Leopold Kohr -- 1909-1994

Kirkpatrick Sale

[Reprinted from the Newsletter of the E.F. Schumacher Society, Spring 1997]

Leopold Kohr is one of those few prophets of political thought who are without deserved honor in the rest of the world but are duly and affectionately recognized in their own country. Kohr, who was born in Oberndorf, just outside Salzburg, always insisted that his love and appreciation of the small stemmed from his birthplace, a village of less than 2,000 people, and he has said, "Everything that I have learned worth knowing I learned in that small town." None the less, he went on to attend Gymnasium in Salzburg, earn a law degree from the University of Innsbruck in 1933 and a second degree in political science from the University of Vienna in 1935 before escaping from Europe in 1938 and taking up positions in North America, first at the University of Toronto in 1939-50 and then at Rutgers University in 1952-5. Thereafter he taught at the University of Puerto Rico (1955-73) and the university College of Wales at Aberystwyth (1973-8), after which he retired to concentrate on writing, lecturing and traveling.

An economist by profession and for three decades a professor of economics and public administration in the United States, Puerto Rico and Britain, he has written half a dozen books that have set out and elaborated what he calls "the theory of the small," most starkly enunciated in the opening pages of his first book, The Breakdown of Nations. "There seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big." Breakdown went on to buttress the theory in minute, and engaging, detail, providing arguments philosophic, political, cultural, economic and administrative to prove that small organizations, small cities and small states are more efficient, benevolent, creative and stable than their larger counterparts. It ended with a call for the transformation of big-state systems into a series of small, federated states largely on the model of Switzerland, with many equal and largely autonomous cantons operating in a small-state periphery.

These ideas were further spelled out in a series of books over the next thirty years: Development without Aid, arguing that Third World countries could provide more for their citizens by process of self-sufficiency than by economic integration, by "going it alone -- unintegrated, unaffiliated, unco-ordinated" and small; The Overdeveloped Nations, showing how social and economic dysfunction results from the size of the modern state and that "the larger the state, the worse off is the citizen;" The City of Man, demonstrating why small medieval cities were socially and culturally so effective and how a modern city might transform itself by adopting small-city principles; and The Inner City, a collection of columns on architecture and town planning maintaining that "urban giantism" can be cured in only one way, "by making large things smaller," and "return to the human scale."

Although he has always been influential among that circle of intellectuals critical of modernism-E. F. Schumacher (who called him "a teacher from whom I have learned more than from anyone else"), Ivan Illich, Herbert Read, Danillo Dolci, John Papworth, Manfred Max-Neef, Edward Goldsmith -- it was not until the late 1970s that he began to have any impact on a wider group of thinkers and activists. Breakdown was given its first paperback publication in the United States in 1977, followed by reprints of several other books. He was given a Right Livelihood Award (called "the alternative Nobel Prize") in 1983, and he was invited to give the annual lecture by the British Schumacher Society in 1983 and the American Schumacher Society in 1989.

Still, Kohr never achieved the popularity or influence around the world of such social critics as his friend Schumacher, despite a writing style as accessible and a personal style as congenial. It is only back in Salzburg, Austria, the city in whose shadow he was born, that Kohr has been hon6red. In 1982 he was given the "key" to the province of Salzburg, and later that year the city was host to a "Leopold Kohr Symposium on the Human Scale" that brought in scholars, activists and friends from all over the world for a week-long celebration of the man and his ideas. In 1985 he was made president of a new Leopold Kohr Academy established in a nearby national park and animal reserve, where courses and symposia on local crafts, village renewal and self-sufficiency are given year-round and an alternative technical center provides a home for experiments.