The Carnival, Opera and the DramaThe hush of a delicious Southern winter's night lies upon the city. The temperature is neither hot nor cold, warm enough to make the open air pleasant, yet not so warm as to render exercise uncomfortable. The streets are thronged with people, thousands ranging themselves along the sidewalks, while other thousands ramble aimlessly through the thoroughfares, gazing into the windows of brightly illuminated residences, or watching admiringly the electric lights that glitter in long festoons of light overhead, framing every artery of travel in long lines of fire.
Suddenly a rocket cleaves the sky with its long, slender shaft of blazing gold. It breaks on high in a cluster of multicolored stars. Ten thousand eyes follow it in its flight. A half-audible "Ah!" runs through the waiting crowd. The restless throngs pause in their slow motion, eddy a moment, and then fall into line along the curb. They know what is coming and are prepared.
That is the way the Carnival begins. The next day or two will bring Rex to the city, with bands playing and brilliant costumes flashing in the sunshine, and then the night follows with more and dazzling display, and another day brings the gayety to its climax — afterwards the city subsides into the solemnity and repose of Lent; of its brief period of surpassing splendor nothing remains but a delightful memory. It lasts so short a while, this Carnival, and yet how many men toil throughout the year, how vast the sums of money spent, how much taste and skill and talent go to the creation of these magnificent pageants or the giving of these superb balls! There is no institution so intensely characteristic of New Orleans as the Carnival. All the romance and poetry of the city; all the gayety of its Latin blood; all its craving for light, and beauty, and grace find expression in it. Other American cities have Carnivals, but not such as New Orleans understands by that word; nor is it probable that any other American city will ever evolve anything even remotely resembling this peculiar institution. It is something to which one is born; which is a matter of temperament; which implies a complicated French, Spanish, and American ancestry — something which cannot possibly occur elsewhere.
The observance of Mardi Gras was introduced into the Crescent City in 1827 by some young Louisianians on their return from Paris, whither they had been sent to complete their education. They organized a street procession of maskers, somewhat primitive, no doubt, but sufficient of a novelty in those days to prove a great success. Every year thereafter the experiment was repeated, and each time it grew in popularity. But the celebration was quite different then from what it subsequently became. Each masker provided his own costume, there was no preliminary organization, the participants went for the most part on foot, and the music, if there was such, was hired by private subscription on the part of the various little groups of celebrants. Generally, the festivities came to an end with a ball at the St. Louis Hotel or the Salle d'Orleans, at which p721 only the élite of the aristocratic old city was present.1 Bernard Marigny, who was a typical Creole, is credited with having done much in 1833 to put the celebration upon a permanent footing.2
From these beginnings the evolution of the New Orleans Carnival may be traced along two well-defined lines quite distinct one from the other, though related in their common object. The first is the development of the open-air pageantry which is the chief attraction of the Carnival for visitors to the Crescent City, and the other is the perfecting of the unique system of masked balls which is the main feature of the Carnival for the people of New Orleans. The idea of the peripatetic tableaux was worked out first in Mobile, in 1831, by an organization known as the Cowbellions. New Orleans adopted it in 1837. The second procession took place in 1839, on which occasion the most conspicuous feature was an immense cock, •over 6 feet in height, riding in a carriage, and emitting stentorian crows, to the great delight of an appreciative crowd. Nothing more ambitious seems to have been attempted till 1857, when the Carnival, as New Orleans knows it today, came into existence with the organization of the Mystic Krewe of Comus.
Comus, which still exists, the oldest and, probably, the most important socially of the New Orleans Carnival societies, selected as the subject of its first parade Milton's "Paradise Lost." After the parade, a ball was given at the Varieties Theater, in conjunction with which a series of tableaux was presented illustrating such Miltonic themes as "The Diabolic Powers," and "The Expulsion from Paradise." The second of the Carnival organizations was the Twelfth Night Revellers, which came into existence in 1870. It continues to give an annual ball. Two other important organizations are the Knights of Momus and the Krewe of Proteus, the former organized in 1872, the latter in 1882. They, with the Krewe of Comus, always appear on the streets of New Orleans by night, and after a superb parade, entertain on a lavish scale at a ball, formerly at the French Opera House, but since the destruction of the edifice in 1919, at other places, usually the Athenaeum. It is quite probable that these balls are highly-elaborated developments of the Creole "king-parties" of colonial times; a process of merry-making, by which a young man was elected to preside over the dance, and selected his partner, or "queen," and they, jointly, became responsible for the next similar entertainment.
The daytime pageantry is supplied by Rex. The Rex Society is, essentially, the "popular" Carnival organization. It has the largest membership, spends the most money on its parades and balls, and claims a certain pre-eminence in carnival affairs. Its "king" is King of the Carnival; its "queen" is Queen of the Carnival. Rex was organized in January, 1872. The maskers who had filled the streets at Mardi Gras with their gaudy color and mirthful antics, were in that year assembled in one organization for the entertainment of the Russian Grand Duke, Alexis, who was then a visitor to the city. The bond of union thus p722 formed was sufficiently strong to hold the members in a federation which eventually became the most picturesque of the whole carnival.3
No feature connected with the Carnival is more curious than the mystery which envelops everything connected therewith. So far as the general public knows, the pageants emerge from mystery, wend their brilliant way through the streets and are then received back into the impenetrable darkness and obscurity from which they emerged. To only a few in New Orleans is it given to walk behind the impalpable but nevertheless very real screen which hides the doings of the Carnival organizations from the curious gaze of the outer world. To them the complicated machinery of the Carnival is known, and to them alone. For it is a complicated machinery, far more so than the uninitiated imagine. In that dim region where Rex and Comus and Proteus and all the others hibernate, save for a few hours in the year, there goes on a ceaseless activity, and scores of hands and brains are busy practically from the moment one parade is off the streets till it is time for its successor to appear.
This secrecy extends even to the Carnival balls. The first of these entertainments is given on January 6 by the Twelfth Night Revelers. The last is that of Comus, on Mardi Gras night. The social season is at its height in the city between those two dates. These balls are of two general kinds — those given by the parade organizations and those given by organizations which do not aspire to any more ambitious undertakings. Of the former there are four — Momus, Proteus, Rex and Comus. Rex presents certain differences from the others, differences to which allusion will be made later on in this article. The others are substantially alike. There are seven of the minor organizations — Twelfth Night, to which reference has already been made; Atlanteans, Oberons, Nereus, Mythras, Falstaffians and Olympians. These societies are, for the most part, offshoots of the older and larger organizations, and retain in miniature and with certain modifications their customs and methods.
With the exception of Rex, these balls are private affairs. The point is not very well understood, not merely by strangers in the city, but by the citizens themselves. The societies which give them consider these entertainments to be of the same nature as a banquet, a reception or a dance in some private residence. For this reason there are many restrictions upon the invitations. Each member is allotted a certain number, but is required to hand in to the invitation committee a list of names of persons to whom he desires them sent, and not until this list has been carefully inspected is it complied with. The total number of invitations is governed by the size of the building in which the ball is to be given. The French Opera House could not accommodate more than 2,500 persons. Since the burning of this hallowed structure, the balls have been given in places capable of housing only a smaller number. It will be readily understood that many people, though socially of the most desirable character, cannot obtain invitations every year to all the balls.
