Departmental Statement on the Passing of Professor Emeritus, George Comninel
We are devastated by the passing of Professor Emeritus George Comninel and send our deepest and heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues near and far.
George was a pillar of our academic community, who will be forever and dearly missed. His work in the field of political Marxism was an inspiration to many in our department and far beyond. His exacting approach to history and Marxist historical method, found in his influential book, Rethinking the French Revolution (1991), marked him as a scholar whose work helped form the foundation for many subsequent historical and sociological debates. His more recent book Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx (2018) continued George’s reputation as a rigorous and innovative theorist. As any student who took his senior seminar on Political Theory and the State could attest, George could animate even the most arcane historical detail, bringing history to life before students’ eyes. George was as an academic who truly believed in the value of debate and discussion, and he would spend all necessary time to explore intellectual issues fully through dialogue. Along the way, countless members of our community were deeply enriched by his encyclopedic knowledge and his generous gift of time.
In addition to significant university-wide service, including Chair of the University Senate (2015-2017), George also gave of himself unreservedly to the well-being of the department he loved, serving over the years as Departmental Chair (2008-2011), Interim Chair (2004-2005), and Graduate Program Director (1995-1998). In the latter role, he advocated vociferously for students’ interests during the university’s lean years, brought on by the neoliberal provincial government of Conservative Premier Mike Harris. And as Chair, he always fought hard for the department’s place within the university, and for the department as a place of learning unique in the academic world. People who knew George knew his gift for administration, but also his penchant for going well beyond whatever task was being asked of him. His selfless and unparalleled efforts to help advance our community whenever and wherever possible will never be forgotten.
Above all, George Comninel was a mensch, who brought true collegiality, warmth, and kindness to his colleagues, faculty, staff, and students alike. From his earliest days at York, and his legendary historical debates with Ellen Meiksins Wood, George filled out many a hallway and office and the departmental "leather lounge" with conversation, good cheer and understanding. He cared for people, their interests, and their lives, and if there was ever a way that he could help them, professionally or personally, he made every effort to do so. We could never have asked for more in a colleague, a teacher, a mentor, or a friend.
Rest in peace, George Comninel. Your absence can never be filled, but our memories of you will fill our hearts.
- Prepared by Associate Professor, Roddy Loeppky, on behalf of the Department of Politics, August 21, 2022.
Interview with George Comninel
Conducted over email on September 3, 2019 by doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Political Science, Annelies Cooper and Associate Professor, Karen Murray.
Annelies and Karen: Many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Raising the Volume. To begin, perhaps you could say a few words about your background in studying democratic theory. For instance, were you interested in political theory when you entered the university as an undergraduate or did your interest emerge later on?
George: As early as high school, I had conflicted feelings about theory. On the one hand, I was chiefly interested in making sense of epochal social change in history – the fall of Rome, the rise of capitalism, etc. This was evidently a major focus of historical social theories, and some sort of theoretical orientation seemed essential to the task. On the other hand, the major conventional political theorists had much to say that bore upon such issues, but I found their ideologically constructed positions to be little more than apologies for inequality and systemic inequity. I was familiar with the major theorists from Aristotle through JS Mill and generally detested the lot of them, with the partial exception of J-J Rousseau.
As an undergraduate, I focused upon historical social theory within Sociology, and had respect for Durkheim and Weber, though I found problems with both, but I quickly found myself attracted to the ideas of Marx. I thought most of the explanations of Marx’s thought that I read or heard were off the mark, and I developed my own understanding of his ideas directly from his writings, rejecting the economic determinism that was so often said to be at the core of his thinking. I believed that democracy required the liberation of humanity from millennia of class oppression and exploitation and – entering university in 1968 – I was excited by the growing signs of resistance, rebellion and revolution.
I became involved in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) just as it was about to shatter into a range of splinter groups. I investigated all of the socialist and anarchist groups I could identify at my university (Cornell) – a total of 13 – and found fault with all of them. Having checked out Communists, Trotskyists, and Maoists in their various forms, I decided that, while I was a Marxist, I definitely was not a Leninist of any kind. So, I kept reading Marx, while finding no group offered an idea of politics that I could embrace.
