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Review: Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, by Jeremy Adelman

Albert O. Hirschman certainly led a life unlike most academics:  born in Berlin in 1915, he engaged in street battles with Nazi thugs during his mid-teens, went underground and escaped Germany, fought in Spain for the Republic against the Fascists; joined the French army to fight the Nazis, and eventually even served in the US Army in Europe.  In between, in Marseilles, Hirschman joined with Varian Fry to help smuggle somewhere around 2,000 intellectuals and especially Jewish intellectuals, out of Vichy and to the UK and the US.  Hirschman later became one of the foremost thinkers in the world among development economists.

Peter Adelman, in an impressive work he titles Worldly Philosopher:  The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, brings Hirschman back to life, despite the latter’s death in December 2012 at age 97.  It is clear that Adelman really did accomplish the goal of seeing the world through his subject’s eyes.  This is a masterful and insightful work of which I imagine every biographical subject dreams.

Adelman covers every aspect of Hirschman’s life—actually, his many lives—in great detail.  After World War II, Adelman places him, as an intellectual and albeit uneasily, in the discipline of development economics.  He shows Hirschman as a devoted husband and dedicated family man.  He shows him working in Latin America, especially Colombia, but also later on with those intellectuals trying to survive under the dictatorships of (especially) Brazil and Chile.  He reports of Hirschman’s work with some of the key development foundations, such as the World Bank and the Ford.  And in the later years of his career, working at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.

Yet, overall, Adelman defines Hirschman as a “reformer.”  He writes, “This book is about someone who thought hard about and dwelled in the neglected, ravaged space between the romance of revolution and the firmament of reaction”, and “His lifework represented a commitment to reform, which ranged from rebuilding war-torn Europe, to development in the Third World, and to defending a capitalism made humane by accepting the necessity of being reformable”.[1]

Hirschman, nonetheless and to his credit, challenged the dominant way of thinking in development economics.  Much of the thinking in the late 1950s and early ‘60s was that the people in the “developing world” were incapable of overcoming problems of their own, and thus needed massive infusions of capital from the so-called developed countries to overcome their backwardness, economic and often seen as cultural.  People like Harvard’s Walt Rostow, who later helped bring us the war in Southeast Asia, and MIT’s Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, were proponents of the “big push” approach.  Hirschman, because of his experiences on the ground in Colombia and Latin America overall, challenged this thinking:  in getting to know intellectuals in these countries, he knew that there already was economic growth in Latin America, and that aid had to be channeled to achieve specific results.  While quite modest an understanding today, it was earth-shattering then.

The strength of Hirschman’s approach was that he was a supple thinker, who rejected a Manichean approach, opting against dichotomies.  In other words, rather than a “either-or” approach, Hirschman adopted “both-and.”  This gave him the ability to delve into an empirical world, and take from it what it offered, rather than forcing him to place findings into pre-created categories:

What he wanted was not so much a theory with predictive powers, but a way to think about societies and economics, beginning with the premise that living in the world means we cannot step out of time to divine universal laws of human motion severed from the day-to-day banalities and mysteries of existence.  The intellectual is as much a creature of the world as his or her subject—and so to are his or her concepts, which are limited and liberated by the complex form from which they emerged.  It is for this reason that experience of real life, appreciating one’s place in history, was such a wellspring for Hirschman, as it was for his inspiration.[2]

Yet this approach also hindered Hirschman’s influence and impact.  There never was a Hirschman “school” of development economics and, of course, Hirschman never won a Nobel Prize.  While honored in his later years for his prolific and intellectually stimulating writings, he was never able to move from insight, no matter how inspired, to abstraction at the level of unified thinking, much less prediction.  And, challenging the “big dogs” in the field, this gave them the opportunity to deny him his public due.

Adelman conveys well what Hirschman was able to do within the confines of his times, location and intellectual heritage.  And, if we confine our thinking to the world of capitalism and reform, we can see the importance of Hirschman’s work and overall career.

Yet I’m not satisfied:  while I think Adelman really gets Hirschman in many, many ways—I can’t imagine a more complete account of the man and his work—where I think Adelman fails to deliver is that he never really asks what Hirschman didn’t get.  In other words, he accepted Hirschman’s worldview as being all that was possible, not asking if there was anything more.  And I think this was a failure of Hirschman’s work, and a limitation of Adelman’s. By this, I mean that Hirschman accepted the reality of the world as a “given,” not seriously asking how it got that way.  The key piece of the puzzle missing from his work is that he never addressed the concept of imperialism.

Now, the Marxists—and especially Lenin in his “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” (1916)—had developed the concept of imperialism to the greatest degree.  While arguably having a “realistic” understanding of imperialism, and decrying colonialism and ensuing wars, ultimately the Marxist theory of imperialism is limited because it is economistic; in short, it sees the motivation for imperialism being economic gain or, in a more precise term, profit.

Adelman writes early on in his narrative that Hirschman had rejected Marxism because of the dogmatism he saw during the Weimar Republic.  Tied to that, undoubtedly, was the looming presence of Stalin’s “ever present gaze” (my term) over German Communists.  I can understand the debilitating impact that had on a young man.  However, Adelman never questions why Hirschman never overcame that “blind spot” throughout the rest of his life.

I think this is Hirschman’s greatest failure.  The essence of imperialism—and I’m using it empirically, not ideologically—is that not all countries have equal economic and political power, and that the stronger ones seek to dominate, or at least gain hegemony over, the weaker ones, leading to economic (and often, political) benefit to the stronger. Whether one accepts the Marxist version or not—I don’t; I prefer Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s conceptualization in his 1989 book, Empire and Emancipation:  Power and Liberation on a World Scale (Praeger)—the fact is that most if not all stronger nations have sought hegemony over weaker ones, and to the stronger one’s benefit.  (Now, following Nederveen Pieterse, this can be economic benefit, but it also can be of political benefit—such as geostrategic positioning or control of internal social forces—and the relationship is a primary/secondary one, not an either/or.)

If ignoring imperialism seems too severe a criticism, perhaps there is another way to approach this, and that’s counterfactually:  where would the countries of Africa be today had the 15 million people or so and their descendants not been exported/stolen from that continent?  Or, perhaps much more difficult to imagine, how would the industrialization of the United States taken place—and so rapidly and intensively—had not the capital been generated in both the North and the South from the slave-based, plantation agricultural system and its enhancing industries (e.g., shipping, insurance, and investment banking), and used for development?  Without that, the rapid industrialization of the US by the late 1800s-early 1900s becomes impossible.

Hirschman never questions economic development in Western and Central Europe, Japan or the United States on such a sweeping manner in his work.  He accepts “underdevelopment” as a given and, to his credit, tries to help others overcome such limitations.  Yet, he never questions how these countries got that way.

Adelman, unfortunately, never questions Hirschman on this, taking the latter’s thinking as sufficient.  And this is where Adelman loses in his efforts to truly understand Hirschman.  For by “pulling his punch”—whether because of his own limitations, which is my analysis, or consciously trying to enhance Hirschman’s reputation, which seems unlikely given the level of scrutiny of his subject—he gives Hirschman more cachet than this writer thinks is deserved.

By the end of the book, I was bored; it was a tough slog to finish.  Adelman does not end with a summation of Hirschman’s work, nor by placing him intellectually in his field, broadly or narrowly fashioned.  By limiting his vision to development economics or even “development” as a whole, Adelman can justify years of his work, and 657 pages.  This reviewer, for better or worse, questions such expenditure of resources:  the field, as traditionally defined, while being challenged by Hirschman, does not deserve this detail.  Hirschman, by refusing to break out of its larger box (although going much further than most of his intellectual colleagues), ultimately cannot be seen as important as Adelman propagates.



[1] Adelman, Jeremy, Worldly Philosopher:  The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. (Princeton University Press: 2013), 14-15.

[2] Worldly Philosopher, 655.


Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.  He has published monographs on the radical wing of the Filipino labor movement—KMU:  Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines:  1980-1994 (Quezon City:  New Day Publishers, 1996)—and on the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO:  AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2010 hardback, 2011 paperback).  He has just completed editing a special thematic issue on “Building Global Labor Solidarity” for Working USA:  The Journal of Labor and Society, which will be published in June 2014.  Scipes has published over 150 articles and book reviews in the US and in 10 different countries.  He can be reached through his web site, http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.




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