The Polanyis: by Peter Drucker

Those interested in my article on Polanyi might be interested in the chapter of Peter Drucker’s memoirs on the Polanyis. An amazing lot whom he introduces thus:

The Polanyis – father and children – were the most gifted family I have ever known or heard of. They were also the most achieving family; every one of them had success and impact. But what made them truly remarkable was that all of them, beginning with the father in Victorian days and ending with Karl and his brother Michael in the 1960s, enlisted in the same cause: to overcome the nineteenth century and to find a new society that would be free and yet not “bourgeois” or “liberal” 1; prosperous and yet not dominated by economics; communal and yet not a Marxist collectivism. Each of the six, the father and five children—and the mother as well—went his or her own quite separate way, but each in search of the same goal. They reminded me of the Knights of the Round Table setting out in search of the same Holy Grail, each in a different direction. Each one found an “answer”—and each then realized that it was not “the answer.” I know of no family that was so successful, measured by the standards of the world, and such a failure when measured by its own expectations. But I also know of no family in which every member was so full of life, of interest, of vital energy.

On a bit more digging one discovers that his account is notoriously unreliable. Nevertheless he got the little he wrote on Michael mostly right (though Michael Polanyi wasn’t Einstein’s assistant as he claims and it never occurred to me that he was an advocate of stoicism, even if such a characterisation isn’t obviously wrong), but his vision of the Polanyis as each embarked on the same project only to fail against their hopes rings true at least for Karl and Michael. 

And it reminds one of how the intellectual story of the 1930s is the attempt to find some acceptable synthesis of individualism and collectivism. I’m reminded of the story I was told by a British journalist posted in Singapore for many years who waited till he got Lee Kwan Yew on his own in a press conference, or perhaps after the press conference had dissipated and asked him “why did you use the British Union of Fascists’ logo for the People’s Action Party of Singapore?”. Lee responded “I changed the colours”.

In any event, the story Drucker tells is certainly a remarkable, and if some important elements have been made up – well he was a management consultant. The chapter can be downloaded from this link.

  1. for which we can substitute laissez-faire[]
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paul frijters
paul frijters
3 years ago

A fascinating family. Brilliant and barking at the same time!

Jerry Roberts
Jerry Roberts
3 years ago

Thanks for the Drucker link. Karl Polanyi and Drucker himself emerge as quite different characters than I had imagined from their books. I wonder if Karl maintained a Hungarian accent. His written English is magnificent. That was a winning point in his contest with Hayek. The Great Transformation is such a good read. I came to Karl Polanyi via a reference in a review of a book critical of Thatcher. I hope young students are being introduced to this brilliant family. Drucker’s comment on Karl’s state of mind during the 1930s is interesting. There is a recent paperback collection of his essays from this period. Brother Michael will be my Christmas reading. I only know of him as a mention in the Mont Pelerein Society.