The Provocative Joan Robinson: The Making of a Cambridge Economist

The Provocative Joan Robinson: The Making of a Cambridge Economist

by Nahid Aslanbeigui, Guy Oakes

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One of the most original and prolific economists of the twentieth century, Joan Robinson (1903–83) is widely regarded as the most important woman in the history of economic thought. Robinson studied economics at Cambridge University, where she made a career that lasted some fifty years. She was an unlikely candidate for success at Cambridge. A young woman in


One of the most original and prolific economists of the twentieth century, Joan Robinson (1903–83) is widely regarded as the most important woman in the history of economic thought. Robinson studied economics at Cambridge University, where she made a career that lasted some fifty years. She was an unlikely candidate for success at Cambridge. A young woman in 1930 in a university dominated by men, she succeeded despite not having a remarkable academic record, a college fellowship, significant publications, or a powerful patron. In The Provocative Joan Robinson, Nahid Aslanbeigui and Guy Oakes trace the strategies and tactics Robinson used to create her professional identity as a Cambridge economist in the 1930s, examining how she recruited mentors and advocates, carefully defined her objectives, and deftly pursued and exploited opportunities.

Aslanbeigui and Oakes demonstrate that Robinson’s professional identity was thoroughly embedded in a local scientific culture in which the Cambridge economists A. C. Pigou, John Maynard Keynes, Dennis Robertson, Piero Sraffa, Richard Kahn (Robinson’s closest friend on the Cambridge faculty), and her husband Austin Robinson were important figures. Although the economists Joan Robinson most admired—Pigou, Keynes, and their mentor Alfred Marshall—had discovered ideas of singular greatness, she was convinced that each had failed to grasp the essential theoretical significance of his own work. She made it her mission to recast their work both to illuminate their major contributions and to redefine a Cambridge tradition of economic thought. Based on the extensive correspondence of Robinson and her colleagues, The Provocative Joan Robinson is the story of a remarkable woman, the intellectual and social world of a legendary group of economists, and the interplay between ideas, ambitions, and disciplinary communities.

Editorial Reviews

E. Roy Weintraub
“This is a remarkable book. It is the first attempt of which I am aware to deal with the complexity of Joan Robinson’s contributions to Cambridge economics in the 1930s. Robinson is an iconic figure, and a series of legends—mostly created by Robinson herself in a complex process of personality and career formation—makes such a historical reconstruction necessary. ‘Necessary’ is the right word, since the entire history of what is now called macroeconomics, and a number of elements of the history of neoclassical economics in the pre–Second World War period, have been told from the perspective of Cambridge, England, by individuals engaged in defending the Cambridge tradition.”
Steven G. Medema
The Provocative Joan Robinson is an engaging, insightful, and highly original treatment of a significant figure and community in the history of economics.”

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The Provocative Joan Robinson

The Making of a Cambridge Economist
By Nahid Aslanbeigui Guy Oakes

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4538-1

Chapter One

The Improbable Theoretician


"I am extremely relieved that the matter of Joan's lectureship looks like being settled." This was Keynes writing on February 19, 1938, from his home in London in response to news from Kahn that Robinson had been appointed to a university lectureship in economics at Cambridge (JMK/L/K/94-96). Although Kahn's letter ended Keynes's worries over her candidacy, his delight was hardly unqualified. He had neither participated in the deliberations of the Faculty Board of Economics and Politics that recommended the appointment nor was he consulted. During its meetings on the lectureship in January and February, he was convalescing from a heart attack suffered the previous summer. Moreover, Kahn-Keynes's protégé and colleague at King's College-believed that in taking no notice of Robinson's contributions to economic theory, the board had arrived at its decision in a willfully demeaning fashion. This slight provoked Keynes's anger. With the exception of Kahn, Robinson's chief supporter on the board, only Pigou, the senior member of the economics faculty, had taken "the right line." But what of Keynes's other colleagues? "How the other wretches can have failed to recognize that outside Cambridge she is unquestionably one of the most distinguished members of the staff, without doubt within the first half dozen, I cannot imagine."

In early 1938, the top five economists at Cambridge were Pigou, Keynes himself, Robertson, Sraffa and either Kahn or J. R. Hicks. Pigou was Marshall's handpicked successor as Professor of Political Economy. He was the founder of welfare economics and arguably the most authoritative voice of neoclassical economics in Britain. Keynes made his reputation immediately after the First World War with The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), a trenchant critique of the political economy of the Treaty of Versailles based on his experience as a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. As the term Keynesian revolution suggests, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) made him the most influential economist of the 1930s. Robertson was a Cambridge pioneer in investigating linkages of money, business cycles, economic growth, and government policy. When the faculty board recommended his appointment to a university readership, it stressed his "exceptional qualifications and worldwide reputation" and his "outstanding distinction as an economist." Sraffa's article of 1926 in the Economic Journal produced a sea change in the understanding of Marshallian value theory and marked the beginning of research on imperfect competition at Cambridge. In his fellowship dissertation (1929) and his publications of the thirties (1931, 1933), Kahn constructed theoretical building blocks that were used by Keynes and Robinson. He also reinterpreted conclusions of Pigouvian welfare theory under conditions of imperfect competition (1935) and published innovative work on duopoly (1937). Hicks's analysis of labor markets under long-run competitive conditions developed several important tools for microeconomics (1932). Together with R. G. D. Allen, he introduced British economists to Vilfredo Pareto's conception of utility theory and achieved a groundbreaking reformulation of the theory of demand (1934). Most famously, he was responsible for a popular simplification of Keynes's new ideas in an IS-LM diagram that proved easy to understand and enjoyed international appeal only a few months after Keynes published his book (Hicks 1937). Thus Keynes placed Robinson in extraordinarily select company.


Keynes's assessment was not excessively generous, an appreciation of the dedication shown by an early and enthusiastic supporter of his work. Only three years after beginning serious work on economic theory, Robinson published The Economics of Imperfect Competition, which set a new course for the theory of price determination-or, in the Cambridge parlance of the time, value theory. She claimed that her inspiration was Sraffa's critique of the reigning Cambridge theory of value that descended from Marshall, the author of Principles of Economics (1890), the canonical treatise of Victorian economic thought. One of Sraffa's main objections to Marshall's theory was its assumption of free competition between economic actors, a premise he regarded as obviously inconsistent with the realities of economic life. Following Sraffa, Robinson analyzed price determination under monopolistic conditions. She also considered the consequences of this analysis for the distribution of income, arguing that under imperfect competition workers are paid less than the market value of their labor. Thus she revived and refined the Pigouvian concept of exploitation (Pigou 1920, 511-19).

The book was an immediate succès d'estime, receiving reviews in the major British and American journals. The young Nicholas Kaldor was the reviewer for Economica (1934). Shove wrote the review for the Economic Journal (1933a). Perhaps the most important review was by Joseph A. Schumpeter, who contributed an eight-page appreciation for the Journal of Political Economy (1934). Widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, the book quickly became a standard text in the new research field. A letter of November 9, 1937, from Fritz Machlup to Robinson gives a good sense of the early excitement her work generated. Machlup was a Viennese economist trained in a tradition opposed in many respects to Cambridge principles. He had emigrated to the United States and was teaching at Cornell University. He wrote, "A seminar of eighteen postgraduate students is studying your book The Economics of Imperfect Competition and discussing it from cover to cover, paragraph after paragraph. In appreciation of your most stimulating work, the undersigned wish to thank you and to assure you of their admiration."

The Economics of Imperfect Competition was reprinted thirteen times between 1933 and 1965. The reprint of 1942 appeared when demand for higher education and supply of paper were both quite low owing to the war. By the early 1960s, the book had been translated into German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese (Brazil), Korean, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian (JVR/vii/269). Robinson's work on price theory did not end with The Economics of Imperfect Competition. Her essay "Rising Supply Price" (1941) was praised by Samuelson and won the approval even of the "hypercritical Jacob Viner" (Samuelson 1989, 126). The long-term impact of this paper was surprising and quite remote from her intentions. In 1942, George Stigler used her analysis in The Theory of Competitive Price, an immensely successful neoclassical textbook studied by thousands of economics students over several decades. As a result, her argument was appropriated to rescue the theory of price determination under conditions of perfect competition, precisely the model she had attacked in 1933 (Aslanbeigui and Naples 1997, 527).