Every year the officers of the Carnival societies are besieged by late applicants, especially by strangers in the city, who, not appreciating the p723 nature of these entertainments, do not always see what their demands should not be complied with. In many cases large sums of money have been offered for invitations, but this method, so efficacious in nearly every other place, usually insures the refusal of the request in New Orleans. Rex, however, among the larger Carnival organizations, endeavors to provide for the stranger. This society issues nearly 15,000 invitations every year, and it is not difficult for any reputable person, newly arrived in the city, to secure a card to its ball. This generosity is for strangers only. Rex is as chary in the distribution of its favors to residents as any of the other organizations. Rex has more invitations to give, but he gives them just as carefully.
The Rex Society, which as has been said, is the largest and wealthiest of the Carnival societies, has about 400 members. The membership consists of two classes, the Royal Host and the Carnival Court. The former is made up of the older members of the organization, and comprises between 100 and 150 of the best-known citizens of the city. All they receive in return for the large financial contributions which they make to the society's exchequer, and for the time and skill which they devote to its affairs, is a gorgeously emblazoned piece of parchment conferring the title of duke and a jeweled badge, the latter of a different design each year. The Carnival Court is composed of the younger members. It is from their ranks that the "cast" is made up — it is they who figure under masks upon the Rex cars in the two day-pageants that are the features of the Carnival street displays, and at the Rex ball Mardi Gras night, at the Athenaeum.
The names of none of the members of Rex, whether Royal Host or Carnival Court, is ever made public. The only exception to this rule is in the case of the King of the Carnival. This monarch, chosen by the organization to preside over its street display and at its ball, is always a member of the Royal Host. His name is announced in the New Orleans newspapers on Wednesday morning, the first day of Lent. But in every other respect the deepest secrecy is maintained with regard to everything that pertains to the organization. This mystery is not as well kept today as it was twenty years ago, but considering the large number of persons involved, is still maintained to a surprising degree. Relatively few know where the workshops of the Carnival organizations are located, for example, and the present is the first time that any extensive account of the ultimateorganization of the Carnival has appeared in print.
There must, of course, be one representative with whom contracts can be made and other business carried on; and he necessity is more or less known to the public. In the case of Rex this official is the "manager." He is the business agent of the Society. Over him is a select committee composed of members from both the Royal Host and the Carnival Court, whose authority is all powerful. When it is time to prepare a carnival parade, Rex's manager has an interview with his artist, and receives suggestions from him as to the subject, the character of the cars, etc. For many years the Rex artist was B. A. Wikstrom, the well-known painter, who died about ten years ago. There are always twenty cars in the Rex pageant — one a "title car," one the "king's car," and the remaining eighteen illustrating some theme of general interest. Rex's policy is to choose subjects which require little or no erudition on the part of the spectators to follow; in this respect differing from the night p724 organizations, the pageants of which are sometimes decidedly learned, even abstruse.
The artist's rough sketches of the proposed pageant are submitted to the select committee, and when finally approved thereby, are referred back to him to be put in final shape. This consists in carefully redrawing the designs, one by one, according to scale, each car on its own separate sheet of paper, not over •two feet square. They are represented in full color, with the maskers in place. In this form they go to the builders. The poetry, the sentiment of the pageants, of course, represent the artist's contribution, but the translation of his designs into papier-mache, canvas, tinsel and paint — which are the essential ingredients of a carnival tableau — this is the task of the builders.
For many years a wiry Frenchman, George Soulié, called the Rex pageant into being. Latterly, he had the assistance of his son, Henry. They constitute a dynasty of Carnival craftsmen whose time was practically spent exclusively in the service of the societies. Rex has large studios in an out‑of-the‑way corner of the city, especially designed for his use, and there his cars are built. The organization owns its own vehicles — platforms •some twenty feet long and eight feet wide, mounted on wheels — resembling the trucks on which theatrical scenery is moved. They are used repeatedly, but the fairy structures which are every year reared upon them are always and entirely new.
The artist's design is, of course, flat, and indicates variations in the surface only by means of shading — of lights and darks, after the manner of all painting. The business of the builders is to erect a framework which, when overlaid with the canvas, will actually represent those variations in the plane; hence they are allowed an immense latitude, and the demand upon their ingenuity is enormous. Let us take an example; for instance, a car representing some marine scene. The design as it reaches the workmen represents the waves just as they would be represented in any other water color drawing. The surface of the water arises in a series of huge billows, but these billows are seamed with countless lesser waves, ripples, undulations. In the drawing they are mere splashes of color, vivid green, gray, brown, even black — but there is nothing to tell the builder how these effects are to be attained.
And yet the clever craftsman asks no more. In his atelier there is a large open floor. Upon this he spreads sheets of stout manila paper, pasting them together until he has a surface measuring •20 or 22 feet long by 18 wide. Then, with a brush dipped in red paint, he traces upon the paper the forms of various bits of timber which, put together, will constitute the vitals of the tableaux. These lines cross each other at all angles, but each is numbered, and can easily be followed in the maze of conflicting designs. Then the carpenters come in and, working from the pattern, prepare all these separate pieces of timber, fitting them on the tracings till they are exact duplications of the master's design. At this stage not even the carpenters can guess the eventual appearance of the car.
The next stage is to assemble the framework on the wagon. Under the supervision of the master builder each part is fitted into place. In the meantime papier-mache workers have done their part. Their productions are quickly tacked into place. Stout canvas follows, together with prodigious amounts of excelsior, rags and various other kinds of "stuffing" to round out the proportions of sea serpent or sinuous marine p725 plant. And as the canvas is fastened to the timber framework, suddenly the beholder perceives how all the innumerable billowlets which the artist in his drawing represented by hasty strokes of the brush have become actual undulations, reproducing exactly the infinite variety of the surface of the sea.
To create a car under such circumstances calls for peculiar talent and immense experience. It is because New Orleans possesses a school of Carnival craftsmen, and because they are content to devote their lives to the fabrication of Carnival pageant, that the Crescent City is unique in the success and splendor of its pageants. The thing has been tried elsewhere, and always with comparatively small success; for, easy as it may seem to the uninstructed to rear the fairy fabric of a typical Carnival "float," the task assumes quite another phase when it is actually attempted. There is a genius which goes to this as to almost every other kind of artistic endeavor; New Orleans has that genius, and it is not found anywhere else.
The same hands which build the Rex pageant create also those of the three night organizations. The work begins in May or June and proceeds at the rate of one or two cars every week. Thus in eight months eighty complete cars can be turned out. In the meantime the artist has designed the costumes, some 125 to 150 in number, which are to be worn by the maskers. The policy of Rex is to have as much of its work done in the city as possible. Formerly the costumes were made in Paris, and the jewels and masks are still manufactured in Europe, but otherwise practically everything used in the pageants is of local origin. This is not true to the same extent of the other organizations, some of which still depend upon Paris for costumes, while others put their trust in Kalamazoo and Chicago.
