Barry Hindess

Mathematician transformed into renowned social theorist

Barry Hindess, who was born in Hertfordshire on 11th July 1939, appeared to be heading for a noteworthy career as a mathematician until, in his early twenties, his socialist ideals made him leap into sociology. When he died on 19th May 2018, he was an Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, Canberra, with a world-wide influence and respect.

At Alleyne's Grammar School, in Stevenage, he excelled in maths and his teacher in the sixth form admitted to his parents that he had no knowledge left to pass on to Barry and could only point him to alternative sources of study. He gained entry to St Catherine's Society, in Oxford (this was the period immediately before it transitioned into a full-blooded college), where he gained a first class honours degree in mathematics and, logically, began working for a doctorate. There can be little doubt that he could have gone on to become a distinguished academic in this discipline, on the world stage. But a year into the research for his second degree, and to the surprise of his family and friends, he moved to Liverpool University to read sociology. Oxford may have been disappointed that it would no longer be able to claim credit for producing a distinguished mathematician, but it should take solace that it provided the nutrients to ferment a deep and lasting interest in politics and sociology, that would lead to a distinguished career in another discipline. Barry thrived at Liverpool and his MA and PhD there were followed by teaching posts at Leicester and London before he returned to a professorship in Liverpool.

During the early to mid-1970s Barry began to pursue important theoretical work on Marxist political and economic thought, in part through his engagement with the works of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. This was a period of intense collaboration, centrally with his former student Paul Q. Hirst, but also with Athar Hussain and Tony Cutler. This group had formed around the short-lived journal Theoretical Practice, but then produced a number of major works, including Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production and Mode of Production and Social Formation (both with Hirst), and Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today (by Cutler, Hindess, Hirst and Hussain).

The work produced during this period was highly controversial, especially among the academic left. Writers associated with the New Left Review—E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson and others—were particularly hostile to the duo ‘Hindess and Hirst’, publishing many scathing attacks on them. Perhaps this febrile and factionalised response led Barry to look for greener intellectual pastures, beyond theoretical Marxism and eventually beyond England, in fact, in Australia.

Barry began visiting Australia in the mid-1980s. Like his collaborator Paul Hirst and a series of other UK intellectuals—Colin MacCabe, Graham Burchell, Beverly Brown and Colin Gordon—Barry’s path to Australia was facilitated by the ‘Forms of Communication’ group at Griffith University in Brisbane. And this in turn led to his appointment to the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.  

Many doubted that this move would be a good fit. How wrong could they have been? The research professorship at the Australian National University allowed Barry much more time to pursue his main interests. Not that he ceased to encourage and mentor others, in which role he gained much respect and many lifelong friendships. He also met the anthropologist Christine Helliwell and they were to enjoy 29 years together. Their house in Reid, with Christine’s extensive garden (and a series of adored cats), became a place of happiness and hospitality. It was also where he and Christine were to write extensively together, including on race and time, on imperialism and on ‘the theory of society’.

In these years, Barry's output was prolific with books and research papers often written in collaboration with former students. His work shifted away from that earlier engagement with Marxism to a sympathetic and very productive dialogue with Foucault.  This addressed liberal forms of power and the market, resulting in a series of important publications that included Discourses on Power: from Hobbes to Foucault in 1996 and the edited collection (with Mitchell Dean) on Governing Australia: Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government in 1998. By 2011, R.B.J. Walker, introducing a special issue of Alternatives on Barry’s work, would describe him as ‘one of the most significant but underappreciated voices shaping social and political theory for more than three decades.’

In later years, Barry suffered from a number of health problems, which became increasingly debilitating. Firstly, a congenital heart problem was discovered. The surgery for this ultimately became the inadvertent cause of a stroke and then a particularly vicious skin cancer launched an attack on an already weakened victim. Barry accepted all this with amazing stoicism and, typically, played down his problems to those more distant friends, who couldn't witness the reality for themselves. Throughout all this, his intellectual prowess was undiminished, and though his written output gradually diminished, he joined public dialogue with blogs on Australia’s detention of refugees and treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, about political corruption and in defence of politics ‘when there is so much political work to be done’. In this respect, and with academic exchanges, he was active right up to his final days. The end when it came was sudden and peaceful, with his beloved Christine at his bedside, holding his hand.

Barry leaves behind many acquaintances, colleagues, and loving friends who will miss his rationality, integrity, support and, above all, friendship. Barry supervised around 60 doctoral students, and it is noteworthy that many of them attended his funeral, testifying to a lasting legacy that was both highly intellectual and very personal. He will be remembered as one of the most important intellectuals of his era, widely and highly regarded in the western academic world as a leading social and political theorist. But perhaps the defining paradox of Barry was his combination of acute intelligence and gentle nature.