Paul Hirst began his career as a Marxist, and in his later work he made important contributions to numerous debates, the most notorious of which was his pronounced scepticism towards the idea of globalisation. However, Hirst's principal legacy to political theory was the development of his normative theory of ‘associative democracy’. This article presents a critique of Hirst's theory emphasising his indebtedness to the tradition of English political pluralism. On a preliminary analysis, Hirst's project appears to have been predicated on a normative defence of voluntarism, individualism and pluralism. However, I make the case that on closer examination this is undermined and contradicted in his work – and in the work of the earlier English pluralists – by an implicit assumption of social unity. This assumption is manifest in the functionalism and corporatism that Hirst presented as necessary components of pluralism, which in turn reflect his unwarranted presumption that industrial productivity, efficient economic governance and welfare provision represent impartial and incontestable axioms of social organisation.