Humanity, Society and Commitment on Karl Polanyi


178 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 1-895431-84-0
DDC 330'.092





Reviewed by Peter Babiak

Peter Babiak teaches English at the University of British Columbia.


At a time when most leftist thinking has lost credibility in the public
mind, a book celebrating the life of a committed socialist like Karl
Polanyi (1886–1964) is indeed a rare item. Its nine essays reflect on
various aspects in the life and work of the Hungarian-born scholar, who
spent his last years writing in a rural cottage east of Toronto.

Many of the works are authored by Polanyi’s followers and former
students, and as a result much of the book reads like a slightly
romanticized biographical profile. In his reading of The Plough and the
Pen, an anthology of Hungarian writing selected and edited by Polanyi
and his wife Ilona, Kenneth McRobbie narrates an impressive chronology
of the book’s production, but he firmly locks the contributions to the
Hungarian populist movement of the 1940s and 1950s and in so doing
ascribes to them the tedious role of reflecting their political
contexts. In her examination of Polanyi’s stand against using
education “for citizenship and general improvement” and his
conception of popular education as a struggle against all “instituted
systems,” Marguerite Mendell makes the honorable, though somewhat
antiquated, grassroots assumption that radical pedagogy begins with a
“celebration of working class culture.”

To be fair, most of the essays avoid the traps of historical
determinism and grass-roots elitism and actually engage with Polanyi’s
intriguing ideas on socialism and the free market. Kari Polanyi-Levitt,
Polanyi’s daughter and an esteemed professor of economics at McGill
University, talks about her father’s socialism—“neither that of
traditional European social democracy, nor that of centralized communist
planning”—in relation to the Austrian school of economics associated
with Hayek and Schumpeter, which is an invaluable comparison given that
this school intellectually subsidizes so much contemporary
neoconservatism. And Christopher Lind’s paper on “moral economy”
brackets Polanyi’s work with that of E.P. Thompson and on the basis of
this comparison concludes—in keeping with some communitarians and a
few postmodernists—

that “the fundamental moral challenge [today] is to reclaim the
relational side of our being, as persons-in-community.”

Along with pieces by Jordan Bishop, Michele Cangiani, and Endre Nagy,
these essays perform the real work of commemorating Polanyi not because
they offer biographical kudos but because they suggest timely and—in
view of the unrestrained fiscal conservatism of the 1990s—necessary
encounters with Polanyi’s radical ideas.


McRobbie, Kenneth., “Humanity, Society and Commitment on Karl Polanyi,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,