Karl Polanyi

Karl Polanyi

Karl Paul Polanyi (October 25, 1886, Vienna, AustriaApril 23, 1964, Pickering, Ontario) ["Encyclopedia Britannica" (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 2003) vol 9. p.554] was a Hungarian intellectual known for his opposition to traditional economic thought and his influential book "The Great Transformation".


Early life

Karl Polanyi, brother of chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, was born in Vienna, at the time the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The son of a prominent member of the bourgeoisie involved in railroads, 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 earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1908 and graduated in Law in 1912. In 1914 he helped found the Hungarian Radical Party and served as its secretary.

Polanyi was a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, but was removed from service due to disabilities after arriving at the Russian Front. After the war, he returned to Budapest where he became politically active once again. 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 was forced to flee to Vienna. From 1924 to 1933 he worked there as a journalist writing economic and political commentary for (among others) the prestigious "Der Oesterreichische Volkswirt". 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 concrete 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.

In the United States

He fled Austria in 1933 as the short-lived Austrian Republic began to collapse and fascist influence began to grow. He moved to London, where he earned a living working as a journalist and tutor and took up a position as a lecuturer for the Workers' Educational Association. Polanyi also conducted the bulk of his research for what would later become "The Great Transformation". He would not start writing this work until 1940, however, when he moved to Vermont to take up a position at Bennington College. It 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.

After the war Polanyi received a teaching position at Columbia University (1947-1953). However, his wife's (Ilona Duczynska) background as a former communist 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 in Columbia drew several famous scholars and influenced a generation of teachers, eventuating 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". He died in 1964.


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 worked against mainstream economics but was popular in anthropology 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 some scholars have denied its utility to the ancient societies in general [For example, Morris Silver, "Redistribution and Markets in the Economy of Ancient Mesopotamia: Updating Polanyi", Antiguo Oriente 5 (2007): 89-112.]

His book "The Great Transformation" also became a model for historical sociology. His theories eventually became the foundation for the economic democracy movement. His daughter Kari Polanyi-Levitt is Emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University, Montreal.


*"The Great Transformation" (1944)
*"Trade and Markets in the Early Empires" (1957, edited and with contributions by others)
*"Dahomey and the Slave Trade" (1966)
*"Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economics: Essays of Karl Polanyi" (1968, collected essays and selections from his work).
*"The Livelihood of Man (Studies in social discontinuity)(Academic Pr; New Ed edition (November 1977)


External links

* [http://artsandscience.concordia.ca/polanyi/about/ The Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy] - The Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy at Concordia University web site.
* [http://mises.org/story/1607 An Austrian School rebuttal of The Great Transformation] - From the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
* [http://www.eh.net/bookreviews/library/polanyi.shtml Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944) Review Essay by Anne Mayhew, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tennessee]
* [http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/polanyi.htm Profile on Karl Polanyi] - On the History of Economic Thought Website
* [http://www.karipolanyilevitt.com/bio.shtm Kari Polanyi Levitt]

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