George Soros: A Life in Full, published March 8, is an unusual biography: essays by writers of distinction and expertise on a multifaceted man. At ninety-one years of age, George Soros is a survivor, billionaire, speculator, philanthropist, political activist, nemesis of the far right, global citizen and … philosopher. When the book was completed, Soros congratulated the contributors but pointed out, for our further information, that six recognized philosophers had recently published an article titled “Reflexivity and the Market Mind: Why George Soros Is Not a Failed Philosopher.” Our biography had made no such assertion – in fact, we make the point that his reflexivity theory provided a useful explanation of the financial crisis of 2008-9 – and yet Soros still felt we should know what others have lately said about him.
As it happens, the book provides valuable context to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, obliterating the accepted norms of post-Cold War Europe. Soros’s strategic goals of “Open Society” supported by billions of philanthropic dollars and effort have failed in Putin’s Kremlin. And yet, elsewhere in the region, Poland, the Baltics, Romania, even autocratic Hungary which has supported sanctions, the place of civil society and commitment to Ukraine’s independence so far has been notable. Russia has again proven incapable of the reforms its people so badly deserve.
These are the essays: Eva Hoffman on Soros’s formative youth; Sebastian Mallaby on his groundbreaking work as a financier and speculator; Darren Walker on his impact on philanthropy; Gara LaMarche on Soros and American politics; Ivan Krastev on his involvement in the former Soviet bloc; Michael Ignatieff on Central European University; Orville Schell on Soros’s engagement with China and with a larger intellectual community; and Leon Botstein on “The Challenge and Legacy of Being a Jew from Hungary.” I have written the introduction, and here is a brief adaptation:
The name George Soros is world famous. And yet the man himself is surprisingly little understood. Depending on who or where you are describing Soros is likely to elicit different answers. He has even more identities than he has lived decades, now in his tenth. Over the years, attempts have been made to write Soros’s biography, but no single account of his life can capture its extraordinary character. The writers for this book have approached Soros from the perspective of those whose expertise in their professional fields has enabled them to provide a description of his activities – and to the extent possible – the motivations for them and their impact. On a canvas so wide, there may well be less of some activities than of others. But the breadth of these portrayals is considerable.
Essential to this process was that the writers have complete confidence in their independence of judgment along with the responsibility to be accurate and fair-minded – while also recognizing that anyone writing about another person will bring his or her own experience to the task. The essays are not intended to describe in detail how Soros’s activities and initiatives have developed over the decades. Suffice to say that the paths have not always been smooth. In finance there are straightforward measure of outcome – money spent, money earned, profit and loss.
In philanthropic areas, success or failure is more difficult to assess because there are few metrics. Have the efforts and expenditures provided the desired results? When situations and personalities require changes to be made, how are these handled? The answers to these questions –especially at the Open Society Foundations and the Central European University - among the most ambitious philanthropic commitments of modern times – are yet to come.
These institutions have been founded by Soros, funded by Soros and are ongoing. Soros does seek counsel, advice, and information from other people. But the ultimate decisions have been and will continue to be his, as long as he can make them. This was not always popular.
Over the years, Soros has become a major nemesis to the extreme right wing, which has deployed a mix of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes to discredit his activities on behalf of progressive causes and civil society. The bizarre notion that he is a mastermind of everything the right-wingers around the world reject is nonsense.
Soros has displayed extraordinary equanimity (at least as I can measure) in almost every way. Michael Vachon, his savvy long-time adviser on media and politics, said one evening as we sat at dinner, “George, no one is ever going to feel sorry for you,” having to endure the slings and arrows of fame and fortune.
What did bother Soros, I thought, was that in his homeland of Hungary, the autocratic leader Victor Orban, who had once studied at Oxford as a Soros-funded fellow, made Soros the focus of his nativist political strategy. In time, I came to understand the significance of Soros’s personal heritage: that the influence of his father Tivadar Soros in the war years was a basis for his own daring and risk-taking in finance and in life generally. Tividar’s memoir Masquerade tells his amazing story.
As I wrote at the outset, no book can be sufficiently broad to encompass every aspect of Soros’s life. There are parts that only he can truly examine – his approach to family, for instance – and insights that are only his to share. What you have in this book of biographical essays, is as nearly as anyone beside him can do it, George Soros’s life in full.
So, this volume has been compiled with the assurance that it would be the best possible representation of George Soros’s life we can achieve. And, by agreement at the outset, he and his family did not read it until it was completed. My editorial colleague Paul Golob and I chose the contributors and worked directly with them on the essays. The opinions expressed, as the saying goes, are those of the authors. It will not be surprising if Soros’s critics find some fault with the essays.
The book is George Soros: A Life in Full. This is the cover: