James Laxer: 1941-2018
MARCH 4, 2018 – The sudden and unexpected death of James Laxer has come as a shock to all whose political lives were shaped by the profound social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Laxer’s generation emerged in the shadow of issues which will be familiar to readers of the Canadian Journal of Development Studies – U.S. militarism, Vietnam, Quebec’s not-so-quiet revolution, and apartheid in South Africa – issues which radicalized thousands. Laxer was one of the most prominent representatives of that generation.
His role as a professor and author of some two-dozen books is well known, including a life-long focus on one of the key issues of our day, energy and the oil industry. Also well-known is his role as a leader of the left-nationalist Waffle movement. The Waffle’s challenge to the New Democratic Party establishment, culminating in Laxer pushing David Lewis to a fourth ballot in the 1971 leadership contest. This remains a high-water mark for political currents striving to build a left alternative to the NDP.
Less well known is Laxer’s role in the student movement of the 1960s. It was this student activism which influenced many of us in the generations which followed (for the current author, as editor of York University’s Excalibur in the late 1970s). This student activism was where the key themes of Laxer’s life emerged, and was the foundation for both the Waffle experience and Laxer’s lifelong role as a public intellectual and scholar activist.
Laxer and his generation focused on the campus newspaper as a tool for political organizing. Front page of The Varsity November 18, 1963 was a lead article about an organizing meeting held to discuss plans for a march on Queen’s Park to “present a brief to Premier John Robarts” on the “present situation of Confederation”. Laxer was quoted saying that the march would be “an interesting test to see ‘just what we can do on this campus’.” Laxer was part of this front-page story of student activism. He was also a full participant in the shaping of the coverage, being introduced in the article as “Varsity features editor”.
Laxer’s youthful journalism covered the key themes of his era.
- On Quebec he wrote: “English Canadians need not despair of the French Canadian revolution. The energy that is pulsing through Quebec can serve to redirect Canadian thinking as a whole. The desolate drift of the fifties is over”.
- On Vietnam, he covered student opposition to the war and was himself covered as a participant in an anti-war demonstration outside the U.S. consulate where “among the ideas discussed was the possibility of civil disobedience, such as a sit-in at the consulate”.
- On South Africa, he both covered and clearly advocated a boycott of apartheid in South Africa. “Across the country committees are being set up on every campus. Community education, fund-raising, the implementation of a boycott – the blueprint is bold, requiring thousands of participants – the call to action is out to every student in Canada”.
The latter – advocating a boycott of apartheid in South Africa – was far from entering mainstream discourse in 1964, Laxer’s article prompting numbers of letters to the editor opposing the call.
Laxer’s approach to student journalism – being both in the news and covering the news – found sufficient support that in 1964 he was elected as editor of The Varsity. Among those listed as eligible to attend the staff meeting and vote in that election, you can find prominent future public intellectuals of the left such as Rosemary Spiers and Bruce Kidd. Also on the list was future public intellectual of the right, Barbara Amiel. Without question, it would have been a lively and interesting staff meeting to attend!
Laxer never actually served as editor of the paper, moving on to graduate studies at Queen’s University in the fall of 1964. But his commitment to both the student movement and student journalism did not wane, the same year becoming national vice-president of the collective to which most of Canada’s campus papers belonged, Canadian University Press (CUP). By 1965, Laxer was president of CUP, and that same year, the organization adopted into its statement of principles one of its “most highly contested sections” – the “agent of social change” clause. “In requiring student journalists to become ‘agents of social change’ CUP put into its policies a vision of the role of the press, specifically the student press, as a politically engaged alternative to the professional press and its ‘commercial control’ … From 1965 through 1991” when the clause was removed from CUP’s statement of principles, “in order to fulfill their roles … student journalists needed to be active members of the community”.
In an important 1970 essay where he summed up his experience in the Canadian student movement, Laxer argued that “the New Left student movement in Canada” had difficulty grasping the “necessary connection between the pursuit of Canadian independence and socialism”. Laxer’s activism emerged in an era where Canadian nationalism was seen as a part of the movement for socialism. A very different perspective, focussing on Canada as a central Global North power, has developed in the years since. This is not the place to summarize the points of difference, but to simply indicate they exist. Interested readers can find some of that discussion summarized in Escape from the Staple Trap.
In Canada Ltd., one of the iconic books of the Waffle era, Laxer’s father Robert (also a leading Waffle intellectual) wrote that the task of scholars was not to simply “lend their talents to the esthetics and the rigour of an argument or to the internal consistency of their models” but rather to concentrate “on the real world of political economy … to understand the world is to be involved in changing the world” . James Laxer stayed true to that perspective throughout his long life and career.
© 2018 Paul Kellogg. This article is a pre-print of “In Memoriam: James Laxer, 1941–2018,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue Canadienne d’études Du Développement 39, no. 2 (April 3, 2018): 331–33, https://doi.org/10.1080/02255189.2018.1451274 – please cite the published version.
 James Laxer, Canada’s Energy Crisis (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1975); James Laxer, Oil and Gas: Ottawa, the Provinces and the Petroleum Industry (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1983); James Laxer, Oil (Toronto: Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2008).
 George Bain, “A Tough Row to Hoe,” The Globe and Mail, April 26, 1971; John Bullen, “The Ontario Waffle and the Struggle for an Independent Socialist Canada: Conflict within the NDP,” Canadian Historical Review 64, no. 2 (June 1, 1983): 188–215; Robert Hackett, “The Waffle and the New Democratic Party in Ontario: A Case Study in Ontario Leftist Politics” (M.A. Thesis, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University, 1976); Robert Hackett, “Pie in the Sky: A History of the Ontario Waffle,” Canadian Dimension 15 Nos. 1-2, no. October-November (1980): 2–72; John Warnock, “The Waffle: Lessons to Build On,” Briarpatch 18, no. 7 (September 1989): 10–15.
 The Varsity, “March on Queen’s Park Grows,” The Varsity, November 18, 1963, 1, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 James Laxer, “Canada in Crisis (7) – A Search for Canadian Policy,” The Varsity, November 11, 1963, 5, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 James Laxer, “Canada Sparks Furore at World Youth Meet,” The Varsity, September 28, 1964, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 John Swaigen and Volkmar Richter, “Thirty Demonstrate; Sit-in Today Mooted,” The Varsity, February 2, 1966, 1, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 James Laxer, “Urge Student Boycott of South Africa,” The Varsity, November 4, 1964, 6, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 The Varsity, “Varsity Staff to Vote,” The Varsity, March 4, 1964, 6, http://archive.org/details/thevarsity83.
 Käthe Anne Lemon, “Agent of Social Change: A History of Canadian University Press” (M.A. Thesis, Toronto, Ryerson University, 2004), 1 and 10, Digital Commons @ Ryerson.
 James Laxer, “The Americanization of the Canadian Student Movement,” in Close the 49th Parallel Etc: The Americanization of Canada, ed. Ian Lumsden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 279.
 Paul Kellogg, Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left Nationalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
 Robert M. Laxer, ed., (Canada) Ltd.: The Political Economy of Dependency (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973), 6.