My distaste for conventional political theory almost kept me from taking the graduate seminar in The Theory and Practice of the State in Historical Perspective that Neal Wood and Ellen Wood offered for the first time as I entered the graduate program in Social and Political Thought at York in 1977. I did enrol, however – the attraction of its history and social theory outweighed my aversion to political theorists – and this was life-altering. The systematic approach taken by the Woods to investigating and evaluating the theories of historical class societies both revealed the enormous problems in conventional Marxian approaches – including errors in Marx’s own works – and yet the potential for valid historical analysis inherent in Marx’s basic ideas. Directly through the research conducted for this course, Neal and Ellen and several of us students came to identify the importance of a breakthrough in the study of European class societies in the work of Robert Brenner – an approach that was just then being described as “Political Marxism” by an opponent. Embracing the need for independent and historically accurate social analyses of pre-capitalist forms of society, this approach became the basis for my dissertation research into the historiography and interpretation of the French Revolution, and the foundation for my entire career.
At the same time, through Neal and Ellen, I came to appreciate the importance of reading and understanding the major political theorists. This was not merely a matter of coming to understand one’s enemies, though there was almost always an element of that. I also came to recognize that these theorists were grappling with fundamental issues of justice, rights and law, even if they were doing so primarily (sometimes exclusively) from the point of view of members of the dominant class. The issues of liberty versus state power posed genuine conundrums, and there were things to learn from all serious efforts to address them. As a result, though I had never once taken a course in political theory, as such, I found myself becoming a professor in that field.
Annelies and Karen: Would you be willing to speak to the importance of the political theory field to the Department of Politics?
Yes, I have been fully converted to understanding the importance of political theory and would be happy to discuss this with others in the department/grad program. There are certain political theorists for whom I still have little but distaste (Plato, for example, however great a literary stylist he was). But among others, I have come to recognize not only brilliance but real moral and/or ethical concern.
Annelies and Karen: Do you have any thoughts to share with undergraduates who are considering taking political theory courses? Any thoughts for graduate students?
George: The major political theorists virtually all wrote in times of vexing political conflict, with fundamental issues of justice, liberty and securing the “good life” coming to the fore. Not only did they write in such times, but most were also directly engaged in the conflicts of the age. The underlying basis for the conflicts include efforts to establish, or to challenge, absolute political power in the state; the consequences of, and possible alternatives to, deepening social inequality; and the relationship between politics and religion, particularly as it relates to collective unity, individual liberty of conscience, and issues of toleration. All of this also relates to the problem of the difference between ultimate realization of the good (to whatever extent that is possible), and the securing liberty and what might be called the-good-enough in the interim. In order to come to terms with the ideas that historical thinkers have put forward, it is essential to recognize the specific contexts in which they wrote, and the concrete issues that they had in mind. There is much to be gained from examining the ideas of political theorists in context – for example, to understand how Jean Bodin, a humanist concerned with justice, could advocate for political absolutism during a religious civil war dominated by nobles claiming to be above the law.
Annelies and Karen: Going in a different direction, would you mind sharing a few of your thoughts on what education for democracy means to you and how this way of thinking translates into your pedagogical practice?
George: I believe that education for democracy is fundamentally about promoting the idea of social and political emancipation, and imparting the insights and critical capacities required to struggle for it. Democracy is always threatened by the special interests of the few and limited by the extent of their entrenched power. Democracy has never existed unproblematically, nor is it “innocent” of purpose. In the original Greek, "democracy" meant “rule by the poor,” who were in the majority, not “rule by the majority” as if there were no social differences. So education for democracy necessarily means encouraging active resistance to vested interests and established power, not merely the validation of existing institutions (even where they are admirable). My teaching emphasizes critical evaluation of what exists and critical consideration of what does not. In this regard, I seek to engage directly with students about important issues and to stress that their ideas are potentially as valid as mine, or anyone else’s, though they always should be ready to defend them in the light of rigorous, serious critique. When it comes to the preservation and extension of liberty and justice, opinion is not enough, and no one should get a free pass. I am, however, aware of the inherent inequality between students and professors, so I am inclined to be generous with respect to challenges to my own ideas, and to encourage students to query anything that I might say.
