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. …