Obituary: Professor Leopold Kohr
Tuesday 01 March 1994
WITH the passing of Leopold Kohr at the age of 84, one of the last prophets boarded his chariot of fire. 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: in economics, physics, aesthetics, logic, mathematics, psychology and political science. The main contribution of Kohr, only now coming into its own, was what some call 'size theory': the ideas synthesised by his friend EF Schumacher in the phrase 'Small is Beautiful'.
So strongly has this approach caught on, especially over the last decade, that it is hard to reconstruct the patronising derision which greeted Kohr's ideas throughout most of his long life. The 1940s and 1950s, in which much of his work was done, formed a period in which bigness, both military and political, was held unquestioningly to be desirable. Kohr, as far back as 1957, challenged this orthodoxy and the very cult of growth itself. 'Whenever something is wrong, something is too big,' he wrote then. He expounded this in many directions, but above all as a vision of the optimal human community. In one of his last contributions, a foreword to his final collection of essays entitled The Academic Inn (1993), he said: 'For more than half a century, I have tried to show that provincialism thrives on the unsurveyability of a metropolitan mega-environment, while universalism depends on the translucency of communities adjusted to the small stature of men.'
Leopold Kohr was born in the village of Oberndorf, in the province of Salzburg: two facts which gave him delight and pride to the end of his days. He always claimed that it was the smallness of Salzburg which enabled it to pick out and promote the local boy called Mozart, and there was something Mozartian about his own style: a divine, omniscient playfulness which probably hindered his recognition in the more solemn world of American academia.
He studied law at Innsbruck, and spent a term at the London School of Economics, finishing his studies as a political scientist in Vienna. An independent socialist at this stage in his life, Kohr worked as a freelance journalist during the Spanish Civil War and was deeply impressed by his experience of Catalan independence and of Anarchist experiments with the city-state. The rise of Hitler and the Anschluss drove him into exile, first in New York and then in Canada, where he acted as secretary to the historian George Wrong and - in 1941 - published his first essays on the virtues of 'cantonisation'. Here he was already making his connection between smallness and liberty: 'We have ridiculed the many little states; now we are terrorised by their few successors.'
From 1943 to 1945 Kohr worked as a research associate in charge of customs union projects at the division of international law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington. His first book, The Breakdown of Nations, was finished at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in 1953, but failed to find a publisher until a chance meeting with Herbert Read at a lunch in Oxford. Read, anarchist thinker, poet and art critic, at once recognised Kohr's originality and arranged for the book's publication in 1957. By then, Kohr had moved to the University of Puerto Rico. Here he remained for almost 20 years. His best work in that period was his dazzling series of short columns for local newspapers, published in book form in 1989 as The Inner City.
Concerned with urban development on the island, these essays were a devastating, brilliantly argued onslaught on contemporary dogmas in urban planning, local government, architecture and transportation. It was here, for instance, that he formulated his 'Velocity Theory of Population', suggesting that 'the mass of the population increases not only with every addition to its numbers . . . it increases also with every acceleration to the speed at which a population circulates'.
In Puerto Rico, Kohr expounded the distinction between 'architectural beauty' and 'urban beauty', and the importance of almost endless physical and political fragmentation: 'just as a healthy metropolis should be a federation of cities, so a healthy city should be a federation of squares . . .'.
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. 'The central disease of our time,' he wrote, 'is not ugliness, poverty, crime or neglect, but the ugliness, poverty, crime and neglect that comes from the unsurveyable dimensions of modern national and urban giantism.'
From Puerto Rico, Kohr moved to another small place. He turned up in Wales, lecturing on political philosophy at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. 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. He met the late EF Schumacher, whose great success with Small is Beautiful (1966), a book acknowledging its inspiration in Kohr's ideas, he could only envy, and extended his relationship with the 'fourth world' magazine Resurgence, founded by John Papworth.
Leopold Kohr was an openhearted, urbane, convivial man who loved intellectual companionship and argument. He never married, and his partnership with Diana Lodge in Puerto Rico seems to have ended when he left the island, but his house was usually full of debating visitors wherever he lived. Steeped in classical learning and European culture, Kohr was at the same time one of the profoundly original and innovative minds of the late 20th century.
He spent his last years in Gloucester. From here, in poor health and persecuted by a gang of local teenage vandals, he watched the world begin at last to turn his way. The 1989 revolutions and the movement towards European regionalism created a surge of interest in small, self-governing communities and nationalities which gave him profound satisfaction. Kohr never enjoyed wide fame or recognition for most of his life; his thought was decades ahead of contemporary fashion. As one of his friends said after his death, 'His time is now.'
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