Kari Polanyi-Levitt, interviewed by Michael Brie and Claus Thomasberger


Excerpt from Capitalism in Transformation: Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century.

A life-long search for freedom.

From Budapest to America: a journey through Karl Polanyi’s life

Kari Polanyi-Levitt, interviewed by Michael Brie and Claus Thomasberger

Karl Polanyi is regarded as one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. Too often, however, the reception of his work is reduced to his most famous book The Great Transformation and categories such as “embeddedness”, “double movement” and “fictitious commodities”. By concentrating on his masterpiece, the question of what was the driving force of his thinking and the leitmotif of his lifelong search process – the problem of freedom in a complex society – and the variety of issues he dealt with have been lost from view. The interview attempts to highlight these lesser-known aspects of his oeuvre and thus contribute to overcoming some of the shortcomings of current Polanyi reception. The interview took place in Vienna, November 2017.


Q. Karl Polanyi’s life was, as he wrote in a letter, a “‘world’-life.” Although born in Vienna, his formative years were Hungarian. In 1919, at the age of 33, he left Budapest for Vienna. Emigration from Vienna to London took place when he was 47 years old. In his mid-fifties, Polanyi moved to North America. How did all these reorientations influence his work?

A. Wherever he lived, he was concerned with the issues of the day, both local and relating to international affairs. He was not the kind of intellectual with an “idée fixe” which he imposes on every situation he encounters. Polanyi did not do that. He lived in many different places, but wherever he lived, he engaged with the local environment according to context and circumstance.

Q. Nonetheless, isn’t there also continuity? How can we describe the underlying, more permanent aspects of his work?

A. I think the continuity is the search for freedom. Imagine the world he lived in, the world of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century in East Europe. Polanyi identified with Bakunin, because he was courageous and broke out of so many prisons. He admired the courage of people who resisted the ancient régimes of the era. In Hungary, freedom meant freedom from the rule of feudal landowners, the Catholic Church, and the Hungarian gentry, for whom he had no respect at all. Socialism in those times was about freedom. The battle cry of the socialist parties was “Freiheit!” – Freedom.

Q. Let us first get back to the time before the First World War. In the Hungarian writings of Polanyi, we find a very special understanding of freedom closely related to the anarchists, the Narodniki. He understands freedom not in a restrictive liberal sense.

A. I think you are quite right. The struggle of the Narodniki and other populist or socialist oppositions in the tsarist time were not very different from those in  Hungary. How did they struggle? It was mostly by assassination. That was what they did. It was not by parliamentary action. The social democratic party did the parliamentary thing, but my father was not very interested in it. Because of the semi-feudal type of social structure there was not much difference between socialist and anarchist opponents of the ancient régime.

Q. Thus, the understanding of freedom in this tradition was much more linked to the struggles of the popular classes and to the longing of a meaningful life in communes.

A.  Right,  not to parliamentary struggles! Samuel Klatchko 1  was a Russian family friend and mentor of my father. When he was young, he and others founded a utopian commune in Kansas, named after Tchaikovsky. It fell apart eventually. Forming communes was part of the political culture.

Q. It seems that in Karl Polanyi’s understanding of freedom different currents merged in a contradictory way. He had a multidimensional understanding of freedom, combining the ideas of negative and positive freedom of Isaiah Berlin with the search for a meaningful life and the responsibility to be in solidarity with the weaker parts of society. Is it true that he sometimes used the term liberal socialist in order to define himself?

A. Yes, he did, because he insisted on the right to dissent, the right to free speech, the right to free ideas. These rights should be constitutionally guaranteed; that is what he meant by liberal socialism. The freedom to live a meaningful life is the freedom from involvement in meaningless economic activities to produce things that we do not need. It is the freedom from engagement in this market, an engagement that uses so much of our time, takes over our lives.

Q.  In Polanyi’s understanding there is a strong link between freedom and responsibility. Responsible action is more than simply positive or negative freedom.

A. It is a wish to live in a society that is socialist – each cares for all. That is why he said, “as in a family”. But that is not possible, we know. It is not possible in a society which is divided by class, by race. This is in contradiction with our desire and our need to live in a socially supportive society. To live in such a society is freedom. Responsibility is part of that, but when you are speaking about responsibility as Polanyi is doing in his lecture ‘On Freedom’ [Polanyi 2018a] it is difficult for people to understand what that means. I think it is our wish to be mutually responsible for each other.


