It was a shock, and very saddening to learn that James Laxer passed away at age 76 while traveling in Europe. He was one of the most articulate, honourable and courteous figures of the English Canadian left in the second half of the twentieth century. I had the pleasure of working with Jim in the Waffle Movement, inside the New Democratic Party in the early 1970s. Along with his father Bob Laxer, and Mel Watkins, Jim was a co-founder in 1969 of the left-nationalist current. I got to know him when I was president of the Ontario New Democratic Youth — even going out on a limb for the Waffle when I passed along an ONDP membership list after the party brass refused to share it with the insurgent body.
Those were the days of profound, stimulating ideological debates in the labour-based party — driven by the Waffle Manifesto and its associated resolutions on manufacturing, energy, culture and foreign policy. The Waffle galvanized a generation of New Left, Vietnam anti-war and student radicals, with Jim emerging from the latter milieu. His stunning bid for the NDP leadership in 1971, capturing one-third of the votes at the Ottawa convention, demonstrated the potential impact of socialist ideas in a mass labour-based party, and on the larger body politic, at a time of rising rebellion against the capitalist order worldwide. Notwithstanding his economic nationalism, Jim Laxer was an anti-imperialist and internationalist in his world outlook. He marched for global peace with justice. He championed Quebec’s right to self-determination, in the shadow of the 1970 invocation of War Measures Act by Pierre Trudeau.
We parted ways politically when the Waffle gave up the fight inside the NDP, following the ultimatum issued by Ontario Leader Stephen Lewis. The Trotskyists continued the struggle inside the party, aiming to win its working class base to a revolutionary, anti-capitalist perspective, while the re-christened Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada waged an unsuccessful electoral campaign. It soon after dissolved — a left-reformist current of intellectuals lacking a class base. Indeed, the Trudeau Liberals co-opted Canadian economic nationalism with the Foreign Investment Review Agency and Petro Canada.
James Laxer focused on his work at York University where he was a professor of political science for almost fifty years, and engaged in some public broadcasting.
Like many other Wafflers, ironically Jim rejoined the NDP. In 1981, he was hired as director of research for the federal NDP, but quit in 1983 when he published a report unpopular with the party tops for critiquing the NDP’s economic policies as being “out of date”.
In a certain way, Laxer was an early edition of Jeremy Corbyn. His dynamic, charismatic personality was, for a time, a lightening rod for a wide, dissident social layer.
James Laxer will be remembered far longer and with much more fondness than most of his antagonists in the right wing of Canadian social democracy.
The NDP Socialist Caucus, which continues today the fight for socialism and a Workers’ Agenda, albeit on a program that differs substantially from that of the Waffle, extends its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of James Laxer at this moment of profound loss.
Chair, NDP Socialist Caucus
February 26, 2018.