Leopold Kohr: The ‘Philisophical Anarchist’

“A small-state world would not only solve the problems of social brutality and war; it would solve the problems of oppression and tyranny. It would solve all problems arising from power.”

“….there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness…..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 over-concentrated social units.”

Leopold Kohr

Leopold Kohr the radical economist and political scientist, with pioneering spirit challenged the twentieth centuries’ dominant ideology of ‘ bigness. ‘ He influenced a generation of thinkers, including E F Schumacher around the theme of ‘ big is bad ‘ and ‘ small is beautiful ’ that still reverberates and challenges us in today’s post-modern society. Born in Austria in 1909, he studied at the University of Innsbruck, Vienna and the London School of Economics. During the Spanish Civil war he became a foreign correspondent befriending Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. Later he emigrated to the United States taking up American citizenship. Kohr taught political philosophy and economics at Rutgers University for twelve years before taking up the Chair of Economics and Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. Here he started to develop his notion of ‘ small is good ‘ by getting involved in local city planning initiatives and village renewal programmes . He also involved himself in the socio political issues of nearby Anguilla by actively opposing the development of American built hotels on the island and additionally, stopping a port development proposed by an international shipping company. It was during the time of his professorship in Puerto Rico that Kohr published his first book: The Breakdown of Nations, which tried to encapsulate all his thinking around this issue. In 1973 Kohr took up a teaching post at University College Wales and became involved in Plaid Cymru, the Welsh independence movement which seemed to somehow unite them in a common bond, the notion of ‘ cymdeithas, ‘ community. Kohr had grown up in a small Austrian village and constantly referred to it as an ideal template for human existence and expression and this idea went down very well within Plaid Cymru. Ten years later Kohr was honoured to receive the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm: “ ….for his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale.”

Kohr often described himself as a radical, a “ philosophical anarchist “ who challenged the ‘ ideology of bigness.’ For him, western societies’ dominant focus on economic growth and ‘ wellbeing ‘ was a misplaced primary policy, a damaging mode of operating that destroys the very thing it claimed to support namely local communities. At the heart of his theory lay the notion of small local, self-regulating ‘ villages ‘ that supported and nourished community ties on a friendly, interactive human scale. Because of this Kohr opposed the practice of external aid being given to materially poorer countries because, he thought it ultimately strangles local initiatives and suppresses active, indigenous involvement. He felt that a process of benevolent gradualism was the best way forward – working alongside people to help solve their difficulties and overcome their problems. He very much felt that centralized, controlled political and economic power needed breaking up and replacing with local ‘ units ‘ of participation otherwise the alienating effect on the population of the ‘ big is beautiful ‘ ideology would spiral out of control causing severe damaging consequences at all levels of society. The anarchist part of him wanted the state’s power to be reduced to level where, in time it would wither away completely leaving a space for smaller, more organic social configurations. Our over reliance on state intervention and state control brought about a submissive, subjugating mentally in its citizens Kohr thought and he wanted to free us from this. He strongly felt that growth rates had to be checked and stopped, if necessary whether it was an expanding corporate company or a national state. The inherent drive to push forward, to constantly enlarge, to constantly influence and to constantly grow, Kohr thought, were a direct function of the need to gain greater power, greater control, greater influence, greater status. At one level these drives could be considered as an ‘ infection, ‘ a ‘ disease ‘ that can grip the human psyche rendering it impenetrable to rational appraisal about optimum operating size. Big, it seems is never big enough hence multinational conglomerates that straddle the globe pushing to explore new ways to gain economic power and getting even bigger in the process. Kohr wasn’t against growth per se but growth that goes beyond its own inherent limits, what he called “ human proportion.” Good functioning, efficiency and effectiveness were seen to be a product of effective operating size beyond which things would and do go wrong. In one of his earlier published papers ( 1941 ) Kohr called for the breakup of Europe into hundreds of city states which reflected medieval Italy, from which he drew so much inspiration. He said: “ We have ridiculed the many little states, now we are terrorized by their successors.” Kohr ( who was Jewish ) was writing during the Second World War and was acutely aware of the tyranny of the national state having previously fled from the anti-Semitism that was sweeping through his native homeland, Austria.

