Leo Panitch Was a Mentor for a New Generation of Socialists
Leo Panitch, who died on Saturday, defended working-class politics even in times when many of his colleagues succumbed to neoliberal triumphalism. His work had a political, not just academic, purpose — and its message will survive among the generation of socialists whose thinking he shaped.
You can recognize a mentor by how often certain arguments or ways of thinking flash up in contemporary discussions; by the gratitude you feel towards those who affected your own intellectual, political, and moral journey. And by how their behavior served as a role model. For me, Leo Panitch was all these things.
I’d first been consciously exposed to his work by Frank Deppe during my studies at Marburg University. I paid my way through university translating Panitch’s texts into German, and I soon decided that I wanted to continue my education at York’s political science department, where Leo was Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Chair.
At that university outside Toronto, he had helped build the most influential training ground of Marxist scholars in any capitalist state. He’d done so amid the anticommunism of the Cold War, with the blacklisting even of socialists (like him) sympathetic to the Russian Revolution but critical of what the USSR became. And, vitally for today, he’d kept socialist politics alive — even when many others did not — during the high point of neoliberal hegemony, between 1989 and the 2008 crisis.
When I think of Leo, I can’t help but also think of Theodor W. Adorno. When I first came to Toronto, I gave Leo the English translation of an essay I had published in Das Argument on Tony Kushner’s philosophy of history, inspired by Walter Benjamin. It featured lots of quotes by Adorno, and Leo gave it back to me saying “Oh, you’re a philosopher!”
At the time, I felt flattered — I thought he meant it as praise. Only afterward did I fully realize that he was actually making fun of me. (Later, he would present me with a t-shirt with the slogan “Adorno was right” — also a joke.)
It might seem strange to associate the two men. Panitch, the immigrant-working class kid in Winnipeg with roots in the Ukrainian shtetl (whose smattering of German stemmed from the Yiddish he had picked up from his parents), and Adorno, from a highly educated, assimilated, bourgeois family in Frankfurt, have little in common — except for being Jewish and sharing an interest in Karl Marx. Their readings of Marx could hardly have been more different.
But there’s another reason they go together. Frankfurt Schoolers like Adorno are often credited with sending a “message in a bottle,” allowing Marxism to survive the near-successful effort to physically eliminate it in the Nazi period. This message made its way through the difficult years of postwar West Germany — and was enthusiastically received by many students, often first-generation academics, during the upheavals of the 1960s.
The same metaphor extends to the role Panitch and his colleagues played after 1989. York’s political science department — probably the biggest cluster of Marxist scholars and innovation in the world — kept Marxism alive through the difficult 1990s and 2000s, only for it to be taken up by a new generation of socialists, faced with today’s deep civilizational crisis.
The outpouring of disbelief — and statements of deep affection — following news of Panitch’s death shows just how many distinguished scholars learned their understanding of the world through him.
The Toronto School (or better, Schools) of Marxism stuck to materialist approaches even when the academic left threw this tradition under the bus, in favor of “post-structuralism.” It stuck to socialist, class-based politics even though the three pillars of anti-capitalism — trade-union power in the West, actually existing socialism in the East (however flawed), and socialist-oriented national-liberation movements — had all been defeated between 1979 and 1989.
In the 1990s, many former social-democratic colleagues became thoroughly neoliberalized. They declared that the goal was not equality but emancipation (Anthony Giddens), or that the nation-state had lost its power and could merely adapt to globalization (Jürgen Habermas, David Held) by dismantling the welfare state and worker protections.
But Panitch and his colleagues defended the restricted space to the Left of the “New Democrats” and “New Labour.” They insisted that capitalism was not the end of history — or could be so only at the expense of planetary collapse and the extinction of humanity.
Sticking by these scholarly and political principles required stamina. Panitch and his colleagues evidently had a lot of it. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote of Marx and Engels, “they gave up on immediate upheaval when they saw that conditions had changed. They predicted another upsurge by the oppressors and exploiters and they modified their own actions accordingly. But neither their anger toward the ruling class nor their efforts to overthrow it eased.”
Yet what could have been stubborn faith in a holy scripture was anything but. Panitch and his colleagues knew that Marx produced a method of analysis which had to be applied to concrete, historical capitalist societies. It was understood that Marx had left behind an unfinished oeuvre, which scholars from Engels onwards have tried to develop further, including a Marxist theory of the state, the world market, and imperialism.
Standing in this tradition, the Toronto School created a laboratory of scholarly innovation and critical social sciences. Somehow, almost all innovations in Marxist theory can be traced back to this unfriendly, outlying location, for a long time lacking even a subway station.
Political Marxism was developed at York, and neo-Gramscianism in International Relations originated here, as did Jonathan Nitzan’s capital-as-power approach; other world-renowned Marxist scholars like John Bellamy Foster can also be traced back to this university.
A Neoliberalized Left
Panitch especially criticized the Left’s surrender to the ideology of globalization, during what he called “the Globalization Decade” of the 1990s. Today, we are used to discussions about “post-democracy” and “post-democratic capitalism”; scholars like Colin Crouch and Wolfgang Streeck have made their careers as prominent scholars critiquing the neoliberal European Union. Yet the comparative and international political economy approaches pursued by Panitch and his colleagues Robert W. Cox and Stephen Gill, had articulated these things close to twenty years earlier.
Panitch built on Cox’s theory of the internationalization of the state (enabling the internationalization of production through international forms of statehood like trade agreements and investment protection treaties). He developed Nicos Poulantzas’s state theory into one that could reckon with the emergence of a transnationalized bourgeoisie based on the prevalence of foreign direct investment.
But Panitch was also the most prominent critic of the notion that markets had suddenly outpaced states. This was the claim made by scholars like Held, Habermas, or Giddens, arguing that social democracies had to accept that “there was no alternative” other than surrender to global market forces.
In his 1994 essay “Globalisation and the State,” Panitch argued that the state was in fact key to making globalization possible. “Neoliberalism,” he maintained, could not exist without the state. It shrunk the old Keynesian welfare state apparatuses while simultaneously expanding the political and military capacities of the state to superintend globalization. This was the “making of global capitalism” — also the title of his and Sam Gindin’s magnum opus, published in 2012 after a decade’s research and writing. (After the book was published, Jacobin published a symposium of eleven articles on the book, including a response by Panitch and Gindin to their critics.)
Panitch thus argued that we needed to distinguish a neoliberalism in theory from actually nexisting neoliberalism. At least in Reagan’s USA, neoliberalism did not mean a minimal state: “as welfare offices emptied out, prisons filled up.” Panitch and Gindin insisted on the importance of military prowess and structural force in maintaining “globalization.”
In 2004 Panitch, defined this as nothing but “the spread of capitalist social relations to every corner of the globe and every facet of our lives.” Thomas L. Friedman wrote: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas building F-15s.” Panitch asked: is this really the world we want to be living in?
Beyond the Academy
Panitch’s special role also had to do with his ability to write accessibly. While his thinking was deeply entrenched in social complexities and theoretical debates, his prose was crystal clear. He resisted the kind of academic jargon which became fashionable during the 1980s, as atomized intellectuals unmoored from real social forces resorted to “baroque language” (as John Sanbonmatsu put it) to find work in a neoliberal academy increasingly hostile towards critical scholarship.
Nicolaus Sombart once observed that his father, the German sociologist Werner Sombart, did not consider knowledge an esoteric pursuit for a chosen few, but something that could be found lying on the street by anyone. The question was whether people were given the opportunity to learn. This was the understanding of knowledge that Panitch defended.
This didn’t come from nowhere. It had to do with his own experience as the son of a — quite class-conscious — sewer and cutter of fur coats and an orphaned mother who had come to Canada at age thirteen. Panitch, too, had teachers from a working-class background, like Polish-Jewish emigre Ralph Miliband, who eventually asked him to become his co-editor at the Socialist Register.
Unlike some scholars who climbed the social ladder against the odds, Panitch did not sever ties with his class. He enjoyed elaborate jazz music and good food, but never presented himself as something better than the average Joe and Jane. Instead, one of his biggest gifts was his ability to listen.
As one of his disciples Angela Joya put it, he functioned like an “umbrella for working-class kids.“ He attracted hundreds of students who would never otherwise have survived the “show-(off-)and-tell” competition with upper middle-class students — the kind who racked up internships while their working-class counterparts stacked shelves and flipped burgers.
While Panitch excelled as a distinguished, rigorous scholar, he also kept his distance from the university power structure. Helping build labor-community coalitions like the “Toronto Workers’ Assembly,” he never saw academia as his main playing field. He was published by Cambridge University Press and appreciated being published in mass media like the Guardian. (Though, as he wrote to me shortly before his death, the British liberal paper “completely froze me out” as “part and parcel of an overall turn against ‘our’ left” — in his view, “certainly reflected in their extreme hostility to Corbyn.”)
But ultimately, Panitch’s focus was not on impressing other academics or Guardian editors but on building ties with social forces on the ground, from Syriza in 2015 to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Tellingly, the British socialist leader tweeted how “sad“ he was at Panitch’s death — they had “last met … a couple of months ago“ with “a wonderful discussion on the bright future of socialism.“
Indeed, Panitch dreamt optimistically of a better, just world. But he was also a realist. He warned the new generation of Sanders and Corbyn leftists that socialism was absolutely possible but might carry unprecedented difficulties. As he told Jacobin‘s Meagan Day and me one of the last times we met in person, given the tremendous challenge of rebuilding the working-class movement and the severity of the impending climate catastrophe, it’s quite possible we’ll have to “build socialism in a world that looks like Blade Runner.“
If he had to choose between making an even bigger name for himself in the academy or impacting the real world, Panitch chose the latter. This also gave him a kind of freedom — made his theoretical considerations and analyses of the real-concrete more convincing, unique and in need of referencing, because the social forces he connected with outside of academia gave him the leeway not to compromise with regards to his ideas and convictions.
One key moment was how Panitch’s thought revolved around “class” when it was utterly unfashionable. If others invoked “social forces” and “intersectionality” in order to avoid being attacked as “class reductionist,” Panitch’s concept of class could not have been further away from reductionism.
He continued to point to the strategic relevance of the working class for the analysis of capitalism as well as any kind of post-capitalist perspective. But he theorized the working class as a racialized and feminized class early on, most notably in the 2000 edition of Socialist Register, which he co-edited since 1985 and which he developed into the arguably most important Marxist theoretical journal today. If you hear the term “multi-racial working class” movement, as it is widely used among Sanders’s supporters, think of Leo Panitch.
When I woke up on Sunday to the news of Leo’s death, I was absolutely shocked. Even though we sometimes lost touch, he was a constant presence in my life. I especially admired that he took the time to read what his disciples produced. I wonder if he knew how much their — and my — writing owed to how he had taught us to look at things.
The last time we met was at the Historical Materialism conference in London, where we had dinner with Frank Deppe, Birgit Mahnkopf, and my partner Judith Daniel. We stayed in touch over plans for a Socialist Register article, our newborn daughter, and his new granddaughter, who he was looking forward to tickling in October.
This May, he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in lockdown. But he remained cheerful. On “a spectacularly warm and sunny day,” he reported, he and Melanie — his closest comrade throughout his life — would “head down to the lake and then sit in the garden. Who could ask for more amidst the horrors being visited on so many of the unfortunates?”
To think that Leo would himself die from a COVID-19 infection in an overfilled Toronto hospital, is hard to take. He needed medical treatment because in summer, he started to feel severe back pain which gradually became worse. He didn’t mention it the last time we had a Skype videocall conversation in late July — we just talked about politics and our excitement at the new additions to our families.
On November 6, I had the honor to sit on the same panel as Leo for the last time. I was chairing a panel on the US election with Leo, Meagan Day, and Bill Fletcher Jr. Three weeks later, Leo informed some of us that he had been “admitted to the hospital over a week ago,” because his back pain had gotten “much worse.” In the hospital, after a week of testing, he was diagnosed with cancer.
But Leo remained optimistic until the very end, saying that he expected to live ten years or more. Only his closest friends and collaborators like Melanie, Donald Swartz, Greg Albo, Sam Gindin, and Angela Joya knew how serious things became, due to the combination of COVID-19 and pneumonia. On the evening of December 19, the big heart stopped beating.
In his field, Leo Panitch feels almost super-human. But he was also a man. His humility, his lack of arrogance, and his real interest in what made his students — and people in general — tick seemed otherworldly in a world of professorial pretentiousness and intellectual mediocrity.
Leo Panitch can never be replaced. But his spirit lives on — in the hearts he has touched, and in the way he shaped a generation, with others to follow.