Q. Let us go back again. What was the impact of World War I? He was an officer. Why was he so depressed? It seems like an existential crisis.

A. It was a form of serious mental illness. It was to a large degree personal. The loss of his father was a terrible blow. It affected his young adult life, at least for two decades or three. Therefore, it is a mixture of a personal loss and the larger societal crisis. Family influences played an important role. Aspects of Russian culture came through his mother, Cecile Wohl, which manifested in the idealisation of Russian revolutionaries, especially the Social Revolutionary Party, and women like Vera Zasulich 2  and other students, as well as Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. And then the father he adored. The father was an anglophile and believed in all the good liberal values that came at this time from England. These are the two contradictory sides – on the hand the anarchism and the revolutionaries and on the other hand the respect for the liberal values, for responsibility, and civic duty. What was plainly absent was anything Hungarian. No respect, the opposite of respect – disdain. He shared it with my mother. She rejected her own aristocratic ancestry.

The death of his father was a terrible blow to Karl. In addition, he felt the weight of responsibility of providing for his mother and the family. He gave classes and earned money by tutoring. The eldest brother Adolph had departed for Japan, leaving Karl as the eldest son. That was the personal side of the depression. Then of course, he studied law. It was expected that he would join his wealthy uncle Károly Pollacsek’s legal chamber. My father was briefly engaged there, but he did not wish to pursue the profession. He wanted to be free. My cousin Eva once described him as a “dropout.” He wanted to drop out of that bourgeois life. He didn’t want to be a lawyer, he didn’t want to have an income. Frankly speaking, he once told me he didn’t want to be married. He wanted to be free!

Q. For sure, this is an important dimension. Nevertheless, his participation in the war also created some kind of inner tension.

A. I don’t know. Why did Karl Polanyi volunteer? Why did he not refuse? This is interesting, because somehow he felt he had a duty to serve in the war. You didn’t really have a choice. You could not speak for your people if you were not prepared to serve in the war.

Q. In his essay on Hamlet [Polanyi 1954, reprinted in 2018b], Karl Polanyi is referring to his time as an officer and he poses the problem Hamlet was facing in the following way: There was no good choice for Hamlet. To kill the king, the murderer of his father, would mean he himself would become king. But he did not want to be king. He disliked the life at the court to the utmost. Not to kill the king would mean he would forsake the oath he had given to his father. Thus, not until he was mortally wounded could he fulfil the oath he had given his father. It seems to me no accident that Karl Polanyi starts this essay with a reference to his time in the war. To join the war or not to join the war – both were bad choices. You have to fulfil your duty and take part in the war; but whatever you are doing in the war is a terrible and senseless thing.

A. Yes, Karl wrote a lot about the war. The war was terrible, the loss of all these lives; it didn’t settle anything, nobody knew what it was about. Was it about the Serbs? Was it about the Belgians? Was it about Germany which wanted to have colonies? The capitalists made a lot of money. It is an example that there is no good solution. But I do think the Hamlet story is about his life, about the question of which role he should play. My mother put pressure on him to be more active, more politically engaged, to give political leadership. Yet that was not what he wished to do.

Q. Before and immediately after the war he was quite close to politics, not as a leading figure, but as an adviser.

A. In 1918 he was close to Jászi and the Radical Bourgeois Party. 3  He wrote for Jászi’s journal. At the same time, he supported the socialists who wanted to make the peace and the republic. The only time he participated in a political party were the two years with Jászi. In Austria, he was nominally a member of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. But that was entirely nominal. He did not play any role other than in education. He gave classes at the Volkshochschule. He was an educator and a social philosopher, not a politician. I don’t think he ever gave any advice to the Austrian Social Democratic Party. In England, where he had close connections with the Labour Party, he might have become more engaged if he had not left in 1947 to take up the appointment at Columbia University in New York. Many years later, the year before he died, Ilona and Karl visited Budapest and met some former members of the Galilei Circle. 4

My father was described by one of them as a prophet: “He could see far into the future, we loved him. He was the man for us.” Political leadership was not given to him.


Q. Let’s return to the problem of freedom and responsibility. It seems that in the 1920s your father found a way to deal with this problem. In the early 1920s, he was drawn to guild socialism 5  [see Polanyi 2016a, 2016b], a system whereby different associations represent the different functions of society (producers, consumers, local life, etc.) and deal with the problems of complex societies. However, later he said that he had wasted time because there was no solution to this economic model. Why was he so critical of his own work of this time?

A. Because he worked for years on the construction of an economic model with  Schafer 6   and other economists.  Following the exchange with Mises in 1922, they all tried to become economists and follow the methodology of economics. They spent a lot of time with that and it didn’t work. In a letter Schafer later wrote to Ilona and myself, he says, quite correctly, that they couldn’t solve the problem. I’m not surprised, because when I tried to translate to English the famous article on socialist accounting, ‘Rechnungslegung’ [cf. Polanyi-Levitt 2018, originally published in German: Polanyi 1924], I thought that there were a lot of loose ends in the model and a lot of open questions: the role that money would play and so on. Schafer concluded that Polanyi solved that problem later in The Great Transformation, where he expressed his ideas in terms of social and economic history. Karl  Polanyi’s background of economics was Austrian economics. He and his colleagues did not reject markets. He did not believe in what was then called “the natural economy”, the moneyless economy [cf. Neurath 1919]. Prices were important, but should not be negotiated individually but between associations representing workers and producers, cooperatives or other associations representing consumers and municipalities representing local communities.

Q.  The insight of the impossibility to find a satisfying solution opened up a new search process which led to The Great Transformation. Already in the accounting debate, Polanyi was aware of the fact that we can never go beyond the complexity of modern societies. This opened up the discussion in the direction of history, of concrete embedded institutions and the cultural context.

A.  Very important for Karl Polanyi was the introduction of institutions, because of the variety of institutions which can be observed in societies of roughly similar technological development. In a list of economic institutions, from the corporation down to the corner store, we note the range and variety of economic enterprise. Karl Polanyi often said that important things are discovered by accident. Some institution may have a greater significance than is generally accorded to it. That is quite true. Today, we have a fashion for social innovation. It is an interesting idea because of the variety of institutions that can play a role in the economy and because of their hybrid nature – part cooperative,  part shares, and part employment. You can make all kinds of mixtures. That is different from the textbook economic approach. We are now developing varieties of economic institutions out of necessity.

Q. What is changing in Karl Polanyi’s thinking with the Great  Depression and the uprising of fascism in the late 1920s? There seems to be a new shift in the work of your father. Also with regard to his work in Great Britain in the 1930s. How is he reformulating the conflict between freedom and industrial capitalism?

A. First, if we are looking at the English period, it is clear that the Grants, 7 the English family that he had known in Vienna and with whom had become personal friends, introduced him to the Christian circles. Polanyi’s link to England partly came through the works of G.D.H. Cole and Tawney. 8  Then there was the Christian socialist connection that came through the  Grants. When Karl first came to England he lived with John and Betty McMurray. John was a Christian socialist philosopher. 9  Karl was nominally a Protestant of the Calvinist sect. He had no knowledge of Catholic liberation theology. The Protestant Christian socialists provided him with a social support system in England.

When the two Landshut-Mayer volumes – I remember what they looked like – arrived in England in 1933 or 1934, 10  there was a third encounter of Karl  Polanyi with Marx. Given the background  (fascism), it spoke to him very much – the alienation, the inhumanity of capitalism. Polanyi discovered the  English class system and the cultural degradation of the working class. The economic conditions were very bad in Vienna, but the social and cultural life was at a higher level. He began to study that which he had never studied before – English social and economic history. He read the same things that Marx had 80 years earlier: Adam Smith, Malthus, David Ricardo – all the English classical economists of the time of the poor-law reform and before. I believe that my father discovered industrial capitalism in England. In Austria, there was poverty, but it was not as dismal as some working-class areas of England at that time. It was not that massive degradation, both human and natural. It shocked him, it shocked me, and I was ten years old! I thought I had landed in the most awful place in the world – grey houses and chimney pots and not a tree to be seen anywhere. I remembered the big demonstrations of May Day in Vienna – these were workers of the railway and public transport, not of industry. So for Polanyi, there was the encounter with the circumstances of the industrial revolution and the establishment of the free labour market which features so big in The  Great  Transformation.  Those things he only learned about in England.


Q.  In discussions with the Christian socialists, Polanyi, as opposed to McMurray and some others, stressed the fact that society can never be reduced to community, it will always stay complex. One can never go back or forward and dissolve society into community again.

A. I don’t think he ever had illusions that community can become more than a  voluntary association of people. He rejected the idea that the state could ever be one community, as he explained in the last chapter of The  Great Transformation, which is a strong statement on the necessary role of the state to generate an essential minimum of social consensus. A modern society requires a state to create the consensus necessary for the social cohesion of a modern complex society.

Most people who comment on Polanyi have  not read much of  what he wrote. Polanyi was concerned throughout his time in England and, certainly, from the time he wrote The Great Transformation, with civilisational future and the question of whether humanity could truly deal with the Machine Age. Reflecting on the dropping of the atomic bomb in an article published in 1947, he called it “scientific barbarism”. I myself found that the questions raised by Leontieff in the 1980s, regarding the revolution of information technology and the dystopia of a world where 20 per cent of people are highly educated and well paid and can produce everything we need, while 80 per cent of workers are simply redundant, is crucial [see Leontief 1983]. We now know a lot more about artificial intelligence. It raises many very serious problems.

We have to take into account the way technologies have affected the three categories of fictitious commodities – land, labor, and money. Polanyi would not have hesitated to point out that we are facing civilisational choice regarding environmental degradation, technological unemployment and the financialisation of daily life.

The tendency for society to approach the dystopia I have just described raises a question of socialism. Marx considered that when the machines could produce everything with only minimal human supervision, there would be no more need for capitalism. But this is where the problems start. Polanyi’s argument against economism is largely an argument against economic growth per se. Today, it seems we require economic growth as a means of providing employment for young people entering the labour market rather than the additional material goods produced. We do not seem to know how to transform an economic system which is environmentally destructive, wasteful and which cannot, and should not, be replicated globally.

Q.  Peter  Drucker 11 wrote several books about technology and its influence on modern civilization. Do you know if in the 1950s there was any discussion between Peter Drucker and your father about the issue?

A. Very possibly! There is a goldmine to be researched. There also are the discussions with Abraham Rotstein. 12  All this is in the archive and nobody has looked at it to this day. Polanyi’s last concerns were precisely about technology. There was a proposal to write a book with Abraham on the subject. Peter Drucker was a close friend of my father’s. I do not know if Drucker visited my father in Canada. I don’t think so. There is a lot of correspondence which nobody has looked into.

Q. You started with the problem of decommodification and then addressed the problem of technology that goes much deeper. It is directly related to the whole mode of production and its civilisational basis. This would mean creating societies of culture where we are able to discuss and decide how we want to live, to produce, to exchange. Until now, we do not have civilisations able to steer the economic and technological developments. Maybe this is what is meant when Polanyi discusses the problem of machine age.

A. Well, absolutely! If we need Polanyi, it is because he addressed this issue. This goes back to the late 1940s. Some people think this is only about capitalism; but it is not, it is about industrial civilisation. The problem of technology haunted my father. It was the dropping of the bomb and atomic energy, and this is why I wrote the piece about Einstein’s consciousness and responsibility [Polanyi-Levitt 2013, pp. 107–12]. Einstein made the statement that we have a moral responsibility. He said that the creations of our mind – in other words ideas and things we invent – shall be a blessing and not a curse to humanity. Polanyi said that every scientist must be guided by consciousness that what we do is morally good. That is Einstein and that is much in line with the thinking of Polanyi. You see, Einstein’s close friend, Leo Szilard, was a close friend of the Polanyi family. Szilard is responsible for the family story that Einstein said at the end of his life: “The Chinese sages were right: it is best to do nothing.”

There is a belief in scientific progress and that you cannot stop it. My father would have been absolutely opposed to that. To my mind, if we want to follow these thoughts of Polanyi, it leads one to the conclusion that we are in a civilisational crisis. Information technology can be part of the solution, but it is certainly part of the danger.

