Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Reading Robinson: Introduction (part i)

After John Maynard Keynes, Joan V. Robinson (1903-1983) was the most influential figure of the original Keynes' “Circus” at the University of Cambridge; and her active role promoting Keynesian economics earned her the title of “patron saint of Post-Keynesian economics”.

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Born Joan Violet Maurice, Robinson was one of five children of a bourgeois English family with a Christian socialist background and a penchant for outspokenness. During World War I, her father, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, was forced to resign his commission after publishing an open letter criticising PM David Lloyd George on military matters.

Robinson studied economics at Girton College, where she met Maurice Dobb, at the time the unpopular and bullied Marxist odd man out at Cambridge. According to her close friend, one-time student, and unofficial literary executor and biographer, Geoff Harcourt, Robinson learned little from Dobb, as they took a quick dislike for each other:
"No, they had a very lukewarm relationship. She thought he was schizophrenic. She could never understand him. Here he was, this great Communist, Marxist, out of office hours, teaching Marshall in office hours. And I think Maurice thought that she was an upper-class bourgeois liberal with pinkish overtones who wouldn't go the whole hog. And also, I think, he was offended by her rather philistine, very British, attitude to the philosophical problems of the labor theory of value, whereas he argued that the labor theory of value was the base on which you should erect Marxism." (Harcourt and King, 1995)
Marrying to fellow economist Austin Robinson soon after graduation, for nearly a decade there is little of interest to report on Robinson's career. Back at Cambridge from India, in 1934 Robinson was appointed to an assistant lectureship, and promoted to lecturer in 1936/37, no mean feats for an initially unknown female economist in a male-dominated milieu, apparently against initial opposition from Keynes (Gold, 2009).

Demonstrating independent thought, during this time Robinson's economics shifted from the originally Marshallian mainstream, to increasingly Keynesian, and quasi-Marxian/Neo Ricardian, influenced by Michał Kalecki and Piero Sraffa -- both Jewish foreigners at their turn influenced by Marx, and, like Robinson less-than-obvious choices to join the Keynesian pantheon.

Having gained little from her association with Dobb, Robinson -- the self-taught student of Marx -- tactfully (for once) comments:
"In those days most of my academic colleagues in England thought that to study Marx was a quaint pastime (though Keynes, who was allergic to Marx's writing, received my Essay kindly) and in the United States it was disreputable." (Robinson, 1966:vi)
Evidently, little changed since.

During this period, Robinson (whom Prof. Robert Paul Wolff calls with good-natured irony "the doyenne of English Marxists", here), “was considered to be the leading expert on John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx”, and credited for “her role in putting Marx's insights back on the agenda of modern economics" (Spartacus Educational, 2015), a considerably high praise.

Departing from Keynesian orthodoxy, and perhaps out of sympathy/admiration for a female Jewish economist, revolutionary Marxist, and founder of the Communist Party of Germany, martyred in 1919 by the German Social Democracy and its proto-Nazi accomplices, Robinson wrote in 1951 the introduction to Rosa Luxemburg's magnum opus, "The Accumulation of Capital":
"Rosa Luxemburg, neglected by Marxist and academic economists alike, offers a theory of the dynamic development of capitalism which is of the greatest interest." (Luxemburg, 2013: 13)
Five years later, Robinson herself would use the same title for her own book on the subject. One can only imagine how Keynes would have reacted to that.

Politically, Robinson sympathised with the British Labour Party. Although far from being a revolutionary party, the Labour Party was the object of suspicion and fear by other members of the British bourgeoisie and intelligentsia (with characteristic exaggeration, Keynes himself called it the "Party of Catastrophe").

Like Keynes, who visited the Soviet Union, Robinson visited the People's Republic of China. To make things worse, unlike Keynes, "as Robinson aged, her left-wing sympathies grew, and ultimately she became an admirer of Mao Tse-Tung’s China and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea." (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014).


Although I cannot share her sympathies for Mao and Kim, it's hard for me to dislike such a woman; additionally, Harcourt has a highly positive opinion of Robinson, the thinker:
“Robinson's incisive mind made her a powerful critic; her insight and intuition, whereby she provided logical arguments of great penetration (without the help of modern mathematical techniques), allowed her to make significant contributions across the whole spectrum of economic theory.” (Spartacus Educational, 2015) 
Although others have less appreciative views (Sen, 2015)  (Stiglitz, 2015), Harcourt is not alone in his admiration. From all these descriptions, Robinson emerges as a formidable character, with many virtues and some serious flaws.

For all there's to admire in Robinson, it is in her capacity as intellectual that I am here interested, and particularly in her 1962 book, “Economic Philosophy”, where she outlines her views on the philosophy of science in general, philosophy of economics (or methodology) in particular and history of economic thought.

It is, therefore, with some trepidation that I intend to probe to what extent those words of praise are justified as evidenced by “Economic Philosophy”.

The following quotation seems an appropriate tribute to Robinson and should sound as a warning to teenage readers of a fanatical internet Keynesian persuasion:
“It has been claimed that Joan Robinson did not mind upsetting people with her work: 'Never one to mince words, possessor of a civilized wit, sometimes bleakly rude, not always fair but always honest, as hard on herself as on those she criticized, Joan Robinson more than any other economist of the twentieth century became a model for progressive radicals, fearlessly following arguments to conclusions no matter how incompatible they proved to be'." (Spartacus Educational, 2015)
What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


Encyclopedia Britannica, (2014). Joan Robinson | biography - British economist. [online] Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Joan-Robinson [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].

Gold, N. (2009). The Provocative Joan Robinson: The Making of a Cambridge Economist. [online] Times Higher Education. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/the-provocative-joan-robinson-the-making-of-a-cambridge-economist/409084.article [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].

Harcourt, G. and King, J. (1995). Talking About Joan Robinson: Geoff Harcourt in Conversation with John King. Review of Social Economy, 53(1), pp.31-64.

Luxemburg, R. (2003). The accumulation of capital. London: Routledge.

Robinson, J. (1962). Economic philosophy. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.

Robinson, J. (1966). An essay on Marxian economics. London: Macmillan.

Robinson, J. (1969). The accumulation of capital. London: Macmillan.

Robinson, J. and Gibson, B. (2005). Joan Robinson's economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Sen, A. (2015). Amartya Sen - Biographical. [online] Nobelprize.org. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1998/sen-bio.html [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].

Spartacus Educational, (2015). Joan Robinson. [online] Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/Joan_Robinson.htm [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].

Stiglitz, J. (2015). Joseph E. Stiglitz - Biographical. [online] Nobelprize.org. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2001/stiglitz-bio.html [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].


  1. You sometimes use 'his' when I think you mean 'her', as in:

    Having gained little from his association with Dobb, Robinson ...

    and in:

    Five years later, Robinson herself would use the same title for his own book on the subject ...

    If you mean her husband in the first instance, you just need to add his first name (but I think you were talking about her in these lines).

    Looking fwd to your next post on this subject.

  2. You are absolutely right. Thanks for that.

    Hopefully, I fixed that.