The Death and Life of Paul Hirst

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
18 June 2003

This article was written immediately after Paul's death. It is followed by the eulogy Anthony gave at Paul’s funeral on 30 June 2003.

In Bed 3 of the intensive care unit of London’s Middlesex Hospital, Paul Hirst lies unconscious, after a massive brain haemorrhage had struck him down. On Monday afternoon, 16 June, less than two days after the attack, doctors confirm that his brain stem has ceased to function.


Paul Hirst, 1947–2003

That morning, I had run my hand through his hair, stroking the head of the friend of a lifetime. He looked peaceful and I willed him to stir, prove everyone wrong, and wave away the tubes with a characteristic sweep of the arm.

Insulin and adrenalin from the life-support system were keeping his heart going, as the monitor showed clearly. His breathing was regular and strong. All of his vital organs remained functioning – except for the most magnificent of them all, his brain.

Earlier in the day, there had been slight signs that he was breathing for himself. Now, the nurse raises his eyelids in turn and flashes a small spotlight across his retina to see if there is a trace of movement. I watch as a large, familiar brown eye, surprisingly bright in the beam, stares out, unmoving. I’m glad to see it. It is the moment I know for myself he is dead. It is the smallest consolation to think that its cornea may now be helping someone else’s eyesight.

Paul’s wife, Penny, agreed to this with the fit-looking registrar of donor organ transfers, who was straight out of a Pedro Almodovar film, her hair a colour only the latest hairdressing can deliver. In the small waiting-room, she carefully listed for us each of the organs that could be used to help, or to save, other lives. Paul, always pragmatic, would have told her just to take everything and get on with it. But it was done properly, with consideration, as Penny, sleepless and in shock, confirmed that she wanted this to happen and to be told if anyone had been helped.

Later that evening, Paul was taken down to the operating theatre, after suitable recipients had been identified. His heart beats on.

At this moment I can’t say anything about him. He is still alive in me. This is just a note about three things he did for openDemocracy. They show how important he was for a project finding its way.

Globalisation: the Hirst/Held debate

In the early 1990s Paul had realised that ‘globalisation’ was being used as a ‘boo’ word. Most obviously by the anti-globalisers, with whom he had no patience – he saw them as self-indulgent, frightening no one but themselves with an alarmism that was gullible rather than earned. But Paul saw that ‘globalisation’ had also become a ‘boo’ word of a different kind, deployed by the advocates of neo-liberalism – people he termed ‘hyper-globalisers’ – who delighted in what they saw as the necessary destruction of government by the forces of the global market. These he regarded as worthy opponents, whose influence made them dangerous.

In Globalisation in Question (1996), Paul and his colleague Grahame Thompson directly challenged the neo-liberals. They agreed that the economic forces unlocked by ‘globalisation’ after the cold war were changing the world economy – but in a manner entirely recognisable in terms of the history of capitalism, and in ways that could and should be subject to regulation. The final decades of the 20th century were not liquidating but reinforcing the need for national politics and government.

Paul was not, of course, a defender of traditional nation-state administration and bureaucracy. Perhaps one reason why he wanted to repudiate the hyper-globalisers was to advance his own ideals of how the operation of classical state power could be improved. He had begun to elaborate these in Associative Democracy (1994), a book he dedicated to his beloved son Jamie. In it he argued that ‘associationism’ could bring the political benefits of economic liberalism, but without its huge costs and inequalities, ‘extending governance without big government’.

From the start of openDemocracy in 2001, we wanted to debate the nature, role and potential of globalisation and how it might be governed. This proved harder than expected. Maria Livanos Cattaui of the International Chamber of Commerce gave us an exceptionally clear and original account of how globalisation should work. Peter Sutherland, who founded the World Trade Organisation and is Chairman of BP, discussed his view of globalisation with Shirley Williams. George Monbiot rehearsed his arguments with Caspar Henderson. But neither ‘side’ really engaged with the actual arguments of the other.

As a conclusion to the series, I asked Paul to discuss the issues with David Held. David’s book Global Transformations (written with Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt and Jonathan Perraton) had embraced the Hirst / Thompson critique of the ‘hyper-globalisers’. But it also insisted that profound shifts in the framework of world affairs associated with globalisation stretch much further than trade and finance and are changing history in fundamental ways.

In January 2002, a wonderful discussion – serious, focused, educative – resulted. Hirst / Held on globalisation begins with the origins of international trade and concludes with a clash over the feasibility of world government. We ran it in five parts across a week. It has since been printed out over 20,000 times to become a standard text for students.

It was from assessing the success of the Hirst/Held debate that we developed the concept of ‘contested exchange’ – in which the emphasis is more on the need for exchange than on contest. It has become a model for our editorial policy.

Israel and Palestine: a new way of seeing

Paul was a polymath. His range of interests was extremely wide, and he pursued them all with staggering thoroughness. From his base at Birkbeck College where he was a professor of social theory, he helped create the London Consortium for interdisciplinary post-graduate degrees, in alliance with the Architectural Association, Tate Modern and Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Paul had a special interest in the role of space in military affairs. Talking to me in February 2002 about the kind of students who were attracted to the Consortium, he mentioned an Israeli architect who had used his military training to fly over the West Bank and photograph the settlements; he had just applied to write a PhD thesis on Israel’s vertical occupation of Palestine.

Paul was describing a project that would take some years to publish. We agreed that its urgency and originality lent it immediate potential. Eyal Weizman swiftly found himself making a presentation in the openDemocracy office. The extraordinary series of articles which followed on The Politics of Verticality not only offered a startlingly new, and true, perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict; it helped us grasp our potential as a medium able to deliver a three-dimensional understanding. The web, we learned, has a capacity for illustrated mapping that neither paper, film nor television can rival.

Law, market and state: The Shield of Achilles

In November 2002, we had the opportunity to interview Philip Bobbitt, whose The Shield of Achilles had just been published. We felt that it deserved a review-essay to describe and situate this major, 800-page historical study of the role of law, the market and the state. Paul had a rule that he would never review any book unless he had read every page. He complained cheerfully when I even insisted he buy the book as well as read it. He registered its extensive argument, laying out its merits, as he saw them, and disagreeing strongly with its thesis on ‘the market state’, before joining Philip Bobbitt around the table for discussion.

There is one passage of Paul’s review that I look back on now, with apprehension. “Bobbitt’s book”, Paul wrote, “reminds us that, for all America’s apparent insularity, books of this quality and seriousness about foreign affairs are only written in the USA. The USA is the architect and guardian of the current international order, and it does continue to produce a real intellectual debate on the future of foreign policy.”

This is – was – typical of Paul. Not just the recognition of quality and seriousness in those with whom he disagreed, but his insistence in attending to the uncomfortable. Most British reviewers sought to patronise Bobbitt, Paul made the acutely reverse point about the shallow inadequacy and lack of historical depth to strategic thinking across the Atlantic. He saluted the American mind when, in Britain as elsewhere, this is unfashionable. Alas, he was one of the very few non-Americans whom we could draw on, to take a full measure of American thinking at its best.

Learning to live

Those at openDemocracy who did not know it before learned that Paul Hirst was inexhaustive. He also wrote for the site about Iraq, The West Wing and US politics, and the Third Way. In all this, his key contribution to our evolving character is about the nature of effective debate as embodied in his dialogues with David Held and Philip Bobbitt.

Everyone is aware of the narcissism of small differences and the peculiar language that bedevils academic exchange. But nor do the gladiatorial duels between ‘two opposing views’ so beloved of the media torrent spread much enlightenment.

Paul Hirst’s example helped teach openDemocracy that the most creative arguments are those between people who share enough in common to want to explore the nature of their differences. What is needed is discussion between those who respect the positions of others – and thus want to argue their own, not to ensure the applause of their followers, but to communicate what might be false and what true, and why. An exercise that involves listening – and Paul knew how to listen.

Paul Hirst’s intellect and spirit – engaged, committed and generous – helped openDemocracy discover its form and realise the quality and range of discussion we want to publish. In him we found, and have now lost, one of our founding intellects. May its heart beat on.

Please feel free to send us your thoughts and commemorations of Paul Hirst to [email protected].

Funeral Oration for Paul Hirst 30 June 2003

I first met Paul at Leicester University in 1966. I last spoke with him two days before he died.

Penny has asked me to talk about the public Paul and especially his work with Charter 88.

I’ll be combative. In his honour please let me take the fight to the enemy. He was a great man. Why isn’t his greatness better recognised?

The fault lies in Britain.

So, I’m also going to say something about why Britain wasn’t good enough for Paul.

Let’s start with the whole man. Paul was outstandingly generous, committed and hard-working. At the core of his politics was a wonderful sense of inter-connectedness, rooted, I should add, in the positive influence of his early Marxism, which was dedicated to understanding ‘the totality’

Paul, took pride in being ruthless in his assessment of the present. But never as a pessimist. Some mistook him as a pessimist because he could be bleak in his assessments. It was the opposite. For him, he took delight in utter realism as the only practical starting point for seeing how to move forward in a way that is just and effective.

As Grahame Thompson has said, Paul was exceptionally committed to ‘imagining the future’.


We live in a country whose political class and institutions are dedicated to imagining how to improve… the past.

Realism in British public life means being committed to ensuring that things don’t really change. It is indeed a pessimism – the odious pessimism of the willed complacency of believing in yesterday.

Think of the House of Commons. The Monarchy. The honours system. Think of Oxford and Cambridge. The Guardian. That political culture. Their ‘realism’

Paul would have none of it. As a boy he refused to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. (Indeed he saw, rightly, that Leicester could be intellectual platform for the future as Oxbridge could not.). As a man he gave up reading the Guardian for the Financial Times.

His was a realism of the future.

Hence his commitment to Charter 88.

He joined its executive when it began and was its Chair from 1998 to today.

Think about it the way that he did: as a European process. Britain can become a fairer, more effective society, if we codify and democratise our sovereignty: introduce proportional representation, which he regarded as the one reform needed above all others, and rid ourselves of a system obsessed with its royal prerogatives. In two words: grow up.

It can be done. After all, it is happening across Europe from Ireland to Poland. This Europeanising modernisation is not a modernisation so as to update the past –which Britain is so good at. It seeks political change that catches up with the present. Realism of the present here in Britain means imaging a different future.

John Smith got it when he was Labour leader. Tony Blair advocated it… before 1997.

Then Blair chose the legacy of Thatcher-style: ‘Lets show the world that we can still lead’ – the fatal vanity of British power.

It meant long hard years for the larger cause of reform in Britain.

Paul held Charter 88 together through this unforgiving period. He encouraged the practical achievements of the two Directors whose appointments he was proud to oversee – Pam Giddy and then Karen Bartlett – always supporting commitment to the larger picture, as well as anything that got up the nose of the authorities.

He did something huge for the public good, doggedly all through the time when the cause was unfashionable.

Now, it may be coming back. In our last conversation we discussed the possible timing for a new charter or manifesto, as the Government delivered yet another bizarre blow to the old regime.

At the same time, unlike many of us in Charter 88, Paul was a member of the Labour Party – a social democrat who also rolled up his sleeves on economic and social policies, providing a steady stream of work to the journal Renewal.

And he dedicated his formidable capacity for research and writing to the nature of globalisation and the future of war.

All this was coming together: rarely can an intellectual have been better prepared to become a major influence on a nation’s public life, or for its society to need his influence.

This is what we have just lost.

* * * *

I want to add something personal.

Preparing this I realised that somewhere in me I had assumed Paul would speak at my funeral, not me at his.

He was – is – part of the ground on which I stand, the landscape in which I work, the horizon, where I look ahead to see what might happen, delighting in his eruptions.

And he took the strain without deceit or taking short cuts.

As someone often attracted to short-cuts, I needed him. I think others also held onto him as a reality check. This too is a form of love.

If I tell you that I always expected him to be around, then, this is not because he was predictable, but because his surprising, challenging attitude kept me alert. Yes, I expected him to be around but he was always unexpected.

They say about some people that if they did not exist it would be necessary to invent them.

This was not true of Paul.

It would have been impossible to have invented him!

But having lost him, he has become achingly necessary.

It is too heartbreaking to say ‘goodbye Paul’. I still refuse to do it. We can only say thank you for having existed and having so enlarged our lives.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData