Abraham Rotstein, Weekend Notes XX

From Karl Polanyi
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Weekend Notes (Overview)

Text in English to type

Comments on my "Not by Organization Alone" Draft #2

[2][1] In part III, there valuable new formulations that shouldn't get lost and on some points the formulations are clearer and simpler.

There are two questions involved, to show that Whyte and Dudintsev deal with the same problem… […] [3] [4]

[5] … Weber said that the problem of capitalism was the bureaucratization of industry. He died before 1921 and didn't see socialism. He thought this was a characteristic of capitalism and was very wretched about it.

In Russia D.'s book leads to fight against bureaucracy but not in America.



P.'s thesis that totalitarianism is the product of industrial society runs on conformity. This is the beginning of as subject. In two societies worlds apart etc., they have industry and various problems in common, and this leads to identification of conformity as a totalitarian phenomenon.

[…] [7]

Paul Medow and the East

[8] I should get in touch with Medow and meet him. He is a Russian in spite of everything and theses are more real people than the ones we have to deal with.

He takes his stand on Fromm's philosophy, The Great Transformation and Marion Levy, who supposedly has brought under one roof psychoanalysis and sociology. ths makes the G.T. a more important thing than it was.

Medow's field is Japan and China and he knows little Western economic history. […]

[9] [10] [11]

Comments on K.P.'s "A Note" on "Rousseau's

[12] There is an important answer here where P. intimates that any strict approach may miss the point in removing from the tension between the societal and the individual, i.e. the inevitable border zone, the transition. This may well be the home of human life and it may be that all our human disciplines are wrongly organized because they leave out the thing where matters happen because they fall between the disciplines. This is specifically applicable to economics as a border phenomenon. There is the adjustment of means to ends and ends to means.

This is the kind of thing that Parsons talks about and justly although P. doesn't think he followed it up.

Comments of my letter of Jan. 31, 1958

This page contains question(s)
that we should discuss
in the Talk Page!

[13][2] P. liked the letter with the four points and thought all were valid.

In point 1), the second paragraph (moralizing a premature resignation to the r. of s.) is the operative one.

Point 2), is the same thing and gives it content.

Point 3), the formulation should be on the illusion of freedom (which is clearer than ultimate freedom). What do we mean by native freedom? It needs an answer. The continuum of compromise is no answer.

Point 4), certainly there is the freedom of women, children and the working-calss, but it is quite true that they are only freedoms. It is not a satisfactory answer.

"Freedom and Technology" (12)

[14] P. read Hegel (Phenomenology) and half of Lukacs and he could now easily write the Marx.

The real difficulty is then the Shaw. “Back to Methuselah” etc. proves that Shaw was the only thinker who starts from the reality of society and the individual who doesn't feel this limitation is funny.

On existentialism P. doesn't know where to put his foot. He read Camus (also a recent story in Partisan Review) and he is a tremendous writer.

Comments of Adam's Review of Trade and Market

[15] With reference to Adams comments on proof (i.e. American Sociology Review, Robert M. Adams) the Cappadocian material is the only full-scale material on trading. There are no other cases. The Sumerian is all socialist.

It shows, …



[16] Arendt maintains that a totalitarian regime cannot restore itself. There is no way to develop and mend it its ways.

P.'s point against Hannah Arendt and her downright pessimism is that these are the starting points of modern thought and P. subsumes it under the reality of society. There is a very interesting review of two books in either Commentary or the New Statesman that in the concentration camp all showed some weaknesses and powers of resistance but the real courage and help came from the criminal.

Adler and Keslo Book

(My comment on new volume attempting to introduce the question of ethics in the economy).

In Germany 70-100 years ago there was the "ethical school" and today the Catholic school.


1984 - A discussion - Excerpt From “Fighting Words”, C.B.C.


Cohen: Let us proceed to tour first quotation… “1984 is not a rational attempt to imagine a probable future”… Any idea of the author? A vagabond for four years against his distinguished's mother's wishes, however he had no use for bohemian life. A novelist of little success, more celebrated as a reviewer of a famous American magazine… No? His latest novel…

Howe: Anthony West.

Cohen: Anthony West indeed! It was the remark about the magazine that did it, eh, the “New Yorker”, that gave it away. Mr. Cocker, one longplaying record to you sir. Mr. Anthony West said… and since you identified it Mr. Howe I'll throw it out to you: “1984 is not a rational attempt to imagine a probable future”.

