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Michal Kalecki: An Intellectual Biography. Volume 1: Rendezvous in Cambridge, 1899-1939

Author(s):Toporowski, Jan
Reviewer(s):Harcourt, Geoffrey C.

Published by EH.Net (June 2014)

Jan Toporowski, Michal Kalecki: An Intellectual Biography. Volume 1: Rendezvous in Cambridge, 1899-1939. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xi + 184 pp. $100 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-230-21186-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Geoffrey C. Harcourt, School of Economics, University of New South Wales.

Volume 1 of Jan Toporowski’s long-awaited intellectual biography of Michal Kalecki is a superb tour de force. Toporowski has done an enormous amount of detailed archival research, as well as absorbing the literature by and on Kalecki in the public domain. He also has extensive knowledge of the Polish political and social history of Kalecki’s times which made up the background to Kalecki’s intellectual and personal development. That Toporowski has been able to provide an absorbing and convincing narrative in well less than two hundred pages is a remarkable achievement, one of which we may be sure Kalecki would have approved, for he never wasted a word when writing and there never has been a need for a literature on what Kalecki “really” meant. Toporowski is fluent in Polish and though he never met Kalecki, he did know his widow, the late Adela Kalecka, and several of Kalecki’s closest colleagues, for example, the late Tadeusz Kowalik and Kazimierz Łaski. Toporowski writes that “[H]is greatest regret is that [he was] unable to reciprocate the kindness and generosity shown to [him] by Adela Kalecka and Tadeusz Kowalik by giving them this tribute to their integrity and loyalty to Michał Kalecki” (p. x).

Toporowski tells Kalecki’s story chronologically, integrating the important happenings in his life and career with clear analysis and discussions of his papers and books, their contents, contexts and reception. While many of them are now recognized as classics, Toporowski often assesses them in original and compelling ways, for example, Kalecki’s paper “Three Systems,” written in the early 1930s, “has not been well understood … [it was] Kalecki’s attempt to think through the flaws in the standard general equilibrium approach to economics” (p. 69).

Volume 1 ends in 1939 with Kalecki leaving Cambridge where he had been for about two years to go to Oxford, where we know (but will await eagerly for Toporowski’s account of the Oxford years) he had an enormous impact on the researchers at the Oxford Institute of Statistics, many of whom became famous economists in their own right – Fritz Schumacher, Joseph Steindl, and David Worswick, for example. I have often argued that Kalecki is the greatest all-round economist of the twentieth century. Toporowski’s volume provides the definitive evidence for his extraordinary contributions to our understanding of the processes at work in capitalism and no doubt Volume 2 will do the same for Kalecki’s contributions to the economics of development and democratic socialist planning.

Kalecki was born in Łódź in 1899, the only son of Abram Kalecki and Klara (neé Segalle). His parents were non-religious Jews. Abram was a reserved and intellectual person, Klara was gifted and intelligent and very social, often taking Michał with her to social events. His early years were ones of middle class comfort with housemaids and governesses. His parents’ marriage, always difficult, broke down when Michał was ten; this traumatized him and affected his behavior and attitudes for the rest of his life. His father’s business – he was a small woolen manufacturer – collapsed in the 1905 depression in Poland, a depression which was set amid intensive political turmoil and rising anti-Semitism. His father subsequently worked for a relative but that job went in 1925 and Kalecki abandoned his engineering studies in Warsaw, returning to Łódź to support them both. In addition to casual teaching posts Kalecki devoted himself to writing. The many journalistic articles that resulted are, Toporowski tells us, the “starting point” if his “ideas are to be understood in their entirety” (p. 19). Chapter 3, “Economic Journalism,” is therefore a key chapter.

The most important event of his life was meeting Adela Szternfeld in the 1920s. They were married in June 1930 by a rabbi, which was required by law at the time. Neither were religious, indeed, they both distrusted and disliked religions and Kalecki never regarded himself as Jewish. However, in response to anti-Semitism becoming more common in the 1930s, he “would insist on his Jewish ‘nationality’ in response to anti-Semitic remarks” (p. 2). Adela Kalecka was trained as a biologist; she was highly intelligent and, like Kalecki, had well thought out democratic socialist principles, though neither ever belonged to any political party. I suspect that the imposition on them of party lines would have been abhorrent to such free spirits. It was a wonderfully close marriage; Adela was his devoted helpmate for all their married life.

Kalecki was a brilliant mathematician and nearly completed his training as an engineer. He had detailed knowledge of how businesses worked (or didn’t) and he quickly formed views on systemic behavior both within and outside national barriers. He had no systematic training in economics but through his political views he read Tugan-Baranowski and Rosa Luxemburg, and came to Marx through them. That investment determined saving principally through the creation of profits; that retained profits were a core part of the finance of investment; that the systemic behavior and role of banks differed from the role of individual banks observed in isolation; that investment fluctuations created the cycle, not least because of the lags between decisions and implementation; and that the integration of business behavior, market structures and price formation were important for explaining systemic behavior were all characteristics of his approach from the early 1930s on.

In 1928 Edward Lipiński, “an inspired [choice],” was appointed director of a newly created Institute for the Study of Business Cycles and Prices in Warsaw. In December 1929 Kalecki started on “his first serious employment as an economist” (p. 32), employed at the Institute as a consultant on cartels. Kalecki went abroad for the first time in September 1933 to attend the third European meeting of the Econometric Society. He presented a French translation of “An Essay on the Theory of the Business Cycle” which brought together all the strands of his analysis of the cycle. (It had been published in Polish by the Institute.) There he met Ragnar Frisch, Jan Tinbergen and Jacob Marschak and discussed their approaches as well as his own. His paper was eventually published in English in Econometrica in 1935 as “A Macrodynamic Theory of Business Cycles.” Richard Goodwin later was to describe its presentation at the conference as “an event of great significance” (p. 65). His rising reputation resulted in him receiving a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1936 to allow him to visit Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom. He was to work on “Business cycle theory, partic[ularly] from the standpoint of Wicksell’s money theory” (p. 75), and be directed by Gunnar Myrdal, Ragnar Frisch and Maynard Keynes. Parallel with this event was the disgraceful sacking of two of his closest colleagues at the Institute for political and anti-Semitic reasons. Unlike the Director, Kalecki resigned on principle, the first of the three times he was to do this during his life. Alas, it had little effect, “[a] common view was that the Institute had got rid of “three Jews”” (p. 89).

When he received in Sweden a copy of The General Theory, which covered many of the issues on which he intended to write a book, Kalecki decided to go to the UK as he thought that was where the most relevant and important research on the trade cycle was now occurring. Toporowski suggests that Kalecki’s reaction to reading Keynes’s book was “more prosaic” than Joan Robinson’s (1977) well-known description of him feeling ill and retiring to bed for three days (p. 77).

The Kaleckis settled in London (close to Keynes’s London Bloomsbury house!) and Kalecki went to Robbins’s Seminar at the LSE. Nicky Kaldor is quoted as remembering that as Kalecki’s English improved so that he could be understood, the attitude at the seminar changed from annoyance to respect for the insights and relevance of his contributions to discussion.

Kalecki wrote many papers at this time centering around his understanding of the trade cycle, the central part of accumulation in its operation, how profits were created, the roles of banks and other financial institutions and the impact of market structures and price formation on systemic behavior. Most of them appeared in brownie print journals, as we now call them – the Review of Economic Studies, Economica, Econometrica, and the Economic Journal – and were to form the core of his book, Essays in the Theory of Economic Fluctuations (1939).

Toporowski (p. 81-87) discusses Kalecki’s remarkable review of The General Theory, Kalecki (1936), a ‘turning point in the history of economics’ in the reviewer’s judgment. Sadly it was in Polish and was not fully translated into Italian until 1979 and English until 1982. The review clearly establishes Kalecki’s independent discovery of the principal propositions of The General Theory, setting them in a much more appropriate Marxist structure than the Marshallian structure of Keynes. Kalecki met Joan Robinson in 1936. They became close friends and she was from then on the most enthusiastic proponent of his independent and, in some ways, better claim. Through her he was to meet Keynes and Richard Kahn, as well as other key Cambridge figures – Maurice Dobb, Austin Robinson, and Piero Sraffa. Toporowski does not quote Kaleki’s typically dry, witty, remark that when he came to England he wanted to meet an English gentleman, but that he only met two, one was a communist and the other was an Italian.

Kalecki was an excellent empirical researcher, partly because of the projects he did at the Institute and later in Cambridge, partly because he always wished to establish statistical descriptions of the economy with which to test his theories. His procedure was a forerunner of Kaldor’s “stylized facts.” In his endorsement of Toporowski’s book, Robert Solow mentions Kalecki’s “characteristic way of producing ideas [starting with] a few broad brush empirically-based assumptions.”

Kalecki eventually ended up at Cambridge after his Rockefeller grant ran out and other possible openings had not come to fruition. Amusingly, he was recommended for what had been Walras’s and then Pareto’s chair at Lausanne, strongly supported in a memorandum drawn up by Marshack with Kahn, Keynes, Ohlin, Tinbergen, Frisch, Joan Robinson and Hayek waiting in the wings. Kalecki was “flattered” but told Kahn “it is … without practical importance since I cannot of course lecture in French” (p. 115).

His Cambridge post was that of statistical assistant for a Cambridge Research Scheme to work on a project financed by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research in London but set up, principally by Keynes, in Cambridge in 1938 as a forerunner of the Department of Applied Economics (it started in 1945, with Richard Stone, its first director). The project concerned the trade cycle, “the process of economic change in the United Kingdom since 1928.” This annoyed Dennis Robertson who considered the cycle his sole patch; the Appointments Committee became deadlocked between Kalecki (supported by Austin Robinson, Dobb and Sraffa) and Erwin Robarth (supported by David Champernowne, of whom he was “a mirror image”) until the latter obtained an academic position in the Statistics Department (p. 124). Kalecki started work at the beginning of 1939, assisted by Brian Tew and Yu-Nan Hsu, of whom, Sraffa told Joan Robinson, only one was Chinese.

Toporowski describes graphically the growing lack of comprehension of Keynes and others associated with overseeing the project of Kalecki’s approach to method which was grounded in Continental European procedures, not Cambridge and Marshallian ones. There were serious misunderstandings and inappropriate criticisms of the many empirical papers Kalecki and his assistants produced. Nonetheless, Keynes remained an admirer and strong supporter of Kalecki and Kahn had always gone out of his way to help Kalecki whose contributions and standing as an economist he greatly admired: he backed up Joan Robinson’s enthusiastic support of Kalecki and his work which she saw as an integral part of the new thinking in economics at Cambridge. Nevertheless it was a shame that Kalecki was not kept on at Cambridge for then the later part of his life would have been so much less fraught than what in fact happened.

At various places in the book Toporowski sets out the contrasts between Poland’s two greatest economists, Oscar Lange and Kalecki. Almost exact contemporaries, friends for much of their lives, yet their backgrounds, personalities, general interests and approach to economics and even to politics, though both were Socialists, differed markedly. Toporowski does not say so outright but it may be deduced from the evidence that Kalecki was the deeper, more prescient thinker and had more personal integrity than his now more remembered contemporary. Toporowski’s book thus makes clear that Kalecki is one of the most remarkable persons ever to grace “our miserable subject.” He was both a unique economist and a splendid, courageous human being with complete integrity, who, despite few social graces, was able to inspire affection and fine work in equal measure from colleagues who invariably became his friends.


Kalecki, M. (1935) “A Macrodynamic Theory of Business Cycles,” Econometrica, 3, 327-44.

Kalecki, M. (1936) “Pare uwag o teorii Keynesa,” Economista, 3, translated as “Some Remarks on Keynes’s Theory” in F. Targetti and B. Kinda-Hass (1982) Australian Economic Papers, 21, 244-60.

Kalecki, M. (1939) Essays in the Theory of Economic Fluctuations, London: Allen and Unwin.

Robinson, J. (1977) “Michal Kalecki on the Economics of Capitalism,” Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 39, 7-18.

Geoffrey C. Harcourt is the author of numerous books and articles including Joan Robinson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)) and The Structure of Post-Keynesian Economics (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII