Many of us on the left both in Canada and internationally were shocked and saddened in mid-December by the sudden death of Leo Panitch from COVID-19, contracted while in hospital during unrelated treatment. Leo was well-known not just as an insightful political economist but as one of Canada’s rare “public intellectuals” who combined his Marxist scholarship with a profound engagement with contemporary social and political issues. His views, always expressed with admirable clarity, were increasingly sought out by a new generation of political activists in North America and Europe.
I first met Leo personally in 1984. Articling with a progressive law firm in Toronto, I found that Leo was my contact for arranging the visit of Ralph Miliband as guest speaker at the annual Law Union conference. Miliband’s presentation was well received, and following the meeting Leo suggested the three of us should repair to the pub to which other conference participants had adjourned.
I remember telling Miliband that I had read several of his books but that my favourite was still his first, Parliamentary Socialism, A Study in the Politics of Labour. He laughed and said “It’s mine too.” Published in 1961, it began famously with the statement: “Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the [British] Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic–not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” I was in 1962 a member of the provincial council of the recently-founded Ontario New Democratic Party, and had found Miliband’s analysis of the BLP of immense help in understanding the disturbing features of the NDP that I was encountering.
Leo Panitch had just recently moved to Toronto where he was to establish the most progressive political economy faculty in English Canada, at York University. 1984 marked his addition to the editorial team producing the annual Socialist Register founded by Miliband, Leo’s mentor from the days when he studied for a doctorate in England.(1)
In what follows, I want to signal and critically engage with what I consider Leo’s major contributions to our understanding of the Canadian state and its place within global imperialism, as well as the conclusions he drew as they might affect the development of an alternative anticapitalist project. Taken together, both aspects reveal, in retrospect, a remarkably consistent approach in Leo’s lifelong attempt to not only interpret the world but also to help change it.
Canada, a “rich dependency”?
In a seminal article,(2) in 1981, Leo Panitch critiqued the central focus of the new Canadian political economy that developed in the academic milieu throughout the 1970s, which he characterized as “the attempt to conjoin a Marxist political economy with an older, primarily non-Marxist political economy tradition” derived in large part from “the long-standing and home-grown staples thesis.” It
rather uncritically borrowed f3rmulations on dependency and development from Latin America and the Caribbean with little regard to their degree of compatibility with the Marxian class analysis which it was also developing. At the same time, in attempting to establish the validity of dependency theorizations for Canada, comparisons were usually made with the advanced capitalist countries. The difference between Canada and other dependent societies, however much they were acknowledged in passing via the paradoxical phrase ‘rich dependency’, have been relatively ignored. Any systematic examination of this question would have to go beyond the recognition of Canada’s ‘intermediary status’ in the imperialist chain, as many have done by focusing on Canadian investments in the Caribbean and Latin America. Serious study of Canada’s position in the world system would surely inquire into the ways in which Canada’s class structure, much more similar to the advanced capitalist societies and particularly the United States than to the Third World, has historically differed from that of other dependent societies. Moreover, in focusing primarily on the ‘mercantile orientations’ of the capitalist class in Canada, studies of the relationship of dependency and class have overlooked the more important dimension of the relations between classes as an element in assessing the particular nature of Canadian dependency. Similarly, work on the Canadian state in relation to dependency has not addressed itself seriously to the question of how a liberal democratic state in form and substance, in contrast with the authoritarian states of most other dependent societies, sustains and reproduces the imperialist connection.
I will comment later on Leo’s consistent characterization of Canada as a “dependency,” a term that failed to grasp Canada’s relationship to the United States, in my opinion.
Panitch went on to argue, as his central thesis, that
only if political economy turns to an examination of class in Canada taken as a totality, only if it specifies the historically developed class structures, patterns of exploitation and class struggles in Canada, will it be able to adequately explain Canada’s trajectory to a ‘rich dependency’.
For some leading theorists of the new political economy,(3) he noted, capitalist development was “largely about small local entrepreneurs ‘making it’, independent of finance capital and foreign capital.” Canadian capitalists, they argued, had historically been based on merchant activities directed to the home market, a sort of ‘neo-mercantism,’ and tended to favour secure portfolio investment and profits from finance capital instead of engaging in direct investment in entrepreneurial industrialization. Canada’s industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely the result of increasing foreign (largely U.S.) direct investment in Canadian industry, which had come to dominate.
Panitch offered a different interpretation: “ ‘Corporate capitalism,’ even if some or many of [Canada’s] capitalists made their money originally in merchant activities, is nonetheless industrial capitalism.”
Canada’s financial capitalists (as did the same breed of capitalists in the American North-East at the beginning of the American industrial revolution in the 1830s) demonstrably shifted capital into industry where it was profitable to do so and joined with American manufacturing firms in squeezing out or taking over smaller industrial firms.
Their relative weakness was not due to any lack of entrepreneurial skills, an explanation that had more in common with Schumpeter than Marx.
What is significant about Canada is not so much that only a few small industrialists “made it” to be corporate capitalists and that those that did integrated with financial capitalists into a system of ‘finance capital’ (this after all is common in all advanced capitalist societies), but that more American corporations than Canadian ones dominated industry at the end of this process. This does indeed require explanation…
A Marxist political economy, Panitch noted, “will want to ask regarding why Canadian industrial entrepreneurs ‘lacked the power … to survive’ is whether their ability to extract surplus from the direct producers was limited by class relations and class struggles of nineteenth and twentieth century Canada.”
Some historians also associated with the new political economy, in opposing the neo-mercantilist thesis, documented that on the contrary Canada had undergone an indigenous industrialization, protected by John A. Macdonald’s National Policy based on imperial tariff barriers. Greg Kealey, for example,(4) had demonstrated that, as Panitch summarized it, “any balanced historical account must recognize the political importance of the alliance between Ontario industrialists and workers around the tariff to protect industry and jobs.” But, said Panitch, “he goes to the opposite extreme of Naylor and Clement to proclaim that “by 1879 Canadian industrial capitalists had come to dominate the state and were able to dictate their self-interested policies in the name of the common good.”
“Can we do no better than oscillate between two diametrically opposed but equally instrumentalist views of the Canadian state?,” Panitch asked.
