George Soros (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Unravelling the myth of George Soros

Emily Tamkin’s ‘The Influence of Soros’ is a lucid, subtle and fair-minded attempt to grapple with a tremendously complex legacy

Books

Late one night after attending one of those innumerable democratization conferences, I found myself in a run-down bar in an Eastern European capital along with a group of local intellectuals.

The drinking game we played that night was to replace a supernatural figure in an epic poem with that of a contemporary individual. My own contribution to the evening’s festivities was to recite Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” – that seminal cri du coeur of late-night soul searching – while replacing every mention of “Moloch” with “George Soros”. The experiment turned out shockingly well:

“Soros! Soros! Nightmare of Soros! Soros the loveless! Mental Soros! Soros the heavy judger of men!

Soros the incomprehensible prison!

Soros the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!

Soros whose buildings are judgment! Soros the vast stone of war! Soros the stunned governments!

Soros whose mind is pure machinery!

Soros whose blood is running money! Soros whose fingers are ten armies!

Soros whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Soros whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

This seemed like a fitting substitution, as the name of the legendary financier has become synonymous in some circles with that of the evil bronze demi-god who demands a steady stream of human sacrifice to appease his infinite lust for power. While some view Soros as a saintly philanthropist who has done a world of good in his efforts to democratize his native Eastern Europe, others view as the avatar incarnate of a monstrous conspiracy to subvert democratic popular will through financial and political manipulation.

This begs the question: what sort of creature is Soros really? A new biography penned by Emily Tamkin, the talented US editor at New Statesman, attempts to sift the facts from the miasma of intrigue.

The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society by Emily Tamkin (Harper, 2020)

The book’s title, The Influence of Soros, announces its intention to avoid a chronologically thorough biography of the financier in favour of a ruminative investigation of his imprint upon our world.

Structured in nine thematic chapters, this is a book about the myriad contradictions inherent in a man widely considered to be one of the greatest and most brazen investors of the post-war order – Soros founded a revolutionary hedge fund in the late 60s – and the ways in which he has invested and distributed his wealth.

However, this is also a book about the transition from communism to democracy undertaken by the nations of Central Europe and the western Balkans; a transition which Soros nudged along with often contradictory results. It is also a contribution to the history of ideas proper – the ideal of the “The Open Society” to which Soros consecrated his foundation was one that Soros imbibed from his teacher at the London School of Economics: the philosopher Karl Popper.

The characteristic fairness of tone of the book occasionally leads to judgments that feel too light

Tamkin has previously reported on the relationship between Soros and the brimming tide of nationalism currently cresting across Eastern Europe. Her narrative is nimble in expositing the complex historical events of a century ago that led to the Hungarian Jewry being blamed for the punitive judgements imposed upon the Hungarians by the Treaty of Trianon. That unfair castigation and demonisation – not substantively different from the opprobrium heaped upon Soros today in his native Budapest – concluded with Hungarian Jews being denuded of their secure status as loyal Hungarian citizens. These were the events that set the stage for the nationalist Hungarian repression of the Jews and which likely contributed to lifelong psychic trauma for the young George Soros.

In 1944, when Hitler suspected his Hungarian allies of disloyalty, the Nazis invaded the country and thirteen-year-old George was forced to go into hiding under false identity papers scrounged up by his father. This formative experience would lay at the centre of his political philosophy and would spurn his attempts to better the world. It would also prepare him to correctly predict the post-communist national turn that would sweep across Eastern Europe.

Soros engaged with specific regions after forging relationships with interesting individuals that he met and established networks based on those individual’s connections. He identified future leaders very well and empowered them. This approach, however, lent his project a certain cliquey quality which froze some people out and created a caste of outsiders who would come to resent his largesse. The effects of the philanthropic efforts have often been radically unpredictable – with the primary case of unintended consequences being that of his great enemy and former grantee Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Tamkin is alternatively admiring and critical of the manner in which Soros had structured his foundation and revolutionised the practices of the philanthropic world. The book returns continually to the paradoxical gap between the brazen wagering with which Soros acquired his wealth and the unpredictable political and civic consequences of the ways in which he has distributed it.

Though Soros stipulated a policy of never being directly involved in doing business in the countries where his foundation operated, he continued to engage in finance long after branching out into philanthropy. The Hungarian arm of the Soros Foundation purchased photocopier machines for dissidents and institutions, thus gifting them with (a pre-internet) means of communication.

Resistance to his efforts from the Eastern European governments whom he wished to assist began almost immediately upon his arrival in the region. However, the usefulness of his foundations would not be replicated by anyone else, either in government or in the philanthropic world. No second Marshall Plan to help transition Eastern Europe through a generation of pain was ever forthcoming.

One thing the book makes clear is that Soros conspiracy theories are not unique to the Twitter age

The chapter on the relationship between Soros and American President George W. Bush, against whose re-election Soros intervened massively in 2004, demonstrates the fashion in which Soros undercut his own criticism of the prevalence of “big money” in politics when it suited his whims. His private war against Bush, whom he saw as a unique and world historical evil was another example of his failures. In retrospect, that judgment was naive, histrionic and played a role in the American polarisation that has brought us the current occupant of the White House. Other missteps include Soros having to pull his foundation out in frustration from 80s China and apartheid-era South Africa, though few examples rise to the hubris level of his having proffered a study grant to the young Orbán.

Another thing the book makes clear is that Soros conspiracy theories are not unique to the Twitter age. They began to circulate at the very same moment that Soros first commenced his philanthropy in Eastern Europe three and a half decades ago. This account also tells us that conspiracies grew tall at least partly because of the opaque manner in which the Soros Foundation operated in its earliest days. Criticism of the Soros influence in politics should not be out of bounds, but getting it right without lapsing into bigotry has proven all too difficult for many people.

“Every time that Soros starts to sound like a puppeteer, the conversation crosses over into conspiracy theory territory,” Tamkin recently explained to an audience during an Atlantic Council event. The litmus test that Tamkin posits for doing so is one of “agency”, as in criticism that keeps track of the difference between an individual and a faceless globalist conspiracy. For those interested in further exploring that fraught territory, my colleague James Kirchick has written the most penetrating study of the issue to be found in the English language.

Soros has also been heavily criticised within the Jewish world for his relationship (or lack thereof) to Jewish causes and the state of Israel, a continuation of the eternal argument between Hellenistic “universalist Jews” and Hebraic “Jewish” Jews. Ironically, one of the world’s most cynical expositors of Soros conspiracy theories is Israeli prime minister Netenyahu.

The book does have selective gaps – it would have been a useful contribution to learn more about the efforts of The Open Society in places such as Myanmar. The characteristic fairness of tone also occasionally leads to judgments that feel too light. The failures of Soros are intimately tied up with the broader failures of Western democratisation practices, which the book mostly ignores.

Still, The Influence of Soros is a lucid, subtle and fair-minded attempt to grapple with a tremendously complex legacy. Ultimately, Soros lives up to his elusive reputation, the introduction relating the lengthy negotiations for an interview, which Soros finally granted only epistolary responses to select questions. One might legitimately wonder, outside of the myth does Soros the man even walk the earth in our reality?

One of the pieces that I am most proud of commissioning and publishing as an editor was an updated, modern version of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas from the excellent American tech writer and memoirist David Auerbach. The entry for “George Soros” reads: “The greatest trick he ever pulled was convincing conservatives he existed.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover