Growing interest among historians and social scientists in the work of Karl Polanyi has yet to produce detailed historical studies of how Polanyi's work was received by his contemporaries. This article reconstructs the frustration of Polanyi's attempts to make a name for himself among English socialists between his arrival from Vienna in 1934 and his departure for New York in 1947. The most obvious explanation for Polanyi's failure to find a following was the socialist historians’ rejection of his unorthodox narrative of the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in The Great Transformation (1944). But this disappointment was anticipated in earlier exchanges revealing that Polanyi's social theory, specifically his conception of the self and its social relations, differed markedly from the views prevailing among socialists of R. H. Tawney and G. D. H. Cole's generation. As well as casting new light on the intellectual history of English socialism and variegating our understanding of the contexts in which conceptions of the human person were invoked in the interwar period, this article seeks to illuminate by example the importance of deep-seated, often tacit, commitments to particular conceptions of the self and its social relations in structuring mid-century intellectual life.
For reading drafts of this article and offering very helpful commentary and criticism, I would like to thank Peter Mandler, Joel Isaac, Duncan Kelly, Martin Otero Knott and the anonymous readers for MIH. I am also grateful to members of the Modern Cultural History Seminar at the University of Cambridge, who provided a convivial forum for discussion of an earlier version.
1 Among Karl Polanyi's friends and acquaintances from Budapest and Vienna who settled in England were Karl Mannheim, Arthur Koestler and Karl Popper; on the phenomenon of the “twice-exiled” Hungarians see Nye Mary Jo, Michael Polanyi and his Generation (Chicago and London, 2011), chap. 1.
2 No biography of Karl Polanyi has yet been written, but biographies of his brother contain much useful information; Nye's treatment is particularly thorough: Nye, Michael Polanyi, esp. 1–36, 147–53; see also Scott William T. and Moleski Martin, Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher (Oxford, 2005).
3 Polanyi's only substantial English publications prior to The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York, 1944) were three brief articles on Marxism for a short-lived Christian Socialist weekly—“Fascism and Marxian Terminology”, New Britain, 20 June 1934; “Marxism Restated”, New Britain, 27 June 1934 and 4 July 1934; an essay, “The Essence of Fascism”, in a volume which Polanyi co-edited with Lewis John and Kitchin Donald, Christianity and the Social Revolution (London, 1935), 359–94; and a pamphlet, Europe To-day (London, 1937). The Great Transformation was published in England in 1945 as The Origins of Our Time.
4 Michael Polanyi to Karl Polanyi, 30 March 1944, Karl Polanyi Papers, Karl Polanyi Institute for Political Economy, Concordia University, Montreal, 57/5.
5 Kettler David and Mejer Volka, Karl Mannheim and the Crisis of Liberalism (New Brunswick, 1995), 176–88, contains one of the few studies of the “translation problems” faced by central European emigrés to London in the 1930s. See also Anderson Perry's famous lament for the emigré intellectuals’ failure to upset English intellectual life: “Components of the National Culture”, New Left Review 50 (1968), 16–20.
6 See Nye, Michael Polanyi, 147–8; Müller Jan-Werner, Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (New Haven and London, 2011), 56–60; Stears Marc, “Guild Socialism and Ideological Diversity on the British Left, 1914–1926”, Journal of Political Ideologies 3 (1998), 289–306; Stears , Progressives, Pluralists and the Problems of the State (Oxford, 2006).
7 This formulation comes from MacIntyre Alasdair, “Notes from the Moral Wilderness”, New Reasoner 8 (1959), 89–97, 93, a later iteration—also based on the early Marx—of the ontology Polanyi embraced: see further n. 125 below.
8 Cf R. H. Tawney, “Christianity and the Social Revolution”, New Statesman and Nation, 9 Nov. 1935, 682–4, 684. “Henry Dubb” was the socialist press's stereotype for the worker who stayed aloof from working-class politics: see MacIntyre Stuart, “British Labour, Marxism and Working-Class Apathy in the Nineteen-Twenties”, Historical Journal 20 (1977), 479–96, 487.
9 Cited in Clarke Peter, Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge, 1978), 189.
10 Nye, Michael Polanyi, chap. 1.
11 Karl Polanyi, “Memorandum concerning the plan of a book on the ‘Origins of the Cataclysm’”, (undated), Concordia, 19/5, 9–10; Nye, Michael Polanyi, 150–53.