In 1987 Salzburg set up the Leopold Kohr Academy and Tauriska, which have a mission statement to promote his theories and ideas of regional reorganisation.

After his retirement from university teaching he spent most of his time in Wales and his beloved home town of Oberndorf near Salzburg, Austria where he was aiming to return and live permanently but unfortunately he died ( 1994 ) before he could complete this move. His body was buried in Oberndorf.

“So let us solve the great problem of our time, the disease of excessive size and uncontrollable proportions, by going back to the alternative to both right and left – that is, to a small-scale social environment with all its potential for global pluralistic cooperation and largely unaffiliated self-sufficiency, by extending not centralised control but by decontrolling locally centred and nourished communities, each with its own institutional nucleus and a limited but strong and independent gravitational field.”


Whilst Kohr’s theory seems to have validity and appeal on the surface if we take a closer look, there does seem to be a number of flaws in his arguments.
If an organization or institution is set up on an ethical basis and pays attention to constantly monitoring its operations then I would suggest size is an irrelevance. It’s the mission statement ( aims and objectives ) that provides the overarching framework under which the structure’s operating system ( its dynamics ) works and if this is adhered to then we shouldn’t necessarily focus on, and be too concerned by some arbitrary notion of size. Conversely the recent banking crisis in America and Europe, that nearly brought down the entire global economy has been often blamed on the banks being ‘ too big for their own good.’ But I would argue that it’s the banks modus operandi – set up to maximize profits at all costs – that is at fault, not their size. They are by design predatory, working within a capitalist dominated word economy to make as much money as they can in order to perpetuate their dominance and this is the real problem, I would argue. Some unquantifiable notion of ‘ optimum size ‘ should not be the defining feature of organizations but their ethics. Even if you can ascertain some measure of the ‘ right size ‘ the question needs asking: who will impose it? Who will have the legitimacy and authority to implement the changes, nationally and internationally especially when it comes to national states? If growth can be regulated, stopped from exceeding its ‘ designated size ‘ ( a really impossible task ) then what happens to the internal dynamics that are inherently working within the organization or national state that constantly pushes forward for growth? For without growth, it could be argued there is stagnation, a slow death. Kohr’s theory, at one level is just an over-romanticized view based on a bygone age of his cherished youth in Austria. A simplistic, reductionist perspective that takes no account of the dynamics of the modern world.
Kohr argues against ‘ bigness ‘ but his very idea is big which leaves no room for any other interpretation. He provides no clarity on what the mechanisms are for curtailing growth or when to apply them or by whom? He fails to address the issue that what might be excessive to some maybe limiting to others. He provides no real set formulas, no practical templates, no real benchmarks. He recommends no accurate means of assessing who the final arbitrators or adjudicators should be in this idiosyncratic, eccentric model of reform. In some ways Kohr’s idea could be considered as fundamentalism – “ Whenever something is wrong something is too big.”

“ There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness.”
( Quoted from The Breakdown of Nations ) This simplistic, unqualified, ‘ one shoe size fits all ‘ mentality leaves no space or flexibility for variable size based on legitimate rationality and need. Small is good, big is bad and that is that – sorted. And yet, despite my criticisms I do instinctively feel there are some persuasive elements in his arguments. On a subjective plane for instance, I know that I respond more positively to the smaller group/organization where there is face to face contact; human interaction rather than a faceless bureaucracy. Kohr’s concept of “ human proportion “ also highlight the problems we sometimes face when dealing with much larger units such as corporations for instance, where we intuitively feel that they are not ‘ listening ‘ to us any more ( rather like governments as well! ).

Kohr influenced a generation of thinkers like Schumacher to think creatively and imaginatively and without his input we may have not been so sensitized to this growing problem of overly large organizations, institutions, agencies emerging to dominate our world making us feel no longer empowered to influence the decision making process of which we should all be an integral part of.