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The Progressive Economics Forum

Abraham Rotstein and the Radical Decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies

Remarks at a posthumous book launch of his Myth, Mind and Religion at Massey College, University of Toronto, October 2018

For more than 50 years, going back to the days of the old Department of Political Economy, Abe was my colleague in teaching and researching economic history and political economy, my intellectual soulmate, and my closest friend. I have many fond memories.

Let me go back to that wondrous decade of the sixties. This incredible book which Abe has left us begins with what he calls the Radical Decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, and takes us back to that at the end.

The drabness of he boring 50s, when the conventional wisdom took up all the available intellectual space, morphed into the exciting 60s when suddenly anything seemed possible, from the powerful preaching of George Grant in his Lament for a Nation to, on this campus, that wildest of scholars, Marshall McLuhan – with both Abe and myself participating in his famous weekly seminar.

Even the venerable Department of Political Economy woke up. Under the leadership of Abe younger members of a rapidly growing faculty created the University League for Social Reform, the ULSR, and it began to publish a series of books in Canadian political economy.

Abe became editor of the fusty prestigious Canadian Forum, restructured it editorial board, and restored it reputation as the progressive magazine of Canada’s democratic left.

Abe was a member of a group of faculty and students, including Michael Ignatieff – and myself – which organized a most successful teach-in on this campus on the War in Vietnam.

A major issue on which the orthodox economists had closed their minds was that of foreign, specifically American, ownership of the Canadian economy as the central dimension of the Canadian-American relationship. Abe, though a junior member of the economics profession, had the courage to take a critical stance. He provided intellectual support for the Hon. Walter Gordon, who compelled the Pearson government to appoint a task force to advise on foreign ownership of eight economists including Abe and myself. Our report was a Canadian contribution to that celebrated year which is being widely celebrated at the moment. We briefly brought balance to the discussion of foreign ownership.

What I am saying may sound like a retreat into medieval, even ancient history for, as we know, the neo-liberal message of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney was shortly to return us to the status quo of closer integration of the Canadian economy into the larger imperial American economy.

Still, the nationalist surge of the 60s, of which Abe was the resident theorist, while it abated, arguably left as its legacy a clearer sense of what constituted Canadian identity.

Now there is Trump and we could once again use a voice like Abe’s, with its radical message delivered in a moderate tone with wisdom and wit.

Consider arguably the best pun of this renowned punster: “Every dogma has its day.” Can you not hear him saying: “Hard to Trump that.”

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