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Mel Watkins: Reflections on Jim Laxer

Jim Laxer. Photo: James Laxer/Twitter

Let me share with you how I came to know Jim Laxer almost 50 years ago, for he had a powerful effect that has never left me.

I have a still-vivid memory from 1968 of reading an essay in Canadian Dimension on the history of Quebec and Canada, on Quebec’s nationalism and its pursuit of sovereignty, by a young graduate student in Canadian history at Queen’s University named James Laxer.

The analysis was brilliant. It offered an English-Canadian perspective on Quebec that was original, breaking decisively with reigning scholarship. Jim wrote of Quebec and Canada as a left-Canadian nationalist, in solidarity with the Quebec independentist movement. He was already miles ahead of most of us.

We first met in mid-1969 at a small gathering in Toronto of NDP members. On the agenda was drafting a resolution to present at the upcoming NDP federal convention that spoke to a fresh opening on the left, created by the decade of the '60s, of which the NDP leadership seemed unaware. Jim showed up at that very first meeting with a draft of a resolution that quickly garnered acclaim. I felt privileged to be allowed to write the next and almost final draft.

Jim had seized the moment to try and create a new national left movement, but keep it tied to the existing parliamentary party. It was radical in rhetoric and conservative institutionally, a very Canadian creation. With a tongue-in-cheek irony characteristic of Canadians, we chose to call a very unwaffling manifesto, the Waffle Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada. It insisted that Canadian independence was possible only with socialism, and that socialism was possible only with independence. It was the politics of left nationalism.

The invention of the Waffle was a collective act but primarily Jim’s conception, and he was from the outset the master strategist.

A debate on the Waffle Manifesto dominated the 1969 convention, and the many of us across Canada who now declared ourselves Wafflers could not do otherwise than stay together. The 1971 convention was to choose a new leader to succeed Tommy Douglas. Jim became the Waffle’s candidate for leader and it took four ballots for David Lewis, the heir apparent of the establishment, to best him. Dave Barrett, who left us only days ago, voted for Jim.

Still in his 20s, Jim was as good as it gets. It was an extraordinary achievement.

The '60s, of course, were too good to be true.  Within the NDP, where we had democratically and demonstrably earned our place at the table, the Waffle was too strong to wither away, but not strong enough to get the better of an entrenched leadership federally and in Ontario. We were forced out.

We renamed ourselves, with Jim’s leadership, the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada. A highlight in Ontario was a lecture series on Canadian political economy with Jim delivering the opening lecture, and culminating in a book edited by Bob Laxer, Jim’s father, with the evocative punning title, (Canada) Ltd. Meanwhile, the decision was made to run a few candidates in the federal election in 1974, headed by Jim running in the Toronto riding of York West. The results were too little and most disappointing. In retrospect, our running was a mistake, one from which the movement could not recover.

Grounded in the same left nationalism, Jim went on to lead a productive and provocative role, intellectually and politically. He was well ahead of his time in arguing for an industrial policy for the NDP.  He wrote numerous books, well researched and scholarly, yet accessible to a broad public of readers. The list includes one on the United States, a topic utterly neglected by Canadian authors, particularly scholars. Another is on empire, the common coin of the long run of history, where progressive politics both at the centre and the margin is anti-imperialist.

Jim and I went our separate ways, but the bond we formed in the time of the Waffle was a defining moment of my life politically, and one of its great joys, personally.

Jim is no longer with us, and that is a terrible loss, but his legacy is assured. What he did for the left in this country, and thereby for the country, survives and will long survive.

Photo: James Laxer/Twitter

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