One of the most prominent economists of the century, Joan Robinson incarnated the ‘Cambridge School’ in most of its guises in the 20th century: as a cutting-edge Marshallian before and after 1936; as one of the earliest and most ardent Keynesians and finally as one of the leaders of the Neo-Ricardian and Post Keynesian schools. Robinson’s contributions to economics are far too numerous to elucidate fairly. Unlike most economists, she was not a ‘one idea’ person, but rather made many fundamental contributions to very different areas of economics.
She was born Joan Violet Maurice in Surrey, England to a controversial family. Her father, Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice gained notoriety by accusing Prime Minister Lloyd George of misleading parliament and nation during World War I. She studied economics at Girton College, Cambridge, and immediately upon graduation in 1925, married the young economist Austin Robinson. In 1926, the Robinsons went to India, during which she got involved in research committee on Anglo-Indian economic relations. They returned to Cambridge in 1929.
During the 1930s, Joan Robinson taught Cambridge, published three books and numerous articles, participated in John Maynard Keynes’s “Circus”, took up activities for the British Labour Party and still found time to give birth to two daughters. She became a full lecturer in 1937.
Robinson’s early contributions tended to be fundamental extensions of neo-classical theory: her 1941 paper on the theory of cost actually served, paradoxically, to assist neo-classical general equilibrium theory dodge Piero Sraffa’s (1926) critique (which is why it elicited so much praise from Jacob Viner). Her expository article on the neo-classical marginal productivity theory of distribution (1934) was no less mainstream.
However, Joan Robinson promised trouble from the start. In her famous 1933 book, she introduced the theory of imperfect competition to economics following this up with an explanatory article (1934). Robinson was quick to move on beyond her theory of imperfect competition – in spite of the fact that its success in modern textbooks.
The cause of her sudden turnaround was John Maynard Keynes General Theory. As a member of Keynes’s “Circus” at Cambridge during the writing of that treatise, Robinson produced early faithful expositions of Keynes’s theory (1936, 1937).
Prompted by Michal Kalecki, Robinson soon set out to tackle the work of Karl Marx. Although not exactly entranced by the labour theory of value, Robinson’s 1942 Essay on Marxian Economics proved ground-breaking, fresh, insightful, critical and, above all, was among the first studies to take Karl Marx seriously as an economist. It effectively helped draw Marxian economics from its moribund and half-chewed existence in political debate.
In the 1940s and 1950s, her activities continued apace. During the war, she had worked on various economic committees for both the Labour Party and for government. She also made several official trips to the Soviet Union, China and Ceylon. She became a reader at Cambridge in 1949. In a famous incident, she declined an invitation from Ragnar Frisch in the early 1950s to become vice-president of the Econometric Society because, in her explanation, she could not be part of the editorial committee of a journal she couldn’t read.
In 1956, Robinson published her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, which sought to extend Keynes’s theory to account for long-run issues of growth and capital accumulation. This was followed up by a more lucid exposition of growth theory (1962), whereupon the concept of a variety of ‘golden age’ growth paths (including the Golden Rule) were laid out. Her work on growth paralleled and complemented that of fellow Cantabrigian, Nicholas Kaldor. Together, they developed what became known as ‘Cambridge growth theory’.
Her work on capital had been initiated with an investigation of the problems arising from capital aggregation (1954), which was followed up with the exposition of the ‘Ruth Cohen Curiosum’ in her Accumulation of Capital (1956). Drawing upon Piero Sraffa (1960) and Robinson, the Neo-Ricardian ‘classical revival’ began with a storm – the Cambridge Capital Controversy, in which she led the Cambridge assault on the American Neo-Keynesians.
Towards the end of her life, Robinson’s work concentrated mostly on methodological problems in economics (notably, stressing her dissatisfaction with ‘equilibrium’ theories) and trying to revive the original message of Keynes’s General Theory. Her many popular writings (1962, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1978, 1979, 1980) brought her an even greater prominence with a wider public. She was invited to address the American Economic Association in 1971, wherein she gave one of her most provocative deliveries. An attempt to bring the Cambridge approach to a wider audience culminated in the publication of a rather unique “principles” textbook with John Eatwell in 1973, but it failed to make a substantial headway.
Robinson was also intensely interested in problems in underdeveloped and developing countries – a natural outgrowth of her work on growth – and made substantial contributions in that direction as well. However, in later years, Robinson embarrassed many foes and friends alike with her far-too-laudatory comments of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Robinson joined the British Academy in 1958 and was elected fellow of Newnham College in 1962. In 1965, she finally became a full professor and a fellow of Girton College. In 1979, she became the first female fellow of King’s College. Her lack of a Nobel Prize has been considered one of the saddest ‘oversights’ of the modern economics profession – or one of the most outrageous cases of deliberate neglect. Nonetheless, the real ‘prize’ is better than any Nobel: while other prominent economists drop into obscurity, her legendary works have maintained their analytical and inspirational hold on economics. A mere glance at her eclectic and voluminous collection of works remains perhaps among the better testaments to both the depth and breadth of the impact Joan Robinson had on economic theory as a whole.