Swans Commentary » swans.com May 20, 2013  



The Mystical Genius of Ervin Laszlo (Part I of II)


by Michael Barker



(Swans - May 20, 2013)   You would be forgiven for not knowing who Ervin Laszlo is, as he certainly doesn't make the headlines very often; which is why it is useful that Laszlo has published an "informal autobiography" entitled Simply Genius! And Other Tales from My Life (Hay House, 2011). But despite his generally low media profile, Laszlo is an influential systems theorist and all-round power broker who has helped coordinate circles of ruling-class policy wonks for nearly half a century. New Age salesman and guru to the rich, Deepak Chopra, calls him "a one-man human-potential movement" and notes that: "In a skeptical age when doubters sit by the side of the road saying no to every new idea, Ervin Laszlo said yes." (1) But what exactly does he say yes to... yes to magic... yes to capitalism... yes to macrobiotics... yes to socialism? On the first three counts Laszlo answers with a resounding yes; on the last, well I think it is safe to say that yes is not an option. So why should you care about Ervin Laszlo? Well if his opposition to socialism was not enough, another good reason would be that he has set his life goal as undermining materialism, no less; and unfortunately he has the ear of some very well-heeled members of the liberal intelligentsia.

So let's get to know Laszlo by starting at the beginning. Born in 1932 in Budapest, he was something of a musical savant. His mum started teaching him the piano at the age of four, and while he learnt by ear, rather then by score, Laszlo writes that this learning process didn't simply involve "mimicking my mother. Rather," he adds, it was about "absorbing the music through my whole being." The magic evidently started early, and shortly after his tenth birthday, when he had finished playing a personal recital before Arnold Szekely -- a renowned professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music -- the "venerable professor stood, threw up his hands, and declared: 'Egyzeruen zseni!' ('Simply genius!')." There is no doubt that Laszlo had skill in abundance, and by the age of twelve he had already played his first concert. (2)

Laszlo's musical talents proved to be his passage to international fame; and while playing piano all over Europe Laszlo began mingling with the rich and famous. For example, while in Paris in 1947, he practiced on the grand piano belonging to "the Baroness Alix de Rothschild, the wife of Baron Guy de Rothschild of the great banking family." Soon after this he made his debut recital in the United States (which took place in April 1948), after being invited to America by the daughter-in-law of Baron Manfred Weiss, "the largest industrialist in Hungary." But sadly, not long after his first stateside performance -- at the tender age of fifteen -- he lost his special touch. Or as Laszlo puts it: "The magic was gone -- I couldn't live myself into the music." (3)

Such problems did not stop Laszlo playing in America, albeit without the magic. And when he turned eighteen, like everyone else, he was called up to join the US Army; but it's here that his elite connections paid off, as his "Mother ran to see the Baroness Erzsebet" (a successful psychoanalyst) who arranged for him to see a "renowned shrink." The shrink confirmed that Laszlo's illness (remember he had lost his magical touch on the piano) was related to traumatic wartime experiences, and kindly wrote him a note that excused him from the military draft. Laszlo, however, was "deemed fit to join the USO, the Army's entertainment corps," and owing to his musical talent he obtained the comfortable job of "foster[ing] good relations with civilian populations in countries that hosted U.S. troops overseas." His first performance for the Army took place in Reykjavik, followed by work in some "countries round the Mediterranean and in the Balkans," and he was later "honorably discharged." Thereafter in the early 1950s he became a Goodwill Ambassador for the US Information Agency and was dispatched to Israel and the Arab countries to give concerts and speak about cultural life in America. (4) This dedication to winning the hearts and minds of the masses would continue throughout his life.

During the 1950s Laszlo became a family man, and in 1960 unilaterally made a decision to alter his "life path" -- although he proudly notes, it "wasn't a rational" decision as he chose to follow his intuition so that he could discover more about his role in the greater cosmos. So while still continuing to earn a living as a concert pianist he "started a new life as a philosopher in the original sense of the world: a lover -- and seeker -- of wisdom." Although Laszlo had bypassed any sort of formal training in philosophy, in the summer of 1961 he met the chief philosophy editor of Martinus Nijhoff (the Dutch publishing house) who was so impressed with his germinal work that he offered him a publishing contract. One year later Laszlo was the proud author of Essential Society: An Ontological Reconstruction, which was to be the first of the more than eighty books he would publish. (5) As Laszlo recalls:

The premise of my book was that there is wholeness and meaning in the natural world, as well as in the world of society. I linked the great processes of evolution in the cosmos, living nature, and the human world, and showed that together they constitute an integral, dynamic, and harmonious whole. (p.130)

In 1962, based at the University of Fribourg, Laszlo joined Josef Boschenski's Institute of European Studies as a research associate and was "assigned to research contemporary philosophy in Hungary, an assignment that was later extended to the Soviet Union." Still continuing to work as a musician, Laszlo soon traded in his aging Volkswagen Beetle for a Porsche 356 Super B, and in "a matter of months" he had written another book titled Individualism, Collectivism, and Political Power, which focused on "the basic difference between the dominant worldview of the West and the Marxist ideology of Eastern Europe." The next book he published was called Beyond Scepticism and Realism: An Exploration of Husserlian and Whiteheadian Methods of Inquiry (1966). (6) Laszlo writes:

In it, I explored two seemingly opposing viewpoints: the skeptical and the realist, as exemplified in the works of German philosopher Edmund Husserl and English-born Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I'd found that their approaches converged on key points, and these, I asserted, provided the most reliable avenue for understanding the world. (p.137)

In the fall of 1966 after accepting an invitation by Professor John Schrader, Laszlo then took up residence at Yale University in the United States, where he quickly "made friends" with the philosopher F.S.C. Northrop, "an eminent disciple and close friend of Whitehead; Henry Margenau, the quantum physicist who was also a leading-edge thinker; Norwood Russell Hanson, the renowned philosopher of science... and Paul Weiss..." "Upon their suggestion," Laszlo read up on the work of the Austrian general systems theorist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (becoming "close friends and collaborators"). In 1970 he then published his doctoral thesis on Whitehead's metaphysics, and two years later published what he considered to be his "principal work" of this period, Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought. (7)

By the fall of 1972 he was a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, where he had been based since June 1968, along that is with his friend James Wilbur who had assumed chairmanship of the SUNY philosophy department. It was at this time, shortly after publishing The Systems View of the World, that Laszlo received a phone call from Professor Richard Falk asking him to "conduct a series of seminars" on this issue at the Center of International Studies at Princeton University. Apparently Professor Falk thought that the ideas presented in Laszlo's most recent book "could provide useful input to the World Order Models Project (known as 'WOMP') he headed with Professor Saul Mendlovitz of Rutgers University." (8) Laszlo's lecture series at Princeton then led to his next publication A Strategy for the Future: The Systems Approach to World Order.

Around this time the president of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, asked Laszlo to write a book relating his systems theories to the "limits to growth that are innate to people and societies"; and literally within minutes of accepting the proposal, Peccei organized for him to be appointed as a special fellow at the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Subsequently Laszlo spent the next few years organizing a team to undertake this major international project, but owing to other commitments he was only able to join the project full-time in fall 1977, and in that year the project published their findings as Goals for Mankind: A Report to the Club of Rome on the New Horizons of Global Community. (9) Shortly thereafter Laszlo jetted off to Tokyo to represent UNITAR at the founding of the United Nations University, and then became the director of UNITAR's new programme on the New International Economic Order. Here Laszlo recalls that the later infamous anti-union media tycoon, Robert Maxwell -- who apparently "was a thoroughly likeable man" -- became a "dedicated supporter" with his publishing company, Pergamon Press, publishing all his programmes reports. However despite such help, the larger necessary support needed for the New International Economic Order was not forthcoming at the UN General Assembly from either the US, the UK, or the Federal Republic of Germany, and so the project was stopped dead in its tracks. (10)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Deepak Chopra, "Foreword," for Ervin Laszlo, Simply Genius! And Other Tales from My Life (Hay House, 2011), p.ix.  (back)

2.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.7, p.9, p.10. Laszlo writes: "Once I began to play a piece by a great composer, I would spontaneously continue it - to me it seemed the music couldn't have been otherwise than the way it was. I was not playing the score, not touching the keys in the order prescribed by the composer. I was in another world, where everything had to be the way it was, and where everything made sense. (p.7)  (back)

3.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.49, p.53, p.67.  (back)

4.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, pp.75-6, p.76, p.77, p.78.  (back)

5.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.125, p.126, p.129, p.130.  (back)

6.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.132, p.133, p.134. Laszlo notes that the American political scientist Thomas J. Blakely was Professor Josef Boschenski's first assistant at the Institute. (p.133)

In the 1900s Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) worked with his former pupil, Bertrand Russell, on the first edition of Principia Mathematica. In later years Whitehead drifted towards magical thinking and became a proponent of panpsychism, influenced by Henri Bergson's (1859-1941) cosmic metaphysics -- an influence that was felt on the mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and postmodern guru Gilles Deleuze. For criticisms of Bergson, see Bertrand Russell, "The Philosophy of Bergson," The Monist, 1912; and Max Horkheimer's recently translated article, "On Bergson's Metaphysics of Time," Radical Philosophy, 2005.  (back)

7.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.139, p.142, p.137. While at Yale Laszlo spent a summer working with James Wilbur at the University of Akton. (p.142)  (back)

8.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.148, p.147, p.150.  (back)

9.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.152, p.153, p.159. One of his coworkers on this project was Skip Fedanzo.  (back)

10.  Laszlo, Simply Genius!, p.160, p.161, p.162. One might recall that Robert Maxwell was a notoriously crooked anti-union businessman who played an important role in helping disconnect the Labour Party from its working class roots. For a short discussion of Maxwell's attacks on the left-wing of the Labour Party during the 1980s, see Peter Taaffe, Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight (Fortress, 1988), Chapter 17, "The months of the great slander." It is also noteworthy that Maxwell was a good friend of the right-wing Japanese mogul Ryoichi Sasakawa, and in 1981 wrote a glowing foreword for a uncritical biography of Sasakawa that was published courtesy of Pergamon Press. On this connection, one should note that in 1989 "at the request of Sasakawa Ryoichi, Robert Maxwell ordered the shredding of the whole inventory of the English edition" of David Kaplan and Alec Dubro's excellent book Yakuza. Japan's Criminal Underworld -- a book which correctly portrayed Sasakawa "as a war criminal with ties to the underworld and the ultranationalist movement."  (back)


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Published May 20, 2013