Writing about János Kornai is next to impossible. The oeuvre is truly momentous, in terms of volume and impact alike. It extends over seven decades, it is a witness of turbulent times, and it is an independent chapter in the evolution of economic thinking. Having experimented with a variety of methods and approaches, Kornai has never become a representative of any school of thought. He was publishing pieces of heavy mathematics, and was elected to be the President of the Econometric Society in 1978 as well as to the Chair of the stronghold of formalized economic approaches, the European Economic Association in 1987. Still, it would be hard to qualify him as a mainstream author.
He was writing extensively on reforms and transition in and after Communism. Still, nobody with competence would qualify him as a reform economist or a transitologist. He was regularly commenting on something prohibited in the mainstream academe – ethical aspects of economic policy analysis. Still, he was by no means an economic philosopher.
He wrote on market socialism and on the work of some major individual scholars – but he has never meant to be a person of the history of economic thought. Still, as the President of the International Economic Association between 2002 and 2005 he was representing the broadest community of scholars in the field, working on a wide variety of divergent topics, but with a clear bent towards the mainstream. These positions do allow for many peers and observers taking him, at least in part, as a representative of neoclassicals rather than of the classical school.
Useful comments by Dóra Győrffy and Iván Szelényi on a previous version are appreciated, with the usual caveats.
Andreff, W. (2021): János Kornai: A Non-mainstream Pathway from Economic Planning to Disequilibrium Economics. Public Choice, 187(1–2), 63–84.
Békés, Cs. (2022): Hungary’s Cold War: International Relations from the End of World War II to the Fall of the Soviet Union. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Eucken, W. (1940/1992): The Foundations of Economics: History and Theory in the Analysis of Economic Reality. Berlin – Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.
Győrffy, D. (2016): Soft Budget Constraints and the Greek Tragedy. In: Hámori, B. – Rosta, M. (eds): Constraints and Driving Forces in Economic Systems. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, pp. 109–136.
Kornai, J. (with Lipták, T. – Wellisch, P.): Mathematical Planning of Structural Decisions. Amsterdam – Budapest: North Holland and Akadémiai Kiadó.
Kornai, J. (1989a): Vision and Reality, Market and the State: New Studies on the Socialist Economy and Society. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf and Routledge.
Kornai, J. (1989b): The Road to a Free Economy. Shifting from a Socialist System: The Example of Hungary. New York: W.W. Norton.
Kornai, J. (1992c): Market Socialism Revisited. In: Bardhan, P. – Roemer, J. (eds): Market Socialism – The Current Debate. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 42–68.
Kornai, J. (2000): What the Change of System from Socialism to Capitalism Does and Does Not Mean. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(1): 27–42.
Kornai, J. (2001): Paying the Bill for Goulash Communism. Boulder/Col.: Social Science Monographs/Atlantic Studies on Society in Change.
Kornai, J. (2014a): Dynamism, Rivalry and the Surplus Economy: Two Essays on the Nature of Capitalism. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.
Kornai, J. (2014b): The Soft Budget Constraint: An Introductory Study to Vol. IV of the Life’s Work Series. Acta Oeconomica, 64(S1): 25–79.
Magyar, B. – Madlovics, B. (2022): A Concise Field-Guide to Post-Communist Regimes: Actors, Institutions and Dynamics. Budapest – New York: CEU Press.
Mihályi, P. (2021): Professional and Ethical Dilemmas of Economists: In Memoriam János Kornai, 1928–2021. Acta Oeconomica, 71(4): 507–518.
Mihályi, P. – Szelényi, I. (2021): Kornai on the Affinity of Systems: Is China Today an Illiberal Capitalist System or a Communist Dictatorship? Public Choice, 187(1–2): 197–216.
Portes, R. (1989): The Theory and Measurement of Macroeconomic Disequilibrium in Centrally Planned Economies. In: Davis, C. – Charemza, W. (eds): Models of Disequilibrium and Shortage in Centrally Planned Economies. London: Chapman and Hall , pp. 27–47.
Rosta, M. – Piroska, D. (eds) (2020): Systems, Institutions and Values in East and West: Engaging with János Kornai’s Scholarship. Budapest – New York: CEU Press (E-book in 2022).
Zinner, T. (2013): Nem volt általános az amnesztia 1963-ban (Amnesty Was Not at All General in 1963). Múlt-Kor (Historical Periodical), 5 April 2013.
One of his very last reflections (Kornai 2020) was devoted to this circumstance, an issue we shall not elaborate longer.
In a typical vein, the highly original political thinker, Kornai's contemporary and a member of the revolutionary government, István Bibó (1911–1979) could never attain this. Except for one collection, his oeuvre was published in English and German only years after his death, and he could never make it into the gatherings of international top academe.
He was forced to resign during a holiday trip to Switzerland on 1 June, 1947 by the Soviet secret police, acting via the Allied Control Committee, operative from 20 January, 1945 to 15 September, 1947.
Overcentralisation has been, no doubt, the watershed. But it tended to be read by Sovietologists and comparative systems' researchers only, while ‘pure economic science’ was increasingly represented in the formalized approaches.
As the memoires (Kornai 2007) and retrospectives (Móczár 2018) underscore, Anti-Equilibrium (1971) is perhaps of more lasting theoretical value, but was faced by a frosty reception, both from the neoclassicals and contemporary (reform) communist commentators.
Personal communication by the author.
Cf. the broad edited volume by Roger A. Clarke (1989), published in the last minute before the collapse.
Acta Oeconomica celebrated with a Special Issue his 90th birthday (2018). In this Special Issue, 12 well-known economists acknowledged and evaluated Kornai's main thoughts and significance.
The collection of papers containing the critical paper cited in the main text was indeed an attempt to apply the noted advances for interpreting – the already decaying and disintegrating – socialist economy.
One of the many peculiarities of his oeuvre has been the constant revisiting of previously discussed topics, be that the soft budget constraint or market socialism. He was issuing a series of re-evaluations of his previous work, often making significant changes from the original. Only parts of these re-assessments were published in English, mostly contained in the Hungarian language Life Work series, published by the publishing house Kalligram of Bratislava.