Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (1957, 1978).
by Kirkpatrick Sale
The first time I ever came across the name of Leopold Kohr was in a footnote of an obscure little academic volume called Size and Democracy, where he was credited with these arresting words:
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 iŁ 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.1
Naturally my interest was piqued, particularly since I was coming to similar conclusions in the course of my own explorations of scale and power, and I filed the name away for future reference. The second time I encountered it was in E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful, where Kohr is mentioned in passing as having written "brilliantly and convincingly" on "the problem of 'scale,' " though in fact none of his work is quoted or even cited. And the third time was when a friend of mine, Norman Rush, who had been a rare-book dealer and was possessed of what one can only call a photobibliographic memory, urged Kohr upon me as a man I had to read before I went any further into my own work. Though he was able to give me the name of Kohr's seminal book -- The Breakdown of Nations, as it happened -- he also allowed that it had been published some twenty years ago and was long since out of print.
Unfortunately, although Norman assured me he had a copy of Breakdown somewhere around the attic of his house, there was no apparent way of ever laying hands on it: the attic was stacked from top to bottom with probably 10,000 books, on the floors, on the staircase, on the tables, behind the tables, holding up the tables, and you could never find the Kohr without somehow getting rid of a couple of thousand books first. So if I was going to have a chance to read this man, I'd best look elsewhere. I tried the secondhand bookstores that still populate parts of Fourth Avenue and lower Broadway in New York; not only were there no copies of Breakdown, but none of the wizened old men, peering over rimless bifocals with the air of knowing every book since Gutenberg, had ever even heard of it. I tried the book services that promise they can find any book anywhere -- "100,000 books in stock"/"hunting? just ask us" -- but all my requests seemed to fall into a great void. I even asked a friend to advertise in The Antiquarian Bookseller, bible of the rare-book trade, to see if some miser somewhere would part with what I had now become convinced must be the last extant copy of Breakdown, and I was willing to pay his price; not a nibble.
Reluctantly I resigned myself to never getting an actual copy of this precious volume to call my own, so I determined at least to find a copy to read. I tried my local branch libraries: no listings. I went to the NYU Library a few blocks from my home: their only copy was in some distant Wail Street branch, and when I called there they said they could find no trace of it. So finally I went to the 42nd Street Library, granddaddy of them all, and within minutes I was at last sitting down with a copy -- a pristine, barely touched copy, it was no surprise to find -- of Kohr's The Breakdown of Nations.
It was worth the wait. Right from the opening page, with its outrageous and yet clearly most sensible proposition, I was captivated. Whoever this man was, he could write: skillfully, with wit and grace and point. He constructed his arguments with deadly logic, for the most part persuasive and yet somehow judicious all at once. He seemed at home with a wide range of subjects and authors and periods, erudite and full of learning, sometimes of the most unlikely kind, but in no way stuffy or academic. He was enthusiastic and obviously believed very deeply in his vision, but he was not unrealistic or Utopian in any sense. And if he was immodest enough to compare himself with Karl Marx, suggesting that his theories explained some workings of the world actually better than that undoubted master, yet he was modest enough to acknowledge in an aside that he was an expert in, if anything, international customs unions and that "in every other field I have to trust to what other specialists have dug out."
And the theories that informed the book -- they were, to my mind, nothing short of brilliant, certainly among the most important contributions to political philosophy in recent decades. When first published in 1957 they seemed strange, no doubt, and clearly at odds with the growth-at-all-costs ethos of that period, but read in the light of the late 1970s, when that ethos had proved fruitless and even dangerous, they took on a new significance. This, I realized, was without doubt a book -- to use the bromide so often misapplied -- whose time had truly come.