What marks Canada off most fundamentally from classical underdevelopment is the fact that this society was from the beginning constituted in terms of free wage labour or tendentially free wage labour. Despite the small size of the proletariat at the time of Confederation, both agricultural and craft production took place predominantly for exchange. Unlike other dependent societies which were characterized by the attachment of mercantilism to a pre-capitalist mode of production (wherein the direct producers were unfree, not directly engaged in market exchange, and sustained themselves by producing their own means of subsistence), Canada was a society where exchange value predominated in social relationships. This had much to do with the fact that Canada was composed of ‘white settler’ colonies. […]
[I]n this sense, and above all in Ontario where dependent industrialization first and most strongly took root, the development of capitalism in Canada was predicated on a class structure which facilitated capitalist industrialization. This was not the case where mercantilism maintained and reproduced pre-capitalist forms of production in the periphery. These forms of production, even where nature yielded a marketable staple, were based on absolute surplus extraction from the direct producers and their direct non-market production of means of subsistence. This closed off the possibility of the development of an internal market for manufactured goods and for the division of labour necessary for industrial production…. The conditions for a transition to an industrial proletariat, the prime source of accumulation for advanced capitalist societies, simply did not obtain.
What has often apparently confused Canadian political economists is that, in Canada as a whole, the portion of the population engaged in staple production did not decline as industrialization developed in the late nineteenth century. The particular nature and timing of Canadian capitalist development in fact expanded the class of petit bourgeois farmers through the development of the wheat staple in the West at the same time as it created an industrial proletariat in southern Ontario. But while this pattern certainly differed from Britain, it resembled that of the United States. In both societies, moreover, the transportation infrastructure that was built to service the wheat staple of the West simultaneously expanded the class of wage workers not only in the building of the railway, but also in the iron and steel industries that it called into being. It was thus the very nature of staple production in mid and late nineteenth century Canada that yielded a proletariat. Although it was concentrated very largely in the cities of Ontario and in Montreal, and although it was not to become the largest subordinate class until a half-century after Confederation, this proletariat was to have significant effects in economic and political terms from the 1870’s onward.
And this was a high-wage proletariat, relative to the capitalisms of Europe and only marginally below those in the United States. This reflected the fact that industrialization in Canada was developing on the basis of a domestic market, in turn a primary inducement to U.S. direct investment. “American capital came to Canada to secure raw materials, and to use Canada [behind the National Policy protective tariffs] as a staging post for exports to the British empire; it did not come in search of cheap wage labour (in which case it would have gone to Mexico or at least much more to Quebec than to Ontario).”
the second effect of Canada’s high-wage proletariat for the profits of both Canadian and American capital was on the rate of exploitation. It meant that industrial production in Canada had to expand on the basis of relative surplus value, the application of extensive fixed capital to the production process to expand labour productivity, and not on the basis of cheap labour with the extension of working hours and absolute immiseration of the direct producers. It was in the employment of labour-saving technology that Canada again resembled Europe and the United States itself rather than the classically dependent societies.
U.S. capital was more profitable than Canadian in a great many cases. To compete, Canadian capitalists pursued a higher rate of absolute exploitation of the Canadian working class, resulting in struggles over the shorter work week, factory discipline, the importation of cheap foreign labour or resistance to wage cuts. Canada’s class structure has evolved in the 20th century increasingly along the lines of advanced capitalism.
Panitch continued to refer to Canada as a “dependency,” however, while qualifying it as “rich.”
Rather than pretend that our historical trajectory has been one of the development of underdevelopment, it is perhaps more relevant to ask whether Canada stands as the prototype of the form of dependent industrialization which, given the changing international division of labour over the last three decades, has come to characterize countries on the periphery of Europe such as Spain and Greece, or certain countries in Latin America such as Brazil and Argentina.
How, then, should we view the role of the state in Canadian history, Panitch asked.
To speak of a state as a capitalist state does not mean that certain or all capitalists rule directly at the political level. It means rather that the state’s role primarily entails maintaining the social conditions for economic growth and the reproduction of classes in a way consistent with the dynamics of the capitalist economy. This means promoting capital accumulation, but within the framework of containing and mediating relations among the various fractions of capital and between the subordinate and dominant classes. The degree to which the state is relatively autonomous from particular classes cannot be given in the abstract. It can only be assessed through concrete analysis of the balance of forces at each particular conjuncture. The strength of the subordinate classes, not only in mobilizing politically, but also in terms of their ability to resist increased exploitation at the economic level, are just as critical elements in assessing this balance as are the accumulation strategies of the bourgeoisie.
In Canada’s case, Panitch argued, its “dependency” was on “American hegemony.” This could not be reduced to economic dependence alone. It is not the state that primarily sustains American imperialism within Canadian society.
The imperial relation is secured and maintained more fundamentally within civil society itself — in the integration of all the dominant fractions of capital under the hegemony of the American bourgeoisie, in a continental labour market and international unions, and above all, in our culture–not so much the ‘haute culture’ of the intellectuals but the popular culture which is produced and reproduced in advertising, the mass media and the mass educational system. Just as it is by virtue of a cultural hegemony in civil society that bourgeois domination is made compatible with liberal democracy in advanced capitalist societies, so Canadian dependency remains compatible with liberal democracy by virtue of the penetration of civil society itself by American culture. In contrast, the penetration of the culture of the metropole in most Third World societies is largely restricted to the ruling classes alone and its inability to penetrate or displace the culture of the mass population is kept closed by an authoritarian state structure which dominates over civil society.
What is needed is a “dialectical approach to social phenomena,” he concluded.
It is not enough, for instance, to study imperialism in terms of its effects on Canada. We have to recognize that imperialism has effects not only on the periphery but on the metropole itself…. [O]penness to the notion of contradiction would make Canadian political economy not only more sensitive to the roots of the current crises besetting America’s international hegemony and her domestic economy, but also less prone to accept the static isomorphism between dependency and underdevelopment which was posed in dependency theory and which always looked odd in relation to Canada’s history. More fundamentally, an awareness of social phenomena as contradictory would entail seeing domination and exploitation as other than one-way streets. It would mean that explanations of, and strategies for overcoming, Canadian dependency would concentrate less on ruling class (or metropolitan) actions and strategies alone, and more on historically structured relations of conflict between exploiters and exploited, not least between dominant and subordinate classes both in our own society and elsewhere.
This is a necessarily abbreviated summary of Panitch’s text, which merits a full reading even today. Suffice it to say that it marked a new path in Canadian political economy, one pursued during the 1980s by other authors such as David McNally and William Carroll.(5)
Panitch pursued his thinking on Canada’s relation to the United States, culminating in 2012 with publication of his award-winning The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, which he co-authored with Sam Gindin. The book’s central thesis is that the United States has dominated the planet since World War II, integrating other powers (and countries) by way of subordination to its “informal empire.” This portrayal is distinguished from the conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry that Lenin had characterized as a central element of prewar capitalism.
Panitch and Gindin argue, using a wealth of documentary evidence, that the U.S. forged a capacity to shape global capitalism according to the needs of U.S. corporations, while still giving importance to systemic stability for the sake of all global capital through the development of multilateral institutions serving this purpose. This new world superpower has integrated “all the other major capitalist powers into an effective system of coordination under its aegis.” These states retain an important role in promoting the accumulation of capital within their sovereign boundaries but they are themselves “embedded in the new American Empire” and now “had to accept some responsibility for promoting the accumulation of capital in a manner that contributed to the US-led management of the international capitalist order.” They call this the “internationalization of the state.”
The Bretton Woods agreement on the international monetary order and U.S. intervention during the postwar reconstruction of Europe laid the foundation for an exceptional period of growth that lasted through the end of the 1960s. But by the late 1960s “serious contradictions in that framework immediately began to reveal themselves.
The first of these was that growing trade competition from Europe and the growth of U.S. private investment in Europe combined to produce severe pressure on the dollar. A second and related contradiction emerged as U.S. financial capital, having been nursed back to health under the regulatory framework of the New Deal, increasingly strained against the limits of that framework at home, and also found new outlets through the overseas expansion of MNCs and the opportunity this gave to internationalize U.S. banking. The vast cross-border flows of private capital this now involved were bound eventually to undermine the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
They emphasize a further contradiction:
The achievement of nearly full employment within all the advanced capitalist states spurred the growing militancy of a new generation of workers who drove up wages, challenged managerial prerogatives, and forced a steady increase in social expenditures–all of which not only made it very difficult for capitalist states to resolve international economic imbalances through domestic austerity policies, but generated growing worries about price stability, productivity and profits….
By the time the U.S. in 1971 hestitatingly ended the dollar’s link to gold, it was already clear that neither clinging to nor jettisoning the Bretton Woods system offered a long-term solution to this accumulating set of contradictions.
Washington’s response was to promote higher levels of global integration. In the final two decades of the 20th century, a series of important transformations took place, among them the relationship between finance and industry, leading to “a much larger share of total corporate profits” going to the financial sector. In addition, “major restructuring” within many of the country’s core industries also took place. Perhaps most importantly, there was a shift towards high-tech manufacturing, a “new industrial revolution [that] was largely American-led” that swept across computer and telecommunications equipment, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and scientific instruments. This reconstituted the foundations of U.S. capitalism, and laid the groundwork for the internationalization of production that was commanded by the United States.
The Making of Global Capitalism attracted wide praise, but also some criticism, the main ones being that it exaggerated the coherence of this shaping of the global economy, while paying insufficient attention to the unevenness of that economy, the inter-imperialist rivalry this generated, and their effects on the class struggle and social relations within each state.
I will cite only one such critique of its central thesis, by Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz in a recent article.(6) With the benefit of hindsight informed by recent shifts in global capitalist relations, Katz points to a number of features of contemporary imperialism that belie the Panitch-Gindin portrayal of unchallenged U.S. economic supremacy. (He cites numerous texts by the authors outlining their perspective but not the 2012 book, which has not been published in Spanish.)
Their analysis, says Katz, helps us in understanding Washington’s capacity to counter the collapse of 2008 with bailout policies much bolder than those of Brussels or Tokyo. It also refutes the neoliberal myths of the “withdrawal of the state,” illustrating the importance of institutional support to the economy. The central argument, however, is that the Federal Reserve has defined all the parameters of financialization and contemporary monetary policy. “That centrality in strategic decisisions on interest rates, capital movements, self-financing of companies, securitization of banks or family management of mortgages has also been highlighted by many studies of the transformation of recent decades.”
But financial primacy–rightly emphasized by the authors–is not extended to the commercial or productive plane, as evidenced by the industrial job cuts and the manufacturing role of the [Far] East. The United States has lost the primacy it had in the Fifties or Sixties, and it is an error to relativize that evidence, identifying the trade deficit with the specialization of U.S. firms in delocalized activities. Nor is it valid to assume that the indebtedness of consumers expresses the submission of the rest of the planet to the whims of the shoppers of the North. Both imbalances simply reflect the growing weakness of U.S. economic power.
The economic centrality of the United States effectively constitutes a key fact of contemporary capitalism, but its specific weight sheds little light on the imperial context. The thesis of economic supremacy situates the problems of U.S. foreign policy in the realm of legitimacy. It points to all the costs of the Empire’s action, but by pointing to its merely police or complementary role. It holds that the Fed plays a more relevant role than the Pentagon in supporting capitalism worldwide.
But in fact a more complex balance operates. U.S. power is based more on the exercise of force than on the impact of its economy. Imperialism is not merely an auxiliary instrument. It concentrates all the coercive mechanisms the system requires. The interventions of the Marines are more significant than the definitions of interest rates adopted by the Federal Reserve.
In both areas the U.S. plays a double role, but the geopolitical dimension is a more visible gauge of the projects and limitations of Washington. It is there that we see the continuing presence of a power that has lost command of global management. That impotence has been reinforced by the Pentagon’s failures. This is obscured when the focus of the analysis is exclusively on the economy.
Katz notes that Washington’s continued financial and monetary control suggests that the traditional partners of the United States have been subjected to the dictates of the Fed. This subordination is derived from a process of “Canadianization” of many capitalists on the planet. It is argued that they forego their own interests in order to participate in the global undertakings that Washington runs. However, says Katz, the instability facing the dollar and the failures of the trade agreements promoted by the United States do not sustain this diagnosis of voluntary submission to Yankee dominance (“imperialism by invitation”). “European rivals have not been absorbed and the sub-imperial powers operate with increasing autonomy of the White House. ‘Canadianization’ would constitute in any case an arrangement limited to the closest appendices of Washington.”
By assuming that no one challenges the United States, you lose sight of the enormous scale of the Chinese challenge. It is true that China contends with some disadvantage, but the differences have narrowed dramatically. The atrophy of U.S. power is more relevant than its possible recomposition.
Replying to their critics in a 2013 article,(7) Panitch and Gindin insisted that the U.S. empire was still supreme, and certainly not in decline. They acknowledged the uneven development of the global economy, while noting that some of the major beneficiaries of global capitalism, in particular a few “rising states,” such as Brazil and the countries of the “Asian miracle,” might have an “interest in renegotiating their place within the American empire (although not to replace it).” However, they argued,
In the early 1950s, a third of the world’s population stood outside of capitalism, liberation movements were threatening to expand the noncapitalist world, working-class movements in the developed capitalist countries–though increasingly integrated–were still a social force to be reckoned with, and within a decade the dollar was under attack. Today, working classes virtually everywhere have suffered historic defeats and the dollar remains the unambiguous currency of choice. China and the former Soviet Union and its former satellites have come into the capitalist orb; virtually no state is considering leaving global capitalism. The international opportunities for American capitalism have never been greater; if the opportunities for China seem, in relative terms, even greater in terms of trade or investment or the extraction of raw materials from Africa and Latin America, this is not something that the United States seeks to block. On the contrary, it welcomes it as part and parcel of the making of global capitalism.
