March 15, 2013 11:17 pm

Theory and practice

Social scientist Albert Hirschman is well served by his biographer
Albert Hirschman and Wehrmacht general Anton Dostler

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O Hirschman, by Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University Press, RRP£27.95/$39.95, 758 pages

Albert Hirschman, who died last December aged 97, was one of the most distinguished social scientists of his time. He is best known for Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970), which described how individuals in declining organisations, whether states or businesses, have a choice between getting out, agitating for change and remaining loyal.

That book was in part an attack on the liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which Hirschman saw as minimising the role of politics – in particular when it came to the economic actor who would stay and fight rather than leave to pursue a more rational option. Yet for his biographer Jeremy Adelman, it was also bound up with Hirschman’s buried guilt at having left Germany in 1933, just as Hitler became chancellor. In truth, the full horror of Nazism was not yet apparent at that time. Hirschman, the son of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, left more to fulfil a lifelong determination to find his own way than he did to flee.

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He went to Paris and acquired the first rudiments of an education in economics. Ever an anti-fascist, he volunteered to fight for Republican Spain in the anarchist-led POUM militia – losing, as he observed the baleful influence of the Soviet Union in that war, any lingering attachment he had to communism.

When the Wehrmacht invaded France in 1940, Hirschman joined the French army – to be rapidly demoted on its collapse to the status of refugee, fleeing to Lisbon. There, he teamed up with the equally bold US journalist Varian Fry to assist Jews and other targets of the Germans – including Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp. With the police closing in, he left for the US, arriving in 1941.

More action followed. He joined the US army and was seconded to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner, where he worked largely as an interpreter. There is an extraordinary photograph, which made it on to the cover of the New York Times, of Hirschman looking intently at a Wehrmacht general, Anton Dostler, for whom he was translating in the first of the Allies’ war crimes trials. Dostler was found guilty of ordering the killing of prisoners and was himself executed.

 

In the US, Hirschman married Sarah Chapiro, completed his education in economics, joined the Federal Reserve Board and worked on the Marshall Plan. Later, he turned to development economics, advising governments such as that of Colombia, where he lived for a few years. He won a series of increasingly prestigious university appointments as the study of development moved to the centre of academic economics and political debate in a country consumed, in the 1950s, with anti-communist fervour.

Adelman follows closely the turns and breakthroughs of his thought. Much influenced by the classics – especially Machiavelli’s The Prince, Montaigne’s Essays and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations – Hirschman sought to broaden the scope of economics and social science. Where the consensus of development economists was for balanced growth, Hirschman championed “unbalanced growth”. As others such as Friedman led the triumph of neoliberal economics based on individuals’ right to “exit” from collective and state provision, Hirschman, no anti-capitalist, argued that there was a place for the communal as well.

Eclecticism was his hallmark: practical examples were always an antidote to the overarching theory. This meant his thought was much based on what he called “petites pensées”: Exit, Voice and Loyalty had its origins in his reflections on Nigerian railways; a later work, on disappointment, in a BMW advertisement. By all accounts a terrible teacher, he was a fertile man of ideas, among the best of that generation of middle and east Europeans, many Jewish, who enriched an embattled west while tyranny was at full roar.

Adelman, a historian of Latin America and a colleague at Princeton, has put much labour into Worldly Philosopher. At more than 700 pages, it is remorselessly detailed and can seem repetitious. But cancelling out this defect is the sympathy and skill with which one professor handles the other; the time he gives to ideas; the suggestiveness of the links he draws between life and work. It’s a fine book, worthy of a fine man.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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