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.