Q. That’s why we have to stress the problem of freedom “for what”? What are the aims of freedom? How are we making use of it? Today, the smartphone is used by young people on average 200 minutes per day! And concerning the living standard: a lot of people are living in societies of material abundance. The time people are employed is now shorter than the periods before and afterwards. This goes much beyond the problem of decommodification.

A. That’s true. We must keep in mind that a further, very important contradiction Polanyi is dealing with, is the relation between science and religion, if one takes religion in a broader sense – I call it belief systems. They are part of human nature and human society. Fundamentalist secularism has a problem with this. It rejects belief systems. This is an invitation to reactions of a kind we have seen – religious, nationalistic and cultural – because people need belief systems. This is part of our humanity. If you go back to the so-called primitive societies, they had their own constructs of the meaning of life. Without a meaning of life, you are going to kill yourself. Polanyi dealt with this problem when he tackled the relation of science and religion and the wrong idea that only science is valid and religion is not. The same is true for the relation between the reality of complex societies and freedom. Both are valid.

Another of these contradictions Polanyi is referring to is the contradiction between humanity and efficiency. Polanyi said that we are rich enough to be inefficient. Efficiency belongs to the world of the engineer. That makes sense. The engineer must be efficient. You must economize the input of energy etc. If we follow economics, at least how it is defined by Robbins [1932] and neoclassical economists – that economics is about the allocation of scarce resources and alternative uses – it means treating the inputs as if they were technical inputs. However, the inputs are human beings; and life is not more or less scarce. This is no way to deal with it. Ultimately, efficiency in a capitalist society is just about how cheap it can be and how costs can be reduced. This of course leads to a lot of costs which don’t belong to the market economy. It is about environment, etc. When we look into information technology, people say: It is so wonderful, you can do so many things! This is true, but what is the cost? What does it do to people’s brains in the long run, to the conception of how we live?


Q. Let us come to the last years of your father’s life. On the one hand, it was a return to Hungary with the book The Plough and the Pen [Duczynska and Polanyi 1963] that your mother and he edited and on the other, they started the journal Co-Existence. What did this mean to the tension between the search for freedom and the reality of a technological society Polanyi was dealing with his whole life?

A. The Plough and the Pen is a collection of poetry by Hungarian populist writers, selected by Karl and Ilona and translated to English with the assistance of established Canadian poets. The book is an homage to the folk wisdom of the peasantry (das Volk) and the dissident writers who chose to remain after the revolution of 1956. The publication is related to the idea in Polanyi’s talk on Rousseau and the wisdom of the common people [Polanyi 2018d]. Polanyi liked  the term “the common people.” It was used by the socialist historian G.D.H. Cole. Historically inclusive from ancient to modern society, it is the source of vernacular culture in all modern societies. The term working class has a connotation of industrial work; but the common people encompasses the peasantry and everybody else.

The revolution of 1956 was a people-led protest against the ruling communist bureaucracy. My father was very strongly supportive. It was characterised as counterrevolutionary by the communist establishment. A lot of people left Hungary. It was a huge emigration. For Ilona and Karl, The Plough and the Pen was a statement on their belief in the possible regeneration of Hungary, and of socialism in Hungary.

Q. And the journal Co-Existence as the second project your father started at this time?

A. The project of the journal Co-Existence goes back to my father’s belief and hope in the possibility of a world of post-war peaceful coexistence between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain with its Commonwealth connections, together with India, China, and other regional blocs, as expressed in his article of 1945 ‘Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning’ [Polanyi 1945, reprinted in Polanyi 2018c]. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the journal started, coexistence really meant the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union. Forget Great Britain. The first post-war objective of the US was to destroy the British preferential system and the Sterling Bloc. And they did that in short order. This was off the table already. Concerning the journal, a lot of progress was made to contact interested intellectuals: Joan Robinson, who was already a friend of my parents and mine too, Kenneth Muir, who was a friend from Christian leftists; Adam Schaff was also a friend. However, a number of the others, particularly the economists, were brought on board by one of my father’s students at Columbia University, Paul Medow, whose family was of Russian origin. They included Ragnar Frisch, Oskar Lange, P.C. Mahalanobis, Gunnar Myrdal, Rudolf Schlesinger, Hans Thirring, Jan Tinbergen, Shigeto Tsuru. On a visit to the Soviet Union, he reached out to eminent Russian intellectuals, but regrettably they were not in a position to accept the invitation.

