Actually, he seems like a very nice guy, a scholar in love with economics and with a mild social democratic inclination. As mentioned in a previous post, I have just (belatedly) read his memoirs, By Force of Thought. He went through a fascinating transformation in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1956 (Hungary), and I’m sympathetic to many of his insights into economic theory and methodology. By any standard, he is a giant within the discipline.
Nevertheless, I also found that his self-examination revealed for me the source of his dogmatism during the crucial transition period of the early 1990s. Readers may recall that Kornai was one of the loudest voices for the view that there could be no middle way, that ex-communist countries had to embrace private enterprise capitalism without holding back, so that one day they might be in a position to soften the edges and introduce the elements of a more mixed economy. As one of those labeled naive by Kornai, I tried to imagine a different path.
Now I understand where he was coming from. The man had fallen out of love with Marx, his teenage crush, but he kept faith all his life with the platonic impulse in Marx—the inclination to see the world as simply the special case of essences like capitalism, socialism, or other overarching orders. Just as Marx wanted us to exit from the universe of capitalism into the alternate realm of socialism, Kornai wants us to go in the other direction. For him there could be no in-between; it is a matter of replacing one mode of production with another.
In my view, this compartmentalist perspective is one of Marx’ most pernicious creations. Before his time, only utopians imagined such ruptures; after Marx it became respectable social science. Here is not the place to dispute it, but I strongly question the premise on which this approach is based; I do not see any fundamental discontinuities between social systems. Lumpiness, yes, but that is the case within as well as between. For me, a public library is a communist institution in a capitalist world. Organize more goods into the form of libraries and you shift the balance between communism and capitalism. I see nothing to be gained from positing that a library in capitalism is a different beast from a library in some other mode of production. I’m not arguing against system-level forces, just against the view that there are just a few predetermined configurations of economic and political life, hardened against the step-by-step alteration of detailed institutions and policies. But Kornai explicitly takes the opposite stance and credits Marx for it.
It’s a shame. He threw out much of the good stuff in Marx, his many insights into production and financial systems earned from long hours at the British Museum, and kept the most questionable. But he seems like someone you would like to discuss this with over a good meal and a bottle of wine.