by virtue of any claim to embody the values of Christian civilization, that they were qualified to sit in judgment on Russian achievement or Russian purposes. For the democracies, therefore, the beginning of wisdom is a fitting himility [sic] which seeks to understand before it presumes to criticise. (p. 127)

Cochrane’s goal, in part, was to make sense of Marxism in light of Great Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union, and to consider the prospects for a successful partnership, given the Marxist commitment to the inevitable overthrow of bourgeois capitalism and the triumph of the international proletariat.

The collaboration did not last much beyond 1945. As we know, the Soviet Union subsequently expanded and consolidated its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the distant colonies of the former imperial powers in what we now call the global south. Would it have been better if the West had skipped the post-war provisions of an alliance, and had instead said in 1941, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” working with the Soviet Union only to defeat the German Nazis and their allies? We can only speculate.

In any event, Cochrane was not predicting the exact course of the future. In the Memorandum he provided a tutorial on Marxist first principles, comparing and contrasting Marxism with modern Liberalism on: 1) its physics, or theory of nature including human nature; 2) its theory of ethics or human behaviour; and 3) its theory of logic or the role of the mind in historical processes. He also explained his view of the role of Stalin and the Soviet Union as a manifestation of Marxist theory realized in concrete historical reality. Cochrane predicted that the relative strengths of democracies would prove to be a stiffer challenge to Communism than Communists were prepared to accept.

When considering Communists in Canada, Cochrane contemplated the extent to which a democracy could tolerate difference, and when it should judge and act on what it defined as subversive:

In peace and security it is permissible to grant indulgences which are rightly denied in a crisis such as confronted the Dominion in June, 1940. Accordingly the question to be decided is: what degree of toleration can reasonably be extended to a group or faction which is, in principle, avowedly revolutionary in its aims? (p. 128)

In the Memorandum Cochrane explored the potential for revolutionary violence by Canadian Communists and, after analyzing statements by Canadian Communists and past behaviour, concluded that it was low. He determined that:

1) Fomenting revolutionary Marxist violence in Canada would first require a breakdown in the Soviet alliance with the United States and Great Britain.

2) The combination of a ripe revolutionary moment with the appropriate proletarian consciousness—the two requirements of Marxist orthodoxy for successful revolution—was unlikely in Canada.

3) Canadian Communists had disavowed violent actions. Tim Buck, head of the Canadian Communist Party in Canada and one of the detainees appealing his detention, “earnestly and vehemently denied” before the Advisory Committee that the Party contemplated recourse to violence. Buck also told the Committee that if violence did break out in Canada, it would be more likely to come from the right rather than the left, as it had in Italy, Germany, and Spain.

4) The Canadian Communist Party had neither the international alliances, nor the internal coherence and suitable leadership to engage in revolutionary violence:

This is not surprising, since, with a few exceptions, its personnel is made up of relatively simple working men who have not enjoyed training such as would equip them for effective revolutionary action.… So far as concerns Canadian Communists, it is far from certain that they have in general learned to think for themselves. (p. 132)

Besides restating the Advisory Committee’s low opinion of the detainees’ capabilities, this quotation puts the focus on actual behaviour and potential for violence as well as the stated intent of Canadian Communists.

Lesson #4: No matter how absurd or abhorrent we believe another’s views are, we should strive not to give the holder of such views further reasons to condemn democratic institutions by practising excessive repression.

In the Memorandum’s conclusion, Cochrane urged Canadians not to give the Communists grounds for complaint 1) in the treatment of Communists by the justice system; and, more generally, 2) in Canada’s treatment of its citizens.

Communists claimed that “bourgeois justice is justice only for the bourgeois” (p. 133). Cochrane urged that the Canadian justice system deal fairly with the Communists and never err on the side of “purely repressive measures as such” (p. 133). The Communist movement “thrives by exploiting grievances which are none the less keenly felt because they are in many cases imaginary” (p. 133). Their grievances should be given as little ground in reality as possible.

Taking a further step, the Advisory Committee suggested that the government “consider whether or not it is still advisable to maintain the parliamentary ban on the Canadian party” (p. 134). The clear implication is that Canadian Communists should be allowed to exercise their political rights to participate directly in the democratic process.

