Obituaries

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Leo Panitch 1945-2020

Photo of Leo Panitch
By: 
Ritch Whyman

December 23, 2020

On Sunday December 20th, the left and working class in Canada and globally lost a fighter and thinker with the passing of Leo Panitch.

Many trade-union militants and socialist activists will feel this loss keenly. Leo Panitch spent his life fighting to keep the idea of socialism alive. 

I was fortunate enough, in my very short tenure at university, to take an undergraduate course taught by Leo at York University on the Democratic experience in Canada. The class was what every socialist professor or teacher should aspire to, guiding young people through the question of whether the Canada as they knew it was really a democracy, with the answer being not very if at all.

To test how democratic he was, myself and other comrades from the IS routinely asked to speak at the start of his lectures regarding some upcoming rally or march. Given it was during the years when the Tory government of Mike Harris was in power, such rallies and events were weekly. He was always happy to let us speak at the start. But after a while, he did ask that we choose what actions we would encourage everyone to leave class for. We’d done it so often he was worried that some students would end up missing more than half the lectures and tutorials.

I was happy, later on, to have been able to work with him and his comrades from the Socialist Project in an initiative to try and build a united left in Toronto – Rebuilding the Left – and elsewhere. While unsuccessful, it did help re-establish working relations between some on the left and opened doors for collaboration on other initiatives and issues.

There were many disagreements over issues such as the nature of the State, the possibilities of left reformist parties like Syriza and others. But there were also many more points of agreement, especially the centrality of the working class to socialism and change.

Despite disagreements, and no one will say he shied away from them, he never displayed a sectarianism that others did. He spoke on panels with members of the IS at our events and those of others, including a commemoration of the anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. The linked interview with Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, was also an example of this.

His contributions were many, one of which was being the editor, from 1985 to the present, of Socialist Register, an important and long running annual of socialist debate. Perhaps most important was his work with Daniel Schwartz, From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms. A book that bears reading again by those in the trade union movement, especially given the sorry state of what passes for leadership and the growing acceptance by union heads to forgo strikes, accept injunctions without a fight and defer to arbitration, rather than fight back.

The working class and the left is poorer with the loss of Leo Panitch.

On behalf of myself and the IS, I offer our condolences to his family and his comrades, especially those in the Socialist Project and Socialist Register.

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Embedded Video: 
Interview with Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, authors of The Making of Global Capitalism

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