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The Provocative Joan Robinson: The Making of a Cambridge Economist

Author(s):Aslanbeigui, Nahid
Oakes,, Guy
Reviewer(s):Namorato, Michael V.

Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Nahid Aslanbeigui and Guy Oakes, The Provocative Joan Robinson: The Making of a Cambridge Economist.? Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. x + 320 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8223-4538-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael V. Namorato, Department of History, University of Mississippi.

Nahid Aslanbeigui and Guy Oakes have written a most interesting and insightful book on the early career of Joan Robinson at Cambridge University. Using a wide variety of primary source materials such as correspondence, lectures, and personal papers, the authors have put together a very detailed account of how Joan Robinson broke through the ?male? barrier at Cambridge to become not only a close advisor and defender of John Maynard Keynes but also a controversial lecturer at this most prestigious university. During the 1930s, Joan Robinson went from a somewhat unknown economist to one of the most outspoken proponents of the Keynesian revolution while simultaneously making her own significant contributions to the theory of imperfect competition and monetary theory in general.

The authors portray Joan Robinson as an arrogant, self-confident, manipulative, and opportunistic individual who used every means at her disposal to advance her career. She married Austin Robinson, a known economist at the time, who provided her with the lifestyle she needed to do research and writing.? Freed from the everyday responsibilities of being a wife and mother, Joan Robinson was able to focus on what she wanted to do in economics. More surprising too, in the authors? presentation, was her lack of knowledge in basic economic literature and, more importantly, her self-confessed inability to do mathematics on any but the most elementary level.? In addition to Austin Robinson, she had an affair with Richard Kahn, also a fairly well-known economist in the 1930s. It was Kahn who would review her writings, serve as a liaison to Keynes and other well-known Cambridge dons, and inform her of any opportunities that might have arisen to ingratiate herself with Keynes. There is no doubt, in the authors? minds, that Robinson not only wanted to become a lecturer at Cambridge, but she wanted to be among the closest advisers and friends of Keynes. In fact, she worked hard to become one of the most outspoken defenders and proponents of the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. She not only read Keynes? drafts, but she also went on to write an introductory textbook designed to recruit new and young economists who would be immersed in the new economics that Keynes had devised. Despite her rubbing some of the Cambridge notables in the wrong way — such as Pigou, Sraffa, Fay, or Robertson — Joan Robinson was ruthless in pursuing her goals and fostering her views upon young students who would be the new vanguard of the Keynesian revolution. In the end, she was successful. She did win Keynes? confidence, she did get a lectureship at Cambridge, and she did establish herself among the economics profession. The costs to herself and her family are unknown. The authors mention that Joan Robinson would have nervous breakdowns in 1938 and later 1952. Yet, somehow, that did not seem to matter as much to her as what she had accomplished at Cambridge in the 1930s. In retrospect, the final irony in all of this is that Keynes? perception of economics and publishing theory was quite different than Joan Robinson?s. Where Keynes looked to his critics to help him find theoretical problems with his thinking in order to correct them and offer a more plausible analysis, Robinson, on the other hand, saw such argumentation as senseless and a waste of time. Instead, she thought that effort needed to be expended on acquiring new recruits for the new world that Keynesian economics had created. She, of course, saw herself as one of the primary leaders in that effort.

In assessing The Provocative Joan Robinson, it is clear that the authors have done a substantial amount of research on Robinson?s early career at Cambridge. Not only is their research exhaustive, but the manner in which they present their case is very clear. Their writing is lucid and very much to the point that they are trying to make. It should also be pointed out that the authors show a side of Cambridge that many today probably are not aware of. The in-fighting among the Cambridge notables, their constant need for praise and advancement, and their well-established ?good ole boy? network stand out as most informative in the book.

Nevertheless, just as there are strengths in this study, there are weaknesses as well.? The book is somewhat tedious to read, especially when the authors review the almost day-by-day developments between Robinson and/or Kahn, Keynes, Robertson, and others. The limited scope of the book is also troubling. In effect, the authors have spent a considerable amount of time and effort on a period of only about 10 to 15 years in Robinson?s life.? They seem to just drop everything that happened to her after her appointment as a lecturer at Cambridge. Readers would like to know what else happened to the person they are reading about.? Finally, the book is decidedly one-sided, always showing Robinson?s point of view in every situation. While they do make a sincere effort to discuss people like Sraffa in their disagreements with Robinson, in the end, the focus is still the same. This is most disconcerting when it is applied to Keynes. If one accepts their arguments about Robinson?s opportunism and her ability to manipulate others to do her bidding, then people like Keynes come across as being somewhat na?ve in allowing themselves to be so manipulated. It is rather difficult to think that someone of Keynes? standing and intellectual ability was so adeptly handled by Robinson to do her bidding.? At least this reviewer thinks not.? If Robinson was successful in entering Keynes? inner circle and of becoming one of his chief defenders, it was only because that is the way he wanted it. Still, the authors have to be given credit for providing an argument that can be dissected and analyzed.

In the end, the book?s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And, for that reason, it is a significant contribution to our understanding of twentieth century Cambridge life and the inner workings of some of the most important economic thinkers of our time.

Michael V. Namorato is a Professor of History at the University of Mississippi.? He is the author of Rexford Tugwell: A Biography, and editor of both The Diary of Rexford G. Tugwell and The New Deal and the South.

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