Kari Polanyi Levitt

Emerita Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal – Canada

“From the Great Transformation to the Geat Financialization”, talk at the Rosa-Luxembourg Foundation, Berlin, May 8 2014.

“if I were a believer, I would know that my mother was smiling down upon me here at the podium of the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. My mother was a student of engineering in Zurich in 1915, when she was befriended by a community of representatives of the Russian Social Democratic Party opposed to the war, including Lenin, his wife Krupskaya and Angelica Balabanoff. Together with delegations from Germany, France, and Britain, as well as other European Labour and Socialist parties, they met to draft a program of action against the war, known as the Zimmerwald Declaration.

As an 18-year-old Hungarian-speaking student unknown to any informant, Ilona was entrusted with delivering this call to action to the leaders of the Social Democratic Party in Vienna. When she presented herself to these gentlemen, they took one look at her and told her to go home, child, just go home. Having failed in this mission, she proceeded to Budapest where she received a warmer welcome from Ervin Szabo – a leading anarchist and head of the public library. With his counsel and advice, she found other young people to participate in a plan to distribute anti-war literature. She wrote the texts, found the printer and together with her comrade Tibor Sugar, they organized the distribution of leaflets in the great Weiss Manfred war factory and the army barracks.

Eventually they were caught, imprisoned and charged with treason – it was not a small matter. The trial of Duczynska, a beautiful young woman from a very good family, and Tibor Sugar, who was briefly her partner in marriage before she met my father, aroused considerable public interest. They were liberated from prison by the 1918 revolution which terminated the war and established the first Hungarian Republic.”

Read more:

Rosa Luxembourg lecture

Roy Culpeper, former President of the North-South Institute and currently a Senior Fellow of the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies, and Adjunct Professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University, reviews From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization for the Broadbent Institute here.

American Sociological Association Honors Karl Polanyi

The Economic Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association (ASA) marked the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Great Transformation with a session on Karl Polanyi at the 109th ASA Annual Meeting (San Francisco, CA, August 16-18, 2014). Panelists included Fred Block, Margaret Somers, and Kari Polanyi Levitt. To commemorate this anniversary, the Chair of the Economic Sociology Section, Nina Bandelj, presented a beautiful plaque to Kari. The plaque was donated to the Karl Polanyi Institute, Concordia in Montreal, where it is now prominently displayed.


In her address, Professor Polanyi Levitt recalled the significance of the Great War in the life and work of Karl Polanyi.


“… For my father and his generation, the First World War which consumed so many million lives, was a traumatic and transformative experience. It was, I believe, the defining event of his life, which motivated him to engage in the search for the ultimate origins of the collapse of all the apparent certainties of the world before 1914 and all the disasters which followed. In “The Calling of our Generation”, Karl Polanyi expressed the profound sense of disenchantment of a whole generation. During the First World War, he was a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Russian front. The conditions were appalling, and he was tormented by a sense of personal responsibility for the disasters, the killings, the war, and what he later described as the collapse of our civilization…”  Read More

Culture & Economy

Kari Polanyi Levitt, 2014

It is not permitted to copy this text without explicit permission of the author

The Power of Ideas: Keynes, Hayek and Polanyi

The Power of Ideas: Keynes, Hayek and Polanyi

This is the title of the introduction to volume 41, no. 4 (Winter 2012-2013) of the International Journal of Political Economy. The full text can be downloaded below.

European intellectuals of the generation of Keynes (b.1883), Hayek (b. 1899) and Polanyi (b.1886) were conditioned to assume responsibility for the welfare of society. They believed in the power of ideas to affect the course of world events. They understood that ideological beliefs can sustain an unsustainable social and economic order, or release forces of revolutionary change. They profoundly affect how we live in society, or react to perceived injustice.

The Power of Ideas: Keynes, Hayek and Polanyi

Tracing Polanyi’s Institutional Economy to Its Central European Sources

Extracts from “Tracing Polanyi’s Institutional Political Economy to its Central European Source,” in Karl Polanyi in Vienna, 2nd ed., Kari Polanyi Levitt and Kenneth McRobbie, eds., Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2006, pp.386-389.

“The disembedded economy has been dismissed by my colleague who wrote the introduction to the new edition of The Great Transformation. Fred Block contends that Polanyi’s real discovery was the ‘always embedded economy.’  He is of the view that there is a basic contradiction within the text of The Great Transformation.  He maintains that there was a shift from Polanyi’s earlier Marxist influence to a later revision of his views and circumstances did not permit him to revise the manuscript of The Great Transformation to resolve this contradiction: “Polanyi glimpsed, but was not able to name or elaborate the idea of the always embedded market economy.” [1] “We can make systematic use of Polanyi’s insight in the GT (The Great Transformation) once we have ‘unpacked’ the text and shown the tensions between Polanyi’s original Marxist architecture for the book and the new ideas he developed as he was writing them.”

By discarding the disembedded economy, Block moved Polanyi into the mainstream of socio-economic discourse. The effect is to obscure the radical implications of the existential contradiction between a market economy and a viable society. There is a suggestion here that Polanyi was influenced by Marxism in the turbulent interwar years and that there was an ideological shift during the writing of the book in the United Sates from 1941to1943. Such an interpretation fails to understand what Polanyi accepted and what he rejected in Marx.

Polanyi shared Marx’s fundamental insight into the historically limited nature of the organisation of economic life by the universalization of the market principle, including private ownership of the means of production. His account of the societal consequences of the commodification of money, land, labour and indeed the essentials of life, recalls the Marx of The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1932). What he rejected was the Ricardian labour theory of value and the economism of historical materialism, including the Marxian stagiest theories of growth. Whereas Marx anticipated the eventual breakdown of the capitalist order on account of inherent economic contradictions, Polanyi emphasised the contradiction between the requirements of the capitalist market economy for limitless expansion and the human requirement to be sustained by mutually supportive social relations. In Polanyi’s account of this existential contradiction the outcome is not determinate. There is no grand design of progress. There are no impersonal historical forces which inevitably move humanity forward.

