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H. S. Ferns.

Toronto, University of Toronto Press, c1983.
374pp, cloth, $24.95.
ISBN 0-8020-2518-8.

Reviewed by Allan S. Evans.

Volume 12 Number 1
1984 January

Normally, one is motivated to read autobiography on the basis of the achievements, or at least the notoriety and reputation, of the author. Perhaps the publication of this book is an attempt to break new ground in this field.

H. S. Ferns will be recalled by a few senior Canadians as the co-author of a 1950s book on Mackenzie King. For a time during World War II he served on King's staff. He later moved to Winnipeg where he found time not only to teach at the University of Manitoba but also to help found a co-operative newspaper and act as a trade union representative on arbitration boards. In 1949, he emigrated to England where he has resided ever since in the capacity of a professor at the University of Birmingham.

It is difficult to identify the main point of Professor Ferns's book. The title would suggest that it is to explain why he began his adult life as a confirmed Communist but later came to realize the practical shortcomings of theoretical Marxism. However, he also dwells on the presumed injustice of the limitations placed on his career in Canada, both in government service and in post-war academic life, by his political beliefs and activities. In addition, he obviously hopes to share his insights into the personal beliefs to which he has come in the later stages of his life.

To begin with the latter, these are summarized on the book jacket more clearly than in the text itself. They are that: Marxism does not fit the facts; bureaucracies are now a problem; government is theft; universities should be removed from the control of the government; and religion is essential for freedom.

Can the first four be considered noteworthy? Surely they are common to the majority of graduation-year students in the humanities. The last point is of potentially greater interest, but it is alluded to only in the conclusion and is left largely undeveloped.

In the course of the book, Ferns makes clear enough the reasons that he became convinced of the imperfections of Marxist doctrine and the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of Communism in practice, particularly in the Soviet Union. But again, it is doubtful that the reader will share his profound shock and disappointment at the revelation.

Possibly the greatest interest for the reader and service to the country he chose to leave would be Ferns's account of the McCarthy-like treatment that caused him to despair of his future in Canada. Perhaps he was unfairly treated, both when he felt his path to advancement in the civil service was blocked by Norman Robertson and later when an academic appointment at Royal Roads Military College was apparently quashed on the grounds of his previous Communist associations.

However, the chief impression created by the author on this theme is of a naive prima donna delighting in tweaking the noses of powerful individuals and then reacting with disbelief and bitterness at the inevitable retribution. For example, Ferns describes the delight with which he and Bernard Ostry prepared their critical work on Mackenzie King. His surprise at the subsequent efforts of J. W. Pickersgill and other prominent Liberals to discredit and suppress the book is mystifying. Similarly, Ferns depicts with relish the RCMP and FBI officers investigating the activities of himself and his Communist colleagues as invariably ignorant, stupid, and incompetent.

In retrospect, the chief utility of this book might lie in its distribution to all undergraduate humanities students for the express purpose of accelerating their intellectual and philosophical maturation. They might more quickly shed the sophomoric beliefs it has taken an obviously bright and painfully conscientious person decades to outgrow.

Allan S. Evans, Emery C. I, Weston, ON.
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