Leopold Kohr

Leopold Kohr (5 October 1909 in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria – 26 February 1994 in Gloucester, England) was an economist, jurist and political scientist known both for his opposition to the "cult of bigness" in social organization and as one of those who inspired the small is beautiful movement. For almost twenty years, he was Professor of Economics and Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. He described himself as a "philosophical anarchist." His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations.

Life and work

Leopold Kohr’s best known book

Kohr grew up in the small town of Oberndorf near Salzburg, and it remained his ideal of community.[1] He often commented on the fact that the Christmas carol "Silent Night" was written and composed as "Stille Nacht" in his home village. He earned doctorate degrees in law, at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and political science, at the University of Vienna.[2] He also studied economics and political theory at the London School of Economics.[3]

In 1937, Kohr became a freelance correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, where he was impressed by the limited, self-contained governments of the separatist states of Catalonia and Aragon, as well as the small Spanish anarchist city-states of Alcoy and Caspe. He became a close friend of journalist George Orwell and shared offices with correspondents Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux.[4]

Kohr fled Austria in 1938 after it was annexed by Nazi Germany and emigrated to the United States. He later became an American citizen.[1][3][5]

Kohr taught economics and political philosophy at Rutgers University, in the U.S. state of New Jersey, from 1943 to 1955.[3] From 1955 to 1973, he was professor of Economics and Public Administration in the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, except for a period in 1965-66 when he was professor of Economics at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, Mexico; during these years he developed his concepts of village renewal and traffic calming, and "lent his advice to local city planning initiatives."[2] He also advised the independence movement of the nearby island of Anguilla.[3]

After many rejections by American and British publishers, Kohr's first book, The Breakdown of Nations, was published in 1957 in Britain after a chance meeting with anarchist Sir Herbert Read.[1]

In 1973, Kohr moved from Puerto Rico to Wales, where he taught political philosophy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.[6] 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.[3] After retiring from teaching, Kohr divided his time between Gloucester, England, and Hellbrunn, outside Salzburg.

In 1983, in Stockholm, Sweden, Kohr received the Right Livelihood Award, "for his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale."[6] In 1984, Salzburg created the Leopold Kohr Academy and Cultural Association "Tauriska" to put his theories of regional autonomy into practice.[3]

Kohr was planning to return to his hometown of Oberndorf to live when he died in 1994. His ashes were buried in Oberndorf.[3] Salzburg journalist Gerald Lehner completed a biography of Kohr, based in part on long audiotaped interviews, in 1994.[4]

Kohr was a charming conversationalist and a witty, elegant debunker of popular assumptions.[7] Author Ivan Illich describes him as "a funny bird—meek, fey, droll, and incisive", as well as "unassuming" and even "radically humble."[7]


Kohr described himself as a "philosophical anarchist." Kohr protested the "cult of bigness" and economic growth and promoted the concept of human scale and small community life. He argued that massive external aid to poorer nations stifled local initiatives and participation. His vision called for a dissolution of centralized political and economic structures in favor of local control.[6]

In his first published essay "Disunion Now: A Plea for a Society based upon Small Autonomous Units", published in Commonweal in 1941, Kohr wrote about a Europe at war: "We have ridiculed the many little states, now we are terrorized by their few successors." He called for the breakup of Europe into hundreds of city states.[1] Kohr developed his ideas in a series of books, including The Breakdown of Nations (1957), Development without Aid (1973) and The Overdeveloped Nations (1977).[6]

From Leopold Kohr's most popular work The Breakdown of Nations:

[...] there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if 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. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. [...] And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.

Kohr was an important inspiration to the Green, bioregional, Fourth World, decentralist, and anarchist movements, Kohr contributed often to John Papworth's `Journal for the Fourth World', Resurgence. One of Kohr's students was economist E. F. Schumacher, another prominent influence on these movements, whose best selling book Small Is Beautiful took its title from one of Kohr's core principles.[5] Similarly, his ideas inspired Kirkpatrick Sale's books Human Scale (1980) and Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (1985). Sale arranged the first American publication of The Breakdown of Nations in 1978 and wrote the foreword.[1]

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