He did Marxism with a big stick, but had a way with a joke, too
Joe Flexer, the warm-hearted but quarrelsome revolutionary socialist who died two weeks ago of heart failure at 67, would have loved the memorial ceremony that bade him farewell.
From the hammers and sickles on the red cloth running the length of the OISE stage to the undisguised appeals of his Socialist Action comrades for new recruits, the whole scene was like a Bolshevik revival meeting.
But it was also a teary eulogy for the miracle of one man’s oversized personality and the way he turned the class struggle into his personal joy.
In attendance were 400 old Marxists, ex-Marxists, fellow workers from the Canadian Auto Workers plant where he worked for so many years and a sprinkling of social democrats recognizable only by the fact that they had to consult the lyric sheet when everyone sang the Internationale.
It was the end of a drama-filled journey for Flexer, who left his Brooklyn home at 17 to head for Israel, where he served in the army and later found solace in the Israeli Communist party. He arrived in Toronto in the early 70s, helped lead the Ontario Waffle to its final shattering confrontation with the NDP leadership and then settled down for a time in one of the various socialist grouplets that swelled and then expired during that fractious decade.
Later in his life, Flexer was best known as a CAW militant. In the 1995 provincial election, he convened a group of socialists and unionists weary of the Bob Rae social contract and ran as a labour candidate in Toronto’s Oakwood riding.
It was just after his heart transplant, and I remember him declaring his campaign “my last big chance” in a voice that said he had learned forever that the future was not a trustworthy ally.
People are fond of saying Flexer knew how to be principled, how to draw the class struggle’s sharp line in the sand. It’s a generous way of saying he was inflexible and overly prone to metabolic fuck-you-ism, and that he wielded his Marxism like a big scary club, ready to bash you for ideological infractions.
But I adored Joe Flexer.
I looked up to him as if he were a slightly out-of-control older brother. I admired his gift of engagement — he loved polemics and theatrical gestures and rising cadences and epithets. He loved to tell jokes in emphatic Jewish rhythms, and you got the feeling he was addicted to the socialist struggle as a kind of performance art.
In his 30 years on the T.O. left, he must have stood at 10,000 microphones, his suspenders stretched tightly over his round belly, his unrepentant Brooklyn accent mocking social democracy, the boss class, neo-liberalism or whatever else got in his way.
I was once a member of a group that the group he belonged to split from — if you see what I mean –and memories are long and mean in that corner of the left. So Joe and I scrapped a lot over the years. During the Persian Gulf War, he gave support to Saddam Hussein against American aggression, and I made fun of him in print, which infuriated him.
The last time I saw him, he was irritated that I had written that the OCAP tent city occupation was uninspired.
“You’re objectively counter-revolutionary,” he boomed loud enough to draw a small crowd in the foyer of the Ottawa convention centre where the federal NDP was meeting, invoking a phrase I didn’t know anyone still used.
Still, I felt he was somehow one of my tribe, though I’m not exactly sure which tribe it was. He was a restless soul who had too much to say and way too much to feel, and I suppose there may be a nation of us out there.
The workers at his plant like to tell the story of how they were getting sick from the emissions of a particular machine, but despite many complaints, the boss wouldn’t remove it. It was Joe who, in a fit of what Trotskyist theoretician Ernest Mandel would have called “revolutionary insolence,” finally pulled the plug and shut it down.
The hard left will no doubt stumble along quite nicely without his generous verbosity. It might even be a tad less sectarian and cranky, but it will never, ever be as interesting.