The early Karl Polanyi: Interpreting “Socialist Accounting”

karl-polanyiWe are all Polanyians now.
Karl Polanyi is probably one of the most famous theorists among social scientists today. It is almost impossible not to come across Polanyi’s citations and references in a very wide range of researches over the last two decades and erudite political debates following the 2008 financial crisis. His works – primarily, the canonical The Great Transformation (1944) – have constantly inspired students and scholars (including the writer of these lines) and intellectually propelled the development of disciplines – first and foremost, the rebirth and rise of Economic Sociology. A survey on the top ten books of the last 100 years conducted among more than 3,000 economists gave the prominent The Great Transformation second place.

In light of Polanyi’s prominence in the contemporary academic arena, especially in regards to his well-elaborated and commonly known thesis refuting the erroneous notion of the naturalness and universality of so-called “free-market” economy, it is very interesting to look at the early Karl Polanyi in order to trace his own intellectual journey in a unique socio-political context and scientific fields he lived in.
After witnessing in Hungary the flourishing of workers’ councils, the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet, and the success of counter-revolutionary “White Terror”, in 1919 Polanyi left for Vienna, where he learned about the local municipal socialism and took part in popular and academic polemics. In 1922 he wrote an article “Socialist Accounting” (“Sozialistische Rechnungslegung”) which allows to
 enrich our understanding of Polanyi’s thinking in new and surprising ways. Although this article has been occasionally summarized and discussed, it was not translated into English – until now. Therefore we are indebted to Ariane Fischer, David Woodruff and Johanna Bockman who took initiative and presented in the recent issue of Theory and Society a high-quality translation of “Socialist Accounting”; this was not an easy task because its text, in contrast to Polanyi’s other work, is wordy and seldom obscure.
Polanyi, which in the early 1920s worked within the debates of marginalist economics, has embraced accounting as a tool for socialism–a world in which the economy is subordinated to society. In this article, he laid out his model of a future socialism and sought to demonstrate that economic calculation was indeed possible in socialist regime. Explaining the historical critique of capitalism and the basic requirements of socialism emerging from this critique, Polanyi derived the two main goals of socialism: maximum productivity and social justice.
Accompanying this translation is the preface titled “Socialism and the Embedded Economy” by Johanna Bockman (George Mason University). In this thought-provoking analysis, Bockman sketches the historical framework of Polanyi’s article and its significance to the socialist calculation debate, the social sciences, and socialism more broadly. Based on her reading of the accounting and society that Polanyi offers, Bockman argues that scholars have too narrowly used Polanyi’s work to support the Keynesian welfare state to the exclusion of other institutions, have too broadly used his work to study social institutions indiscriminately, and have not recognized that his work shares fundamental commonalities with, and often unacknowledged distinctions from, neoclassical economics.
“Socialist Accounting” and Bockman’s interesting and illuminating commentary on this original text take us a step forward in understanding of Karl Polanyi’s intellectual scholarship as well as his view of a kind of socialism that he would remain committed to his entire life.
Polanyi concluded “Socialist Accounting” with great passion. Let us follow him; since we are all Polanyians now…  Are we? 

Humanity will only be free when it understands what it must pay for its ideals. Only then will humanity come to recognize that the realization of these ideals depends exclusively on humanity itself…. For only when the connection between the sacrifices to be made and the progress we hope to achieve along the path to the realization of our ideals becomes visible in a direct, verifiable form, specifiable down to the minutest quantities, can we as humans develop the drive to walk the upward path unwaveringly, to adapt this path to our capacities, and to proceed with joy and satisfaction.” (Polanyi 2016: 416).

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