Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (1957, 1978).


by Leopold Kohr

'Some of you perhaps will think that I am jesting.'


"There was a time when 'Small Is Beautiful' was a catch-phrase for cranks," wrote The Guardian in an editorial of March 3, 1977. "With remarkable speed it has become a key-note of policy in a whole range of areas, from education to industrial organization. The belief that bigness is best that dominated the 1950s and 1960s has faded."

Having urged smallness as a solution to the problems of bigness for four decades, I was considered a crank as far back as the early 1940s. Not that I was ever disturbed by this. As E. F. Schumacher said of his similar experience in the 1970s before public opinion became a little bit more favourably disposed towards the idea: "Some people call me a crank. I don't mind at all. A crank is a low-cost, low-capital tool. It can be used on a moderate small scale. It is nonviolent. And it makes revolutions."

Moreover, being considered a crank by the rationalizers of bigness hardly did me any professional damage. It did not interfere with my academic career at a time when it was thought that the best way to advancement for an economist was to subscribe to one of the two varieties of received doctrine, which meant being a controlled marketeer with the younger generation or a free marketeer with the receding older one. Nor did it interfere with my pleasures, which have generally been directly proportionate to the opposition I encountered. Indeed, had my ideas been embraced in the 1940s, I might have felt like William Buckley, who, when asked during his mayoral campaign in New York what he would do if he won the election, answered: "Demand a recount."

The pleasure of finding myself in opposition sometimes conveyed the impression that I never took the idea of smallness seriously myself and that because of this lack of seriousness, and despite my numerous articles, lectures, and books on the subject, the idea did not take root until the mid-1970s, when it was presented by E. F. Schumacher with greater religious fervour in a best-selling book bearing the fetching title, Small Is Beautiful.

However, there has never been a question of my not taking seriously the idea that smallness offers the only solution to the problems of bigness. What I often did was to present my serious proposal in a not-so-serious manner, with the result that on more than one occasion a speaker would express an audience's appreciation by thanking me, not for having enlightened them but for having "greatly entertained" them. They did not always realize that, by starting to laugh, not about what I took seriously but about what they took seriously, they often admitted a first doubt as to whether they did not view bigness from the wrong angle themselves.

I still remember a talk I gave at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, soon after World War II, years before The Breakdown of Nations was written. Having held forth for fifty minutes on the need for breaking up the great powers rather than uniting them in a world state with the rest of mankind, I was told by a member of the audience that he found my thesis rather convincing. "But," he asked, "do you yourself seriously believe that it will ever be accepted?" When I answered with a resounding "No," another gentleman took up the point after the lecture. Identifying himself as Colonel Rothchild, Commanding Officer of Kingston's Imperial Staff College, he informed me that I was scheduled to address more than a hundred highly realistic staff officers from all corners of the British Empire the following day. "Give exactly the same talk you gave tonight," he said. "But, please, don't say at the end that you yourself don't believe in it."

I gladly promised, deciding to end, instead of my lecture, my as yet unwritten book with this one-word declaration of lack of faith in what a subsequent reviewer called "the shortest chapter ever penned." But I urged Colonel Rothchild to be under no illusion: Whatever the entertainment value of my manner of presentation, I myself believed in every word I had said in my talk at Queen's. If the world was to enjoy a measure of peace, the big powers not only must be dismembered, but, as I had taken some pains to show, they also could be dismembered. The only thing I had my doubts about was that what had to be done, and could be done, also would be done.

I complied with Colonel Rothchild's request, and the lecture before the assembled imperial staff officers produced some amused comments of disbelief, but no offense, as was indeed my normal experience. When I once showed my patchwork map of a nicely dismembered Europe to an audience at Los Angeles soon after the outbreak of World War II, all a British journalist objected to was that I had not carried the process of division far enough. "There must be two Irelands," he demanded. Taking my pencil, I promptly fulfilled his request.1 A year later, a Frenchman voiced a slightly different objection at the end of a lecture in Washington. "Divide Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States -- what a wonderful idea. But," he added with his melodious Gallic accent, "you cannot split up France." While his amiable English wartime ally accepted the division of everything, including his own country, as long as Ireland was divided too, the patriotic Frenchman accepted it with even greater enthusiasm as long as France was not affected.

One of the few ever to embrace the idea of division without reservations was an Italian lady from Siena. As a wartime refugee from Mussolini who had fled to London, she understood perhaps better than most that the vast unity of states imparted vastness also to the reach of terrorism and persecution. She alone seemed genuinely delighted at the prospect of a return to an Augustian world of small states. Clapping her hands, she exclaimed: "What a blessing! Imagine, you would have to flee a distance of only fifteen or twenty miles to reach the safety of exile."2

Thus, although few had taken exception to the idea of smallness ever since the New York left-wing Catholic weekly The Commonweal had published my first version of it in its September 26, 1941, issue under the title "Disunion Now"3 (in answer to the then widely acclaimed peace plan that Clarence Streit had submitted in his best-selling book Union Now); practically no one in those years considered smallness as the obvious horse-sense solution to the problems of bigness. At best it was considered romantic, and at worst, as The Guardian suggests, an exercise in crackpottery. When I proposed ten years later at the Boston convention of the American Economics Association that the question was no longer how to expand but how to contract; not how to grow but how to put limits to growth,4 I still drew nothing but blank stares from fellow economists, who dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet. And they might have dismissed me along with my ideas had I not benefitted from an academic policy that was well expressed by a Jesuit friend from Ottawa when he said: "I always felt that every great university must have some crackpots on its faculty. And if it has not, I consider it the sacred duty of every dean to see to it that some are appointed."

But much has changed since then. Smallness has ceased to be a "catchphrase for cranks," and many who thought it made no sense to step back in this age of vast-scale integration, have come to realize that, as the late Welsh anthropologist Alwyn Rees used to put it: "When you have reached the edge of the abyss, the only thing that makes sense is to step back." Concepts such as the limits to growth have become academically respectable through books and discussions in scholarly fraternities such as the Club of Rome. And under the impact of my late friend E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful, they have even caught the imagination of the younger generation from campus students all the way up to Governor Brown of California and President Carter of the United States.

In addition, smallness seems to have borne fruit also in practical terms. Large business now tends to expand by splitting rather than fusion. Underdeveloped countries are turning to intermediate technology that works efficiently on a small scale, in preference to advanced technology that depends on giant markets. Young people are taking refuge in organic farming and the small enclosures of self-sufficient communes, under the guidance of missionaries such as John Seymour, rather than in the empty sterility of worldwide ideological embrace. And, politically, centralized states such as Spain or Great Britain are being forced to come to terms with small-state nationalism and regional devolution under the pressure of inspired leaders such as Gwynfor Evans of Wales, whose programs offer their electorates survival in a fleet of confederated lifeboats as an alternative to drowning in brotherly unison on the sinking Titanics of great powers.

Now, in view of all this, the question arises: Am I still as pessimistic in 1978, when The Breakdown of Nations is being republished, about the prospect of a small-state arrangement replacing the current big-power setup, as I was in 1941 when the idea was conceived? As in 1951 when the book was written? Or as in 1957 when I found at last a publisher in the kindred soul of Sir Herbert Read, the gentle anarchist of Routledge & Kegan Paul, just as I had made up my mind to transcribe my manuscript on parchment in illuminated medieval script rather than submit it anywhere ever again? Is my answer still an emphatic "NO" to the question whether I believe that the big powers will ever agree to their dismantlement merely because this would be the only way of saving the world from the atomic war into which their critical mass is inexorably pushing it?

Yes! My answer is still: "NO." Were it otherwise, I would have written a new book, not an Afterword to an old one. True, smallness has now reached such acclaim that editorialists, economists, and politicians rarely miss a day without paying tribute to its beauty. Yet all this means is what a daily sprinkle of holy water means to the sinner: an attempt to gain benediction for going on sinning. In fact, when an idea becomes universally accepted and its apostles become campus gurus or make the front cover of Time, it usually means that the idea has reached the end of its career. As John XXIII said in reply to a reporter's question about how it felt starting as a farmer's boy and ending as pope: "On top of the heap and at the end of the road." Or as Maynard Keynes told a doubting Thomas in the early 1930s: in twenty-five years, his theories would be accepted by every treasury in the world; but by then they would not only be obsolete but dangerous.

Well, I don't think the idea of the viability and superior value of the small social unit is either obsolete or dangerous. Nor that it ever will be. If I believe, nonetheless, that nothing will ever come of the idea, it is because, in spite of current acclaim, there is not a shred of evidence that the idea is any nearer being understood than it ever was. The Rt. Hon. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in the British House of Commons, may be all in favour of smallness in government. But tell her that the only way to reduce the size of government is by reducing the size of the unit to be governed, as is demanded by the regional devolutionists, and she will consider the very thought as an attack on the sacred unity of Great Britain, which is about the last thing the United Kingdom can afford any longer. And so it is with all other leaders of great powers. Be they prime ministers, presidents, or opposition leaders being photographed with Small Is Beautiful in their hands: Once they have reachecl the top, they will all react in the same manner as Winston Churchill when he said that he had not become the Queen's First Minister in order to preside over the dissolution of her realm.

So there is no reason to expect a Billy Graham style conversion to smallness from any of the current crop of national leaders. Measuring, like all their predecessors, their stature by the size of the countries over which they rule, they have a vested interest not only in the preservation but in the increase of social bigness; and if they express on occasion a willingness to reexamine their assumptions, it usually amounts to no more than one of those good intentions that Oscar Wilde defined as checks drawn on a bank where one has no account.

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.

Nor have they as yet shown any understanding for the real conflict of this age, which is no longer between races, sexes, classes, left and right, youth and age, rich and poor, socialism and capitalism -- all hangover confrontations from the past. 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. But as long as our youth and campus leaders have the same tendency as their national leaders whom they want to succeed to measure their grandeur by the size of the organizations they command, there is little reason to assume that they will do more for smallness than provide it with an Ark and salute it in tribute to its poetry and beauty as it drifts away on the rising waters of the Deluge.

After four decades of developing an interpretation of history out of my theories of size, I come to the same conclusion as Charles de Gaulle, who confided to Andre Malraux shortly before his death that in all his years of highly successful leadership he knew of not a single problem that had ever been solved -- or ever would be. And the same applies to the problem of excessive size. Not that it could not be solved. Of course, it could. But it never will. "Men," as Hesiod wrote twenty-eight centuries ago, will go on destroying the towns of other men"; and looking around me 2,800 years later gives me little reason for hope that it will ever be otherwise. After all, as Hesiod also tells us, Hope was the only gift from Zeus that stayed trapped in the lid of the box of lovely Pandora, while "all the others flew, thousands of troubles wandering the Earth" ever since.

This means I am ending The Breakdown of Nations for the second time on a note of pessimism. But pessimism is not despair. Should we be depressed because we all must die? Or should we not rather use this as the very reason for enjoying life? It is the optimist who is usually condemned to a life of misery, disappointment, and gloom by working his head off in the belief that hard labour will get him back into paradise. Like a Sunday preacher, he shows us the way to heaven by talking about nothing but the torments of hell. My interpretation may be pessimistic. But once we accept our imperfections, the wisest thing is to come to terms with them and follow the advice of my father, an Austrian country doctor who, when asked by a distressed peasant what he should do about his belated case of measles, answered: "Enjoy yourself. Because if you don't, you still have measles."

So, even though I still do not believe that peace will be assured through the division of the troublemakers -- the big powers -- I hope my readers will go on enjoying their lives. For if they don't, they will still have to live with the evils released from Pandora's box in punishment for the blessings Prometheus -- that archreformer of the human race -- wanted to bestow upon them when he brought them the fire of progress.

Leopold Kohr

April 1978


1 From the perspective of 1978, the problem caused by the Catholics of North Ireland seems to stem precisely from the fact that Ireland is divided rather than united. Yet, like the problems of the Turks in Cyprus, the Palestinians in Israel, or, until recently, the French speakers of the Jura region of the otherwise German-speaking canton of Berne in Switzerland, it is due not to the fact that the country is divided, but that it is badly divided. And the alternative to bad division is, of course, not unification but good division -- unless one resorts to the radical solution proposed by Northcote Parkinson during a conference on devolution in Aberystwyth in 1974, when he answered a question about what he would do with North Ireland by stating categorically: "Submerge it in the ocean, and keep it there for twenty minutes." (For Swiss-type solutions, see p.60).

2 I was reminded of this many years later when sitting in the tropical breeze of a terrace restaurant high up on El Yunque with Mrs. and Dr. Romulo Betancourt, the then-exiled president of Venezuela, and his biographer, Robert J. Alexander of Rutgers University. Surrounded by the green jungle of Puerto Rico's rain forest, and with the blue waters of the Atlantic shimmering through the leaves from deep below, I asked Mrs. Betancourt what she had enjoyed most in her life. Was it her husband's presidency? "No," she answered wistfully and without hesitation. "Exile."

3 Actually I submitted this article under my brother's name, Hans Kohr. I hoped the editors would pay attention to it in the belief that the article had been sent in by the well-known authority on nationality questions, Hans Kohn, and, finding that smallness had many good arguments on its side, might publish it anyway even after discovering that the seeming misspelling of the name was no misspelling after all.

4 My talk at the Boston convention was neither listed nor recorded in the proceedings, as I gave it extemporaneously on shortest notice on the invitation of Professor Harold Innis, an old friend from Toronto who was well acquainted with my theories. As chairman of one of the convention meetings, he asked me to substitute for a speaker who had been taken ill. The phrase "limits to growth" figures as subtitle in "The Aspirin Standard," one of two articles in which I elaborated on my Boston talk for the summer issues 1956 and 1957 of the Canadian Business Quarterly.