Karl Polanyi

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The native form of this personal name is Polányi Károly. This article uses the Western name order.
Karl Polanyi
Born October 25, 1886
Died April 23, 1964(1964-04-23) (aged 77)
Field Economic sociology, Economic history, Economic anthropology
School or
Historical school of economics
Influences Robert Owen, Bronisław Malinowski, G. D. H. Cole, Richard Tawney, Richard Thurnwald, Karl Marx, Aristotle, Karl Bücher, Ferdinand Tönnies, Adam Smith, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Werner Sombart, Max Weber, György Lukács, Carl Menger
Influenced Mark Granovetter, Joseph Stiglitz, Moses Finley, Fred L. Block, David Graeber, Margaret Somers, Marshall Sahlins, Robin Hahnel, Giovanni Arrighi, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Dani Rodrik, Jacob Hacker, John Gray, Daniel Bell, James C. Scott, Ira Katznelson, Herman Daly, Tom Malleson, Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Ayşe Buğra, Immanuel Wallerstein, Peter Drucker, Regulation school, Arthur Koestler
Contributions Embeddedness, Substantivism, Double Movement, Fictitious commodities, Economistic fallacy

Karl Paul Polanyi (Hungarian: Polányi Károly [ˈpolaːɲi ˈkaːroj]; born October 25, 1886, Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire – April 23, 1964, Pickering, Ontario)[1] was a Hungarian-American economic historian, economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher. He is known for his opposition to traditional economic thought and for his book, The Great Transformation, which showed how the emergence of market-based societies in modern Europe was not inevitable but historically contingent. Polanyi is remembered today as the originator of substantivism, a cultural approach to economics, which emphasized the way economies are embedded in society and culture. This view ran counter to mainstream economics but was popular in anthropology, economic history, economic sociology and political science.

Polanyi's approach to the ancient economies has been applied to a variety of cases, such as Pre-Columbian America and ancient Mesopotamia, although its utility to the study of ancient societies in general has been questioned.[2] Polanyi's The Great Transformation became a model for historical sociology. His theories eventually became the foundation for the economic democracy movement. His daughter, Canadian economist Kari Polanyi Levitt (born 1923 in Vienna, Austria), is Emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University, Montreal.

Early life[edit]

Polanyi was born into a Jewish family. His younger brother was Michael Polanyi, a philosopher, and his niece was Eva Zeisel, a world-renowned ceramist.[3] He was born in Vienna, at the time the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mihály Pollacsek father of Karl and Michael Polanyi, was a railway entrepreneur. Mihály never changed the name Pollacsek and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Karl and Michael Polanyi's mother was Cecília Wohl. The name change to Polanyi (not von Polanyi) was effected by Karl and his siblings. Polanyi was well educated despite the ups and downs of his father's fortune, and he immersed himself in Budapest's active intellectual and artistic scene.

Polanyi founded the radical and influential Club Galilei while at the University of Budapest, a club which would have far reaching effects on Hungarian intellectual thought. During this time, he was actively engaged with other notable thinkers, such as György Lukács, Oszkár Jászi, and Karl Mannheim. Polanyi graduated from Budapest University in 1912 with a doctorate in Law. In 1914, he helped found the Hungarian Radical Party and served as its secretary.

Polanyi was a cavalry officer the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, in active service at the Russian Front and hospitalized in Budapest. Polanyi supported the republican government of Mihály Károlyi and its Social Democratic regime. The republic was short-lived, however, and when Béla Kun toppled the Karolyi government to create the Hungarian Soviet Republic Polanyi left for Vienna.

In Vienna[edit]

From 1924 to 1933 he was employed as a senior editor of the prestigious Der Österreichische Volkswirt ('The Austrian Economist') magazine. It was at this time that he first began criticizing the Austrian School of economists, who he felt created abstract models which lost sight of the organic, interrelated reality of economic processes. Polanyi himself was attracted to Fabianism and the works of G. D. H. Cole. It was also during this period that Polanyi grew interested in Christian Socialism.

He married the communist revolutionary Ilona Duczyńska, of Polish-Hungarian background.

In London[edit]

Polanyi was asked to resign from Der Oesterreichische Volkswirt because the liberal publisher of the journal could not keep on a prominent socialist after the accession of Hitler to office in January 1933 and the suspension of the Austrian parliament by the rising tide of clerical fascism in Austria. He left for London in 1933, where he earned a living as a journalist and tutor and obtained a position as a lecturer for the Workers' Educational Association in 1936. His lecture notes contained the research for what later became The Great Transformation. However, he would not start writing this work until 1940, when he moved to Vermont to take up a position at Bennington College. The book was published in 1944, to great acclaim. In it, Polanyi described the enclosure process in England and the creation of the contemporary economic system at the beginning of the 19th century.

United States and Canada[edit]

Polanyi joined the staff of Bennington College in 1940, teaching a series of five timely lectures on the "Present Age of Transformation.".[4][5] The lectures, The Passing of the 19th Century,[6] The Trend Towards an Integrated Society,[7] The Breakdown of the International System,[8] Is America an Exception [9] and Marxism and the Inner History of the Russian Revolution,[10] took place during the early stages of World War II. Polanyi participated in Bennington's Humanism Lecture Series (1941) [11] and The Bennington College Lecture Series (1943) where his topic was Jean Jacques Rousseau: Or is a Free Society Possible?[12]

After the war, Polanyi received a teaching position at Columbia University (1947-1953). However, his wife had a background as a former communist, which made gaining an entrance visa in the United States impossible. As a result, they moved to Canada, and Polanyi commuted to New York City. In the early 1950s, Polanyi received a large grant from the Ford Foundation to study the economic systems of ancient empires.

Having described the emergence of the modern economic system, Polanyi now sought to understand how "the economy" emerged as a distinct sphere in the distant past. His seminar at Columbia drew several famous scholars and influenced a generation of teachers, resulting in the 1957 volume Trade and Markets in the Early Empires. Polanyi continued to write in his later years and established a new journal entitled Coexistence. In Canada he resided in Pickering, Ontario, where he died in 1964.

See also[edit]


  • The Great Transformation (1944)
  • "Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning?," The London Quarterly of World Affairs, vol. 10 (3) (1945).
  • Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957, edited and with contributions by others)
  • Dahomey and the Slave Trade (1966)
  • George Dalton (ed), Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economics: Essays of Karl Polanyi (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968); collected essays and selections from his work.
  • Harry W. Pearson (ed.), The Livelihood of Man (Academic Press, 1977).
  • Karl Polanyi, For a New West: Essays, 1919-1958 (Polity Press, 2014). ISBN 9780745684444


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2003) vol 9. p.554
  2. ^ For example, Morris Silver, "Redistribution and Markets in the Economy of Ancient Mesopotamia: Updating Polanyi", Antiguo Oriente 5 (2007): 89-112.
  3. ^ http://www.government-online.net/eva-zeisel-obituary/
  4. ^ "Karl Polanyi: Five Lectures on The Present Age of Transformation-Lecture Series Listing of Topics". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  5. ^ "Letter from President Robert Devore Leigh to Peter Drucker". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  6. ^ "The Passing of 19th Century Civilization (Lecture #1 of 5)". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  7. ^ "The Trend Towards an Integrated Society (Lecture #2 of 5)". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  8. ^ "The Breakdown of the International System (Lecture #3 of 5)". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  9. ^ "Is America an Exception? (Lecture #4 of 5)". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  10. ^ "Marxism and the Inner History of the Russian Revolution". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  11. ^ "Humanism-Lecture Series Listing of Speakers and Topics". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  12. ^ "Bennington College Lecture Series, 1943-Lecture Series Listing of Speakers and Topics". Bennington College. Bennington College. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 


  • McRobbie, Kenneth, ed. (1994), Humanity, Society and Commitment: On Karl Polanyi, Black Rose Books Ltd., ISBN 1-895431-84-0 
  • McRobbie, Kenneth; Polanyi-Levitt, Kari, eds. (2000), Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The Contemporary Significance of The Great Transformation, Black Rose Books Ltd., ISBN 1-55164-142-9 
  • Mendell, Marguerite; Salée, Daniel (1991), The Legacy of Karl Polanyi: Market, State, and Society at the End of the Twentieth Century, St. Martins Press, ISBN 0-312-04783-5 
  • Polanyi-Levitt, Kari, ed. (1990), The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi: A Celebration, Black Rose Books Ltd., ISBN 0-921689-80-2 
  • Stanfield, J. Ron (1986), The Economic Thought of Karl Polanyi: Lives and Livelihood, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-39629-4 
  • Dale, Gareth (2010), Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Polity, ISBN 978-0-7456-4072-3 

External links[edit]