Pasinetti, Luigi L., “Robinson, Joan Violet,” The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, Vol. 4 (Q to Z), John Eatwell et al., eds. (Macmillan Press, 1987), pp. 212–217.
Joan Robinson (née Maurice) was born at Camberley, Surrey, on 31 October 1903. She died in Cambridge on 5 August 1983.
She is the only woman (with the possible, but controversial, exception of Rosa Luxemburg) among the great economists. In 1975, which was proclaimed Woman’s Year, most economists in the United States expected that she would naturally be chosen for the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for that year. She had received triumphant acclaim, as a Special Ely Lecturer, at the American Economic Association annual meeting three years earlier, in spite of the harsh hostility that her theories had always met in the United States. The American magazine Business Week, after sounding out the American economics profession, felt so sure of the choice as to anticipate the event by publishing a long article on her, presenting her explicitly as being “on everyone’s list for this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics.” But the Swedish Royal Academy missed that opportunity (and alas, never regained it). Ever since, in shoptalk among economists all over the world, Joan Robinson has become the greatest Nobel Prize winner that never was.
Joan Robinson was the daughter of Major General Sir Frederick Maurice and of Helen Marsh (who was herself the daughter of a Professor of Surgery and Master of Downing College, Cambridge). Sir Frederick pursued a brilliant career in the British army, but in 1918 he found himself at the centre of a public debate, and he gave up his army career on a point of principle. This was very much in the family tradition. Sir Frederick’s grandfather—Joan Robinson’s great-grandfather—was Frederick Denison Maurice, the Christian Socialist who lost his chair of Theology at King’s College, London, for his refusal to believe in eternal damnation.
Joan Robinson certainly had many of these traits: toughness and endurance of character, nonconformism and unorthodoxy of views, the absence of any reverential feeling or timidity, even in the face of the world’s celebrities, a passionate longing for the new and the unknown.
She was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. (Curiously enough, Richard Kahn was educated in the boys’ section of the same school.) In October 1922, she was admitted to the University of Cambridge, going up to Girton College, where she read economics at a time when the dominant figures in Cambridge were Marshall and Pigou. Marshall had retired (he died in 1924) but was extremely influential not only in Cambridge but in the whole of the British Isles. Pigou, his favourite pupil and chosen successor, was the Professor of Political Economy, at whose lectures Cambridge students absorbed the official verbum of Marshallian economics. Keynes was a sort of outsider, part-time in Cambridge and part-time in London, always involved with government policies, either at the Treasury or in public opposition. In those days he lectured on strictly orthodox monetary theory and policies. His lectures were not given regularly but were well attended.
The intellectual environment must have appeared solidly traditional. Joan graduated in 1925, as a good girl[!] would: with second-class honours.
In the following year (1926), she married E.A.G. Robinson (later Professor Sir Austin Robinson), who was six years her senior and at the time a junior Fellow of Corpus Christi College. Together they left Cambridge and set off for India, where they stayed for two years. Austin Robinson served as Tutor of the Maharajah of Gwalior. Joan was there as Austin’s wife but did some teaching at the local school. When they returned, after their two-year Indian engagement, Austin Robinson took a permanent post as Lecturer in Economics at Cambridge, where they settled for life. They had two daughters.
It was on the return to Cambridge from India (summer 1928) that Joan Robinson began to do some College supervision of undergraduates, and then to do economics research in earnest. The Cambridge intellectual environment had changed dramatically. After Edgeworth’s death (1926), Keynes became the sole editor of the Economics Journal and was engaged on his Treatise on Money (Keynes, 1930). Most of all, he had brought to Cambridge Piero Sraffa, the young Italian economist who had dared to launch a scathing attack on Marshallian economics (Sraffa, 1926). Moreover, some new stars were rising in the firmament of Keynes’s entourage—Frank Ramsey, the brilliant mathematician; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher whom Keynes persuaded to come to Cambridge; and Richard Kahn, Keynes’s favourite pupil. It was with Richard Kahn that Joan Robinson began an intense intellectual partnership that lasted for her whole life.
