Kohr warned of the noxious effects of “coca-colonization” on European culture and society
Leopold Kohr (1909-1994) was an economist and political scientist who inspired many decentralist and degrowth thinkers.
Describing himself as a philosophical anarchist, Kohr criticised the excessive scale of contemporary mass society and pioneered the “small is beautiful” approach later popularised by E.F. Schumacher.
He explained in 1978: “The real conflict of today is between Man and Mass, the Individual and Society, the Citizen and the State, the Big and the Small Community, between David and Goliath”. (1)
Neal Ascherson wrote in an obituary in The Independent that Kohr “belonged to that Austrian-German Jewish emigration of genius during the later 1930s which changed the entire intellectual nature of the world outside Central Europe”. (2)
He added: “Politically, Leopold Kohr was not easy to locate in conventional terms. As a man of the European anti-Fascist Left, he fell under some suspicion during the McCarthyite period in the United States.
“But as his thought developed, his romantic passion for the Italian city-states brought him to a nostalgia for the enlightened patronage of the Renaissance prince; he was always a democrat, but he was intensely critical of mass societies and of mid-20th-century industrialism”. (3)
Kohr explained in the opening sentences of his most famous work, 1957’s The Breakdown of Nations, that he was trying to invent a whole new political philosophy with which to challenge modern society.
He wrote: “As the physicists of our time have tried to elaborate an integrated single theory, capable of explaining not only some but all phenomena of the physical universe, so I have tried on a different plane to develop a single theory through which not only some but all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a common denominator. The result is a new and unified political philosophy centering in the theory of size”. (4)
Kohr added that the problem was “always bigness, and only bigness” and that “if the only problem is one of bigness, the only solution must lie in the cutting down of the substances and organisms which have outgrown their natural limits”. (5)
He was critical of the USA and its global empire which pretended not to be an empire at all. He asked: “Why should we, in Washington, feel it a threat to our interests if an allegedly independent Italy should decide to turn communist unless she has actually become a part of our defence system from which we cannot let her go even if we wanted because the only alternative open to her would be to join the defence system of our rival empire?
“However, if Italy lies within our defence system, our own boundaries must lie in Italy. This means that, whatever we may declare, subconsciously and by implication we consider her as one of our dominions, free to choose her own road only within the limits of our pleasure”. (6)
Kohr warned of the noxious effects of “coca-colonization” on European culture and society, remarking that a bottle of Coke, or any other American consumer product “is as formidable a weapon of assimilation as a sword, and even more dangerous… whoever begins to drink of it will, at the last stage of the process, cease to be an Italian, Frenchman, or German, and become, spiritually at least, an American”. (7)
Kirkpatrick Sale explains that Kohr’s political journey began when he was working as a freelance reporter covering the Spanish Revolution of 1936: “From visiting the independent separatist states of Catalonia and Aragon, from seeing how the Spanish anarchists operated small city-states in Alcoy and Caspe, Kohr took away an understanding of the depth of European localism and an appreciation of the virtues of limited, self-contained government”. (8)
He adds that The Breakdown of Nations only ever saw the light of day because its author happened to complain about the lack of publishing possibilities for anarchists to a complete stranger, who happily turned out to be the anarchist publisher Herbert Read.
Kohr worked as an academic for many years in Puerto Rico. His friendship with Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans led him to move to Aberystwyth in 1974, to be close to the then-vibrant Welsh independence movement.
He was a regular contributor to Resurgence, the ecological review founded by John Papworth in 1966, which merged with The Ecologist in 2012.
Video links: Leopold Kohr. Small is Beautiful (45 secs), Philosophische Erinnerung: 18 Jahre nach dem Tod von Leopold Kohr (16 mins).
1. Leopold Kohr, ‘Afterword’, The Breakdown of Nations (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1978), http://www.ditext.com/kohr/
2. Neal Ascherson, ‘Obituary: Professor Leopold Kohr’, The Independent, London, March 1, 1994 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-professor-leopold-kohr-1426254.html
4. Leopold Kohr, ‘Introduction’, The Breakdown of Nations.
6. Leopold Kohr, ‘The American Empire’, The Breakdown of Nations.
8. Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘Foreword’, The Breakdown of Nations.