Living Socialism Today: Remembering Leo Panitch

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Living Socialism Today: Remembering Leo Panitch

Sam Gindin

Standing outside a conference with a group of devotees, a famous political scientist brags that there’s only two people in the world he’s afraid of: his mother and Leo Panitch. To anyone who knows Leo, this revelation elicits knowing smiles and an affirmative nodding of heads. But it also poses a question. Those with an authoritative and intimidating presence tend to bring a distancing from others; how then did so many nevertheless come to feel so close to Leo?

The almost universal answer in the hundreds of emails sent in response to Leo’s passing spoke to the vital social dimension that came... with Leo’s charisma: a genuine interest in others, a generosity in terms of time, an eagerness to schmooze, the quiet supportive hand on a student’s shoulder that followed a crushing critique of an assigned paper. It was also impossible to ignore Leo’s down to earth energy and enthusiasm, whether he was speaking on Corbyn or Syriza, wolfing down a polish sausage with sauerkraut at a Jays game, or lamenting his inability to play the sax – never mind play it like Sonny Rollins.

All this came together in his passion as a teacher and public intellectual. His undergrad lectures opened up thousands of eyes to a different way of seeing the world. His grad seminars inspired new generations of young intellectuals to ruthlessly rethink everything. As a commentator on current events at home and internationally, Leo was stunningly comfortable in launching – on call – into a clear explanation or an argumentative diatribe. In the middle of a phone conversation, he’d suddenly interrupt to say: ‘Shit, it’s 5 minutes to my interview at 4:00. We can only talk for 2 more minutes. Then I have to find out what it’s about so I can get my head into it’.

In those talks and interviews Leo powerfully pressed, to his very last days, for an alternative common sense. Ever provocative, he challenged listeners to think deeper and more ambitiously about the kind of society they wanted.

Yet the most effective political messenger still needs a quality message, and this was Leo’s forte.

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