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Remembering Leo Panitch—an iconic figure of the Canadian left

Socialism

Leo Panitch (1945-2020), Professor Emeritus at York University in Toronto. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The numerous writings and comments spurred by Leo Panitch’s death have expressed shock, grief, gratitude and admiration for his contributions to scholarship and the pursuit of progressive political causes. They are eloquent testimonials to his stature as a leading scholar and public intellectual. Most of these tributes have come from the ranks of social scientists who work in political economy.

I am a lawyer, not well-placed to proffer that kind of analysis of Leo’s contributions. This, therefore, is more of a personal reminiscence of my encounters with Leo. I hope that it may go some way to explain why so many people cherished their relationship with him as much as I did.

Leo came to York University in 1984. That is where we met. He had already established himself as a leading light in his field. The York to which he came was a university that did not quite fit the standard mould. Its student body was more diverse than it was in most other places: there was a good deal of political ferment on campus, certainly more employer-labour confrontations than found elsewhere. It had more than its fair share of left-wing academics sprinkled around the campus and, with Leo’s energetic guidance, it gained the reputation of having the most Marxist-informed political science department anywhere. Surprisingly, the law school, Osgoode Hall, in which I worked, showed some of the same tendencies. As law schools are rightly known for their reproduction of professionals dedicated to the maintenance and perpetuation of the capitalist status quo, Leo told me he was fascinated by the fact that, for a while at least, there was something of a critical mass of socialists in the law school.

Those left-wing academics in the law school had gained some notoriety at the time because of their distinct views on the politics of the repatriation of the Constitution and the embedding of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the domesticated Constitution. These maneuvers to deal with Québec’s claims had won overwhelming support among lawyers. This was understandable because, among other things, lawyers suddenly felt much more relevant to significant social and political developments. They could see themselves as the guardians of precious individual rights and freedoms. The Charter had thrust the judiciary, with a peculiar methodology understood only by its priesthood, into a leading political role.

More important, especially to Leo, was the evident fact that many progressive non-legal academics, unionists, community activists, feminists and vulnerable groups also welcomed the advent of the Charter. Often feeling impotent in traditional political settings, the potential of a forum which purported to abide by the logic of rationality rather than naked economic power, seemed to have great promise to many of them.

The coterie of socialist lawyers at Osgoode adopted a contrarian stance. They voiced their opposition to what they came to call the legalization of politics. Leo was curious. Central to his political life was his life-long belief that it was necessary to build an agency for transformative change, that this was a material process which depended on forging links between comrades. Here, right in the small precinct of the university, there appeared to be a blockage by people he saw as fellow travelers. So, our conversations began.

I think that when we first were to meet, I expected that we would be crossing swords, making sharp, slashing sounds. That did not happen. Rather, it was the gentle clinking of forks and knifes that accompanied our talks. The amiability, the collegiality, were down to Leo. He came to the table willing to listen, to learn. He was a generous man. This was not just a social trait, although it was that as well. Generosity marked his intellectual approach. He was willing to interrogate all beliefs and claims, including his own. But not to destroy. He really wanted to understand the world in order to change it. He never failed to surprise me with his readiness to re-visit his own ideas if, by chance I said something that queried something he had asserted at some time.

His willingness to subject himself to criticism made it easier to accept his criticisms. He was not only listening, but also teaching. As we began to discuss the legalization of politics, it was manifest that he came to the discussion with a huge amount of knowledge. His work on the nature of the state provided a rich platform for our back and forth. He had identified the judiciary as an essential part of the state apparatus, as opposed to being a department of government, and, therefore, as having a role in the maintenance of capitalist relations of production. As a critic of structural abstractionism, he had also observed that, in any one polity, the relationships between the state and the bourgeoisie mattered and differed and should be empirically studied. This sophisticated perspective put him way ahead of lawyers persuaded of the independence of the judiciary and its role as the proper guardian against government excesses. And ahead of me.

Yet, he showed real interest in some of the arguments the contrarians were mounting, about the debates among rival strands of scholarship, the Law and Economics and the Critical Legal Studies movements, the way in which Marxist-informed legal scholars were struggling with the base/superstructure issues around law, and the like. He soaked up this information, added it to the file on the way intellectual work, government and the state formed links. Simultaneously, he complemented my understandings by drawing on his immense knowledge of political history to provide me with parallel debates.

The Charter issues became less burning. We moved on to consider the implications of his and Donald Schwartz’ book on the assault on unions, a study of great importance to labour lawyers. Such invigorating, eye-opening conversations about a wide range of subjects continued throughout our joint lives at York. To me, our sessions, over coffee, lunch and a beer (food was an integral component of our encounters) were enriching. I do believe his insights helped my work. They did so because Leo’s willingness to interrogate everything, his own and others’ ideas, and to reject dogmatism of any kind, made him a great teacher and a dependable comrade. All this and he made me laugh. Often.

Leo Panitch had zillions of these kinds of connections. I feel privileged to have played a (very) small part in his ceaseless drive to promote solidarity and to get us to a better place.

Harry Glasbeek is a Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. His latest books are Class Privilege: How Law Shelters Shareholders and Coddles Capitalism (2017) and the follow-up, Capitalism: A Crime Story (2018) both published by Between the Lines, Toronto. Professor Glasbeek is a frequent contributor to Canadian Dimension.

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