Book Review from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Reconstructing Karl Polyani’. By Gareth Dale. Pluto Press. 2016.
Karl Polyani (1886-1964) is best known for his 1944 book The Great Transformation about the emergence of the market economy and market society in which, contrary to all previously existing societies, everything including land, labour and money has a price and is bought and sold. He demolished the arguments of his fellow Austro-Hungarians (he was from Hungary), Von Mises and Von Hayek, that an unregulated market economy was natural and the most rational economic system. He called it a ‘capitalist utopia’ and showed how the state had played an active role in promoting its coming into being.
Dale’s book will tell you all you want to know about him and his other ideas. Polyani was a Social Democrat who believed that political democracy opened up the possibility, even the inevitability, that popular pressure would transform into ‘socialism’ as a society in which state planning would subordinate the market (he did not envisage the abolition of the market).
Dale also records how in the 1930s he was a fellow traveller of the worst kind, justifying Stalin’s ‘terror trials’ believing the clearly fabricated ‘evidence’ presented by the prosecutors.
Despite this, The Great Transformation remains a classic criticism of laissez-faire capitalism.