Leopold Kohr

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Leopold Kohr (5 October 1909, in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria – 26 February 1994, in Gloucester, England) was an economist, jurist and political scientist known both for his opposition to the "cult of bigness" in social organization and as one of those who inspired the Small Is Beautiful movement. For almost twenty years, he was Professor of Economics and Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. He described himself as a "philosophical anarchist." His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations. In 1983, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for "his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale."

Life and work[edit]

Leopold Kohr's best known book

Kohr grew up in the small town of Oberndorf near Salzburg, and it remained his ideal of community.[1] He often commented on the fact that the Christmas carol "Silent Night" was written and composed as "Stille Nacht" in his home village. He earned doctorate degrees in law, at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and political science, at the University of Vienna.[2] He also studied economics and political theory at the London School of Economics.[3]

In 1937, Kohr became a freelance correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, where he was impressed by the limited, self-contained governments of the separatist states of Catalonia and Aragon, as well as the small Spanish anarchist city-states of Alcoy and Caspe. He became a close friend of journalist George Orwell and shared offices with correspondents Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux.[4]

Kohr fled Austria in 1938 after it was annexed by Nazi Germany and emigrated to the United States. He later became an American citizen.[1][3][5]

Kohr taught economics and political philosophy at Rutgers University, New Jersey, from 1943 to 1955.[3] From 1955 to 1973, he was professor of Economics and Public Administration in the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, except for a period in 1965-66 when he was professor of Economics at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, Mexico; during these years he developed his concepts of village renewal and traffic calming, and "lent his advice to local city planning initiatives."[2] He also advised the independence movement of the nearby island of Anguilla.[3]

After many rejections by American and British publishers, Kohr's first book, The Breakdown of Nations, was published in 1957 in Britain after a chance meeting with anarchist Sir Herbert Read.[1]

Kohr moved from Puerto Rico to Wales, where he taught political philosophy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth from 1968 until 1977.[6][7] The project of Welsh independence, founded on the ideal of 'cymdeithas' (community) was dear to him, and Kohr became a mentor to Plaid Cymru and a close friend of its then leader, Gwynfor Evans.[3] After retiring from teaching, Kohr divided his time between Gloucester, England, and Hellbrunn, outside Salzburg.

In 1983, in Stockholm, Sweden, Kohr received the Right Livelihood Award, "for his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale."[7] In 1984, Salzburg created the Leopold Kohr Academy and Cultural Association "Tauriska" to put his theories of regional autonomy into practice.[3]

Kohr was planning to return to his hometown of Oberndorf to live when he died in 1994. His ashes were buried in Oberndorf.[3] Salzburg journalist Gerald Lehner completed a biography of Kohr, based in part on long audiotaped interviews, in 1994.[4]

Kohr has been described as a charming conversationalist and a witty, elegant debunker of popular assumptions.[8] Author Ivan Illich describes him as "a funny bird—meek, fey, droll, and incisive", as well as "unassuming" and even "radically humble."[8]


Kohr described himself as a "philosophical anarchist." Kohr protested against the "cult of bigness" and economic growth and promoted the concept of human scale and small community life. He argued that massive external aid to poorer nations stifled local initiatives and participation. His vision called for a dissolution of centralized political and economic structures in favor of local control.[7]

In his first published essay "Disunion Now: A Plea for a Society based upon Small Autonomous Units", published in Commonweal in 1941, Kohr wrote about a Europe at war: "We have ridiculed the many little states, now we are terrorized by their few successors." He called for the breakup of Europe into hundreds of city states.[1] Kohr developed his ideas in a series of books, including The Breakdown of Nations (1957), Development Without Aid (1973) and The Overdeveloped Nations (1977).[7]

Leopold Kohr was highly critical of the claim that the world is split into too many states, and opposed pan-nationalist, continental and global unions. He argues that the success of Swiss Confederation doesn't lay in a union between the French, German and Italian-speaking peoples, as this would lead to the domination of Swiss Germans and gradual decline of other groups. The reason why Switzerland was able to remain diverse was that instead of 3 nationalities, it federated into 22 cantons, which represent the actual cultural division of Switzerland. He argues that this amount of autonomous cantons "eliminates all possible imperialist ambitions on the part of any one canton, because it would always be outnumbered by even a very small combination of other".[9] According to Kohr, a European Federation of unequally large states would lead to a domination of a single nation, leading to an erosion of dialects and smaller languages, "with just the same inevitability as the German federation, in which 24 small states were linked to the one 40-million Power of Prussia ended up in Prussian hegemony". For him, a successful European unification can only be based on the Swiss model, which would entail splitting the existing nation-states into smaller ones on the basis of cultural and historical regions. He defends the concept of Kleinstaaterei, arguing that while in the Middle Ages wars were common, they were brief and caused little to no devastation; but after the consolidation of Europe into a few large states, every war that erupted between caused huge destruction and loss life.[9] Kohr argues that the sovereign duchies of Holy Roman Empire excelled in scientific and intellectual development, founding numerous universities and producing a countless amount of philosophers and architectures. He describes the perceived beauty of balkanised Europe: "Such a Europe is like a fertile inspiration and a grandiose picture, although not a modern one which you paint in one dull line. It will be like a mosaic with fascinating variations and diversity, but also with the harmony of the organic and living whole."[9] From Leopold Kohr's most popular work The Breakdown of Nations:

... there seems to be 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. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. ... And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.

Kohr was an important inspiration to the Green, bioregional, Fourth World, decentralist, and anarchist movements, Kohr contributed often to John Papworth's `Journal for the Fourth World', Resurgence. One of Kohr's students was economist E. F. Schumacher, another prominent influence on these movements, whose best selling book Small Is Beautiful took its title from one of Kohr's core principles.[5] Similarly, his ideas inspired Kirkpatrick Sale's books Human Scale (1980) and Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (1985). Sale arranged the first American publication of The Breakdown of Nations in 1978 and wrote the foreword.[1]

The Breakdown of Nations[edit]

In The Breakdown of Nations, Kohr expands on his thought - to his mind, only small states can be true democracies, as only they can provide every citizen a possibility to directly influence the government. Any economic issues are always tractable and manageable, people are free of governmental and social pressures, and culture can flourish. Constant conflicts and warfare that have been omnipresent and ever recurrent in the human history have led many to believe that the reason for constant conflict lies not in any ideology, culture or leadership, but in the human nature itself; Kohr notes that the role of main belligerent in geopolitics switched constantly from one state to another, and if it's human nature to invade and conquer, then even destroying the hostile nation will only result in a different one filling this role.[10] After German defeat and its containment following World War II, the belligerent nation of Germany ostensibly turned into a peaceful one, and Russia came to being identified as the chief aggressor in Europe instead. Kohr argues that the belligerence of Russia lies in its size:

... Russia would follow the same policy of aggression if she were led by a group of saints, just as Germany was driven on the path of aggression not only by Hitler but also by Emperor Wilhelm who, unlike the uncouth and blasphemous Fuhrer, was, if not exactly a saint, at least a devout believer and the head of his country's Protestant church. Russia, in her present power-breeding size, would be a danger to world peace even in the hands of an American proconsul, as ancient Gaul was a threat to Rome in the hands of anybody, particularly in the masterful hands of Rome's own generals... If the Russian leaders act as they do, it is not because they are bad, nor because they are communists, nor because they are Russians. They act aggressively because they have emerged from World War II with such a formidable degree of social power that they think they cannot be checked by any possible combination confronting them, or that there will be a time in the near future when they can no longer be checked. Wherever and whenever they had this conviction in the recent past, they attacked, invaded, and made war. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and the other satellites are all monuments to Russian power. As an overdose of poison is safe in nobody’s system, however sound and healthy he may be, so power is safe in nobody's hands, not even in those of a police force charged with the task of averting aggression.[11]

Kohr states that his theory aims to fill the gap left by Marxism, arguing that the Marxist philosophy is chiefly economic, while his is social. Marx argued that the main vehicle of historic change in actions and institutions was "changing mode of production", while Kohr states that it is the "changing size of society" instead. Kohr argues that social norms desired by Marx such as just price, fair wage, gift culture as well respect for accomplishments, solidarity, mutual aid and "unhurried method of gaining the means of its subsistence" are not found in modes of economy but rather in life in small communities, such as villages and families.[12] Kohr argues that instead of considering values such as uniformity and socialism the leveling effects of mass production, they should be seen as consequences of large societies and the levelling effect of great multitudes; once growing societies expand so much that they're unable to be self-sustainable, they "produce the equalizing, materialistic, semi-pagan, inventive climate of which the machine mode of production is not cause but consequence".[13] Kohr thus believes that the chief vehicle of human history is the size of the groups humanity lived in. He explains that a profit-seeking capitalist will serve society well on the basis of enlightened self-interest - bad service wouldn't be profitable, therefore it's in the capitalist's self-interest to be altruistic. However, the capitalist will stop being altruistic and start exploiting others if he "finds the opportunity of getting away with conspiracy against his fellow men" - something that a large society allows. Here Kohr names large companies as an example - only they can get away with abuses and exploits, and only an even larger power could sustain them - such as the government.[14]

He further argues that even if pacifism is deeply entrenched in country's traditions, war will still be inevitable once certain power conditions are met.[15] According to Kohr, wars are caused by accumulation of great power, and this power can only be accumulated by large, "outgrown" social groups; therefore it is necessary to cut these groups down to size. Outgrown "social organisms" can cause misery either internally, such as large cities (anomie), or externally - the great powers. If the ability to cause misery comes from large size, uniting the world will not help - the great powers must be cut to a size that makes it impossible for them to cause harm anymore. Therefore, Kohr believes that humanity must turn towards disunion rather than union.[16] He argues that a disunited world would do away with territorial disputes and conflicts - cultures that currently demand autonomy will receive it, and disputed territories such as Alsace could become autonomous or sovereign instead. He adds that while the French and Germans will always hate each other "by the perverting influence of their history of blood and gore", his disunited world would have no such rivalries as "no Bavarian ever hated a Basque".[17]

Kohr challenges the view that Middle Ages were a backward era, arguing that Medieval statelets "built much more than they destroyed" and that their wars were more civil than contemporary ones, listing a number of honourary and religious traditions that regulated warfare:

According to its original provisions, all warfare had to be interrupted on Saturday noon and could not be resumed until Monday morning in order to ensure the undisturbed worship of the Lord on Sunday. Subsequently, the period of truce was extended to include Thursday in honour of Christ's ascension, Friday in reverent commemoration of the crucifixion, and all of Saturday in memory of His entombment. In addition to these time limitations, a number of places were declared immune from military action. Thus, even in the midst of war, neither churches and churchyards, nor fields at harvest time could be made the scene of battle. Finally, entire groups of persons such as women, children, old people, or farmers working in fields were placed under special protection and had to be left unmolested. Infractions of the Truce of God were punished by the Church as well as the State.[18]

Kohr states that while Medieval kingdoms had their shortcomings, they were not beleagured by severe problems, as "even the most difficult problem dwindles to insignificant proportions" on a small scale.[19] He adds that the great powers and nation-states that succeeded Medieval statelets grew larger but not wiser, as they continued their wars and only made them much bloodier. Kohr also argues that contemporary South America is a realization of his concept - South American nations often engaged in wars and revolutions, but they were often brief, caused little if any devastation and did not require international mediation to settle. He therefore argues that instead of fixing the problems of small nations, the great powers merely made them grow into huge, uncontrollable proportions.[20] Kohr goes on to argue that large states will inevitably drift apart from democracy, arguing that Napoleon, Ceasar and Stalin all came to power at the "very moment when republicanism and democracy seemed to have reached a pinnacle of development." While small state is internally democratic and its government has to serve the individual, large states have no way nor obligation to do so - the individual loses value and "democratic diversity" is replaced with "totalitarian uniformity", with individuals being pressured to assimilate into the majority in every way.[21] Kohr states that a great power must be either fully republican or monarchist, fully socialist or capitalist, in its entire nature and expanse. Everyone within that state must accept this one system with no compromises available, even if half of the population could be opposed to it, which for Kohr shows the totalitarianism of "bigness" - instead of adapting to multitude of individual desires, the individual is forced to adapt to the desires of the state instead.[22] He then states that large empires only usurp academic development because the peak of human progress was achieved before the times of worldwide great powers; he argues that the legacy of large states is one of totalitarianism and war instead:

This is what the reactionary little states of Italy and Germany have given to the world - beautiful cities, cathedrals, operas, artists, princes, some enlightened, some bad, some maniacs, some geniuses, all full-blooded, and none too harmful. What have the same regions given us as impressive great powers? As unified empires, both Italy and Germany continued to boast of the monuments of a great civilization on their soil. But neither of them produced these. What they did produce were a bunch of unimaginative rulers and generals, Hitlers and Mussolinis. They, too, had artistic ambitions and wanted to embellish their capital cities but, instead of hundreds of capitals, there were now only two, Rome and Berlin, and instead of thousands of artists, there were now only two, Hitler and Mussolini. And their prime concern was not the creation of art but the construction of the pedestal, on which they themselves might stand. This pedestal was war. Having the choice between a great tradition of culture and a great tradition of aggressiveness they chose, as every great power does, the latter. The Italy and Germany of poets, painters, thinkers, lovers, and knights, became the factories of boxers, wrestlers, engineers, racers, aviators, footballers, road builders, generals, and dehydrators of swamps. Instead of annoyed defenders of little sovereignties, they became the virile rapers and back-stabbers first of the countries around them and then of the entire world.[23]

Kohr also discusses the problem of cultural heritage and cultural assimilation. According to him, culture is a product of individuals, and since individual cannot prosper under a large power, neither can culture. He describes democracy as a "system of divisions, factions, and small-group balances", which slowly wither away under internal consolidation of a large state - the ability for cultural and intellectual flourishment and with it.[24] According to him, capitalism was only able to flourish in its early stages thanks to its small size - every enterprise was small and thus the principle of economic competition was perfectly preserved.[25] Only with the appearance of giant companies and huge markets did capitalism grow dysfunctional. Kohr laments globalization and warns that the world of large states and unions will inevitably lead to a uniform world, as anything unique, especially cultures and languages, will slowly wither away:

We may race up and down the entire North American continent and see nothing but Main Street all over again, filled with the same kind of people, following the same kind of business, reading the same kind of funnies and columnists, sharing the same movie stars, the same thoughts, the same laws, the same morals, the same convictions. This is why, if we want to read really exiciting adventure stories nowadays, we have to fall back on Homer. If in several European vast-area states such as Italy, France, or Germany, so many exciting though rapidly dwindling differences are still experienced on relatively short journeys, it is because the medieval small-state diversity has left so lasting an imprint that no unifying process has as yet been able to wipe it out ...[26]

Kohr also defends the Holy Roman Empire, stating that its extensive decentralization and division into tiny states was the reason for its success rather than failure - it made the state easy to govern, and no single kingdom or duchy was ever able to grow stronger than the central government; the main reason for the downfall of the empire was because this balance was destroyed by rise of great powers within it, Prussia and Austria, that then battled for control and divided the entire empire into their spheres of influence.[27] Kohr calls contemporary nations artificial and considers them an involuntary mixture of "of more or less unwilling little tribes". He describes every contemporary large European power as rife with separatist or regional undercurrents, and names Scottish separatist movement and Bavarian attempt to become independent in 1945 as examples of such currents.[28]

In the afterword of The Breakdown of Nations, Kohr laments that his vision might never be realized as the great powers would never give up their power and balkanize voluntarily. He predicts that the unity of the western World will be realized by "by every Frenchman, Dutchman, or Italian becoming an American", but notes that while cultural assimilation does not destroy freedom in itself, it renders it worthless.[29] Lastly, Kohr states that he has little hope of the newer generations realizing his idea as well:

But what about the younger generation? Well, the trouble is that when the younger person gets older, he usually views historic action not from a new, but from exactly the same, perspective as everyone else who has made the transition before him. To judge by the direction of protest movements and campus demonstrations, there has been a turnover of students, but no rejuvenation of outlook. The young people of today have yet to grasp that the unprecedented change that has overtaken our time concerns not the nature of our social difficulties, but their scale. Like their elders, they have yet to become aware that what matters is no longer war, but big war; not unemployment, but massive unemployment; not oppression, but the magnitude of oppression; not the poor, who Jesus said will always be with us, but the scandalous number of their multitudes.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Kirkpatrick Sale, foreword to E.P. Dutton 1978 edition of Leopold Kohr's Breakdown of Nations.
  2. ^ a b Yates, Steven (2012-01-21) Who Was Leopold Kohr? Archived 2012-01-24 at the Wayback Machine, American Daily Herald
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Leopold Kohr Akadamie biography". Archived from the original on 2011-11-30. Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  4. ^ a b Description of Gerald Lehner's The Biography of philosopher and economist Leopold Kohr. Archived 2012-02-11 at the Wayback Machine at Kohr Academie web site.
  5. ^ a b Dr. Leopold Kohr, 84; Backed Smaller States, New York Times obituary, 28 February 1994.
  6. ^ "Obituary: Professor Leopold Kohr". 1 March 1994.
  7. ^ a b c d "Right Livelihood Award: Leopold Kohr". Archived from the original on 2006-10-07. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  8. ^ a b The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr, Ivan Illich, Fourteenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 1994, Yale University.
  9. ^ a b c Kohr, Leopold (1992). Leopold Kohr on the Desirable Scale of States. Population and Development Review. Vol. 18. Population Council. pp. 745–750.
  10. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 23-24.
  11. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 42-43.
  12. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 47.
  13. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 48-49.
  14. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 50.
  15. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 42-53.
  16. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 54.
  17. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 59-60.
  18. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 63.
  19. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 64.
  20. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 66-67.
  21. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 99-108.
  22. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 109.
  23. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 127-128.
  24. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 129-130.
  25. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 133.
  26. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 136-137.
  27. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 178-179.
  28. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 194-195.
  29. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 208.
  30. ^ Breakdown of Nations, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 223.


  • Small Is Beautiful: Selected Writings from the complete works. Posthumous collection, Vienna, 1995.
  • The Academic Inn, Y Lolfa, 1993.
  • "Disunion Now: A Plea for a Society Based upon Small Autonomous Units (1941)". Telos 91 (Spring 1992). New York: Telos Press.
  • The Inner City: From Mud To Marble, Y Lolfa, 1989.
  • Development Without Aid: The Translucent Society, Schocken Books, 1979.
  • The Overdeveloped Nations: The Diseconomies Of Scale, Schocken, 1978.
  • The City Of Man: The Duke Of Buen Consejo, Univ Puerto Rico, 1976.
  • Is Wales Viable? C. Davies, 1971.
  • The Breakdown of Nations, Routledge & K. Paul, 1957 (1986 Routledge version at books.google.com); Chelsea Green Publishing Company edition, 2001.
  • "Disunion Now: A Plea for a Society based upon Small Autonomous Units", originally published in The Commonweal (26 September 1941) under the pseudonym Hans Kohr.

External links[edit]