There is no evidence of a “theoretical shift” (Block,2001:2) in Polanyi’s thinking during the writing of The Great Transformation.  What may appear to Fred Block as a contradiction is due to his misconceptions of the relationship of Polanyi to Marx. Fortunately, we have testimony on the writing of The Great Transformation by its author, in a letter written to me from Bennington College, Vermont, dated February 23rd, 1941.  We note that the outline of the book, as we know it, was complete at the time this letter was written and that there was a deliberate decision to refrain from reading new material or extending beyond the original outline.  Polanyi’s admiration for the New Deal, formed during several visits to the United States in the 1930s is explicit in the final passages of the letter.  There is no evidence of new influences during his stay at Bennington College from 1941 to 1943.

“So about four weeks ago I began writing, and tomorrow I intend to go to New York to hand the Introduction and the first three chapters to the publishers. Curiously enough, it is not a draft, but a finished text, ready for print. Of the many surprises the writing was connected with, this is one. When Mother arrived, I had only an outline, in 25 chapters, appr. 20,000 words. I vaguely intended to amplify it and make it three times as long, before starting out to write the book. But hardly had I started out, I changed my mind and simply wrote the first chapter, which at once settled the book. Or now I knew what I had not even suspected before, namely, the length, shape and character of the book. So, my Darling, now I can tell you. It is going to be called Liberal Utopia, The Origins of the Cataclysm. It will be a very straight forward, simple story, easy to read and mainly historical in character, recounting the history of English enclosures, the Industrial Revolution, Speenhamland. But the two introductory chapters will deal with the Hundred Years Peace and the ‘Conservative twenties, Revolutionary thirties. The last chapters deal with America, Russia, the history of Economic theory and the history of the theory of the liberal state, It ends up with the formulation of new concept of freedom, the reform of human consciousness the transcending of Christianity. The structure is extremely strict and formal. The bulk of the book is called ‘Rise and Fall of Market Economy’ and takes some 20 chapters of the 25. It consists of three sections: A. Satanic Mill. B. Self-Protection of Society and C. Deadlock. There will be no footnotes, but all annexes will be added at the end with all notes under chapter headings; the notes will be full, and very much part of the book; written so as to be read- with gusto, even separately. I won’t do any extensive reading any more, if I can possibly avoid it, but only the reading needed to check all my statements insofar as the writing takes one beyond the original scope. The book will have appro 500 pages.

Mother was the greatest help imaginable. She typed the fresh MS pages for me so that I could at once correct them and rewrite them myself; she listened to every two or three pages as they were written, which is a tremendous thing, for it assists one to see exactly where you are. And she was so encouraging as we know only she can be. In America the title will have to be different, here liberal means progressive, or more precisely what radical meant in England, until not long ago. (By radical they mean here an anarchist or a communist; while the English term liberal is untranslateable into American unless you say laissez-faire, or more often conservative!) Hoover, eg. Is called a conservative because he is a liberal (in the English sense), while Roosevelt is called a liberal, meaning that he is for the New Deal. Therefore Liberal Utopia would be taken to mean an attack on supporters of the New Deal- which would be almost the opposite of my purpose. I intend to call it here The Great Transformation. Origins of the Cataclysm.”


As we enter the 21st century, we witness societal disintegration manifested in genocidal wars, displaced populations, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, ethnic and religious conflicts and irreversible damage to the natural environment that sustains life on earth. Our world is arguably more turbulent and dangerous than Polanyi’s. The impulse of social protection of societies threatened by the concentration of economic, financial and increasingly military power may be mobilized by appeals to solidarities as diverse as class, race, ethnicity, caste, religious belief or nationalisms. Where the conflict between the ‘economic’ and the ‘social,’ cannot be resolved there is chaos. In the so-called failed states, social and civic relations of mutual support have disintegrated.[2] It is not by coincidence that Polanyi’s warning of the fateful consequences of liberating capitalist market relations from social control has such resonance today.”




Mme Kari Polanyi Levitt nommée Membre de l’Ordre du Canada

L’Ordre du Canada a annoncé aujourd’hui la nomination de Mme Kari Polanyi Levitt, économiste et professeur émérite de l’Université McGill, au titre de Membre de l’Ordre du Canada, pour avoir contribué à faire des études sur le développement international un champ de recherche pluridisciplinaire, ainsi que pour ses travaux de recherche sur l’économie politique dans les Caraïbes.


Née à Vienne en 1923, Kari Polanyi est la fille unique de Ilona Duczynska et Karl Polanyi[i], un économiste et historien de l’économie, reconnu aujourd’hui comme un des auteurs d’économie politique les plus marquants du XXe siècle, principalement pour son apport aux théories institutionnalistes. En 1933, Karl émigre à Londres, suivie par Kari en 1934 et Ilona deux ans plus tard.


Diplômée du London School of Economics (1941 à 1943) où elle se spécialise en statistiques, elle immigre au Canada en 1947 avec son mari l’historien Joseph Levitt, et s’inscrit au programme de maîtrise en économie de l’Université de Toronto en 1957, après avoir donné naissance à deux garçons.  Elle s’établit enfin à Montréal en 1960, alors que l’université McGill lui offre de donner un cours sur la planification économique. Mme Levitt s’implique alors dans un projet de recherche sur les intrants et les extrants (inputs/outputs) de l’économie des provinces maritimes canadiennes et dirigera ce vaste projet d’étude sur la région atlantique du Canada de 1965 à 1975, pour Statistiques Canada.


C’est à cette même époque qu’elle a son premier contact avec les Caraïbes, alors qu’elle s’implique dans un projet d’intégration entre les différents systèmes d’expédition de la région. Au cours des 40 années qui suivirent, elle s’investit aussi dans une multitude d’activités dans la région, parmi lesquelles des activités d’enseignement, de recherche, de conférences, de participation au débat public, ou de services de consultante auprès des gouvernements de la région.  Sa trace laissée dans les Caraïbes dépasse sa contribution intellectuelle qui permet de mieux comprendre le développement, l’histoire économique et les particularités de la région. Elle y jouit d’une certaine reconnaissance, ayant publié 4 ouvrages assez importants, ayant mis au point conjointement avec Lloyd Best le modèle économique de la plantation et y ayant présenté plusieurs conférences et enseignements.


Kari deviendra donc une voix importante au sein de ce courant au carrefour de différentes disciplines des sciences sociales, principalement l’économie politique, les relations internationales, les statistiques et la politique appliquée qu’on allait nommer «études du développement» (developement studies) et dont la théorie de la dépendance représente le noyau conceptuel central.  Ce concept cherche à démontrer les liens de dépendance inégaux entretenus par les pays développés par rapport aux pays du Tiers-Monde, et dénonce les obligations qui étaient imposées aux pays du Tiers-Monde, par exemple celles d’exporter à bon marché leurs ressources naturelles, qui maintiennent les moins développés dans un rapport de dépendance.


En 1970, Mme Levitt publie Silent Surrender, dont la thèse centrale soutient qu’entre les investissements directs étrangers (IDE) et les investissements de portefeuilles, il existe une différence centrale, celle du contrôle. L’impact de Silent Surrender est très important ; l’ouvrage est publié et republié et réédité plusieurs fois. Partout au Canada, le livre est recensé, puis est publié en français, sous le titre de « La Capitulation Tranquille », avec une préface enthousiaste de Jacques Parizeau, démontrant l’influence et la crédibilité qui était accordée à Kari tant par les cercles nationalistes canadiens que québécois.

En 1978, Kari hérite de l’ensemble des écrits de son père. Ce nouveau rôle de gardienne de la mémoire de Karl Polanyi lui donnera un nouvel élan, l’amenant à développer de nouvelles idées, basées sur la rencontre entre les siennes et celles de son père. En 1987, lorsque l’Université Concordia fonde l’Institut Karl Polanyi de politique économique,  le Professeur Levitt rend toutes les archives de son père disponibles. Ceci concorde avec la fondation de CASID[ii], et l’établissement du prix annuel Kari Polanyi Levitt pour le meilleur essai académique traitant du développement international.

Après 30 ans au département des sciences économiques, Mme Levitt prend sa retraite à titre de professeur émérite de l’université McGill en 1992.  Elle a alors gagné une reconnaissance internationale en tant qu’économiste  du développement dans la tradition d’économie politique. Depuis 1999, elle a publié cinq livres, dont Silent Surrender qui fut ré-édité en 2002.  Jusqu’en 1997, elle poursuit ses efforts d’enseignement et de recherche à l’Université des Indes Occidentales, en Jamaïque. En 2005, elle publie Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community et reçoit en 2008 un Doctorat honorifique de l’Université des Indes Occidentales, ainsi que le prix John Kenneth Galbraith au Progressive Economics Forum, conjointement avec Mel Watkins.


En 2013, Mme Levitt publie From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization[iii]Suivant les pas de son père, dont l’œuvre propose aussi un portrait historique de l’évolution de l’économie, elle adopte le point de vue historique des pays en développement, et enrichit la proposition de Karl Polanyi en constatant que, pour ces pays, le phénomène de la globalisation se manifeste d’une façon fort semblable aux fois précédentes où le capitalisme leur a été imposé.  Dans son dernier chapitre, elle conclut que la crise financière de 2008 a mis en relief le déclin relatif de l’ouest au profit du reste du monde, ouvrant ainsi la voie à un futur possible de cohabitation entre les pays aux héritages historiques et culturels différents.


L’Ordre du Canada

La nomination de Mme Kari Levitt à titre de Membre de l’Ordre du Canada vient couronner le travail de toute sa vie, et elle en est extrêmement honorée.


[i] Son ouvrage le plus important est sans contredit « La Grande Transformation », qui paraît pour la première fois en 1944, dans lequel l’auteur cherchait à expliquer la montée du fascisme au vingtième siècle.

[ii] Canadian Association for the Study of International Development

[iii] Définie comme étant la capacité, de la part des capitaux financiers, de prendre le dessus et d’ainsi dominer toutes les activités commerciales, la financiarisation découle d’une récurrente suraccumulation de capitaux. La tendance à la financiarisation s’observe donc dans différentes phases du capitalisme, incluant la phase préindustrielle. L’expansion financière et matérielle sont des processus qui se déploient dans un système d’accumulation et de normes dont l’ampleur s’élargit depuis des siècles.

Rappelons que l’Ordre du Canada été créé en 1967, l’année du centenaire du Canada, afin de souligner «les réalisations exceptionnelles, le dévouement remarquable d’une personne envers la communauté ou une contribution extraordinaire à la nation». Cet honneur a été décerné à plus de 6000 personnes jusqu’ici. Le titre de membre de l’ordre reconnaît « une vie vouée au service d’une communauté, d’un groupe ou d’un champ d’activité ». L’Ordre du Canada est la plus haute récompense du régime canadien de distinctions honorifiques. Il reconnaît des réalisations exceptionnelles, le dévouement remarquable d’une personne envers la communauté ou une contribution extraordinaire à la nation.

The Governor General of Canada has announced that Professor Kari Polanyi Levitt, Emerita Professor of McGill University in the Department of Economics, will receive the Order of Canada for her contribution to the study and multi-disciplined research in the field of international development as well as her research and insights into the political economy of the Caribbean.

Established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of Canada is the centrepiece of Canada’s honours system and recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. The Order recognizes people in all sectors of Canadian society. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country. The Order of Canada’s motto is DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (They desire a better country).

Seventieth anniversary of the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, in 1944.

For Hayek, the departure from minimalist laissez-faire government was the road to serfdom. For Polanyi, the self-regulating market was the road to the ruin of the western democracies.

In From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization (2013), we trace the conflicting philosophies of Hayek and Polanyi to their origins, in Socialist Vienna of the 1920s.

Polanyi and Hayek arrived in England as émigré intellectuals in the early 1930s. The opening sentence of the Great Transformation reads: “Nineteenth century civilization has collapsed.” Note the present tense of these words, written 30 years after the start of the Great WCover-Levitt-From-Great-Transar. Nowhere was the collapse of that civilization more evident than in Vienna, the former glittering capital of the Hapsburg Empire of 50 million people reduced to the impoverished capital of the 6 million Republic of Austria. In the socialist Red Vienna of my childhood, Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises were the misfits, the remnants of the old order. As recalled by Mises in his memoirs: “To appreciate duly Doctor Hayek’s achievements, one must take into account political, economic, and ideological conditions as they prevailed in Europe and especially in Vienna at the time the First World War came to an end” (M Mises, 1976: 183). They were traumatized by the socialist municipal administration that favoured the working classes. They considered socialism of all varieties and economic planning of any kind to be an infringement on personal liberty. They looked back on the liberal utopia of the pre-1914 economic order as an ideal to be recovered and refashioned.

In Chapter 2, we follow Hayek’s career from Vienna to the London School of Economics to his influence on the Chicago School and the international thought collective of the Mont Pelerin Society. Neoliberal ideology was consciously constructed from European sources, but took root in the United States where it found support from opponents of New Deal policies. In its most radical form, neoliberalism defines freedom in purely economic terms. Politics is reduced to the rule of law by a strong state dedicated to the preservation of private property and free enterprise.

In Chapter 3, we introduce the reader to the formative influences on Karl Polanyi in pre-1914 Vienna, where Russian revolutionaries of all varieties were welcomed and assisted by family and family friends, and to Budapest, where he was a founding member and first president of a Hungarian student movement dedicated to Free Thought. In Vienna of the 1920s, he engaged Mises in the socialist accountancy debates and outlined a model of associational functionalist socialism, moderating criteria of economic efficiency with social justice and participatory democracy. His socialism was neither that of traditional European social democracy, nor that of centralized communist planning. It was more akin to the third stream of the European socialist tradition- the populist, syndicalist and quasi-anarchist one of corporatist guild socialism.

Kari Polanyi Levitt, Montreal, June 2014

Table of Contents

Interview with Michèle Rioux: Nine Decades of Scientific and Militant Life

KARI POLANYI: Nine Decades of Scientific and Militant Life
Michèle Rioux

This is a transcript of an interview conducted by Professor Michèle Rioux, Director of the Centre d’études sur l’intégration et la mondialisation (CEIM) and full professor in the department of Political Science at the Université de Quebec á Montreal, with Kari Polanyi during the Fall of 2013 and published in Interventions Economiques. The interview is part of a research project leading to a book that will discuss the work and life of two extraordinary women in Canadian political economy, Kari Polanyi and Sylvia Ostry.

Summary of questions:

Michèle Rioux: Dear Kari, can you tell us about the first decade of your life?
Michèle Rioux: You were 11 years old? The second decade of your life was just beginning.
Michèle Rioux: Who was your favorite?
Michèle Rioux: When did you meet John Maynard Keynes?
Michèle Rioux: But you have been in contact with ideas of the general theory?
Michèle Rioux: Did the ideas of Kalecki and Keynes resonate with students or were they more inclined to study Marx?
Michèle Rioux: You were in your twenties and thirties, you were finishing your program and you then travelled to Canada. What made you cross the ocean?
Michèle Rioux: But you were a PhD Student?
Interviewer: So you were not the failure you thought you were!
Michèle Rioux: That brings us almost to the third decade of your life.
Michèle Rioux: But you never finished?
Michèle Rioux : Can you give us a sense of what was really original in this project?
Michèle Rioux: This was your first project as a McGill professor. Were you teaching courses at the time?
Michèle Rioux: When did you start the work on the Caribbean?
Michèle Rioux: What is the next important moment, the publication of your book Silent Surrender?
Michèle Rioux: In your economic planning model, what was the main element? What is related to the question of investment in Canada?
Michèle Rioux: Did you know at the time that it was important?
Michèle Rioux: Why were the seventies so important for you?
Michèle Rioux: Did you miss Europe?
Michèle Rioux: Who do you think was the most important person in your life and in shaping the way you have approached your work?
Michèle Rioux: And your children, you told me that you owe the title Silent Surrender to your son.
Michèle Rioux: For young people interested in political economy what would be your best advice?

Michèle Rioux: Dear Kari, can you tell us about the first decade of your life?
KARI: I was born in Vienna, shortly after the end of the First World War. It was a chaotic and economically very difficult time. My father, Karl Polanyi , then in his forties, had a good position as a journalist for an important weekly economic and financial journal. My mother was studying engineering, as she had wanted to do since she was a young woman. I had a very happy childhood, even though I was the only child. I grew up in Red Vienna, which was perhaps the most successful illustration of what a socialist urban government can achieve in a country that was quite poor, with a high rate of unemployment. Production in Austria did not reach the prewar level until 1928. Socialist governments were elected in Vienna from the revolution of 1918, which put an end to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, until the overthrow of the working class movement in February 1934. Red Vienna had remarkable housing projects, of which the Karl Marx Hof was the best known but there were dozens, if not hundreds of them, built by the municipality. The defining moment of my life was when the working class movement was attacked.
Michèle Rioux: You were 11 years old? The second decade of your life was just beginning.
KARI: I was 10 years old going on to 11. The Austrian government destroyed the working class movement in Vienna. I knew more or less what was happening. There was to be a General Strike. On my way to school I noticed that the electric clock in the large public square had stopped, and I knew that this was the beginning of the General Strike and so turned around to go back home. My mother was very active, and she told me that she would be busy for the next few days and that I would be in charge of the house and of my grandmother. I was given for the first time paper money. I went down to buy a lot of bread and made all kinds of preparations for these few days without electricity. Because we lived rather near to the barracks, we could see the army bring their guns to bombard the social housing. I think this was the defining moment of my life because I knew which side I was on, the side of the workers of Vienna. I remained concerned with political events for the next ten years, twenty years or maybe eighty years. The civil war lasted four days. Eventually the government forces won. The leaders of the social democratic party left the country and went to Prague. I went back to school and almost half of the teachers were gone. They had been dismissed, and it was clear that this was because they were socialists.
In the following week, I was sent to England on a train. When I arrived in England, it was a challenge. I went to stay with very close family friends and learned English within a year or two. I was fortunate to have a very good education because I won a scholarship to a prestigious avant-garde boarding school. Former school mates tell me that I was forever reading. There was the Left Book Club and I think I read every single book that they published. At the time of the civil war in Spain, we raised money to buy wool and we made knitted sweaters. I was always politically active.
For those fortunate to be young in war-time England, which was never invaded, they were extraordinary times. They were the best years of my life. At school, I had two subjects that I loved, history and physics. When the time came, I did my examination in history. I got the entrance but I did not get the scholarships and my parents had no money. My father was then in the United States and my mother had joined him but I refused to leave England. I was living with family friends and I then tried for physics in Cambridge. All the exams were in mathematics, except for one practical lab and I did quite well. I was accepted into the second year of the program. But again, no scholarship. I decided that I was a failure, a total academic failure, having failed to get into Oxford to study history or Cambridge to study physics.
So I decided to follow my political left-wing interests at the London School of Economics (LSE). And of course, the fees were minimal and it was easy to get a loan from the local education authorities. The LSE was temporarily relocated to Cambridge, and we could attend lectures by any of the great and famous Cambridge economists, like Joan Robinson and others, as well as our own lecturers.
Michèle Rioux: Who was your favorite?
KARI: My real favourite and from whom I learned so much, that I have remembered it for the rest of my career in economics, was Nickolas Kaldor. His course on Economic Analysis was presented as a history of economic thought. He would present Adam Smith and the exchange of beavers and dears, you know that old story. But after having presented Adam Smith, he then proceeded to deconstruct him; likewise with Ricardo and the whole Ricardian system, and then with Marx, and the marginalists revolution. I will never forget how the course ended. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there is currently a research survey to find out how business men set their prices. They report that they sum up the costs and they add a margin; so you see we still do not know the source of value.”
I also attended a course by Professor F. von Hayek. Unfortunately, the course was mediocre because Hayek chose to lecture from a large textbook chapter by chapter. The textbook was written by Kenneth Boulding; it was a very fat, large book that my father called “the Boulder”. After a few weeks, most of the students stopped attending the lectures because you could just read the book. We were never exposed to Hayek’s theories.
I chose to specialize in statistics, because I had done a lot of mathematics. I loved mathematics and I thought a specialization in statistics might be more useful than economic theory. I wanted to know what happens in the real world.
After the first two years at the LSE, I was called up for National Service. I was told that I could find my own employment, and that would be my National Service. My ambition was to specialize in labour research. Because I had done some voluntary work with the labour research department built by a wonderful woman by the name of Margot Heinemann, I found employment in the research department of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, representing over a million workers employed in the war industries. During the war, the research department was located in South London and it was entirely staffed by women. The director was Yvonne Kaap who had previously worked at Vogue in Paris.
I later returned to complete my undergraduate studies at the LSE. A little known, but very important fact, is that the student movement in England in the thirties and during the war, was dominated by the communist party. Because of the rise of Hitler and the Spanish civil war, many bright young people thought that the Soviet Union was the only way to defeat fascism. And this indeed was true. Thus, while I was at the LSE, the communists were at the center and had the brightest of the students. On the left, were pacifists and rationalists and on the right was the labour party. And beyond the labour party there was nothing. There were no conservatives, no liberals. There was a total absence in the student life of the political spectrum of the right.
Michèle Rioux: When did you meet John Maynard Keynes?
KARI: I never met Keynes.
Michèle Rioux: But you have been in contact with ideas of the general theory?
KARI: We were aware of the Keynes’ proposal of 1942 issued as an official government white paper as a blueprint for a new post-war international financial order. It was widely discussed. But the LSE was not friendly to Keynes. More precisely, Lionel Robbins had brought Hayek from Vienna in 1931, for the specific purpose of combating what they considered to be the dangerous influence of Keynes. Dangerous because it was inflationary, and the LSE was very close to the city. They feared Keynes because they thought that deficit financing would create inflation. The city and the bankers hate inflation like the devil hates holy water. Keynes was never part of the undergraduate curriculum at the LSE. When I wrote my final exam in in 1947, Keynes was not on the curriculum. In Cambridge, there were off campus classes in Keynesian economics taught by young LSE lecturers. Interestingly, at the same time, we were discovering the work of Michael Kalecki . There were also the usual classes on Marx that were given by the communist party. But that was all off campus.
Michèle Rioux: Did the ideas of Kalecki and Keynes resonate with students or were they more inclined to study Marx?
