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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Barry Hindess (1939–2018)

by Marian Simms

Barry Hindess, by Branko Ivanovic, 1991

Barry Hindess, by Branko Ivanovic, 1991

ANU Archives, ANUA 579-94

I offer some reflections on Barry Hindess’ academic life and work for The Australian National University Emeritus Faculty—while not a collaborator or close friend of Barry’s, I did enjoy collegial friendship with him during much of his three decades at the ANU and enjoyed two Visiting Research Fellowships at the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) in the 1990s—from my position in the Political Science Department in the ANU—when Barry was Head of Politics. We maintained a nice connection over many years at the ANU and when I took up a chair in New Zealand—he gave me lots of advice, some of which I followed— including conversing with students and attending the coffee breaks at conferences! On reflection, it occurred to me that Barry was giving me the tenets he himself had followed to deal with his own shyness. He also had helpful suggestions for dealing with any kind of rejection, along the lines of: ‘it’s not that they don’t like you/your work, it’s that they prefer others who are more like them’. My favourite being: ‘if you have to choose between being depicted as too broad or too narrow, then it’s better to be “too broad”’. This I also took to mean: ‘don’t be too pedantic’.

The development of personal and intellectual resilience was also part of Barry’s persona—he went on to argue for the academic virtue of ‘toleration’ in an essay seen as summative.[1] Former philosopher colleagues have also commented on this:

In some ways Barry was representative of an older, insistently intellectual culture at ANU. He also had a unique view of what a successful social science department should look like. I remember him saying that ideally people who thought each other’s work was rubbish could still work together productively. It was not hard to see both positive and negative examples of this in his vicinity in the Coombs Building.[2]

In this short essay I will provide a broad outline of Barry’s life and career that may help explain his unique combination of intellectual talent and a multifaceted persona. Barry was unusual in having excellence in the ‘two cultures’ (to borrow C.P. Snow’s 1959 classic depiction of what we now call the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) and Humanities, Arts, Social Science (HASS) divide). Barry also had a talent for collaboration, unusual in most social science disciplines, but the norm in STEM disciplines.

Barry’s early academic life was in mathematics, and he entered St Catherine’s College, Oxford from Alleyne’s Grammar School in Steveage, Hertfordshire, and gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics. Alleyne’s School was run for many years (1952–61)— including the period Barry would have been there—by a former British agent, Francis Cammaerts (1916–2006), French Resistance leader and witness in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial.

Part way into a PhD in mathematics at Oxford, he transferred to Liverpool University to study sociology and obtained an MA and a PhD—published in 1971 as The Decline of Working Class Politics. The book—as was to become a pattern—polarised academic opinion. Culminating in a very critical review article in the top ranking British Journal of Political Science, a few years later.[3]

After appointments in London and Leicester, Barry moved back to Liverpool and gained the Sociology Chair at Liverpool University. Barry’s collaborative approach was manifest in his early foray into edited collections—Sociological Theories of the Economy (1977)—which included the work of several graduate students in sociology at Liverpool (Barry was a Senior Lecturer in the department at this time). In this period, Barry’s work also turned from a critical empirical kind (see, for example, his 1973 monograph The Use of Official Statistics in Sociology: A Critique of Positivism and Ethnomethodology), to a theoretical type where he along with several co-authors started a new theoretical tradition, known as Structuralist Marxism, which polarised the UK academic Marxist community. Precapitalist Modes of Production (with Paul Q. Hirst) published in 1975 and Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today (Tony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Athar Hussain, Paul Q. Hirst) were widely read and cited.[4]

Barry moved to Australia in 1987, initially for a Sociology Chair in the (then) ANU Faculties (formerly the School of General Studies), and subsequently as Chair in Australian Politics and Head of Politics in RSSS. He became an Emeritus Professor in the early 2000s and continued to write both academic articles and critical political commentary for the independent media and for social media. His final years were plagued by multiple health problems, despite which he maintained his sharp intellect and good humour.

Of course, Barry’s work was well known in Australia before his arrival at the ANU and had provided intellectual ‘grist for the mill’ for a generation of emerging political and social theorists and historians. Several of his works were devoured by eager reading groups that met in the Coombs tearoom—many group members going on to hold significant chairs. His latest book was inevitably enthusiastically devoured, and Barry was thus responsible for introducing a generation of Australian sociologists and political scientists to Louis Althusser’s brand of Marxism.[5]

When Barry arrived at the ANU in 1987 he had already moved on from his Althusserian position to embrace a Foucauldian critique. I recall attending a seminar where he stunned the room (Seminar Room D, Coombs building, I think), filled to the windowsills with positivist scholars, by arguing that basic social science concepts, notably ‘population’, were intellectual constructions, the purposes of which were to rationalise the interests of the state, or ‘governmentality’. Soon after his arrival, Barry’s magisterial critique of rational choice or public choice theory was published—the grand old man of the humanist left in Australia, Hugh Stretton, published a positive review,[6] although the local response from ANU philosophers was less warm.

Through seminars, and through supervision, and tearoom discussion, he introduced a generation of students and scholars to the work of Foucault—his Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault (1995) influenced many students.

Discourses of Power received a critical reception in the USA[7]— interestingly, the reviewer, although hostile to the book’s focus on power rather than authority or sovereignty, saw in the work a capacity to be a useful teaching tool and predicted, correctly, that the book opened a door to ‘cultural studies’. Indeed, some of Barry’s students did adopt postcolonial and cultural studies approaches. His influence on their capacity to think critically and to challenge themselves led to Barry’s successful nomination for an excellence in supervision award (outlined by Rebecca Stringer below). Barry’s students, however, did not take on the role of uncritical followers and instead he utilised what in earlier times was known as the ‘Socratic’ method.

As tribute to Barry’s teaching and supervisory gifts, several of his former PhD students and one honours students are sharing their insights into Barry.

Some reflections:

It was at the University of New England, Armidale, 1988, where I first met Barry. His personal kindness and intellectual generosity were such a magnet that I was inspired to undertake a PhD under his supervision at the ANU. Barry never treated me as a student, more as a fellow colleague. He truly was a critical cosmopolitan and a great practitioner of multiculturalism. He was always eager to learn from me with a different cultural background and to reflect on his own cultural limits, or even his own cultural bias, as he might say. One year he gave me a greeting card that showed how different peoples from different cultures can work together harmoniously. Whilst he was very critical of Western liberal democracy, he showed great respect for my PhD thesis, which argued for a philosophical justification of liberal democracy in China. Barry’s valuable critical comments on my thesis were in his own handwriting, which I still have today. Behind his sharp mind was a warm heart. He exemplified the spirit of humanism. The unique combination of his intellect and spirit has shaped my life. Barry was a great scholar, a challenging intellect, a critical cosmopolitan and, above all, a true humanist. I will never forget him. He will be remembered by me and all his students and colleagues forever.

— Baogang He, Alfred Deakin Professor, Deakin University

Professor Barry Hindess is the kind of scholar one aspires to be. Barry’s scholarship and thought on creating and articulating new modes of approaching and interpreting the question of power was a gift, especially his book entitled Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault. His wit and passion for knowledge and learning was evident whether he was teaching or debating with colleagues. The erudition and impeccable logic of his arguments was always captivating.

I experienced both pleasure and pain in dealing with Barry’s intellect as an honours student in the Department of Sociology in 1988. He was my supervisor. Barry challenged my thinking, questioned my politics but always gave constructive feedback on my work. We debated frequently and I respected him immensely. When I completed the honours year, I announced I was returning to Brisbane and would not be commencing a PhD at the ANU. Barry invited me to his house for dinner. As would become evident, this was going to be a night to receive wisdom and advice. Over dinner, Barry said I was far more capable than I understood, and I did not need to do ‘Aborigines’, I could easily make it as a mainstream sociologist. We debated why I had no choice in the matter. Towards the end of the night, Barry said it was wise to move from the ANU to commence a PhD elsewhere because after four years I knew the intellectual DNA of the Sociology Department. I needed to find new intellectual terrain. His advice was sound.

When I heard that Barry was ill, I wrote thanking him for being such a wonderful teacher. I also expressed how grateful I was to receive the gift of his scholarship. He replied saying I had influenced his thinking and that he was proud of my achievements. My heart was heavy when I learnt he passed this life.

Professor Barry Hindess was a man of high degree, whose kindness and generosity of spirit touched many. The world is a sadder place because his corporeal existence is no more, but his legacy and spirit lives on.

— Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Distinguished Professor, Queensland University of Technology

By setting out some memories of Barry I hope to capture things we will recognise as uniquely Barry—things that hint at the outlines of our loss just as we begin to feel it, things that show the breadth of the gift of knowing him.

My first conversation with Barry took place over the phone, back in 1995. I’d sent him my PhD proposal, which he seemed ready to accept, despite it being a confusing document in which I waved my hands around, facing growing aporia armed only with feigned confidence. He suggested I call him to discuss applying to the PhD program at ANU. This was a simple yet terrifying errand. How could I possibly speak to someone who had such capacity for theory? What is the use of speaking with such a person, who already knows everything ever, including all that is underneath what we call knowledge? I was 22, from Sydney’s west, and though a university medallist, terrified of professors, especially professors as formidably acuminous as Barry. As soon as I dialled his number, my mother’s little dogs began a great cacophony of high-pitched yapping in the background, adding embarrassment to fear. To my surprise, when Barry answered the phone, he brought with him a weather of methodical calm that I soon shared. We laughed about the yapping dogs, worked through the application matters and, instead of being scary, Barry was warm, unassuming, kind and refreshingly honest. Though in later years I would always find something to be terrified by when he was reading my work, I also consistently found a sense of shelter in his company and as his student I came to see his kindness and honesty as very much interlinked.

It took time for me to get used to Barry’s supervisory style. In 1996 when I began my PhD about Nietzsche, feminism and the concept of ressentiment, I had expectations of being led, in authoritarian mode, to particular texts, workshops and clarity-giving writing exercises, and I had plans to rebel against these as only a proletarian feminist could. But the authoritarian mode failed to materialise. I would go along to my early meetings with Barry packing blank paper and a pen, ready to record his insights and instructions. He would see this, shrug politely, and be faintly bemused—and unyieldingly resistant to my efforts get him to tell me Who to Read and What to Do. Rebelling anyway, now against a lack of authoritarianism, I told Barry I was wholly confused and had accomplished nothing except reading a fascinating but unrelated text, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

In my thesis acknowledgements, I wrote that Barry had ‘patiently lit my way from beginning to end’ and that is how it was. He didn’t tell me what to think, or whether he thought I was right or wrong. He asked me critically astute questions and put thoughts in front of me that, if I grappled with them, deepened and strengthened the work—which, when it was finally done, really felt like my own work, and not like something loyally ventriloquised.

To understand that this was my experience of Barry’s supervision is one thing. It is another thing to know as well that I went through this experience alongside a very talented group of postgraduates, all of whom were also stepping into newly minted scholarly selves. As a gang we would visit Barry and Christine’s [Christine Helliwell, Barry’s partner and research collaborator] home to be fed delicious food and nourished as well with funny stories, moving stories, jokes, political analysis, new recipes and ever-ready intellectual exchange. Led by Nelly Lahoud, several of us, including Heather Brook and Robyn Lui, wrote to nominate Barry for an excellence in supervision award, which he won. As part of the process he set down his supervisory style, writing that he sought to instil in his students ‘a sense of confidence in themselves as thinkers’, and to train them to ‘both think critically about their own work and the work of others (including their supervisor)’. These words say so much. If anyone has an intellectual capacity sufficient to justify positioning themselves as superior to students, it is Barry.

— Rebecca Stringer, Senior Lecturer, Otago University

The last time I spent time with Barry (June 2016), he was very much into social media, it was his way of transcending institutional boundaries/ restraints:

Barry Hindess re/tweeted on numerous topics, ranging from the extreme CEO-to-worker pay ratio disparity, Gaza protest, relevance of James Baldwin’s work to the era of Black Lives Matter, remembering 1968, the Suffragettes, Meghan Markle and English aristocracy, and wondered if the high-level talks between North Korea and South Korea were about ‘de-nuking the USA?’ Barry often used the term ‘ecumenical’ to describe those, like himself, who viewed political theory in non-sectarian terms, inclusive of quantitative and qualitative analysis and encompassing of worldly engagement. Judging by his re/tweets, Barry was engagé until the end.

— Nelly Lahoud, Senior Fellow, New America’s International Security Program

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marian Simms, 'Hindess, Barry (1939–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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