Thursday, 31 January 2019

Book review - Bucking the Market

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)

Karl Polanyi:A Life on the Left

By Gareth Dale
Columbia University Press, New York, 2018
978-0231176095 paperback

978-0231176088 hard cover

Gareth Dale's interesting biography of Karl Polanyi is now available as a paperback. The history of socialist thought is rich and complex. Polanyi was a reformist, but a significant and influential thinker. Wisely, Dale, despite his own Marxist sympathies, has not attempted to constantly measure his subject against some “correct” position, but rather to present his sometimes contradictory development for his readers to assess, simply adding a few concluding observations.

Polanyi's eventful life reflects the upheavals of the first half of the last century. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest, he frequented an intellectual milieu (“Bloomsbury-on-Danube”) that included the young Lukács. He saw front-line action in World War I and in 1919 took part in the shortlived Communist Revolution in Hungary, holding an official position in the People's Commissariat of Social Production. When the revolution was crushed, he moved to Vienna and lived there in the period of what was known as “Red Vienna”; the city was run by social democrats who took major initiatives in education and culture. With the rise of fascism he came to Britain. The snobbery of Oxford University denied him a job there, but he worked for the Workers' Educational Association, and lived in London during the bombing. The last two decades of his life were spent teaching and living in North America – USA and Canada - where he achieved recognition, though sometimes coming up against McCarthyism. (His brother, Michael, an avid supporter of the anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, was refused a US visa.) In his last years he was close to the British New Left.

Polanyi wrote prolifically on a range of topics in history, sociology and political philosophy, and he continues to exercise an influence. Perhaps his more important work was on the question of the market, which has been central to economic thought and to ideology more generally in modern capitalism. Thus he pointed to the “myths” inherent in the whole idea of the market which required to be repudiated: “that political gains, such as democracy and civil liberties, are bequeathed to humanity courtesy of the market system; that economic justice is only attainable at the cost of political freedom; and the mainstream understanding of economic behaviour as scarcity-induced choices made by individuals acting to maximise utility.” Hence he was concerned to see how the market could be reconciled with planning.

Finding a positive political alternative presented a more difficult problem. Though he was impressed by the Hungarian workers' councils of 1956, he was in no way a revolutionary. On occasion he expressed surprisingly uncritical support for Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev – though his own niece had been jailed under Stalin. But when discussing the Schuman plan for a European Coal and Steel Community and the possibility of pushing it in a socialist direction, he commented that the only instrument available “is - God help us – the Labour Party of Britain”. (If he had seen the hapless Corbyn twisting and turning as he tried to placate Blairites and Zionists, he would have realised that something much bigger than God would be required.) Dale concludes that the world of reformism to which Polanyi belonged “now appears marginal, even lost”, and that he “gravely underestimated the degree to which social democracy had …. hitched itself to the capitalist machine”. Nonetheless he believes that “it is in his defence of nonmarket utopia that Polanyi's legacy lies”.

Much of Polanyi's life was shared with his wife, Ilona. For what it is worth, I found her a much more attractive character than her husband, despite occasional Stalinist lapses. She was an activist; when Polanyi came to Britain she remained in Austria, working with the opposition and joining the clandestine Communist Party. In wartime Britain she attempted to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. In in the early sixties she objected to her husband working with Robert Maxwell, whom she described as a “scamp” - something of an understatement! And at one point she worked as a cook, whereas cooking remained a mystery for her husband, who once put an unopened tin of beans on the stove and left it there till it exploded. Perhaps Dale will give us a life of this fascinating woman.

 Ian Birchall

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