The Return of Karl Polanyi

In the first half century of Dissent’s history, Karl Polanyi almost never made an appearance in the magazine’s pages. On one level this is surprising, because Polanyi was a presence in socialist circles in New York City from 1947 through the mid-1950s, the period of Dissent’s gestation. On another level it is unsurprising, in that Polanyi was a heterodox thinker—even among fellow socialists. With some significant exceptions, it has taken decades to recognize the extraordinary theoretical contributions to socialist thought that he made in his masterpiece, The Great Transformation: The Social and Political Origins of Our Time, first published in 1944.

Some of Polanyi’s relative obscurity can be traced to choices he made early in his youth in Budapest. Unlike his Hungarian colleagues and contemporaries, Georg Lukács and Karl Mannheim in particular, he did not start out on an academic track. He instead obtained a law degree and pursued a career in reformist liberal politics. From 1915 to 1917 Polanyi served as an officer in a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Russian front. After serving as general secretary of the Radical Citizens Party, he left Budapest for Vienna at the time of Béla Kun’s Soviet Republic. In Vienna Polanyi wrote for the leading central European financial paper, Österreichische Volkswirt, until he was forced to leave for England in 1933, where he found work in the Workers’ Educational Association teaching adults at night. He then held a visiting research position at Bennington College in the early 1940s funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. But he was already sixty when he began his most important academic post: a visiting professorship in economics at Columbia University. Polanyi never had the stable foothold in academia that made it possible for some other refugee intellectuals to get their ideas in broad circulation.

Over the last two decades, however, things have changed dramatically. Karl Polanyi has gained belated recognition around the world as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He is regularly invoked by both scholars and activists who challenge unfettered free-market globalization, and his writings are increasingly part of the core canon for sociologists, political scientists, historians, and heterodox economists. Last November the Atlantic invoked Karl Polanyi, not Karl Marx, as the social thinker most relevant to Pope Francis’s widely circulated moral injunction on the evils of social inequality and the limits of unregulated markets—just one sign of Polanyi’s recent fame. In our book, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard 2014), we argue that his innovative theoretical framework could be central to the project of revitalizing the democratic socialist tradition.

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