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An odyssey indeed

Reviews

Although Philip Resnick did not run into any cyclopses in his life’s journey, the tale that he recounts is as fascinating as that of Odysseus.

Part of the reason is that, like Homer’s Odyssey, his writing is also quite poetic, both in the way that he writes and also in the feelings and images that he calls up. This style is one of the reasons why his book is such a pleasure to read.

Another is the wide range of issues and ideas that Resnick discusses, from the local (Vancouver and Quebec) to more general concerns, such as democracy, self-determination, and class. These interests are not surprising when one considers that Resnick is a political scientist who taught at the University of British Columbia for over forty years (and where I took a class with him as a grad student).

His intellectual forays are interwoven with his personal story in a seamless way that provides a unique window into the “human condition.” Resnick was born near the end of the Second World War in Montreal to Jewish immigrants—and most of his mother’s family were killed in the Holocaust.

Resnick describes himself as “fairly rebellious by nature,” beginning in his youth with his early support of the CCF (the forerunner of the NDP) and his questioning of his parents’ religious faith (“Why were the Jews more chosen than anyone else?”). He became a “non-believer” at the precocious age of 16, having acquired, “un esprit de contradiction and with it a willingness to question and challenge prescribed ideas.”

That attitude underscored his personal, political, and intellectual journeys throughout his life. His nuanced and undogmatic approach is manifested in many ways. For instance, while he supports the right of Israel to exist, Resnick states that the, “fault for the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations… lies with both sides,” and he is, “less than comfortable with an Israeli government that denies any legitimacy to Palestinian claims to a homeland of their own.”

He describes what it was like coming of age during the Quebec Spring in the early 1960s, the decline of pro-American public opinion as a result of the war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam, and the growth of Canadian nationalism. In fact, it was during this period that he wrote his master’s thesis at McGill: “Canadian Defense Policy and the American Empire.”

By the time that he became a columnist for Montreal’s Le Devoir, Resnick’s views on nationalism in general, and Quebec independence in particular, had been evolving. He had become,

more aware of the potential fragility of multinational federations and more convinced of the importance of preserving them. To the degree that they recognize legitimate claims to political autonomy and linguistic security for their minority nationalities, they meet key democratic criteria… One of the great strengths of multinational federations is that while acknowledging national differences within their borders, they put restraints on just how far that nationalism will go, both for the majority and the minority.


Capitalism and its alternatives have also been a central focus of Resnick’s work. He describes himself as a socialist, “in the Western mould, with due respect for democratic practices and individual rights,” and rejects the totalitarian state capitalist governments found in the former Soviet Union, China, and other ‘communist’ states.

In discussing the capitalist world, especially after the end of the Cold War, Resnick mentions some of the obvious problems of the ‘free’ market, such as exploitation, inequality, lack of democracy, and the climate crisis, while reminding us that there are no easy solutions to these life-denying forces.

He is also aware that ‘the left’ is much too divided to offer a realistic alternative to capitalist crimes, partly because of its historic problem: “internal divisions,” and specifically, identity politics. While it is necessary for various movements to advocate for their particular causes or constituencies, when they do not recognize what they have in common with others, the chances of success are minimized:

If all that matters is one’s identity defined by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or what have you, to the exclusion of anything else, then the big-tent politics that socialism has historically stood for becomes impossible. That is one of the great challenges socialist parties in the Western world face.


Resnick’s take on the international situation is also illuminating, as “a child of the 1960s.” This was a time when the so-called “Third World” was developing, the Cold War was at its height (and we barely escaped nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis), civil rights were a growing issue, and of course, the “counter culture” spread from San Francisco.

A host of peace movements developed around the world in response to the US war on Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). One of the little known victories during that period was the decision of the Nixon regime to back down from its threat to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese, primarily because of the fear of the reaction of people—not only in the US but around the world.

However, despite the victories that were won, the “hopes that many in the 1960s might have entertained of ushering in a more just and egalitarian world would prove short-lived and “powerful elites continued to dominate the commanding heights of the economy.” Resnick was one of those who were disappointed as hopes faded and neoliberalism became the dominant approach to political economy, within states and between states

On a personal note, Resnick describes how he met his future wife while doing research in Paris for his PhD. Her name was Andromache, a Greek student from the town of Volos, who was in Paris studying psychology. When they married in 1971, she moved to Vancouver just as Resnick was beginning his teaching career at UBC.

They had two sons, Amos and Jonah, and the family spent many summers in Greece, which “would eventually become a second home” to Resnick. In this little piece of paradise, he gradually became inspired to write poetry, which was, “neither forced nor driven by the instrumental constraints of an academic text or a newspaper deadline. It seemed to come from some untapped inner source… I consider myself very fortunate…for the muse to have found in me a scribe.”

Tragically, Andromache developed a number of chronic illnesses and passed away in 2016.

In the final chapter, “What Was It All About,” Resnick reflects on that central question. While his life was consumed with the study of ideas—“vital ones like liberty, equality, democracy”—he cites the insight of he Italian political theorist and anti-fascist Norberto Bobbio that when you grow old, emotional attachments, “ultimately count for at least as much as ideas.”

Resnick concludes by citing the inscription at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi regarding how one can make the most of life: “Meden agan”—moderation is best.

Moderation aside, this is a beautifully-written autobiographical odyssey, a mosaic rich with wisdom, perspective, and feeling.

Peter G. Prontzos has taught for over 25 years at Langara College in Vancouver, receiving the 2017 Instructor Emeritus in Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies.

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