To Donald Grant (7 December 1929)

From Karl Polanyi
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Dear Donald,

I liked the papers you left with me very much. I know of no group whose ideas so closely resemble to mine, as do those of your group.

Perhaps you purposefully left out (in Part II of Christ and Class War) the study of economics and of socialist problems in making your recommendations - in which case I dissent. There is a danger, not realized at yet clear enough which imperials all our efforts. This danger is that Christians might fail to accept the limitations inherent in the existence of society. As long as we are gang to continue to wish for the impossible, the enemies of progress and social justice must, and will always succeed in hindering us to achieve the possible.

No I don't mean the measure of our effort should be the possible. Only in aiming higher than it is given to us to attain are we able to [a]chieve the utmost measure of the possible. What I do mean is that the direction of our efforts take must be a possible one. Every effort to make a sentimental Christian attitude compatible with the existence of society, any society is an ill directed effort because it aim at the impossible.

If you want to bring religious and social reality into harmony with one another, then it's enough to reform society, you must also reform man's religious consciousness.

The consciousness of man, as he is now, is formed by the notion of the inevitability of death. Life is for him, the journey, the end of which is dead. Without the fact of death we wouldn't be morally what we are. That is which is meant in the scripture: eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

The consciousness of man, as he will be is go[i]ng to be formed by a second fact, as inexplicable as death itself. It is the fact of the existence, the necessary existence of society and all that that implies. He will realize that just as death is not the doing of man. Society is not the doing of man either. We cannot will that society is not the doing of man either. We cannot will that society were not. It is, whether we will it or not. Therefore the responsibility for the existence of society doesn't rest upon us. We are to answer only for that which is our doing. It is not little.

The fact of power (Macht) and the fact of value (Wert) are co-existent with society. We are not responsible for the evil they mean because society is not our doing. Man cannot wish the good, hope for the right thing, fear evil, or encourage those of goodwill without bringing "power" into existence. (For power has for its origins, nothing but the wishes, the hopes, the fears and moral judgments of man).

What we are answerable for is the sort of power we are helping to create: whether a power for good, or a power for evil: for this depends essentially on ourselves. Man cannot have needs, wants, bodily or mental if their fulfillment requires material goods or commodities without bringing "values" into existence, commodity values. (These values may or not take the form of prices; that depends on the form of the organization of society - but even if no prices exist, there is "value" for what nobody needs must be without value, and what people need, want wish for must be of value, to the actual form of society, the actual organization of production and distribution. We are therefore not responsible for the existence of values as such in society, althou[gh] this fact is an eveil, just as power is an evil. What we are responsible for is the sort of values which should come into existence - what should be of value, and what not. For this depends essentially on ourselves. That commodities hard or dangerous or unhealthy to produce especially if they supply no real need, should not be "valued" and therefore not produced - that does depend on us!

Man wishes to realize his responsibilities. He wishes to know what difference his acts will make to other people (He wishes to know what the bearing of his acts or omissions will be on other people). He wishes to be able to lead a personal life the harm of which is as small as possible. He knows that his self-expression is hampered by nothing so much as his incapacity to lead a life the effects of which on is fellows he is able to realize. He feels that his moral personality is incomplete as long as he is not able to realize it in the everyday functions of life: in his daily work, in production, in consumption, in the handling and wear of commodities others have produced for his use, in the way he uses the things of everyday life and work and trouble of his fellows. As a producer as well as a consumer he wants to embody the responsibilities entailed.

Man wishes to realize all his responsibilities. The wish to be able to directly influence the moral standards obtaining among his fellows. Not in the round about way we call politics - i.e. influencing the "power" factors already in existence, but in the direct way of bringing a power for good into existence. Man wishes to do the things which create human happiness or satisfy human need, for the sake of this happiness, for the sake of these needs. He does not want to be shut off from the social effects of his acts. He wants to act from human motives. Man feels that he is living a good life of his consciousness is filled with human motives; he has a higher life is he is able to know the part he is playing in the life of his fellows by his everyday work; and he lives on a yet higher place, if he not only knows it, but is able to act accordingly.

Every form of socialism is based on the hope of mankind to attain to a form of social being in which people could normally, in their everyday existence realize (actualize) their responsibilities to their fellows because they would know how their commissions and omissions affect them and they would be able to act accordingly.

This is the real meaning of group life and fellowship in group life. What makes a group (not too big to be overlooked) the home of a human life is precisely the possibility of knowing that my acts affect the existence of others and how it affects the[m]. Our wish (and capacity) for all round moral existence finds here a chance of fulfillment. What makes larger groups seem barrent, bleak, uncanny, inhuman (I mean groups like the State) is the fact that our relations to our neighbour cannot be encompassed any more. Where there is a market, the effect of my effort as a producer of commodities ends the moment these commodities have reached the "market" and turn into "goods" the further fate of which is governed by prices only. The same limitations apply to me as a consumer in a market economy: the effect of self-discipline in consumption may easily ruin my neighbour who lives by selling (or producing) the surplus goods. In no way can these limitations be over come in a market economy.

The "reform of human consciousness", a term of Karl Marx's will turn sentimental Christianity into something new and much effective by self-limitation, self-regulation, (what the Germans call sich bescheiden - accepting - by putting up with the fundamentals of society as we have 'put up' with the inevitability of death).

Society is no less terrible than death itself. But just as life derives its meaning from death, so the meaning of life in society derives from the inevitability of social existence.

Just as life is without an end, there can be no life without society. And life in society is not free. We are not free to influence the life of the others, live upon the work of others, derange the existence of others, or not to do all this. We influence, burden, harm and disturb the lives of our fellows whether we will it or not. We do it by inactivity, as by activity. The Tolstoian "nicht-handlen" is no solution. It presupposes the possibility of an existence beyond or outside of society - which is impossible.

But the responsibility for the alternatives of social being do not rest upon us. What we are responsible for is only which course we have taken, which is the two possibilities open to us have we helped to make true.

With the fact of power, with the fact of value, and all that these two terrible facts imply, we must therefore put up with (accept). It is no use crying out against them. It is no use challenging a society because it reveals the existence of the brutal fact of power, etc. What we must challenge of the brutality of these facts. Be we can only do that effectively if we know that the fact of power itself must be accepted. (borne to us)

We must abide by the truth that we humans are condemned to live upon the freedom of our fellows, that we are condemned to live the work and toil, upon the health and life of our fellows. We are condemned to this as we are condemned to die.

But with the held of our faith we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.

But enough for this time. I felt too lonely till now to express my thoughts upon this subject.



Text Informations

KPA: 56/13, 13-17