12 Moleski and Scott, Michael Polanyi, 101.
13 Polanyi, “Memorandum”, 9, citing an unnamed article written by Polanyi for Oscar Jaszi's journal Huszadik Szadad (Twentieth Century) in 1909.
14 Nye, Michael Polanyi, 149–51.
15 Ibid., 148; Polanyi, “Memorandum”, 10.
16 Karl Polanyi to Irene Grant, 13 Oct. 1933; Karl Polanyi to Irene Grant, Donald Grant, John Macmurray and Betty Macmurray, (Christmas 1933); Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 11 April 1933; Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 16 Feb. 1934, Michael Polanyi Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, 17/4; Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 7 March 1934; Michael Polanyi Papers, 17/5.
17 Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 9 Dec. 1933, Michael Polanyi Papers, 17/4.
18 Ibid.; Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 21 Jan. 1957, Michael Polanyi Papers, 17/11; Moleski and Scott, Michael Polanyi, 15.
20 Moleski and Scott, Michael Polanyi, 153, recording that Polanyi met J. M. Keynes, H. Laski, R. H. Tawney and G. D. H. Cole.
21 See e.g. G. D. H. Cole, “Guild Socialism”, New Britain, 4 July 1934, 184: “As far as Great Britain is concerned, the Guild Socialist movement as a movement has passed into history.” See also Müller, Contesting Democracy, 52–5.
22 Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 22 Aug. 1941, Michael Polanyi Papers, Box 17, Folder 19, offering his “apologies” to his brother for earlier criticism of Michael's having followed Keynes: “The Keynesian school has proved exceedingly fruitful. Within the last 10 years practically 2/3rds of economic theory have been superceeded [sic] by highly effective new procedures and constructions”.
23 Moleski and Scott, Michael Polanyi, 154.
24 John Macmurray to Joseph Needham, 23 Jan. 1934, Joseph Needham Papers, Cambridge University Library, F.177.
25 The only surviving record of the lecture on Spann is Karl's letter to Michael reporting its success: Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 14 Feb. 1934, Michael Polanyi Papers, 17/5.
26 Karl Polanyi, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe” (1937/8), Concordia, 16/10, 4; see also Karl Polanyi, “Syllabus of a Course of Six Lectures on Conflicting Philosophies in Modern Society” (1937), Concordia, 15/2; Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 391–2.
27 Polanyi, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe”, 4; Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 392
28 Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 367; Polanyi, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe”, 4.
29 Polanyi, “Memorandum”, 9.
30 In March 1934 Polanyi retained some faith in democracy in Austria, deeming Engelbert Dollfuss's government temporary and prospects of a Nazi takeover uncertain: Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 14 Feb. 1934.
31 Polanyi, “Syllabus”, 3.
32 Tawney R. H., Equality (London, 1931). Polanyi's copy is inscribed “To Karli. From Glad and P. I. P[ainter]. June 1932”, Concordia; see also Polanyi, “Syllabus”, 4.
33 Polanyi, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe”, 1.
34 Ibid., 2.
35 Ibid., 5.
38 Polanyi renders Spann the partisan of “Universalism” as against “Individualism”. But in a footnote he notes that these are generic terms, and that “the specific term given by Spann to his philosophy is ‘Totalitarianism’ (Ganzheitslehre)”: Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 364 n1.
39 Ibid., 368.
42 Ibid., 369.
43 Ibid., 370, original emphases.
44 Polanyi, “Syllabus”, 8; Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 368.
45 Polanyi, “Essence of Fascism”, 370.
46 Ibid., 365.
47 Whether Maritain constituted “the extreme right of [their] own position” or a “definitely irreconcilable” viewpoint was a matter of some consternation for the editors of Christianity and the Social Revolution. Karl Polanyi to Joseph Needham, 19 May 1934; Karl Polanyi to Joseph Needham, 5 Oct. 1934, Needham Papers, F.177, F. 178.
48 Indeed, Polanyi has since been read in precisely this manner: Katznelson Ira, Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitarianism and the Holocaust (New York, 2003).
49 Moyn Samuel, “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights”, in Hoffmann Stanley-Ludwig, ed., Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2011), 85–106, 88; Chappel James, “The Catholic Origins of Totalitarianism Theory in Interwar Europe”, MIH 8 (2011), 561–90.
50 Polanyi to “Gordon”, 7 May 1943, Concordia, 47/3; Tawney, “Christianity and the Social Revolution”. The relevant entry in Gollancz's ledger records that 11,880 copies of Christianity and the Social Revolution were printed, comprising 7,244 of the standard edition and 4,636 of a cheaper edition produced for the Left Book Club. Victor Gollancz Ltd Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.318/2/1/10.
51 See Lloyd Roger, The Church of England 1900–1965 (London, 1966), 171–7, 196–200, 296–9.
52 “A Talk with Tawney”.
53 Irene Grant to R. H. Tawney, 19 Jan. 1936, Concordia, 21/27.
54 “Notes on a Talk with Dr. Tawney”, 12 February 1936, Karl Polanyi Papers, 21/21, 1.
55 In November 1936 members of Polanyi's group presented a series of resolutions to the Movement's AGM, seeking constitutional recognition of their “Christian Left group” in order “to assure it of reasonable support for its activities within the ‘Aux’ and outside”, and also seeking “initiate” such constitutional revision as would be needed in order for them to “be able to stay and work, as a group, within the Movement”. Though the resolutions were passed, it soon became clear that the revisions demanded by the group did not command wider support. In response, eight of the Christian Left group's members resigned from their posts on the SCM's General and Executive Committees, and wrote to the wider Auxiliary to justify their decision and to refute suggestions that their initiative at the general meeting had amounted to a putsch. See David Beggs et al. to Auxiliary Members, 14 Nov. 1936, Concordia, 21/27.
56 Tawney, “Christianity and the Social Revolution”.
57 Stears, Progressives, chap. 3.
58 Ibid, 94 ff.; Stears, “Guild Socialism”.
59 Cole G. D. H., Social Theory (London, 1920); Stears, Progressives, chap. 3. On T. H. Green's use of Hegel see Harris Paul and Morrow John, “Introduction”, in Green T. H., Lectures on the Principle of Political Obligation and Other Writings (Cambridge, 1986), 1–12, 5; Ulam Adam, Philosophical Foundations of English Socialism (Cambridge, 1951), 21; Anderson, “Components of the National Culture”, 14–5.
60 Stears, “Guild Socialism”, 292.
61 R. H. Tawney to Evan Durbin, 24 May 1938, Evan Durbin Papers, London School of Economics, 7/4.
62 Tawney, Equality, 238; Cole G. D. H., Labour in the Commonwealth (London, 1919), 37; Stears, Progressives, 98–100.
63 “A Talk with Tawney”, 1 (my emphasis).
65 Mayer J. P. and Landshut S., eds., Der historische Materialismus: Die Frühschriften (Leipzig, 1932).
66 Karl Polanyi, “Bibliographical Note on the Early Works of Marx” (undated), Concordia, 20/11.
67 Karl Polanyi, “Christian Left Group: Bulletin 2—Notes of a Week's Study on the Early Writings of Karl Marx” (1 Jan. 1938), Concordia, 20/12; though the bulletin was unsigned, Irene Grant confirmed that Polanyi was its author. Block Fred, “Karl Polanyi and the Writing of The Great Transformation”, Theory and Society 32 (2003), 275–306 n. 12. Block regards The Great Transformation primarily as a work of economic theory, examining the genesis of some of the concepts (“fictitious commodities”, the “embedded economy”) which he takes Polanyi's book to have introduced into political economy.
68 “Bulletin 2”, 5.
69 The only trace of a following in the Polanyi archive is a letter from Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in March 1938, thanking Irene Grant for enclosing an article “on the Marxian theory of self-estrangement”, and looking forward to “the translations you will send me on that topic”. Reinhold Niebuhr to Irene Grant, 29 March 1938, Concordia, 56/15.
70 See Chun Lin, The British New Left (Edinburgh, 1993), 34.
71 Anderson, “Components of the National Culture”, 10–11, 16–20; Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London, 1980), 145 ff. For followers of Anderson's lead in this respect see Dworkin Dennis, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain (Durham and London, 1997), 53, 134–6; Chun, British New Left, 114–15.
72 “Bulletin 2”, 13.
73 After studying together at Koloszvar before the First World War, Lukacs and Polanyi appear to have remained close until at least 1919—when Polanyi wrote to Lukacs from Vienna that he would follow him in joining Bela Kun's governing Communist Party—though records of their contact are sporadic thereafter; Polanyi was put in mind of Lukacs again in 1934, when he was discussed as a possible contributor to Christianity and the Social Revolution. Moleski and Scott, 41–2; Polanyi to Joseph Needham, 31 Oct. 1934, Concordia, 56/11. Precisely when Polanyi read History and Class Consciousness is unclear.
74 Notes of Christian Left Group Meetings, Dec. 1937–Jan. 1938, Concordia, 7/3, 64.
75 “Bulletin 2”, 18.
76 Ibid.; Polanyi, “Memorandum”, underlining in original. On the contention between idealism and materialism in contemporary historiography and social theory see e.g. Robertson H. M., Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism: A Criticism of Max Weber and His School (Cambridge, 1933); Collingwood R. G., Autobiography (Oxford, 1939).
77 “Bulletin 2”, 18.
78 Ibid., 17.
79 Ibid., 16.
80 Ibid., 17, original emphasis.
81 Winter J. M., ed., R. H. Tawney's Commonplace Book (Cambridge, 1972), 67.
82 Polanyi to “Bassett”, 6 July 1938, Concordia, 47/8
86 See letter to Polanyi from University of London Tutorial Classes Committee, 8 Oct. 1943, querying the “enormous scope covered” by Polanyi's syllabus and its “implied assumptions as to what people understand”. Concordia, 47/13.
87 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 115.
88 Ibid., 115.
89 Ibid., 83.
90 See, e.g., Tawney R. H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London, 1926); Whitehead A. N., Science and the Modern World (Cambridge, 1926); Butterfield Herbert, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931); Collingwood, Autobiography.
91 Karl Polanyi to John A. Kouwenhoven, 12 Sept. 1942; John A. Kouwenhoven to Karl Polanyi, 11 Sept. 1942, Concordia, 47/12.
92 G. D. H. Cole to Karl Polanyi, 5 Nov. 1943, Concordia, 47/12; G. D. H. Cole, “Notes on The Great Transformation”, Concordia, 19/6.
93 See Taylor Miles, “The Beginnings of Modern British Social History?”, History Workshop Journal 43 (1997), 155–76; Collini Stefan, “Cultural Critics and ‘Modernity’ in Interwar Britain”, in Green E. H. and Tanner D., eds., The Strange Survival of Liberal England (Cambridge, 2007), 247–74.
94 Thompson E. P., “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (1976), in Thompson, Customs in Common (London, 1993), 185–258.
95 Hexter J. H., “Review”, American Historical Review 50 (1945), 501–4, 502.
96 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 82.
97 Cole thought that Speenhamland was “essentially a wartime measure”. Cole to Polanyi, 5 Nov. 1943.
98 G. D. H. Cole to Karl Polanyi, 11 Feb. 1946, Concordia, 48/1.
99 Tawney R. H., The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1912), 316; Polanyi to Tawney, 12 Sept. 1942, Concordia, 47/12. Polanyi had sought and obtained permission to send the Poor Law chapters to Tawney, but elected not to do so. Polanyi to Tawney, 12 Sept. 1942; Tawney to Polanyi, 16 Sept. 1942, Concordia, 47/12; Polanyi to Tawney (22 May 1944), Concordia, 54/6.
100 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 282; J. L. and Hammond B., The Village Labourer (London, 1911), 137–49.
101 Michael Polanyi to Karl Polanyi, 19 Oct. 1943; Michael Polanyi to Karl Polanyi, 17 Dec. 1943; Concordia, 57/5.
102 Michael Polanyi to Karl Polanyi, 18 Oct. 1943, Concordia, 57/5.
103 Karl Polanyi to Michael Polanyi, 19 Oct. 1943.
104 Stone Lawrence, “Lawrence Stone—as seen by himself”, in Beier A. L., Cannadine David and Rosenheim James M., eds., The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989), 575–95, 579.
105 Thomas Keith, “History and Anthropology”, Past and Present 24 (1960), 3–24, 3.
106 Polanyi may have been among the writers Tawney had in mind in lamenting the “historicism” of contemporary historiography in correspondence with Leo Strauss. See Green S. J. D., “The Tawney–Strauss Connection: On Historicism and Values in the History of Political Ideas”, Journal of Modern History 67 (1995), 255–77.
107 The view that a long intermission separated the rise of capitalism from the onset of industrialism was still current in the mid-1950s, to the consternation of those invested in a materialist interpretation of history. See Hobsbawm Eric, “The General Crisis of the European Economy in the 17th Century”, Past and Present 5 (1954), 33–53; Hobsbawm , “The Crisis of the 17th Century—II”, Past and Present 6 (1954) 44–65.
108 Marshall T. H., “Sociology at the Crossroads”, in Marshall, Sociology at the Crossroads and Other Essays (London, 1963), 3–24, 4.
109 Marshall, “Sociology at the Crossroads”; Ross Dorothy, “Changing Contours of the Social Science Disciplines”, in Ross Dorothy and Porter Theodore, eds., Cambridge History of Science, vol. 7, The Modern Social Sciences (Cambridge, 2003), 205–37; Halsey A. H., “Provincials and Professionals: The British Post-war Sociologists”, in Bulmer Martin, ed., Essays on the History of British Sociological Research (Cambridge, 1985), 151–64; Edward A. Shils, “On the eve: a prospect in retrospect”, in ibid., 165–80; cf. Savage Mike, Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940 (Oxford, 2010), chaps. 4 and 5.
110 Stocking George, After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888–1951 (London, 1996).
111 Keith Thomas noted that his call for engagement with anthropology and sociology was one instance in which Tawney's advice did go unheeded. Thomas, “History and Anthropology”, 3.
112 Ashton's chief complaint against sociology was that it was “unhistorical”. See Marshall, “Sociology at the Crossroads”, 4.
113 R. H. Tawney to Karl Polanyi, 19 Aug. 1944, Concordia, 47/13.
115 Karl Polanyi to A. D. Lindsay, 15 July 1944, Concordia, 47/13.
116 See e.g. Dewey John, “The Crisis in Human History: The Danger of a Retreat into Individualism”, Commentary 1 (1946), 1–9, 4–5.
117 Unsigned to Polanyi (undated), Karl Polanyi Papers, Columbia University, 4/17. Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons admired The Great Transformation. Robert Merton to Pendleton Herring, 14 Nov. 1958, Merton Papers, Box 58, Folder 7; Talcott Parsons to Neil Smelser, Jan. 1957, Talcott Parsons Papers, Harvard University, HUGFP 15.2/23.
118 Hexter, “Review”, 503.
119 See Katznelson, Desolation, 51.
120 Robert Warshaw to Karl Polanyi, 30 Jan. 1947, Columbia, 48/2.
121 Gollancz Papers, MSS.318/2/1/15.
122 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 82; Thompson E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1980), 594. The departure from Tawney's position is more explicit in Thompson, “Moral Economy”, 253.
123 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 82–84; Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 73. Thompson cites no authority for his characterization of Speenhamland as part of a “last desperate effort . . . to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market”. As the foregoing discussion makes clear, the authorities (with the sole exception of Polanyi) were arrayed against this interpretation.
124 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 149; Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 82, 782.
125 For the New Left's conception of self and society see Thompson E. P., “Socialist Humanism”, New Reasoner 1 (1957), 105–40; Thompson, “Agency and Choice”, New Reasoner 5 (1958), 89–106; MacIntyre, “Moral Wilderness”. For a sense of their antagonism towards the rival ontology see Thompson's essays in Thompson E. P., ed., Out of Apathy (London, 1960), and in particular the attack on W. H. Auden.
126 On the eventual reception of The Great Transformation see Nye, Michael Polanyi, 173–4; Kindleberger Charles P., “The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi”, Daedelus 103 (1974), 45; Katznelson, Desolation, 60; Block Fred and Somers Margaret, “In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law”, Politics and Society 31 (2003), 283–323.
* For reading drafts of this article and offering very helpful commentary and criticism, I would like to thank Peter Mandler, Joel Isaac, Duncan Kelly, Martin Otero Knott and the anonymous readers for MIH. I am also grateful to members of the Modern Cultural History Seminar at the University of Cambridge, who provided a convivial forum for discussion of an earlier version.
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