Paul Hirst: legacies and futures

openDemocracy readers
23 June 2003

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Will Hutton, Observer columnist and author of The World We’re In

The real thing

Paul was the genuine article. I was in awe of him. He was the committed democrat; the intellectual with a reverence for evidence; the man who had read so many books in his quest for the truth. He was endlessly restless and inquisitive. It seems unimaginable that such a live spirit should have been extinguished so young.

I had known him in the 1980s as one of the thinkers who was trying to redefine the left. But it was only when I joined the council of Charter 88 at the invitation of its then director, Anthony Barnett, that I began to get to know him better. We would bail out of a council meeting in mid-afternoon, find my car and drive back to North London where we both lived, urgently exchanging ideas about the linkages between the democratic spirit and economic and social vitality. Was the thesis true? If so where had it worked? What institutions best expressed it? Had I read this book, this article or this draft of an article that shed light on this point or that? I would pull up at the bottom of his road, and he would be in full flow. He gave the theory a name – associationism. And then he not so much climbed but rolled out of the car, and for a nanosecond I would worry about his weight – and then the thought went.

And so our relationship continued. Occasionally we would bump into each other – in the local bookshop, watching our children on the local ice-rink or just in the street – and he was just as engaged in the prosaic routines of day-to-day life as he was in high theory. If I had only one word to sum Paul up, that would be it – engaged.

Then he turned his attention to globalisation. He had no time for the Tony Giddens, ‘third way’ worldview that globalisation was transformational and that nothing would ever be the same again. Rather he saw continuity – and insisted that there was just as much scope for citizens to shape their world through political action as there ever had been. They just had to be cleverer about the coalitions they built. The case followed for the European Union and decentralised government alike – both institutions that could allow more political purchase on events at regional and European level.

We counted each other as friends. But now he is dead, I realise how rarely we talked about emotions, friendship, loves and hates. It was a relationship built on our mutual love of ideas – faintly ascetic, if it had not been for the way he wanted to apply ideas to the world about him. I realise with a shock I never managed to tell him how fond I was of him; but I did manage to tell him how important I considered his work to be.

Of course he leaves a hole in our lives, but he would expect us to carry on – while holding him and his ideas in mind. I do. And all of us, I hope, will be careful to tell each other how much we matter to each other. Paul’s sudden death is a salutary warning of the costs of not saying it when our friends are alive.

Ian Christie, associate editor of openDemocracy

Hard loss, lasting influence

I met Paul Hirst just a few times in the openDemocracy office, never long enough to exchange much in the way of conversation. But news of his wretchedly early death was as hard to take as if I had known him well. He was a potent, unignorable presence in openDemocracy debates and in academic life. He made contributions to thinking about globalisation and associational democracy that will have their greatest impact in the years ahead when the centre-Left comes to rebuild its philosophy and finally moves away from the legacy of neo-liberal economic ideology.

And he left a grim and compelling analysis of war in the coming century, War and Power in the 21st Century – a book that deserves much wider recognition; unflinching, intellectually hard, and full of gusto. (‘Depressing stuff, eh?’ he replied, grinning, when I enthused to him about it.) He leaves a huge number of friends and admirers; let’s hope he inspires others to think and write with his vigour and insight.

Sue Saunders Vosper, lecturer in political theory

The reality of ideas

I was a colleague of Paul’s in Birkbeck College’s Politics and Sociology Department, teaching alongside him for over thirty years from 1972. I first met him in 1971. My first impression of him was of someone enormously enthusiastic, erudite and clear-cut about whatever he was doing or thinking.

This was somewhat intimidating when I discovered he knew an enormous amount about Marx, Lenin and Russian history – a subject I had decided to teach as an option. However, as Paul was in his Althusserian phase, and it took me sometime to work out how I could relate it to the Soviet Union, we operated in different dimensions and with different methods.

The result was that although we never clashed, there were some very puzzled students who took both courses (some coming specifically to develop their Althusserian skills). When they asked me what Paul thought of the Soviet experience, I told them to ask him, and they came back with his answer – that the Soviet Union was in negative transition.

This straightforward response was typical of Paul: no glib attempt at explanation, no Trotskyite condemnation of Stalin, but a simple recognition that the Soviet Union was going in the wrong direction. Yet he was a great Lenin enthusiast at the time, with a huge portrait of Lenin on his wall, and a full set of Collected Works on the shelves. He admired Nikolai Bukharin, the intellectual, realist and advocate of the continuity of the New Economic Policy. But it was Lenin’s approach and characteristics that appealed to him.

I am not quite sure when that portrait of Lenin was taken off the wall – some time in the 1970s – reflecting his intellectual and political transformation from revolutionary-style thinking to social democracy. However, to my mind Paul’s characteristic approach was always akin to Lenin’s, in that he clearly believed that one must always have some theoretical analysis of reality and be prepared to act on it, given the opportunity. For Paul, as for Marx, understanding the world was never enough: the point was to change it.

Throughout both his revolutionary and social democratic periods, Paul was never just the theorist, but always committed to practice, and engaged in some sort of political activity. His initial response to the question about the Soviet Union is interesting, because it obviously bothered him even in his revolutionary phase. By the 1970s, it had become even more problematic, although I recollect him enthusing about Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism, then based on the prospects of the Hungarian economy. By the 1980s with a failed economic as well as political system extending to all the Soviet bloc countries without exception, any sort of transformation had to be radically re-thought.

In retrospect, it is difficult to determine whether Paul’s conversion to social democracy derived from his intellectual critique of Marxism in books such as Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975) and Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today (1978); or whether his acute awareness of the problems of political practice encouraged him to criticise the theory. Whatever the case, the symbiotic relationship between the theory and the practice demonstrates an ever-present realism in Paul’s thought – whether it be the Leninist realism and importance of specific clear cut material analysis or the social democratic recognition that politics is the art of the possible in a complex world economy. Right through this transformation Paul never abandoned precise analysis of practice and a commitment to act. When decided on a line, he pursued it with great vigour and enthusiasm.

I remember he chided me once (in his revolutionary mode) for sitting on the fence, saying I would have to get off it otherwise action would become impossible. I now realise how true that is. I suspect also that his critique of globalisation was not simply based on its erroneous assumptions, but that the thesis makes action more difficult and complex given the continuing political importance of nation states.

Seven years ago Paul asked me if I would take over his political theory teaching as he was extremely tired and hard pushed with all his many other commitments. I was reluctant as I had not taught the early modern period in over twenty years. However, the idea that I might not be competent astonished him – he obviously never thought like that. Of course I could, he said. That kind of real belief in one’s abilities makes everything possible. I did it (and still do it) although at first I tried to avoid thinkers such as Montesquieu, Kant and Hegel.

Having been argued into teaching them (it being incredibly difficult to win arguments against Paul) I began to realise the importance of these thinkers to Paul’s way of viewing the world. Montesquieu not only related to his interest in law but very much to the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of all aspects of social life – law, politics, constitutions, religion, geography, economics. In many ways this is what he himself did and why he became such a polymath and Leonardo of the social sciences.

He not only knew and understood western concepts and ideas of law but was fascinated by early Soviet legal thinkers such as Evgeni Pashukanis. Not long ago he said he regretted not having written an article on an aspect of Montesquieu’s view of law which he only needed a month to do but somehow couldn’t fit in. What was amazing was just how much Paul did ‘fit in’, so that he had so developed and in-depth a knowledge of so many areas of social life. Political theorists had not, hitherto, paid a lot of attention to Kant, but Paul thought Kant not just interesting but crucial to the 21st century.

So, I read my way through Kant’s views on war and the possibility of peace and the importance of republican constitutionalism, and realised it fitted with Paul’s concern for the international aspects of politics and how these meshed with the politics of the nation state.

As I reflect on the relationships within the early Politics and Sociology Department at Birkbeck it occurs to me that what had once been a clear source of antagonism between the first Professor (Bernard Crick) and Paul had totally evaporated over the years. Bernard had always been a great supporter of democratic and constitutional government, concerned with the balance between freedom and order and the conditions of the maintenance of such styles of government, as well as reform of the present structures. Via a very different route and albeit in a different style, with far greater stress on economics and law, Paul’s thinking came around to a similar point. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, he shared a similar concern for a liberal constitutionalism which limits state power and arrogance, and empowers communities and individuals.

Paul’s commitment to Charter 88 epitomised this concern as well as their joint commitment to equality and democracy. Ben Pimlott’s obituary pointed out that Paul’s ideas “helped to provide the intellectual scaffolding for New Labour”, but his qualification that “there was much in the developed Blairite agenda that Hirst continued to reject” is, I think, to be emphasised. I have very clear recollections of his invective against the Militant Tendency – “this bunch of mindless Trots” who were hell bent on ruining the Labour Party. He never did like Trotskyists (although I never really worked out quite why). However, he seemed at least equally to dislike the pure pragmatism, centralising dirigisme and power mania of New Labour. He would have been much offended to be connected with them.

The last piece I read of Paul’s was a paper he gave to the Annual Conference of the Danish Political Science Association (October 2002) on ‘The Future of Political Studies’. As usual, it gives a most precise picture of what he thought needed to be done, and how one should try to approach the subject. In it he points to the danger of a new ideologisation of political studies – between right and left – the right’s political realism and discourse of empire and the left’s cosmopolitan democracy and international legalism mirroring the conflict in the 1920s and 1930s. These opposites, he argues, are fatal to the scepticism and objective study conjoint needed both for scientific work and credible political action.

He also rejected the hegemonic power of American political science with its emphasis on ‘professionalism’ – an objectivism so total as to alienate from political involvement, and limit what can be studied. Political studies, he thought, “need to attempt to offer solutions to real political questions based on its knowledge and to push the new questions that it identifies onto the political agenda; questions of which publics and politicians alike are either ignorant or fearful and thus eager to avoid.” The method needed was somewhere between the professionalised “policy wonks” and the ideologised utopians – “a position hard to achieve – to be engaged and to try to be objective is tough, but it is the only serious stance”.

When discussing this paper with him I offered my only criticism. It seemed to me fairly unnecessary to spend words rejecting the past obsession with Marxist analysis, as the vast majority of political scientists had never taken it seriously as an analytical tool. He replied that it was necessary, because it had been very much in vogue in political studies on the continent. However, I suspect that it was personal – that he wanted to emphasise that the route of thought which had taken up so much time of his past was not to be revisited. Again, back to Lenin – when the circumstances change, the old theory has to. Theory is just a tool, but changing reality dictates it must be rethought and renewed.

I shall always be amazed by Paul’s ability to do this – to refocus, to analyse, to act and to synthesise so many areas of social reality. It is extremely hard to believe that someone so omnicompetent, so omnipresent is no longer around to consult as and when one needs. The hard reality only began to sink in at the end of year party, when for the first time in over thirty years he was not there to accompany me home to Muswell Hill. It was strange, sad and different. We will all miss him sorely.

Grahame Thompson, professor of Political Economy

An imaginative thinker for the future

It is extremely difficult to think imaginatively about the future: but it is urgently needed. And it is something that Paul Hirst did with great effect in the latter part of his life, as exemplified by his books – on Associative Democracy (1994), War and Power in the 21st Century (2001), to some extent in Globalization in Question (1999), but also in the as yet unpublished manuscript Space and Power: Architecture, Politics and War.

By ‘imaginative thinking about the future’ I do not mean speculative futurology. Paul’s thinking about the future was always grounded in an absolutely relevant and realistic account of the possibilities for change and democratic reform.

As many have commented, Paul was an instinctive democrat. His book on Associative Democracy was the culmination of a decade’s work, thinking and writing about a democratic agenda for the reinvigoration of the political regime in advanced countries.

Paul was particularly pleased with the way he was able to integrate a reform programme for the welfare state into the associative schema outlined in this book. He felt that imaginative thinking about the future of the welfare state was a neglected area, largely because it was a not a particularly glamorous or fashionable one. However it was, he thought, a most fitting empirical illustration of the general arguments for the advantages of associationalism. And he was additionally pleased, typically, by the fact that his conception of associational democracy was something that could in principle appeal to, and be adopted by, a range of political positions, not just those on the left.

Of course Paul and I cooperated closely on the book Globalization in Question and we were actively planning a third revised edition when he died. People often ask me what it was like working and writing closely with Paul. In fact it was terribly easy. We were like-minded on the issue of globalisation; that its significance had been seriously exaggerated and that there was no reason to think that international trade interdependency and investment integration would necessarily continue to grow in the future. One of the things we were going to develop in the new edition was much more on the future of globalisation. We thought there were good reasons why the recent period of the global expansion of economic, political and cultural activity may have peaked, and could even go into decline.

Always expect the unexpected in the international system and do not think that what has been going on for several decades will necessarily continue into the future! This was very much our working slogan.

I think the book, War and Power in the 21st Century marked a real departure in the public and academic perception of Paul’s work. Here was the beginning of a publishing programme on his part that was rich in historical reflection, and which built on his long and sustained interest in matters of warfare and on military architecture, strategy and technologies. He continued this approach in an as yet unpublished manuscript Space and Power: Architecture, Politics and War where he again shows what it means to rethink the future in his usual uncompromising style.

Paul taught architectural theory and practice at the Architectural Association in London and at the University of Western Australia in Perth. In this book his concerns with architecture and fortifications, with new weapons technologies and with the nature of space combine to produce a fitting testimony to his wonderfully fertile mind.

But how did Paul think so imaginatively about the future in these books? There were several features of his intellectual life that contributed to this. First was his heavy suspicion of the growing over-theorisation of academic debates. Paul was not against theory, but he was against it if it seemed that it was done very much for its own sake and when it actively got in the way of him understanding the detail of illustrative material. Was it helpful or not in making sense of examples and empirical illustrations? That was his overriding question. So for him theory often got in the way of thinking creatively about the future.

Paul also became very suspicious of a continued ‘structural’ analytical style. Perhaps it was his long engagement and final break with structural Marxism that produced this scepticism – but for Paul ‘structural analysis’ increasingly came to mean that thinking was confined only to the existing state of affairs. It reproduced the present and was of little help in imagining the future.

Thirdly, this was all combined with his inherent ‘decisionism’ in matters of political analysis and policy making – based upon an admiration for Carl Schmitt’s theoretical position (but not an admiration for Schmitt himself, whom he despised). These features, locked together with his formidable intellect, gave Paul that uncanny ability to ‘imaginatively think the future’ that was such a telling feature of his mature writings.

Eckard Bolsinger, Hamburg – research student

I first met Paul in London in 1999 to talk with him about my research. What had started as a rather formal undertaking, turned out to be an unforgettable experience and exercise for me.

His hospitality, his openness and tolerance towards my rather politically conservative mindset changed my view of what scholarship really means: try always your best to understand ideas which run counter to your own views, make them as strong as possible. He made me feel that pragmatism and a good sense of humour should have the final say in seemingly irreconcilable theoretical and ideological controversies.

Coming from a rather sclerotic and intellectually boring German academic environment, I always found Paul the incarnation of the good old British academic tradition. Meeting him in London was always a journey into another world. I will miss him.

Conor Galvin, Faculty of Human Sciences, University College Dublin

Many who never had the privilege of meeting Paul Hirst will nevertheless miss him greatly. We are those from far-flung places who know him only through his published work and more recently through his contributions to openDemocracy.

In a busy and crowded world, it is so much easier to stay disengaged and so much simpler to depersonalise those we meet in the street. But out here in the common space of the internet, paths cross in unforeseen ways and so we do engage when we happen unexpectedly on a witty or thought provoking presence. Sharp intelligence and critical insights characterise the very best of these. And both are inevitably to be found in Paul Hirst’s writings.

For this I am truly appreciative personally. So too, I suspect, are a number of my students who have been pointed towards the Hirst / Held globalisation debate on this site. The ‘brains, principles and guts’ to be found in the work of Paul Hirst leave a unique and indelible mark – there is a stellar quality to it that endures. The world of ideas is a poorer place for his passing.

Geoff Robinson – former student

I was an MSc student on the Politics and Sociology course with Paul from 1995-97 and briefly a research student with him in 1997-98.

He is probably the person who has most influenced my intellectual development, and I do not expect to meet anyone like him in this respect ever again. He was one of the most engaging, unpretentious and down to earth people I have had the privilege of knowing.

I could speak eulogies about his compassionate and realistic understanding of humanity and his breathtaking knowledge, but I will simply say that he was a great and good man and that his spirit lives on in many lives and will, I hope, shape future emancipations.

Lindsley Harvard, Birkbeck student 1981-83

What I remember most about Paul was how incredibly giving of his time he was. His genuine concern for not just the intellectual development of students like myself but for their welfare. His willingness not only to mix socially with them but to seem to be doing so joyously. And, above all, his deep, deep kindness.

Remy José Fontana, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil

Paul Hirst was my supervisor. Last March I delivered him my protracted PhD thesis, Democratic life after the transition. In search of governability in Brazil. Four weeks ago he sent me two messages saying he was about to assess it. His last caused me some apprehension. He wrote: “Things have been crazy here, I have just worked fourteen days non-stop.”

I'd like to express my gratitude for his generous approach in supervising my work, for his intellectual openness and above all for his illuminating theoretical production that has inspired many scholars and students of politics around the world. I also first came to know the openDemocracy site through Paul. I will miss him deeply.

Robin Wilson, director, Democratic Dialogue, Belfast

It was with a great shock that I read of Paul’s death. I had known him on and off for the best part of 30 years but my last memory of him was over a very pleasurable couple of pints of Guinness in Belfast’s Crown bar. He will be widely missed.

Paul was such a polymath that he was able to be an economist in the morning, a sociologist in the afternoon and a political scientist in the evening, or, indeed, all at once. He was thus able to address and explicate notions like ‘negotiated governance’, straddling all three, with complete command.

He was an example to us all in being a supremely rigorous intellectual who at the same time was completely engaged, unfailingly helpful and utterly lacking in self-importance. Some of us manage one or more of those qualities. I would struggle to think of anyone else who embraced them all.

James Brown, fellow teacher at Birkbeck College

Among the best: Paul Hirst as teacher

I had the good fortune to be taught by Paul and then, when the department asked me to cover some extra seminars for its new BA, to teach with him. For Paul had a special genius as a teacher, difficult to understand without having experienced it. He didn’t have much time for the intricacies of pedagogy. He set his face against anything that threatened to reduce teaching to a technique. At the heart of his teaching there was an immense generosity. He was a big man and gave freely, the best sessions riding the wave of all the energy, fun, curiosity and questioning that he brought to them.

There was scarcely a note in sight. Often lecturers prepare a set of notes, and thriftily stick to them for years. Not Paul. He almost always lectured off the cuff – I suspect on the grounds that if the topic had a claim to our attention, it was important enough for him to remember it without notes, and if it wasn’t, then it probably wasn’t worth teaching in the first place.

I might hear the same set of lectures several times over, but he was always rethinking what he had to say and adding new material. Not that he ever appeared to be in any doubt about anything. If he had moments of uncertainty, he kept them behind the scenes. But his lectures were always alive in his mind, and consequently came at us with the force of living thought.

He was also (from my point of view as a fledgling seminar tutor conducting the post-lecture discussions) worryingly unpredictable in his choice of historical examples. He had such a comprehensive store of them at his fingertips that I could never be quite sure what our students would be quizzing me about next. The only other snag about teaching with him, was that he presented such persuasive and lucid accounts of complex issues that it could be difficult to get students to entertain (if only for the sake of argument) any alternative to Paul’s view. I was often in secret sympathy with them on that score.

Unencumbered by the professional lecturer’s clutter, what mattered to Paul were the arguments. Paul loved an argument: both for the cut and thrust of debate and for the beauty and subtlety of a line of reasoning. Teaching ‘aids’ would have got in his way.

He would scribble the odd word on the overhead projector, but seldom wrestled with transparencies. There were occasional exceptions to this. There was a combative side to him that relished military history, and he took great delight in adding a session on the Military Revolution to the course we were teaching, and in showing on the overhead projector the designs of cannon-proof fortifications (besides doing an hilarious imitation of a downtrodden sixteenth-century pikeman, dragging his pike around on the march, to illustrate a point about changing forms of military discipline). And when he presented the account of globalisation (or ‘Globaloney’) developed with Grahame Thompson, he wanted to show trade and investment figures. He’d often have a tussle getting them the right way up and the right way round on the projector, before getting back into the flow of the argument.

It was characteristic of him that there was never the slightest question of patronising simplification of the material because this was an introductory undergraduate course. Nor did he expect our students to take his case on trust. There was no reason in his mind why first-year undergraduates shouldn’t debate his latest research. So they needed to have the evidence before them with which to do so… Though he could be impatient with obtusely dim questions, his respect for his students was never in doubt.

Paul was at once the most serious and the least solemn of lecturers. The topic might require concentration, but it didn’t demand po-faced earnestness. Which is just as well, because Paul’s powers of concentration were rivalled only by his sense of fun. Sadly, his writings scarcely communicate this (though a few of them capture something of the scorn he could pour on imbecility: he once remarked of some public figure that it wasn’t their fault they were stupid, only to correct himself with, “Actually, yes it is. That level of stupidity is a crime against humanity”). But I imagine all his students must have been called upon at some time to witness the Pig Air Force doing a fly-past in tight formation (a baroque Paul-ism for ‘Pigs might fly’).

Other flashes of humour, unlike the pigs, who seemed to be in geostationary orbit in Paul’s imagination, were very much of the moment. Once, as Paul lectured with the door of room 5 in 10 Gower Street propped open for some air, Sami Zubaida, co-founder of the department with Paul, went downstairs in conversation with someone. Deciding he’d had enough of these noises off, Paul yelled “Shut up!” over his shoulder, only to get “Why don’t you shut the door?” back up the stairs from Sami. As he dissolved into laughter, Paul announced with as much mock indignation as he could muster, “Absolute bloody bastard! He’s been doing that to me for twenty years!”

Paul was a man of inexhaustible practical kindness, and virtually no sentimentality. Once he confided to me in tones of affection for his long-time colleague that he thought Sami was an exceptionally lucid and effective lecturer (perfectly true) – quickly adding, “Mind you, he bloody ought to be. He’s been doing it for thirty years. If he’s not good now, when will he be?”

In my final year as a student, getting near the end of my tether with overwork and the sudden death of a dear colleague, I realised I couldn’t meet the essay deadlines, and sent in a formal request to suspend my studies. This would have involved redoing the year, which would have been expensive and inconvenient. Somehow Paul got wind of this, and came up with a protocol-defying arrangement whereby I could get the essays in over the summer.

When he phoned me to explain this, he managed to make it sound as if all the trouble he’d gone to was a pleasure to him, since he was looking forward to outflanking the external examiners, who’d have no choice but to go along with this scam. Given the strictness of assessment regulations, it seemed obvious to me that this deal had actually taken some brokering, so when I next bumped into him I tried again to say how grateful I was. But he brushed my thanks aside with “Lord Carrington and you (right?) [Paul peppered his speech with ‘Right?’ to make sure you were keeping up, or maybe to dare you to dissent] are the last two gents still playing by the old rules”, and pottered off downstairs, very chuffed at having saved me from my own punctiliousness.

Over the past few years, while he was running the London Consortium’s postgraduate programme, to my regret I saw less of him. Occasionally I’d bump into him as he emerged from his office to announce that he felt as if a herd of Mongolian yak had just stampeded over him. But one has only to look at the Consortium’s programme to see how much it reflects Paul’s genius as a teacher. Over a drink one evening he regaled me with ‘Shit and Civilisation’, which became an arrestingly unconventional course that approaches civilisation from its underside. Unfortunately, his plans to rope me in to do an option course for the Consortium never came to fruition, so I never got to teach under Paul’s aegis again.

Very early in the Consortium’s life, he wrote a piece called ‘Is the University the enemy of ideas?’ It was a statement of what the Consortium should stand for. It sticks in my mind partly because in it Paul likens the craft of the thinker about human affairs to that of the seaman, as Joseph Conrad presents it in his sea tales that, of course, occasioned an absorbing conversation about Conrad with Paul at a summer party soon after he’d circulated the essay.

At the end of the piece, he wrote in fiercely bold capitals ‘DO NOT QUOTE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION’. So I may be exposing myself to his wrath from beyond the grave, but one passage in particular says something so important about Paul, that I would like to share it with you:

“How then might we envisage a cultural leadership based on merit and honour in demotic societies, a style of leadership that is democratic because it helps the people to make informed choices? By turning to another model of the best, an aristocracy based not on social superiority but on competence. Aristoi who are the “best” in one definite way only, not social superiors, but those who are good at what they are given the social space to do well and to perfect, in this case offering imaginative programmes for futures that the mass of the people can share and can accept.

Exclusiveness is crippling, but intellectuals are hardly to blame. Modern Britain is a society based on exclusion, on denying resources, rights and voice to large numbers of people. Exclusion is aided by an anti-intellectual unreflective culture and a political dialogue based on conservative drivel.

These exclusions will remain in the absence of genuine leadership by those who have been forced to prove their worth, because unimaginative solutions, deference to authority and living in the past as an imaginative ideal prevail.

The aristoi we need are best not in blood or manners, but in competence in imagination. That only sounds a contradiction to those whose vision of the imaginative is the wilfully subjective and the impractical.”

By any definition worth caring about, Paul was among the aristoi — among the best.

Gary Littlejohn, teacher and researcher, Bradford University

Dogs and cats

I was in the US when Paul died, and have been in denial about it until I started reading the openDemocracy coverage.

I first met Paul in 1970, when I was tutoring at Liverpool on Barry Hindess’s course on Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences. Barry, having taught Paul as an undergraduate, invited him to give a postgraduate paper. It was on Eisenstein’s contribution to cinema.

I had never encountered anything like it. I was astonished by the range and extent of Paul’s knowledge, and the clear integration of the factual argument with advanced theoretical concerns. Afterwards Barry confirmed that Paul had terrified the staff who taught him. I could see why. When I pointed out to Paul that he had pronounced some of the film titles wrongly, thereby revealing that I spoke Russian, this led pretty directly to him commissioning a translation from me that appeared in the first issue of Economy and Society.

I stayed in touch with Paul thanks to Barry drawing me into the Theoretical Practice group, whose meetings I continued to attend even after moving to Edinburgh. When it came to analyses of the Soviet Union, I accept I was probably one of the ‘attack dogs’ mentioned elsewhere on this website. Certainly amongst Marxists, we were seen as humourless Puritans: something that rather amused us at the time. I suspect that we all regret the damage that was done to some people’s self-confidence. But although Paul must have been one of the most intimidating, this was never his intention. The warm humanity that has been mentioned elsewhere was clearly evident in those early days, certainly to me, as he encouraged me to branch out into other areas of interest.

During the 1970s, as I moved to Bradford, and became interested in Africa, Paul and Barry stayed in touch. I was sent the drafts of their various works. I was becoming focused on my own work on the Soviet Union (a side effect of Paul’s encouragement) and on Africa. Nevertheless, Paul invited me to the Birkbeck seminar on Politics and Social Theory, which carried forward the kind of work implicit in Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today, as well as developing Foucauldian ideas on politics and discussing various forms of democracy.

Paul and Penny would also visit us in Bradford on their way back from holidays in Alnwick, but gave this up in apparent embarrassment when their cats clawed their way through our garage door. (It was rotten anyway, but they felt responsible.) Through the 1980s and 1990s Paul nevertheless kept in touch, partly by inviting me to be a PhD external on degrees that he supervised on an amazing range of issues – always issues in which he knew I was interested.

Most recently I have been in touch with Paul with some translations of Russian websites on the Russian response to the war in Iraq that I had done, which show that the Russians took it far more seriously than was generally realised. He in turn sent me some chapters of his unfinished book, but I did not take time to comment before he died. I share the sense of loss – a major loss to British political life.

Lars Bo Kaspersen – associate professor, department of sociology, University of Copenhagen

Paul: a global phenomenon in a Danish context

Paul was a global phenomenon with connections, friends and colleagues all over the world – also in Denmark. I first encountered the work of Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess in a research seminar at the University of Copenhagen that had been using and developing their thinking on modes of production for several years. Paul’s critique of the Althusserian concept of ideology was not only on the agenda, but had already been roundly refuted. Meanwhile Paul and Barry’s version of Althusserian theory had become the rock and foundation for some of the most notable social science research in Scandinavia in the 1980s. Most important was a book by the ethnologist Thomas Højrup (‘The Forgotten People’), which has unfortunately never been translated into English. But Paul’s inspiration in this work is clear for all to see – it was enormous.

When Paul and Barry left Althusser behind them and went into political theory, they proved to be far ahead of the Danish scholars who only reached the same conclusions almost five to ten years later. The key problem, it turned out, was the state – a problem you could never approach in a fruitful way from the perspective of Marx or Marxists. But when the Hirst and Hindess auto-critique first came out, Danish research groups were taken by surprise. Paul returned to Weber, pluralism and Carl Schmitt. The Danish gang strongly disagreed. We went back instead firstly to Hegel and Clausewitz.

The first time I met Paul was at Sussex University in the early spring of 1989 when I spent a year there as an MA-student and Paul was invited to give a paper. Carl Schmitt, no less, was the topic. I must admit I was really puzzled by this odd man sitting in the seminar room. First of all being a clean and healthy Scandinavian conformist, I found it awful that someone could give a paper while smoking a cigar. Secondly, reading what was on the intellectual agenda only some years after it had been fashionable in Britain, Germany and France, I expected a paper relating to his old work on Marxist modes of production, or the Althusserian critique of epistemology and methodology. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Carl Schmitt was not even a name for me. I had never heard of him.

Returning from Sussex, I attended my old research group once again to find that some of the participants were slowly moving towards another position that endorsed political theory, seeing the concept of the state as the key to developing a stronger social theory. The research seminar was led by the peace and conflict researcher and nuclear physicist, Anders Boserup. Boserup died, but we continued. And gradually, I began to understand why Carl Schmitt was extremely important.

In 1990, Esther Boolsen defended her PhD. Paul, who had been very supportive to her and was on the board of external examiners, was coming to Denmark. We persuaded him to lecture us on the future of sociology, the welfare state and flexible specialization. I was able to talk to him for some time, and found him a nice man, genuinely interested in what we had to say.

Before he left, he encouraged me to stay in touch. More than a year later I was in London and found myself passing by Paul’s department in 10 Gower Street. I decided on the spur of the moment to ring the doorbell. I could see he was slightly irritated since he was marking essays. However, he was also very kind and offered me tea. Asking what I was doing, he listened carefully as I regaled him with my current preoccupations with European citizenship before undermining every single one of my propositions.

