The Great Transformation at 75

To mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Great Transformation, Bennington College will convene a global group of scholars and engaged intellectuals to think more deliberately about how Karl Polanyi’s intellectual legacy can help us to develop 20/20 vision—a more generative and generous analysis of the human predicament on the eve of a new decade.

Polanyi cover
Karl Polanyi and Ilona Duczynska, in Kent, United Kingdom, 1939 (photo courtesy of Kari Polanyi Levitt)

Nearly seventy-five years ago, Karl Polanyi penned one the twentieth century’s most incisive works of scholarship: The Great Transformation. As an émigré fleeing Nazism, Polanyi witnessed a world falling apart as global depression, fascist regimes, and resurgent racism metastasized into worldwide terror. Finding intellectual sanctuary at Bennington College, Polanyi worked out a bold diagnosis of what had gone wrong in The Great Transformation, and of how modern society might be rebuilt upon a more equitable foundation.

Who is Karl Polanyi?

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was an Austro-Hungarian thinker whose work provided a path-breaking analysis of the origins and evolution of market societies. His approach to understanding the relationship between politics and the economy has proven influential in the development of numerous fields of study, including economic history, economic sociology, economic anthropology, and historical sociology. In addition to The Great Transformation (1944), he co-published the influential edited volume, Trade and Market in Early Empires (1957). Polanyi served as editor of Der Österreichische Volkswirt (“the Austrian Economist”), and taught at the Workers’ Education Association, Bennington College, and Columbia University. 

Today, Polanyi's powerful analytic framework and political project are more relevant than ever. The past decade has seen the rise of fiercely anti-democratic forces, the forced displacement of millions of people, proliferating threats of spectacular and intimate violence, troubled national and global economies marked by growing inequality, explosions of parochial hatred and insurgent racism, and a deepening planetary crisis as the uneven impact of climate change intensifies. The Great Transformationboth in the stunning clarity of its vision and in the sweeping scale of its synthesisoffers an instructive model of the kind of scholarship so urgently needed today: scholarship that can confront the cascading fractures and synergies that enliven human inequity and endanger our world, and also chart ways past them.

Why Bennington College?

In July 1940, the President of Bennington College, Robert Leigh, wrote to the publisher W.W. Norton, asking him to forward the names of refugee scholars who had been forced to leave Europe, and who might benefit from spending a year at Bennington as “honorary fellows of the college.” Later that week, the organizational theorist Peter Drucker, himself a refugee, contacted Leigh with a request to bring a little-known scholar from Vienna to the college. Karl Polanyi arrived at Bennington in early Fall 1940 for a short-term lectureship funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which was subsequently extended, allowing him to remain until 1943. While in residence, Polanyi gave a series of public lectures that offered a bold new interpretation of what had gone wrong as the world fell into unprecedented turmoil. Soon Polanyi was hard at work transforming these early thoughts into what became his magnum opus, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. As the war and the manuscript both neared completion in 1944, Polanyi left the final revisions in the hands of colleagues at Bennington College as he rushed back to Europe to put his stunning synthesis to work rebuilding the world.

Conference Schedule

Coming soon


Kate Aronoff | Writer/Journalist, Climate and American Politics | In These Times, The Intercept

Brigitte Aulenbacher | Professor, Sociological Theory and Social Analysis | Johannes Kepler University, Linz

Fred Block | Professor, Sociology | University of California, Davis

Michael Burawoy | Professor, Sociology | University of California, Berkeley

Eve Chiapello | Professor, Economic Sociology and History of Criticism | L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales

Gareth Dale | Senior Lecturer, Social and Political Science | Brunel University London

Peter Evans | Professor Emeritus, Sociology | University of California, Berkeley

Nancy Fraser | Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor, Philosophy and Politics | The New School for Social Research

Angela Harris | Professor Emerita, Law | University of California, Davis School of Law

Amy Kapczynski | Professor, Law | Yale University Law School

Greta Krippner | Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Sociology | University of Michigan

Robert Kuttner | Co-Founder and Co-Editor | The American Prospect; Professor, Public Policy | Brandeis Heller School

Marguerite Mendell | Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs | Concordia University

Andreas Novy | Associate Professor, Institute for Multilevel Governance | Vienna University of Economics and Business

Kari Polanyi-Levitt | Professor Emerita, Political Economy | McGill University, Montreal

Dani Rodrik | Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy | Harvard University

James Scott | Sterling Professor of Political Science, Professor of Anthropology | Yale University

Margaret Somers | Professor Emerita, Sociology | University of Michigan 

Claus Thomasberger | Professor, Economics, International Relations | Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin

Fred Wherry | Professor, Sociology | Princeton University