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Saturday, April 27, 2019

E. F. Schumacher's path to Traditionalism

A new article in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought traces the path followed by E. F. Schumacher (1911-77, pictured) from being a “relatively conventional economist” to writing the iconoclastic best-seller Small is Beautiful, and then to Traditionalism. The article, “E. F. Schumacher and the Making of ‘Buddhist Economics,’ 1950–1973,” is by Robert Leonard, Professor of Economics at the University of Québec.

Leonard is more interested in the origins of Small is Beautiful (1973) than in Schumacher’s Traditionalism, which from his perspective is justified, as it was Small is Beautiful that had a major impact; Schumacher’s later, Traditionalist A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) was less widely read. Even so, the article shows clearly how Schumacher encountered Traditionalism—and it was not, nor at least not mostly, through Lord Northbourne (1896-1982), as I suggested might have been the case in an earlier blog post.

What lay behind Small is Beautiful was first the impact on a German (Schumacher was born in Bonn) who had spent the Second World War in England of seeing what had happened to Germany in his absence. This led Schumacher to difficult questions and then to the Fourth Way of George Gurdjieff (died 1949). He translated The New Man by the Gurdjieff teacher Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953) into German, and spent time with the Gurdjieff teacher and one-time Sufi J. G. Bennett (1897-1974) at Coombe Springs (later famously acquired by Idries Shah, 1924-96).

When he went to Burma on assignment in 1955, Schumacher initially agreed with another German-British former follower of Bennett living in Burma, the anthropologist and film-maker Gulla Pfeffer (1887-1967), that Gurdjieff’s teaching was really Buddhism—an interesting counterpart to those who were at about the same time concluding that Gurdjieff’s teaching was really Sufism. Pfeffer suggested that Gurdjieff had learned his teachings from “a monastery in Upper Burma," but Schumacher did not go so far: “What we in England call ‘Work’ [the Gurdjieff method] is everywhere here a living thing,” he wrote. “I find that the G./O. [Gurdjieff/Ouspensky] teaching… is remarkably accurate. ‘Self-remembering’ is identical (as far as I can see) with ‘Sattipatthana’ [awareness] as it is being taught here.”

The next ingredients were Gandhi (1869-1948) and swadeshi (self-sufficiency), a nationalist doctrine of local production that Gandhi modified and promoted, and which was then much discussed. It has echoes in today’s local source and ethical trade movements--and, of course, in Small is Beautiful.

Schumacher's path, then, is clear. It was the war-time devastation of Germany, Gurdjieff, and Buddhism, then, that helped structure his reaction to Burma. Next come Gandhi and swadeshi. This gives us Small is Beautiful, and also gives us an interested reader of Ananada Coomaraswamy’s Art and Swadeshi (1912). Coomaraswamy then naturally leads to René Guénon, Traditionalism, and A Guide for the Perplexed. Clear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you've seen the recent book, "Alba Rosa", published by Arktos, which is in the vein of Guenonian Traditionalism meets right-wing politics?