La trahison des clercs

I’m about a third through Jeremy Adelman’s superb biography of Albert Hirschman,

, and thoroughly enjoying it. We’ve got to the end of the second World War, by which time the young Hirschman had already had a lot of History to contend with, in the shape of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, running with Varian Fry an escape route for Jews through Marseilles, Spain and Lisbon, and his own flight to the US and re-enlistment in the US army – alongside learning economics, reading widely and speaking several languages fluently, and getting married to a Russian-French-Californian intellectual and beauty.

[amazon_image id=”0691155674″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman[/amazon_image]

Needless to say, I’m particularly interested in reading about Hirschman’s reading. He was a fan of Camus, but not Sartre – definitely the right preference ordering. When fleeing Vichy France as the authorities closed in on his escape route, and able to take only one book with him, he chose Montaigne’s


[amazon_image id=”B0081LMNKA” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Montaigne – Les Essais (French Edition)[/amazon_image]

There is an interesting passage about Julian Benda’s attack on the abandonment of Enlightenment reason for nationalism by European intellectuals,


[amazon_image id=”3640206096″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Julien Benda – La Trahison Des Clercs[/amazon_image]

Reacting to the argument, Hirschman wrote of the “hybrid position of intellectuals in the modern world: neither masters, nor prosecuted, but technicians.” Most saw their role as working out the most effective means for politicians to achieve the ends they selected, but this meant intellectuals had abdicated the responsibility to study “the thirst for power and domination.” There is no possibility of pure technocracy, he argued – that in itself is a political choice. An interesting reflection given the return of technocracy in Europe post-crisis.

I’ll do a proper review when I’ve finished the book, which is going slowly because it’s too big to carry around. There have been other excellent reviews, such as this by Justin Fox and this by Cass Sunstein.

Meanwhile, I want to honour the name of Hiram Bingham IV. I’d never heard of this State Department official. This rich and well-connected diplomat, based in Marseilles from 1939, had become disillusioned with the Department’s policy of doing little to nothing to help refugees from Europe reach the US, and so embarked on his own freelance mission to issue thousands of US visas, both legal and illegal, to help the Varian Fry and Albert Hirschman rescue operation. The beneficiaries included Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall as well as hundreds of people lacking the protection of fame. The State Department retaliated by posting Bingham to Argentina, where he turned his attention to tracking Nazis. He resigned from the foreign service in 1945 and didn’t speak of his wartime work again.


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