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History of Political Economy 35.1 (2003) 105-134

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Death of a Revolutionary Textbook

J. E. King and Alex Millmow


I don't care who writes a nation's laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.

—Paul Samuelson, quoted in Skousen 1997, 150

A little more than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the publication of An Introduction to Modern Economics by Joan Robinson and John Eatwell (1973). This textbook was designed to revolutionize the teaching of elementary economics and to displace the influence of mainstream texts like those of Paul Samuelson and Richard Lipsey. Its lack of success marked something of a turning point in the history of economics, since it symbolized the collapse of the radical attempt to challenge orthodox theory at the pedagogical level. In this article we explain the circumstances in which the book came to be written and examine the causes and consequences of its failure. [End Page 105]


Joan Robinson had very definite views on the teaching of economics, which were closely linked to her experience under the Cambridge tutorial system and (at least in the later stages of her career) to her beliefs concerning the defects of mainstream theory and methodology. As early as 1933 she had affirmed, in an unpublished paper, that “our aim is principally to teach our students to think” (quoted in Emami 1994, 675). Students were to be active participants in the learning process, not passive recipients of some universally applicable received truth. This could be achieved by giving students a “do it yourself” text. Robinson was a lifelong enemy of dogma, whether it be neoclassical or Marxist. As her criticism of the ahistorical, static, and apologetic nature of mainstream economics matured, so did her opinions on the teaching of the subject develop accordingly. In a 1960 article, discussed in some detail by Zohreh Emami (Robinson 1960b; Emami 1994, 676–78), Robinson attacked the irrelevance of neoclassical theory for students from developing countries and asserted the need to begin the economics course with an analysis of the history of economic thought and the diverse economic systems that great thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Marshall, and Keynes had in mind when they wrote. She would continue by focusing on production, accumulation, and distribution rather than on price theory, all in the context of encouraging her students to adopt an independent and critical approach to economic analysis.

If these views implied some hostility to the monolithic complacency of the standard undergraduate textbooks, they did not mean that Robinson was opposed to texts as such. On the contrary, this was an art that she herself had dabbled in over the years. She was the author of a short primer on Keynesian macroeconomics, Introduction to the Theory of Employment (1937). Many years later she published a much more advanced and comprehensive self-teaching manual titled Exercises in Economic Analysis (1960). The first book was favorably reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry Smith, principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, and a man with considerable experience of the needs of adult students, described it as “an admirable book and one to be recommended without qualification to students, lay or professional” (Smith 1938, 75; cf. Hardy 1938). The Exercises, however, was much less successful, for reasons discussed in section VI below. [End Page 106]

Her Economic Heresies (1971) was not exactly a textbook, but as a provocative and wide-ranging survey of contemporary developments and discontents in economic theory it attracted a great deal of critical attention, much of it laudatory. For the (anonymous) reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement it was “a masterly book” (“Getting Back to the Essentials” 1971). Others found it “original and thought-provoking” (Wasserman 1971, 96), offering “a stimulating educational experience . . . . it should be required reading for advanced students in economics” (Asimakopulos 1972, 314, 316). It provided “a rich experience in intellectual stimulation and analytical expertise and, like all Joan Robinson's work, present[s] keen insights and concise criticisms” (Moszer 1972, 70). Some neoclassical critics accused...


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