In November 1933, less than a year after Hitler assumed power in Berlin, a 47-year-old socialist writer on Vienna’s leading economics weekly was advised by his publisher that it was too risky to keep him on the staff. It would be best both for the Österreichische Volkswirt and his own safety if Karl Polanyi left the magazine. Thus began a circuitous odyssey via London, Oxford, and Bennington, Vermont, that led to the publication in 1944 of what many consider the 20th century’s most prophetic work of political economy, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.Polanyi, with no academic base, was already a blend of journalist and public intellectual, a major critic of the Austrian School of free-market economics and its cultish leaders, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Polanyi and Hayek would cross swords for four decades—Hayek becoming more influential as an icon of the free-market right but history increasingly vindicating Polanyi.

In the 1944 catalog of publisher Farrar & Rinehart, the entry for The Great Transformation appropriately compares it to Keynes’s succinct 1919 classic, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. But while Keynes’s book was a best-seller, turning its author into a celebrity, The Great Transformation sold just 1,701 copies in 1944 and 1945.

The New York Times reviewer, John Chamberlain, was savage: “This beautifully written essay in the revaluation of a hundred and fifty years of history adds up to a subtle appeal for a new feudalism, a new slavery, a new status of economy that will tie men to their places of abode and their jobs.” If that sounds just like Polanyi’s nemesis, Hayek, it was for good reason. Chamberlain had just written the foreword to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944. While Hayek’s book was adapted in Reader’s Digest and became a best-seller, Polanyi’s languished.

By 1946, however, Polanyi had been reviewed, mostly favorably, in major newspapers and social-science journals, and he was slowly attracting a following. At 61, Polanyi was offered his first real academic job in 1947 at Columbia, where he taught until 1953. But in the Cold War chill, the State Department refused to give a permanent visa to Ilona, and she relocated to Canada. After attempting to commute from Toronto, Polanyi spent his final years settled there, returning to an early scholarly interest in economic anthropology.

Temperamentally, he was both a work obsessive and a romantic. His habit of phoning former students at odd hours to discuss arcane ideas was part of his charm. Polanyi’s letters to his wife and daughter are filled with tenderness. One of his great essays is on Hamlet, and his last work, published in 1963, was a jointly edited book with Ilona, The Plough and the Pen, with an introduction by W.H. Auden, on the struggles of modern Hungary as rendered by Hungarian poets and essayists.

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Source – Prof Robert Kuttner – Brandeis U and The American Prospect: Karl Polanyi Explains It All

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