Obituary for Robert Fine – 1945-2018

Obituary for Robert Fine – 1945-2018

Robert Fine has died at the age of 72, following complications from a bone marrow transplant. He held an emeritus professorship in Sociology at Warwick University, having retired at the age of 66. However, he would be quick to emphasise that he had not stopped working, as indeed he hadn’t. His latest book, Antisemitism and the Left, co-authored with Philip Spencer, was published only last year. In fact, Robert’s relaxed manner and easy-going demeanour belied his work rate and his very sharp mind, which made him a prominent scholar in a number of fields, most notably the history of social and political thought, especially the work of Marx and Arendt, deviance and social control, cosmopolitan theory, the holocaust and contemporary antisemitism, crimes against humanity and human rights.

He was educated on a scholarship at St Paul’s school, and went up to Oxford on a further scholarship to study Greats at Queens College, before changing to PPE. In the process he also made the transition from young Conservative to Labour Party member (which he remained for life), and was later active in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Socialist Forum for South African Solidarity. Robert graduated from Oxford with a first class honours degree, though was clearly not an especially dedicated student – on learning his result, he telephoned the exams office to tell them there had been a mistake. As if there might be two Robert Fines – and in some ways there were – benign tolerance and implacable stubbornness, sometimes (not always) combined to good effect. After graduation he went to the US to study for a Masters Degree at Columbia University, where he was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. He spent two years (from 1971 to 1973) as a Lecturer in Sociology at Brooklyn College, City University, New York, before being recruited to a Lectureship in Sociology at Warwick University, where he remained until his retirement. At Warwick he served as convenor of the MA in Social and Political Thought, as founding Director of the Social Theory Centre, and (from 2002 to 2006) as Head of Department. In these roles he inspired a generation of young scholars and supervised over 30 PhD students who now work across the globe, from Canada to Hong Kong, Japan, Portugal, The Netherlands, Argentina and Chile. He also served on the Executive Committee of the European Sociological Association, held a strong belief in the ideal of a united Europe, and was a staunch campaigner against Brexit.

In addition to his latest book, Robert’s key works are Democracy and the Rule of Law (1984), Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx and Arendt (2001), and Cosmopolitanism (2007). Among his numerous edited collections are Policing the Miner’s Strike (1985, with Robert Millar), Beyond Apartheid (1990, with Dennis Davis), and Social Theory after the Holocaust (2000, with Charles Turner). All speak to the importance for Robert of wedding academic work with political sensibility, and vice versa. For a sense of his political commitment, and the personal affection in which he was held, one can look to the several pages of tributes on the Workers Liberty website. One of them speaks of his moral courage, and a characteristic that emerges from many of the comments is a willingness and ability to think and to argue against the grain.

David Hirsh’s tribute finds a guide to Robert’s key thoughts and sentiments in his book Cosmopolitanism, which provides a distillation of Robert’s world view and his commitment to thinking with complexity. He notes that Robert shows how the rhetoric of a ‘universal class’ can be turned to the interests not of humanity as a whole, but of a brutal totalitarianism; or how nationalism can at once fuel solidarity against oppression, yet be amenable to arbitrary exclusion. So tension, movement, and metamorphosis are seen as the inevitable outcome of encounters between the universal and the particular, and thus as key characteristics of the cosmopolitan condition. Such thinking with complexity also filtered through to Robert’s ‘critique of critique’, both in relation to his opposition to some of the more nationalistic politics of the ANC, or his insistence that criticism of Israel can be found in uncomfortable proximity to antisemitism. These arguments have not always made him popular, but his willingness and ability to defend his positions with patience and lucidity have always won him respect. Yet more than that, he had both a capacity and desire to engage with others whose views were different from his own.

Underpinning much of his writing and thinking is a readiness to criticise but a wariness of ‘trashing’, so his re-reading of Marx’s critique of jurisprudence in Democracy and the Rule of Law also argues in favour of incorporating liberal notions of equality and justice within a Marxist frame. The book displays Robert’s uncanny ability to enter into and extend an argument from the point of view of its author, and there is a tenacity and determination in so doing that runs through all his work. This same tenacity is also apparent in the fact that he successfully brought the first civil case against stalking, a history recorded and skilfully analysed in his memoir Being Stalked (1997).

Alongside Robert’s formidable intellectual ability, there ran a great gift for friendship, and an ability and wish to support and encourage. At Robert’s funeral Charles Turner spoke of his curiosity about people, his willingness to give them his time, and his sympathy for others, especially the quirky or peculiar. The very many people who have attended his social gatherings thus joined ‘a motley collection of students, ex-students and chums, with Robert in the middle of it all, smiling his big, wide, white smile’, until the invariably long drawn out process of departure would finally come to an end.

In April of last year Robert was diagnosed with a bone marrow disorder and related to this he suffered two strokes, which badly affected his sight. He was not blind but could only read or write with great difficulty. Yet he remained in astonishingly good spirits, and made a companion of his radio, as he undertook to educate himself in the better appreciation of classical music. But he did not want for other companions. In the last year of his life, Robert was supported by a network of more than 20 friends, co-ordinated with great tact and dedication by Gwen and Alan Norrie, friends of some 30 years standing. Robert will be greatly missed by all of these people, and by many, many more. I think I speak for all in paying tribute to the nursing and medical staff of Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, who helped Robert through his final months with unwavering commitment, skill and humanity. Robert was predeceased by his older brother Tony Fine, but leaves his daughter, Shoshana Fine, her mother Glynis Cousin, the former wife of his only marriage, Gillian Bendelow, and myself, his partner of the last 13 years.

Lydia Morris

[The text was modified on 27 August to indicate that Robert’s age at retirement was 66, not 65, as initially stated]