The life of the scholar is sometimes cloistered and dull. But in the 1930s many Westerners became enchanted with Marxism, a doctrine that gripped them intellectually and offered the satisfaction of passionate political commitment. One Canadian who often followed its lure outside his study was Henry S. Ferns, now professor emeritus of political science and honorary fellow in Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham in England. As Ferns sailed to Britain to study at Cambridge in 1936, a fellow passenger persuaded him of the merits of the left. Cambridge was a centre of Marxist enthusiasm, and Ferns was soon working as a student organizer for the Communist Party. His engrossing autobiography charts his gradual estrangement from Marxist thought and settles old scores along the way.
Still, Ferns was never a fervent promoter of the U.S.S.R., nor did anyone ever approach him to act as a spy. His Marxism was fuelled mainly by an idealistic anti-imperialism, and when the young graduate joined Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s secretarial staff during the Second World War he was not a security risk. But after Ferns had spent four tedious years writing briefing papers that he felt nobody read, a senior bureaucrat told him that he was a “Red.” In 1949 the ghost of his youthful Marxism rose once again to deny him a much-needed teaching position at the Canadian Service College in Royal Roads, B.C. Deeply embittered, he moved his family back to England, where he has lived ever since.
Ferns’s outrage at that rejection forms the emotional core of Reading from Left to Right. He enlivens the book with brief, brilliant character sketches. Many of those vignettes corroborate Ferns’s contention that, in government, it is often the unprincipled hacks who flourish, while talented and dedicated men, such as his socialist friend Herbert Norman, become victims. The accusations of U.S. McCarthyites drove Norman, a gifted scholar and diplomat, to commit suicide in 1957. Ferns argues vehemently that Norman was not a Soviet spy. Although he offers no new information in his defence, Ferns does point out that Norman was not the type of person that the Soviets were likely to recruit.
That heartfelt tribute to Norman
echoes Ferns’s belief that a decline in the art of politics in favor of belligerence and confrontation has placed the world in terrible jeopardy. Indeed, one of the principal reasons for his gradual abandonment of Marxism was his discovery of its lack of political sophistication. Over the years he discovered that Hobbes and Rousseau had made more penetrating analyses of human nature than Marx, and that the authors of the U.S. constitution had more respect for human freedom. That does not mean Ferns has become a right-wing Reaganite. He still describes recent U.S. government leaders as “political numbskulls.”
Reading from Left to Right leaves a final impression of a life of extraordinary energy and diversity. Whether he is recounting his brief, unhappy stint as publisher of the Winnipeg Citizen newspaper or reminiscing about Mackenzie King, Ferns writes with an enthusiastic curiosity. His mind is perhaps more wide-ranging than deep; and, although his style will never make literary history, he knows how to eviscerate or exalt a subject with a few wellchosen words. Canadians who read his autobiography will regret that a man of such intellectual gusto felt compelled to make his living elsewhere.
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