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New Left Review I/159, September-October 1986

Gregory Elliott

The Odyssey of Paul Hirst

Over the last decade and a half, widespread shifts have occurred within Britain’s Left intelligentsia, in a complex series of changes, with many cross-currents—making for an intellectual and political scene today very different from that of the early 70’s. Some of these changes have been challenging and radicalizing: most obviously, the rise of a new and confident feminism. Others have been involutionary, or retrogressive—trends that might be summarized as the transition from subscription to some variant of Marxism and commitment to revolutionary socialism, in one form or another (accompanied by the normal correlate: rejection of the local representatives of social democracy) to thorough-going theoretical renunciations and pronounced political moderatism (predictably accompanied by reorientation to the centre and right of the Labour Party and disdain for its supposedly ‘hard left’). The figure of Paul Hirst, Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck College, sometime editor of three journals, frequent contributor to others as well as to numerous collections, author or co-author of eight books, occupies a prominent yet particular position within this latter constellation. His has been in many ways an exemplary career, typical of the trajectory of not a few of his generation, yet also preceding or exaggerating more general alterations of outlook and disposition. Although maî tre d’école of a ‘discourse theory’ that has established certain bridge-heads in a number of academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology, cultural and media studies) and mainstream publishers’ lists, it is less breadth of influence than sharpness of stance that distinguishes Hirst’s postures today. His novelty is the alacrity and ruthlessness with which he has settled accounts with his erstwhile theoretico-political consciousness—to the extent of pioneering much of the current commonsense of Marxism Today and its cousins well before it was in full vogue, yet moving further to the right even as others were coming round to what were once his somewhat rarefied revisions. Paul Hirst is not the, or even an, éminence grise of that contemporary English hybrid, Eurolabourism; but he is one of the unsung heroes of the de- and re-alignment of Communist, Labour and independent Marxist intellectuals, whose theoretical contribution to such transformations warrants some retracing, however selective. [*] I am grateful to Sarah Baxter and John Taylor for their help with this article; needless to say, neitherbears any responsibility for the end-product.

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