Replying in the same article to some Canadian critics, Panitch and Gindin decried the all-too often framing of the debate in this country as revolving around “Canadian sovereignty.” The debate over “free trade” with the U.S. is an example, they said.
What was really motivating both Canadian capital and the state was the fear that U.S. protectionist sentiment would lead to their losing access to American markets. Of course, key elements of Canadian-based capital were not only looking to protect markets in the U.S. but had also developed the competitive confidence that free trade would mean more opportunities. For the Canadian state, free trade therefore spoke to a strategy for Canadian economic development within global capitalism. In an important sense, the Canadian state viewed NAFTA as actually increasing Canadian sovereignty: the agreement provided the Canadian state some input into continental economic arrangements; it gave Canadian business (including U.S. branch plants) some protection against arbitrary American protectionism; and by constitutionalizing market freedoms it gave state and business an excuse in the face of popular pressures to limit markets and competition (‘free trade made us do it’).
However, they added, this identification of Canadian capitalism with American hegemony did not negate the need to integrate an examination of class relations within states, including Canada, in our analysis of global capitalism.
Capitalism is inherently crisis-prone and its deeper internationalization, with finance playing such a prominent role, adds to its volatility. But capitalism will not fall apart because of interimperial rivalry, the conflict between financial and industrial fractions of capital, the domestic impasse between nationally and internationally oriented bourgeoisies, or any ahistorical working out of the law of falling profits. The making of global capitalism began at home and its unmaking will depend on the creation of a working class in each country with the capacity to carry through that unmaking.
This was, they concluded, what Marx and Engels had “wisely noted” in the Communist Manifesto, insisting that “The working class of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.”
What, then, did this analysis entail for socialist strategy in the Canadian state?
Leo had concluded his 1981 text by the statement that “explanations of, and strategies for overcoming, Canadian dependency would concentrate less on ruling class (or metropolitan) actions and strategies alone, and more on historically structured relations of conflict between exploiters and exploited, not least between dominant and subordinate classes both in our own society and elsewhere.”
Seeking analogies, he found fertile ground for such study in that paragon of parliamentary socialism, the British Labour party, the hegemonic party of that country’s working class for almost a century.
Pursuing the studies pioneered by his mentor Ralph Miliband, Leo Panitch sought for many years to document and analyze the efforts of the left in Britain to articulate a new socialist politics, an alternative strategy to the social-democratic reformism of the Labour party. He authored two books, both with Colin Leys: The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour (1997) and Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (2020).
More recently, he devoted similar attention to the new socialist party in Greece, Syriza, “the only party to the left of traditional social democracy in Europe that has actually succeeded in winning a national election since the current economic crisis began.” He visited Greece many times, where (as he had in Britain) he engaged in extensive discussions with leaders of that left, some of whom were among his former post-graduate students at York University. In both parties Leo attributed the setbacks of the left to the lack of inner-party democracy and the failure to accompany party-building with efforts to build the exraparliamentary working-class capacities that alone could sustain radical change at the level of the state.
In “Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation,” Socialist Register 2017, Leo and Sam Gindin sought to draw out some of the lessons of these experiences in the context of the 2008 U.S. financial crash and its reverberations globally in “the multiple economic, ecological, and migratory crises” that characterize it. Neoliberalism had been delegitimated, spawning a “growing sense that capitalism could no longer be bracketed when protesting the multiple oppressions and ecological threats of our time.” Oppositional upsurges like Occupy and (in Spain) the Indignados highlighted capitalism’s gross inequalities. Yet to many their episodic nature–“protest without revolutionary effect”–had revealed “the limits of forever standing outside the state.” A “turn on the left from protest to politics had consequently come to define the new conjuncture.” This was expressed not only in the massive influx of members in the BLP now led by Jeremy Corbyn, or the 2015 electoral victory of Syriza, but in the rise of Podemos in Spain and the massive support won by Bernie Sanders in his 2016 campaign for the presidency.
However, as Andrew Murray had noted, “this new politics is generally more class-focused than class-rooted. While it places issues of social inequality and global economic power front and center, it neither emerges from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself nor advances the socialist perspective of the class-for-itself.” Panitch and Gindin pointed to the problem: “[E]ven the strongest left currents” within these parties and movements were “not preparing adequately for the challenge of actually transforming state apparatuses. The experience of the Syriza government in Greece highlights this, as well as how difficult it is for governments to extricate their state apparatuses from transnational ones.”
All this compels a fundamental rethink of the relationship between class, party and state transformation. If Bolshevik revolutionary discourse seems archaic a hundred years after 1917, it is not just because the legacy of its historic demonstration that revolution was possible has faded. It is also because Gramsci’s reframing, so soon after 1917, of the key issues of revolutionary strategy–especially regarding the impossibility of an insurrectionary path to power in states deeply embedded in capitalist societies–rings ever more true. What this means for socialists, however, as we face up to a long war of position in the twenty-first century, is not only the recognition of the limitations of twentieth-century Leninism. It above all requires discovering how to avoid the social-democratization even of those committed to transcending capitalism. This is the central challenge for socialists today.
Panitch and Gindin went on to explain their rejection of both revolutionary rupture (“insurrection”) and classic social-democratic adaptation to the capitalist state structures. Citing Rosa Luxemburg’s critique, the Leninist error, they said, was a reductionist view of the capitalist state as “an instrument of oppression of the working class; the socialist state, of the bourgeoisie.” But “bourgeois class rule has no need of the political training and education of the entire mass of the people, at least not beyond narrow limits.” A workers state, in contrast, must be based on the fullest democracy, which could not be said of the soviet regime established in 1917, especially (I would add) in conditions of civil war, imperialist intervention and massive social privation in its initial years amidst the legacy of the country’s economic and social backwardness. Again, Luxemburg’s earlier critique:
Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only bureacuracy remains as the active element.
As for the Social Democracy, its parties had fallen victim to the increasing integration of workers into the nation state through extension of the franchise, the reformist illusions and class-inclusive nationalism this fostered, and the bureaucratization of their structures–undermining “not only accountability but also the capacity to develop workers’ revolutionary potential.”
Panitch and Gindin cite Isaac Deutscher’s view, that the Bolsheviks were “mentally quite unprepared” for what was to follow the seizure of state power.
They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class, having backed them in revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naive as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence and that the proletariat, having once adhered to it, would not abandon it.
While there is value in these observations, there is much that is left unsaid, I think. To reduce the events in October 1917 to “insurrection,” and attribute the later problems to this abrupt transition in class power, is to blur the peculiar form of the transition–the assumption of state power by worker-peasant soviets under Bolshevik leadership–with the subsequent exercise of that power and the debates engendered within the early Communist International as it drew in mass workers’ parties from western Europe facing the more solidly established structures of the imperialist states.
As David Mandel, among others, has documented, it was under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, trained in the best traditions of revolutionary social-democracy, that the soviets were virtually obliged to seize power in order to salvage the country from the social and economic devastation produced by the war and the self-appointed provisional government’s failure to withdraw from it and move to dissolve the basic institutions behind the oppression of the majority of the Tsarist empire’s population.(8)
Furthermore, there is a rich history of how the early Soviet regime grappled with the task of beginning the transition to socialism through, for example, the adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP) which sought to maintain the alliance of the workers with the peasant majority through such means as concessions to peasant markets that could ensure food and fibre to the workers involved in initial industrialization. And, as John Riddell and his collaborators have documented so thoroughly, the Communist International in Lenin’s time was the intellectual center of debate over international revolutionary strategy. Major advances were made in developing the concept of united fronts between revolutionary and reformist workers’ organizations and parties, and in the further application of this tactic to the possibility of plurally composed worker and peasant governments, elected into office, tasked with a program to dismantle the institutions of capitalist rule and establish a democratic socialism.(9)
The Stalinist counter-revolution terminated this process, although subsequent revolutionary overturns in China, Indochina, Yugoslavia and later Cuba did revive these and other debates over the transition to socialism.
Addressing the challenges to socialists in the post-WWII period, Panitch and Gindin note that in the major capitalist countries the dangers identified in the pre-WWI social democracy were, if anything, furthered by the integration of the working class through the “institutionalization of collective bargaining and welfare reforms.”
The material gains in terms of individual and family consumption, which workers secured directly or indirectly from collective bargaining for rising wages as well as from a social wage largely designed to secure and supplement that consumption, were purchased at the cost of union and party practices that attenuated working class identity and community–especially in light of the restructuring of employment, residency and education that accompanied these developments.
Panitch and Gindin then turn to the condition of the working class in the early 21st century. “[A]ided by the realization of a fully global capitalism and the networked structures of production, finance and consumption that constitute it, there are more workers on the face of the earth than ever before.” While new technologies restrict job growth in some sectors, this also introduces new sectors in both manufacturing and high tech services.
Though this weakened the leverage of class struggles in important ways, it also introduced new points of strategic potential: strikes at component plants or interruptions of supplier chains at warehouses and ports could force shutdowns throughout a globally integrated production network, and whistleblowing could expose vast stores of information hidden by corporations and states.
The precarious conditions workers increasingly face today, even when they belong to unions, speaks not to a new class division between precariat and proletariat. Precariousness rather reflects how previous processes of working-class formation and organization have become undone…
Rather than categorizing workers into different strata–nurses or baristas, teachers or software developers, farmhands or truckers, salespeople or bank-tellers–what needs to preoccupy our imaginations and inform our strategic calculations is how to visualize and how to develop the potential of new forms of working-class organization and formation in the twenty-first century.
The organizational challenge, then, is “to facilitate new processes of class formation rooted in the multiple dimensions of workers’ lives that encompass so many identities and communities.” And this “will have to include developing socialist parties of a new kind.”
‘Syriza and the problem of state transformation’
Under this subheading, Panitch and Gindin discuss the well-known 2015 experience in government of Greece’s Syriza party, to which they had both been direct witnesses at times. They begin by citing Stathis Kouvelakis, a Left Platform member of Syriza’s Central Committee, within a month of the party’s electoral victory and the initial confrontations between its government and the European Union establishment.
[This] is not a ‘betrayal’. It’s not about the well-known scenario ‘they have sold out’. We have seen that there was real confrontation. We have the amount of pressure, the blackmailing by the European Central Bank. We have seen that they want to bring the Syriza government to its knees. And they need to do that because it represents a real threat, not some kind of illusion of a reformist type. So the reality is that the representatives of the Greek government did the best they could. But they did it within the wrong framework and with the wrong strategy and, in this sense, the outcome couldn’t have been different.
Less than five months later, as these negotiations infamously came to a climax, Kouvelakis would, along with many others, leave Syriza in response to what he now called the government’s “capitulation.” Yet, say Panitch and Gindin, “the need to ask whether the outcome could really have been different was now greater than ever.
And while the answer did indeed hinge on the adequacy of Syriza’s strategy in relation to Europe, that in turn related to deeper issues of party organization, capacity building and state transformation–as well as the adequacy of strategies on the wider European left, at least in terms of shifting the overall balance of forces.
Syriza’s capitulation to its European creditors was denounced by the Left Platform, which criticized the party for not having developed a “Plan B” for leaving the eurozone and adopting an alternate currency as the key condition for rejecting neoliberal austerity and cancelling debt obligations. Panitch and Gindin noted that the Left Platform itself had not thought through the implications of these proposals, which if implemented “would lead to Greece being forced out of the EU as a whole.” This would have entailed “economic isolation (along the lines of that endured by the Cuban revolution, yet without the prospect of anything like its geostrategic and economic support from the former USSR).
The Syriza government faced the intractable, contradiction that to fulfil its promise to stop the EU’s economic torture, it would have to leave the EU–which would, given the global as well as European balance of forces and the lack of alternative production and consumption capabilities in place, lead to further economic suffering for an unforeseeable period. Despite the massive popular mobilization the government unleashed by calling the referendum in July to support its position against that of the EU-IMF, the intractable dilemma was the same as it had been when it first entered the state.
The bigger problem was that Syriza had done little to prepare itself or its mass social base to meet the dilemmas and challenges it faced as it entered government. There was little support to those in the party “who wanted to develop activists’ capacities to turn party branches into centres of working-class life and strategically engage with them, preferably in conjunction with the Solidarity Networks, in planning for alternative forms of production and consumption. All this spoke to how far Syriza still was from having discovered how to escape the limits of social democracy.”
The re-election of Syriza following its capitulation illustrated the Greek electorate’s perception that the balance of forces was extremely even. And “the Syriza government’s continuing ideological rejection of neoliberal logic–even as it implements the measures forced upon it–is precisely what distinuishes Syriza from social democratic governments in the neoliberal era,” Panitch and Gindin insisted.
As for the left critics and their radical Plan B, they treated state power most instrumentally.
Little or no attention was paid by them to how to disentangle a very broad range of state apparatuses from budgetary dependence on EU funding, let alone to the transformations the Greek state apparatuses would have to undergo merely to administer the controls and rationing required to manage the black and grey markets that would have expanded inside and outside the state if Greece exited the eurozone….