I believe that coexistence has to live on. It could become my father’s most enduring legacy. Financialised rentier capitalism is destroying societies and the natural environment. Regarding the civilisational challenge of information technology, Polanyi shared Einstein’s concern that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing not a curse to humanity. Coexistence is the celebration of the collective wisdom of the common people in all variety of languages, cultures, and religions. It is a plea for the conservation and protection of the richness of human and natural life in the hope of a civilisational rejection of the commodification of everything.

Prof. Dr. Claus Thomasberger, until 2017 Professor of Economics and International Policy at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, Germany. Research interests: European Integration, history of economic thought, economic history, political philosophy.

Prof. Dr. Michael Brie is senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin in the field of history and theory of socialism and communism. He is chief-editor of the series Contribution to Critical Transformation Research.


1. Samuel Klatchko (1851–1914) was a Russian revolutionary, and a close friend of the Polanyi family. In 1875, he participated in the foundation of a Utopian community in the US (together with Nicolai Tchaikovsky and others). When the community failed, he and his wife settled in Vienna (1880). Here he became a non-party envoy of illegal parties and movements that existed in tsarist Russia at the time. Among his friends were many Russian revolutionaries, including Plekhanov and Trotsky.

2. Vera Zasulich (1849–1919) was a Russian writer and revolutionary. She became famous for the “Trepov incident” when in 1878 she seriously injured the governor of St Petersburg, Fyodor Trepov, with a revolver.

3. Oszkar Jászi was the editor of the journal Twentieth Century (Hszadik Század), leader of the Radical Bourgeois Party (Országos Radikális Párt) and Minister of the first Hungarian Republic in 1918. Polanyi was elected to the party secretariat. His friendship and cooperation with Oszkar Jászi continued after their emigration to Vienna.

4. The Galilei Circle (Galilei Kör) was a non-partisan student initiative established in 1908 in Budapest: it organised thousands of courses for adults and numerous debates, to which speakers such as György Lukács, Karl Mannheim, Sandor Férenczi, Werner Sombart, Max Adler and Eduard Bernstein were invited. Karl Polanyi was the founding president of the circle.

5. The leading protagonist of Guild Socialism was  G.D.H. Cole. In the 1920s Polanyi elaborated the idea in his contributions to the “Socialist Accounting Debate” and published several articles on the issue.

6. Felix  Schafer was lifelong friend of Karl Polanyi.  He published some of  the results of their joint discussions in two articles (Schafer 1937, 1939). Extracts from a  long memoir about their cooperation in Vienna have been published in Schafer (2006).

7. Polanyi had met Irene and Donald Grant in the 1920s. Already in Vienna they had taken part in discussions of the “Lega of the Religious Socialists of Austria”. In England, Irene Grant was the principal organising spirit of the Christian Left Group.

8. Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962) was an English economic historian, social critic and Christian socialist. From 1928 until 1944, he was President of the Workers’ Educational Association.

9. John  McMurray (1891–1976)  was Grote Professor of  Philosophy at London University (from 1928 to 1944). He was part of the editorial board which published the book Lewis et al. (1935).

10. Kari refers to the Landshut-Mayer edition of Marx’s early writings (Marx et al. 1932),  which Karl Polanyi introduced,  discussed and (in part) translated for the “Christian Left Study Circle”.

11. Peter Drucker (1909–2005), “the founder of modern management”, was a friend of Karl Polanyi. They met in Vienna. Later he was instrumental in helping Polanyi get the scholarship to Bennington College.

12. Abraham  Rotstein (1929–2015),  a former student and friend of Karl Polanyi, kept notes of numerous meetings with Polanyi on at least twenty weekends between 1956 and 1958. The “Weekend Notes” are available in the Karl Polanyi Archive, Con 45 Fol 02 to Con 45 Fol 20 [www.concordia.ca/research/polanyi/archive.html].


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