Masters of Reinvention

For the first 40 years of his life, Albert O. Hirschman was a little-known accessory to world-historic events. Born in Berlin in 1915, he was a refugee from Nazi Germany who wound his way through ...

For the first 40 years of his life, Albert O. Hirschman was a little-known accessory to world-historic events. Born in Berlin in 1915, he was a refugee from Nazi Germany who wound his way through Europe’s anti-fascist movements, US wartime intelligence, the Marshall Plan, a McCarthyist investigation, and the World Bank’s first foray into Third World development. Sometimes he operated under assumed names, at others he sought recognition, but as he approached middle age, Hirschman seemed destined to remain a minor character on the world stage, a figure of wide experience but no real repute.

All that changed in 1958, when he published The Strategy of Economic Development. This foundational text of development economics launched its author into an academic career that made him one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century. Hirschman wrote a kind of political economy that delighted and confounded his peers. His books transported readers across the First and Third Worlds, through the early modern and modern periods, and into urgent, intertwined problems of economy, politics, philosophy, and psychology. Near the end of his career, Hirschman claimed to have had only one student and lamented his inability to shape public policy. But his unruly curiosity, tireless travel, and literary talents made him a magnetic figure who attracted readers worldwide, and whose concepts—linkages, exit, and voice, to name a few—traversed the academy. Examining the life of a great intellectual living in extraordinary times, Jeremy Adelman has produced a special kind of biography: “a personal history of the world and a global history of an intellectual life.”

Hirschman spent his early years wriggling out of binds. He cheated death as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, helped spirit two thousand artists and intellectuals out of Nazi-occupied France, and remade his life in Bogotá, Colombia, after anti-communist hysteria ended his career in the Treasury Department. Adelman finds novelistic beauty in the fact that this master of escape and reinvention became a theorist of social change, captivated by the paths that people and societies contrived out of apparent impasses.

During the 1950s and ’60s, development economics presented the sorts of puzzles that Hirschman loved. How could economic growth occur in a society that lacked capital, skilled labor, and entrepreneurial talent? How could a government controlled by landowners ever pass a land reform law? Economists had failed to answer these questions, he believed, because they could not recognize the seeds of a different society in an existing one. When Hirschman first encountered development economics during the 1950s, its exponents struck him as incapable of imagining the process of social change. A self-styled alternative to Third World revolution, development economics in fact resembled prevailing theories of revolution in promising social transformation through planned, linear cataclysm, a “big push” that would refashion every salient feature of a society.

His heroes were local capitalists and government officials who somehow managed to pass land reform laws, steer capital toward profitable investments, and found development banks.

Studying real initiatives in the Third World, Hirschman considered such a course of events extraordinarily unlikely. Instead, he championed what he actually saw producing growth and reform: bottlenecks, incomplete knowledge, limited plans, and policy sequences that seemed to put the cart before the horse. His heroes were the Third World’s least romantic personalities: local capitalists and government officials who somehow managed to pass land reform laws, steer capital toward profitable investments, and found development banks. Partial, sequential solutions spearheaded by elites were clearly possible in the present day, and Hirschman argued that their flaws inspired corrective reactions, spurring the dynamic, unpredictable process of change that was the essence of capitalist development.

The same man who had scouted routes through the Pyrenees in 1940 delighted in the idea that the world as it existed contained twisted paths to redemption. We read Hirschman today not because he was right, but because his judgment was so creative, his powers of observation so unusual, and, perhaps, because there is something satisfying about elegant, mischievous optimism, just as there is something satisfying about the full-throated denunciations of injustice that he could never write.

Adelman beautifully captures Hirschman’s intellectual temperament, not only by describing it but also by crafting a book that recapitulates it. Worldly Philosopher is a book of rhymes, in which Hirschman’s writing recalls his personal experience, early and late projects betray enduring habits of mind, and Adelman’s own judgment and style bear traces of his subject’s.

