Thinkers before their time 3: Old Wine

Leopold Kohr says that by its very nature leadership is the consequence of a process of ageing

Unlike France or Rhineland, Austria is not a famous wine country. It is a rare indeed that one would find a bottle of Gumpoldskirchner or Kremser in a restaurant in New York or San Juan. Though excellent when drunk in the neighbourhood, it does not stand long journeys. Nor does it improve with age. As a result, many of Austria’s wines, particularly from the region of Danube near Vienna, are consumed in the year in which they are produced. Hence their name: Heuriger – this year’s wine.

The virtue of Heuriger is a delightful fruity taste and its ability to make you feel gay, light hearted, young, and capable of conquering the world with a gesture of your hand. It has given rise to an array of immortal schmaltzy Viennese songs popularized by composer and singing teams such as the unforgettable Leopoldi and Milskaia. But it also has been the cause of many a headache the day after, when the reveller falls back to the hard earth from dizzy altitudes from which he can never be pushed down by the mellow older wines because, in their maturity and wisdom of years, they never get him so high in the first place.

I thought of this contrast when I had recently the pleasure of calling on former Governor Luis Munoz Marin, and comparing the grand old man of Puerto Rican politics with the crop of young leaders making a dash for the political limelight from all corners of the land these days. Their statements seem fresh and intoxicatingly daring on the day on which they are produced. But, as in the case of Vienna’s Heuriger, all that is left the day after is the slightly hang-overish memory of what drug addicts call a “trip” – a journey into the illusion from which nothing survives because nothing can acquire age, the quality most rejected by today’s younger generation. But a thing that cannot age is as conception followed by abortion; parenthood without progeny: or revelry without responsibility.

Leadership, on the other hand, like old wine, is by its very nature the consequence of a process of ageing. A young leader is therefore as much as a contradiction in terms as a Heuriger that is twenty years old. This does not mean that a leader cannot be youthful in years. But if he is, he must be old in outlook, a condition which, as he will soon discover can be materially enhanced by appearing older also in looks, preferably through the acquisition of a trust-inspiring portly paunch. Indeed of the greatest leader’s one must be able to say what a geographer Pausanias said of the buildings of Peisistratus in ancient Athens: “When they were new, they looked ancient. Now that they are old they still look new.”

This is what I felt when I called on Luis Munoz Marin: now that he is getting on in years, he still looks sparkling, vigorous, and fresh as the ancient temples of Athens looked to Pausanias. Unlike the host of younger politicians who manage to thunder without lightning, he is one of those rare great leaders who fascinates his environment not only because of the electric quality of his powerful personality but also because of the representative nature of his Puerto Ricanness, and the clarity with which he envisions the path he thinks must be trodden for the brighter future of his people. Nor does he think it treasonable to make mid-course corrections when he feels circumstances require a change in angle pursued – a policy lesser lights would never venture for fear of losing face.

Being myself an advocate of independence for every small community which such as Puerto Rico, Wales, or Anguilla, is at the same time large enough to stand on its own feet without the dependence on the USA, USSR, UK or UN, I have of course my doubts about the value of the “associated –state” idea with which the name of Munoz is so closely linked.

But what matters in the life of a community is not so much the value of an idea. In the long run every idea has proved wrong, starting with the conviction of Eve that the consequences of eating an apple are as sweet as its taste. In fact, contrary to what the Marx says, history is not a history of class struggles but a history of wrong ideas, not the least of which is the idea that “all history is a history of class struggles.”

What really matters in the life of a community is the value of leadership. And this is based not on the constitutional or doctrinal fact that the leader, like the Pope or the King, can do no wrong, but on the people’s charismatic belief that he can do wrong. And the only ones able to inspire in a majority of people the belief that they can do no wrong are persons who act in consistency not with the people’s but their own convictions, thereby providing that they are the shapers of the public will, not its follower or executors.

That is why communities, like wives, often adopt the names of great leaders as the principal part of their own identification. Under Perikles, Athens was Pericleian, not Athenian. Under Alexander, the world was Alexander’s, not Alexander the worlds. Under Napoleon, France was Napoleonic France, and under De Gaulle she was De Gaulle’s. England was in turn Elizabethan, Victorian, or Edwardian England, each of them radically different not only from each other, but also from the succession of England’s which existed during the in-between periods of unfertilized virginity or deprived widowhood. This is why, as it befits widows, later England’s were appropriately identified as “Post-Elizabethan” or “Post-Victorian”, or why President Pompidou announced the death of De Gaulle with the words: La France est Veuve, France is a widow.

And so it is with Puerto Rico whose political identity under Munoz Marin has been provided not by Spanish heritage, colonialism, or Commonwealth but by Munoz Marin. There was the Puerto Rico before Munoz, of Munoz, and now it is the Puerto Rico after Munoz, not that of Luis Ferre or Hernandez Colon – both admirable men. But the texture of the country is still that imparted by Munoz.

And here lies perhaps the only real error committed by the former Governor who, like old wine, is not at his best, not in spite, but because of his years. This was his belief that for once he should follow rather than shape the mood of the time: that he should yield to the intoxicating superficiality of the Heuriger, and give up his leadership so that the young should be given a chance which in the ripeness of time will be theirs anyway. For a leader can no more abandon leadership than a poet can abandon writing of verse to give other verse-writers the chance of becoming poets. Once a poet, always a poet. Goethe put his supreme finishing touches to Faust in his eighties. And when Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell reached their nineties, there was still no one in sight who could write in the style of Russell or Shaw, whether they abdicated or not.

Similarly once a leader, always a leader until either death or debility take their toll, neither of which has anything to do with age. Those who are idiots at 70 usually were already idiots at 17, and those who had fertile minds at 10, will still have them at 90, and be able to claim youth on the ground of fertility, not of years which do not mean a thing.

It is because of these rare qualities which everyone feels in the presence of Munoz Marin – one of the great political figures of our time irrespective of whether his ideas are right or wrong – that, if the Popular Party really needs a new leader: here he is.

Leopold Kohr

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