Dale applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, and reported the following:
Of the several twentieth century phenomena that this book re-visions through the biography of the Austro-Hungarian sociologist, Karl Polanyi, the most prominent is the story of social democracy. It is no surprise, then, that page 99 finds our protagonist immersed in the theory and actuality of Red Vienna.Learn more about Karl Polanyi at the Columbia University Press website.
Following his childhood and youth spent in Budapest, Polanyi returned to Vienna, his place of birth in 1919. It was a momentous year, in which conflicts roiling European politics merged with his own private hell. The First World War had spat him out—injured, typhus-ridden and perilously depressed—before its end. His move to Vienna was motivated by medical need, but any prospect of return was ruled out when Admiral Horthy’s fascists assumed power in Budapest, following the demise of the short-lived socialist ‘Commune.’
In this cauldron, Polanyi’s worldview underwent an abrupt transformation. He found God and converted to Christianity. He diagnosed the traumatic events on the world stage as symptoms of a spiritual crisis, but one with a secular root: the corrosive and relentless expansion of the market economy. This leap required a change in political outlook, too. He moved away from his earlier Smithian ‘liberal socialism’ and engaged with more radical currents: British ‘guild socialism’ and its Central European cousin, Austro-Marxism.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Austro-Marxist project are encapsulated on page 99. Vienna on Polanyi’s arrivalwas in the throes of a popular renaissance. Thanks to the assumption of municipal power by social democracy a remarkable shift had occurred. Kindergärten, libraries and adult education programmes were expanded, and a plethora of cultural associations were established. On any given day, a worker might read a socialist newspaper, take part in mass calisthenics or attend a lecture on the socialist implications of the theory of relativity, while her husband attended a socialist chess club or gardening group. Polanyi was particularly impressed by Red Vienna’s initiatives in the fields of culture and educational reform. When a young activist in Budapest he had been engaged in workers’ education, and in this respect the Austro-Marxists spoke his language. Education was central to their project, which has been described as one of transforming the working classes into ‘a socialized humanity through a politics of pedagogy.’Whereas Polanyi’s eye was on the mass appeal of social democracy, that of his wife, Ilona Duczynska, was on its elitist propensities, as social democratic parties evolved into the managerial agents of a profoundly elitist system, capitalism. The upshot, discussed in the book’s epilogue, has been a detachment of social democracy from its traditional base, punctuated by occasional upwellings—as witnessed most recently in the Sanders and Corbyn phenomena.