Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre
Anyone who grew up urban, working class and male in the Truman and Eisenhower era, will have an immediate affinity to this book.
Few will have experienced Jim Laxer's unusual childhood as the half-Jewish scion of full-time Communists. Few, at age eleven, will have had a father who set up a "study group" for the children of local Communists. Few will have lived a proletarian existence without material luxuries despite having parents both of whom had won graduate degrees at a time when the majority of Canadians had barely finished elementary school. Few would have had to compartmentalize identities at a very young age and to cope with maternal grandparents from the "life-denying wing of the Methodist Church" and who were imbued with the principles and the personal experience of missionary life in China. Few would have learned to lie as well as Jim Laxer did, just in order to manage a very complicated life.
Everything else was normal. Laxer describes the Toronto of the "placid fifties" with accuracy right down to the language of his family and friends. Does anyone "work themselves into a lather" or "make themselves scarce" anymore? Does anyone play "nickey, nickey, nine doors"? He is also careful not to romanticize. The 1950s television world of Father Knows Best was an illusion, even among the cast on the Hollywood set. There was street crime, domestic violence, poverty and war. For young Jim Laxer, there was also the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
James Laxer went on. I have met him on occasionbriefly. He writes as though he were prescient. His soft-spoken criticism of the monolithic minds that revered "Uncle Joe" Stalin are reported here as if his adolescent awareness of the official lies of others were transparent to him at an early age. It at least appears that he saw through the ideological deceptions and rigid political formulations much sooner than either of his parents. When the time came for his family to leave the tight party circle, they did not do so boisterously with the self-interested cant so typical of ex-Communists who eagerly joined the chorus of apostates chanting about the "god that failed." Thoughtfully and with dignity, they moved on.
In time, James would collaborate with his father on a book about Canadian political economy. The son would go on to challenge David Lewis for the leadership of the federal NDP as the candidate of the "Waffle" faction. He would do much better than the party "establishment" anticipated. For his troubles, David's son Stephen would conduct a ruthless purge of Laxer's group, driving it from the Ontario NDP at an infamous provincial meeting in Orillia.
After the floor-fight, I went to a local bar, accompanied by a small group including Pauline Jewett who had been, for a time, a Liberal MP and would soon assume the leadership of Simon Fraser University. One of our group asked how it was that Ms. Jewett, who had been so recently a middle-of-the-road Liberal, was now associating with the radical left in the NDP. Not missing a beat, she explained that she had not moved at all; everyone else was moving to the right. The shift has not yet been completed.
It has been more than thirty years since Laxer's political aspirations were dashed and close to fifty since his childhood closed as his mother and father took leave from the movement they had so religiously served. Laxer says that, at the age of sixteen, he felt like an immigrant to the land in which he had been born and raised. It would be years before he could talk about some things and decades before he could talk about it all. I am glad he has done so. In the meantime, he has contributed a great deal to his country as a politician and as a scholar. Throwing light on his past makes us appreciate him and helps us understand his parents and their generation much more.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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