Remembering a younger Paul Hirst, and beyond

A tribute to an intellectual mentor and great friend to openDemocracy.

Martin Weegmann
25 July 2014

Like many, I assembled a gallery of late-, or post-adolescent heroes, replacing the school ones, philosophers (Nietzsche) and guitarists (Jan Akkerman, Ritchie Blackmore).

Having stumbled across Louis Althusser during my first term at Sussex University (1976) I was enthralled by the promise of a new position, 'sophisticated Marxism'; so much more politically and personally reassuring than its 'vulgar' alternatives.  I read Reading Capital earnestly, and that long before tackling Marx's Capital itself, at least Volume 1, although my progress on the latter was slow.

But no sooner had I fallen in love with Althusser's 'critiques', 'symptomatic readings', 'problematics' (using the French form, problematiques, in my essays),  'levels', 'structural causality' and those curious instruments called 'ideological state apparatuses' (some of which were to be found blocking corridors at Sussex, such as its 'non-political' psychology staff), but I was alerted to two fellows who were not only the 'English Althusserians' but who in applying a symptomatic reading to Althusser himself were already moving beyond his body of concepts; this 'beyond' aspect was expressed well by a like-minded comrade who claimed they were 'streets ahead' of all others.

Who would not wish to be associated with their company, I felt? Their hallowed names - Hindess and Hirst - forever coupled (well at least until around 1980 by which time their intellectual marriage petered out; Barry Hindess moving to Australia in the mid 80's) - were among the intellectuals I quoted most in my essays (including the psychology ones).

Attracted by their seeming rigour, further critiques (indeed one of their  books had in its intriguing subtitle the term 'auto-critique') and logical argumentation, I hunted down everything they had ever written and fair consumed their talks, including one summer spent wading through the obtuse journal,Theoretical Practice and sitting mind-struck in the front row of their lectures at the Communist University of London; the lectures invariably descended into angry exchanges with far Left detractors in the audience. Paul became my favourite of the two, probably on the profound grounds of style, relatively younger age and hair-cut (was it modelled  on Lacan's for a while?). Never was an edition of Economy & Society so underlined as Paul's brilliant interrogation, Althusser and the Theory of Ideology (1976), which begins with the delightfully assertive announcement that Athusser's theory had transformed "a virtually moribund region of Marxist theory".

Looking back, I felt a leg-shaking awe when I was first introduced to him at Sussex in late 1976. I cannot recall the content of his talk, but will always remember his manner, one of brilliant, combative argumentation. He did not suffer fools and dispatched arguments like missiles. His rhetoric was peppered with words like 'serious', or of those whose positions he was in disagreement with, 'absurd'; in a device which I heard him using more than once, he began by saying he would address a 'hypothetical doubting subject'. Advanced (of course) militancy of the intellect is how I described it.

Call it mimesis, but their lexicon soon became mine. I too became resolutely 'anti- reductionist', 'anti-essentialist' and disapproved of all trace of 'teleology'; in one of my essays I wrote off most of psychology as a manifestation of all three sins!  And woe betide any lecturer who used 'empirical' approaches. Unfortunately, given my interest in the subject, history was out, for somewhat mystical reasons,  replaced by their polemical insistence on analysis of, using the odd expression (with a nod to Lenin?),  'current conjunctures'.

By the late 70's Paul and his collaborators (playfully or critically dubbed the 'gang of four'- he, together with Hindess, Tony Cutler and Athar Hussein) published what soon felt like their final, double-volume exposition, Marx's Capital & Capitalism Today.  We, in the Communist Party at Sussex organised a conference about the book, pulling a good crowd, which they, Paul and Barry attended, side-by-side with intellectual lieutenant Keith Tribe (now a Professor, and Weber expert, at Sussex), with one lonely critic, a budding Communist Party economist, Michael Bleaney (later a Professor at Nottingham), who, from my then point of view, was demolished within minutes. Having re-discovered Bleaney's book review from '78, I was amused all over again by his comments on the book, that "clothes its ideas in a dense verbal jungle" and is of little use to the "revolutionary theorist"! 

After the high of the conference, and by the time volume 2 was published, my identification with Marxism was stretched to a thin film and so I took to scouring Paul's footnotes and asides for something of more interest, including his all too brief references to psychoanalysis and Foucault. By then, his/their writing had become too formalistic for me, which, with endless deconstructions of 'relative autonomy' and insistence on 'no necessary correspondence', soon evaporated after reading.        

Eras close, people change and Paul certainly moved on. After the 70's, I did not follow all his diverse achievements, and neither did I ever study formally with him, but he was a friendly and encouraging acquaintance. We had some stimulating lunch times and, by that time less nervous on my part, I gained more of an impression of him as a person - passionate, witty, sensitive perhaps. He once took a call from his wife Penny, when his son was a baby, and, hearing him give advice, I glimpsed him rising to the joys and challenges of parenthood.  

In another revealing comment, he said that he no longer tried to 'keep up with everything'. Curiously, in letting go of omnipotent aspirations, he seemed able to better enjoy and develop his undoubted talents; maybe being a dad helped even more. I loved his humour, especially when directed at favourite targets, such as E.P. Thompson, who took the English Althusserians head-on in a fun-poking tome entitled The Poverty of Theory. Paul launched a biting counter-demolition. Had they been even more famous, it would have been the stuff of a fine Punch magazine cartoon.

But that really was the tail end of their Marxist, deconstructive project. I had no idea and was curious about what they would do in the absence of the animations of controversy within western Marxism.

I did not keep up with all his work, indeed, am still aiming to read some of  them. But one book which stands out for me is Social Relations & Human Attributes (1982), co-authored with Penny Woolley. It has but one, passing reference to Marxism, and although Althusser gets a tad more, gone is his prominence as bright(-est) star in the intellectual universe, now shared with several hundred others.

It is a remarkably wide-ranging, inter-disciplinary work, certainly one that subverts normal disciplinary turf, and touches upon subjects not seen together, until then, including: socio-biology, evolution of neolithic man, training and comportment of the body, feral children and noble savages, anti- and trans-cultural psychiatry, the Jones-Malinowski debate, Foucault-Goffman contrasts, Early Modern witchcraft, Azande sorcery, the reformation and theories of relativity and rationality. Hurray, I thought, history was back! Tour de force or what?  These were not random subjects, but were imaginatively woven around their central thesis concerning the variability, yet limits and cultural formation of human subjectivity. It occurred to me that the authors must have undertaken enormous research to achieve this book, much of which on Paul’s part, would have taken place during his extended excursions into Marxist theory. A whole other Paul Hirst burst forth for me, and not for the last time.

The final book that I shall note is the posthumous publication, Power and Space, an inspiring compilation on architecture, war and the allied discourses of space. Here, in a sense, all those years later was yet another instance of the detailed fleshing out of ideas that Paul may have hinted at in marginal notes many years earlier. In the words of the cover note, "It is typical of Hirst's ability to make inspirational leaps across theoretical and disciplinary boundaries, critically combining insights from social theory, politics, history and geography".

All in all, Paul kept moving, surprising if not outwitting his readers. He endeavoured to remain relevant and innovative, and was very much his own person. Like Graham Thompson, another collaborator, I too admired his 'principled scepticism'.  Paradoxically, given his starting point, the more finely empirical his work was, the more interesting and varied it became. And, from once having idealised 'theory' almost as an end in itself, he was able to use it, in a true pragmatist's spirit, with much more of a 'light touch'. Thank you Paul.   

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