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Schumacher, Burma and “Buddhist Economics”

The path by which E. F. Schumacher was led to Burma in 1955 was a colourful one, by any measure.  By late 1940, having been variously a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a lecturer at Columbia and a finance type in both Germany and the City of London, he found himself a jobless, homeless enemy alien in wartime Britain.  Although a longtime devotee of Nietzsche and far from collectivist in outlook, following ten weeks in a primitive internment camp in Shropshire, he was declaring himself a socialist. Through connections, he was then able to avoid detention and rejoin his family, and was instead confined by the authorities to a cottage in rural Northamptonshire, where he spent over a year working on a land.  He had become a farm labourer.

By day, he broke in a body unaccustomed to physical toil: mending fences, hoeing turnips and bringing in the harvest.  By night, he wrote letters, read about socialism and — with a wife and two children to feed, and other expatriates even less fortunate clamouring for help — penned articles about Nazism and international economics.  One such paper caught the attention of John Maynard Keynes who invited him to tea at his Bloomsbury flat where, to the astonishment of an onlooker, the German upstart spent several hours arguing strenuously with the great man about postwar monetary arrangements.  That, in turn, opened the doors to research at wartime Oxford, which brought his farming days to an end. At Oxford, he wrote paper after paper on the economics of war, Egyptian currency, multilateral clearing, and the Keynes Plan for the postwar international system.  When the opportunity arose, he plunged into planning the British postwar welfare state, alongside its creator, William Beveridge.

Returning to Germany in 1945, he was deeply shaken by what he saw.  The destruction, death and disease; the unravelling of a modern civilization; his own family enmeshed in it all.  His brother had died on the Russian front, and his physicist brother-in-law, Werner Heisenberg, was being secretly taken to England, to be held and interrogated by the Allies in the English countryside.  The dislocated Schumacher spent several years working on de-Nazification and German economic reconstruction, before returning in 1950 to England to become the economist of the National Coal Board. It could have been the dullest of sinecures, but it in fact marked the beginning of a remarkable period of personal transformation.  For it was here, of all places, that Schumacher began to question the modern world.

By day, he worked at one of the world’s largest firms, protecting and promoting the fossil fuel on which English industry had been built.  However, by night, so to speak, he discovered the emerging organic movement and cultivated his own garden. He discovered Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way, and immersed himself in the study of Buddhism and Eastern spirituality.  As with everything he had ever done, he applied himself with zeal.


Schumacher’s annotated copy of the Dhammapada.
Courtesy of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics


In a forthcoming paper (below), I tell the story of these years of the “garden, Gurdjieff and Gautama”, and of how they led Schumacher to a life-changing visit to Burma in 1955.  It was in Burma that he was confronted with the cultural impact of Western economic development and was prompted to write his landmark “Buddhist Economics” essay. This in turn allowed him to become a new voice in contemporary debates on economic development and modernity, and to begin writing the essays that would become Small is Beautiful (1973).


The Schwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon.  Old Postcard, Private Collection


Although Schumacher did not become a Buddhist himself, his experience among Buddhists opened up a spiritual vista that shaped his economic thinking thereafter.   The essential idea was simple and had already been stated by Gandhi, for whom Schumacher had the greatest admiration. It was also implicit in the work of others he read carefully, including Jacques Maritain and Traditionalist writers René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.  It said that humans must restrain their economic appetites by some combination of ethical- or spiritual beliefs, or some form of humility, failing which they would eventually strip the world of its resources and natural beauty. Many are reaching a similar conclusion today. My article shows how Schumacher was led to it some seventy years ago.

Courtesy of Cambridge University Press, the full article may be read here.  Readers with questions or comments may contact Robert Leonard at


Publication By

Robert Leonard

Originally from a market-gardening family in rural North County Dublin, Robert Leonard is an intellectual historian based in Montreal at the University of Quebec (UQAM).  A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he first read the work of E. F. Schumacher, he has worked on Wall St. and in construction in New York city. Holding … Continued

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