Socialist Action, Fall 2000
Over four hundred people, some traveling hundreds of kilometers on a hot summer holiday long weekend, gathered to celebrate the life of our departed comrade Joseph Flexer. The meeting to celebrate his life was held on Saturday, August 5, 4 p.m., nearly filling the main auditorium of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), 252 Bloor St. West, in Toronto. The gathering was organized by the family and friends of Joe, and by Socialist Action, of which Joe was a central leader, and a member of the SA newspaper Editorial Board.
Joe passed away at approximately 3 p.m., on Monday, July 31, 2000 at Toronto General Hospital. Joe was 67 years old when his new heart failed him, about six years after receiving a transplant. He was buried at a private, secular ceremony for family and close friends at Bathurst Lawn Memorial Park, midday on August 3.
Joe was a revolutionary communist to the core, an unparalleled internationalist and a remarkable worker militant and unionist. He was the epitome of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the ‘organic intellectual of the working class’. For decades Joe was a dedicated activist in the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union, a leader in his plant and in CAW Local 112. He was a respected national figure in the CAW, at the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and across the workers’ movement which he so loved, from Palestine to North America. Joe was a founder and federal Co-Chair of the NDP Socialist Caucus, a movement he embraced optimistically and to which he gave unnumbered months of devotion and activism.
Not Some Ordinary Joe
Messages of solidarity and tribute poured in by e-mail, phone and fax from around the world, and continue to arrive. As the hundreds lined up to sign the condolence book on August 5, many picked up samples of Joe’s most recent writings in editions of Socialist Action newspaper and the NDP Socialist Caucus Manifesto. Many read the scores of messages posted on a huge bulletin board in the hallway.
Each person received a printed programme for the memorial event proclaiming the theme: "Not Some Ordinary Joe". In addition to the agenda, the folded leaflet shows two pictures of Joe, one at a demo wearing his beloved CAW jacket, another attending to his bar-b-q at a backyard social. Donations are welcomed, naming both the Union of Injured Workers, and "A fund for publishing Joe’s works", established by Socialist Action. The words to the song The Internationale, and the famous Karl Marx quote "Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains" adorn the back panel.
The event was hosted by Mitch Podolak, founder of the Winnipeg Folk Music Festival. Bob Lyons, former NDP member of the Saskatchewan Legislature delivered the Eulogy, followed by speakers: Mary Catherine McCarthy, Joe’s loving partner; Dani Flexer, his son from Israel (one of three sons, a daughter and two grandchildren present); Steve Moore, old friend, teacher and poet; Hassan Yussuf, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress and former CAW officer; Barry Weisleder, speaking for Socialist Action and in a personal capacity; and Judy Rebick, media personality and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
Singer/guitarist Tim Harrison performed the Phil Ochs ballad "When I’m Gone". Faith Nolan sang a cappela. And after a dozen or more folks contributed remarks during an ‘open mike’ segment, the meeting concluded with a rousing rendition of The Internationale, led off by Brenda Wall and George Hewison.
Official greetings were expressed on behalf of a number of organizations, including: CAW Local 112, a Toronto area club of the Communist Party of Canada, the Workers’ Communist Party of Iran, and the New Socialist Group.
Similar events in tribute to Joe Flexer are being planned for venues in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
Dan Lovell, a young member of Socialist Action, reflected on Joe’s inspiring example for the future of the movement, and invited students and young workers to join in the effort to launch a revolutionary socialist youth organization in the coming months. What more fitting tribute could there be to Joseph Flexer than to politically arm the next generation of fighters, to continue the struggle for a socialist future. Can’t you just picture him smiling?
by Barry Weisleder
It is difficult to imagine a more political person, and at the same time a more passionate and caring person, than our departed comrade Joseph Flexer. Socialist Action has lost more than a central leader, more than a brilliant writer, educator and strategist. Together with the worldwide labour and socialist movements, with his loving family, and with friends too numerous to count, we have lost a powerful voice.
Shakespeare wrote, "But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end."
To think and speak of Joe is to be restored, to be inspired by his tireless, totally selfless, uncompromisingly militant example, and to once again see clearly the way forward. His was a life to celebrate. It is also a guide to action.
Joe’s son Dani told the Toronto Star that Joe "became a communist and a mechanic at about the same time, at about (age) 15". His ideas took him from his native Brooklyn, New York to the Middle East where he joined an Israeli Kibbutz in the 1950s. His principles compelled him to break with Zionism, and to champion the fight for Palestinian self-determination. In Israel, Joe was, unhappily a soldier, and most happily, a labour militant and communist. In the mid-1960s, Joe returned to North America, lived in Winnipeg and briefly in Montreal, and became an important figure in the movement against the war in Vietnam and on the socialist left. Joe settled in Toronto in the early 1970s. He became a provincial organizer for the left-nationalist Waffle movement in the New Democratic Party. I believe that one of his political assignments was to counteract the radical socialist wing of the Waffle in Ontario. Some of its key elements exhibited the growing influence of Marxist and Trotskyist ideas.
But a funny thing happened to Joe between the meeting hall, the library, and the bar. He became convinced that the Canadian nationalist and left-reformist leaders of the Waffle were wrong, and that the young revolutionaries, fresh from the anti-war, student and feminist movements, were much more his political cup of tea. Always an ardent internationalist, this was no great leap for Joe Flexer.
He helped to found the Red Circle, a Marxist group within the Waffle. When Ontario NDP Leader Stephen Lewis issued the famous ultimatum to the Waffle in 1972, and the Waffle debated what to do and then walked out of the NDP, Joe and the Red Circle campaigned as part of the Stay and Fight Caucus. But the repression of the Waffle took its toll, and for a generation the NDP was depleted of intellectual ferment and radical activism.
It was in this period that I met Joe. This was the beginning of a thirty year friendship between us, one that matured into a very close political collaboration and comradeship, one that intensified over the past five years. Joe, as a person, was the biggest single political influence on my life.
The Red Circle helped to found the Revolutionary Marxist Group in 1973, which in turn joined forces with the League for Socialist Action and the GMR, a Quebec Trotskyist group, to launch the Revolutionary Workers’ League in 1977. The membership of organizations to which Joe belonged looked to him as a central political leader, a theoretician and a labour movement coordinator. For years Joe led an internal tendency which strove to orient the membership towards the working class movement, to speak the language and to live the struggles of rank and file workers.
Joe left the section of the Fourth International in the Canadian state in the early 80’s, as the RWL succumbed to sectarian policies and practices. But his renown labour activism continued. If asked "what organization do you belong to, Joe?", he would answer: "The Joe Flexer Communist Party. We have a small membership, but a very lively internal discussion."
During the break up of the Soviet Union, Joe joined the Canadian CP for a brief period, hoping to link up with leftward moving militants. He became a member of a split-off group, the Cecil-Ross Society, and he encouraged its archival and publication projects.
When the Ontario NDP was elected to government in September 1990, Joe like many others, saw potential for some positive change. But when Bob Rae cut social expenditures and legislated the Social Contract against public sector unions, Joe saw ‘red’, in the angriest sense of the word. He decided to run in the 1995 Ontario election as an independent labour candidate in Oakwood constituency. He had not been an NDP member for over a decade. NDP members who supported him paid a price, some more than others. Joe didn’t win the seat, but his critique of the neo-liberal agenda that has swept social democracy around the world, and Joe’s crusty but uniquely endearing character, got a lot of attention.
In the Fall of 1995 Joe decided it was "party building time". Of course, size matters. But if your aim is the transformation of class society, the creation of a cooperative commonwealth based on a socialist democracy, the starting point must be political programme. And that includes a commitment to direct involvement with working people, inside their mass trade union and political organizations. Joe looked around the Left and made his decision. He asked to join Socialist Action, and immediately became a member of the editorial board of Socialist Action newspaper. At the time, our paper consisted of a meager 16 pages, published twice a year. The paper has advanced a bit since then. Suffice it to say that to see the critical link between the socialist organization today and the socialist future of humanity requires a person of considerable vision, analysis, selflessness and dedication. These and similar traits are revolutionary qualities that Joe Flexer had in abundance.
One of Joe’s most endearing pastimes was story-telling. He had a huge repertoire of jokes, and he had no compunction about repeating his favourites. Here’s a small sample.
Joe was an experienced labour negotiator. He served Canadian Auto Workers Local 112, as its Caruthers (later Toromont) unit plant chair and bargaining team chair for many years. He loved to use humour to educate co-workers.
In one story Joe explained that whenever workers go into contract bargaining and they put major wage and benefit improvement demands on the table, the boss usually goes nuts—all he wants to talk about is ‘communism’. But as soon as workers get wise, and start talking about communism, you find the boss is suddenly more than ready to talk about wages. That’s one way improved wages and conditions come from communism.
Joe also had an interesting approach to fund raising. He once advised: "Call a meeting. Book a good hall, have an attractive agenda, and don’t charge admission. But don’t let anyone leave unless they pay at least $5."
Joe was a great partisan of the Cuban Revolution. He told the story about a gathering of the July 26 Movement leadership, soon after the revolutionary victory. Fidel Castro was in the chair. He looked across the room, and then he pleaded for a volunteer to head up the economics ministry. After a long pause, Che Guevara put up his hand. Fidel was relieved. A week later, at a similar meeting, Fidel asked Che for a report on economic affairs. Che said, "What are you talking about?" Fidel replied, "Well, you volunteered to be our economist." Che said, "Economist?! I thought you were looking for a communist!"
Joe’s fondness of humour and story-telling was a profound expression of his socialist humanism. So was his dedication to reaching working class people, and our allies, and to convincing everyone he could that there is an alternative to the exploitative and barbaric world capitalist system, a socialist alternative.
That’s why Joe joined Socialist Action, just a year after his heart transplant in 1994. He knew his time was limited, and he wanted to make the most of it politically. Joe was not interested in an academic circle. He did not wish simply to reminisce in a rocking chair. He joined us in a desire to play an active role in our working class organizations, and to fight to win workers and all the oppressed to socialism, so that the bosses can be defeated once and for all.
For that reason Joe took special pleasure in helping to found the NDP Socialist Caucus. He was proud of the leading role he played in the writing of the Manifesto for A Socialist Canada, and in being a federal co-chair of the Socialist Caucus. At the recent ONDP Convention in Hamilton, Joe ran for party vice-president as part of an SC slate of candidates, and he got over 21% of the votes. A good start in an ongoing struggle to save the only mass labour-based party in North America from neo-liberalism, we believe.
Joe also took pride in the young Marxists emerging within the NDP Youth, and the young socialists today joining and working with Socialist Action. A pledge to the future victory, Joe would say.
Joe Flexer walked on countless picket lines, spoke at countless rallies and demonstrations, and touched countless lives. Everywhere Joe went he fearlessly argued, and patiently polemicized, always keeping to the highest Marxist standard. Everywhere he earned respect – even amongst his most steadfast political opponents.
But there are many workers and activists who don’t yet know the ideas, the method, the wisdom of our comrade. His contributions are important, we think, to the future victory of our class. For that reason, Socialist Action is launching the Joseph Flexer Publication Fund. Its aim is to publish Joe’s writings, and to improve the newspaper on whose editorial board he served for the last five years of his life.
His brilliant work on the Middle East, the labour movement, the NDP, and key problems of political economy deserve the biggest possible audience. Yesterday I came across a major piece Joe wrote in the Winter 2000 edition of our paper, titled "Nationalize the Airlines". Then I thought of two things: the ongoing crisis of passenger service at the Air Canada monopoly; and the mega-buyout of Conrad Black’s media empire by Izzie Asper’s CanWest Global Corp. You can imagine what Joe would have to say about that.
Joe’s hatred of capitalism was based on solid Marxist analysis, which he felt is uniquely capable of explaining Capital’s increasing concentration, its deepening exploitation of working people, and its deadly destruction of our natural environment. The new, young socialist fighters, and many other folks, deserve to meet the ideas of Joe Flexer. Your support for our Publication Fund will help enable that to occur.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to say good bye to a close comrade and friend. Joe was not big on ceremony. But he valued human relationships. In his last years he often told me he felt we were like brothers. He expressed his affection, and so did I. But this did not mean, for one moment, that he would hold back critical views, or suppress political differences. Joe didn’t do things by half measures.
I learned more than I can describe, from him. So did countless others. He can neither be forgotten or replaced. But he is someone to emulate. And now is the time for all those who wish to follow his example, to step forward, to pick up the banner Joe carried, the banner of Socialist Action.
Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the Russian Revolution, wrote these words in his sixty-first year, in Mexico 1940, as his health was in decline. I think these words, with appropriate substitutions, could have been said by our comrade Joe Flexer:
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