Lesson #5: The presence of faults and injustice in our society—humility dictates that we look at them squarely—should be addressed to remove these causes of complaint.

Cochrane urged the Minister of Justice to “remember also that unsatisfied material desires are likely to bear their characteristic fruit in a materialist philosophy” (pp. 133-134). I believe that Cochrane was pointing to issues highlighted in the great depression of the 1930s such as poverty, low wages, and unfair working conditions—the stuff of Communist complaints against the capitalist system on behalf of workers—which could breed potential support for Communist ideals and revolutionary action. For Cochrane, democracy “should concede to Communism as little as is reasonably possible to feed upon” (p. 134).

Learning from history

What, if anything, can we learn from this historical confrontation between the Canadian state and Communists during a brief period in the early 1940s that could inform the contemporary conflict with violent strains of radical religious extremism and jihadists, and place in context the shock we feel that some in our midst are attracted to it?

Caveats are in order. Today’s circumstances are not those of 1943. At most, there are similarities. As people say, history does not repeat itself, but it can rhyme. While Canadian Communists during part of the Second World War disavowed violence, today’s jihadists are committed to it. Revolutionary thought and praxis are in alignment. Terrorist actions against civilians and state institutions are clear and present dangers abroad and at home.

On the other hand, I am not the first to point out that pursuit of the historical realization of Communist ideals in the twentieth century was a far greater existential threat to western democracies than radical or violent Islamism is today. And the Second World War was a real war and actual threat to the homeland of Canada, not a regional skirmish with relatively weak, small bands of radicals far away. Domestic Communist sympathizers, ready for violence or not, potentially posed a greater threat in the 1940s than the one we are facing today.

That being said, I am less interested in identifying exact historical parallels than in applying the attitude shown by Cochrane and the Advisory Committee and their practical responses to the dangers of homegrown radicalization.

1. We need to do some serious work to understand what groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are saying and doing. We need to understand the history and how they interpret their application of ideas. How do very different interpretations of Islam emerge? Why do these interpretations sometimes yield such intense commitments to extreme actions? Clearly ISIS wants to provoke certain types of responses from the West. If we do not understand their primary principles and their goals in taking certain actions, we risk responding in ways that are ineffective and possibly make matters worse.

2. We need to discriminate between those who act on violent principles or advocate violence, and those who do not. This is not only a challenge to police and intelligence agencies, but to all citizens. We must not judge inappropriately and should respect and tolerate differences of view that pose no real threat. Clearly our struggle is not with Islam per se, as most will agree. Nonetheless, some violent factions do claim to base their actions on the teachings of Islam.

3. Western secular, capitalist democracies must acknowledge their incomplete knowledge of what is happening in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. While it might seem a tad late to call for learning and reflective suspension of suspicion, having already unloosed the dogs of war more than a decade ago, it’s never too late to start. Then we need to apply the lessons learned. This is particularly good advice considering that Canada, in cooperation with international coalitions of military forces, has had very limited military success in addressing the violent conflicts in these counties over the past decade. Lasting peace has not been secured in any of them. Trying to secure our own vested economic (i.e., oil) and other interests through international military incursions may be part of the problem and not the solution. We need the humility to consider these possibilities and to determine if we need to change our behaviour to effectively respond to radical Islamism.

4. Overreacting on the domestic front and increasing suppression only feeds the paranoid complaints of those who recruit Canadian youth to join the jihadi fight in Syria or Iraq, or to carry out violent acts here. Our democratic society and institutions, governed by the rule of law, are strong enough to deal fairly with such radicals, as they have with past challenges. Increasing suppression for its own sake is counter-productive. In responding to any challenge to our democracy, we must acknowledge the primacy of individual civil rights.

5. Addressing real economic and social grievances and justifiable criticism of our society is part of a long-term strategy to drain the swamps that provide fertile breeding grounds for domestic radicalization. Our international ventures, including expeditionary military missions, must be focused on protecting vulnerable civilians and supporting political resolution of conflicts through peacebuilding measures. Building a fairer, more participatory, more just society at home and abroad are, to me, self-evidently good. They also form a part of the general inoculation strategy our society requires to keep at bay the pestilence of domestic radicalization by any ideology.


Spread the Word