The importance of Breakdown lies in its perception -- unique in the modern world, to my knowledge, perhaps in all political literature since Aristotle -- that size governs.2 What matters in the affairs of a nation, just as in the affairs of a building, say, is the size of the unit. A building is too big when it can no longer provide its dwellers with the services they expect -- running water, waste disposal, heat, electricity, elevators, and the like -- without these taking up so much room that there is not enough left over for living space, a phenomenon that actually begins to happen in a building over about ninety or a hundred floors. A nation becomes too big when it can no longer provide its citizens with the services they expect -- defense, roads, posts, health, coins, courts, and the like -- without amassing such complicated institutions and bureaucracies that they actually end up preventing the very ends they are attempting to achieve, a phenomenon that is now commonplace in the modern industrialized world. It is not the character of the building or the nation that matters, nor is it the virtue of the agents or leaders that matters, but rather the size of the unit: even saints asked to administer a building of 400 floors or a nation of 200 million people would find the job impossible.
The notion that size governs is one that has long been familiar to many kinds of specialists. Biologists realize, as J.B. S. Haldane showed many years ago, that if a mouse were to be as big as an elephant, it would have to become an elephant -- that is, it would have to develop those features, such as heavy stubby legs, that would allow it to support its extraordinary weight. City planners realize that accumulations of people much above 100,000 create entirely new problems, more difficult and serious than those of smaller cities, and that it is virtually impossible for a city exceeding that limit ever to run in the black since the municipal services it must supply cost more than any feasible amount of taxation it can raise. Hospital administrators, bridge engineers, classroom teachers, sculptors, government bureaucrats, university presidents, astronomers, corporation executives -- all realize that the sizes of the units in their own particular areas of concern are vitally important to the way their affairs are run and goals accomplished.
Kohr's achievement is that he has taken this perception and applied it in a most fruitful and convincing way to the societies in which people live. He has shown that there are inevitable limits to the size of those societies, for, as he puts it, "social problems have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of an organism of which they are a part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio." In the real political world, in other words, there are limits, and usually fairly conscribed limits, beyond which it does not make much sense to grow. It is only in small states, Kohr suggests, that there can be true democracy, because it is only there that the citizen can have some direct influence over the governing institutions; only there that economic problems become tractable and controllable, and economic lives become more rational; only there that culture can flourish without the diversion of money and energy into statist pomp and military adventure; only there that the individual in all dimensions can flourish free of systematic social and governmental pressures. Thus, the purposes of the modern world might better be directed not to the fruitless pursuit of one-worldism but to the fruitful development of small, coherent regions, not to the aggrandizements of states but to the breakdown of nations.
I sat there stunned: this was a truly impressive work. That it should have been greeted with such indifference in 1957 was unfortunate, but not so surprising. That it should not have an audience today, however -- in an era in which the overdevelopment of Western nations had brought on unchecked inflation, resource depletion, and worldwide pollution; in which major cities throughout the world were choking to death in their own unabat-ing growth; in which the failure of supranational institutions like the United Nations had become painfully obvious -- was simply criminal. Yet one could not reasonably expect vast numbers of people to make their way to the 42nd Street Library in New York City or wait until Norman cleaned out his attic, so I determined that, some way or other, I would try to get the book republished. Whatever one's position on the debates about growth and giantism and small-is-beautiful, this was one work which no one concerned with the issues should overlook -- and, I felt, one by which very few could remain unconvinced.
Now all that remained was to find this unknown figure and get his permission. From the book one could gather that he was born in Austria and had been teaching in, of all places, Puerto Rico at the time the book came out, but there was no jacket copy and no identifying paragraph inside, and naturally there was no word about him in the standard biographies and reference works, nor could I find any representative of his publisher in New York. But a few weeks after first reading Breakdown, I happened to be going through a copy of Resurgence, a little British magazine to which I had just entered a subscription, and there, mirabile dictu, was a column by Leopold Kohr, who seemed to be a regular contributor and was listed on the masthead as an associate editor. Obviously someone else had heard of -- and what's more appreciated -- the man. I eagerly sent off a note to the magazine. Shortly thereafter they sent me Kohr's address in Aberystwyth, Wales -- among the last places, I confess, I would have expected to find him -- and I wrote him at once, probably the only genuine fan letter I have written since I wrote to Ted Williams at the age of ten. I explained to Kohr the difficulties I had had in tracking down Breakdown in this country and my fear that the book had been all but dropped down some memory hole, vanishing from the extant culture; and I suggested that there was a real need to have it reprinted in this country, even though it was now twenty years old, and that the time would never be riper.
The reply a few weeks later was exceedingly warm and in full agreement that an American edition of Breakdown would be nice -- a man's destiny is his character, Kohr explained to me, and it just hadn't been in his nature to try to peddle the work around the world, delighted as he was to get the message across. Even more important, he announced that he would soon be coming to the United States on a brief lecture tour so that we would have a chance to meet, and -- best of all -- he would bring along a copy of Breakdown himself so that at last I could actually have one in my possession. Just a few weeks later there he was at my door, and the first thing he did was to hand me a copy of the book from a full-to-bursting satchel he was carrying over his shoulder; that same night I got the editors at Dutton to read it, and the next day I herded Kohr into their offices to find out their reaction. You are holding the result in your hands.
The Breakdown of Nations itself needs no introduction in the classic sense -- it is clear, straightforward, and quite accessible to any reader -- but the man who wrote it, such is the way of the world, obviously does.
Leopold Kohr was born in 1909 in the little town of Oberndorf, in central Austria, a village of 2,000 people or so, famous until then only for being the place where "Silent Night" was written. (I once asked Kohr what influences were most important in the formulation of his theories about size, expecting him to cite some ancient philosopher. He paused, wrinkled his forehead, and said, "Mostly that I was born in a small village.") Oberndorf, too, was in the cultural orbit of the once-independent city of Salzburg, some fifteen miles away, and though it was not until he was nine that Kohr first visited there, the accomplishments of the city remained impressed upon him his entire life. As he was later to describe it:
The rural population that built this capital city of barely more thanA city, in effect, very much like the city-state Kohr came later to admire and advocate.
Kohr attended gymnasium in Salzburg, graduating in 1928, and later that year registered at the law school in Innsbruck. Then, while a friend signed his name to attendance records there, he went off to England to study at the London School of Economics, at the time bustling with such eminent teachers as Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton, F. A. Hayek, and Phillip Noel-Baker. That proved an excellent place for learning English, and not bad for learning economics, but it meant that for the next two years after he returned to Innsbruck he had to work with what were known as "crammers" to catch up on the courses he had missed and to spend long hours reading in cafes over a single cup of coffee.
During these days the menace of Hitler was growing in the country to the north, but somehow it did not touch the law students of Innsbruck very directly. Kohr was a founder of the Socialist Club at the university -- his father, a country doctor, had been what he calls a "liberal socialist" -- and enjoyed developing his rhetorical skills in debating the fascists of the day. But, he admits, looking back, "I was adrift": none of the -isms then prof-ferred looked to be very desirable, and friendship seemed more important than any ideology. That was a perception that was to stay with him his entire life.
Kohr graduated from the Innsbruck law school in 1933, full of -- as he confesses -- youthful surety about the importance of the legal profession and a belief that the best lawyers were those who managed to get their guiltiest clients acquitted. It didn't last long. On a trip to Copenhagen that summer a young Danish woman he was courting penetrated his lawyerly posturing with a simple, "You are too cold" -- and the pain of that assertion, so at odds with what the young man knew to be his real self, made him realize instantly how far his legal training had led him astray. He never practiced law, nor read another law book, from that day on.
Footloose again, Kohr enrolled for another degree, this time in political science from the University of Vienna, one of the foremost universities in Europe at the time -- though, Kohr says now, "somewhat too big for my tastes." Again he spent two years of intensive academic work, again using the local cafes as his study halls, and he finished in 1935 with the credits for his second degree -- into a Europe in turmoil.