Slightly embarrassed at being so stupid, I plunged to a new low when I showed him the copy of Laski’s A Grammar of Politics I had just purchased at a Dillons sale. He was pleased and immediately wanted to tell his students about this bargain offer. I asked too late: “Is it worth reading?” Seeing his eyes and his expression, I suddenly realised that I had probably just asked one of the most stupid questions of my whole life. Demonstrating an enormous British self-control, he replied quietly: “Yes, it is worth reading”. It was some years later that I fully understood A Grammar of Politics to be one of the most important works of political theory about the state written in the 20th century.

I became a research fellow at the Political Science Department at the University of Aarhus and embarked on my doctoral thesis. For various reasons I moved to Britain with my family. Over the next three years in which Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party and then prime minister, we found ourselves in Winchester. Remembering Paul’s injunction some years’ previously to stay in touch, I decided to give it another try. I wrote him a letter, saying that I would like to meet him and discuss my ideas. We made an appointment at the Architectural Association and there we were over lunch, with him once again listening carefully to my writing plans.

What I could not have known at the time was that my peculiar mix of historical sociology, military history, political theory and comparative history suited Paul down to the ground. Very interested, he kept inviting me up to London to discuss my work and the books I was reading. I wrote my thesis in Britain, where Paul became my critical but very supportive supervisor. As usual, he just did it because he was interested.

Since then, we have stayed in touch. Almost every week he would call me on a Wednesday or Thursday to discuss current affairs, busy academic life, cats, and exchange ideas and literature. Paul was very prolific, and every week his knowledge surprised me. He gave so much. When I was too slow to understand, he explained it all over again in different words. He was persistent. He never gave up on you. Consequently, thirty minutes with Paul was better than a seven-day conference or a whole semester of university lectures. Paul forced you to think, so it was always fruitful to be with him.

I don’t think I offend anyone by saying that Denmark had a special place if not in his heart then in his diary. He came here several times every year. Over the last five years, Paul has probably visited Denmark at least fifteen times to give lectures or launch one or other of his books. He has always filled our lecture rooms to capacity. 100-250 in the audience was quite normal when Paul gave a lecture.

He liked Denmark, its craft and architecture, food, and even the people. And Paul has become a fairly important intellectual figure here. If the mode of production stuff was influential among sociologists, ethnologists and other social theorists in the 1970s and 1980s, later his work on associative democracy, globalisation, governance, the city and space and military history and technology sparked off successive major debates. He made several appearances on Danish television, Radio Denmark and in occasional quotes in the Danish papers. Many many students now study Paul’s work from the first year onwards.

Personally, I have learned enormously from our discussions. We shared a lot of interests. We did not agree about how to conceptualise the state or on the role America plays in the world. My emphasis on Clausewitz, Weber, Hegel and Schmitt interested him, however. Given his inclination to combine Weber with British pluralism when it came to the state, he accepted my analytical framework as useful, but never found it sufficiently strong for his political aims.

We planned to write a book together about state formation in the early modern period. That book will never appear. It is a fact I can live with. But to live without our frequent conversations is a different matter. That is hard to accept. That is, however, what life is about: to accept death and its consequences.

Paul was never as recognised at home as abroad. In particular, he was never accorded recognition by major mainstream social and political theorists in UK and America as the leading social and political thinker in the twentieth and twenty first century – which he undoubtedly was. Wherever he spoke, he earned respect because he was superior in many ways when it came to knowledge, analytic skills, dialectical thinking, strong arguments and sharpness.

Perhaps the problem was that he was too intelligent and too sophisticated for most people. He was almost always superior in his depth, sharpness and knowledge. Jealousy and ignorance may well be reasons why he was never recognised as a leading figure. Respected, but not fully recognised. In some ways, the world was too small a place for Paul. He will be missed all over – also in Denmark. And I will miss a very good friend.

Patrice de Beer, Le Monde

A bridge between Paris and London

I met Paul Hirst in the mid-1990s when I was Le Monde’s correspondent in London. Or, rather, I met Penny’s husband, Penny being a dear old acquaintance from the time she went to France on a school exchange.

Beyond his robust joie de vivre which, of course, does appeal at first sight to a Frenchman, and which developed into long conversations around food and wine, Paul was quintessentially an European intellectual. He had deep English roots, he had the typical British matter-of-factness but he never shunned the lofty or idealistic ideas we French love so much to play with. He was always open to ideas coming from abroad, always eager to discuss, always ready to shift new concepts, to criticise or shake well-established views. He never was interested by the politically correct or by the fashion, the ideological flavour of the day.

Paul was a pioneer in the study of globalisation, but never made a career out of it. What was the use of parading in front of TV cameras when there was work to do, ideas to be scrutinised in an obscure and uncomfortable academic office at Birkbeck College? Intellectuals are not movie stars, and should not pretend to be so. He studied Thatcherism and its impact on British society long before Tony Blair. Yet he never bowed to Blairite conformism. He was sceptical but not cynical, his criticism could be devastating, yet he never was mean or demeaning. He was always available to explain, analyse in depth, open bold new tracks, not only on the UK, but also with a European or international perspective. And, during my four years in London, he was for me like a wizard deciphering the undecipherable and opening unseen doors and new avenues.

For someone like me, coming from such a faraway place as the European continent, the role of intellectuals in British society is often puzzling. It seems that the word ‘intellectual’ is widely unpopular, or less popular than it is in France, for instance. Paul belied this cliché and was – for the better – at the very heart of Europe. It is a pity that his works are not translated into French, or his name better known in Paris - because, listening to his analysis of Britain, to his views about the world we live in, would have helped to lift so many misunderstandings and clichés that have, for so long, and for too long, poisoned relations between London and the rest of Europe.

Sue Goss, Office for Public Management, London

The mariner’s star

For a whole generation who did their political growing up in the 1970s, Paul was the navigator. As well as great sadness, his death makes me feel adrift.

I arrived at Sussex University in 1973 – persuaded by my Workers’ Educational Association evening class that being a Marxist was simple – but was soon utterly confused by the factional wars breaking out on campus, and by the fashionable but unreadable structural edifices of Nikos Poulantzas and Louis Althusser. Paul Hirst was for me the man who first made sense.

His books were a series of courageous and relentlessly brilliant explorations, first within Marxist theory, creating a larger and more fruitful space for thinking than existed before – and then breaking out of the cage that structural Marxism had made for itself.

I remember even now the moment when I read for the first time Paul’s argument that there was a ‘necessary non-correspondence’ between political forces and economic classes. At the time, on the left, it was revolutionary. Of course Paul never forgot that nevertheless there are both political forces and economic classes and we can analyse their relationship intelligently; rather than substitute textual analysis.

Paul led thinking in the field of post-Marxism, but soon outran the whole shooting match, creating an original world view. It drew on an understanding of how inequality of power works, but was profoundly humanist, democratic and pluralist.

In the 1980s, by now a political actor in my own right, I struggled to follow the speed of his intellectual development, while recognising its analytical power. Following him, I felt as if I had come safely into a viable way of arguing through a problem, grounding it in ‘thought’ without losing a grasp of the practical.

At the first Labour Co-ordinating Committee conference (a now strange-sounding title, this was a starting-point for the rethinking that drove the Labour Party back to office and power in Britain) Paul Hirst was a speaker. I vividly recall how I sat on the platform next to him, feeling as shy as a teenager meeting a pop star – here was my intellectual hero in the flesh! If I reached over, I could touch him!

Had I tried to imagine what the man who wrote these towering books might look like, or be like, I could not have imagined Paul. He was indeed relentless in talk, and yet so understated: kind, so willing to go out of his way to help and support others, and short and round rather than towering in person with a matter-of-factness in day-to-day life. He was one of those very rare things, a brilliant man who nevertheless lived his life for other people.

Then, when Anthony Barnett persuaded me to join the Charter 88 executive team in the very early 1990s, I began to work with Paul on a regular basis. I lost much of my awe (but never all of it) – since I had to learn to argue with him, and to persuade him when he was wrong!

Again he was totally committed to the intellectual project of Charter 88, but also to doing the boring backroom stuff; the awaydays and the staff induction; the budget meetings and the financial reports.

I haven’t been as involved in Charter 88 in the last few years as I should have been, other commitments both personal and work meant that I drifted away. But I knew it was in good hands; I knew that with Paul at the helm the organisation would do good things and make sound choices; I knew that with Paul navigating, new lands would be reached.

And now, as I said to Anthony on the phone; I feel as if I, and not just I but an entire political world, have lost a vital anchor. It was not just that Paul had integrity. He had no fear – he wasn’t trying to get promotion, or fancy offices, there was nothing the government or anyone else could offer him that he needed – he was his own master. The rest of us are all going to have to work a lot harder to make the world a better place; now that one of the best has gone.

Hugh Brody, anthropologist and openDemocracy columnist

An English mind

I met Paul Hirst on Waterloo station. We were on the platform, seeing our sons off on the same, school-bound train. I knew who he was, of course, and hoped I would somehow get to chat with him. I kept half an eye on where he, Penny and Jamie were. And I noticed that as Jamie was about to get on the train, he hugged him goodbye.

It gave me a kind of courage: I had been hesitant about hugging Tomo, my son, fearing that he would be embarrassed by such open affection – after all, he was at the edge of his teens and perhaps self-conscious. The thought had been going through my head that I was hopelessly English about this edgy unease about open, physical gestures. Paul gave me the necessary confidence, and I hugged as I wished to, and was hugged back – perhaps Tomo had been noticing too.

And it is this Englishness that I think about now – not the stereotypic Englishness that I conjured up at Waterloo, but another, larger and more important form. The Englishness that is a determination to be real – be it about feelings for a child or facts of any given matter. It is where courage meets rigour, or where the personal informs and is informed by the philosophical.

Paul was a wonderful embodiment of this encounter, this overlap between being true to the self and true to the realities, the facts. He was expansive as a human being – warm, effusive, welcoming, generous, irrepressible; and his large humanity was never separable from his ideas. In our conversations he leaped from a thought about train schedules (how intolerable the bad time-keeping was) to an observation about a teacher at the school our boys were at to an idea about the structure of the British economy; and somehow just keeping a bridge between them or, to seek for a better metaphor, managing to tangle me up in a web made of all these different parts.

Some of this quality was to do with energy and its very close relation, enthusiasm. Like so many, many people, I am incredulous as well as sad such a vortex of life has so suddenly and terribly gone from us. Others will pay full tribute to the force and influence of his ideas. But I want to point to the importance of a fact about the man who had those ideas: he was shaped in this country and represented qualities that are English – in the very best sense.

He was a powerful intellectual; and we may associate wide, daring intellectualism with countries or traditions other than our own. He did allow the personal to enter his thought; his mind was alive to everything and made no discrimination against the everyday, the apparently trivial, the domestic. And I suspect that there is a particular and important English quality here: to allow the mind this freedom while insisting that it be a freedom of simple as well as complex truth, a kind of pragmatism or inspired empiricism. Paul embodied this English virtue. To lose him is to lose the inspiration that comes from it.

Yet to identify this virtue, this bundle of remarkable qualities as a kind of English tradition, an aspect or line in our heritage, is to allow some hope to grow from our sense of loss: if Paul was able to achieve this thanks to his intellectual and cultural heritage, then others can too. He inspired with his teaching and lecturing, as well as with his conversation and character; he sought to pass on to many others parts of what he was.

The whole of what he was, the wonderful package of qualities, is also to be discovered, repeated, carried forward. So we can trust in the very existence, not to say the vitality, of the kind of English and humane intellectual that was Paul Hirst. His greatness gives hope: it is an element in our heritage.

Neal Lawson, managing editor of Renewal

A synthesis of theory and action

Paul Hirst was always up for it. Whatever hair-brained scheme I wanted his prodigious mind for, he would nearly always make it – or send humble apologies because he was doing something really worthwhile instead.

I met Paul a decade ago through Renewal – the journal of Labour politics I help edit. A generation older than me, he was an exalted academic name who didn’t let you down once you had met him. He was no academic snob – what seemed to matter was what you had to give.

He served on the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal – and I mean served. He did things. He came up with ideas and he wrote. He wrote a lot. Of the forty issues of Renewal published in those ten years, Paul’s name appears again and again. In the very first issue, he argued that Europe should be used as a platform for modern social democracy. He used the pages of the journal to battle those who knelt before ‘irresistible’ global forces, he extolled the virtues of political pluralism, he questioned the benign influence of the knowledge economy and he enthusiastically reviewed every book we threw at him.

I knew him too through Charter88 – one of the great progressive campaigning organisations in British politics. Its success was in no small part down to Paul. He knew that ideas alone were essential but ultimately sterile – you had to organise for them. Paul was praxis in motion – the synthesis of theory and action.

I thought of Beethoven whenever I saw him. He always spoke with calm authority and insight. I envied his lucky students. Sitting beside him at one meeting of New Labourites he mentioned the ‘impolite’ response of electoral reform as rather an obvious answer to the problem of political disengagement – ‘you’re looking at me like I just farted’ said Paul.

The British left has few contemporary intellectuals it can call its own. Paul was at the very top of the pile – a high priest of the British democratic left. A lack of arrogance and seemingly little interest in the media meant he didn’t get the wider recognition his thought and writing deserved. As Labour in government starts to run out of steam, Paul’s unrivalled role in the renewal of the left will be sorely missed. But his intellectual legacy will continue to spur me, and many more, on.

John Lloyd, editor of Financial Times magazine

He forced you to think

I have two memories of Paul. One was when I was taking an M.Phil. course with Eric Hobsbawm at Birkbeck College in the 1970s, and he and Sami Zubaida taught our little group sociology. He was an Althusserian then, and I think he felt he had to adopt some of the bearing and rhetoric of a scornful French Marxist intellectual. He with others did a few issues of a journal called Theoretical Practice, dedicated to the apparently impossible task of making Althusser more obscure than he already was.

He also ran, outside of the college, a study group on Althusser, which was as bad: worse, since most of those who went for enlightenment were paralysed by the twin forces of Althusser’s impermeability and the collective desire not to say anything which would betray a total lack of understanding of the subject being studied. He was, however, funny and he was always a good teacher – in the sense that he never appeared bored with the process of teaching.

The second memory is of getting to know him again in the early-mid 1980s, and realising he had left all of that behind to become a questioning social democrat. Just as he had sought to thoroughly comprehend Althusser, so he set out, over a longer haul, to get to grips with what a social democratic polity would look like. He was never conventional: if he joined in with others’ causes, he brought to them his own positions, into which he had argued himself. He was calling for a more corporate state when most, including most on the left, were acquiescing in a less corporate one (or didn’t think about the matter at all): and he, more famously, took on David Held and others on their interpretations of the speed and depth of globalisation.

I thought him more wrong than right on both of these arguments but he had the very large virtue of forcing you to think through why you believed, or why you hadn’t bothered to ask the whys of your beliefs. He reminded you of the famous New Yorker cartoon in which one man at a cocktail party is saying to another: ‘Of course I don’t go all the way with him, but you have to admit his logic is impeccable’.

He seemed intensely decent: friendly in a discriminating way; and open, curious. He was one of these people whom you wish you had got to know better.

David Held, professor of political science, LSE

A thirty-year debate

Paul Hirst was in the background of my life for over thirty years and in the foreground of my intellectual concerns for the same period. He was a massive figure in all respects. A wonderful person, a huge presence with a very sharp critical intellect.

Paul has been enormously productive for all his working life, covering a vast range of topics from associational democracy to globalisation. In each area he offered probing deconstructive insights while always coming to a positive formulation as well. Paul was relentlessly critical of intellectual fashion, and most recently about all the hype surrounding globalisation. The debate I had with him on openDemocracy was one of the high points of my intellectual life. Debating with Paul was always great fun and a learning experience. I often disagreed with the major position Paul took, but I never failed to learn something from each and every encounter with him. Paul always had something to offer everyone, and he offered me friendship and a sharp exchange of views for over three decades. I have no idea who I will debate with now.

I will miss him hugely.

Eyal Weizman, Israeli architect

In the midst of life

Dear Rosemary and David,

You asked me about the project I was working on lately with Paul.

I loved Paul dearly. Now, and since it all sank in, I feel completely disoriented. Who should I write for and who now should I show my work to? It’s a kind of childish regression and it will take me time to come to get over it and find new energies.

I need to do so now especially, as I have to deliver a museum project on 22 June to the city of Ashdod in Israel. This is a museum of ‘persecuted art’, a project which has taken four years to complete. There is a grand municipal opening in the presence of the president of Germany, Johannes Rau.

Ashdod is a rather poor port-city with a large Russian immigrant community and this project – which they fought for for a few years – is a major event for them. I tried to dedicate the museum to Paul – then just the opening ceremony – but the politics of dedications was too complex.

Paul loved the project and followed it all the way through from plans to site images. He was sometimes critical of my drawings; “this is the ugliest sketch I have ever seen”, he told me a year ago when I tried to demonstrate a particular part of it. But he loved the way it ended up.

He had been unable to travel to the opening ceremony in Israel, but had promised to give a lecture within another event I was involved with – an exhibition I co-curated at the KW-Institute for Contemporary Arts in Berlin called ‘territories’. Besides looking at the built environment aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it examined other places around the world – the prison in Guantanamo bay – gated communities – former Yugoslavia – and wherever issues of planning, built environment and spatial injustice manifest themselves in their purest and harshest forms.

Paul was not just the help and inspiration but the invisible audience for this latter project – the person one has in mind when one makes decisions.

He prepared the main curatorial wall text for the ‘strategic space’ part of the show – a piece that put a whole section of the exhibition in context. Moreover, he agreed to do an interview in the radio programme that ran as a part of the show. I asked to conduct the interview with him myself. We had a long chat about the spatialisation of warfare. We intended to talk for 7-10 minutes but went on for 20 and broadcasted it all. Paul and I really enjoyed it, and we planned to do another radio talk later on.

Another contribution we intended was that Paul would deliver a major lecture in the main space of the exhibition. This was planned for early July. The lecture was to be held within a very theatrical setting in the largest gallery – a white cubic space of 25 meters x 25 meters – wrapped in a gigantic landscape photograph which was the show’s centerpiece. The photograph, entitled “Hollow land: an observation post” showed the view from Jerusalem onto the West Bank – a scarred landscape interpreted through a specially conceived observation deck with an aluminium plate on which the panorama was engraved.

Paul’s lecture was to be about the spatiality of war and the built environment, although the title and the date were not yet fixed. He wanted to talk about the photographic image, to read individual parts of it as he moved along the image.

I must close now. I am leaving for Ashdod, to dust the building, place the furniture, and set up the lights before the opening. I’ll be in touch and let you know how it all went.



Staircases, Ashdod Museum of Persecuted Art, Israel; (credit - Eyal Weizman, Rafi Segal architects, Manuel Herz architect)

Martin Shaw, professor of international relations, Sussex

Parallel paths, divergent minds

I first met Paul over thirty years ago, when we were both first entering academic life. I remember that we were on the same panel at a sociological conference, and that I was slightly in awe of him, for he already carried the authority that became even more evident in later years.

Paul spoke on law, if I remember, and it must be about the same time that, with Barry Hindess and others, he founded the pathbreaking journal Economy and Society. Taking its first, February 1972, issue from my shelves I find his paper, ‘Marx and Engels on law, crime and morality’, with its aim ‘to demarcate the Marxism of Marx and Engels from the “Marxism” of the radicals’, in the radical criminology and deviancy of the time. This thrust partly paralleled that of my own works in this period, although there were the inevitable differences about what Marxism really meant.

Paul was a part of the generation of left-wing intellectuals who emerged from the student movement of the late 1960s. He was clearly in a different corner from me, and in the 1970s I knew him mainly from the series of co-authored works that made ‘Hindess and Hirst’ seem for a time a single personality, with their original application of the structural Marxism pioneered by Louis Althusser.

More of a humanist Marxist myself, I disagreed with much of the rationale for this project, but I could only be impressed with its output and rigour. Paul’s and Barry’s work far outstripped that of most of their peers and made them for a time the most prominent of their generation of Marxist social theorists. But when Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975) was followed by Mode of Production and Social Formation: an Auto-critique of ‘Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1977), Paul and Barry almost pre-empted their critics.

I didn’t follow too closely what happened after that: but in retrospect, Paul’s and Barry’s rapid shifts of perspective seem part of a pattern common to many of our generation, in which initial positions, perhaps too tightly formulated, had to move under the pressure of understanding and acting in a rapidly changing world.

Despite my different starting point, I underwent a similar experience. I didn’t see or hear so much of Paul in the 1980s, but when I caught up with him in the last decade, he had emerged as a formidable, mature proponent of democratic advance and a very clear voice in the debates on the future that preoccupied the British left in the last years of Thatcherism and beyond. As a new issue of Renewal landed on my mat today, I found Paul’s name still down on the advisory board of this post-Blairite journal, just as he has been such an active source of strength for openDemocracy. He had become a very public intellectual, a wise, generous and undogmatic contributor to many debates.

Our pattern of convergence/divergence was still there. Paul’s writings on globalisation delivered a salutary and widely heeded corrective to fashionable simplicities on globalisation, and he emphasised, as I would, the role of the state; but in a review he disagreed flatly with my concept of the emergent ‘global state’ – though in characteristically generous fashion.

Paul sent me several of his papers, and I learnt much from them. His short book on War and Power in the Twenty-First Century, published last year, showed the breadth of his knowledge and his capacity for thinking outside the box, and I was glad to review this work in turn. Paul had developed a strong perspective, bringing together historical-sociological insights and a realist understanding of power. One thing that was always evident was how clearly Paul wrote, and what a pleasure he was to read. He died at the height of his powers and we have lost a great deal.

The last time I saw Paul was at an openDemocracy brainstorming before the Iraq war, where he was in splendid form and had as ever so much to contribute. I had to run for the train and miss the pub. Of course I had no idea that I wouldn’t see him again. His sudden death is a terrible shock; I very much regret that we didn’t become closer friends.

Colin MacCabe, editor of Critical Quarterly

The argument of a generation

“Paul Hirst who died on Monday at the early age of 57 was perhaps the most important political thinker and certainly the most complete intellectual of the generation of 1968. The range of his thinking and writing was extraordinary, his formidable reading and ferocious intellect were applied to subjects as diverse as law, architecture, military history, philosophy as well as central issues in the human sciences. In the 1970s he was one of a small group of thinkers who pushed their student Maoism to its intellectual conclusions.

He then regrouped to develop a firmly democratic and anti-statist politics. He was one of the moving spirits behind Charter88 of which he was Chairman at the time of his death and, as importantly, he had gone back to the long neglected tradition of associationism to find forms that would complement and challenge the state-dominated politics of the Thatcher/Blair era. He was as committed to teaching as to research, and indeed as convinced of the importance of administration as of thinking and his last eight years had seen the culmination of a series of educational initiatives with his directorship of the London Consortium, a multi-disciplinary doctoral programme.”

