Conocer es resolver. Conocer el país, y gobernarlo conforme al conocimiento, es el único modo de librarlo de tiranías.—José Martí

When I was at Columbia in the mid-1950s someone began circulating to me the AUFS Latin American reports. In those days as in these, on-the-scene reporting from the southern lands was not conspicuous for blazing illuminations. It was startling, then, to discover the fresh and authoritative letters of one “K. H. Silvert,” identified as a political scientist who had begun his career at age nineteen by observing the 1940 elections in Mexico. The voice was fresh because it had its own language, rendered things directly, sliced through to issues. Take the letters from Chile. The academic says, “Ideological commitments and perceptions of group interest impede establishment of consensual agreement with respect to ground rules for bargaining between labor unions and industrial management.” K. H. Silvert said, “Meanwhile, a labor-management stew boils away.” The pundit says, “Chile is a complex country of inherent contradictions and tensions.” K. H. Silvert said, “After all, how can a country be delicate as an oyster and gravelled as a hayseed all at the same time?” Some day Kal’s AUFS epistles must be collected. They didn’t all appear in The Conflict Society, and those that did were tidied up. After all, which is the real Kal: an essay “On Customs” (narrating a harrowing day at the Chilean aduana) that concludes, “I was home by 2:00 A.M., dried myself out, ate two pieces of chocolate, and went to bed?” Or a letter entitled “A Trip to the Custom Cleaners, Being an Intimate and Highly Subjective Account of a Day Spent in the Shadow of the Valley of Paradise” that concludes, “I was home by 2:00 a.m., dried myself out, ate two pieces of chocolate with difficulty wrested from the children, and went to bed?”

The point is not simply that Kal wrote cleanly and arrestingly (with a slight penchant for culinary metaphors) while his peers succumbed to in-house jargon and dissertation-style pomposity. It’s that Kal wasn’t given to “handling data.” As he put it later, he didn’t go about the business of inquiry by saying, “Let’s ask and see what they answer.” He planted himself firmly at the center of what he wrote. He rendered his vision of things and, with it, his own perceptions, perplexities, convictions, and wisdom. That’s why Kal’s voice had authority as well as edge. At the time, I shamelessly cannibalized his Chilean letters in undergraduate lectures, for they rounded up all the themes needed for historical understanding: import substitution, the roots of inflation, social structure, politics (there’s even a letter that makes the party system of the 1950s intelligible), housing, agriculture, the mass media.

As the years passed Kal didn’t hop from fad to fad; he built steadily on those early lessons from Chile, Argentina, and Central America. Because he internalized experience, the longer-term trends didn’t overtake him. His Chilean “Coda,” for example, written from Buenos Aires on October 10, 1957, deflated eight “reigning myths” about Chile, among them the myth of public non-violence, the myth of military non-intervention, and the myth of institutional democracy. He concluded of this “model” Latin American polity that, “for the long run, Chile as a national society must either bend to assume the responsibility and benefits which such status entails, or else break in trying to tighten its muscles to continue straddling two centuries drifting ever more widely apart.” Nearly two decades later, after the debacle of 1973, Kal was deeply stung that his own government had lied to him about its complicity. He was forced, as he wrote in The Reason for Democracy, to betray his fellow citizens and his own education. Before learning that “black arts” had become a routine instrument for U.S. foreign policy, Kal had publicly committed himself to explaining the tragedy from his close knowledge of Chilean history. His thirty years of involvement with the country (he did his doctoral research there in 1947-1948) had told him that “things were so bad in Chile in any event that the CIA had little reason to intervene.” The revelations from Washington turned his tacit support of his own government into disloyalty to his national community. That for Kal was intolerable.

In the mid-1960s I finally met Kal and Frieda and their sons on a visit to Dartmouth and was received in the warm Vermont home that Kal so much loved. My hunch was verified; those AUFS reports had indeed been composed, in Unamuno’s phrase, by “nada menos que todo un hombre.” Shortly thereafter I was detailed to chair a committee to create the Latin American Studies Association. Hedonistically, we chose New Orleans as the meeting site. The group divided on serious issues: two of us stood in line before Le Vieux Carré and Antoine’s, three of us settled for barrels of oysters and quarts of martinis at streetfront bars. We botched the job of constitution-making, which had soon thereafter to be repaired under new-sprung pressures of populism. But one thing we knew. If we wanted to set proper standards for Latin American studies, if we were concerned with the mix of intellectual curiosity and moral commitment, or of sciences and humanities (indeed, Science and Humanity), the founding president had to be Kal Silvert. So we did the politicking to bring this about. That choice was never subsequently challenged.

