Farewell, Alan

by | 26 Jan 2022

Bruce Curtis, Justin Paulson, John Manwaring, Stacy Douglas, and Jennifer Henderson

farewell, alan

Alan Hunt, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Sociology, chose a medically-assisted death, with Rosalind Allchin, his partner of 42 years, by his side, on 8 December 2021.

Alan Hunt came to Carleton as a visitor in the departments of Law and Sociology and Anthropology in 1988 and was appointed Full Professor in 1989. At age 47, he held an LLB and a Ph.D. from Leeds University and was then Reader in Law at Middlesex University, where he had also been Head of School and Assistant Dean. As Head of School, he ushered in a new generation of scholars, including Barry Wright and Costas Douzinas. With Peter Fitzpatrick, Peter Goodrich, Alan Norrie, Paul Hirst, and others, he organized the first “Critical Legal Studies” conference at the University of Kent in 1985. The conference’s long and prosperous life continues. Throughout the 1980s, he mobilized the work of Evgeny Pashukanis, E.P. Thompson and Antonio Gramsci in a critique of legal formalism and bourgeois democratic law that stands as some of the best critical analyses of law to date.

Before arriving at Carleton, Hunt’s interdisciplinary intellectual curiosity grounded an international reputation, based on such books as The Sociological Movement in Law (1978), Marx and Engels on Law (1979, with Maureen Cain), Critical Legal Studies (1987, with Peter Fitzpatrick), and on a slew of academic articles, from “Perspectives in the Sociology of Law” (Sociological Review, 1975) to 1988’s “Law and the Constitution of Soviet Society” (Law and Society Review, 1988). While he retained an intense interest in law and critical legal theory throughout his career, demonstrated again in Reading Dworkin Critically (1992), Alan’s work took a sharp turn towards cultural theory and historical sociology at the end of the 1980s. As he explained in an autobiographical piece, “Getting Marx and Foucault into Bed Together,” (Jr. Law and Society, 2004), his work was upended by the so-called ‘Foucault challenge’ to Marxism provoked by Michel Foucault’s analyses of the imminent connections of power and knowledge, his critique of ideology, his insistence on the dispersed nature of power, and his focus on the formation of human subjectivities and technologies of the self.

For all the intellectual challenge posed by Foucault’s work, as far as Hunt was concerned he ‘got law wrong,’ seeing in it only narrow assertions of sovereign power and repression. For Hunt, law is normative, constitutive of social relations and an essential element in political governance and its contestation. With Gary Wickham, this analysis grounded Hunt’s Foucault and Law: Towards a sociology of law as governance (1994). But Foucault was right about the dispersed nature of political power and about what he called ‘governmentality’: the intersection of political technologies for the governance of others and technologies for the government of the self. Hunt opposed those in the Anglo-Australian governmentality school who downplayed the significance of state power and administration.

Hunt’s fascination with the historical sociology of government led him to investigate the seemingly arcane subject of sumptuary codes, which he examined in 1996’s Governance of the consuming passions: a history of sumptuary law (whose sumptuous cover was designed and drawn by Rosalind Allchin, the uncredited editor of Hunt’s often chaotic prose here and elsewhere). This work showed the influence of Norbert Elias’s monumental The Civilizing Process, which placed struggles over cultural codes at the heart of European state formation. In contrast to prevailing Marxist analyses of class, Hunt focussed on the role of middle classes in attempting to shape society through practices as seemingly mundane as dress and demeanour aimed first at themselves. 1998’s Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation pushed the analysis further through a focus on the questions raised by the operation of eighteenth century ‘Societies for the Suppression of Vice.’

These book-length projects were complemented by a large corpus of material in the journal literature and in edited collections. Alan was keen collaborator who often took graduate students as co-authors to help them ‘get a leg up.’ The breadth of material here is striking, from the early Canadian social survey movement to the current regulation of adolescent sexual practices, from the early modern police of road traffic to the control of food allergies in the 2000s.

