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Abraham Rotstein, 1929–2015

We were very sad to learn of the unexpected death of Abraham Rotstein who graced us with his presence at the International Karl Polanyi Conference so recently in November 2014. He died on April 27th shortly after his 86th birthday. Abe was laid to rest in Toronto, following a stellar memorial gathering of family, friends, colleagues and many other well-wishers. Tributes by his brother Morris and his son Daniel were followed by a splendid address by Mel Watkins, a close and constant friend since early days at the Department of Economics at the University of Toronto. Like Watkins, Abe was a Canadian economic nationalist. He was fiercely opposed to free trade and predicted that it would destroy Canadian industry and regress Canada to the status of exporter of primary commodities. He was prescient. We recall that Harper proudly claimed that Canada had become a major petrodollar country. We refer the reader to the informative obituary published in the Toronto Star on April 28th which details Abe’s many initiatives in defence of Canada’s economic independence. We refer the reader also to the brilliant tribute and opinion piece by Thomas Walkom, a former student of both Abe and Mel Watkins.

As Abe told us in his elegant and eloquent after-dinner address at the Karl Polanyi Conference, his encounter with Karl Polanyi as a graduate student at Columbia University was a life-changing experience. He fled from the University of Chicago where economics was reduced to a mathematically irrefutable, but utterly simplistic exercise of maximizing gain and minimizing costs in price-making markets. At Columbia University, he found in Polanyi an approach to economics based on institutional and historical realities, and a critique of capitalism more far-reaching than that of Keynes. In decades of teaching at the University of Toronto, generations of students were introduced to Polanyi’s contention that a viable and sustainable economy must be rooted in a society of human values and shared experience.

After graduating from Columbia in 1955, Abe returned to his native Montreal where he had an office and a secretary at Canadair, the precursor of Bombardier. But a promising career in senior management was not his calling nor vocation. He was drawn to seek knowledge and understanding from Polanyi, as a mentor and intellectual master, and travelled on many weekends from Montreal to Rosebank, Ontario where the Polanyis had established a family home because Ilona was not permitted to enter the United States. Abe assisted Karl in the completion of Dahomey and the Slave Trade and in a project to jointly author a sequel to The Great Transformation to be called Freedom and Technology. In 28 such visits from 1956 to 1959, Abe recorded conversations with Polanyi -actually more monologue than conversation- in handwritten notebooks which were subsequently typed by his secretary. These Weekend Notes are deposited in the Archive of the Karl Polanyi Institute. They constitute an important clarification and explanation of Freedom in a Complex Society, the last chapter of The Great Transformation. We suggest that Abe’s edited ‘pre-mortem’ text written only weeks before his death, entitled The Reality of Society, merits very careful reading. We attach the file. It was his terminal contribution to the Enduring Legacy of Karl Polanyi, the theme of the November 2014 Polanyi conference. Abe’s text is a challenge to all of us to continue the struggle to reclaim our freedom and defend the natural environment from an economic system driven by the Juggernaut of corporate capital in a toxic marriage with uncontrolled technology.

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