Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

On Labor Day, I very much enjoyed reading the memoir of my friend Henry Milner, entitled Participant/Observer.

Born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 to Polish-Jewish survivors, Henry grew up as a Baby Boomer in Montreal. As he navigated the turbulent waters of his time and place as both a political scientist and an activist, he became an Anglophone Quebecois nationalist, an expert proponent of Scandinavian social democracy, a liberal on social issues, and sometimes a critic of the Quebecois public sector unions to which he belonged. He has played significant roles that have put him in the “rooms where it happened,” notably as one of the most senior Anglophones in the leadership of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) during its heyday and as one of the key diplomats for that party in international social democratic circles.

I know and admire people–possibly readers of this blog post–who have deep commitments on all sides of these issues. Some would be more prone to take the unions’ side or less enthusiastic about the Swedish welfare state or more critical of Quebecois nationalism or less favorable to Anglophone involvement in that movement. I’m not qualified to defend Henry’s positions, but I think that any reader should appreciate his memoir as the story of a thoughtful and public-spirited person who has tried to exercise good judgment on difficult questions and has contributed effort as well as opinions. For instance, he sometimes made the English translations of politically sensitive PQ documents.

Milner raises general questions that are worth consideration. For example:

1/ Must organized labor clash with social democratic parties when labor represents a small minority of the workforce and is strongest in the public sector? (This is the situation in the USA now, as well as in Canada.) Milner argues that Scandinavian unions can advocate growth and modernization–shifting workers to new and different jobs–because they represent most of the population. In contrast, unions that represent small segments of the public become protective of the status quo and compete with disadvantaged people.

2/ Do participants in politics know things that political scientists cannot know? Is the reverse also true? In general, how should we think about the relationship between science and experience?

(I count five professions that claim expertise about politics: reporters, civil servants, lobbyists, political scientists, and politicians themselves. Do they all have valid insights? Can the methods of political science capture all the others’ perspectives if scholars study participants’ beliefs well?)

3/ How can democracies provide robust voluntary adult education for democracy without allowing it to degenerate into propaganda? I encountered Milner years ago as an expert on Scandinavian adult civic education and have only grown more supportive of that cause over time. We can’t rely on civic education for children and college students alone, since most citizens have long ago outgrown those phases. At times, Americans have adopted Scandinavian exports like Folks Schools and Study Circles. Americans contributed (with others, including Germans) to building a robust system of adult education in post-War West Germany (Levine 2023). Nevertheless, today we lack an impressive policy for adult civic education in the USA, and it’s hard to see how we could create one in the face of intense partisan polarization.

Overall, Milner’s trajectory has been from a socialist who was always deeply democratic to a democrat who seeks social equity, and from there to a proponent of civic education and electoral reform as bulwarks of democracy.

Source: P. Levine, “The Democratic Mission of Higher Education: A Review Essay.” Political Science Quarterly (2023). See also an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany; what does it mean that 130 million adult Americans lack literacy?; the Nordic model; etc.