Howe: I think it's a rather inane remark, 1984 is not an attempt to give a literal portrait of an imaginable [18] future. It is rather an effort to extend current political and social tendencies by driving the tendencies to an extreme for the purposes of rational analysis, this seems to me a very sensible kind of procedure.

Polanyi: Well, I think it's a utopia, a negative utopia of terrific consequences and I should like to say that in my lifetime I would range three books together, that is Mein Kampf, Stalin's History of the Communist Party of Russia falsified history for a long time to come and Orwell's 1984.

Howe: Why this conjunction, Dr. Polanyi?

Polanyi: For the following reason. If today, we are fairly all agreed, well we are well on the way to a return to sanity, and all good wishes in this regard, well if there is one obstacle which is a literary obstacle, one which comes from a book, then I should say that the consequences of 1984 have not yet been fully realized.

Meisl: I wonder whether we're not misinterpreting 1984 a good deal. We tend to apply it to the Soviet Union whereas in fact, I think, Orwell was much more concerned with universal tendencies in Western society, and I think the book has really been misjudged on that basis, has it not?

[19] Polanyi: Yes, but so thoroughly that I am prepared to take up the argument of the effect of the book.

Cohen: Let's give Miss Arendt a chance to get in here, Miss Arendt?

Arendt: I think there is no rational way to stalk about the future because the future is that thing which we all don't know. I think the real merit of 1984 is, hat it brought out in extreme form, certain tendencies, and not even tendencies but things which really existed already, put it into a fictional framework to think about that an talk of the future, to think that this is something which is going to happen in 1984. This I think is the one great… the one… disadvantage of the whole book. I would have wanted Orwell to write exactly the same thing but without 1984.

Polanyi: Well I think that you shouldn't say this, because one of the strong points in your book which I have just reread is that a disastrous idea has been implanted by the totalitarians, and it is that everything is possible, meaning, there's no limit to the distortion of man. But the person who actually drove this thought home, was Orwell through 1984.

Howe: I don't see how you can say that…

Cohen: I'm sorry Mr. Howe, Miss Arendt.

[20] Arendt: I am not objecting to the content of Orwell's book, though I wonder whether it's a very good novel. I'm not objecting at all, and I think that every… for political consciousness he did a marvellous job. I only am objecting to believing that we can know's one of the most irrational things you can utter or think about.

Howe: Whether you can know about the future or not, I think Mr. Polanyi makes a very grave error here. I mean, Stalin's book and Hitler's book, those so to speak are the patients while Orwell tried to function as a doctor. Orwell tried to diagnose the malady and was violently opposed to the malady, to that I really don't see how you can put these two together, except insofar as they are absolutely in clash and contradiction to one another.

Polanyi: Well, I am really taking my stand on the effects. And I should say that if today we considerably can say any shred of confidence in the world would be today a boon. Anything, rational basis of hope in the residual strength of human nature would be a hope. Now if anybody actually tried to argue that out of the world because he overdid his negative utopia, he simply overdid the case, it was his work which convinced millions of people that is really possible to do anything to human beings.

[21] Howe: It's a very hard to argue effects of a book, but it's much easier to argue the meaning of a book, and the meaning of the book seems to me to come through at those moments, for exemple, when Winston, rather Smith, remembers the moments, when an English mother, even though she had nothing to offer her child, still loved the child, gave it chocolate when she had chocolate, and then loved it anyway and what Orwell was trying to suggest there was just what you're saying, namely the residual human feeling, which cannot, we hope at least, be destroyed by any kind of total state.

Cohen: Mr…… I'm Sorry, Miss Arendt.

Arendt: I wonder, if I read the book correctly, then one of the things which came out clearly especially, - I don't remember the book so well any longer - but especially in the love story, what really came out, was that you can, you can make it possible for people for instance, to have a love affair.

Meisl: Yes but surely really, the danger of the book, and I disagree with Dr. Polanyi on this point, I think the danger of the book is that it tries to make a number of these points but always tying it so closely to the experience of the Soviet Union, it deflects the attention of the reader, I think, by making him think this is what happens in a Communist country, whereas I think we in [22] the West, should perhaps ask ourselves to what extent these same forces are actually at work say, in the United States during the McCarthy period or, I think, more generally, perhaps without any specific political person.

Arendt: I think we touch on a very basic question, and the question is this: is it possible to arrive at the same state of affairs which we have in a totalitarian state, under totalitarian governement where everything is done by terror and ideology. Is it possible to arrive at the same state of affairs just by chance? Just because - certainly it's very easy for all of us to point out certain trends in every modern society which are totalitarian or which have this totalitarian tendency, or which can be interpreted in a totalitarian way and it's also very easy to point out that people will conform or will behave in a way which we know…
The question which I would like to ask is, is it possible that this monster comes really into being so to speak out of society itself, or, do you need political power, do you need terror, do yo need police, in short do you need a number of very tangible institutions in order to really bring it about, no matter what the trends of the tendencies may have been before.

Meisl: It seems to me that in showing that in the end both [23] Winston and Julia - Julia betray their love in the face not of totalitarianism, but perhaps in the face of terrible pain which happens to be produced by… or the danger of something, some terrible experience which is universal and is not necessarily confined to a totalitarian state although the state may use it.

Arendt: You mean the experience of pain?

Meisl: Well, of betraying some one whom you really don't want to betray in the face of some terrible experience.

Howe: Yes, but the point that…

Cohen: Mr. Howe and then Dr. Polanyi.

Howe: But the point that Orwell was getting at, I think, is, that there are certain kinds of extreme pain which force us to the position where we really have no more choice in our behaviour, that is to say where are reduced to the level simply of a… mass of nervous tissue which can be manipulated. Now it seems to me that there is at least some warrant for this, first, and secondly, that it is a kind of literalistic fallacy to take Orwell's book and to treat it as if it were a document in political theory rather than an imaginative projection concerning certain fears that of course we all share.

[24] Polanyi: Well, I go further. I think that it was a force in the political situation. Now I think very highly of Orwell so to speak, in every regard. But the objectivity would now demand that so to speak, that book which is almost on a piédestal, even today, should disappear of human imagination in the way Mein Kampf disappeared and in the way Stalinism disappeared, and I am prepared to say, that the views there put, as the views of the totalitarian Bolsheviks, were put with a power and force that they became widely spread in England as a valid sociology and I speak of very serious people who thought that the whole Russian event is really completely explained by the so-called bible book in it, which puts a kind of crazy Marxism, entirely crazy Marxism, with the three classes and so on, all on a deterministic mechanism, and then arguing that no society could keep unless terror, in some way, is actually present. If it's not present, it must be maintained by well, simulacrum of war, pretented wars, and so on, and I am quite prepared to argue, now here is the point where the thing becomes serious, that Orwell himself had no clear understanding of life, of society. That that is why in the book there is no intimidation at all where does the right way lead to, in what way… He is not a religious person, he is not a Christian, he has no element of this thought. All he did was, now there I agree with all of you who spoke, that he drew [25] attention to a tremendous danger which was real and therefore mankind was grateful to him and I agree with all of you. But incidentally he just committed the tragic mistake of overstating the case to such an extent that after his death he is just an obstacle on the way out.

Cohen: You all want to speak. Miss Arendt goes first.

Arendt: As far as overstating the case is concerned, I do not believe this. You cannot - on the contrary, when today somebody, a writer, who writes fiction, comes along and tries to overstate this case, then we historians come and tell him “my poor fellow, unfortunately you can no longer overstate anything beacause reality constantly outwits us and is more than any center we could imagine. Bus as far as the other point goes, I am against forgetting. I am a historian. I'm not even in favour of forgetting Stalin, or Hitler, let alone Orwell. I think if there's any hope, or if there's any way of overcoming this monster, it will certainly not be by forgetting who Hitler was, who Stalin was, and not even the books they have written. But only by knowing it because, since this business once came into the world it will always be possible. Even if tomorrow we wouldn't have any Soviet regime any longer, we still should - should! We wouldn't but we should - should be afraid.

Meisl: That's true, but there is one of the dangers again, in [26] this book, that I think Orwell misleads this case a bit by ascribing to the ruling group, ascribing the following motive to the ruling group, a quest for power as such. And I think Mr. Howe, you make that point in your…

Cohen: Mr. Howe, I think I'm going to give you the last word on this particular quotation.

Howe: It's a very precious last word. Yes, he does say that there's a quest for power for its own sake and this is a very hard thing for us to understand, but it's even harder to find any other motive. Clearly the ruling group in Soviet Russia is not concerned with power for the sake of profit or any other such motivation. There does seem to be - I say it's hard for us to understand but we have to face it as a reality - there does seem to be an interest in power for power's sake. Until we can dissolve this motivation into some ultimate deeper motivation, it seems to me we have to give at least tentative credit to what Orwell said.


Cohen: Fighting words, George Orwell and a possible or impossible future. Very well!

Text Informations

Date: February 15, 1958 (Interview)
KPA: 45/16

Editor's Notes

  1. See also Not by Organization Alone
  2. Archive pagination.