Leopold Kohr Revisited



by Leopold Kohr
Routledge, 1986 (first published in 1957)

by Bill Weinberg

In the renewed Cold War of the 1980s, many leftists and peace activists in Europe and America were so caught up in the polarization that they failed to recognize the horrific realities of the Soviet superpower. In response, some alienated progressives called for a “third camp” opposed to all centralized power and identifying scale as the fundamental question. The authors of this movement’s manifestos, such as EF Schumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1973) and Kirkpatrick Sale (Human Scale, 1980), all find their mentor in Leopold Kohr, an Austria-born rogue academic who began his crusade with a 1941 article in The Commonweal, “Disunion Now!”, a lonely dissent against moves towards a post-war United Nations. This was later expanded into the founding decentralist manifesto The Breakdown of Nations, which warned against the Utopianism of “ending war,” and called for a Europe (and a world) of small states, with the power to wage only small wars.

Ironically, the revised European map that Kohr envisioned has now partially been realized—but through a resurgence of ethnic nationalism and intolerance, and, in the cases of Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, explosions of hatred and violence which have shocked the world. It was after the end of the Cold War that the contradictions of the radical decentralists became evident.

When Schumacher’s UK-based journal Resurgence started moving towards the mainstream after his death, another Kohr protege, John Papworth, split to form his own small Fourth World Review—with a motto of “For Small Nations, Small Communities & The Human Spirit”—which Kohr continued to contribute to until his own death in 1994. Papworth and his followers bitterly protested the UK’s entrance into the European Union. But their rhetoric invoked the sovereignty of the English crown, and even nostalgia for Maggie Thatcher—as if Britain were not holding Ulster, Scotland and Wales captive, and as if Thatcher’s beloved NATO was not as much an exponent of the “Cult of Giganticism” as the EU.

One Fourth World Review editorial warned that rather than unifying, Europe should “take exactly the opposite road; towards a deliberate fragmentation of the larger nation states, such as is now in progress in the former USSR, in Yugoslavia and in Czechoslovakia”—seemingly blind to the human disaster in the post-Communist world. Admittedly, in 1992, when the editorial ran, the worst was yet to come—but Croatia had been in flames for a year, and the Bosnian bloodbath had already begun. Fourth World Review became more marginal as the breakdown of nations actually commenced.

These contradictions are evident in The Breakdown of Nations—which invokes the tenacious ethnic nationalism of “Macedonians, Sicilians, Basques, Catalans, Scots, Bavarians, Welsh, Slovaks or Normans” on page 57, while applauding Switzerland for not dividing cantons along ethnic lines on page 173. Kohr hailed both little Switzerland and, ironically, the giant USA as “successful federal states.” He offered no acknowledgement of the captive nations within the US—such as the Mohawk, Lakota and Navajo.

The book’s fatal flaw is that it presents its “size theory of social misery” not as a useful and vital insight, but as the single, hegemonic explanation for poverty and oppression. Kohr hailed his “law of diminishing sensitivity” (by which the scale of atrocities reduces the perpetrator’s sense of guilt), as the “cause of war.” Therefore, he committed the exact same error as the orthodox Marxists, with their economistic prescriptions, when he wrote that “everything works on the small scale, capitalism as well as socialism.”

Kohr, writing in the era of the New Deal and anti-trust, could not have anticipated how the multinational corporation, with its global bodies such as GATT and the WTO, would supercede the nation-state as the real arbiter of power. The contraction of state power we now witness (“free trade” in the West; breakdown in the East) actually facilitates an even greater centralization of planetary power in the hands of private-sector bosses with no accountability to the public. Meanwhile, entities such as Radovan Karadzic’s brutal Serb Republic have made a mockery of Kohr’s contention that “the small state is by nature internally democratic.”

As a partisan of Kohr in the 1980s, I was warned by one friend that the corporations could become “the zookeepers of a re-tribalized planet.” When I echoed Kohr’s call for breaking up the imperialist powers in the conclusion of my 1991 book War on the Land: Ecology & Politics in Central America, one reviewer (Jim Glassman in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism) protested that “sovereignty struggles need to be combined with…a commitment to socialism (or some other non-capitalist social order) before they can pose alternatives to the reigning world system.” Ten years later, I have to conclude that he was correct. A new model for radical localist movements is southern Mexico’s Zapatistas, who resist local wealth inequities while disavowing “separatism” in favor of “pluri-ethnic autonomy.”

Chapter 11 of Kohr’s book is entitled “But Will It Be Done?”, and the entire text famously consists of a single word: “No!”

Instead, it is being done—and in precisely the ways Kohr outlined in his conclusion. He posited that either a European Union would erode the old nationalisms of (for instance) Britain and Spain, allowing greater autonomy for Scotland and Catalonia—or that after a new World War, the victorious superpower would divide the great nations of Europe as Napoleon and Hitler had. We see something like this as well, in the re-balkanization of the Balkans into ever-smaller fragments under the auspices of NATO occupation. But Kohr’s very successors resist Euro-unification as the emergence of a new imperialist bloc, and the new Balkan mini-states substitute ethnic extremism for any real control over local resources.

If orthodox leftists need to grapple with issues of scale, so do the decentralists need to grapple with issues of class and capital. If the nightmare of the actually-existing “breakdown of nations” can spark this kind of reckoning in both camps, the opportunities represented by the end of the Cold War may not be lost after all.

This review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the Fall 2000 issue of The Non-Violent Activist, the magazine of the War Resisters League. See also the letters page exchange it sparked with John Papworth.

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