The Cause of War and Role of People by Karl Polanyi: A Change in Realm of International Relations after The Great Transformation

Takato KASAI


Abstract. The enormous impacts of WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression made Karl Polanyi write a famous book, The Great Transformation (TGT). In it, he wrote about the 'collapse of nineteenth-century civilisation', and clarified the causes and development of civilisation from the perspective of international relations and economic history. ‘Nineteenth-century civilisation’ is located in the centre of his international relations theory, and his ‘institutional system’ comprises of four elements: 1) a self-regulating market, 2) balance-of-power, 3) the international gold standard, 4) and the liberal state. In addition economic thought, Polanyi continued developing his international relations theory in Britain as evidenced by examination of a fresh record, a short booklet issued by the Worker’s Educational Association in the 1940s just after the publication of TGT. First, Polanyi emphasises the political and geographic causes of war instead of economic causes.TGT explains war arises from financial problems, especially the abandonment of the international gold standard system. On the other hand, ‘power vacuum’ is stressed as the origin of war in the booklet. While his civilisation theory presumes the political expansion of each country, the power vacuum theory does not make this supposition. This implies a change in his view to an unwanted war arising from a breakdown in the balance of power. In addition, he described diplomatic alliances as a method to prevent wars. To prevent war, Polanyi insists that people need to be engaged in civil society. This explains his belief that democracy achieved by national integrity is sovereign in our society. Informed citizens can consider government and other authorities imperfect without repercussion and still work towards national unity. Following this logic, socialism is neither centralised nor repressive, but is composed by citizens as a liberal institution.

Keywords. Karl Polanyi, Workers Education Association, Economy and War, Civil Society.

JEL. B24, B32, B52.


Karl Polanyi; Workers Education Association; Economy and War; Civil Society.

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