Professor Paul Hirst

Political thinker of radical scepticism and Chairman of Charter 88
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The Independent Online

Paul Quentin Hirst, social theorist and teacher: born Holberton, Devon 20 May 1946; Lecturer in Sociology, Birkbeck College, London 1969-78, Reader in Sociology 1978-85, Professor of Social Theory 1985-2003; Academic Director, London Consortium 1995-2003; Chairman, Charter 88 1998-2003; married 1981 Penelope Woolley (one son); died London 16 June 2003.

Paul Hirst 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 Seventies 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 Charter 88, 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 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.

Hirst's father was in the RAF and his childhood was spent moving from one military base to another including time in Germany. This led to a ragged schooling and, at least by Hirst's account, a positively feral childhood. By the time that the family returned to Plymouth and he began attending the local grammar school his nonconformism had very deep roots.

His undergraduate degree was in Sociology at Leicester, undoubtedly then one of the best schools of sociology in the country. There his teachers included Barry Hindess, Tony Giddens, Sami Zubaida and the incomparable Norbert Elias. From Leicester and a first class degree Hirst moved to Sussex to begin postgraduate work with Tom Bottomore but, within a year, Sami Zubaida, who had moved to Birkbeck College, London, had persuaded Hirst to accept a lectureship there at the young age of 23.

He remained at Birkbeck for the rest of his life, and to hold a number of important administrative posts. There can be no doubting his commitment to the ethos of adult education and democratic learning and no offer from home or abroad could shift him from his beloved Birkbeck.

As a student in the late Sixties Hirst is remembered at Sussex as a kaftan-wearing hippie but the move to London coincided with a deepening interest in the work of Louis Althusser and Hirst, together with a small group of other sociologists, many with a strong Leicester link, pursued Althusser and Michel Foucault's research programme with a thoroughness unmatched either in France or, indeed, anywhere else in the world.

Initially organised around a small magazine called Theoretical Practice and then in a series of books co-authored with others - most notably Barry Hindess (Hindess and Hirst became a proper name for a time) but also Athar Hussain and Tony Cutler - Hirst subjected Althusserian Marxism to the most thorough-going and finally lethal conceptual interrogation.

Althusser went early as Hirst demonstrated the incoherence of the "relative autonomy" of the ideological: either the ideological was autonomous or it was not. But this was simply a prelude to a merciless analysis of the most fundamental categories of Marxism. To take merely one example: the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure made no sense when the notion of property crucial to that economic base could not be defined without recourse to the ideological field of law.

Of the many books published in this period one might single out Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975, with Hindess) and Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today (1978, with Cutler, Hindess and Hussain).

By the end of the Seventies Hirst's radical scepticism had earned him the honour of attacks from Marxist elders as various as E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson. But Hirst himself had moved on. In 1969 he has been appointed to teach within a psychology department and, although by 1972 he had become a founding member of a new Department of Politics at Birkbeck of which Bernard Crick was the first chair, the problems of teaching psychology students had led him to develop startlingly original courses looking at the intersection of the social and biological.

In the summer of 1976 he met Penny Woolley, who had much the same teaching assignments at Hatfield Polytechnic. Their romance blossomed and their son, Jamie, was born in 1981 just before the publication of their book Social Relations and Human Attributes in 1982. Although it was possible to see traces of both Foucault and Althusser in this book, particularly in a refusal to understand the individual self as a conceptual starting point, there was now a much more wide-ranging and eclectic approach to the variety of social and biological elements which constituted the individual.

If Hirst had abandoned Althusserian Marxism by the end of the Seventies he remained committed to politics. His early Maoism had two continuing emphases - the first was on the global nature of politics and economics, the second an emphasis on local democratic forms. He was thus extremely sceptical of the notion that globalisation was a new phenomenon or that it was likely in any conceivable future to challenge the power of nation states. His extremely influential book Globalisation in Question (1996, co-authored with Grahame Thompson) emphasised both the long history of globalisation and the enormous power of nation states, power which has intensified since 11 September 2001. The overall thrust of this work - particularly his more recent analysis of the future of war - is extraordinarily pessimistic.

But this was not at all part of Hirst's personal make-up. And his optimistic nature found expression in the rediscovery of one of the strands of early British socialism - associationism. Associationism, with which the names of both Harold Laski and G.D.H. Cole are linked, grounds decision-making at the lowest possible level and develops an egalitarian society by producing a host of pluralistic and decentralised associations which will balance and challenge the power of local government. It is significant that Hirst dedicated his major book on this subject, Associative Democracy (1994), subtitled "New Forms of Economic and Social Governance", to his beloved son Jamie. For those who look forward to a post-Blair politics this will be a major resource.

By 1985 Hirst had been appointed to the Chair of Social Theory at Birkbeck, but the following years were marked as much by his commitment to practical politics. In particular he was a founder signatory of Charter 88, a forum which allowed someone of real intellectual integrity to advance a practical political programme of democratic reform. In 1998 he became chair of its Executive Committee, of which he had already been vice-chair for 10 years. Whether it was stuffing envelopes, raising sponsorship or running a sticky finance committee, Hirst found no task too menial without ever losing sight of the most elevated objectives.

He had recently taken great delight in appointing a 28-year-old, Karen Bartlett, as director of the organisation, for he felt it was her generation that would write the obituaries of the Blair government, whose initial democratic reforms he had supported but whose trivial and reckless conduct (exemplified most recently in the abolition of the Lord Chancellor) he had come increasingly to despise.

Hirst had throughout his career pursued a variety of radical educational initiatives, but the most important was the London Consortium which brought together Birkbeck, the Architectural Association, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Tate Gallery to provide postgraduate degrees which linked theory to artistic practice and exhibition. In 1995 he became the founding director of this venture and there is no doubt that it was his incredible commitment both to recruitment and teaching that meant he was due to step down next week and to hand to his successor a thriving and prosperous graduate school of some 60 students drawn from every continent and discipline.

As he was preparing to lay down the fardels of office as Director of the London Consortium, he was about to accept the offer to become Pro-Vice-Master for Teaching at Birkbeck. His disillusion with the Blair government owed much to their determination to drive down academic standards and he would have been the perfect figure to ensure that his college would do everything they could to preserve their remarkable record in adult education.

Paul Hirst was a gargantuan figure, a huge man in every sense of the term, learned, witty, a teacher who was interested in all his students' ideas and counted no sheep unsaveable. His startling intellectual productivity was made possible and rested upon his personal characteristics. He lived public issues as indistinguishable from purely personal feelings and attachments. His generosity and compassion had a militant backbone; his commitment to democratic and egalitarian social relations had its counterpart in his treatment of others.

He was no lover of mystery, but it was a mystery to many how he combined the prolific output of his writing with his ceaseless availability to friends, colleagues, visitors and, above all, to the numberless students who passed through his room without ever waiting at the door.

Mark Cousins and Colin MacCabe