This isn’t the occasion nor, I know, am I the person for a sober, informed assessment of Kal’s “contribution.” He contributed so much beyond the niche of “Latin American studies”—to education, to clarifying the issues of domestic politics and foreign policy, to moralizing and humanizing intellectual life, to institution-building on several continents, to the struggle for human rights—that large sectors of his activity were unknown to me even though I was in close touch with him during the last ten years of his life. In the single year 1975, for example, Kal offered lectures, seminars, and consultations in New Delhi, Bombay, and Hyderabad; was a consultant to the U.S. Advisory Commission on International and Cultural Affairs, to the governor and cabinet of Puerto Rico, to the OAS, to graduate programs at the University of Denver, SUNY-Albany, and SUNY-Buffalo; was a member of the Cuba review group for the Council on Foreign Relations; lectured at UConn and Cornell; participated in seminars or conferences of the Center for Inter-American Relations, the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Campinas, and the Mexican Institute of Social Studies. All this in addition to teaching at NYU (he prided himself on never, well, hardly ever missing a class) and Ford Foundation duties as adviser, primarily for Latin America but also for Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Absent from the formal record are the countless hours spent in counseling students and protégés; running a one-man rescue service for persecuted intellectuals from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and elsewhere; needling our government, politicians, and leading newspapers for their obtuseness on Latin American affairs; and keeping open house, at work and at home, for stray academics from any land who yearned for a respite of amistad and asylum. I was in Rio last June when Kal died. In the hallucinatory telephone exchange with New York I was asked, for the relentless requirement of a lead obituary sentence, “What was Kal?” I could only stammer.

One thing’s for sure. Kal was a teacher. Generationally he was placed to mediate the broad, humane vision of our early Latin Americanists (Kal often spoke nostalgically of his work with Authur Whitaker at Pennsylvania, where he took his three degrees) to the more technical and instrumental concerns of the youngsters incubated by the urgencies of the early 1960s. On his Latin American beat, similarly, he mediated the pensador tradition to the imperatives of the “development” age. To graduate students and colleagues Kal posed those questions that pierce to the structure of analysis and beyond that—a rare excursion in contemporary academe—its moral premises. Even more telling was the spell he cast over twenty-year-olds who were still groping. He had a gift for kindling enthusiams, for shaping vocations. Dozens of young men and women throughout the hemisphere owe not simply a “field of interest” but an intellectual calling to that avuncular pied piper of Tulane, Dartmouth, NYU, and the University of Buenos Aires.

I also know something of Kal’s role in university and social-science development in Latin America. As consultant to the Ford Foundation and, after 1967, as program adviser to the Foundation’s International Division, Kal devoted prodigious energies to this endeavor. The job was tough on many counts. The complex, elusive liberal arts core of American education is less available for export than hard-nosed methods and packaged programs. Further, the prima donnas of American academe are too self-involved for the years of convivencia needed to cultivate cultural and human reciprocity with Latin Americans. Americans who are strategically placed for collaboration are frequently inexperienced in humanistic teaching, intellectual inquiry, and the usages of the scholarly community. As if this weren’t enough, international cooperation in the social sciences was bedeviled in the 1960s by the swing to authoritarianism in Latin America, the radicalizing of Latin American intellectuals, the collapse of Alliance for Progress meliorism, the routinization of skulduggery and violence as instruments of U.S. foreign policy, and the hit-and-run opportunism of many U.S. social science researchers.

I can only guess at the pressures that converged daily on Kal’s office in the Foundation’s glass menagerie from political, academic, student, and bureaucratic constituencies throughout the hemisphere. In his vigorous responses he was sometimes accused of “playing favorites” (as some interpreted his keen sense of personal loyalty) or of being “abrasive” (as some interpreted his low tolerance for foolishness and his large capacity for moral indignation) or of playing the guru (as some interpreted his insistence on speaking from the mind and not the gut). Well, we’ve known since Tocqueville of the tribute intellect pays to an egalitarian society. The crux of the matter is that Kal never pulled his punches. Neither in his scholarship nor in his advocacy of policy did he acquiesce in expedient disjunctions of theory and praxis, expressive values and instrumental ones, imagination and empiricism, moral allegiance and professional standards. Moreover, he insisted on wholeness of vision for all parties. If he scolded Americans for deracinated empiricism, functionalism, and quantification, he reproached Latin Americans for self-indulgent radical chic, for avoiding hard-hitting, documented analyses of the alleged “imperialist” enemy. Why, he wanted to know, didn’t Latin Americans cultivate “U.S. area studies” if they wanted to give teeth to the case against “imperialism”? For all his immense cultural sensitivity, he never condescended. I’ve heard him address a Latin American academic audience where instead of diplomatically swallowing a turgid rehash of Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser that was on the day’s menu, he insisted that he too had a national and cultural base, that he too was tribal, and that perhaps Marx had learned a thing or two, even his best things, from Locke. Deafening silence greeted him despite the elegance of his demonstration. But Kal could take it. He had handled too many anguished appeals from leftist exiles and torture victims for him to suppose good old-fashioned bourgeois rights to be a luxury for Latin American modernization. Indeed many in his very audience owed intellectual breathing space to the programs for which Kal had fought. He wasn’t selling an ideology, but simply administering cerebral oxygen.

I guess I kept hoping that Kal’s pen would one day deliver a large book giving full orchestration—from the realms of philosophy, history, and social psychology where he moved so easily—to his tantalizing early conjectures about the Mediterranean, corporatist traditions of Latin American politics. As we now know, he was prompted in another direction. He had never in fact viewed Latin America clinically as a “subject matter.” To articulate Latin American dilemmas meant coming to grips with his own self and circumstances. The example of his parents, who immigrated in 1893, left him sharply attuned to the promise of democracy and to his personal responsibility as a citizen. He was saddened that his own children could not take joy, as he once had, in attaching bouquets of American flags to the radiator cap of the family car. In that last decade of his life Kal pondered the degradation of the democratic dogma as manifested both on the national scene and in turbulent New York City, whose “purposeful disorder” he so much prized as allowing “the serendipitous emergence of varied ways of looking at the world.” Kal didn’t coast on his early convictions in those years. With the persons who were closest, like Frieda, Lennie Reissman, whose death in 1975 deeply bereaved him, and perhaps a very few others, he scrutinized his inmost persuasions. He reread his Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Cassirer. He probed the reasons for the inarticulate rage and confusion of his students (and of the oppressed, the stigmatized, even the uncomprehending hardhats and Kitty Foyles) and for the insincere, piecemeal capitulations of his “establishments.” Rejecting the easy formulae and dead-end escape hatches of both sides, he stubbornly argued through the issues. For his time and place he exemplified an ancient Greek ideal that was interrogatively expressed by Henry James: “What is morality but high intelligence?”

The outcome of Kal’s “argument” and the stamp of his high intelligence are now thankfully ours in what he liked to call his “trilogy”: Mans Power: a Biased Guide to Political Thought (1970), Education, Class and Nation: the Experiences of Chile and Venezuela (1976, coauthored with Leonard Reissman), and The Beason for Democracy (1977).1 Note that the one “Latin American” book is about education, not directly about politics or government. The reason is that he was searching to identify the preconditions for democratic politics anywhere and to reconcile the two primal categories of the polity he had wrestled with for decades: class (social particularism) and nation (community universalism). Education—and education’s role in cultivating personal autonomy, relativism, tolerance of ambiguities, and the capacity to perceive and act upon intellectual contradictions— gave him firmer leverage on the subject than inertial historicism or interest-group calculus or corporatist paradigms or economic alignments. The book’s reasoning yielded Kal practical as well as intellectual purchase. With it he could dissolve false dichotomies between left and right, or between bleeding-heart liberalism and bloody-knuckled realism, to establish precise, intellectually validated criteria for involvement in the bewildering array of political situations that confronted him daily in his Foundation office.

Summary or exegesis of Kal’s posthumous The Reason for Democracy would be pallid. It’s one of those increasingly rare books that must be savored. Every page clamors for quotation. Kal wrote it “to put myself back in one piece, to make my citizenship coherent with my intellectual formation.” In it he declares war on the Utilitarianism that rose to Western ascendance in the late-eighteenth century and denied the humaneness of the Enlightenment by converting persons into individuals, construing societies as “systems,” and pitting class against nation. The book advances his most eloquent plea for the democratic ethic. No one, he observes, has devised a “d-scale” (democracy scale) as a counterpart to the “f-scale” of the authoritarian personality, for the democratic mind does not demand “that each piece of our lives line up with every other piece.” The scaling mind (and here Kal meant many “liberal” social scientists, not just fuhrers) hasn’t been educated from the world of things to the world of reason and ethics. For the non-scaling mind the whole is not the mere sum of its parts; political life has appeals, purposes, and ends beyond those of friendship, religion, and family; and ambiguity is resolved not by suppression but by synthesis into larger patterns. Kal exemplifies the nation-class binomial by juxtaposing the two limiting cases, the radical nationalism of Fidel’s Cuba and the “iron structure of class privilege” in Pinochet’s Chile. Dismissing mechanistic claptrap about mobilization, marginality, embourgeoisement, and dependency, he shows in clear language and bedrock perceptions how the choices were made, and how the choice of class dooms a society to repression or bloody conflict while the choice of nation creates a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for democracy. Democratic life requires rational, intel-lectualized thought and the freedom, civility, and accountability for its exercise. To this idea Kal dedicated the book. And his life. The idea is old, at least by the clock of Western history. What Kal did was to find the “rhetoric” (not in the trivial meaning but in the meaning of the old trivium) to make it our own.

Yes, Kal left us too soon. But he lived to give us precious navigational sights in that last nightmarish decade and to write the trilogy that was germinating in the early letters from Chile and Guatemala. In good works, in inspired communion with lofty ideas and string quartets, in sheer human warmth, it was a long, abundant life, a life measured out not in Prufrockian coffee spoons but in brimming Rabelaisian ladlefuls. His was not an incomplete life. One day let’s you and I try to make it Up Yonder too, where that warm abrazo and genial chuckle await to recruit us on the spot to an immense private conspiracy in favor of all things incorrigibly human.


The works cited in this article do not form a complete bibliography for Kalman Silvert; it can be considered a “selective” bibliography.

Author notes


The author is Professor of History at Yale University.