To Michael (22 August 1941)

From Karl Polanyi
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My sweet brother, if I could devote myself as fully as I did to the task of building up my family life again, and preparing for creative work at the same time, this was to a great extent due, of this I am certain, to your loving help. It gave the finishing touch to my feelings of security to know Ilona in your keeping, and without that feeling of perfect security I may have well been unable to achieve anything.

A somewhat similar feat of silent loyalty was performed by Oxford i.e. be E.E Cartwright, who backed me steadfastly and without any questions asked thro’ all the vicissitudes of inevitably obscure situations.

By what men call chance I met in President Leigh of Bennington College a person of such genuine liberalism as would readily risk the costs of harbouring at his College a man like myself. Although Leigh suddenly resigned his post, my position is, paradoxically enough, rather strengthened than weakened by the change. The inevitable reconstruction of the College makes me rank almost as a part of the Old Guard, and the appointments made by the new President indicate that he does not wish to prejudge the question of my remaining or not in Bennington after my Fellowship year 1941/42, during which I will have no teaching obligations at all at the College. As you know, I am not member of the faculty, but Resident Lecturer and Fellow, with no commitment on the part of the College what so ever to keep me on the campus after the lapse of my second Fellowship year (I call it second as it is my second year a Bennington, thought it is actually my first Rockefeller Fellowship year. In the first year the College merely paid me lecture fees to the total amount of 1250 dollars. But for my earnings in the Fall lecturing job for the Institute, I would not have been able to sustain my costly efforts at resettlement).

My Fellowship has only quite recently been made definite, the College receiving a grant of 2400 dollars in order to enable me to study the political and economic origins of the world dilemma, as they put it. The reference is, as you will note, neither to research nor does it keep within one of the recognized disciplines but cuts across at least (two) of them. This is a distinct departure from tradition and was due to Walter W. Stewart’s conviction of the need for broader approaches, and of his most fortunate impression that I was the person with whom to start the break. […]

My book is very much what it was when I came to this country, except that its unwritten text has since withstood the test of my Bennington seminar on this subject as well as several weeks of research at Columb this Summer, especially in the Seligman Library which contains a number of 18th century pamphlets. I will probably call is ANATOMY OF THE 19th CENTURY. Political and Economic Origins of the Cataclysm. The main thesis is that the Cataclysm was due to matters of an economic order, the last 150 years having been eminently an age of economic determination. This again was due to the manner in which our industrial society was organized, entailing as it did, the separation of the economic and the political sphere. Together with the more and more important institutional separation of the national and international sphere (closely linked with the former), we get something like a system of four interdependent institutional spheres each of them supposedly self-regulating or at least comparatively autonomous. The basic assumption viz, that of an autonomous, self-regulating economic sphere was, however, utopian mainly because land, labor and money could not actually be regulated by the market mechanism alone, as this would have caused the destruction of the social fabric itself i.e. the human beings, the natural resources and the enterprises. The consequent self-protection of society was therefore in a very real sense inevitable, resulting though as it is self-regulative capacity of the market. Here lies the origin of the typical strains and stresses which developed between the four typical institutions: (1) market economy (2) popular government (3) Gold standard and (4) Balance of Power System. The typical strains were (1) unemployment (2) pressure on exchanges (3) class tension and (4) imperialism. They developed in consequence of the imperfect self-regulation of the supposedly independent spheres, and account for the patent events in the realm of universal history in his period. Most of this will be familiar to you from the outline of my Morley College Lecture Syllabus for 1939/40 on Contemporary Problems and Social and Political Theory as it was hideously termed. Still the Theory of the Four Strains and Stresses is an elaboration of the Theory of the Four Institutions which makes it somewhat clearer in what manner this theory could be used as organon or instrument of analysis as to the main trends and events of the last generation, if not of the last two generations.

I wonder what George[1] would think of all this. I hope I am not giving away any secrets when I say that I got a real kick out of his Oxford rumblings, though they did give me the uncomfortable feeling that our generation is thoroughly passe, their economics at least being so much poorer than those of the youngsters. On this point I must offer my exceeding apologies to you. The Keynesian school has proved fruitful. Within the last 10 years practically 2/3 rds of economic theory have been superceeded by highly effective new procedures and constructions. I have been studying both Robinsons, Haberler, Roberton, Harrod, Meade, Chamberlain. Keynes it seems to me is an other Paracelsus Theophrastus Bombassus de Hohenfels, all important, unintelligible, superbly inspiring, and entirely useless in himself. He overcame the alchemy of the equilibrium theory with the help of a weird realism, very much as Paracelsus did, although very few scholars would care to use his medicines today. However, this is neither here nor there. Meade is going to be the Common Prayer Book of the New Dealers if and when they matue to the use of theory, of which they have none.

My total outlook is very much what it was. I continue to believe that in this age of transformation we are getting beyond economics again, and that that for this reason nothing is more essential than the non-economic principles on which we order our lives. Christianity is not democratic; nor is democracy Christian. And yet nothing could be more relevant to the understanding, of the actual principles underlying 19th century Western civilization than the fact that Nazism cannot avoid a radical attack on Christianity. Russian socialism is merely a Christian heresy; it has no separate and independent sources of meaning and interpreting. The Pope has shown supreme clarity of insight in drawing the line between the conservatives and the revolutionaries as he did. I myself increasingly tend towards the conservative position on account on my genuine concern for liberty which I do not contempt (no Ilona never sent your book, nor did she tell me that you had sent me a copy). But not Eight Points conservatism[2]. That world is dead as mutton. Perhaps a new Holy Alliance for the Continent is right and inevitable, but another 1795-1835 English repression period only this time on a world scale should be avoid at all costs. The objective factors forcing our society towards integration are entirely outside our control (just as 1832 was unavoidable in 1795, speaking of England). But this integration must be achieved on a democratic basis, because in the sphere of general institutions it is democracy which expresses the requirements of a Christian interpretation of life most closely. Democracy both in the sense of common human equality, and of free discussion and liberty of conscience.

I must write to John[3] again; perhaps he never received my letter, or didn’t know yet what to do with it. By the time you get this all relevant decisions about Ilona’s coming will, I suppose, have been taken. I expect the Stat Department to communicate its decision tomorrow. But you know about these matters from Ilko[4]. I am now very hopeful of seeing them sometimes in September. Financially, the costs of the Clipper would be easily carried be her salary.

On the other hand, if she cannot get Clipper she may have to resign, as it would not be possible to expect the College to put with the serious embarrassment of the delay. My own position cannot fail to be affected by the way this matter is treated, especially as it was entirely left to me to see to it that everything goes straight. I very much hope that they do not fail to get it on account of financial considerations on their part. These would be no only out of place, but even false as a matter of accountancy. However, I am afraid that they might no have a claim to the Clipper anyway, and that other considerations have no room to enter. All this, I hope, is post festum; but even so it might help to explain the line I took on the matter.

Another time I will try to go into American foreign policy, which is almost as difficult to understand as English foreign policy. But I think I have got the feel of it, and am very confident in the long run.

Ever, Karli

I am tremendously impressed by George[5]. His intellect, the power of his personality, and its charm are entirely exceptional. You must congratulate Magda from me to such a son.

Editors' Notes

  1. Polanyi? See above.
  2. What does P. mean with this?
  3. Who could be John?
  4. Surname of his wife, Ilona Duczynska.
  5. First Michael and Magda Polanyi's son and Karl's nephew. Born in 1922, he is 19 years-old at this time. He died at 53, in 1975, a year before his father.

Letter Informations

Source: MPP?
Other Languages:

Lg Name
FR A Michael (22 août 1941)