Labour is only another name for a human activity that goes with life itself. . .To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of their purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity ‘labour power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting the human individuals who happen to be the bearers of this particular commodity. In disposing of man’s labour power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective cover of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation.

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

The central problem addressed in this essay is why the most successful model of economic and social reconstruction in world history has been ignored in Eastern Europe.footnote1 The West German postwar settlement combined the creation of a sustainable and efficient market economy, liberal-democratic institutions and parties, the development of a welfare state based on certain ideals of justice and the institutionalization of trade-union responsibilities. Why has the social-market model in general, and codetermination in particular, been ignored as a necessary part of the transition from a closed to an open society? This question is all the more puzzling as the four conscious goals of Polish transition, a) the construction of a market economy with recognized property rights; b) the establishment of legitimate democratic political institutions and parties functioning within a framework of rights enforced by law; c) the creation of social stability through the establishment of minimal standards of justice and fair public procedures; and d) the integration of the country into Western Europe, were all achieved by the Federal Republic of Germany after the Second World War. Thus the model exists in the most politically powerful and economically successful state in Europe, which is also a directly neighbouring country. The question is all the more pressing as the principal agent of Communism’s rejection, the Solidarnosc union, was based precisely upon those values of Catholic syndicalism characteristic of the West German consensus, of which the most fundamental idea was that the precondition of economic reconstruction is effective societal restoration.footnote2 It will be argued that Karl Polanyi’s concept of the market utopia described in The Great Transformation is the best available starting point for trying to explain this weird state of affairs.footnote3 Polanyi’s work provides resources for an explanation of how it came to happen that a workers’ movement became the guarantor of a reform programme that removed unions, solidarity and justice from Polish politics leading to the re-emergence of the Communist Party as the principal defender of labour. Polanyi’s two general laws of transformation will be developed and then applied in the second half of the essay.

This section has three purposes. The first is to define the basic elements of Polanyi’s system, most particularly the role of labour in the reproduction of a culture. The second is to develop his analysis of Speenhamland and the consequent introduction of a free market in labour and to show that it is of comparative relevance in understanding the transition from Bolshevism to a market society in Poland. Paternalist authoritarianism, it will be argued, is a precondition of societal commodification. The third purpose is to emphasize the importance of reason in the framing of agendas, and the fundamental role that feasibility plays as a force in mobilizing political support.

To separate labour from the activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.footnote4