Jeremy Adelman’s detailed and illuminating biography of Albert Hirschman in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is an excellent example of intellectual biography. Even more, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of social science theories and frameworks.
Born to a professional Jewish family in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman’s life bracketed the most searing nightmares of the twentieth century. Hirschman was an anti-fascist activist as a teenager, leaving Berlin for France in 1933. He was an intellectual from the start, with curiosity and originality driving his quest for ideas and knowledge. But equally early he was an activist, with political convictions and allegiances that gave him the courage to resist fascism in every way he was able to. In France he pursued a doctorate in business (as the only French program he could enter), while continuing his anti-fascist activism.
One part of the interest of this biography is the engagement in war and revolution into which his historical situation and political sympathies led Hirschman. He fought as a volunteer in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Returning to France he found himself as a volunteer in the French army, but was quickly demobilized following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940. He then had an intense half year of clandestine work in Marseille helping arrange escape from France for leftist intellectuals, refugees, and the occasional stranded American. He himself managed to emigrate to America in 1940 by landing a Rockefeller fellowship at Berkeley; but he then enlisted in the American army within weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So in a brief few years Hirschman served in three armies fighting fascism. He spent months in Algiers as an enlisted man, was assigned duties as a translator behind the American lines in Italy, and wound up serving as translator in Rome for the German general who was the first to be charged for war crimes by the American army. (The general was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to death.) And on Hirschman’s return to America his career was mysteriously blocked at various points by suspicions and innuendos that came to play a role in his confidential security dossier in Washington.
While living in France (and later in fascist Italy as an American soldier) he became closely acquainted with some of the most interesting activists and political thinkers of Europe. Among the intellectuals who passed through the escape channels Hirschman helped to maintain included “Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Siegfried Kracauer, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (the serial wife of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring” (171).
So Hirschman’s life is inherently interesting. Hirschman combined reflection and activism in ways that were much deeper than most intellectual figures were called upon to do. (Arthur Koestler’s life has quite a few parallels; link.)
But I find Adelman’s biography interesting for another reason as well. Adelman does a remarkable job of explicating the originality and edginess of Hirschman’s thought, from his service in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington and efforts at European reconstruction, to his advising role in Columbia, to his mid-life success in gaining entree to elite American universities (Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Princeton) and the emerging field of the theory of development. Adelman works through the combinations of personal, contextual, and intellectual influences that helped to shape Hirschman’s imagination as a social scientist, and this makes for very interesting reading.
There are many insights in Hirschman’s work. But particularly fundamental is a point that Adelman underlines again and again: Hirschman’s inherent skepticism about the claims of grand theory in social science and public policy. It was a skepticism about the idea of a social science aspiring to the exactness of the natural sciences; about the idea of comprehensive predictive theories about complex social processes; and about the hope of having a unified social scientific theory that could drive policy towards an optimal solution. Against these hopes, Hirschman emphasized the importance of hands-on experience of the complex processes we care about (economic development, for example); he emphasized the value of small and partial theories for limited aspects of the social world; and he celebrated the value of examining the particular rather than seeking always for the generalizable. In Adelman’s words,
This eye for particulars and their meanings imprinted itself on Hirschman, who was already questioning History’s “laws” and searching for a spirit that was more epic because it was open to chance and to choice. (111)
Adelman traces this crucial intellectual disposition to a number of different influences: Hirschman’s brother-in-law, the Italian physicist and activist Eugenio Colorni (murdered by fascist thugs in Rome in 1944); the writings of Hayek; and his own experience as an observer and practitioner of economic change in Columbia (in international trade and in economic development).
To Otto Albert, the conversations with Eugenio drew his attention “to what we call the small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies”. (114)
The Big Idea, which Hirschman associated with the “claim to complete cognition of the world,” claimed “to explain multi-causal social processes from a single principle.” The alternative was “the attempt to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.” (116)
Here is Adelman on the influence of Hayek:
Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Hayek’s vision of spontaneous, unguided, and hidden forces at work presumed an inscrutability about life that Hirschman shared, in which its ironies, paradoxes, and the possibilities of unintended consequences provided the underlying engines of change. (238)
Perhaps most important, Hirschman was persuaded by the bad experience of the dogmatic, ideological theories of both right and left in the 1930s of the importance of modesty and open-mindedness in one’s convictions about how the social world works. This becomes one of the key elements in Hirschman’s main academic work, his critique of modernization theory and unified central planning as foundations for the policies of agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.
What comes out of this skepticism about the grand theories of the economists or political scientists is a more pragmatic and experimental approach to policy. Rather than building complex plans that presuppose a detailed knowledge of causation and inter-connection of causes, we should instead take pragmatic steps that seem to be pushing the system in the right direction. In the case of Columbia, this meant favoring the developments of entrepreneurs and businessmen in their individual efforts rather than supporting grand schemes of reconstruction and capital investment. He favored multiple strategies, “not a single road to change” (274).
Instead of a “propensity to plan,” Hirschman advocated a “propensity to experiment and to improvise”— a spirit missing from the council and whose absence deprived all sides from actually learning from experience precisely because the planners were so convinced that it was not they who had to be converted. After all, they were “experts.” (323)
The result, in contrast to expensive, expansive, intellectually seductive general plans and combined assaults, was a piecemeal approach targeting the scarcest of all variables. This was the premise of “unbalanced growth,” a term he eventually abandoned because he did not want his work positioned only as an alternative to a mainstream. (347)
Also interesting is the fine interpretation that Adelman offers of Hirschman’s first two books, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development. The first was a great disappointment to Hirschman, since he had hoped that it would launch his academic career and reputation in the United States; while the second achieved exactly the kind of success he had hoped for with the first. But in hindsight, the first book seems to have as much importance as the second. It lays out a powerful and rigorous argument for the ways in which nationalist and fascist regimes were able to use the “soft power” of trade alliances to achieve their goals. The inequalities of bargaining position that exist between bilateral trading partners create the opportunities for highly coercive actions by the more powerful. This argument still seems relevant in the global trade environment in which we now live. It also propelled the argument towards a de-nationalization of world affairs — a historical development that came to life to some extent in the establishment of the European Union.
Adelman, a professor of history at Princeton, has also edited a forthcoming collection of some of Hirschman’s work, The Essential Hirschman. Both these works are truly valuable, and particularly so for social scientists who have realized that their disciplines need the kinds of independent and cross-sectional thinking that Hirschman was so good at.
(I have a happy memory of meeting Albert Hirschman at a conference on poverty and development at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1990. He was very generous with his ideas, his critical suggestions, and his encouragement.)