Nowhere more so than in Spain, then on the eve of its civil war. Though Kohr's ideas were still incompletely formed, the struggles of the Spanish republicans seemed to speak to much of what Kohr held important, and so he spent the next six months there, working as a freelance correspondent for a number of French and Swiss newspapers, armed with nothing but a Spanish dictionary and a copy of Don Quixote. "That is when it started," he remembers now. From visiting the independent separatist states of Catalonia and Aragon, from seeing how the Spanish anarchists operated small city-states in Alcoy and Caspe ("I'll never forget reading the sign, Welcome to the Free Commune of Caspe"), Kohr took away an understanding of the depth of European localism and an appreciation of the virtues of limited, self-contained government. What he left behind, incidentally, were some of the trappings of pomp: "I forgot my pajamas and my visiting cards when I left Madrid, and that's the last time I've ever had either one."
In 1938, with Hitler's rise in Germany and the likelihood of war ever more imminent, Kohr, then based in Paris, decided to go to America. Impossible, he was told: it would take at least a year to get a visa, a year more to book passage. He did it in a week. Dashing back to Austria and using all his charm to wangle a temporary visitor's visa to the United States, he slipped back through Germany into France via the Orient Express, and five days later was on his way to New York. It was, he says, "the power of ignorance."
Landing penniless in New York, Kohr learned to eat "Automat banquets" -- relish, ketchup, mustard, and other free condiments -- and made contact with some of the Austrian community in America. Then when his United States visa was about to expire, he went on to Toronto to see if he could get landed-immigrant status there. Weeks and weeks of Laocoonian tangles with the Canadian immigration bureaucracy ensued -- one official even told him he would have to go back to Austria, then under Nazi occupation, to get the necessary papers -- but ultimately he was taken under the protective umbrella of Professor George M. Wrong, the "father of Canadian history," and his status, and safety, were assured.
For the next twenty-five years Leopold Kohr was to make his home in North America. From 1939 to 1940 he was given a fellowship from the University of Toronto, and for the next year served as a secretary to Professor Wrong. It was during this time that his ideas on size and the division of nations began to take form, and in 1941 he published his first article on the subject (Commonweal, September 26, 1941, though he was given the byline "Hans" Kohr), arguing even then that Europe should be "cantonized" into the kind of small regional politics that existed in the past: "We have ridiculed the many little states," he concluded grimly, "now we are terrorized by their few successors."
After the war, Kohr joined the economics faculty of Rutgers University as an assistant professor, where he was to serve for the next nine years. Most of the ideas that permeate Breakdown were worked out during this Rutgers period, and it was there, during the Christmas recess of 1952, that he fashioned the book, working every day from early morning to late afternoon in his campus office, each day adding another chapter, until by January the manuscript was complete. In April 1953 Kohr finally sent out the manuscript to a succession of American publishers, both academic and trade: some interest but no takers. It then made the rounds of the English publishers, with the same story: nibbles but no bites. The feeling ran high in those days for world government and for the American and British imperiums, and a book seriously proposing the reorganization of nations on a smaller scale found little favor. Kohr was discouraged, and on a junket to Oxford, sitting next to some unknown man at some unpromising lunch, he unburdened himself to his neighbor about the sorry fate of his manuscript: "The trouble with these publishers is that they cannot place me -- they haven't met a legitimate anarchist in the past half century."
His companion looked suitably sympathetic and said, "Why don't you let me have a look at your manuscript? I am an anarchist myself -- and also a publisher." He handed Kohr his business card: "Herbert Read, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London."
Herbert Read, of course, was easily the foremost anarchist thinker of the day -- a fact which, Kohr later said, instantly "made 'me wish for the ground to open beneath my chair" -- but he graciously offered to read the book and see what he could do. Dutifully Kohr sent the book, still dubious. Read got the point immediately and published the book straightaway in the fall of 1957.
The British reception was, at best, mixed. A few reviewers commended its charm and style, but the whole tenor of the book seemed to set them on edge: "a maddening little book" is how the prestigious Economist referred to it. Questioning of empires, even empires about to disintegrate, was bad form. In the United States, where Rinehart imported a pitiable 500 copies, publication of Breakdown had all the impact of a single vote in a nationwide election: it was ignored by every periodical except the Political Science Quarterly where Kohr's colleague, the economist Robert J. Alexander, dutifully noted it as "thought-provoking" and added, accurately, "it will probably not be taken as seriously as it should be."
In the meantime, Kohr had been invited to the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico, and there he spent most of the next ninteen years -- teacher, pundit, widely read columnist, author, lecturer, and island figure -- until his retirement in 1974. During those years, Kohr turned out a number of distinguished books, all of them working around the size theories presented in Breakdown (quoting Confucius, Kohr says, "I know only one thing -- but that permeates everything!"): The Overdeveloped Nations (Germany 1962, Spain 1965, reprinted in the U.S. 1978), Development Without Aid (Wales 1973), and The City of Man (Puerto Rico 1976). He appeared regularly in both scholarly quarterlies and popular publications, Business Quarterly, American Journal of Economics and Society, Vista, Spectator, and Land Economics among them. He also wrote a series of newspaper columns for three of Puerto Rico's dailies and appeared regularly in Resurgence, the self-styled "magazine of the fourth world" -- that is, of the small nations and independent-minded regions of the world -- begun in Wales in 1966, And increasingly he appealed in the United States and the United Kingdom as a lecturer, particularly on university campuses, and was by all accounts successful and provocative.
Yet despite all that, Leopold Kohr remained virtually unknown, a prophet without honor except among a small and faithful band. He did gain an ardent and most vociferous circle of friends, including people like Herbert Read, Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans, American adman Howard Gossage, architect Richard Neutra, and Puerto Rican leader Jaime Benitez; and he did slowly win a most prestigious group of admirers, including some of the finest minds of our age, people like Fritz Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Kenneth Kaunda, and Danilo Dolci. But despite this, despite the importance of his contributions in a society bedeviled with bigness, despite his undoubted singularity in an era that makes celebrities even of weightlifters, he continued -- and continues -- to be a figure unrecognized in the larger world.
No matter. After his mandated retirement from Puerto Rico in 1974, Kohr accepted an offer to lecture in political philosophy at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, where he was able to cement his relations with the growing Welsh nationalist movement and work in support of its ideas of an independent and self-reliant small nation. He settled into a small townhouse there, a block away from the sea, and he opens it to friends and students of all ages, a most attractive host, it is said, and a niost engaging raconteur. And there he lives today, a small, energetic figure, seen around the town jogging or drinking at the pub or talking at the' local hall, arguing, entertaining, listening, telling stories, making friends, and always, sometimes gently, sometimes passionately, teaching about the theories of size and the virtues of smallness.
After having finally moved at least some beneficent part of heaven and a significant part of earth to get a copy of Leopold Kohr's book, and from his own hands, I was not able to enjoy the pleasure long. The Dutton editors politely asked me if they could have the single copy Kohr had brought along in his shoulderbag to use in preparing the American edition. Get a copy from the library, I said; impossible, the library has only a single copy and it cannot be put on loan'. Well, then, have the library Xerox it; not possible, the new copyright laws prevent them from even considering such an arrangement. Oh, all right, I said, and I consigned to them the only copy of Breakdown I had ever owned -- in fact only the 501st copy known to have reached these shores. But I want it back.
And to date, nothing: They're still using it, it's in the production department, they need it for publicity, it's being used by the jacket people, and on and on. I will never see that precious copy again, I know it. And so, like you, it looks as though I too will end up buying a copy of The Breakdown of Nations at the bookstore. But -- and this I can say of very few books that either of us will ever purchase in our entire lifetimes -- this one is well worth it.
1 Size and Democracy, by Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, Stanford University Press, 1973, p. 111.
2 Cambridge University professor Austin Robinson, writing a few years after Breakdown was first published, acknowledged that, after a complete search of the political literature of the previous 200 years, he experienced "a feeling of incredulity" that he was unable "to discover a volume of antecedent literature such as the subject seemed to have deserved." (The Economic Consequences of the Size of Nations), Macmillan [London], 1960, p. xiii.
3 Kohr, The City of Man, University of Puerto Rico Press, 1976, p. 67.