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Paul Hirst (1947–2003) was a British sociologist and political theorist. He became Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck, University of London.
He studied at the University of Leicester and the University of Sussex before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck College in 1969. In 1972, he was one of the founding members of the Department of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck.
During the 1970s he became well known (along with Barry Hindess) as the main figure in British Althusserianism. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Hirst became a critic of Althusser's brand of Marxism. Drawing upon Foucault but also Quine and Wittgenstein, they criticised essentialism, epistemological discourses and the possibility of any general theory, in a move against careless sociological constructionist imperialism. In his work on democratic governance, he turned towards the ideas of the English political pluralists: J. N. Figgis, G. D. H. Cole, and Harold Laski. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hirst developed a theory of associationalism which attempted to revive social democracy by providing an alternative to state socialism and free-market liberalism. He also made important contributions to critical legal theory.
His later work, with Grahame Thompson resulted in an influential criticism of fashionable theories of economic globalisation, demonstrating the continued importance of the nation-state. His book 'War and Power' is a historical-sociological analysis of the development of the modern state and state system and addresses some of current political challenges including climate change. His last book 'Space and Power' clearly demonstrated his intellectual scope. In the book he investigates the relationship between space and power, arguing that the exercise of power is both constrained by and shapes the character of the built environment.
With Mark Cousins, Colin MacCabe, and Richard Humphreys, he founded the London Consortium in 1993. He chaired the Executive Committee of Charter 88 and was an early and regular contributor to openDemocracy.
- Hirst, P. and Hindess, B. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
- Hirst, P. On Law and Ideology. London: MacMillan, 1979.
- Hirst, P. and Woolley, P. Social Relations and Human Attributes. London: Routledge, 1982.
- Hirst, P. Law, Socialism and Democracy. London: Harper Collins, 1986.
- Hirst, P. “Carl Schmitt's Decisionism”. Telos 72 (Summer 1987). New York: Telos Press.
- Hirst, P. Representative Democracy and its Limits. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.
- Hirst, P. Associative Democracy. Cambridge: Polity, 1993.
- Hirst, P. From Statism to Pluralism. London: UCL Press, 1997.
- Hirst, P. and Thompson, G. Globalisation in Question. Cambridge: Polity, 1999.
- Hirst, P. War and Power in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.
- Hirst, P. Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.
- Cotterrell, Roger "Paul Hirst (1946-2003)", Socio-Legal Newsletter No. 41, Winter 2003, pp. 6–7.