Perhaps most tellingly, advocates of Plan B showed no more, and often rather less, interest in democratizing the state apparatuses by linking them with social movements.
Insofar as the Syriza government has failed the most crucial democratic, let alone revolutionary test, of linking the administration up with popular forces–not just for meeting basic needs but also for planning and implementing the restructuring of economic and social life–there were all too few on the radical left outside the state who really saw this as a priority either.
A different kind of state? A different strategy?
Finally, Panitch and Gindin turn to “a much broader orientation on the European left, already represented by Gorz, Magri, Benn, Miliband, Rowbotham, Segal, Wainwright, and others, towards trying to discover new strategic directions beyond both the Leninist and Social Democratic ‘models’ which, despite taking different routes, nevertheless evinced in their practices a common distrust of popular capacities to democratize state structures.” They found inspiration in Nicos Poulantzas’s article, “Towards a Democratic Socialism.”(10)
“For Poulantzas, the ‘techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts’ was the outcome not only of the instrumentalist strategic conception of social democratic parliamentarism, but also of the ‘Leninist dual-power type of strategy which envisages straightforward replacement of the state apparatus with an apparatus of councils…” They quote Poulantzas:
Transformation of the state apparatus does not really enter into the matter: first of all the existing state power is taken and then another is put in its place. This view of things can no longer be accepted. If taking power denotes a shift in the relationship of forces within the state, and if it is recognized that this will involve a long process of change, then the seizure of state power will entail concomitant transformations of its apparatuses…. In abandoning the dual-power strategy, we do not throw overboard, but pose in a different fashion, the question of the state’s materiality as a specific apparatus.
Panitch and Gindin continue:
Notably, Poulantzas went back to Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin in 1918 to stress the importance of socialists building on liberal democracy, even while transcending it, in order to provide the space for mass struggles to unfold which could ‘modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves the strategic site of political struggle’. The very notion to take state power ‘clearly lacks the strategic vision of a process of transition to socialism–that is of a long stage during which the masses will act to conquer power and transform state apparatuses.’ For the working class to displace the old ruling class, in other words, it must develop capacities to democratize the state, which must always rest on ‘increased intervention of the popular masses in the state… certainly through their trade union and political forms of representation, but also through their own initiatives within the state itself’. To expect that institutions of direct democracy outside the state can simply displace the old state in a single revolutionary rupture in fact avoided all the difficult questions of political representation and opens the way for a new authoritarian statism.
Unfortunately, they add, “Poulantzas, even while highlighting the need for taking up the challenge of state transformation, did not himself get very far in detailing what actually changing the materiality of state aparatuses would entail in specfic instances…. Socialists have since paid far too little attention to the challenges this poses.” In a footnote, however, they recommend as an exception to that comment a 1993 book by Greg Albo, David Langille and Leo Panitch, eds., A Different Kind of State: Popular Power and Democratic Administration.
Leo Panitch’s introductory essay in this book notes that “Canada’s ongoing (or should one say never-ending?) constitutional crisis has afforded plentiful evidence” of popular democratic sentiments in favour of “a deeper, a richer, a truer form of democracy.” But he quickly adds that “constitutional change ought to be about how we govern ourselves more democratically at every level of government, rather than primarily about bargaining over jurisdictional powers between sets of federal and provincial political elites.”
“Liberal democracy,” he says, “has attenuated, even though it has certainly not done away with, the relations of domination and subordination among people that are inscribed in terms of class, status, gender, and race. The centuries-long struggle for liberal rights was all about putting constitutional limits on arbitrary state authority….” Citizenship rights (to vote, freedom of association) “finally gave a truly democratic cast to liberal freedoms and the practice of responsible and representative government.”
But democratic reform is still needed. “We need to shake the bureaucratic model [of the state] to its foundations.” This means more access to elected representatives, protection of “whistle-blowing” by public employees, more transparency and accountability by governments, etc. “The task of democratic leaders and administrators, the skill they have to learn, is to encourage and facilitate the organization of communities of identity and interest.”
He goes on to propose “democratizing the justice system,” the courts and the administration of justice. “The case for a thorough-going democratization of the judiciary was already compelling even before the Charter of Rights and Freedom was entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. With the Charter, it is imperative.” In addition, he proposes a universal “legal care” system, a shift in resources to community policing, the electing of police committees by neighbourhoods, less spending on incarceration and more on support staff in the community, retraining, job and housing subsidies. And so on.
Can the election of an NDP government be the vehicle for introducing these reforms? It is by no means clear, Panitch says,
that social democrats in the 1990s are any more interested in or capable of fostering the democratization of the state than they have ever been…. NDP governments are quickly retreating into conventional modes of governing…. It will take an active ‘democracy movement’ in society to really effect democratization of the state.
It must be said that this is pretty thin gruel for a program to “transform” the capitalist state. Rather than pointing toward a change in the dominant class relations in the state, these proposed reforms if implemented might serve instead to further legitimatize the existing state–which is after all a complex of institutions designed to uphold and defend capitalist domination.
A blind spot
But there was a bigger problem here. Consider some dates.
1977. Just months after the Parti québécois (PQ) had unexpectedly been elected to government pledged to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty during its mandate, Leo Panitch published his first major book, The Canadian State: Political Economy and Political Power (1977), a collection of essays he edited. In his introductory chapter, on “the role and nature of the Canadian state,” he argued that “a fully developed theory of the state in capitalist society must meet at least three basic requirements. It must clearly delimit the complex of institutions that go to make up the state. It must demonstrate concretely, rather than just define abstractly, the linkages between the state and the system of class inequality in the society, particularly its ties to the dominant social class. And it must specify as far as possible the functions of the state under the capitalist mode of production….
He expanded at length on the state as “a complex of institutions,” including the “sub-levels of government, that is, provincial executives, legislatures, and bureaucracies, and municipal governmental institutions.” In addition there are “political parties, the privately owned media, the church, pressure groups, all of which form part of the political system although autonomous from the state.” This “requires us to explain how these other institutions form part of the system of power through their contribution to political socialization, political recruitment and social control, but also because it means, in practice, that within the rubric of bourgeois democracy, as opposed to fascism, class conflict does obtain political and industrial expression through the voluntary organizations of the working class.”
As to the functions of the state, Panitch singled out three: fostering capital accumulation, coercion, and legitimization. “[W]hat is striking as one turns to an analysis of the Canadian state is how at each point the Canadian state reflects particular characteristics which mark it off in a comparative sense from other capitalist states. On the question of state organization one sees that the federal form has always been, and remains, of crucial importance in terms of the power of the provincial segments of the state vis-à-vis the central government.”
