Plan it mañana

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Wordly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman
    Princeton, 740 pp, £27.95, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 15567 8
  • The Essential Hirschman edited by Jeremy Adelman
    Princeton, 367 pp, £19.95, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 15990 4

In June 1940 a French lieutenant issued false passes. ‘Sauve qui peut,’ he said. ‘Il faut se débrouiller.’ Get out of this as best you can. Albert Hirschman would say that he’d been a débrouillard all his life. He’d left Berlin in 1933, sought an education in Paris and London, fought in Spain, worked in Trieste, fled back to France, enlisted, and with the rest of his émigré platoon now had to avoid arrest by Vichy. He stole a bicycle in Le Mans; buried evidence of who he was in a tin near Niort; pedalled down to Bordeaux; emerged from Nîmes as Albert Hermant, translator, born in Philadelphia; went to Marseille to get a visa for America; stayed for a few months to help others who needed them too; and eventually walked out over the Pyrenees with little more than a copy of Montaigne under his shepherd’s wrap.

In his new biography Jeremy Adelman doesn’t resist the romance. Hirschman, like other survivors, would refuse to see it. He wouldn’t talk even to his wife about the scars he had from fighting in Spain. And it wasn’t until the 1980s, after Mary Jayne Gold had published her Crossroads Marseille 1940, that others learned what this person ‘wrapped in false papers of which he was inordinately proud’ had done for the Emergency Rescue Committee that she and others had been funding (an organisation which, as Neal Ascherson recently explained, did much more than the Americans had asked of it but much less than it wanted to before Vichy dismantled it).[*] When Hirschman did look back, it was to concede that the sharp things he’d said about quitting in Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970) revealed his guilt about leaving his family and friends in Berlin the day after his father was buried and the Nazis had announced that Jews were to be expelled from the universities. He wanted to be remembered for what he wrote on economics and politics.

On these, he liked to say, he was a ‘dissenter’. He was of the generation that rejected the economic orthodoxy of the 1930s in favour of deficit financing to encourage growth and employment, but he came to resist the orthodoxy in that too. He had respect for unforced prices but thought free markets an illusion and put no premium on sound money. He accepted intervention but ridiculed planning, valued obstacles and welcomed conflict. Not all good things, he thought, go together. But he was a relentless optimist, and didn’t want to think that all bad things did either. The social scientists who tried to make everything fit, he thought, were misguided, and those who took them seriously were a nuisance. The solutions to most things lay in what he called ‘hidden rationalities’ and it was for these and above all for the way in which he presented them that he acquired his fame. He was unusual in the world in which he worked, and on the things he cared about was usually right.

Hirschman died in December 2012. There is nothing very remarkable about his early years, or nothing remarkable for a clever and ambitious son of assimilated Jews growing up after the First World War in a sophisticated neighbourhood near the Tiergarten. He captured these years in an essay he wrote at the Französisches Gymnasium when he was 17. He had been reading Hegel. The relations between parents and children, he declared, are boringly ‘natural’ and of no ethical significance. It is siblings of the opposite sex who ‘become ethically significant as diverse forms dividing between them the different aspects which the ethical substance assumes’. He remained close to his older sister, Ursula, to the end of her life, less so to Hegel: he liked contradiction and would allude to dialectics but came to doubt whether reconciliation in the wider world was to be expected or desired. He inclined to socialism, wanted to study economics, and started classes at the University of Berlin in the autumn of 1932. The following February the Reichstag was set on fire and students started burning the university’s books. Marxists were saying that the conditions for resisting were not correct, but waking to the truth that theory might be as poor a guide to inaction as it was to action, Hirschman inclined to Lenin’s view that ‘there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.’ By the end of March he wasn’t so sure, went to Paris, and set about getting a degree.

He wanted to go to the Ecole libre des sciences politiques, the precursor of Sciences Po, but was advised that as an immigrant he could never succeed to the kind of post for which the school trained its students and settled for the Ecole des hautes études commerciales. That was deadly but it put him in the way of a year’s scholarship to the LSE; ‘only in England,’ he said later, ‘did I really discover what economics actually is.’ He joined the queue at the bookshop for Keynes’s General Theory in February 1936 but it was the subject’s foundations in individual choice rather than discussions of large forces that drew him. He read Mill and Marshall and was excited by Hayek’s lectures and those of the brilliant Abba Lerner. But it was Philip Barrett Whale, who worked on international trade, who prompted Hirschman’s first paper and wrote him a reference for a professional life.

So far, one might say, still not so unusual in the circumstances of the time. What particularly affected Hirschman was his friendship with Eugenio Colorni, whom he and Ursula had met in Berlin. Ursula had followed Colorni to Trieste, where he taught, and in the autumn of 1936, after Spain, Hirschman went to join them and stayed to do a doctorate. Colorni was active in the movement which in the name of Giustizia e Libertà was mobilising socialists, liberals, republicans and Mazzinian nationalists to work for a post-fascist order in Italy. Hirschman was at one with the movement’s purpose but fast losing any taste he may have had for isms. Colorni confirmed him in that and the two men committed themselves to what Colorni called ‘little ideas’, making a pact ‘to prove Hamlet wrong’: doubt, they believed, could make one more certain about how to be. Adelman gives the impression that Hirschman never loved or admired any man more, and it was about Colorni and the importance of ‘petites idées’ that he was to talk on the first evening he spent with his future wife at the International House in Berkeley in 1941. Sarah Hirschman, as she soon became, was Russian by origin, and they conversed for years in French. Their many letters are among Adelman’s best sources.

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