On a strictly academic level, Joan Robinson slowly ascended the academic ladder: Junior Assistant Lecturer in 1931, Full Lecturer in 1937, Reader in 1949. It was suggested in Cambridge that the fact that her husband was in the same faculty kept her back at all stages of her academic career. She became full professor only on Austin Robinson’s retirement, in 1965. Her association with the Cambridge Colleges was more irregular. But she was, in succession, a Fellow of Girton College and of Newnham College. Yet whatever the formal position in the Faculty or in the Cambridge colleges, she was for years one of the major attractions in Cambridge for many generations of undergraduates, not only in economics. In the post-war period, she was certainly the best-known member of the Cambridge Economics Faculty abroad. An indefatigable traveller, she did not limit her foreign visits to universities; she also wanted to know local customs and local conditions of life, even far away from urban centres. Her strong constitution and temperamental toughness helped her enormously. A friend from Makerere University, who took her, when she was already in her seventies, on a month’s travel in tribal Africa was amazed at how much she could endure in terms of living in most primitive conditions with raw food, lack of facilities and exposure to harsh tropical weather, day and night.
It would be impossible to list here all the places she visited or the talks, seminars and public lectures she gave all over the world. She rarely stayed in Cambridge during the summer or term vacations or during her sabbatical years, though punctually and punctiliously returning there on the eve of the terms of her teaching. Asia was her favourite continent (especially India and China). But hundreds of students in North and South America, Australia, Africa and Europe also knew her at first hand.
In Cambridge she rarely missed her classes, lectures and seminars and she was a regular attendant of other people’s seminars, especially visitors’, never avoiding discussion and confrontation. Professor Pigou—a well-known misogynist—had included her in his category of “honorary men.”
She was extremely popular with the students—a clear, brilliant, stimulating teacher. She was a person who inspired strong feelings—of love and hate. Her opponents were frightened by her, and her friends really admired, almost worshipped her. Her nonconformism in everyday life and even in her clothing (most of which she bought in India) was renowned.
She retired from her professorship in Cambridge on 30 September 1971. On retirement she did not agree to continue lecturing in Cambridge. (Later on, in the late 1970s, she gave in partially, giving a course of lectures on “the Cambridge tradition.”) But her writing and lecturing abroad, at the invitation of economics faculties and students all over the world, continued unabated.
When, in the late 1970s, King’s College (Keynes’s College) finally dropped the traditional anachronistic ban on women and became co-educational, Joan Robinson, upon an enthusiastic and unanimous proposal by all economists of the College, became the first woman to be made an Honorary Fellow of King’s College. (She had earlier become an Honorary Fellow of Girton College and of Newnham College.)
Towards the end of her life, she became very concerned and disappointed with the direction in which economic theory had turned and with the ease with which the younger economists could bend their elegant models to suit the new conservative moods and the selfish economic policies of politicians and governments. Her friends also noticed a sort of stiffening rigidity in her views that had not appeared before. This was unfortunate, as it contributed to increasing the hostility of her opponents towards her.
She suffered a stroke in early February 1983, from which she never recovered. She lay for a few months in a Cambridge hospital, and died peacefully six months later.
Distinctive Traits of Her Intellectual Personality
In order to understand better the nature of Joan Robinson’s contributions to economic theory, it may be helpful to begin by considering explicitly a few characteristic traits of her intellectual personality.
Joan Robinson had a remarkable analytical ability. Since she did not normally use mathematics, this remarkable intellectual ability was of a nature that defies conventional description. In her early works she made use of geometrical representations, backed up by calculus (normally provided by Richard Kahn). In her mature works, her way of reasoning took up a more personal feature. Her style is difficult to imitate (as when she invites the readers to follow her in the construction of economic exercises) but very effective. The results are always impressive. Those who used to argue with her knew that she could grasp and keep in the back of her mind (to be brought out at the appropriate moment) a whole series of chain effects and interdependences which her interlocutors could hardly imagine.
She was not the type of person who could go on thinking in isolation. The way she could best express herself was by having somebody in constant confrontation. She could put her views best either in opposition or in support of somebody else’s position. This made her extraordinarily open to concepts and contributions coming from the people she encountered. The accurate historian of economic ideas will probably find in her works traces of almost every person she met. It is therefore important, in considering Joan Robinson’s contributions, to keep in mind at least the most important economists who influenced her. These include her teachers (Marshall through Pigou, Keynes, Shove), her contemporaries (Sraffa, Kaldor, and Kalecki, through whom she went back to Marx, but especially Richard Kahn, who read, criticized and improved every single one of her works) and also a whole series of other (younger) people—pupils and students.
This raises the question of her originality. The prefaces to her books are packed with acknowledgements, sometimes heavy acknowledgements—consider, for example, the following excerpt from the Economics of Imperfect Competition:
… this book contains some matter which I believe to be new. Of not all the new ideas, however, can I definitely say that “this is my own invention.” I particularly have had the constant assistance of Mr R.F. Kahn … many of the major problems … were solved as much by him as by me (Robinson, 1933, p. v).
But one must remember what has been said above. In fact, Joan Robinson was a highly original thinker, but of a particular type. Besides the contributions to economic theory that are distinctly hers she had her own highly original way, even in small details, of presenting other authors’ views, which she always did through a distinctly personal re-elaboration. Sometimes the re-elaboration is so personal as to sound parochial. But this trait is not exclusive to Joan Robinson. Cambridge parochialism is shared by almost all purely Cambridge-bred economists since Marshall (Keynes included). It sometimes creates unnecessary difficulties of communication with economists outside Cambridge (i.e. with the overwhelming majority!) or introduces a few odd notes into an otherwise impeccable performance.
One can clearly detect an evolution in Joan Robinson’s approach to economics that with age strengthened her innovative tendencies. It looks as if she was very cautious in her early years, preoccupied at first with building up solid analytical foundations. But as soon as she felt sure of her analytical equipment, she began to venture more and more into the exciting field of innovation. In her mature works her typical style became established. A sort of mixture of educational, temperamental and intellectual factors made her one of the leading unorthodox economists of the 20th century. Always impatient with dogmas, constantly fighting for new unorthodox ideas, relentlessly attacking established beliefs, she acquired a sort of vocation to economic heresies (see Robinson, 1971). Her attitude reminds one of a dictum by Pietro Pomponazzi, the Italian Renaissance philosopher: “It is better to be a heretic if one wishes to find the truth.”
Strongly related to this attitude is the social message that comes from her writings. Her “box of tools” and her logical chain of arguments were not proposed for their own sake; they were always aimed at practical action, with a view to the world’s most pressing problems—unemployment before the [Second World] war, underdevelopment and the struggle of ex-colonial nations after the war (very noticeable is her special concern for Asia and her enthusiasm, at points rather naïve, for Communist China). Consistently, she has been among the strongest assertors—second perhaps only to Gunnar Myrdal—of the non-neutrality of economic science and of the necessity of stating explicitly one’s convictions and beliefs.
And yet, in spite of her bold attacks and her satirical mood, her literary style is surprisingly feminine[!]—rich with fable-like parables, with down-to-earth examples from everyday life (“the price of a cup of tea …”) and with similes from scenes and examples taken from nature (the Accumulation of Capital begins with the economic life of the robin). Her sparkling prose and her entertaining asides make Joan Robinson one of the most brilliant writers among economists and certainly one of the most enjoyable and delightful to read.
Her Scientific Achievements
Joan Robinson wrote numerous books and an enormous number of articles, most of which have been collected in her Collected Economic Papers (1951–79).
They fall neatly into three broad groups, corresponding to the three basic phases of her intellectual development. A first group belongs to the phase of her by now classic Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933). A second group belongs to the phase of explanation, propagation and defence of Keynes’s General Theory. Finally, a third group of writings grew around the major work of her maturity, The Accumulation of Capital (1956). Other books and articles have originated from miscellaneous or wider interests or from the desire to provide students with economics exercises or with a non-orthodox economics textbook (Robinson and Eatwell, 1973). Altogether, they make an impressive list. Even neglecting her articles (most of which are reprinted in the books), her bibliography contains no less than 24 books.
The most widely known of Joan Robinson’s works is still the first, The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933). It was the book of her youth, which placed her immediately in the forefront of the development of economic theory. It is a work conceived in Cambridge, at the end of a decade characterized by an intense controversy on cost curves and the laws of returns (see Sraffa, 1926, and the Symposium on the “laws of returns” by Robertson, Sraffa and Shove, 1930). With this controversy in the background, Joan Robinson’s book emerges in 1933 as a masterpiece in the traditional sense of the word. The restrictive conditions of perfect competition on which Marshall’s theory was constructed are abandoned, and perfect competition is shown to be a very special case of what in general is a monopolistic situation. A whole new analysis of market behaviour is carried out on new, more general, assumptions; and yet the whole method of analysis, the whole approach—though refined and perfected—is still the traditional Marshallian one. Sraffa’s criticism of the master is accepted, but is incorporated into the traditional fold by a generalization of Marshall’s own theoretical framework. The outcome is extremely elegant and impressive. The whole matter of market competition is clarified. Marshall’s ambiguities are eliminated, the various market conditions are rigorously defined, a whole technical apparatus (a “box of analytical tools”) is developed to deal with market situations in the general case (from demand and supply curves to marginal cost and marginal revenue curves). In a sense, therefore, rather than a radical critique, The Economics of Imperfect Competition might well be regarded as the completion and coronation of Marshallian analysis. This may help to explain why Joan Robinson herself came to like that book less and less, as her thought later developed on different lines. In 1969 she came to the point of writing a harsh eight-page criticism of it. Very courageously she published it, on the occasion of a reprint of the book, as a Preface to the second edition!
The book had appeared almost simultaneously with The Theory of Monopolistic Competition by Edward Chamberlin (1933); and the two books are normally bracketed together as indicating the decisive breakaway of economic theory from the assumptions of perfect competition. Chamberlin always complained about this association. For although the two books represent the simultaneous discovery of basically the same thing, made quite independently by two different authors, they are in fact substantively different.
It may also be added that looked at in retrospect, fifty years later, these two books do not appear so conclusive a contribution to the theory of the firm as they appeared to be in the 1930s. The behaviour of firms in oligopolistic markets and the policies of the large corporations have turned out to require more complicated analysis. At the same time, the assumption of perfect competition, far from being completely dead, has recently come back in different guises in the works of many theoretical economists. Yet there is no doubt that the two books remain there to represent a definite turning-point in the development of the theory of the firm—so much so as to be referred to as representing the “monopolistic competition revolution” (Samuelson, 1967). Very characteristically, Edward Chamberlin, after writing The Theory of Monopolistic Competition, spent the whole of his life in refining, completing and adding appendices to his masterpiece (no less than eight editions!). For Joan Robinson, The Economics of Imperfect Competition was only the first step on a very long way to a series of works in quite different and varied fields of economic theory.
It should be added that The Economics of Imperfect Competition was not Joan Robinson’s only contribution to microeconomic theory in the 1930s. Her name appears again and again on the pages of the avant-gardeeconomic journals of the time. From among her papers, explicit mention must be made at least of her remarkably lucid article on “rising supply price” and of her contribution to clarifying the meaning of Euler’s theorem as applied to marginal productivities, in the traditional theory of production (see her Collected Papers, I).
