Leo Panitch, perhaps Canada’s best known socialist political scientist both inside the country and abroad, as well as a social activist and an inspiration to generations of students and activists, passed away in Toronto on December 19, 2020. He was a victim of COVID-19, with which he was infected while in hospital being treated for multiple myeloma.
Leo’s knowledge of Marxist theory, political economy analysis, and labour and socialist history was daunting. But he combined academic rigour with a passion for spreading the word about social injustices and the possibilities for a better world for working people. He was happy to talk to almost any audience, particularly labour audiences, and engage in conversation with people about their lives and ideas. One on one, he was a good listener, who was down to earth, humorous, compassionate, and supportive.
Leo was the second son of immigrant Jewish working-class parents in North Winnipeg, the home of the Winnipeg General Strike, and a socialist hotbed for many years thereafter. His dad worked blue-collar jobs in the fur trade and was elected to leadership positions in his union. Influenced by his parents and his milieu, Leo developed socialist perspectives at a young age. Those were cemented by his studies at the University of Manitoba and then the London School of Economics, where he earned his PhD.
A professor of political science at Carleton University (1972 to 1984) and then at York University till his retirement, Panitch established himself as a leading Canadian left-wing scholar with the publication of his edited work, The Canadian State, in 1977. Eight other books followed that analyzed the struggles for workers’ rights and for socialism in Canada, the United Kingdom, and beyond. As the editor of the annual Socialist Register from 1984 to his passing, Panitch assembled writings by the world’s leading scholars on issues regarding the struggles of working people and oppressed peoples more generally across the globe.
His historical work, with Donald Swartz, From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms, first published in 1988, is an epic study of state efforts from the 1950s onwards to erode the trade union rights won by workers through wartime and post-war struggles. In an interview posted on the website of the Alberta Labour History Institute, Panitch explores the themes of that book while looking at the larger picture of workers’ struggles in Canada, exemplified by the strike wave of 1919, of which the Winnipeg General Strike was the largest manifestation.
Panitch considered his 2012 book, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, co-authored with long-time director of the Canadian Auto Workers and lifelong friend, Sam Gindin, his greatest achievement. It argues forcefully against notions that capitalist globalization was inevitable and beneficial, pointing out that it was a carefully planned American strategy to augment the already overwhelming control of its government and globalized corporations of the economic destinies of people across the planet. He and Gindin were founders of an organization called Socialist Project that worked to pull together left-wing scholars and trade union activists to examine events and phenomena from a social class perspective and to propose strategies for overcoming corporate control over the destinies of working people.
A personal note: I always considered Leo a mentor and friend. He was the valedictorian in my high school, three grades ahead of me, and already a spokesperson for social justice causes. I thought of him as the leading voice in our generation for North End Winnipeg’s continuing socialist values. Before finishing my first degree, I worked as assistant editor of Canadian Dimension magazine, published by Cy Gonick, a socialist economist who had greatly influenced both of us as University of Manitoba undergraduates. I stayed with Leo and his wife, Melanie, a disability studies professor at Ryerson University and disabilities activist, as I searched for an apartment when I moved to Ottawa to do some of the research and then the writing for my PhD thesis. With Leo’s encouragement and assistance, I had the amazing luck and honour to publish my first academic article in Leo’s first book, The Canadian State, a runaway bestseller, at his invitation. As was the case for many others, he was extremely supportive of both my scholarly and political efforts throughout my academic career and wonderful to get together with at conferences or just for coffee when I was in Toronto. Like me, he grew up in a house where his parents spoke in Yiddish as often as in English, and he enjoyed conversing in his first language.
–Alvin Finkel, President, ALHI, January 8, 2021