Leo Panitch was a dreamer who dreamed of a more perfect, more just society that was not shaped by human selfishness or greed. As a university professor and public intellectual, he tried to overcome the widespread belief that there was something fixed and preordained about our socio-political arrangements, insisting that these arrangements could be changed.
Of his nine books, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (2012) was his masterwork; dealing with the history of globalization, it took a decade to complete and won two major book prizes. “In our book we emphasize that globalization isn’t natural. It had to be constructed. Free trade and globalization were made by governments and can be unmade,” said his frequent collaborator Sam Gindin, who co-authored the book.
“Global Capitalism will be Leo’s seminal achievement because it really does address directly the major issue facing Western democracies: the relative impoverishment of the working and lower-middle-classes because of globalization and Neo-liberal and corporatist policies that have been embraced, ironically, by much of the social democratic left-leaning parties in the West,” commented journalist Robert Collison, Prof. Panitch’s long-time friend.
Electoral politics and the compromises that must be made for parties to retain the power to govern did not much interest Leo Panitch nor was he satisfied with tepid social democratic gradualism; for him, how radical political movements are created and sustained was a more compelling question. He remained engaged with the big issues including globalization, inequality, the rights of workers, the hidden injuries that he believed were inflicted by capitalism. In his writings – some 100 essays and papers in addition to his books – he returned repeatedly to the question of the future of socialism and how to rebuild a weakened labour movement.
In a distinguished career spanning four decades, first at Carleton University then as holder of a Canada Research Chair in comparative political economy at York University, Prof. Panitch taught generations of young people from a Marxist perspective to think deeply about how the world works. He earned the respect and admiration of his students, many now dispersed across Canada and the world, not by telling them what to think but by encouraging them to develop their own views and sharpen their arguments.
His death at age 75 on Dec. 19, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, of COVID-19 coupled with pneumonia, unleashed an outpouring of tributes and remembrances from across the country and from as far away as South Africa, England and Greece, where he maintained contacts with the Syriza coalition of radical Left parties. His reputation and connections were international.
“Leo was big; he had a big voice; he had a big mind,” wrote his friend Harry Glasbeek, professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall law school. “His thirst for knowledge that could be applied to serve causes to create a better world, a socialist world, was unquenchable. He was one of the few political scientists I ever met who wanted to understand how law served capitalism and what the limits and possibilities of its use in furthering progress could be. His curiosity was inspiring. When we had differences (and we had quite a few), he stated his views with respect for the counter-view.”
Tracy Bowman, his former grad student now working at the University of Manitoba, recalled that she had disagreed with the premise of his course and questioned whether she should take it: “He just smiled and … highly encouraged me to stay in the class. I did and I’m so glad that I did! He was such a wonderful teacher and mentor. It’s important to have diverse opinions in academia and to feel comfortable expressing oneself particularly in a room full of people who disagree with you. You often learn the most from people you disagree with.”
Leo Victor Panitch was born May 3, 1945, in Winnipeg, the cradle of the Canadian labour movement. He was the second son of Sarah and Max Panitch, Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. Max was a cutter of fur coats, active in his union and supporter of the CCF, and later of the NDP. As a child, Leo attended the I.L. Peretz Folk School, where instruction was in Yiddish and English, and later went to St. John’s High School, an academic school in the working-class North End of the city. He graduated as the class valedictorian, and went on to obtain a degree at the University of Manitoba with honours.
He had met Melanie Pollock when she was 16 and he 17; they married in 1967 after graduating from U of M and were together for 53 harmonious years. (She became an educator, researcher and advocate for disability rights.) Leo had won a Commonwealth Scholarship and soon after their wedding, they went to England, where they spent the next five years.
Leo was initially enrolled at Leeds university, but a phone call from his Winnipeg friend Robert Collison, who was at the London School of Economics, changed his mind. Mr. Collison’s description of the excitement of LSE and the brilliance of its faculty led to his transfer from Leeds.
At the LSE, he found Ralph Miliband, a charismatic Marxist sociologist who became his teacher, mentor and supervisor of his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote on the economic strategy of the British Labour Party. The young Canadian scholar even became godfather to one of Mr. Miliband’s sons; that son, Ed, became leader of the Labour Party (2010-2015) and is now a Labour MP.
In 1985, by which time he was a professor at York University, Prof. Panitch took over editorship of the Socialist Register, an annual scholarly journal that Ralph Miliband had founded, and ran it for three decades. At York, he greatly enjoyed teaching and was for a time chair of his department. He helped establish the Global Labour Research Centre, to study the transformation in recent decades of work patterns, employment and the structure of labour markets. In recognition of his contribution to scholarship and learning, Prof. Panitch was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada.
In 2016, he retired from York University but continued to supervise graduate students and write books. “Many of the people for whom Leo was a teacher or mentor were changed forever by the experience,” wrote his former student Stephen Maher who worked with him on the Socialist Register.
His last book, Searching for Socialism, written with Colin Leys, a British political economist, was published earlier this year as an ebook. It returned to the subject of the British Labour Party and the ongoing struggle between its moderates and its radical leaders such as Tony Benn (a cabinet minister in three Labour governments in the 60s and 70s) and Jeremy Corbyn, its recent leader who was strongly influenced by Mr. Benn.
Leo Panitch was diagnosed in the fall with multiple myeloma, a disease of the blood plasma, and entered hospital in November for treatment expecting to return home soon. He never did. From his hospital bed he celebrated his last Hanukkah, the Jewish winter festival, on FaceTime with his family. His son, Maxim, made the traditional potato latkes. “That was always Leo’s job,” his wife recalled.
In addition to his wife and son, Prof. Panitch leaves his daughter, Vida; elder brother, Hersh (in San Francisco); and grandchildren, Ellen, Dean and Sara Rose.