Origins of our Time. The Great Transformation

From Karl Polanyi
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Foreword by Robert M. MacIver

[7] HERE IS A BOOK THAT MAKES most books in its field seem obsolete or outworn. So rare an event … Mr. Polanyi does not profess to be writing history - he is rewriting it. … He is not bringing a candle light into one of its dark corners, nor is he plausibly making it the public scripture of his private faith; instead, with insight as well as with knowledge, he is shedding a new illumination on the processes and revolutions of a whole age of unexampled change. […]

This new orientation, suggested in other works, but not developed before confer new proportions on men and ideas. Take, for example, the Chartist Movement and the prophetic spirit of Robert Owen. Or take the famous recommendation of Speenhamland … the upholders of a tradition-bound Christianity, the easy triumph of orthodox [8] economists who neatly explain it all. […] We see how with a new liberation went a new servitude, and we measure the challenge that now faces our own age.

Mr. Polanyi leaves far behind the dogmatics of Karl Marx and the apologetics of the reaction. […] The inner temple of human life was despoiled and violated.

[…] There is always a point where we must trust our values in action, so that the urgent [9] forces of the present world may release themselves in new directions towards new goals.

A book so stimulating and so deep-probing … […] They[1] may not be willing to go as far as the author when at one point he says that “nations and peoples were mere puppets in a show utterly beyond their control.”

Of primacy importance to-day is the lesson it carries for the makers of the coming international organization. For one thing it shows that such liberal formulas as “world peace through world trade” will not suffice. […]

So the message of this book is not only for the economist, though it has powerful messager for him; … […] Here he may gain new glimpses of a deeper faith. Here he can learn to look beyond the inadequate alternatives that are usually offered to him, the thus far and not farther liberalism, the all of nothing collectivism, the sheer [10] negation of individualism, for these all tend to make some economic system the primary desideratum, and it is only as we discover the primacy of society, the inclusive coherent unity of human interdependence, that we can hope to transcend the perplexities and the contradictions of our times.


Preface to the Revised Edition

APART FROM AN EXPANSION of the last chapter, the main text of this book is identical with the American edition published by Farrar and Rinehart, New York, in April, 1944, under the title the Great Transformation, many small corrections have been made.

The Appendix has been enlarged by some further Notes in the English Poor Law.


April, 1945

Author's Acknowledgments

Part One: The International System

I. The Hundred Years' Peace

II. Conservative Twenties, Revolutionary Thirties

Part Two: Rise and Fall of Market Economy

I. Satanic Mill

III. "Habitation versus Improvement"

IV. Societies and Economic Systems

V. Evolution of the Market Pattern

VI. The Self-Regulating Market and the Fictitious Commodities: Labor, Land, and Money

VII. Speenhamland, 1795

VIII. Antecedents and Consequences

IX. Pauperism and Utopia

X. Political Economy and the Discovery of Society

II. Self-Protection of Society

XI. Man, Nature, and Productive Organization

XII. Economic liberalism


XIII. Economic liberalism (Continued): Class Interest and Social Change

XIV. Market and Man

XV. Market and Nature

XVI. Market and Productive Organization

XVII. Self-Regulation Impaired

XVIII. Disruptive Strains

Part Three: Transformation in Progress

XIX. Popular Government and Market Economy

XX. History in the Gear of Social Change

XXI. Freedom in a Complex Society

[249] We invoked what we believed to be the three constitutive facts in the consciousness of Western man: knowledge of death, knowledge of freedom, knowledge of society. The first, according to Jewish legend, was revealed in the Old Testament story. The second was revealed through the discovery of the uniqueness of the person in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. The third revelation came to us through living in an industrial society. No one great name attaches to it; perhaps Robert Owen came nearest to becoming its vehicle. It is the constitutive element in modern man's consciousness.

The fascist answer to the recognition of the reality of society is the rejection of the postulate of freedom. The Christian discovery of the uniqueness of the individual and of the oneness of mankind is negated by fascism. Here lies the root of its degenerative bent.

Robert Owen was the first to recognize that the Gospels ignored the reality of society. He called this the "individualization" of man on the part of Christianity and appeared to believe that only in a cooperative commonwealth could "all that is truly valuable in Christianity" cease to be separated from man. Owen recognized that the freedom we gained through the teachings of Jesus was inapplicable to a complex society. His socialism was the upholding of man's claim to freedom in such a society. The post-Christian era of Western civilization had begun, in which the Gospels did not any more suffice, and yet remained the basis of our civilization.


Resignation was ever the fount of man's strength and new hope.

Notes on Sources

I. Balance of Power as Policy, Historical Law, Principle, and System

II. Hundred Years' Peace

III. The Snapping of the Golden Thread

IV. Swings of the Pendulum after World War I

V. Finance and Peace

VI. Selected References to "Societies and Economic Systems"

VII. Selected References to "Evolution of the Market Pattern"

VIII. The Literature of Speenhamland

IX. Speenhamland and Vienna

X. Why Not Whitbread's Bill?

XI. Disraeli's "Two Nations" and the Problem of Colored Races

XII. Poor Law and the Organization of Labor


Editor's Notes

  1. “Some”
  2. Birth of the Liberal Creed in the US version.
  3. Notes 9. in the US version.

Text Informations

Src: Victor Gollancz Ltd, London; second impression, January 1946. See also: The Great Transformation