Christianity and Economic Life

From Karl Polanyi
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I. Community and Society

Christianity is concerned with the relationship of man to God as revealed to us in Jesus. Economic life, roughly, covers that sphere of social existence, in which man's needs are satisfied with the help of material goods. What is the relevance of Christianity to this or, for the matter, to any other sphere of man's social existence?

The answer which we can deduce from the Gospels is peculiar to Christianity. It is also the key to the predominance of ethics in its social philosophy.

The Christian axiom about the essence of society is of the utmost boldness and paradoxy. It can be put in the simple phrase that society is a personal relationship of individuals. Now, to regard society thus means to disregard altogether the share of institutional life and of other impersonal forces in social existence. In a sense it is the complete denial of the objective existence of society. A tension is created between the phenomenal and the essential aspect of man's social existence - a metaphysical hiatus which is bridged by a definite ethical urge. It is our task to make society conform to its essence. Christian social philosophy becomes the elaboration of an ethical axiom.

This position is the outcome of the Jewish inheritance of Christianity. Jewish society was a theocracy. Down to the most minute detail of its structure and functioning it was supposed to conform to the revealed will of God. Jesus accepted this reference of the will of God to society as self-evident. But his vision of society was different from the Jewish. For him society consisted essentially of individual human beings and the will of God was concerned with the relation of these individuals to one another.

The teachings of Jesus as well as the doctrines of the Church are, in this respect, merely reassertions and clarifications of a basic relationship between human individuals. The doctrine of Love, of brotherhood, of the fatherhood of God, are parts of a definition of this kind of relationship between human beings which belongs to the essence of society.

No word in the English language seems to designate unambiguously this aspect of the social existence. The nearest approach to it is community in the sense of an affirmative personal relationship of human individuals, i. e. of a relation which is direct, unmediated, significant for its own sake, "a personal response to a demand of persons". Community is, therefore, for us, not synonymous with society. Indeed, the dialectic of the relation in which they stand to one another is the key to the social ethics of Christianity.

Two negative assertions seem to follow from this positions.

1. Society as such, as an aggregate of functional institutions conditioned by geographical, technological and other environmental [3] factors is nos concern of the Christian. His concern is with the individuals in community, not with society.

2. Neither is history as such his concern. The wars of races and nations, the pestilences and earthquakes ravaging mankind, the spectacular making and unmaking of the fortunes of individuals and groups of individuals mean in themselves nothing to him. Yet, interwoven with, and embedded in, them is that which is his concern, the fulfillment of community.

On the other hand, accordingly to the Gospels community between human beings cannot exist apart from actual society. According to the parabola of the Good Samaritan, community between persons consists in actual material sharing, not in the mere ideal sharing of common traditions and creeds. According to numerous other parabolas, community, to be real, must be continuous. It is this continuous actual sharing of life in its entirety which makes the Christian concept of community coextensive with society, i. e. with the permanent form of the material organisation of human life. In the same manner, it is as an obstruction to, or a vehicle of, the fulfillment of community that history alone matters to the Christian.

Incidentally, this explains the Christian paradox. Christianity is indifferent towards society and history as such. But if the claims of community press for change in society, the judgement passed upon society is inexorable. And when history points to the next step in the achievement of universal community, its claim tot the allegiance of the Christian is unconditional.

II. The environmental factor in its relation to community and society

[4] Thus, in order to discover our actual relationship to God we must try to understand the relation of community to society in a given time and place. All knowledge about society derives its relevance to the Christian from the light it sheds on this point.

Community consists in a definite personal relationship of ______. In the main they are the same for particular groups of persons in a particular society, the technologically conditioned relationships, such as the economic beings necessarily identical for all members of the group. Indeed these relationships are, to some extent, the same for all members of a given society, whatever their relative positions in it be. To his extent no single individual can escape the responsibility for the continued existence of the particular society of which he is a member.

III. Marxism on community and society

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Text in English to type

IV. Historical categories in economies

V. The fetish character of commodities

VI. What is Capital?

VII. Abolishment of the private ownership of the means of production

Text Informations

Original Draft: 1937
KPA: 19/22, 1-16 (16 typed p.)
Recent Publications in English:

  • Partially published (part. III-VII) in BEAUDRY Lucille, DEBLOCK Christian and GISLAIN Jean-Jacques (dirs.), [1990] Un siècle de Marxisme, Québec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 374 p., p. 125-136
  • in Polanyi 2018b, p. 154-164

Other Languages:

Lg Name
DE Christentum und wirtschaftliches Leben
FR « Le christianisme et la vie économique »