George Soros’s legacy will be his ideas – and they will outlive him

By Anna Porter, The Globe and Mail, August 18, 2023

It has been a big year for one of the world’s most controversial philanthropists. George Soros, who turned 93 last week, handed over the leadership of his Open Society Foundations to his 37-year-old son, Alex, last December. So given his international stature, intellectual interests and vigorous engagement in world affairs, this could be a good time for him to think about his legacy.

But when I last met him, nine years ago, legacy was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he was concerned about the direction Eastern Europe was headed, about the future of the European Union, about the fate of the Roma, about Myanmar, Russia and the International Criminal Court. He was worried about the crisis of global capitalism, which he had predicted, and about the growing divisions in American society. He had absolutely zero interest in carving out a legacy.

Things have changed since then. He is regularly held up by some politicians as the devil incarnate, the perfect enemy against whom it has proven easy to establish one’s own populist, authoritarian, anti-globalist, conservative credentials. Donald Trump blamed him for the migrant caravan and, later, for his own indictment, accusing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of being “handpicked and funded by Soros.” (Color of Change, a progressive criminal-justice group that has received funding from a number of wealthy donors including Mr. Soros, spent nearly US$500,000 to support Mr. Bragg’s 2021 election campaign.) In the United States, the mere accusation of being “Soros-backed” can reduce a candidate’s election aspirations to ashes.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban notched a sweeping election victory by manufacturing and then running against the image of Mr. Soros forcing Muslim immigration and liberal social policies on Hungarians. Vladimir Putin’s government banned his Open Society Foundations (OSF) from operating in Russia in 2015. A minister in Narendra Modi’s government in India has claimed that Mr. Soros wants to “destroy India’s democratic processes.” Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan called him “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros,” saying in 2018 that he “assigns people to divide nations and shatter them”; days later, the Turkish branch of the OSF shut down. Yair Netanyahu, the son of Israel’s Prime Minister, shared a cartoon in which Mr. Soros was depicted as dangling the world to a reptilian overlord figure. And in May, Elon Musk posted on Twitter (now X) that Mr. Soros reminded him of Magneto, the Marvel Comics villain with the power to control magnetic fields, and claimed that he “hates humanity.”

Mr. Soros once told me that he was proud of having the enemies he had inadvertently collected; by strutting their beliefs, they were proving him right. Yet by taking the high road, Mr. Soros has made himself into an easy target. He is open about his aims to make the world more equitable, his push to discard laws that discriminate either by design or by habit, and his efforts to empower the powerless and support change in governments that don’t see the obvious reasons for these changes. He is transparent about his foundations’ donations.

A self-made billionaire, Mr. Soros has always been a political philanthropist with a penchant for butting into national and international politics. He is not the only one – the Republican Party-boosting Koch brothers, for instance, would also qualify – nor is he the only major philanthropist dedicated to changing the world. But his name is the only one you regularly hear in the cacophony of name-calling that passes for politics these days. He is certainly the only one accused of having superhuman powers.

George Soros was born on Aug. 12, 1930, in Hungary, and grew up at a time when being Jewish was at best dangerous, and at worst lethal. His father Tivadar, a bright, enterprising lawyer, taught young George how not to present a “clear target to their enemies,” but to “blend in with the scenery and simply disappear,” as most animals do when threatened. George, only 14 years old when the Nazis’ roundup of Hungarian Jews began, became Sandor Kiss, a refugee from Romania who lived with his godfather, an official in the ministry of agriculture. More than 450,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The Soros family survived.

George continued his education in London, supporting himself by applying to charities and by doing manual-labour jobs. He enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he came under the influence of the philosopher Karl Popper. “An open society,” Dr. Popper wrote, “is not a perfect society but an imperfect society open to self-improvement.” In open societies, conflicting ideas could cheerfully co-exist. In contrast, closed societies – which include dictatorships of all stripes – claim to possess the singular, ultimate truth and brook no opposition. Only brute force can ensure slavish adherence to the rules in such societies. Mr. Soros had already seen two dangerous dictatorships – Nazism and Stalinism – and Dr. Popper’s ideas for an alternative way to organize the world had a lasting effect on him.

In 1969, Mr. Soros started his first hedge fund with US$4-million he had raised from wealthy individuals who were convinced by his spiel about a new way to make a fortune. By 1980, his Quantum fund had grown to be worth US$100-million; by 1987, its assets were worth US$21.5-billion. Over a 30-year period, the fund returned an average of 31 per cent to investors.

Then, in 1992, he made a career-defining gamble. Starting in August of that year, he bet heavily against the British central bank’s ability to keep its currency stable, buying US$10-billion, much of it borrowed, in pound sterling. On Sept. 16, the day that became known as Black Wednesday, the Bank of England spent billions of dollars from its foreign-currency reserves to shore up the sterling against the efforts of short sellers such as Mr. Soros – and failed. As a result, he made his first billion.

Since 1984, he has donated more than US$32-billion to various causes, and in the years leading up to the dismantling of the wall between Eastern and Western Europe, he helped pro-democracy organizations, dissident and resistance groups, the imprisoned, writers whose books had been banned, union leaders, and scientists whose work was no longer wanted by repressive regimes. This is how I first heard of Mr. Soros – by interviewing people whose work or lives he had saved in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia and East Germany. He went on to advise newly democratic governments on how to manage the transition, and pleaded for these countries’ inclusion in the European Union.

Globalization’s partnership with democracy and free markets hit the skids after the 2008 financial disaster, however, and in some countries, voters opted for authoritarian regimes. Mr. Soros was no longer viewed as a friend. As the Czech writer Jan Urban told me, “We had wanted democracy, instead we got capitalism,” as well as its attendant inequalities. (It is interesting to note that a few members of Poland’s xenophobic Law and Justice party, as well as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, had themselves once been supported by Mr. Soros, back when they were pro-democracy figures.)

Ever since 1993, when they were first created but under a different name, the Open Society Foundations – named after Dr. Popper’s concept – have been the primary vehicle for Mr. Soros’s international activism around democratic reforms and his U.S.-specific advocacy around palliative care, drug policy and the unfairness of mass incarceration. Mr. Soros’s support for change in the American justice system – and in particular, his support for “reform prosecutors” at the local level – has been one of his most controversial initiatives. Critics have claimed that they have contributed to an increase in violent crimes, transforming cities such as San Francisco into dangerous havens for drug users and violent repeat offenders. Mr. Soros sees it differently, believing that the justice system criminalizes poverty and mental illness and is skewed in favour of wealthy white people. “The idea that we need to choose between justice and safety is false,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “They reinforce each other: If people trust the justice system, it will work. And if the system works, public safety will improve.”

This is the core of the open-society idea that animates Mr. Soros: giving different people from different backgrounds an equal shot at shaping their world. But despite years and billions of dollars spent, recent elections in the U.S. have largely revolved around whether the country wants to be more closed, instead.

So what comes after Mr. Soros? Alex Soros has certainly made clear that he intends to follow in his father’s footsteps as the new chair of Open Society Foundations’ board of directors. He is a self-described centre-left thinker who has even said he is “more political” than his father. He has also said he would focus more on U.S. issues, which is likely to mean a doubling down on support for reform-minded prosecutors and local officials.

But shortly after he took the reins, OSF slashed its roughly 800-person staff by 40 per cent, two years after the organization was downsized by 20 per cent. Most of those layoffs affected workers outside the U.S., and some OSF offices have been closed. And this week, Reuters reported that an internal e-mail said that OSF’s new strategy will involve the “withdrawal and termination of large parts of our current work within the European Union, shifting our focus and allocation of resources to other parts of the world.” (Alex Soros says his family and OSF “remain steadfastly committed to the European project.”)

In an interview with the Financial Times, OSF president Mark Malloch-Brown – who is managing the transition – cited “strategic opportunism” and “patient capital” for the new approach. But the move seems inspired by George Soros’s original plan for his foundations: to be nimble and opportunistic, able to leap into action when an opening appears, rather than becoming embedded in locations where support might be taken for granted.

Alex Soros may have some very different ideas from his father, but for now, we know only that his ascension to the top has meant major uncertainties. Mr. Malloch-Brown, 69, is unlikely to remain in his position for too much of the new chair’s tenure. Difficult debates and anger over OSF’s post-George Soros direction will surely continue for years to come. But the 93-year-old seems content that the foundations will survive him.

It is interesting to remember that this wasn’t his original plan. He once criticized foundations for becoming stultified as they age, and has even stated that he did not want his children to succeed him. Obviously, he’s changed his mind.

He will not simply sit on the sidelines, though. An advocate for the European Union, he continues to support its efforts to stay relevant, despite the hostility of some of its own members and its often-overwhelming bureaucracy. He has predicted that the war in Ukraine will end in a decisive loss for Russia: “The defeat of Russian imperialism will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world. It will bring huge relief to open societies and create tremendous problems for closed ones,” he wrote in March. He has tried to draw the world’s attention to the quickly deteriorating global climate system: “An increasing number of climate scientists believe it would be appropriate to declare a climate emergency, because, at the current rate, global warming is bound to exceed 1.5 C,” he said. And he will continue to work on and fund the Open Society University Network, an international project announced in 2020 that will focus on research and education on climate change and dealing with authoritarian governments.

Michael Ignatieff, the author and former president and rector of Central European University, says that the philanthropist’s ideas will outlive him. “He has a big vision, with a real sense of history – where it came from and where it’s going,” he said. That vision has “changed how people see themselves in the world,” according to Ivan Krastev, the world-travelling intellectual who is a member of OSF’s board, and he argues that the manner in which Mr. Soros’s convictions have permeated people’s ways of thinking – rather than those of governments – is one of his most important and lasting contributions.

For me, after writing my book Buying A Better World, I concluded that this extraordinary, brilliant, irritatingly self-assured man’s greatest impact on the world may be Central European University, which he co-founded in 1991 in Budapest. Since then, Mr. Orban’s totalitarian government – which does not brook a diversity of ideas – has forced CEU to move to Vienna. There is some irony here, because the last thing Mr. Soros wanted was an edifice to house his ideas. But it is the products of this institution that will endure: As Mr. Ignatieff said, CEU will continue to graduate students with ideas that may one day change the world order.

All of this speaks to Mr. Soros’s enduring legacy, even if he won’t, because the defence of democracy is a project that can never end. As he said in 2020: “Open society is always endangered and each generation must fight for it to survive.”