The title of Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O. Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, concisely sums up the character of many public intellectuals of the twentieth century. In battles that overflowed the geopolitical arena to encompass culture, the arts, and political theory, intellectuals frequently found themselves where history was being made.
Born in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis announced the expulsion of Jews from the universities. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, and later guided escapees across the Pyrenean mountain passes between Vichy France and Spain. He worked in Algiers as a translator for the OSS (precursor to the CIA), in Europe for the Federal Reserve Board on the Marshall Plan, and in Colombia for the World Bank. His experiences in Europe and Colombia influenced his thinking on economics and development: Hirschman realized that the grand plans and idealized markets of his fellow economists were unworkable in the real world. Instead he proposed a strategy of improvisation and experimentation, responsive to local conditions and opportunities. Later works, including Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests, continued against the grain of conventional economic thinking and established Hirschman as one of the foremost intellectuals of his time.
Isaiah Berlin too was an emigrant: born in Riga in 1908 (now in Latvia, then part of Russia), he lived through the 1917 revolutions in St. Petersburg before his family moved to England in 1921. He found a home at Oxford University and, despite his Russian Jewish, roots rapidly found himself at the heart of the British establishment, working for the British Diplomatic service in the embassies at Washington and Moscow during the Second World War. His position, and his legendary brilliance as a conversationalist, gave him access to a veritable Who’s Who of politicians, intellectuals, writers and academics. He played a part (recently dissected by Frances Stonor Saunders) in the smuggling of the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of Russia. Personal Impressions, Berlin’s collection of biographical essays, draws on first-hand acquaintance with Boris Pasternak, alongside Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and many others.