The chief feature of the Carnival ball is the royalties who preside over its fleeting gayeties. The "king" is actually masked, but the queen wears no disguise. Both of them are invariably costumed in the richest and most splendid style. The queen wears crown, necklace, stomacher and other ornaments exquisitely adorned with gems. The gems, it is true, are rhinestones, but they are set by European jewelers of acknowledged skill, and the effect is quite as royal as though they were genuine. This superb regalia is provided by the Carnival organization, and becomes the property of the fair wearer, a souvenir of her brief reign. She likewise is presented with the handsome cloak which she wears and frequently receives some other costly souvenir from the "king." The queens of the Carnival societies are invariably chosen from the families of members, but with this restriction the committee is entirely free to follow its own judgment in nominating her. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that no financial consideration has any weight in the choice of either king or queen. The idea which exists in some quarters that the Rex scepter is an emblem awarded in consideration of a contribution to the society's treasury is entirely without foundation. Of course, the royal honors are not likely to fall to persons financially unable to carry them off with fitting splendor, yet it must be said that Rex has always striven to curb the propensity of its kings to lavish display. It has even been proposed to fix a sum beyond which the king's expenditures may not go, but that has not yet been done.
p726 The king of the Carnival, after having been selected by the committee, remains unknown to the other members of the organization until the Saturday before Mardi Gras. He is then formally presented to his future subjects. The queen is notified by the committee, sufficiently long before the Carnival for her to prepare the splendid dress which it is her pride to wear. Rex allows his queen the privilege of choosing her court — that is, the maids and their escorts. In many of the other organizations the maids are chosen by the governing committee; in others, they are elected by the members, but in both cases they are young women who have relatives in the society. The queens, especially those of Rex, have always been local young women, and while non-residents have from time to time figured among the maids, this, even, is rare. The one conspicuous exception to this rule was the case of Miss Winnie Davis, the "Daughter of the Confederacy,"a who was queen of one of the night organizations, although she neither made her home in New Orleans nor had any relatives connected with the Carnival. Her position in Southern society, however, was unique, and the fact that she was thus honored is not held to have established a precedent.
In many respects the night organizations which give pageants are organized along lines similar to those indicated above. A few points in which they differ have already been noted. These societies are wholly controlled by the executive councils, elected by the organization. The authority of the council is to a very considerable extent delegated to the captain, who, with two lieutenants, are responsible for the creation of the pageant and the management of the ball, just as the manager is, in the case of Rex. Neither the captain nor his lieutenants receive any compensation, In their sphere these officials are all powerful. For instance, the captain selects the king — "No. 1," as he is known to the members. While the parades are on the streets the captain, masked and on horseback, may be seen riding to and fro, guiding and directing the function in its minutest detail. His is no sinecure. In fact, it is the ability of the organizations to find men of talent to undertake the duties of this office that is the second great element in the success of the New Orleans Carnival. The amount of labor, ingenuity and enthusiasm which they put into their unremunerative task is beyond the power of the public to judge, but to those who are behind the scenes, it is — it must be — a matter of perpetual admiration and amazement. The attention which is given to the minutest detail may be inferred from the fact that on occasion, when the ball illustrates some special historical incident — as for instances, when Consus, a now defunct society, represented the meeting of Henry of England and Francis of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold — the queen and her maids are required to wear costumes characteristic of the period. The young women who constituted the court at that brilliant ball were directed to arrive at the Opera House with their hair in plaits. A half-dozen hair-dressers were in attendance, and under their deft fingers the proper coiffures were built up from designs carefully prepared months before by artists working from ancient paintings brought from France.
In closing, it may be of interest to estimate what a carnival costs. The sum of course varies from year to year. As a general proposition, however, a single Carnival car may be constructed for about $800. Taking into consideration the cost of the costumes, the fees of the artists, etc., a pageant can be put on the streets for from $15,000 to $20,000. As p727 a rule, the night pageants are more expensive than those given by day. The Carnival balls cost about $4,000 each. The larger Carnival societies have budgets of about $25,000 each. It will thus be seen that the outlay for the Carnival functions, including the Twelfth Night Revelers' ball, will not fall far short of $150,000 per annum. This sum is, as I have said, drawn almost entirely from the pockets of the members. There are less than 3,000 men who belong to these organizations. The pro rata expense is, however, considerably greater than might be inferred from a comparison of these figures, as each masker permits himself to make gifts to the young ladies whom he invites to dance with him, and incurs other expenses for carriage hire, flowers, etc.
It is a fact not generally known outside of New Orleans that at one time the city boasted of the largest and most sumptuous theater in North America; that it supported the first operatic company in the United States; and that for many years it played in the theatrical world a role as important as New York does at the present time. These and many other interesting features of the musical and dramatic history of New Orleans would be widely known but for the fact that the early glories of the city, in this respect, at least, have been meagerly chronicled. No adequate account of the theaters themselves, nor of the happenings within their walls, has ever been attempted. What has come down to the present time exists in allusions scattered over the files of old newspapers, the memoirs of some of the theater managers of the long ago, a few letters, some reminiscence by old-time theatergoers — but for which the palmiest days of art in New Orleans would be a closed book.
The first dramatic performance in New Orleans dates back to the year 1791, when a troupe of comedians, under the management of Louis Tabary, came from France to New Orleans, and, having neither hall nor place for their performances, were content with appearing in parlors of private houses, and in halls which they could rent for a time. Often the artists had to present their dramas, tragedies and sketches under tents. At last, in the year 1792, they located on St. Peter Street, between Bourbon and Royal streets, in the house now bearing the number 716. At that time the population of New Orleans was not much over 5,000 white citizens. That establishment was named Le Theatre St. Pierre, and as most of the artists were refugees from France, and incarnate demagogues, they interspersed their acts with some of the songs of the Terreur, such as "La Carmagnole" and the "Ça-Ira." The disorders were such that the painting interfered, and the place was closed until the year 1803.
The first parquette in any theatre in New Orleans was put in the Theatre St. Pierre on October 23, 1806. There was some trouble between the managers and the city authorities regarding the alleged unsafe condition of the theatre, and the City Council ordered the place to be closed unless proper repairs were made. In the early part of the year 1807 the Theatre St. Pierre was closed because of a riot between some hoodlums and the police. One year later it was decided to build a real theatre, but after two years the venture proved unsuccessful and the theatre went out of existence under the sheriff's hammer in 1810.
In the meantime another theatre had been erected. In the latter part of the year 1807 a number of theatre-lovers combined to build a theatre which the best element of this city might frequent, and a site was chosen on St. Phillip Street, between Royal and Bourbon streets, on the spot now occupied by the school of that name. The cost was $100,000, and p728 Louis Tabary was elected director. The theatre opened its doors on January 30, 1808. The auditorium could accommodate 700 people, and there was a parquette and two rows of boxes. For several years the Theatre St. Philippe was the rendezvous of all the fashionable people of New Orleans. In 1814, for the first time, a ballet was given. During a performance in that year an interesting incident occurred. A captain of a vessel attended the performance on the 7th of December, 1814, and told a few friends about the return of Napoleon from his exile in Elba. The news immediately spread among the audience, and for at least a quarter of an hour the cheers for Napoleon interrupted the performance.
It was worthy of note that the first entertainment in honor of the Declaration of Independence took place at the Theatre St. Philippe, on July 4, 1810. A gala performance was given, the proceeds being devoted to the relief of sufferers by a big fire which occurred on July 1 and destroyed twenty-five houses.
In 1817 the first English dramatic and comedy troupe came to New Orleans, under the management of Mr. J. Ludlow, and he leased the Philippe for one year.
The play presented, as stated for the first time in English, was "The Honeymoon," and the cast was as follows: Duc d'Aranza, John Vaughn; Comte de Montalban, M. Plummer; Jacques, M. Morgan; Roland, N. M. Ludlow; Balthazar, M. Lucas Lampedo, M. H. Vaughn; Julienne, Mme. Vaughn; Zamora, Mme. Ludlow; Volante, Mme. Jones; Hotesse, Mme. Morgan.
Thereafter until the year 1832, when Mr. Caldwell, manager, had a brief season of English comedy, the Theatre St. Philippe declined, and it closed its doors altogether at the end of that year.