However, on whether or how this might relate to the Quebec national question, Leo was silent. He focused solely on the institutional structures of the Canadian state, without examining how those structures had been established historically through the subordination of minority national components to English-Canadian capital backed by the subsisting British overlordship.The 1867 constitution contained no recognition of Quebec as a nation, and treated the Indigenous peoples as wards of the central government.
The one essay in the book that addressed the Quebec national question was Henry Milner’s discussion of “contradictions in the modern Quebec state.”
Milner saw the contemporary nationalist agitation in Quebec as primarily the expression of a petty-bourgeois “state middle class” that had increased exponentially as a result of Quebec’s belated modernization in the Quiet Revolution. The massive expansion of public education and healthcare, in particular, had led to a fiscal crisis of the Quebec state, which lacked the constitutional means to raise the revenues it needed to finance these reforms.
The state middle class [said Milner], consists essentially of those ‘professionals’ who are expected to carry out the global or collective functions of the monopoly capitalist state, especially legitimation, usually under conditions of relative autonomy from the repressive apparatus. The list, in no special order, would likely include teachers and professors, psychologists, technicians, journalists, planners, economists, broadcasters, nurses, social workers, trade union officials, professional athletes, artists, entertainers, ministers, scientists, as well as members of the ‘older professions’ (medicine, etc.) employed directly or indirectly in the public sector.
Milner conceded that “once the Quebec state apparatus became the primary institution of the Quebec nation, the question of political independence and therefore separation from Canada became central.” The PQ had now “gathered the support of the great bulk of the state middle class: intellectuals, some younger and more progressive professionals, as well as many trade union officials and militants–groups which had formed the active base of support for the Quiet Revolution–as well as an increasingly working-class and student vote.”
But the major forces “do not consist of a class with revolutionary potential but rather comprise a stratum whose interests could well be accommodated by creation of an independent ‘leftish’ Quebec within a Canada-wide common market along the lines of European social democracy.” That indeed was the PQ’s perspective when it constantly linked “sovereignty” to “association” with the rest of Canada.
Milner’s essay had been written just prior to the 1976 PQ victory. In a post-election epilogue, he noted the outbreak of struggles and debates within the trade unions over the relation between independence and the role of the state, and a deepening ideological debate suggesting that “where militant action does emerge it will be based on a clearer conception of class interests and divisions.”
1981. Following the defeat of the Quebec referendum, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau moved quickly to implement his longstanding desire to “patriate” the Canadian constitution–a project that entailed a new centralization of federal state powers, a much greater political role for the courts, and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that restricted Quebec powers to promote and defend French as the official language of Quebec. By 1982 the federal government had successfully overridden provincial attempts led by Quebec’s PQ government (albeit ineptly) to forestall this process.
In his 1981 essay on dependency and class I cited earlier at length, Panitch reminded us that “only if political economy turns to an examination of class in Canada taken as a totality, only if it specifies the historically developed class structures, patterns of exploitation and class struggles in Canada, will it be able to adequately explain Canada’s trajectory to a “rich dependency’.” And he underscored the importance of the fact that Canada was composed of “white settler colonies,” albeit without discussing how this was reflected in the constitutional structures of the state as established in 1867 and subsequently.
Again, this silence on the Quebec national question was disquieting, to say the least.
In his tribute to Leo Panitch,(11) Harry Glasbeek, a former colleague of Panitch at York University, tells a revealing story. “[W]ith Leo’s energetic guidance, York had 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.(12) 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.
Glasbeek recounts how, in their subsequent dialogues, Leo showed great willingness to consider contrary views, while contributing his own insights. It appears, however, that the differences over the legalization of politics were never resolved.(13)
1993. Canadian politics were convulsed by a new rise of Quebec nationalist agitation in the wake of the defeat of the Meech, and later the Charlottetown, accords–the official attempts to remedy Quebec’s refusal to endorse Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution. As we noted earlier, however, Panitch’s introductory essay in the 1993 book A Different Kind of State dismissed the constitutional crisis, and the political crisis it created, as “primarily about bargaining over jurisdictional powers between sets of federal and provincial political elites.”(14)
Why is it that Leo Panitch stood aside from these political confrontations rooted in the failure of the constitutional structures of the Canadian state to reflect the de facto plurinational character of the country? The challenge to those structures from Quebec’s mass national revolt has been the major democratic struggle in Canada for some decades now. It is fundamentally a struggle for collective, national rights, for political and popular sovereignty, that at times has opened space for debate and popular mobilization that indeed point to the re-imagining and construction of “a different kind of state.” Yet Leo and his closest colleagues seemed unable to encompass these promising issues and conflicts in their own imagining of democratization and working class recomposition. I can only speculate as to why. Does Quebec independence evoke the spectre of insurrection (“smash the state”), rejected outright by Leo?
In this they were not alone, of course. The New Democrats, the party of the English-Canadian labour movement, has historically been unable to mount a credible challenge for power in Ottawa primarily because of its overriding commitment to maintaining the unity of the Canadian state as the locus for its now very limited agenda of social reform. At times the NDP has grappled with the Quebec national question; at its founding in 1961, in response to the Waffle challenge in 1969-1972, in 1982 when the party’s federal leadership worked hand in glove with Trudeau’s constitutional project, or in response to the post-1995 referendum Clarity Bill–but in each instance rejecting any major accommodation to Quebec national sentiment. The sole exception, the party’s 2006 Sherbrooke declaration, may have contributed to its “orange wave” Quebec breakthrough in the 2011 federal election, but that was short-lived. The party’s failure to reflect the developing political culture of the Quebec proletariat has worked to marginalize it as a credible left alternative at the level of the Canadian state.
Understandably, Leo’s view of the NDP, treating it as little more than a pale expression of social-democratic ideology,(15) was quite unlike his approach to the British Labour party, so firmly rooted in that country’s proletariat and political culture. But, in retrospect, I wonder if his focus on the repeated attempts to democratize the BLP overlooked some important openings for socialists in the regional and national tensions that have erupted within the British state pursuant to domestic and global restructuring of capitalism.(16) While the 2014 Scottish referendum inspired a popular mobilization for radical social change,(17) the BLP’s opposition to Scottish national aspirations has virtually eclipsed the party presence there.
Panitch often summed up his approach as working both in and against the state. However, a single-minded focus on discovering and developing the social forces with the potential to transform the existing state from within seemed to blind him and his cothinkers to the actual mass movement in Quebec directed against that state. In both his focus on U.S. hegemony in postwar global capitalism and his tendency to ignore or deprecate the national contradictions within the Canadian state and how they might affect social transformation, Leo often seemed to fall short of the “dialectical approach to social phenomena”–the recognition of unevenness and contradiction–he had urged on Canadian political economy in 1981.