Distinctive modes of explanation recur across Hirschman’s career. Shifting Involvements, published in 1982, explored people’s oscillations between public and private pursuits. On the face of it, the book was a reaction to the rise of public choice theory and the New Right’s denigration of government. At a deeper level, it carried forward the search for an endogenous theory of social change that had animated The Strategy of Economic Development.

Hirschman’s objects of study emerge as his muses, and even partners, in games of call-and-response. In 1963, he was both analyst and devotee of Latin American reformers in Journeys Toward Progress. A decade later, he was forced to confront the failure of programs he had championed, as the “development decade” gave way to dictatorship throughout the region. Curious about capitalism’s relationship to dictatorship and democracy, he cast his gaze back to the 18th century, when Adam Smith, James Steuart, and Montesquieu had speculated on the political implications of capitalist commercial relations. Their arguments had no clear contemporary application—The Passions and the Interests appeared in 1977 as Hirschman’s first contribution to the history of ideas—but they exemplified an intellectual style that he embraced, that of a world before formalized disciplines, in which economics and politics were analyzed together.

Adelman’s biography not only explains Hirschman from the inside out, it gives the reader a taste of his style as a writer: his eye for beauty, love of literature, and sheer range.

There are, most strikingly, echoes of Hirschman in Adelman’s writing. A historian of Latin America, Adelman came of age intellectually at the height of Hirschman’s celebrity, and drew on Hirschman’s work throughout his own career. In preparing the biography, Adelman relived his subject’s intellectual trajectory, immersing himself in the art, literature, political tracts, and scholarly research that influenced Hirschman from childhood to old age. Just as important, he earned the trust of Hirschman, his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Katia, all of whom provided interviews, personal papers, and family photographs. Adelman’s proximity to Hirschman allows him to interpret a public record that is extensive but opaque, and the resulting book is a sympathetic, internal account of a life complex enough to profit from such treatment. For anyone who knows one part of Hirschman’s life, the book opens entire worlds. For anyone who has pored over his cryptic papers, Adelman’s mastery of them is revelatory.

Worldly Philosopher not only explains Hirschman from the inside out, it gives the reader a taste of his style as a writer: his eye for beauty, love of literature, and sheer range. Chapters begin with passages from Kafka, one of Hirschman’s favorite authors. Throughout, the prose is spry and high-spirited, communicating the adventure of Hirschman’s life and his fascination with the world around him; it can, by the same token, drain the righteousness and horror from social conflict, just as Hirschman could in distilling curious propositions from the brutality of the 20th century.

Adelman’s and Hirschman’s harmonious styles suggest convergences of political judgment. For Adelman, Hirschman is a model of an engaged intellectual, a principled social democrat who could not abide Robert McNamara and quietly resisted dictators from Hitler to Pinochet. From another perspective, Hirschman’s greatest intellectual contributions were strangely bloodless and politically inert. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, a scholarly sensation in 1970, explored the intertwined uses of protest and “dropping out” in the face of state and corporate transgressions. The book was an elegant analysis of human behavior, but an awfully sterile response to the social movements, wars, and political repression of the late 1960s.

Indeed, while Adelman highlights some of Hirschman’s limitations—his refusal to see catastrophes in the making, his failure to influence policy—he hews close to his subject’s interpretation of events. As Hirschman traverses the globe and the 20th century, Adelman makes dozens of knotty contexts intelligible by taking an extraordinarily clear view of them: Hirschman’s. In accounts of debates between European socialists and communists of the 1930s, Hirschman’s perspective appears as truth: the communist brutes and stooges he encountered are all we see of a complex political movement. In descriptions of battles among economists, Hirschman’s criticisms of postwar planning methods, disciplinary specialization, and mathematical expression appear to be just as iconoclastic as their author considered them. Likewise, Hirschman’s theoretical and methodological disagreements are weighted with moral and social significance that they cannot quite bear. Worldly Philosopher is, as promised, a sweeping history of the world, and a highly personal one. icon