That was the first paragraph of an obituary that I wrote with Mark Cousins for the Independent, but a more personal memory of Paul would have to start with Ben Brewster. It was Ben who was the link between Screen magazine where we were attempting to produce a general ideological account of film and the Theoretical Practice group who were attempting a more general Marxist account of the current situation.

I can’t remember when I first met Paul but I do remember reading the typescript of Modes of Production and Social Formation. This was a scandalous book to every Marxist historian because it denied that the past was a given and defined object but could only come into existence in relation to the current situation. In fact this is a completely unobjectionable position, obviously true and endorsed by thinkers as various as Walter Benjamin and Michael Dummett. But at the time it was an extraordinary thought and it was obvious that here was an extraordinary thinker.

And even in a personal memoir I have to emphasise that Paul was a thinker. He had an extraordinarily fine mind and if his latest work was much more empirically grounded, he never lost the penetrating analytic force that made such an impression on me when I first met him. There was an immediate shared set of references of which Althusser was the most important but which included Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

There was also a shared political perspective which in my case was specifically Eurocommunist and ‘Broad Left’ but which more generally might be defined as the belief that a Leninist party would have to work with the structures of representative democracy. This was a very specific moment and if in the early 1970s there seemed, however ridiculous it is in retrospect, a possibility of major political transformations, by the late 1970s – with the French Communist Party’s destruction of the Union of the Left, the murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in Italy and Margaret Thatcher’s election in Britain – it was all over.

If I think of Paul in the 1970s – it is almost always in political/theoretical conversation. I’m sure we talked of other things but the focus was argument and analysis. And what argument. To engage with the attack dogs of Theoretical Practice was to take your life in your hands. It was a very masculine world and rather a merciless one. I hate to think of its negative effects, but if you passed the terrifying initiation then you were one of the tribe.

Certainly I felt a strong friendship and affection for Paul by the end of the 1970s even though the work which was meant to bring the arguments to a triumphant conclusion, Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today was, for me, a huge disappointment. This was going to be the book which would provide the basic economic analysis which would underpin everything. In retrospect much of the driving-force for Paul and the others in this period was a very strong anti-representational argument which disallowed any general categories which captured the real in favour of endless appeals to specific analyses driven by the political conjuncture – it was much less Marxist than Leninist and its Leninism was a sort of indefinitely postponed political analysis.

But if the economics failed so did the ideology. The anti-representational arguments which also underpinned Screen were completely unable to provide any adequate analysis of narrative or spectacle. So the whole research project (and here I include Screen and the ex-members of Theoretical Practice together) came to a grinding halt in the late 1970s as it theoretically imploded.

Then, as if to rub home the fact that we had been barking up the wrong tree, neo-liberalism suddenly revealed itself as the dominant ideology.

I have no memory of discussing this with Paul – partly no doubt because all this is much clearer a quarter of a century later and partly because I moved to Scotland and then into full-time film production and I can’t remember seeing him all that much. But a network, importantly including Griffith University in Australia, was established. Mark Cousins, who had been a friend of mine since undergraduate days, became a close friend of Paul and I certainly didn’t feel out of touch.

I did not, however, follow his transformation into signatory of Charter88 and author of After Thatcher. In particular I never had the argument with him about Marxism. Althusser provided a highly Leninised Marx. Getting rid of Lenin was nothing but an advantage – that horrific fantasy in which the party occupied the position of knowledge – but Marx’s economic analyses seemed more and more pertinent. Whenever I said this to Paul he just growled, but it must be said that one of his few intellectual blind spots was an irrational hatred of academic economics – in particular he never seemed to engage at all with Keynes.

We became close again right at the end of the 1980s. I remember being asked to set up postgarduate degrees at the British Film Institute in London and walking straight across Bedford Square to his room in Gower Street. It was he who guided me through the establishment of an MA in 1992 and then over a series of dinners with Mark Cousins of the Architectural Association and a little later with Dick Humphrys of the Tate Gallery we came up with the idea of the London Consortium.

We were all incredibly disillusioned with those academic developments which had transformed those thinkers we had found so exciting two decades earlier into academic fossils. We imagined doctorates developed in close relation to artistic practice and exhibition which would deal with live rather than dead ideas. I certainly felt, and I think that Paul felt too, that we wanted to provide to others the opportunity that we had had to experience the genuine excitement of joyful knowledge (an experience now rigorously excluded from the British university system).

Planning the courses and putting the administration in place with Paul was a treat – he had a very sharp adminstrative mind in addition to his other skills. But the great pleasure for me was the autumn term where we would see all the students (and last year there were nearly sixty) together. It was in these meetings that I realised quite how widely and well read Paul was. He would reach into his intellectual sack and display all these goodies, his eyes twinkling. Each text would be given a brief summary and placed in an intellectual tradition and if the student did not react to that then the hand would go into the sack and out would come another treasure. All this commented on with both wit and humour.

To sit with Paul in those meetings was a real privilege. It is true that one had to brace oneself for the hourly explosion where Paul would rail at some benighted ignoramus of a politician or thinker and subject him to the full force of his cloacal imagination, but even these outbursts had something heroic about them.

He was not without faults. If you had a real argument about some bureaucratic strategy and you really won then he simply ignored this. It would only be after about the fifth bout that he would admit that it was a fair cop. He always did this with such charm that one forgot how irritated one had been.

He also had something of the autodidact about him in that he was very unwilling to admit that there was any worthwhile field of knowledge which he did not command. Economics was one example of this, analytic philosophy another.

But these were minor foibles. He was a great and loyal friend and a dedicated and inspiring teacher. He was also devoted to his family, and family holidays and expeditions were high points of his year. He was a completely instinctive democrat who treated everybody equally, and he was as loved by Birkbeck staff as he was by the faculty and students.

I had lunch with Paul and the new Master of Birkbeck two days before his stroke. It was a happy fate that meant that after the lunch was over we both had time to drink another glass of wine and wander back to his office talking of this and that.

Paul was in tremendous form – he had just been asked to be Vice-Master in charge of teaching and he was obviously delighted to be so honoured by the institution in which he’d spent his life. But it was also a major political task. To preserve any genuine undergraduate teaching in the face of a government determined to turn the first three years of university into an extension of secondary school is going to be a real struggle in the years to come.

If he was looking forward to that, he was also looking back with a deserved sense of achievement on his eight years as founding director of the Consortium. It was he who had recruited all the students and it was he who provided the one fixed and unyielding star in the ever-changing firmament of the Consortium with its four institutions and scattered teachers.

It was typical of Paul that he was particularly delighted by the fact that he had just had a very vigorous feedback session with the first-year students. Paul believed above all in the virtues of argument and criticism. A student meeting which just said how wonderful things were would have disappointed him, a student meeting at which students moaned in an infantilised way would have saddened and irritated him, but a student meeting which said how wonderful the course was and then proceeded to suggest improvements with a remorseless and implacable logic – that delighted him.

I only realised that Paul was Jewish about a year ago when he referred to himself, to my then surprise, as Jewish. He was such a quintessentially English character that it was a bit surprising that he was not of Anglo-Saxon stock. But it is difficult to imagine an Anglo-Saxon with quite so much of the Jewish mother about them – so that fitted. He was always extraordinarily solicitous – were you fed, were you wrapped up warm, would you be careful crossing the road.

This maternal care was lavished freely but above all on his students. He really did love them and what was both surprising and admirable was that he loved them all. He cared just as much about his weak as his strong students. Not simply that he would give them as much time and attention but, more admirably, that he was just as interested in their ideas and opinions.

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