In 1999 Sam Gindin published an essay that won wide interest on the Canadian left. “The Party’s Over” drew a negative balance sheet on the labour and left experience with the New Democratic Party, and called on activists to “rebuild the left” by developing a structured movement against capitalism, “more than a movement, less than a party.” The Toronto-based Socialist Project traces its origins back to this document. SP still comprises only a few dozen activists and intellectuals in southern Ontario, but with a much wider audience thanks to its publications.
Overlooked by Gindin, however, was an important development in the late 1990s in Quebec where, following the narrow defeat of the PQ’s 1995 referendum on sovereignty, some survivors of the revolutionary left of the Seventies and Eighties–yes, the old “insurrectionary left” rejected by Leo!–had begun meeting with disaffected péquistes, global justice activists, and some militants in Quebec’s dynamic women’s movement to probe possible regroupment of forces in a party of a new type. This process led to formation in 2002 of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and in 2006 Québec Solidaire (QS)–a party that defines itself as “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste, pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist,”(18) a party “of the ballot-box and the streets.” In Quebec’s 2018 general election, QS managed to elect 10 deputies to the National Assembly, and is now the leading pro-independence Opposition ahead of the PQ.
Far from seeking to reform the Canadian state, the QS program proclaims that “Canadian federalism is basically unreformable. It is impossible for Quebec to obtain all the powers it wants and needs for the profound changes proposed by Québec Solidaire.” A new relationship with the rest of Canada can only be negotiated once the Québécois have clearly established their intent and ability to form an independent state.” And the party sets out a democratic process by which this objective can be achieved.
In the fifteen years since its founding, I have authored many articles reporting and analyzing the complex and contradictory processes involved in the party’s construction, many of them reproduced on the Socialist Project website. As I wrote in 2012 (this is still true):
It cannot (yet) be classified as anti-capitalist, or a party of 21st century socialism as that concept has generally been conceived. But it is clearly much more than a Québécois version of the federalist NDP, notwithstanding hopes expressed by QS leaders that the NDP will some day prove a valuable Canadian interlocutor for Quebec as it moves to independence.
Québec Solidaire’s support of Quebec independence means that its strategic framework is not limited to the existing form of the state; it opens the party’s imagination and perspectives to conceiving another, very different Quebec based on the “values” or principles upheld by the party. This is not a line of march that facilitates accommodation with the Canadian bourgeoisie or its Quebec component. This independentism is one of Québec Solidaire’s strongest programmatic assets, offering it the potential to build a party that encompasses and represents the driving forces for progressive social transformation within the Quebec social formation.
The QS experience is a valuable demonstration of how one component of the left in the Canadian state is grappling with the challenges posed by working “both within and against the state.” Of course QS has so far given little or no thought to how the sovereigntist movement can arouse the massive solidarity from the working class in English Canada and North America that is absolutely necessary if that movement is to succeed. These are still open questions in the left, and they must be addressed–including in English Canada, where approaching transformation of the state from a decolonization perspective would offer important means to ally not only with Québécois workers but with the Indigenous peoples now in the forefront of the fight against ecological destruction and climate catastrophe.
To his credit, Leo Panitch showed an openness to working with that Quebec left. He participated in recent years in a number of large annual gatherings under the aegis of the Canada-Quebec Social Forum, the Université populaire and its successor, La Grande Transition. Just last January he, Sam, Greg Albo and other SP leaders met in Toronto with a Quebec delegation organized by Pierre Beaudet to discuss for a full day the general political situation and to plan for their increased participation in the May 2020 edition of La Grande Transition. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that project. That meeting was the last time I saw Leo.
In The Socialist Challenge Today, Panitch and Gindin(19) conclude that “What socialist internationalism must mean today is an orientation to shifting the balance of forces in other countries and in international bodies so as to create more space for transformative forces in every country. This was one of the key lessons of 1917, and it is all the more true a century later.
The broad point here is that reform versus revolution is not a useful way to frame the dilemmas that socialists must today actually confront. Political hopes are inseparable from notions of what is possible, while possibility is itself intimately related to the role of socialist parties in working-class formations and reformation of the broadest possible kind. If a socialist project is, however, not to be stymied by the inherited state apparatuses, decisive focus on developing the agency and capacity for state transformation will be required.
That was Leo Panitch’s life project. Whatever the criticisms that may be made about how he went about it, there is no denying that his was a powerful contribution to diagnosing and explaining some of the major challenges we face in rebuilding the socialist left. He will be sorely missed.
* * *
The Panitch family has established the Leo Panitch Scholarship at Merchants Corner in Winnipeg’s North End, where Leo grew up. As Melanie, with Maxim and Vida, explains: Merchant’s Corner “is the site of the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Urban and Inner-city Studies. The relocation of this University program to the heart of North End Winnipeg to address many challenges facing the predominantly Indigenous people now living in the North End, is an innovative example of university-community engagement.”
David McNally, “Staple Theory as Commodity Fetishism: Marx, Innis and Canadian Political Economy,” Studies in Political Economy, Vol. 6 (1) (1981); William Carroll, Corporate Power and Canadian Capitalism (UBC Press, 1986).
“¿Ocaso, supremacía o transnacionalización?,” [Decline, supremacy or transnationalization?], katz.lahaine.org
David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution: February 1917-June 1918 (2018 reprint, Haymarket Books). See also V.I. Lenin, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It,” September 1917, Collected Works, Vol. 25, pages 323-369.
See, for example, John Riddell, “The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government,” johnriddell.com
Available here, jacobinmag.com, with an introduction by Leo Panitch.
“Remembering Leo Panitch–an iconic figure of the Canadian left,” canadiandimension.com
I was a witness to some of these debates as a student at Osgoode Hall in the early 1980s, having transitioned from 13 years in full-time employment in the Canadian and international Trotskyist movement to personal preparation for that longue durée that was now descending on us under the new neoliberal regimes.
The outcome of this dissident thinking is best expressed in the late Michael Mandel’s outstanding book, The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada, the second edition of which was translated and published in Quebec.
My own take on these issues is documented in Canada Adieu? Quebec Debates its Future: Translation and Commentary by Richard Fidler (1991, Oolichan Books and The Institute for Research on Public Policy).
See, for example, “Can radical federalism save the UK?,” www.redpepper.org.uk
“Scotland’s referendum: Some lessons for Quebec… and Canada,” lifeonleft.blogspot.com
I described this process in “Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party,” Alternate Routes, vol. 23 (2012).