During the 1930s, Robinson also became a zealous partisan of Keynesian thinking. The origins of The General Theory lay in dissatisfaction with Keynes's first attempt at a magnum opus in economic theory. This was the two-volume A Treatise on Money (1930), a project on which he labored fitfully and with many interruptions and distractions for some seven years. Its flaws were quickly noticed by both friendly and unsympathetic critics. Even as he corrected the final proofs, Keynes was planning a comprehensive revision. On publication of the Treatise, a group of young economists at Cambridge-Sraffa, Kahn, James Meade, who was visiting from Oxford, Robinson, and Austin-began discussions. Although their initial intention was to understand the complexities of the book, they quickly moved to a consideration of its defects and how they might be repaired. This was the fabled Cambridge Circus, which arrived at conclusions that eventually moved Keynes to abandon his attempts to revise the Treatise. Instead, he would write a quite different book, one that would mark a more fundamental break with the Cambridge tradition. In 1932 and 1933, Robinson argued that the Treatise entailed a vision of a new world of economic theory that Keynes had glimpsed but not clearly comprehended. Once he accepted this view, he made the turn from the Treatise to the enterprise of developing a theory of monetary production in which aggregate demand played a large role.

In the years of the conception and composition of The General Theory, Robinson wrote the first essay on the emerging Keynesian synthesis. Her article "The Theory of Money and the Analysis of Output" (1933e) was the earliest signal to economists not closely connected with Cambridge that fundamental changes in Keynes's thinking were underway. Once The General Theory was published, she moved from theory construction to theory translation and extension. Within a year of its appearance, she completed a book that elucidated and refined Keynes's ideas and offered a spirited defense of his methods. Essays in the Theory of Employment brought to fruition a plan Robinson made in summer 1934. Her idea was to write rough sketches on the main themes of Keynes's new work as well as problems she could analyze by employing his methods. When circumstances seemed opportune, she would prepare them for publication. She also extended the explanatory range of The General Theory by taking up problems Keynes did not pursue, applying its short-period framework to longer-term economic interactions and opening up its closed economy to international trade and finance. Finally, she celebrated the virtues of Keynes's theory by placing it above all competitors. In providing a convincing account of the role of qualitative variables such as expectations as well as a rigorous quantitative analysis of employment, output, and wages, Keynes's work superseded all rivals. Most of the papers in the Essays were written in 1936. "The Long-Period Theory of Employment" was first published in a German journal in March, a month after The General Theory. "Disguised Unemployment" appeared in the Economic Journal three months later. This was remarkably fast work. It was possible only because Robinson kept up to date with changes in Keynes's thinking as he wrote successive drafts of The General Theory.