In the early part of 1809 an association was formed for the purpose of building a theatre on Orleans Street, between Bourbon and Royal, to cost about $10,000. The first play was presented on November 30, 1809, and the theatre was destroyed by fire in 1813. Another building was erected at a cost of $80,000, and it was at that time considered a most handsome theatre. Four years later a magnificent ballroom was built adjoining the theatre, the outlay being $60,000. In the year 1845 a special performance was given in honor of General Lafayette, who was then on a visit to New Orleans.
The Theatre d'Orleans, however, is remembered chiefly for its connection with the early days of opera in New Orleans. Opera was sung in New Orleans in a small way as early as 1809. It was not, however, till 1837 that serious attention seems to have been given to this form of entertainment. In that year, Mlle. Julia Calvé, a singer of great talent, made her debut at the Theatre d'Orleans, and scored a great success. Her engagement, which lasted till 1840, is considered to mark the beginning of the history of the French opera, as an institution in this city. In 1840 M. Charles Boudousquié, who subsequently became the husband of the fascinating Calvé, recruited in France the first important company of singers to visit New Orleans. They arrived on the ship "Le Vaillant," after a voyage of sixty days, and less than a week later made their appearance at the Theatre d'Orleans in Adams' "Le Chalet," Lecourt, tenor, and Victor, baritone, appearing in the cast. Boudousquié continued to direct the operatic performances at the Orleans till 1859. During that interval many important works were produced, among them "Robert le Diable," in 1840; "William Tell," in 1846; "La Juive," in 1847; "Jerusalem," p729 "Lucie de Lammermoor," and "Le Prophete," in 1850; and "Les Huguenots," in 1853.
In 1859 the Theatre d'Orleans was sold to a Mr. Parlange. Boudousquié proposed to continue the lease of the premises, but not being able to accept Mr. Parlange's terms, announced his intention of abandoning the house. Mainly through his exertions the French Opera House Association was incorporated March 4, 1859, with capital stock of $100,000, divided into 200 shares of $500 each. Boudousquié himself was largely interested in the company. Rivière Gardère was chosen president, and the first board of directors was composed of George Urquhart, E. J. McCall, Charles Kock, Gustave Miltenberger, E. Roman, C. Fellows, Charles Roman, Leon Queyrouze and Adolphe Schreiber. A site was purchased at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets, and the erection of the present building was begun on April 9, 1859. The architect was James Gallier, and the builders were Gallier & Esterbrook. The work was prosecuted by day and by night, 150 men being kept constantly on duty. The building was completed November 28, 1859, at a cost of $118,500.
In the meantime Boudousquié had, by a contract dated April 12, 1859, undertaken the lease of the new theater. He associated with himself the veteran manager, John Davis. The opera house was formally opened December 1, 1859 with "Guillaume Tell." The principal singers were Mathieu, first tenor; Escarlate, tenor of grand opera; Petit, third tenor; Melchisadek, baritone; Genibrel, first basso; Vauliar, second basso; Mme. St. Urbain, second falcon. Later during the season "Le Trouvère" and "La Fille du Regiment" were produced, and "La Tour de Nesle," "La Dame Aux Camelias," and other French plays were acted, in accordance with a tradition of which the opera had not yet been able to shake itself free. The season of 1860 was likewise successful. The same singers appeared, with the exception that Mme. Brochard replaced Mme. St. Urbain, falcon. On November 8, 1860, the opening night, "Le Barbier de Seville" was presented with Mme. Faure in the role of Rosine. Among the operas which were presented during this season were "La Favorite," "Il Trovatore," "La Juive" and "Robert le Diable." Early in 1861 Adelina Patti made her first appearance at the French Opera House, as Martha, in Flotow's opera of that name. During her engagement Patti sang also in "Les Huguenots," "Robert le Diable," "Charles VI," and "Lucie." In 1862, 1863 and 1864, on account of the Civil war, there were no performances at the Opera House. In January, 1866, an Italian troupe, under the direction of Thioni and Susini, gave a few performances. Paul Alhaiza then became director of the opera. He recruited in France a very large and capable troupe, but the entire membership was lost at sea, October 3, 1866, in the wreck of the steamer "Evening Star." Of the 250 souls on board this ill-fated vessel, only seven escaped. Among those who were lost were Gallier, architect of the opera house, his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Alhaiza, relatives of the impresario. Mr. Alhaiza was, however, able, with the assistance of several excellent artists, to open the season on November 16, when Octave Feuillet's "La Redemption," a comedy in five acts, was presented.
The law when considered as institution (the courts, with their class theatre and class procedures) or as personnel (the judges, the lawyers, the justices of the peace) may very easily be assimilated to those of the ruling class. But all that is entailed in ''the law'' is not subsumed in these institutions. The law may also be seen as ideology, or as particular rules and sanctions which stand in a definite and active relationship (often a field of conflict) to social norms; and finally, it may be seen simply in terms of its own logic, rules, and procedures - that is, simply as law. And it is not possible to conceive of any complex society without law.
The law (we agree) may be seen instrumentally as mediating and reinforcing existent class relations and, ideologically, as offering to these a legitimation. But we must press our definitions a little further. For if we say that existent class relations were mediated by the law, this is not the same thing as saying that the law was no more than those relations translated into other terms, which masked or mystified the reality. This may, quite often, be true, but it is not whole truth. For class relations were expressed not in any way one likes, but through the forms of law; and the law, like other institutions which from time to time can be seen as mediating (and masking) existent class relations (such as the church or media of communication), has it's own characteristics, its own independent history and logic of evolution.
Moreover, people are not as stupid as some structuralist philosophers suppose them to be. They will not be mystified by the first man who puts on a wig. It is inherent in the especial character of law, as a body of rules and procedures, that it shall apply logical criteria with reference to standards of universality and equity. It is true that certain categories of person may be excluded from this logic (as children or slaves), that other categories may be debarred from access to parts of the logic (as women or, for many forms of eighteenth-century law, those without certain kinds of property), and that the poor may often be excluded, through penury, from the law's costly procedures. All this, and more, is true. But if too much of this is true, then the consequences are plainly counterproductive. Most men have a strong sense of justice, at least with regard to their own interests. If the law is evidently partial and unjust, then it will mask nothing, legitimize nothing, contribute nothing to any class' hegemony. The essential precondition for the effectiveness of law, in its function as ideology, is that it shall display an independence from gross manipulation and shall seem to be just. It cannot seem to be so without upholding its own logic and criteria of equity, indeed, on occasion, by actually being just. And furthermore, it is not often the case that a ruling ideology can be dismissed as a mere hypocrisy; even rulers find a need to legitimize their power, to moralize their functions, to feel themselves be useful and just. In the case of an ancient historical formation like the law, a discipline which requires years of exacting study to master, there will always be some men who actively believe in their own procedures and in the logic of justice. The law may be rhetoric, but it need not be empty rhetoric.
We reach, then, not a simple conclusion (law equals class power) but a complex and contradictory one. On the one hand, it is true that the law did mediate existent class relations to the advantage of the rulers; not only is this so, but as the century advanced, the law became a superb instrument by which these rulers were able to impose new definitions of property to their even greater advantage, as in the extinction by law of indefinite agrarian use-rights and in the furtherance of enclosure. On the other hand, the law mediated these class relations through legal forms, which imposed, again and again, inhibitions upon the action of the rulers. For there is a very large difference, which twentieth-century experience ought to have made clear even to the most exalted thinker, between arbitrary extralegal power and the rule of law. And not only were the rulers (indeed, the ruling class as a whole) inhibited by their own rules of law against the exercise of direct unmediated force ( arbitrary imprisonment, the employment of troops against the crowd, torture, and those other conveniences of power with which we are all conversant), but they also believed enough in these rules, and in their accompanying ideological rhetoric, to allow, in certain limited areas, the law itself to be a genuine forum within which certain kinds of class conflict were fought out. there were even occasions (one recalls John Wilkes and several of the trials of the 1790s) when the government itself retired from the courts defeated. Such occasions served, paradoxically, to consolidate power, to enhance its legitimacy, and to inhibit revolutionary movements. But, to turn the paradox around, these same occasions served to bring power even further within constitutional controls.
The rhetoric and the rules of a society are something a great deal more than sham. In the same moment they may modify, in profound ways, the behaviour of the powerful, and mystify the powerless. They may disguise the true realities of power, but at the same time, they may curb that power and check its intrusions. And it is often from within that very rhetoric that a radical critique of the practice of the society is developed: the reformers of the 1790s appeared, first of all, clothed in the rhetoric of Locke and of Blackstone.
The notion of the regulation and reconciliation of conflicts through the rule of law - and the elaboration of rules and procedures which, on occasion, made some approximate approach toward the ideal - seems to me a cultural achievement of universal significance. I do not lay any claim as to the abstract, extra-historical impartiality of these rules. In context of gross class inequalities, the equity of the law must always be in some part sham. Transplanted as it was to even more inequitable contexts, this law could become an instrument of imperialism. For this law has found its way to a good many parts of the globe. But even here the rules and the rhetoric have imposed some inhibitions on the imperial power. If the rhetoric was a mask, it was a mask with Gandhi and Nehru were to borrow, at the head of a million masked supporters.
I am not starry-eyed about his at all. I am insisting only on the obvious point, which some modern Marxists have overlooked, that there is a difference between arbitrary power and the rule of law. We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions on power and the defense of the citizen from power's all intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is, in this dangerous century when the resources and pretensions of power continue to enlarge, a desperate error of intellectual abstraction. More than this, it is a self-fulfilling error, which encourages us to give up the struggle against bad laws and class-bound procedures, and to disarm ourselves before power. It is to throw away a whole inheritance of struggle about law, and within the forms of law, whose continuity can never be fractured without bringing men and women into immediate danger.
"There are 10,000 “evaluators” at Google, many of them former employees at counterterrorism agencies, who determine the “quality” and veracity of websites. They have downgraded sites such as Truthdig, and with the abolition of net neutrality can further isolate those sites on the internet. The news organizations and corporations imposing and benefiting from this censorship have strong links to the corporate establishment and the Democratic Party. They do not question corporate capitalism, American imperialism or rising social inequality. They dutifully feed the anti-Russia hysteria." - Chris Hedges
"The corporate oligarchs, lacking a valid response to the discrediting of their policies of economic pillage and endless war, have turned to the blunt instrument of censorship and to a new version of red baiting. They do not intend to institute reforms or restore an open society. They do not intend to address the social inequality behind the political insurgencies in the two major political parties and the hatred of the corporate state that spans the political spectrum. They intend to impose a cone of silence and the state-sanctioned uniformity of opinion that characterizes all totalitarian regimes. This is what the use of FARA, the imposition of algorithms and the attempt to blame Trump’s election on Russian interference is about. Critics and investigative journalists who expose the inner workings of corporate power are branded enemies of the state in the service of a foreign power. The corporate-controlled media, meanwhile, presents the salacious, the trivial and the absurd as news while fanning the obsession over Russia. This is one of the most ominous moments in American history. The complicity in this witch hunt by self-identified liberal organizations, including The New York Times and MSNBC, will come back to haunt them. When the voices for truth are erased, they will be next." Chris Hedges
"The despotism of the United States and the despotism of Israel have found an ally in the despotism of Qatar. Professed beliefs are meaningless. Israel is bonded with the regime in Saudi Arabia and the Christian right in the United States, each of which is virulently anti-Semitic. Dissidents, including Jewish and Israeli dissidents, are attacked as “self-hating Jews” or anti-Semites only because they are dissidents. The word “traitor” or “anti-Semite” has no real meaning. It is used not to describe a reality but to turn someone into a pariah. The iron wall is rising. It will cement into place a global system of corporate totalitarianism, one in which the old vocabulary of human rights and democracy is empty and where any form of defiance means you are an enemy of the state. This totalitarianism is being formed incrementally. It begins by silencing the demonized. It ends by silencing everyone." Chris Hedges
The Man from Red Vienna - -Robert Kuttner - - DECEMBER 21, 2017 ISSUE- - Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left- - by Gareth Dale - - Columbia University Press, 381 pp., $40.00; $27.00 (paper)
What a splendid era this was going to be, with one remaining superpower spreading capitalism and liberal democracy around the world. Instead, democracy and capitalism seem increasingly incompatible. Global capitalism has escaped the bounds of the postwar mixed economy that had reconciled dynamism with security through the regulation of finance, the empowerment of labor, a welfare state, and elements of public ownership. Wealth has crowded out citizenship, producing greater concentration of both income and influence, as well as loss of faith in democracy. The result is an economy of extreme inequality and instability, organized less for the many than for the few.
Not surprisingly, the many have reacted. To the chagrin of those who look to the democratic left to restrain markets, the reaction is mostly right-wing populist. And “populist” understates the nature of this reaction, whose nationalist rhetoric, principles, and practices border on neofascism. An increased flow of migrants, another feature of globalism, has compounded the anger of economically stressed locals who want to Make America (France, Norway, Hungary, Finland…) Great Again. This is occurring not just in weakly democratic nations such as Poland and Turkey, but in the established democracies—Britain, America, France, even social-democratic Scandinavia.
We have been here before. During the period between the two world wars, free-market liberals governing Britain, France, and the US tried to restore the pre–World War I laissez-faire system. They resurrected the gold standard and put war debts and reparations ahead of economic recovery. It was an era of free trade and rampant speculation, with no controls on private capital. The result was a decade of economic insecurity ending in depression, a weakening of parliamentary democracy, and fascist backlash. Right up until the German election of July 1932, when the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the pre-Hitler governing coalition was practicing the economic austerity commended by Germany’s creditors.
The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.
As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “dis-embedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society—“the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”
Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.
In The Great Transformation, Polanyi emphasized that the core imperatives of nineteenth-century classical liberalism were free trade, the idea that labor had to “find its price on the market,” and enforcement of the gold standard. Today’s equivalents are uncannily similar. We have an ever more intense push for deregulated trade, the better to destroy the remnants of managed capitalism; and the dismantling of what remains of labor market safeguards to increase profits for multinational corporations. In place of the gold standard—whose nineteenth-century function was to force nations to put “sound money” and the interests of bondholders ahead of real economic well-being—we have austerity policies enforced by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the American Federal Reserve tightening credit at the first signs of inflation.
This unholy trinity of economic policies that Polanyi identified is not working any more now than it did in the 1920s. They are practical failures, as economics, as social policy, and as politics. Polanyi’s historical analysis, in both earlier writings and The Great Transformation, has been vindicated three times, first by the events that culminated in World War II, then by the temporary containment of laissez-faire with resurgent democratic prosperity during the postwar boom, and now again by the restoration of primal economic liberalism and neofascist reaction to it. This should be the right sort of Polanyi moment; instead it is the wrong sort.
Gareth Dale’s intellectual biography, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, does a fine job of exploring the man, his work, and the political and intellectual setting in which he developed. This is not the first Polanyi biography, but it is the most comprehensive. Dale, a political scientist who teaches at Brunel University in London, also wrote an earlier book, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market (2010), on his economics.
Polanyi was born in 1886 in Vienna to an illustrious Jewish family. His father, Mihály Pollacsek, came from the Carpathian region of the Hapsburg Empire and acquired a Swiss engineering degree. He was a contractor for the empire’s growing rail system. In the late 1880s, Mihály moved the family to Budapest, according to the Polanyi Archive. He magyarized the children’s family name to Polanyi in 1904, the same year Karl began studies at the University of Budapest, though he kept his own surname. Karl’s mother, Cecile, the well-educated daughter of a Vilna rabbi, was a pioneering feminist. She founded a women’s college in 1912, wrote for German-language periodicals in Budapest and Berlin, and presided over one of Budapest’s literary salons.
At home, German and Hungarian were spoken (along with French “at table”), and English was learned, Dale reports. The five Polanyi children also studied Greek and Latin. In the quarter-century before World War I, Budapest was an oasis of liberal tolerance. As in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, a large proportion of the professional and cultural elite consisted of assimilated Jews. In the mid-1890s, Dale notes, “the Jewish faith was accorded the same privileges as the Christian denominations, and Jewish representatives were accorded seats in the upper house of parliament.”
Drawing on interviews and correspondence as well as published writings, Dale vividly evokes the era. Polanyi’s milieu in Budapest, known as the Great Generation, included activists and social theorists such as his mentor, Oscar Jaszi; Karl Mannheim; the Marxist Georg Lukács; Karl’s younger brother and ideological sparring partner, the libertarian Michael Polanyi; the physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller; the mathematician John von Neumann; and the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, among many others. In this hothouse Polanyi thrived, attending the Minta Gymnasium, one of the city’s best, and then the University of Budapest. He was expelled in 1907 following a shoving match in which anti-Semitic right-wingers disrupted a lecture by a popular leftist professor, Gyula Pikler. He had to finish his doctor of law degree in 1908 at the provincial University of Kolozsvár (today Cluj in Romania). There, he was a founder of the left-humanist Galilei Circle and later served on the editorial board of its journal.
Polanyi became a leading member of Jaszi’s political party, the Radicals, and was named its general secretary in 1918. He was drawn to the Christian socialism of Robert Owen and Richard Tawney and the guild socialism of G.D.H. Cole. He mused about a fusion of Marxism and Christianity. Polanyi is best classified as a left-wing social democrat—but a lifelong skeptic of the possibility that a capitalist society would ever tolerate a hybrid economic system.
After World War I broke out, Polanyi enlisted as a cavalry officer. When he came home in late 1917, suffering from malnutrition, depression, and typhus, Budapest was in the throes of a chaotic conflict between the left and the right. In 1918 the Hungarian government made a separate peace with the Allies, breaking with Vienna and hoping to create a liberal republic. Events in the streets overtook parliamentary jockeying, and the Communist leader Béla Kun proclaimed what turned out to be a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.
Polanyi decamped for Vienna, both to recover his health and to get off the political front lines. There he found his calling as a high-level economics journalist and the love of his life, Ilona Duczynska, a Polish-born radical well to his left. Their daughter, Kari, born in 1923, recalls, as a preteen, clipping marked-up newspaper articles in three languages for her father. At age ninety-four, she continues to help direct the Polanyi Archive in Montreal.
Central Europe’s equivalent of The Economist, the weekly Österreichische Volkswirt, hired Polanyi in 1924 as a writer on international affairs. He continued his quest for a feasible socialism, engaging with others on the left and challenging the right in ongoing arguments with the free-market theorist Ludwig von Mises. The debates, published in agonizing detail, turned on whether a socialist economy was capable of efficient pricing. Mises insisted it was not. Polanyi argued that a decentralized form of worker-led socialism could price necessities with good-enough accuracy. He ultimately concluded, Dale recounts, that these abstruse technical arguments had been a waste of his time.
A practical answer to the debate with Mises was playing out in Red Vienna. Well-mobilized workers kept socialist municipal governments in power for nearly sixteen years after World War I. Gas, water, and electricity were provided by the government, which also built working-class housing financed by taxes on the rich—including a tax on servants. There were family allowances for parents and municipal unemployment insurance for the trade unions. None of this undermined the efficiency of Austria’s private economy, which was far more endangered by the hapless policies of economic austerity that were criticized by Polanyi. After 1927, unemployment relentlessly increased and wages fell, which helped bring to power in 1932–1933 an Austrofascist government.
To Polanyi, Red Vienna was as important for its politics as for its economics. The perverse policies of Dickensian England reflected the political weakness of its working class, but Red Vienna was an emblem of the strength of its working class. “While [English poor-law reform] caused a veritable disaster of the common people,” he wrote, “Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular triumphs of Western history.” But as Polanyi appreciated, an island of municipal socialism could not survive larger market turbulence and rising fascism.
In 1933, with homegrown fascists running the government, Polanyi left Vienna for London. There, with the help of Cole and Tawney, he eventually found work in an extension program sponsored by Oxford University, known as the Workers’ Educational Association. He taught, among other subjects, English industrial history. His original research for these lectures formed the first drafts of The Great Transformation.
His mentor Oscar Jaszi was also now in exile and teaching at Oberlin. To supplement his meager adjunct pay, Polanyi was able to put together lecture tours to colleges in the United States. He found Roosevelt’s America a hopeful counterpoint to Europe. After war broke out, one of those lecture trips evolved into a three-year appointment at Bennington College, where he completed his book.
The timing of publication was auspicious. The year 1944 included the Bretton Woods Agreement, Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights, and Lord Beveridge’s epic blueprint Full Employment in a Free Society. What these had in common with Polanyi’s work was a conviction that an excessively free market should never again lead to human misery ending in fascism.
Yet Polanyi’s book was initially met with resounding silence. This, I think, was the result of two factors. First, Polanyi belonged to no academic discipline and was essentially self-taught. Dale writes that when he was finally offered a job teaching economic history at Columbia in 1947, “the sociologists saw him as an economist, while the economists thought the reverse.” Midcentury America was also a period when political economy, institutionalism, the history of economic thought, and economic history were going into a period of eclipse, in favor of formalistic modeling. Polanyi’s was not a hypothesis that could be tested.
Second and more important, Polanyi’s ideological adversaries enjoyed subsidy and promotion while he had only the power of his ideas. Mises, like Polanyi, had no academic credentials. But he conducted an influential private seminar from his post as secretary of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. The seminar developed the ultra-laissez-faire Austrian school of economics. Mises’s prime student was Friedrich Hayek. As a laissez-faire theorist financed by organized business, Mises anticipated the Heritage Foundation by half a century.
Hayek later contended in The Road to Serfdom that well-intentioned state efforts to temper markets would end in despotism. But there is no case of social democracy drifting into dictatorship. History sided with Polanyi, demonstrating that an unrestrained free market leads to democratic breakdown. Yet Hayek ended up with a chair at the London School of Economics, which was founded by Fabians; the “Austrian School” got dignified as a formal school of libertarian economics; and Hayek later won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944, was a best seller, serialized in Reader’s Digest. Polanyi’s Great Transformation sold just 1,701 copies in 1944 and 1945.
When The Great Transformation appeared in 1944, the review in The New York Times was withering. The reviewer, John Chamberlain, wrote, “This beautifully written essay in the revaluation of a hundred and fifty years of history adds up to a subtle appeal for a new feudalism, a new slavery, a new status of economy that will tie men to their places of abode and their jobs.” If that sounds curiously like Hayek, the same Chamberlain had just written the effusive foreword to The Road to Serfdom. Such is the political economy of influence.
Yet Polanyi’s book refused to fade away. In 1982, his concepts were the centerpiece of an influential article by the international relations scholar John Gerard Ruggie, who termed the postwar economic order of 1944 “embedded liberalism.” The Bretton Woods system, Ruggie wrote, reconciled state with market by “re-embedding” the liberal economy in society via democratic politics.2 The Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, a major historian of social democracy, used the Polanyian concept “decommodification” in an important book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), to describe how social democrats contained and complemented the market.
Other scholars who have valued Polanyi’s insights include the political historians Ira Katznelson, Jacob Hacker, and Richard Valelly, the late sociologist Daniel Bell, and the economists Joseph Stiglitz, Dani Rodrik, and Herman Daly. On the other hand, thinkers who seem quintessentially Polanyian in their concern about markets invading nonmarket realms, such as Michael Walzer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Albert Hirschman, and the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, don’t invoke him at all. This is the price one pays for being, in Hirschman’s self-description, a trespasser.
Having been exiled three times—from Budapest to Vienna, from Vienna to London, and later to New York—Polanyi had to move yet again when the US authorities would not grant Ilona a visa, citing her onetime membership in the Communist Party in the 1920s. They ended up in a suburb of Toronto, from which Polanyi commuted to Columbia until his retirement in the mid-1950s.
Though his enthusiasts tend to focus only on The Great Transformation, Dale’s book is valuable for his discussion of Polanyi after 1944. He lived for another twenty years, working on what was then known as primitive economic systems, which gave him yet another basis to demonstrate that the free market is no natural condition, and that markets in fact do not have to overwhelm the rest of society. On the contrary, many early cultures effectively blended market and nonmarket forms of exchange. His subjects included the slave trade of Dahomey and the economy of ancient Athens, which “demonstrated that elements of redistribution, reciprocity, and market exchange could be effectively fused into ‘an organic whole.’” Dale writes, “For Polanyi, democratic Athens was truly antiquity’s forerunner to Red Vienna.” Athens, of course, was far from socialist, but its precapitalist economy did blend market and nonmarket forms of income.
Dale also addresses Polanyi’s views on the escalating cold war and on the mixed economy of the postwar era that many now view as a golden age. The trente glorieuses, combining egalitarian capitalism and restored democracy, should have felt to him like an affirmation. But Polanyi, having lived through two wars, the destruction of socialist Vienna, the loss of close family members to the Nazis, four separate exiles, and long separations from Ilona, was not so easily convinced. While he admired Roosevelt, he considered the British Labour government of 1945 a sellout—a welfare state atop a still capitalist system.
Half a century later, that concern proved all too accurate. Others saw the Bretton Woods system as an elegant way of restarting trade while creating shelter for each member nation to run full-employment economies, but Polanyi viewed it as an extension of the sway of capital. That may also have been prescient. By the 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank had been turned into enforcers of austerity, the opposite of what was intended by their architect, John Maynard Keynes. He blamed the cold war mostly on the Allies, praising Henry Wallace’s view that the West could have reached an accommodation with Stalin.
Dale makes no excuses for Polanyi’s blind spot about the Soviet Union. At various points in the 1920s and 1930s, he notes, Polanyi gave Stalin something of a pass, even blaming the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop pact on Whitehall’s anti-Sovietism. And he was sanguine about the intentions of the Russians in the immediate postwar period. As a member of the émigré Hungarian Council in London, he broke with its other leaders over whether the Red Army should be welcomed as a harbinger of democratic socialism. The Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe, Polanyi insisted, would bring “a form of representative government based on political parties.”
Having been proven badly wrong, Polanyi cheered the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1956, yet after it was crushed by Soviet tanks he also found reasons for hope in the mildly reformist “goulash communism” that followed. This was naive, yet not totally misplaced. Though Polanyi was no Marxist, there was enough openness in Hungary that in 1963, a year before his death and well before the Berlin Wall came down, he was invited to lecture at the University of Budapest, his first visit home in four decades.
On the centennial of his birth in 1986, Kari Polanyi-Levitt organized a symposium in his honor in Budapest. The conference volume makes a superb companion to the Dale biography.4 The twenty-five short articles are written by a mix of writers based in the West and several from what was still Communist Hungary—where Polanyi was widely read. The writing is surprisingly exploratory and nondogmatic. Even so, when her turn came to speak, Polanyi-Levitt took a moment to plead: “If I may be permitted one more request to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences…it is that The Great Transformation be made available to Hungarian readers in the Hungarian language.” This was finally done in 1990. Like many in the West, the Communist regime in Budapest was not quite sure what to do with Polanyi.
Today, after a democratic interlude, Hungary is a center of ultra-nationalist autocracy. Misguided policies of financial license played their usual part. After the 2008 financial collapse, Hungarian unemployment steadily rose, from under 8 percent before the crash to almost 12 percent by early 2010. And in the 2010 election, the far-right Fidesz Party swept a left-wing government out of power, winning more than two thirds of the parliamentary seats, which made possible the “illiberal democracy” of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It was one more echo, and one more vindication, that Polanyi didn’t need.
What, finally, are we to make of Karl Polanyi? And what lessons might he offer for the present moment? As even his champions admit, some of his details were off. Earlier friendly critics, Fred Block and Margaret Somers, point out that his account of late-eighteenth-century Britain exaggerates the ubiquity of poor relief. His famous case of the poor law of Speenhamland of 1795, whose public assistance protected the poor from the early perturbations of capitalism, overstated its application in England as a whole. Yet his account of the liberal reform of the poor laws in the 1830s was spot on. The intent and effect were to push people off of relief and force workers to take jobs at the lowest going wage.
One might also argue that the failure of liberal democracy to take hold in Central Europe in the nineteenth century, which paved the way for right-wing nationalism, had more complex causes than the spread of economic liberalism. Yet Polanyi was correct to observe that it was the failed attempt to universalize market liberalism after World War I that left the democracies weak, divided, and incapable of resisting fascism until the outbreak of war. Neville Chamberlain is best remembered for his capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938. But at the nadir of the Great Depression in April 1933, when Hitler was consolidating power in Berlin and Chamberlain was serving as Tory chancellor of the exchequer in London, he said this: “We are free from that fear which besets so many less fortunately placed, the fear that things are going to get worse. We owe our freedom from that fear to the fact that we have balanced our budget.” Such was the perverse conventional wisdom, then and now. That line should be chiseled on some monument to Polanyi.
A recent article by three Danish political scientists in the Journal of Democracyquestions whether it was reasonable to attribute the surge of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s to the long arc of laissez-faire and economic collapse.5 They reported that the well-established democracies of northwest Europe and the former British colonies Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand “were virtually immune to the repeated crises of the interwar period,” while the newer and more fragile democracies of southern, central, and eastern Europe succumbed. Indeed, fascists briefly assumed power in northwest Europe only through invasion and occupation. Yet that observation makes Polanyi a more prophetic and ominous voice for our own time. Today in much of Europe, far-right parties are now the second or third largest.
In sum, Polanyi got some details wrong, but he got the big picture right. Democracy cannot survive an excessively free market; and containing the market is the task of politics. To ignore that is to court fascism. Polanyi wrote that fascism solved the problem of the rampant market by destroying democracy. But unlike the fascists of the interwar period, today’s far-right leaders are not even bothering to contain market turbulence or to provide decent jobs through public works. Brexit, a spasm of anger by the dispossessed, will do nothing positive for the British working class; and Donald Trump’s program is a mash-up of nationalist rhetoric and even deeper government alliance with predatory capitalism. Discontent may yet go elsewhere. Assuming democracy holds, there could be a countermobilization more in the spirit of Polanyi’s feasible socialism. The pessimistic Polanyi would say that capitalism has won and democracy has lost. The optimist in him would look to resurgent popular politics.
I treated the Mises-Hayek-Polanyi conflicts in “Karl Polanyi Explains It All,” The American Prospect, May–June 2014.
John Gerard Ruggie, “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,” International Organization, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Spring 1982).
Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Polity, 1990).
The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi: A Celebration, edited by Kari Polanyi-Levitt (Montreal: Black Rose, 1990).
Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning, “The Real Lessons of the Interwar Years,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 28, No. 3 (July 2017).
In the current period the contradictions of imperialism are being generalized. The cascading, successive, struggles of the oppressed peoples of the world are successfully changing the political and economic contours of the world. This is the source of the crisis of imperialism and the reason the imperialists have geared up for a permanent state of war, currently characterized as a fight against terrorism.
Nevertheless, despite all the imperialist duplicity and claims about fighting terrorism, imperialist war is being increasingly discredited as a viable solution. The economic crisis and bourgeois colonialist state response to it are exposing greater numbers of North American oppressor nation citizens to economic anxiety and political outrage.
The self-interested concerns of the North American oppressor nation citizens are real. The problem historically is that the North American population has usually united with solutions to their perceived problems at the expense of Africans and others. This is an example of the power of the ideological foundation of imperialism.
Historically the ruling class initiators and ultimate beneficiaries of this ideology have used it to promote and validate the obscene ability of whites to unite with their own white ruling class and opportunistically separate their own narrow, self-serving interests from those of the majority of the peoples of the world.
This traditional North American opportunism — the tendency to accept short-term benefits for themselves at the expense of the long-term interests of the masses of the world’s peoples — serves to protect imperialism by splitting the North American people and self-serving, self-defined progressives from the struggling peoples of the world.
However, during this period where so many of the inherent contradictions of imperialism are in a state of simultaneous convergence, we have the greatest opportunity, perhaps in history, to win a significant sector of the North American oppressor nation citizens to unity with a revolutionary solution.
In the earlier-quoted 1920 presentation at the Second Congress of the Third Communist International, Lenin addressed the question of white opportunism and its material basis with these words:
“Why is this opportunism stronger in Western Europe than in our own country [Russia]? It is because the culture of the advanced countries has been, and still is, the result of being able to live at the expense of a thousand million oppressed people. It is because the capitalists of these countries obtain a great deal more in this way than they could obtain as profits by plundering the workers of their own countries.
“It is these thousands of millions in superprofits that form the economic basis of opportunism in the [white] working class movement.”
Today, with North Americans feeling pain and often needing to respond to it, we must look for occasions to use their own pain as the starting point in the discussion, helping them in the process to recognize that although they are not accustomed to it, theirs is not a special pain.
They must be made to understand that theirs is a pain born of the very nature of a social system built and sustained by the pain of slavery, colonialism and genocide committed against the majority population of the world. The theory of African Internationalism must be taken to North Americans and Europeans.
The African People’s Solidarity Committee is the potent weapon that we will employ in this critical task. In order to be effective it is not enough to only educate the North American population to the aggressions of imperialism against Africans and others. We must develop our capacity to explain to the North American population the connection between its current crisis and the very nature of the system born of slavery, colonialism and genocide.
The African People’s Solidarity Committee must become reverse missionaries, taking real “civilization” to the white world, civilization that will help them to throw off the superstition of racial separation and superiority through recognition that their fate and their possibility of a real future will depend on their willingness to join us in destroying the failed god of a parasitic based white supremacy.
The alienated sectors of the North American people must be brought to a scientific understanding of the contradictions they themselves are facing. In other words, we must become experts in winning North Americans to solidarity based on the recognition that solidarity is the only route to creating a new system that will free them from the imperialist-designed segregation from the rest of the world and from the exploitation and other contradictions with which they attempt to contend in their imaginary isolation from the rest of us. The white population must become anti-colonialists as a matter of self-defense.
- Political Report to the Fifth Congress of the
African People’s Socialist Party
What Europeans did to other Europeans under Hitler had been practiced for hundreds of years against Africans, Indigenous and Asian peoples. No white people, including Jews, protested when Africans and other colonized people were being slaughtered by the millions by European and American powers. What was inflicted on Jews by Nazi Germany was an outgrowth of centuries of genocide against other peoples. Only when the atrocities were carried out against other white people, was any outrage registered by Europeans.
Despite experiencing some of what colonized peoples have been subjected to for so long, most jews did not stand with the oppressed. Instead they stole the land of the Palestinians and created the Israeli state. Now the fiercest imperialists in the Middle East, Jews engage in the slaughter of Islamic peoples.
The mass murder of Jews in Nazi Germany is used to further attack African people. A Jewish member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors broke into tears once when the Uhuru Movement in Oakland went before the board to protest the abuse of African children in the foster care system as genocide. Genocide only happens to Jews, she said.
Steven Spielberg once came to the nearly all-African Castlemont High School, located in East Oakland, down the street from the Oakland Uhuru House. His purpose was to force African children to watch the movie Schindler’s List.
One wonders why anyone would make a film glorifying a Nazi who saved a tiny percentage of people from death by putting them in slave labor in his factory. In any case, Spielberg and others were incensed when the Castlemont students laughed at the movie. Certainly the thought of any white people trying to tell Africans about genocide is patronizing and outright ridiculous.
Holocaust museums have opened in Washington D.C. as well as in many other U.S. cities, but the wholesale murder of Jews never took place inside the United States.
Genocide against African and indigenous people was carried out here. Jews are getting reparations by the trillions of dollars from Germany and Switzerland while reparations to African people is laughed off by white society.
Where are the Jews who are willing to use their experience in Germany as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with African and colonized people?”
-“Overturning The Culture of Violence”(2000), Penny Hess (Chairwoman of the African People’s Solidarity Committee)
''Solidarity means we wish to use those hands, long bloodied by the imperial devastation our government has wrought in our name, to contribute to the building of a new society, freed from oppression, genocide, slavery, rape and torture.
Solidarity means that we make a conscious effort to shed our opportunism.
Solidarity means that we stop trying to fight for a bigger piece of the pie for ourselves, or an elimination of conflict within a fundamentally oppressive society, and commit our lives to stand with oppressed and colonized peoples whose victory over imperialism strikes at the root of a parasitic system that endangers all of life on this planet.
Solidarity means we subordinate our short-term, narrow interests to the long-term interests of the rest of humanity, in whose liberation from white oppression we can begin to find our own genuine liberation, free from opportunism, for the first time in our history.
Solidarity for those of us who are gay, lesbian, trans or queer, or a woman, or disabled—raped by this society, beaten by this society, degraded by this society, driven to near suicide by this society—we see that our oppression takes place in the context of white power built on black oppression, and Black Power’s defeat of white power is the only roadway to a world in which we ourselves are free to live and prosper peacefully and happily. Black Power is people’s power, the power of NO OPPRESSION.
Solidarity with African liberation is our engagement in the creation of a humane, just and peaceful future.''
-African People's Solidarity Committee- Uhuru Movement - #Omalitaughtme
"First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
— "Letter from a Birmingham jail," 1963