One morning in 1953, as the 11-year-old James Laxer was waking up, his father came into the bedroom with tragedy written on his face. The most terrible thing had happened. Joseph Stalin was dead. The son knew what this meant. "My father had lost his lodestar, his political father figure." The news also depressed the boy. With the great leader gone, the world was in trouble.
James Laxer made headlines in 1969 as part of the Waffle faction that threatened to turn the New Democrats into a militant socialist party. He lost that fight and many others, but at age 63 he keeps the faith. A York University political science professor, he's written 15 books with titles such as The Undeclared War: Class Conflict in the Age of CyberCapitalism and In Search of a New Left. In other words, a standard lefty.
This month, in a book less predictable than his others, he describes his shadowy, awkward and embarrassing childhood. He's written a memoir of family communism, the sort of book familiar in America but rare in Canada. Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism (Douglas & McIntyre) describes growing up in Toronto with parents who drew their children into a web of political lies. Laxer writes without much wit or grace, and often mislays his main subject, but he provides a rare glimpse into the tiny and now mostly forgotten milieu of Canadian Stalinism.
His life was unusual from the beginning. In 1941, when he was born, the Communist Party was illegal in Canada and his father, Mendel Laxer, was living under a pseudonym, Robert Owen (later, everyone called him Bob, even his children). Neither Mendel's family nor that of his wife, Edna May Quentin, was pleased by their marriage. James was circumcised in a Montreal hospital, then baptized at Deer Park United in Toronto, both of the grandfathers being clergymen -- one a rabbi in Montreal, the other a Toronto-based Methodist missionary.
When the communists were reborn legally as the Labour-Progressive Party, Bob organized sailors on the Great Lakes, ran unsuccessfully for school trustee and talked revolution day and night. He and his wife taught the children that the Bolshevik Revolution was the greatest event in history. The children were told not to reveal their father's job with the party or mention he was Jewish. James and his brother were the only kids on their street who cheered (in private) for the North during the Korean war. They handed out leaflets and delivered the party newspaper. By observation, James concluded that to change the world you attend meetings.
The year 1956 brought Bob Laxer both happiness and despair as a communist. He went on a three-month tour of Russia, his reward for years of service, and was exalted by its accomplishments if also depressed by its poverty. While he was there the party leadership was obsessed with Nikita Khrushchev's recent criticism of Stalin at the 20th party congress but Bob knew nothing about it. The news was kept from the public and low-level officials like him, so he didn't learn of this momentous change in Soviet politics till he left Russia and read a newspaper in Helsinki. November brought worse news: Khrushchev's destruction of the Hungarian uprising.
Those two blows wrecked Canadian communism. Most of the Laxers' friends quickly left the party and soon the Laxers followed. They resigned without any public declaration, as quietly as one might leave the Rotary Club. They dropped most of their communist friends and looked for new ways to live. Edna May went into social work, where she had been headed when she married. Bob worked as a psychologist in a mental hospital and got a PhD that led to teaching at York University and then the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He remained a leftist. Liberation theology, environmentalism and feminism claimed his attention. He kept up. He and James together wrote a book on Canadian politics in 1977. You might imagine that both father and son recovered from the trauma of Stalinism.
Actually, the son didn't. In his rawest and most touching passage, Laxer harshly condemns his 11-year-old self. He feels indelibly stained by having mourned the death of a mass murderer. "How can I ever get over having had such feelings for a man who now fills me with the deepest loathing?" Stalinism was scarcely more than a fantasy to most of the Canadians who embraced it, but even as a fantasy it left scars.