KARI: We were somewhat introduced to these ideas by Kaldor. He initially believed in the conventional neoclassical price theory, but then departed from that belief, and later relocated to Cambridge University. I certainly knew the basics of the Keynesian approach, but it was not taught in any of my courses. I recently reread Kolecki, he was prescient in his prediction that the Keynesian solution would ultimately fail. He argued that if we have full employment for a long period of time, as indeed we had in the 1950s and 60s, the power of the capitalist class would weaken to such a degree that they would find it intolerable, as indeed happened in the stagflation of the 1970s. The neoliberal counter revolution was constructed in think tanks as a response to the concern of the capitalist class that the world was getting out of control, both domestically and in the third world.
Michèle Rioux: You were in your twenties and thirties, you were finishing your program and you then travelled to Canada. What made you cross the ocean?
KARI: I had met in England some Canadians who had volunteered to fight fascism. They were all communists, including Joe Levitt and I agreed to join him in Canada when I finished my studies. He was demobilized in 1946 and I came to Canada in 1947, as a member of the communist party. I thought Canada would resemble Britain, allowing you to engage in any political activity of your choice, including the communist party. However, I discovered that although that was the case in theory, in fact it was quite different.
I arrived on the last day of October, which is Halloween. When the dead rise from the graves and in catholic Europe at that time, all the cemeteries are lit with candles. I thought it was a very appropriate entrance to my new life in Toronto. Joe made contact with the University of Toronto, as I was planning on continuing my graduate studies. I spent my first year in Canada at the University of Toronto. I had a teaching assistantship, because it was a course on economic history, a subject that I knew very well. The professor let me teach the classes, which I very much enjoyed, but I found the atmosphere oppressive, stifling, boring, really very depressing – grey halls, grey people. I decided I did not want to live this kind of life. This was not what I had come to Canada for. I wanted to pursue my interest in the labour movement and do labour research. In truth, I did not want to do graduate studies. However, I did meet the famous Harold Innis , a small man behind a desk piled up with books.
Michèle Rioux: But you were a PhD Student?
KARI: No, I was not a PhD Student. I had a BSc. I had a first degree, a BSc [econ] from the LSE, where I had tied for the first class spot with Ralph Turvey.
Interviewer: So you were not the failure you thought you were!
KARI: I was no failure, no. I tied for the first spot with Ralph Turvey, but Maurice Dobb broke the tie in favour of Turvey. I had offers of fellowships at LSE and, in many ways, I thought I should stay there because I had really wonderful career opportunities. In London, Nicki Kaldor had invited me to join his team on the famous British study on The Effects of Allied Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy. There was a very small team in Britain led by Kaldor and a very large American team led by John Kenneth Galbraith. This is how the two of them got to know each other. When the British and the American forces had invaded Germany, they had seized many documents on war production from the German war factories and brought them to London and to Washington respectively to be analyzed. The British team was very small. It consisted of Kaldor, who directed it, a professional statistician, whose name I don’t remember, and myself. I was hired because I could read German. My task was to look at microfiches and record the information. The study found that the result of the heavy bombing of German industrial cities and the working class population was a constant increase of production. You cannot demolish a people just by bombing. You can demolish a lot of structures but you can’t demolish the will of a people. The German bombing had a similar effect in England. If I had stayed in Europe, I would probably have gone to work with Gunnar Myrdal at the UN economic commission in Geneva, but instead I came to Canada for personal reasons, for love.
When I arrived in Toronto, it was depressing. The university was depressing and the center of the city was depressing. I got on a street car in west Toronto in search of the city, passed a few buildings and fields, and when we arrived at the terminus on the east side I said: “I thought we were going to the city.” And they said “You’ve been through it. You’ve passed it already.” King and Bay, a few tall buildings. It was in 1947, and I was 24.
Michèle Rioux: That brings us almost to the third decade of your life.
Kari: From 1947 until 1956, I was working in left-wing political movements. After the year I spent at the University of Toronto, I decided to go back to a milieu that I thought would be more interesting, more sociable. I looked for a factory job of the kind I had done in the summer vacations in England, and I found one on the Western Road of Toronto called the Acme Screw and Gear Company. I spent a year working there and enjoyed it very much, because the people were pleasant and kind. When I was sick with the flu, they brought soup and food to my home. I got involved in the United Automobile Workers. I initiated a newspaper for the local called Yours to Build. Later I worked in the research department of the United Electrical Workers. This was a frustrating experience. I was then invited to edit a sixteen page monthly tabloid for the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union which was much more interesting. It was a new challenge.
In 1956, like many others, I resigned from the communist party, after the Hungarian revolution and the invasion by the Soviet Union. Because it seemed that I had wasted many years, I needed to get back to my studies, and I considered making a big change. At that time, information technology was just beginning, and opportunities were being offered to bright students with an undergraduate degree. Eventually I decided to stay in economics and enrolled in a Master’s program in the University of Toronto instead. I did two years of the master’s program and all the courses of the PhD program.
Michèle Rioux: But you never finished?
KARI: I never finished. I became interested in traditional Canadian economic history as well as in economic development; I wanted to combine this with the mathematics and the statistics. This is how I got engaged in the input-output studies of the Atlantic Provinces. I was drawn to it by Professor B. S. Keirstead. He had built an excellent department at Mcgill, including Jack Weldon and Tom Asimakopoulos. But a quarrel with the administration at McGill forced him to leave for Toronto, which is where I met him. He came from the Maritimes and he got me involved with the Maritimes as an underdeveloped region of Canada. So this is where my interest in development began. We were introduced to national accounting and I have spent much of my professional life in this area of national accounting and the construction of input-output tables. I was initially introduced to national accounting at LSE by a small book by J.R. Hicks, The social framework: An Introduction to Economics. It presented the system of national accounts, in terms of major constituent sectors.
In 1961 I received a job offer from McGill, which I think was at the prompting of professor Keirstead. I accepted the offer. I started at McGill without having finished the PhD, and I never finished it. I was initially engaged in a huge project on the production of input-output tables for the four Atlantic Provinces.
Michèle Rioux : Can you give us a sense of what was really original in this project?
KARI: It was original because at that time there was interesting work being done on the construction of the input output tables. The new idea came from Tadek Matuszewski at University Laval. He was brilliant and was advising the Quebec Bureau of statistics in the early 1960s. He introduced the idea of rectangular tables, instead of the square format that we all knew. Essentially, there are the basic tables of input, but they are rectangular with many more commodities than industries, corresponding to the reality of the economy. And then there was a matching rectangular table for the output of the many commodities of the few industries. This caused quite a bit of a storm, and I got involved in it. We made the tables for the Atlantic Provinces with that method, which was new at the time. Thus, I was involved from the beginning in Statistics Canada, working with Terry Gigantes, who was another McGill “product” and student of Professor Weldon. Most of the staff had actually come from McGill and Terry was the director of this input-output work. A recent book by Duncan McDowall, The Sum of the Satisfactions on Canada’s national accounting, contains a generous treatment of my contribution.
The project was huge. It lasted for over 10 years and it was ultimately financed by the Atlantic Development Board, which does not exist anymore. There was a discussion at the time about regional policy. Should industries in the Maritimes be encouraged by Ottawa or should people be encouraged to emigrate and leave the region? That is a very classic problem. It is a problem that is currently much discussed in terms of the contribution of immigrants to their country of origin. I never supported that position. My initial work was on the industrialisation and economic development within the Maritime Provinces and then later I transferred that onto an international scale.
Michèle Rioux: This was your first project as a McGill professor. Were you teaching courses at the time?
KARI: I was teaching a very heavy load. When I first came to McGill, I was given a course about which I knew nothing, Canadian banking. In order to entice me to come they also gave me a course on technics of economic planning. I taught a course on business cycles, which I also found interesting. However, the problem was that in the sixties, business cycles had disappeared, and the course morphed into a course on economic growth. Instead of the old business cycle, recessions took the form of slowing down the rate of growth. For the banking course, I would start at five in the morning to have time to read the next chapter in the textbook, and I would present myself at 9 o’clock in the morning and behave as if I was totally familiar with the material. I was very strict with the students because I knew that this was a contest between my authority, as a relatively young woman, and a large class of commerce students, mostly male. If I did not exert my authority, I would be in trouble. So if I caught them reading a newspaper, I stopped lecturing and suggested that they read outside the class.
Michèle Rioux: When did you start the work on the Caribbean?
KARI: My contact with the Caribbean came shortly before I accepted the position at McGill, in 1961, and the person responsible was Professor Keirstead. It was the time of the Federation of the West Indies, which later collapsed in 1962. The circumstances were that he had a year of sabbatical leave and he was invited to undertake a study on the federal shipping service by Arthur Lewis.
Keirstead did what all professors do when they have a lot of work and it is a little boring. They find a graduate student. He asked for somebody who was more competent than myself, but they were not available. He then asked somebody else, who was also not available, at which point, in desperation, he sent me an invitation in December. I jumped at the opportunity. My husband was very helpful and cooperative and he said: “Ok, you can go.” I prepared everything for the children for Christmas and I went and set foot in Jamaica, late in December of 1960 and there I encountered a very new and strange world.
I felt that I had stepped back into the nineteenth century, the world of the novels of Jane Austen. It was very, very colonial. I was sent to Trinidad, which is where I had to do the research. That is how it started. Then, in the following spring I was asked to come and proof read in Jamaica. There I met a number of relatively young economists who had been trained in Britain at the LSE or at Cambridge, with whom I found I had much in common. Friendships were formed and that was the beginning of it.
Michèle Rioux: What is the next important moment, the publication of your book Silent Surrender?
KARI: It all started with Charles Taylor, an eminent political philosopher who was very active in the New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP were having many discussions about foreign ownership, and Charles persuaded me to interest myself in this issue to write a background paper that could be used for their discussions.
At that time, the heavy weights did not see a problem. The influx of foreign capital was believed to be obviously beneficial. The most influential economist of Canadian origin at that time was Harry Johnson. I don’t know whether that name is still known, but he was a very high profile Canadian in favour of economic liberalisation. I started to look at this and I became increasingly interested. The first thing I noticed was that there is surely a difference between portfolio capital and the operations of subsidiaries of large corporations of foreign investment. This discussion continued over two or three years. I constantly had to fortify my position, which became increasingly negative towards the sell-out of Canada’s manufacturing industries to a huge influx of American money.
At the same time, I maintained my connection with the Caribbean and was working with my colleagues on the construction an economic planning model for a typical Caribbean economy.
Michèle Rioux: In your economic planning model, what was the main element? What is related to the question of investment in Canada?
KARI: I think the question to ask is what did the effort in constructing an economic plan framework have in common with the discussion about private investment in Canada? What they had in common was that these economies were dominated by extremely large foreign owned extractive industries. You had in Jamaica a very large bauxite and alumina industry with the presence of Alcan and Alcoa, Kaiser, Reynolds; at least those four huge international companies. In Trinidad, there was Shell and Texaco, very large refineries, and there was also throughout the Caribbean a sugar industry dominated by British capital. The common factor was the effect on open economies of being dominated by subsidiaries and branches of large foreign companies. That was the common factor.
In the models that we attempted to construct, that reality had a central place. At this time there was an interesting intellectual movement in the West Indies and a published journal called the New World Journal. It was in that journal that my paper, which would become Silent Surrender, was first published in 1968. It was reprinted and circulated until the McMillan Company asked me if I would be interested in turning it into a book.
Michèle Rioux: Did you know at the time that it was important?
KARI: It certainly became very important in the NDP. Not only within the NDP, but because this was the time of Walter L. Gordon who was then the Minister of Finance. He commissioned the study which became the Watkins Report on foreign ownership, in which Mel Watkins and Stephen Hymer participated. That was at the same time as I was preparing the book for publication, and these were friends of mine.
Silent Surrender was an important document no doubt about it. It went to many re-printings and re-editions, large reeditions, physically larger, student editions, which were cheaper and so on. The book was reviewed, when it was first published, on the front page of the business section of the New York Times with an interview, etc. It was extensively reviewed in Canada. Then I found myself in demand to be speaking about this. I did not like it, it was interfering with my work and it was too much. I had to finish the input-output work, a big project in Ottawa. I had to teach. I had undertaken interesting work in the Caribbean. With all of this on my plate, I said “Look, if you want somebody to carry the Canadian flag and become an activist, it’s not me. Do it yourself.”
Incidentally I also had a dramatic encounter regarding my tenure in 1970, because after ten years my tenure was not yet confirmed.
I had written this book and I had an unfinished project. A committee of four, from which the two most important members of the department, professors Weldon and Asimakopulos, had reclused themselves, were discussing my promotion. The committee said: “We respect your work and when you finish this large statistical study, you will get your tenure.” I had sent them a big pile of works including the book that has just been published. They asked me: “Incidentally, Kari, what do you think of this publication the Silent Surrender?” I replied: “In these circumstances, it is for you to judge”. They said: “Yes, but we would like to know what you think about it.” I thought for a moment and I still remember my reply. I said: “I think it is the most important thing that I have ever done, maybe the most important thing that I will do for the rest of my career.” They looked totally stunned because the people to whom they had sent my work to be evaluated had reported very negatively on the book. They repeated; “You’ll get your tenure when you finish your statistical study”. I replied: “Fine, I intend to finish it, so it is ok”.
Subsequently, I wrote them and said: “I think you owe me an explanation as to why this book is not a publication for the purposes of tenure and promotion”. They replied: “You know you will get your tenure when you finish the statistical work.”
Throughout my career, I have rarely submitted an article to a top of the line peer reviewed journal. I have not been motivated to do that. I can see really how much work I had actually done in my lifetime. It is a lot. None of it was motivated by advancing my career. But I understand that it is not possible anymore to behave in a university the way in which I behaved. I was fortunate in enjoying the privilege of the liberty to choose what I considered important to write and to publish. I don’t know how possible this is anymore. Certainly, it is not possible to survive or to eventually become a full professor in a good university without having a doctorate.
Michèle Rioux: Why were the seventies so important for you?
KARI: They are a very important part of my life, because I had a good time and a lot of it were spent in the West Indies. I think I told you that I had started some work with Lloyd Best. We had a grant from McGill from the Center for Developing Areas Studies to develop our approach to plantation economy model for the Caribbean. I had wanted to continue this work with some CIDA funding in Trinidad at the University of the West Indies and something happened, a political intervention and CIDA took the money off the table. I had finally got leave from McGill and I had planned to move for two years with the family to Trinidad. In these circumstances I accepted an invitation from Mr. William Demas, then chief economist for Trinidad to employ my skills in national economic accounting to produce a new database for the next five-year plan for the country.
The project was initially financed by IMF Technical Assistance and had strong support from the government of Trinidad and Tobago. I was an adviser on the new system of national economic accounts. We built a team of young graduates in economics and worked with the statistical office to reorganize the economic statistics of the country. The work started in September 1969 and was abruptly terminated in 1973 by changing circumstances at the political level. This was regrettable because we had done an amazing detailed and careful statistical work which was methodologically innovative.
I then accepted a professorial appointment at the University of the West Indies and did not return to Canada full time until 1977. I was kind of floating. In the 1980s, I was determined to develop a really good course in development economics at the undergraduate and graduate levels at McGill.
In 1978, my mother passed away, and I inherited the responsibility of the literary legacy of my father Karl Polanyi. This added a whole new dimension to my life. There was my Caribbean work, my McGill teaching, and now the responsibility for the legacy of my father. In 1986, a centenary conference was organized by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, celebrating the life and work of my father. The earthly remains of my parents were transferred from Canada to a cemetery in Budapest.
Michèle Rioux:: Did you miss Europe ?
KARI: I missed it of course, but when time goes by, you distance yourself from your country origin. In my life, I grew ever closer to the West Indies and ever more involved in work there. When you ask me what I think is my most important contribution, it is probably my work in the Caribbean. I have published two edited books on the Caribbean, including the George Beckwood Papers (2000); Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community (2005), a collection of my essays on Caribbean topics; and jointly with Lloyd Best, Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: a Historical and Institutional Approach to Economic Development (2009).
In the 1990s, I was teaching a course on economic development in an excellent two year post-graduate program at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
In the Caribbean, there are many people who think of me as Caribbean by origin. Many are not aware that I have also a life in Canada. So I have three lives: Europe where I come from and continue to maintain contact, particularly in Vienna and Budapest, Canada where I have lived since 1947, in Toronto but much more importantly Montreal, and in the Caribbean, where I have developed another life.
Since I retired form McGill, I have more productive than ever before. I have been able to do a lot more writing, and my interests have widened and broadened. My interests have shifted from national economic accounting and technics of development planning towards a wider historical approach, to the trajectory of capitalism across space and time.
A collection of essays, under the title of From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization, was published earlier in 2013. I am currently working on the completion of a manuscript on development economics economists from mercantilism and Adam Smith to the financial crisis of 2008 which revealed the rising importance of the global south in shifting geo-political power relations.
My sight is now very poor, I cannot read, but I have software that converts electronic text to speech. I am not saying the situation is good, it’s not, but it encourages reflection on knowledge accumulated over the years, and discourages the accumulation of ever more material, which serve act as a substitute for creative thinking. When I need information, I depend on human assistance.
Michèle Rioux: who do you think was the most important person in your life and in shaping the way you have approached your work?
KARI: It must be my parents, but I think that this is ultimately true for just about everybody. No doubt that our parents have an enormous influence on how we are shaped. My parents are very different from each other. My father worked in the area of ideas and my mother was an activist. As a young woman, she played an important role in the Hungarian struggle against the First World War. She became a national heroic figure together with her comrade and first husband in organizing the production of anti-war literature distributed in the war factories and army barracks of Budapest. She was arrested and accused of treason. My mother has been described as a sovereign revolutionary; she was no camp follower. I hugely admired my mother when I was growing up in Vienna. When I was young, she was my model, rather than my father. It was much later in life that I grew to appreciate the ideas of my father.
Both my parents had an influence and I always felt, because of growing up in a socialist household, in a socialist Red Vienna, that I had to put the education that I had received and whatever natural intelligence I had been endowed with in some way to use in this world. I never had a career plan. Wherever I found myself I would become engaged in what I thought was a positive way, in an effort to serve a cause. It stems from the prevailing values of the family. The other thing is the curiosity. I am enormously curious and always continue to find what I do sufficiently interesting to attempt to keep writing and working.
Michèle Rioux: And your children, you told me that you owe the title Silent Surrender to your son.
KARI: There is no question that my children have suffered a lot from my active kind of life. If I had to do it over again, I might have chosen differently. But it is also the way that I was brought up. I was raised to be independent from an early age. My father was in rebellion against the bourgeois expectations of his mother, and my mother was in rebellion against her aristocratic family origins. They encouraged me to be independent and I thought when my children were growing up that that was the best for them too. I think there was a little too much independence and not enough caring.
Michèle Rioux: For young people interested in political economy what would be your best advice?
KARI: That is an enormous question. All I can say is that we have to rethink the way we live in this world. We have to reconsider our place in the universe, our relationship with nature, and perhaps the most important, we need to slow down, and to restore our personal relationships with people and with our physical environment. There is an increasing interest in other civilisations, in other societies, and all of that is good. The solution does not lie in ever more sophisticated technologies but on the contrary, in questioning how we really want to live with each other, in the natural environment we are too rapidly destroying.