Unlike The Economics of Imperfect Competition, the Essays was not an immediate commercial or critical success. The first edition was not reprinted. In October 1947, when wartime printing restrictions due to paper shortages had been lifted and postwar university enrollments had increased dramatically, a second edition was published and reprinted the following month. There seems to have been only one early review, published in the Economic Journal, where Austin was assistant editor. Robinson's consolation prize was the reviewer: Roy Harrod, the distinguished Oxford econo mist and enthusiast of The General Theory. Harrod praised Robinson for contributing "another volume of great distinction to economic studies" (Harrod 1937b, 326). He was especially taken by "The Long-Period Theory of Unemployment," in his judgment the "pièce de résistance" of the book (Harrod 1937b, 328). However, he raised two intriguing objections to Robinson's project of extending The General Theory to the long run. She made no attempt to tackle the intractable problem of measuring capital. In addition, both Keynes and Robinson analyzed problems of economic dynamics by employing a static theoretical framework. In Harrod's view, a genuine dynamic analysis was needed, an analysis like the one on which he had been working for some time. In autumn 1936, Robinson considered writing a more accessible version of Keynes's program for students, who were likely to be bewildered by its antiorthodox polemics, formidable organization, and complex analyses. She also moved quickly on this project, and within a year her Keynesian primer, Introduction to the Theory of Employment, appeared. She conceived the book as an exposition of The General Theory for beginners, including students who could not be expected to perform brilliantly on the Cambridge Economics Tripos, or honors examination. The Introduction is best understood as Robinson's attempt to revolutionize undergraduate economics in a Keynesian direction, socializing students in the language and methods of The General Theory at the outset of their training. Robinson understood a basic revolutionary imperative that some of her fellow partisans, Keynes among them, did not appreciate: capture the next generation. The revolution would be decided not in debates over the merits of Keynes's book by academics of the 1930s but in debates by their students. This meant that his adversaries could be vanquished even though they were not refuted or fully persuaded. Classicism would be destroyed when its adherents retired and a new generation educated on Keynesian principles became civil servants, central bankers, and academics. Demand for her bedtime story or "told to the children" (in Keynes 1979, 185) version of The General Theory was impressive. The Introduction was reprinted twice in 1938, once again in 1939, and several times after the Second World War, by which time the victory of the revolution had been achieved.


At the beginning of the 1930s, Robinson possessed no profile as an economic theorist, not even in the small Cambridge faculty in which she was known. In 1931, Keynes did not recognize her as an economist. In a letter of May 4 to Lydia, he identified Robinson solely by her conjugal status, as the marital appendage of Austin (JMK/PP/45/190/5).

What were Robinson's credentials in 1930? As a student of Girton College, Cambridge, Joan Violet Maurice read economics, graduating in 1925 with an undistinguished performance on her tripos and receiving a disappointing Second Class (Pasinetti 1987, 212). The following year she married Austin, and the couple sailed to India, where Austin began a two-year appointment as tutor in economics to the young maharajah of the Indian state of Gwalior. If Austin's memory can be trusted, Robinson knew little economics when she completed her studies and did not acquire much more during their stay in India. When he returned to Cambridge and she reappeared as Mrs. Robinson, she attended Sraffa's lectures on advanced theory of value. In Austin's recollections, she was not preparing herself for a career in economic theory but only pursuing current work in the field of her studies (Robinson 1994, 7). In 1931, there seems to have been no reason Keynes should have regarded her as a budding theoretician.

When Robinson began supervising students at the couple's flat, her prospects for a Cambridge lectureship were dim. Between the introduction of the Economics Tripos in 1903 and 1930, there were no official standards for university lectureships in economics. However, the faculty board, which recommended candidates for lectureships to the general board, seems to have employed tacit criteria that functioned as consensual norms for appointment. In 1930, there were five economists at Cambridge who incontestably qualified as theorists. In order of appointment, Pigou, Keynes, Shove, Robertson, and Sraffa. In considering the obstacles Robinson faced, it is useful to examine their pedigrees, the credentials they established as young men prior to their appointments. Then, as now, the socioeconomic locus of British economic theory was the university. This meant that the career prospects of a theorist were tied to the institutional imperatives of academia. It was necessary to build an impressive curriculum vitae by submitting to critical rites of passage. Examination papers, prize essays, and dissertations were trials, tests of merit that decided the fate of academic apprentices by determining whether they were, if not brilliant or original, then at least, in the parlance of the time, sound.


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Meet the Author

Nahid Aslanbeigui is Professor of Economics and the Chair of Economics, Finance, and Real Estate at Monmouth University. She is co-editor of Rethinking Economic Principles: Critical Essays on Introductory Textbooks and Women in the Age of Economic Transformation: Gender Impact of Reforms in Post-Socialist and Developing Countries.

Guy Oakes is Professor of Philosophy and Jack T. Kvernland Professor in the School of Business, also at Monmouth University. He is the author of The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture and Weber and Rickert: Concept Formation in the Cultural Sciences.

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