Leo Panitch, leading scholar of the global depredations of neoliberalism and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy at York University in Toronto, in Banff in 2019 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Leo Victor Panitch, one of the intellectual pillars of the Canadian left and a leading scholar of the global depredations of neoliberalism, died Saturday from COVID-19. He was 75.

Born into a working class Jewish family in Winnipeg in 1945, Dr. Panitch was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Distinguished Research Professor in Political Science and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy at York University in Toronto. He was one of the world’s most respected students of the writings of Karl Marx. 

Dr. Panitch at the Parkland Institute Conference in Edmonton in 2011 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

His influential 2012 book, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, co-authored with former Canadian Auto Workers Union research director Sam Gindin, illuminated the intimate connection between modern neoliberal capitalism and the American state and argued capitalism is inherently unjust and undemocratic.

It is a bitter irony that the novel coronavirus that causes the disease that took Dr. Panitch appears to have evolved to exploit the vulnerabilities of the modern neoliberal state — two-tier health care, low wages, precarious work, weak unions, the gig economy, each one of them nurturing the conditions that have made the spread of the virus virtually impossible to stop. 

In The Making of Global Capitalism, Professor Panitch and Mr. Gindin asserted that such institutions as the U.S. Federal Reserve and State Department were far more important in the creation of the informal postwar American Empire than were the likes of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Capitalists, literally almost everywhere, generally acknowledged a dependence on the U.S. for establishing, guaranteeing, and managing the global framework within which they could all accumulate,” they wrote. 

However, they argued optimistically that emerging conflicts within modern capitalist societies created the potential for new political movements that could transcend global markets kept afloat by U.S. state intervention.

In 2013 The Making of Global Capitalism won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for a new book published in English “which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.” 

Dr. Panitch earned his Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from the University of Manitoba in 1967. That year, at 22, he left Manitoba for England, where he earned Master of Science and PhD degrees from  the London School of Economics in 1968 and 1974. His doctoral thesis, The Labour Party and the Trade Unions was published by Cambridge University Press in 1976 with the title Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy.

The poet Milton Acorn, 1923-1986 (Photo: National Film Board).

In all, Dr. Panitch was the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and nine books, and taught at Ottawa’s Carleton University and at York.

In addition to being a leading scholar of Marx, Dr. Panitch was a raconteur and a star of the lecture circuit, genially ready to welcome anyone to his table — and presumably to entertain them in English, French or Yiddish, all of which he spoke. 

When Dr. Panitch and I discovered over beers last year at one of these post-seminar salons that we had both lived on Palmerston Boulevard, a street in Toronto that was once home to the great working-class poet Milton Acorn, he kindly emailed me a note with a photo of the rooming house he thought had been Acorn’s abode, as well as one of the house in which I once resided. 

“The final picture is of my house,” he concluded. “I send it for identification purposes to ensure that the next time you are in Toronto you will drop in for a coffee, or better still, a whiskey.”

Alas, that much anticipated opportunity is now lost. 

Dr. Panitch is survived by his wife of 53 years, Melanie Panitch, and his adult children Max and Vida, the former a photographer and writer and the latter a professor of philosophy at Carleton University. 

Dr. Panitch was in hospital for treatment for multiple myeloma when he contracted COVID-19.

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  1. A very sad day. Many of us met this marvelous man in 1983 in Winnipeg. He had an insightful way of making others aware that what they were saying was not really all that helpful in dealing with the realities of Keynesianism and the emerging neoliberal economics. He was not, as many claimed, a doctrinaire repeater of 19th century Marxist theory, but someone who claimed to be a participant in an intellectual and street reformer heritage that Uncle Karl was also a part of.

  2. With regard to the ‘modern neo-liberal state nurturing the conditions that make it impossible to stop this virus’ which killed Dr. Panitch, it is pertinent to note now, that the incidence of COVID in workplaces has surpassed the incidence in long term care facilities in the past couple of months. As Elamin Abdelmahmoud mentioned in his Twitter feed, we’re “listening to politicians say ‘please stay home’….Like what?” And the “workplace biggest outbreak locations are exempt from Ford’s new lockdown,” Quote: “Nora Loreto.”

  3. Not familiar with the late gentleman or his writing. Haven’t read Marx either. But on the face of it, there is much to be said about Marxism as an economic system. Unfortunately, I challenge you to name just one country where Marxism has been implemented in the economy without police-state level oppression of the citizenry. Freedom of association or peaceable assembly — freedom of expression and to dissent openly from and even challenge government policy — freedom of worship for those who wish to — and a genuine multi-party democracy with free & fair elections: all of these are tossed by the wayside in every country that has tried Marxism. In fact, in the world’s most populous country, Marxist economic theory has been essentially abandoned, but Marxist oppression and autocracy has remained entrenched.

    While Marxism and fascism are diametrically opposed in economic terms, in terms of civil liberties there is little to distinguish them.

    1. With respect, Jerry, while Marx was indeed an activist, Marxism is principally an analytical tool. Marxist analysis is deeply integrated into democratic societies and undemocratic ones, we just don’t give it that name or even recognize what we’re looking at. Your question, to my mind, is a bit like stating, accurately, that every country where psychology has been implemented oppresses its citizens. Neoliberalism, by contrast, has only been around about 40 years and we see a steady slide in all neoliberal countries into police-state level oppression of the citizenry. DJC

  4. Thanks for posting this article, David. News of Leo’s death was shocking, in part because he was so well-liked as a person. I have attended a few conferences and meetings with him, and have never known him to come out with a snide or sharp put-down – even when one might have been deserved. The book he co-authored with Swartz, Consent to Coercion, was one of the first to record and analyze the effect that the turn towards neoliberalism was having on trade unions and other institutions that protected workers rights and freedoms. He had the ability to analyze and explain complex issues and developments simply and concisely, in a way that made his writings and talks accessible to working class people outside of academia.

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