Hunt was a voracious reader and a person who did not suffer fools gladly. Graduate students often found him intellectually intimidating, but that did not prevent him from supervising over 100 M.A. students to completion in Canada and Britain, alongside a significant number of Carleton Ph.D.s.  He left no one indifferent and, after his death, many students have spoken of his life-changing influence. In the more relaxed climate of his times, end of semester parties and pub nights led to intense intellectual debate and discussion. Brought up in English pub culture, Hunt enjoyed his tipple but, unlike most colleagues and students, worked late into the night afterwards. Mornings during term time found him in the University’s Athletic Centre working on weights, spinning, or doing the Master’s Swim—and woe be it to the person dawdling in his lane. He was an avid birder with a huge life-time list and, with Ros, an energetic hiker, experimental cook, and world traveller.

On arriving in Ottawa, Hunt was struck by what he saw as the dearth of intellectual debate and study among the professoriate. In his view, too many colleagues were academics, doing their school work from nine to five on weekdays, not intellectuals for whom scholarship was a vocation. Unlike his experience in England, there were few study and reading groups; no one put the kids to bed and went ‘down the pub’ to carry on. In 1995, shortly after Rosalind joined him in Ottawa, Hunt launched a social theory reading group with some like-minded professors, civil servants and graduate students. He anchored it and hosted it mainly in his living room for 25 years, until the pandemic and his own illness made that impossible in 2020. The group continues and is surely among the oldest of its sort in Canada. Hunt insisted on maintaining its rigid but winning formula: bi-weekly meetings without refreshments; a reading load of about 30 pages per two hour session; close, systematic examination of texts that are selected by consensus or majority vote; alternation between a living and a dead author; a high degree of commitment, civility, and congeniality among members; no grandstanding; and a ‘debauch’ to celebrate the completion of each work (at which some people have been known to drink as much as a whole glass of wine). People have cycled through the group: graduate students moving on after completion; faculty members moving away; others not able or willing to keep up; and some people have been dropped for violations of norms; but others, with Alan, persisted for decades.  The group has been crucial for its members’ scholarly lives outside the classroom and has made it possible for them to take on texts too intimidating to read alone. Participants in the group have published together.

Apart from listing his qualifications, Alan Hunt’s official curriculum vitae concerns only the period after he came to Carleton. One line indicates that he wrote another 75+ pieces, and the Carleton vitae omits some extremely influential contributions to scholarship and political life in Europe and beyond.

Born in London in 1942, Alan Hunt was bombed out and went to live with his grandparents outside the city. His grandfather was working class but upwardly mobile and his father used his army experience to make it into accounting, later working for Barclay’s Bank. The parents were Christian Scientists, whose practices Alan renounced by the time he was ten, and while there were no books in the household, the family gathered on Sundays around their radio to listen to radical voices, such as that of Paul Robeson. Alan patronized the local library and was sufficiently precocious to win a scholarship to a minor public school. He remembered having to fight his way home in the distinctive uniform that marked him as a ‘toff’ in the eyes of his working class peers. In his early teens, Alan was befriended by a local craft worker—an ‘organic intellectual’—in whose house every spare inch was piled with books. Alan gobbled up much of what there was to read and was exposed to political discussion and debate. This experience was influential in drawing him towards political activity, first in the organized movement of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (he marched with Bertrand Russell). When the Communist Party of Great Britain recruited from the CND, Hunt joined in the early 1960s, finding purpose and structure in that organization. As a Sociology and Law student at Leeds University, he became secretary to the National Union of Students and was then active in the Radical Students Alliance organized in 1966. Here he met his comrade Martin Jacques who was elected to the Executive of the CPGB in 1967 and who later edited the Party’s intellectual discussion journal, Marxism Today.

Beginning in 1970, while he was at Manchester Metropolitan University, Hunt used his critical sociology to analyse changing social conditions in Britain and to examine their implications for political strategy. In 1970’s “Class Structure in Britain Today,” for instance, he documented the rise of the white collar ‘salariat’ and the decline of the manual industrial working class championed by the Party. He came close to redefining class in terms of conditions of life: “the majority of the non-manual workers are not separated in their style of life from manual workers to the degree that existed at the turn of the century.” It was key for the CPGB to speak to the situation of these workers. With his first wife, Judith Hunt, he grappled with issues of personal life, sexuality, and family formation in 1974’s “Marxism and the Family,” warning of the dangers of ignoring personal life and emotions: themes that remained a preoccupation through to his contributions to 2011’s Emotions Matter.  This work of the 1970s was decades in advance of sociology’s ‘turn to the emotions.’

When he moved to Middlesex University in 1975, Hunt was much closer to the center of Party activity. He became Secretary to the Party’s ‘Sociology Study Group’ and was appointed to the editorial board of Marxism Today. As Party intellectuals crafted a new version of the British Road to Socialism (1977), Hunt was a tireless defender of Marxist democracy against Stalinist tendencies in the Party. He opposed insurrectionist political strategies, aligning himself with positions in Eurocommunism. He insisted on the necessity of creating broad political coalitions and of moving beyond Leninist understandings of the state.  These positions were elaborated in Marxism Today but also in such collections as 1980’s Marxism and Democracy, which Hunt edited and for which he wrote the introductory essay, “Taking Democracy Seriously.”

Alan was influential in the brief but significant flourishing of the CPGB’s annual summer Communist University of London. The CUL was organized by the Party’s Cultural Committee in 1969 and advertised itself as a ‘series of intensive courses in Marxist-Leninist theory.’ It had some brief success through the attendance of Party faithful but quickly stagnated because of its refusal to engage with issues of moment, such as the feminist and gay liberation movements, Black power and changing class structure. Hunt was among those pushing for a more inclusive event, open to non-Party members and to much broader debate. He was one of the organizers of the 1976 CUL, which drew over 1,000 attendees. CUL papers, collected as Papers on Class, Hegemony and Party included influential work by Stuart Hall attacking the base/superstructure model and introducing readers to Antonio Gramsci’s work and Barry Hindess’ attack on Marxist economism. (Alan helped bring Hall—who was not a Party member—onto the Marxism Today editorial board.) Hunt’s edited collection, Classes and Class Structure (1977), included work by Hall again, by Nicos Poulantzas, Paul Hirst, and Jean Gardiner’s essay “Women in the Labour Process and Class Structure.” The CUL declined dramatically after 1978, under the impact of the Thatcher disaster, but also because the key insights of democratic Marxism had been shared and people moved on. The CUL was finished in 1981, but debate continued in Marxism Today, to which Alan was still contributing in 1985.

The Sociology Study Group and CUL had one other major impact on Alan’s intellectual life. It is most likely here that he encountered the ‘Foucault challenge’ through the influence of Colin Mercer’s work. Mercer’s contribution to the Marxism and Democracy collection, “Revolutions, Reforms or Reformulations? Marxist Discourse on Democracy,” drew on the just-translated History of Sexuality to point to the importance of understanding the dispersed nature of power, the truth-effects of discourse and the significance of bodily matters in political struggle. Foucault was ‘not a Marxist’ but his analysis of power was close to Marxist debates around ‘what the ruling class does when it rules’ and its relational account of state power complemented Gramscian analyses. As we mentioned above, the tussle with Foucault and Marx marked Hunt’s mature intellectual work.

The CPGB was intensely social, with members meeting many nights a week to discuss, debate, and drink and joining in hiking outings in season. Yet the CPGB was more than a study and debating club; Hunt would recount travelling to Cuba on a rusty East German freighter at the head of a group of young Communists come to cut sugar cane. They met Fidel Castro and suffered through his long harangues. Visits to the Soviet Union were striking by how boring it was to have to listen to Party hacks, but more interesting were sojourns in post-colonial Africa. With some regret for the 1980s’ decline of the solidarity offered by the Party, Hunt remained a member nearly to the Party’s collapse, and in Canada he took pleasure in being one of the few dozen Communist voters in provincial and federal elections.

While Alan also enjoyed the opportunities for travel with Ros and for intellectual exposure (academic tourism, he called it) made possible by his outsized scholarship, he was diffident about his accomplishments. He gritted his teeth when he saw fools prosper and was free to say “you’ve got it wrong” to those who did get it wrong, but he did not brag. His works live on while the man himself is much missed.

1 Comment

  1. In 1991 Alan was the external examiner for my PhD dissertation about Derrida and legal theory at Sussex University. Although I was very nervous at the viva, he put me at ease instantly and, together with the internal examiner, provided some very constructive and positive comments. Afterwards, he put me in touch with Peter Fitzpatrick who helped me publish the PhD as a book. I have remained grateful throughout my career for the role Alan played in helping me to become established in the field of law and theory.

    Thank you for this fine review of Alan’s life and work.

    Reply

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