But something of extraordinary importance was happening in Cambridge in the 1930s. Keynes was in the process of producing his revolutionary work (Keynes, 1936). Joan Robinson abandoned the theory of the firm and threw herself selflessly and entirely into the new paths opened up by him. This was a really brave decision, if one thinks that her first book had gained her great reputation in the economic[s] profession. Very rarely do we find someone who, after striking success and becoming a leading figure in a certain field, pulls out of it and puts him- or herself into the shadow of someone else, be this someone else even of the stature of Keynes. Joan Robinson did precisely that. She was one of the members—actually an important member, as is revealed by the recent publication of her correspondence with Keynes (see Keynes, 1973, 1979)—of that group of young economists known as the “Cambridge Circus” (and including Kahn, Sraffa, Harrod, Meade, besides Austin and Joan Robinson) who regularly met for discussion, and played a crucial role in the evolving drafts of Keynes’s General Theory.
It must be said that the new Keynes’s ways were more congenial to her temperament. They were a break with tradition and this suited her nonconformist attitude; they dealt with the deep social problems of unemployment and this appealed to her social conscience. It is in this vein that she published her Essays in the Theory of Employment (1937a) and her Introduction to the Theory of Employment (1937b). These twin books were simply meant to be a help to the readers of Keynes’s General Theory. In fact, they turned out to be much more than that. In particular, Joan Robinson contributes to the clarification of a major piece of Keynesian theory—the process through which investments determine savings—which had remained rather obscure from the General Theory. For her, this appeared important because it broke a crucial link in traditional theory, which presented the rate of interest as a compensation for the “sacrifice” of supplying capital (i.e. for saving). Joan Robinson stresses the role of investment as an independent variable, while total saving is shown as being determined passively by investment through the operation of the multiplier; the conclusion being that the rate of interest cannot be remunerating anybody’s “sacrifice.” Even more so in depression times, when thrift—a “private virtue”—becomes a “public vice.” Other concepts, introduced by Joan Robinson at the time, that were to remain permanently in the following economic literature on the theory of employment are those concerning what she called “beggar-my-neighbour” policies, “disguised unemployment” and the generalization of the Marshall-Lerner conditions on international trade, in terms of “the four elasticities.”
Towards the end of the 1930s, Joan Robinson met Kalecki, and discovered that quite independently of, and in fact earlier, than Keynes, he had come to the same conclusions. Kalecki had started from a Marxist background, against which Keynes was prejudiced. This led her to re-reading Marx and to re-thinking her own position vis-à-vis Marxian theory (Robinson, 1942).
Joan Robinson’s flirtation with Marx is very curious. It has all the charm of a meeting and all the clamour of a clash. She is no doubt attracted by Marx’s general conception of society. She finds in Marx much which she approves of. But she finds his scientific nucleus embedded in, and in need of being liberated from, ideology. To obtain this, she says, one must work hard. Her writings on Marx are specifically aimed at “separating the wheat of science from the chaff of ideology.” Needless to say, this has caused her a lot of trouble with the Marxists. It should be kept in mind that in continental Europe discussions on Marx have a long and complex tradition of philological heaviness and ideological passion. Joan Robinson’s discussion is short and simple. She is always looking at Marx as “a serious economist.” Accordingly, she always tries to go straight to what she thinks is his economic analysis. Her insistence on the necessity of rescuing Marx, as a scholar and a first-rate analytical mind, has recently been vindicated, especially after the publication of Sraffa’s book (1960; see also, for example, Samuelson, 1971).
But the postwar period was opening up new vistas. With Keynes’s General Theory in the background, Joan Robinson saw a formidable task ahead, consisting in nothing less than a reconstruction of economic theory. This led, after a decade of intense work, to the publication of her second major contribution to economic theory—The Accumulation of Capital (1956), the work of her maturity and the one that expresses Joan Robinson’s genius at her best. Here she has chosen to move on new and controversial ground. While in her first book the direction—once established—was clear and she had to fill in the details, here the direction itself is not entirely clear and has to be continually adjusted. The details acquire less importance and may well be abandoned altogether and replaced with others at a second attempt. As a consequence, a lot or re-writing had to be done.
The Rate of Interest and Other Essays (1952), with its central essay devoted to a “Generalization of the General Theory” turned out to be a sort of preparation. The Accumulation of Capital represents the central nucleus of what she perceived as a new framework for economic theory. Then the Exercises in Economic Analysis (1960), the Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth (1962a) and a series of other articles fill in the gaps, clarify obscurities, and take the arguments further.
The “Generalization of the General Theory” represents Joan Robinson’s response to an interchange with Harrod, following Harrod’s Towards a Dynamic Economics (1948) and also his earlier review of her Essays in the Theory of Employment (1937a). Joan Robinson breaks away from the limitations of the short run, but has not yet defined clearly her direction. Yet, once the process of “generalization,” i.e. “dynamization,” of the General Theory is started, the author is compelled to recast the Keynesian arguments in terms of the more fundamental categories of capital accumulation, labour supply, technical progress and natural resources. Through this recasting, it became inevitable that she should go to the earlier methodological approach (common to Ricardo and Marx) of stating the problems in terms of social aggregates. The evidence of her intense searching may be found at the end of the book in a chapter of “acknowledgements and disclaimers,” where she describes in succession the way she has been influenced by, or has reacted to, Marx, Marshall, Rosa Luxemburg, Kalecki and Harrod.
The years of transition from The Rate of Interest and Other Essays (1952) to The Accumulation of Capital (1956) had been marked by a series of intense discussions in Cambridge, especially with Kahn, Sraffa, Kaldor and Champernowne. In the end, Joan Robinson emerged centring her attention on the problem of capital accumulation as the basic process in the development of a capitalist economy. She began with a scathing attack on the traditional concept of “production function” (in a well-known article, now in her Collected Papers II, which elicited a chain of angry responses: see, for example, Solow, 1955–6 and Swan, 1956). Then she patiently proceeded to a reconstruction. A crucial step was her own way of rediscovering the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell.
The Accumulation of Capital (1956) bears the same title as Rosa Luxemburg’s book, to whose translation into English Joan Robinson wrote an introduction (Luxemburg, 1951). This was a great tribute to another woman economist. But we should not be misled. Joan Robinson’s book belongs to an entirely different age and takes an entirely different approach. Set into a Keynesian framework extended to the long run, it takes its origin from a welding together of Harrod’s economic dynamics and of Wicksell’s capital theory. The main question Joan Robinson poses to herself is by now a typically classical one: what are the conditions for the achievement of a cumulative long-term growth of income and capital (what she characteristically christened a “golden age”); and what is the outcome of this process, in terms of growth of gross and net output and of the distribution of income between wages and profits, given a certain evolution through time of the labour force and of technology? To answer th[is] question Joan Robinson builds up a two-sector dynamic model with a finite number of techniques; and goes on to show the interactions of the relations between wages and profits, the stock of capital and the techniques of production, entrepreneurial expectations and the degree of competition in the economy, bringing in the effects of higher degrees of mechanization and both “neutral” and “biased” technical progress. The basic model and the basic answers are all worked out very quickly in the book. The rest is then devoted to relaxing the simplifying assumptions. The whole analysis is carried out without the use of mathematics. This is remarkable. Joan Robinson squeezes out of the model, one by one, all the answers that are needed. The non-use of mathematics has certain obvious disadvantages. Though the analysis need not necessarily be any less rigorous, in many passages it is not so easy to follow. It has, however, some advantages, which Joan Robinson is very ready and able to exploit. She succeeds, for example, in freeing herself from the symmetry that a mathematically formulated model normally imposes. In Joan Robinson’s model, certain results are always more likely to happen than their symmetrical counterpart. Symmetry and formal elegance play no part; only relevance does, or at least it does in the way perceived by the author.
The overall result is, again, impressive. The oversimplified dynamic model of Harrod is enormously enriched by the introduction of the choice among a finite number of alternative techniques. At the same time the Wicksellian analysis of accumulation at a given technology is completed by the new analysis of a constant flow of inventions of various types. And this marriage of Harrod’s model to Wicksellian analysis is made to fructify in a number of directions. So many and so rich are in fact these directions that Joan Robinson herself did not pursue all of them, as became evident from the abundant literature that followed.
To this literature, Joan Robinson contributed a whole series of essays and books (see her Collected Papers, II, III, IV, V; and J. Robinson, 1960, 1962a), which represent clarifications and further elaborations. They also represent her way of recasting and adjusting her arguments in response to opposition from her critics and to comments, remarks and stimuli of any sort from her friends, as well as her way of coming to grips with results—not always or not entirely compatible with hers—coming from the works of other scholars, colleagues and pupils, who were broadly working on similar problems and with the same aims.
Meanwhile, proceeding on parallel lines, many other separate strands of thinking were emerging from her remarkable intellectual activity. At least a few must briefly be mentioned here.
First, a whole series of concepts and ideas were coming to fruition; which—though not belonging to her major fields of interest—came to complete her overall coverage of economic theory: writings on the theory of international trade (including her Professorial inaugural lecture at Cambridge on The New Mercantilism (1966a)), on Marxian economics (at various stages in her career), and on the theory of economic development and planning, reproducing her lectures delivered during her world travels or coming from calm reflection, once he had returned home (see her Collected Papers, and also J. Robinson, 1970b, 1979b).
Second, her deeply felt concern with economics students and economics teaching in general gave origin to books, such as Joan Robinson (1966b), (1971) and especially (with Eatwell) (1973), which contributed to giving substance to, and disseminating all over the world, her strongly felt conviction that an overall approach to economic reality, alternative to that of traditional economics, does exist and is viable.
Third, the ideas, reflections, rationalizations, accumulated in the course of her life took the form of books such as Economic Philosophy (1962b) and Freedom and Necessity (1970a), which were concerned with wider issues than economics itself, attempting to give an overall conception of the world and a whole philosophy of life. These writings contribute, not marginally, to place Joan Robinson among the influential thinkers of this century. At the same time, they may well be enjoyed, by the general reader, even more than her masterpieces. From a purely literary point of view, they make delightful reading.
It should be added that there are, moreover, many themes which, while not being exclusively connected with any specific work of Joan Robinson’s, recur time and again in her writings, so as to have become characteristically associated with her approach. Here are a few: (a) the concept of “entrepreneurs’ animal spirits”—an expression picked up from Keynes and developed as an important element contributing to explain investment in capitalist economies; (b) the conviction that Marshall’s notions of prices and rate of profit, with reference to industry, are much more akin to Ricardo’s notions than to Walras’s; (c) a sharp distinction between “logical” time and “historical” time, both of which have a place in economic analysis but with different roles. On this point Joan Robinson’s characterization of the evolution of an economy in historical time as concerning decisions to be taken between “an irrevocable past and an uncertain future” is well known; (d) an equally sharp distinction between comparisons of equilibrium-growth positions and movements from one equilibrium-growth position to another, in dynamic analysis; (e) a tendency, especially in the later part of her life, to shift nearer and nearer to the positions of Kalecki, as opposed to those of Keynes, in interpreting the over-all working of the institutions of capitalist economies, especially with reference to what she found as a more satisfactory integration in Kalecki, of the concept of effective demand with the process of price formation.
Finally, one must mention specifically an issue which may well continue to give rise to controversial evaluations. This concerns the role that may be assigned to Joan Robinson in the well-known controversy on capital theory that flared up between the two Cambridges [England and Massachusetts] in the 1960s (see Pasinetti et al., 1966). One view on this issue is that Joan Robinson had the merit of anticipating the controversy by her (already mentioned) attacks on the neoclassical production function in the mid-1950s (see Harcourt, 1972). Another view is that Joan Robinson, herself a victim of her emotional temperament, started her attacks on the traditional concepts too early and misplaced the whole criticism, by neglecting the really basic point (the phenomenon of re-switching of techniques; see Sraffa, 1960) that in the end delivered the fatal blow to the neoclassical notion of production function. What one can say for certain is that a hint at the re-switching phenomenon does appear in The Accumulation of Capital, but is relegated to the role of a curiosum, in an entirely secondary section. Perhaps, the phenomenon had been pointed out to her but she grossly underestimated its importance. What is curious is that she continued to underestimate it, even after it was brought to the foreground (see her “Unimportance of Re-switching” in Collected Papers, V).
But at this point the works of Joan Robinson merge into those of that remarkable group of Cambridge economists—notably, Piero Sraffa, Nicholas Kaldor and Richard Kahn, among others, besides Joan Robinson herself (on this, see the Preface to Pasinetti, 1981)—who happened to be concentrated in Cambridge [England] in the postwar period and who took up, continued and expanded the challenge that Keynes had launched on orthodox economic theory. This remarkable group of economists started a stream of economic thought which is obviously far from complete. Its basic features, however, are clear enough; they embody a determined effort to shift the whole focus of economic theorizing away from the problems of optimum allocation of given resources, where it had remained for almost a century, and move it towards the fundamental factors responsible for the dynamics of industrial societies. This shift of focus inevitably brings into the foreground the once central themes of capital accumulation, population growth, production expansion, income distribution, and thus technical progress and structural change.
It is perhaps too early to try to evaluate the relative role played by Joan Robinson as a member of this remarkable group of economists. The single components of the group have made contributions which are sometimes complementary, at other times overlapping, and at yet other times even partly contradictory. To mention only one major problem, Piero Sraffa’s book appeared too late for Joan Robinson to be able to incorporate it into her theoretical framework; and the brave efforts she later made to this effect are not always convincing. They actually reveal here and there a sort of ambivalent attitude. At the same time, her Accumulation of Capitalventures into fields of economic dynamics which Sraffa does not touch at all. Quite obviously, the common fundamental thrust behind post-Keynesian analysis does not presuppose complete identity of views or complete harmony of approach.
Future developments will clarify issues and will reveal which of the lines of approach proposed are the most useful, fruitful or fecund. There can be little doubt, however, that if this theoretical movement is going to prove successful, quite a lot of re-writing will have to be done in economic theory. If, and when, this re-writing occurs, Joan Robinson’s contributions are going to take a major place.
1933. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. London: Macmillan. 2nd edn, 1969.
1937a. Essays in the Theory of Employment. London: Macmillan.
1937b. Introduction to the Theory of Employment. London: Macmillan.
1942. An Essay on Marxian Economics. London: Macmillan.
1951. Collected Economic Papers, Vol. I. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. (Vol. II, 1960a; Vol. III, 1965; Vol. IV, 1973a; Vol. V, 1979a.)
1952. The Rate of Interest and Other Essays. London: Macmillan.
1956. The Accumulation of Capital. London: Macmillan.
1960a. Collected Economic Papers, Vol. II. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
1960b. Exercises in Economic Analysis. London: Macmillan.
1962a. Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth. London: Macmillan.
1962b. Economic Philosophy. London: C.A. Watts.
1965. Collected Economic Papers, Vol. III. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
1966a. The New Mercantilism—an Inaugural Lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1966b. Economics—an Awkward Corner. London: Allen & Unwin.
1970a. Freedom and Necessity. London: Allen & Unwin.
1970b. The Cultural Revolution in China. London: Penguin Books.
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