Dale, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left

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DALE Gareth, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, New York, Columbia Univ. Press, 400 p.
Reference: Dale 2016a


Such puzzles and paradoxes provided the initial impetus for the writing of this biography, in part because to understand them requires a thinking through of Polanyi’s life and times, but also because it is the tensions and contradictions in his personal commitments and his oeuvre that give them their engagingly maverick character. Polanyi was, for example, in love with a Bolshevik while spurning Bolshevism; he was a social democrat who disdained the social-democratic orthodoxy, and a liberal who charged classical liberalism with full responsibility for the collapse of its dreams. He was a humanist (…) and yet a steadfast defender of Stalin’s regime in Russia. In his correspondence he can appear moralistic, not to say straitlaced, yet he was an eager reader of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and of his two most cherished Shakespeare poems (…). He was a Christian who rarely if ever worshipped God, a modernist who immersed himself in study of the ancient world, and an ardent supporter of the peasant’s cause who lived almost exclusively in sprawling conurbations. [Kindle loc. 230-232]

In the East-West Salon

[26] Spencer might seem an odd choice of hero for the left-liberal counterculture. A Social Darwinist and supporter of laissez-faire, his work was funded by such plutocrats as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, because it opposed socialist and welfare-liberal positions, and he originated several staple theses of twentieth-century conservative social science: “illiberal democracy,” the “road to serfdom,” and the “iron law of oligarchy.”

[32] In 1910 he resigned the presidency of the Galileo Circle and took on the leadership of the Committee for Workers’ Education. He was inducted into a Freemason’s lodge (where he found himself “well liked”) and joined the leading circles of the Radical Bourgeois Party.

Bearing the Cross of War

Triumph and tragedy of Red Vienna

Challenges and Responses

The Cataclysm and its Origins

[156] In spring 1941 he had secured a Rockefeller Fellowship that would enable him to be employed at Bennington for two years, formally as a resident lecturer but without teaching responsibilities.

“Injustices and Inhumanities”

[205] The material basis for his research was provided by Columbia University together with funding from a variety of institutions, principally the Ford Foundation. It paid his salary until his retirement and thereafter provided for his travel and other costs associated with his seminar series on economic institutions (also known as the Columbia Interdisciplinary Project)—including a monthly stipend for Ilona, who, in spite of the anthropologist Conrad Arensberg’s advice that hiring close relatives would be frowned on, acted for a time as research assistant. It was a major disappointment when Ford cut the flow of funds in 1958 and the Rockefeller Foundation turned down a grant bid, but Polanyi was able to keep the seminar alive with assistance from other bodies.

The Precariousness of Existence

[249] During his time as sidekick to the Comintern leader Willi Münzenberg, Koestler had learned the arts of propaganda, in particular the technique of forming cultural front organizations through which to influence the political zeitgeist of Western nations. That strategy was now mirrored by the CIA. Acting in effect as the U.S. “Ministry of Culture” and disbursing money through the foundations of the “robber barons” Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, it financed networks of anticommunist artists and scholars and orchestrated an apparatus of organizations. It recognized in the Congress an already-fashioned instrument to serve its purposes, agreed to fund it, and took the helm.

Surprisingly perhaps, the CIA was seeking to cultivate a less overt anticommunism than was Koestler, whose abrasive and militant speeches alienated sections of the “democratic Left” (…). The CIA’s goal was to construct a “united front” that linked Cold War liberals with leftist intellectuals in Europe and to win the latter to the Atlanticist cause, establishing a bulwark against communist influence in the intelligentsia.[1] […] [2]

Epilogue: A Lost World of Socialism


  1. 130. Peter Coleman, “Arthur Koestler and the Congress for Cultural Freedom”, Polanyiana, no. 1–2 (2005): 184–202.
  2. 134. Lee Congdon, “Koestler’s Hungarian Identity” (n.d.), www.c3.hu/~prophil/profi053/lee.html.