Annelies and Karen: Would you have any additional thoughts that you would like to share?
George: I pursued post-secondary and post-graduate education in order to understand how it would be possible to change the world for the better. While the opportunity for radical, even revolutionary, change seemed closer in the years just after I graduated high school than since that time, I have learned the importance of developing fundamental dispositions and critical insights. Where I once thought change was imminent, I now accept that generations, perhaps centuries, might be required. But the significance of radical social change for the achievement of human liberation is as clear to me as ever. While I distinguish between my actual contribution to political and social change through public actions and my role as a teacher, I do believe that, through the promotion of critical thinking and the courage to act, I can play a positive role in encouraging liberation. In the end, the liberation of humanity.
Annelies and Karen: Many thanks, George, for offering such a thoughtful and inspirational contribution to the Raising the Volume website. Much appreciated!!
Events in Honour of George Comninel
Updates will be posted here.
- Dr. George C. Comninel Obituary by Cardinal Funeral Homes
From York University
George Comninel always had time for students and faculty alike. As a department chair, he had an open-door policy and welcomed me each time I came by, despite whatever challenges I was leaving at his doorstep. A truly kind-hearted man that will be deeply missed by all.
- Jacqueline Krikorian, Professor, Department of Politics, York University
I last spoke to Professor Comninel in early 2022 about his willingness to second-read my master's research paper. Despite being newly retired, he showed a great interest in my research. George met with me virtually and we talked for a long time about various things, but above all, he provided me with some very much-needed advice on my academic career. I greatly appreciated how he, despite barely knowing me took on a mentoring role and encouraged me to pursue my research. He will truly be missed by all those who he has touched in his life. Rest in power, George Comninel!
- Vincent Bozic, M.A, Department of Politics, York University
In 2007, I was 30 years old and I was at loose ends, so I decided to take a course as a visiting student at York University, "Classical Marxist Theory", with George Comninel. I was already a "Political Marxist", having voraciously and auto-didactically read George, along with Ellen Wood and Bob Brenner among many others, so getting a chance to take a course with him was enticing. I haven't looked back since. George transformed how I conceived the world, no small achievement, and convinced me - perhaps against my better judgment - to go to grad school - and now I am teaching at York.
George's "Theory and Practice of the State" graduate course may well have been the single best course I've ever taken. We read theory, sure, but also a ton of history - E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, and so on. George's course curation in general, and refusing to bow towards the false idol of chronology or disciplinary boundary is a major inspiration in how I put together my own courses. Indeed, this news of his passing came to me as just as I was putting the finishing touches on the outline for this year's iteration of my "Modern Political Thought" course. I immediately recognized the flaw that George would find - too much 'pure theory', not enough history. So of course, I shifted it a bit, not just George's spirit, but insofar as that is how the "social history of political thought" should be taught.
He will be missed.
- Jordy Cummings, Ph.D. (York, Political Science), Adjunct Faculty Member, Department of Politics
George Comninel est l’un des meilleurs profs que j'ai eu.
Lorsque l'on est étudiant, on ne réalise pas à quel point le milieu universitaire est une machine où l'une des choses les
moins valorisée est le temps que les profs accordent à leurs étudiants.es. Peu de profs donnaient plus de temps à leurs
étudiants que George, très certainement au détriment de sa propre carrière.
Un des rares professeurs à insister pour que nous ne prenions jamais un argument historique avancé par Marx ou
Engels pour acquis s'il n'était pas soutenu par les recherches historiques actuelles. Là où tellement de marxistes
peinent à avoir une attitude autre que cléricale par rapport à Marx, George nous invitait à un dialogue impitoyable
avec l’histoire, l’historicité des catégories et la prudence des contextes.
George, thanks for the beers at the grad lounge, for the enthusiasm when there was so much place for despair; for
resisting fashion in a time of theoretical bullshit; for avoiding clerical marxism in spite of the orthodoxy; for the lights
where there was none to be found; for the doubts when there were too many certitudes; and for your time, when life is
- Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, Professeur de sociologie, Université du Québec à Montréal