Book Review: Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy

By Sato, Erika | Washington Report on the Hemisphere, June 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy


Sato, Erika, Washington Report on the Hemisphere


Book Review: Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy

Kalman Silvert's biography, Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy (Abraham F. Lowenthal and Martin Weinstein, eds., Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016), details the life of a man who provided a key link in the Latin American studies field between academia and politics. The book's format highlights the multiple stages of Silvert's sadly short life (1921-1976) and the towering shadow cast by his career. It explains through a compilation of chapters of various lengths and by different authors, with various strains of creed and belief, how he built his central ideology. The organization of the chapters is less than intuitive at times, jumping chronologically and between his academic, political, and personal lives. Each chapter describes a different stage of his career or aspect of his ideology.

However, there is value to the structure of the book. The various chapters highlight the diversity of Silvert's relationships and accomplishments. Each of the authors appears to have had a close personal and professional relationship with Silvert and is thus able to provide a unique perspective as to how he lived his gifted life. Many provide anecdotes of informal gatherings at Silvert's home and casual political discussions in addition to descriptions of his professional projects and work and analyses of his research. These rich illustrations of Silvert's life give one a detailed picture of how he understood the world and which part of it he claimed for his own.

A Principled Academic

Silvert's core values, according to Cleaves and Dye in chapter eight, were "democracy, empathy, equality, reason, and knowledge." Each of these values guided Silvert's emotional and intellectual life choices as well as his writing and teaching. In the process of creating his strong impact in his field, Silvert's key strategy was to pursue these values while maintaining a balance between academia and his political career. This sense of balance is also clearly demonstrated by his choice of ideological influences. He was "firmly rooted in Enlightenment values of rationality and freedom," and was convinced education is essential to achieving democracy. (41)

Silvert was careful not to overgeneralize in his analyses and was critical of the modernization theories of his era, which tended to be more monistic or rigid ideological models. He rejected any supposedly 'unbiased' and 'scientific' claims, for he realized that social science researchers must always choose a framework of analysis that implies subjectivity. He was also wary of "'technical' solutions for perceived social problems," such as reliance on agricultural and economic developments (123). Within these frameworks, he highlighted the importance of moral stance and ethics. As explained by Christopher Mitchell, "in contrast to many contemporaries who lauded contrasting goals including equilibrium, development, or revolution, he pointed the way to a process that would broaden human liberty, in accord with the ideals of Rousseau, Kant, and Locke." (37) His work revolved around the importance of democracy and opportunity for all people as well as how to achieve these objectives (for example, he believed nationalism was a key aspect of democracy). Because he was unswayed by trends in essentialized, "scientific" models, Silvert was well respected from all perspectives; he was neither seen as too leftist in the US nor as an imperialist in Latin America.

His Influence Within the Field

Kalman Silvert was also one of the most knowledgeable of academics of his era within the field of international relations. Several chapters of the book discuss the various ways he improved the competence of other academics in his field. He "criticized both the amateurism of the professors and journalists who were entering the field" and the superficiality of "the educational institutions that were training (or failing to train) them. …

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