Polanyi's The Great Transformation is truly a masterpiece of historical analysis and social theory. Polanyi deftly uses his extensive knowledge of economic history, anthropology, and political theory to demonstrate the failure of "market society" and the myopia of those who believe that the "free" market is the answer to all social ills. He's at his best when he combines his historical analysis of 18th and 19th century capitalism -- an experiment with a free market economy that resulted in the Great Depression and world war -- with anthropological data showing that there is no innate human propensity to engage in trade or accumulate wealth at the expense of others. Conservatives and libertarians hate this book because it thoroughly undermines their claims that markets are natural, spontaneous, and reflect the uncoerced interaction of free agents; the reviewer below who gave it 1 star is a case in point (he argues that "Polanyi fails to understand the essential nature of a free market, voluntary trade for mutual benefit," but the problem isn't that Polanyi doesn't understand such a concept but rather that he shows it isn't true). Other critics like to misrepresent Polanyi's arguments and paint him as a Marxist, a romantic, or an opponent of modernity; in reality, he was merely pointing out how devastating it is when every aspect of human life is left up to the market, with its cold logic of efficiency.
The Great Transformation is an exceptionally lucid and well-researched study that should be required reading for anyone interested in economics, social theory, political history, or international relations. Some reviewers have suggested that the book is outdated, but anyone interested in the current debates surrounding free trade, the IMF/World Bank, or Social Security privatization would be wise to pick up a copy of this fascinating book.