Karl Polanyi: biography of this Austro-Hungarian anthropologist and economist

Some of the great advances in 20th century anthropology are due to Karl Polanyi. This researcher tackled various fields of knowledge, related to economics, anthropology and social sciences in general, and his influence on the scientific community is still present today.

through it biography of Karl Polanyi We will take a tour of the most important events of his life and discover in detail some of the most important contributions he has made in different scientific disciplines throughout his career.

    Brief biography of Karl Polanyi

    Karl Polanyi was born in 1886 in the city of Vienna, the current capital of Austria, in the current Austro-Hungarian Empire.. His family professed the Jewish religion and was in a good socio-economic position. Karl’s mother, Cécile Wohl, was from Russia and was a respected figure among the country’s intellectual circles. For his part, his father, Michael Pollacsek, was an engineer and had his own business.

    Moreover, Karl had a younger brother, Michael Polanyi, who as an adult would become a respected chemist and philosopher, shows that the whole family was devoted to knowledge.


    Karl Polanyi studied the races of Law and Philosophy, getting to be a doctor in this discipline, At the University of Budapest. During his time at university, he began to be drawn to socialist doctrines. He got to found a movement, the Galilei Circle, next to his brother and other people, in whom they sent proclamations in favor of the independence of Hungary, that then was united to Austria. He also decided to broaden his political ideas through a university magazine, the Sczabadgondolat.

    After the outbreak of World War I, Karl Polanyi enlisted in the army as a cavalry officer.. With the conflict came the independence of Hungary, the Social Democratic government in 1918 was supported by Polanyi. But the joy did not last long, because only a year later the country became one of the socialist satellite republics of the USSR, so Karl Polanyi decided to go into exile in Vienna, his hometown, which is now part of Austria, an independent country.

    Transfer to Vienna

    Already back in Vienna, Karl Polanyi meet Ilona Duczynska, a communist activist, who in 1923 will become his wife. Already in his new home, Polanyi began writing articles in Der Oesterreichische Volkswirt, a publication on economics in which he championed Christian socialist ideas and the Fabian Society (an English socialist movement) as opposed to the Austrian school, liberal cutting.

    In keeping with his activism, decided to use his own home to give a series of workshops in which he defended the benefits of socialism in the economy. Karl Polanyi was in favor of a collectivized economic system, without reaching the centralism of pure socialism. To do this, Polanyi supported the municipal administrations and their power to distribute the resources of their specific field of action.

    Through these workshops in which political and economic systems were discussed, he had a conflict with another famous Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, who supported liberal ideas and therefore defended ideals which clashed head-on with Karl Polanyi’s approaches.

    But those were turbulent years in Europe. Fascism was beginning to appear in some countries, Including Austria, where he came to power and forced many people, including Karl Polanyi, into exile. It all started as a result of his pro-socialist writing in the magazine he worked for. He was told that he had to give up this activity. After pressure and anticipating the situation in which he was about to arrive in the country, Polanyi decided to settle in England.

      Years in London, USA and Canada

      Despite the pressure to leave the newspaper, Karl Polanyi continued to work as an editor, this time from London, where he chose his new residence. This new location allowed him to deepen the English socialist movements and even participated in the creation of the book Christianity and Social Revolution, by writing for this work an article which took by title the essence of fascism.

      In addition to his work as a columnist, he also began teaching and teaching at the Worker Educational Association. These courses were aimed at adults at the universities of Oxford and London. Some of the lessons corresponded to the economic history of England, which is why it was a material of great utility for which it would later be one of his most recognized works: The Great Transformation, a book which would write on a Rockefeller scholarship provided by the United States. States.

      In 47 years, Karl Polanyi he started working as a visiting professor at Columbia University in the United States, teaching economics. But a problem arose: the government of this country did not grant the visa to Polanyi’s wife, for her past as a communist revolutionary, a trend absolutely prohibited in the United States. They therefore had no choice but to establish their residence in the city of Toronto, Canada.

      This is how Karl Polanyi was he spent his final years as a teacher, traveling regularly between Toronto and New YorkUntil in 1953, he finally retired. But that did not mean the end of Karl’s activity, as the Ford Foundation funded him to continue publishing works, in this case related to the economic history of ancient civilizations.

      In this way and in collaboration with other researchers, Karl Polanyi was able to publish Trade and Market in the Ancient Empires, a work considered to be the precursor of essentialist anthropological ideas. Together with his wife he also wrote a volume on Hungarian literature in 1963. His last publications were published in the magazine Coexistència.

      Karl Polanyi he visited Hungary in 1963, more than four decades after having to leave his native country. A year later, already back in Canada, he died. This was in 1964. Some time later, in 1977, a posthumous work titled “The Support of Man” was published. Unpublished articles and writings have been collected in this volume, most of them from his classes, and which were an extension of the work of Commerce and Market.

      The economic vision in his works

      Karl Polanyi’s work crystallized his economic and anthropological thought. For example, in “The Great Transformation” he tries to give an explanation of the variables that led to the First World War, Move from one period of reasonably stable peace to one in which social and economic crisis has led the world to the two greatest wars it has ever known.

      Some of the concepts he explores in this book are the rise of totalitarian political movements across Europe or the fall of the gold standard, among others. For him, economic liberalism is a simple utopia, Which, if established, would have meant the collapse of the political systems of our societies.

      In other of his best works, such as “Trade and Market in Ancient Empires” or “The Support of Man,” Karl Polanyi focuses on capitalism, arguing that this doctrine does not encourage exchange and has led to the economy separating itself from all other social relations, taking a dominant position over all. The way he sees the economy in pre-capitalist societies is what he calls the integrated economy.

      Polanyi speaks of three fundamental elements that must occur in economic exchanges, and they are that of reciprocity, moving resources back and forth; redistribution, transporting these resources first to the center and then to the outside; and finally exchange, which symbolizes the movements between resources which must occur between the different points of the market.

      As for the markets, Karl Polanyi establishes a differentiation between them and the trading system itselfWhat would be a more modern concept that would allow the former to integrate, forming economies of a national or supranational nature. In theory, the trading system is it would regulate automatically, but the reality is that it needs help from the authorities who are regulating it in one way or another.

      Influence on other authors

      The figure of Polanyi remains relevant today. Economists of our time, like Carles Manera, argue that his legacy must be taken into account and advocate the resumption of democratic socialism that this author defended almost a century ago. Authors like Thomas Pikkety continued the path marked by Polanyi and they extrapolated their speech to the economic conditions of today’s society.

      The truth is that a figure whose work continues to have repercussions despite the passage of the years, must be valued as she deserves.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Block, F. (2003). Karl Polanyi and publisher of The Great Transformation. Theory and society. Springer.
      • Dale, G. (2010). Karl Polanyi: the limits of the market.
      • Gemici, K. (2008). Karl Polanyi and the antinomies of integration. Socio-economic review.
      • North, DC (1977). Markets and other historical attribution systems: Karl Polanyi’s challenge. Journal of European Economic History.
      • Polanyi-Levitt, K., Mendell, M. (1987). Karl Polanyi: his life and his time. Studies in political economy. Taylor and Francis.

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