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Karl Polanyi

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Karl Polanyi
Polanyi, c. 1918
Born25 October 1886
Died23 April 1964(1964-04-23) (aged 77)
(m. 1923)
ChildrenKari Polanyi Levitt
Academic career
FieldEconomic sociology, economic history, economic anthropology
School or
Historical school of economics
InfluencesRobert 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
ContributionsEmbeddedness, Double Movement, fictitious commodities, economistic fallacy, the formalist–substantivist debate (substantivism)

Karl Paul Polanyi (/pˈlænji/; Hungarian: Polányi Károly [ˈpolaːɲi ˈkaːroj]; 25 October 1886 – 23 April 1964)[1] was an Austro-Hungarian economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, and politician,[2] best known for his book The Great Transformation, which questions the conceptual validity of self-regulating markets.[3]

In his writings, Polanyi advances the concept of the Double Movement, which refers to the dialectical process of marketization and push for social protection against that marketization. He argues that market-based societies in modern Europe were not inevitable but historically contingent. Polanyi is remembered best as the originator of substantivism, a cultural version of economics, which emphasizes the way economies are embedded in society and culture. This opinion is counter to mainstream economics but is 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.[4] Polanyi's The Great Transformation became a model for historical sociology. His theories eventually became the foundation for the economic democracy movement.

Polanyi was active in politics, and helped found the National Citizens' Radical Party in 1914, serving as its secretary.

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.[5] He was born in Vienna, at the time the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[6] His father, Mihály Pollacsek, was a railway entrepreneur. Mihály never changed the name Pollacsek, and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Mihály died in January 1905, which was an emotional shock to Karl, and he commemorated the anniversary of Mihály's death throughout his life.[7] Karl and Michael Polanyi's mother was Cecília Wohl. The name change to Polanyi was made 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.

Early career[edit]

Polanyi founded the radical and influential Galileo Circle 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 National Citizens' Radical Party of Hungary and served as its secretary.[citation needed]

Polanyi was a cavalry officer in 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. Their daughter Kari Polanyi Levitt carried on the family tradition of economic academic research.

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".[8][9] The lectures "The Passing of the 19th Century",[10] "The Trend Towards an Integrated Society",[11] "The Breakdown of the International System",[12] "Is America an Exception?",[13] and "Marxism and the Inner History of the Russian Revolution"[14] took place during the early stages of World War II. Polanyi participated in Bennington's Humanism Lecture Series (1941)[15] and Bennington College's Lecture Series (1943) where his topic was "Jean Jacques Rousseau: Or Is a Free Society Possible?"[16]

After the war, Polanyi received a teaching position at Columbia University (1947–1953). However, his wife, Ilona Duczyńska (1897–1978), 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 Market in the Early Empires. Polanyi continued to write in his later years and established a new journal entitled Coexistence. In Canada he lived in Pickering, Ontario, where he died in 1964.

Selected works[edit]

  • "Socialist Accounting" (1922)
  • "The Essence of Fascism" (1933–1934); article[17]
  • The Great Transformation (1944)
  • "Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning?", The London Quarterly of World Affairs, vol. 10 (3) (1945)
  • Trade and Market 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 978-0745684444
  • Gareth Dale (ed), Karl Polanyi: The Hungarian Writings (Manchester University Press, 2016)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2003) vol 9. p. 554
  2. ^ "Karl Polanyi | Hungarian politician | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  3. ^ "Karl Polanyi". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 26 July 2021.
  4. ^ Silver 2007.
  5. ^ Harrod 2012.
  6. ^ Dale 2016.
  7. ^ Dale 2016, p. 13.
  8. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). Karl Polanyi: Five Lectures on The Present Age of Transformation-Lecture Series Listing of Topics (Speech). Five Lectures on The Present Age of Transformation. Bennington College: Bennington College. hdl:11209/8502.{{cite speech}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  9. ^ Leigh, Robert D. (25 September 1940), "Letter from President Robert Devore Leigh to Peter Drucker", Letter, Bennington College, hdl:11209/5449
  10. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). The Passing of 19th Century Civilization (Lecture #1 of 5) (Speech). Bennington College. hdl:11209/8514.
  11. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). The Trend Towards an Integrated Society (Lecture #2 of 5) (Speech). Bennington College. hdl:11209/8515.
  12. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). The Breakdown of the International System (Lecture #3 of 5) (Speech). Bennington College. hdl:11209/8516.
  13. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). Is America an Exception? (Lecture #4 of 5) (Speech). Bennington College. hdl:11209/8517.
  14. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1940). Marxism and the Inner History of the Russian Revolution (Speech). Bennington College. hdl:11209/8518.
  15. ^ Boas, George; Fergusson, Francis; Patterson, Margaret; Chapman, Dwight; Hardman, Yvette; Kouwenhoven, John; Luening, Otto; Polanyi, Karl; Stein, Peg; Truman, David; Smith, Bradford; Whittinghill, Maurice (April 1941), Bennington College Humanism-Lecture Series Listing of Speakers and Topics, Bennington College, hdl:11209/8501
  16. ^ Polanyi, Karl; Fergusson, Francis; Mendershausen, Horst; d'Estournelles, Paul; Drucker, Peter F.; Hanks, Lucien; Forbes, John D. (1943), Bennington College Lecture Series, 1943 – Lecture Series Listing of Speakers and Topics, Bennington College, hdl:11209/8499
  17. ^ Polanyi, Karl (1935). Lewis, John; Polanyi, Karl; Kitchin, Donald K. (eds.). "The Essence of Fascism". Christianity and the Social Revolution. London: Victor Gollancz Limited. pp. 359–394.


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