Wednesday, June 04, 2014


While working on Paul Samuelson’s “Economics: an analytical introduction” for a journal article following Samuelson’s death in 2010, I was researching the influence of Paul Samuelson on the design and writing of a new student text, published in 1948. Some of this research informed and was used in my paper: Gavin Kennedy. “Paul Samuelson and the invention of the modern economics of the Invisible HandJournal of the History of Economic Ideas”, no 3, 2010; also see “Lost Legacy”, 17 April, 2010.  I also read all 19 editions of Samuelson’s “Economics” text from 1948-2010 for his references to the “invisible hand” (I still have many copies on hand, but space limits how many I can hold).

In those months I came across many papers and copies of letters between academics on both the author and those among US academics who were sent copies of the Text’s manuscripts or published editions from McGraw-Hill, seeking their opinions as to its potential adoption by US universities as a class text.   In this latter mission McGraw-Hill was successful and Samuelson’s text was adopted by many universites in the US and elsewhere becoming the most successful economics text of all time, selling upwards of 5 million copies, plus a massive second-hand market.  By any standards it was a commercial success in what became a crowded market and made substantial profits for McGraw-Hill, plus handsome royalties for Samuelson. It was the set text when I was an undergraduate in 1965 at Strathclyde University (Glasgow, Scotland).

Among my note-books I found a short account of Samuel’s McCarthy-ite experience in the above French working paper series that was astonishing at the time but it was not germain to my main research.  Consequently I noted it and forgot about it until this week.  

The suspicions expressed in the correspondence among University officals reminded me of the atmosphere of political panic that swept across US politics spawned by over-reaction to the rise of the cold war threat from the Soviet Union after the 2nd World War and its expansionism across Eastern Europe.  Aparently, on a smaller scale, some academic witchhunters turned their attention to Paul Samuelson and his ‘subversive’ “Economics” textbook.  Briefly Samuelson was suspected of ‘communist leanings’ and ‘subversion’.
I made a couple of extracts, one by a man named as “Beadle” and one by in between Frank Chesterman and somebody called ‘Chesterman, who in turn corresponds with Samuelson. Beadle wrote: “It is perfectly known that the young man is socially minded if not strictly communistic.  I question whether Samuelson is a member of the subversive societies we hear so much about because his line of reasoning and method of expressing his thoughts are those of that group.”  
Frank Chesterman enquired of Compton on July 21, 1947 and he wrote to Samuelson to which Samuelson replied to Compton, August 7, 1947:  “The book is no sense a ‘leftwing work’ and I have never, myself, been connected with leftwing organisations of any kind or with organisations working with such groups, or for that matter with any labor organsations whatsoever.” (p 11-12).  There is much more in the Working Paper’s text.
These papers are published in: Thema Working Paper, no 2011-18, Universite de Cergy Pointoise: “Yann Giraud, 2011. "The Political Economy of Textbook Writing: Paul Samuelson and the making of the first ten Editions of Economics (1945-1976)," THEMA Working Papers 2011-18, THEMA (Théorie Economique, Modélisation et Applications), Université de Cergy-Pontoise.
Here is the abstract: “The Political Economy of Textbook Writing : Paul Samuelson and the making of the first Ten Editions of Economics (1945-1976)”
Abstract Over the past two decades, numerous contributions to the history of economics have tried to assess Paul Samuelson's political positioning by tracing it in the subsequent editions of his famous textbook Economics. This literature, however, has provided no consensus about the location of Samuelson's political ideas. While some authors believe that Samuelson has always had inclinations toward interventionism, others conclude that he more often acted as a pro-business advocate. The purpose of this paper is not to argue for one of these two interpretations but to depict the making of Economics itself as a political process. By 'political' it is not meant the conduct of party politics but the many [rival] political elements that a textbook author has to take into account if he wants to be published and favorably received. I argue that the "middle of the road" stance that Samuelson adopted in the book was consciously constructed by the MIT economist, with the help of his home institution and his publishing company, McGraw-Hill, to ensure both academic freedom and the success of the book. The reason for which the stance developed is related to pre-McCarthyist right-wing criticisms of the textbook and how Samuelson and the MIT department had to endure the pressures from members of the Corporation (MIT's Board of Trustees), who tried to prevent the publication of the textbook and threatened Samuelson's tenure at MIT as soon as 1947 - when early manuscripts were circulated. As a result, it was decided in accordance with both the Corporation and McGraw-Hill that the Readings volume would be published to balance conflicting ideas about state intervention. Following these early criticisms, the making of the subsequent editions relied on a network of instructors and referees all over the US in order to make it as successful and consensual as possible. This seemed to work quite well in the 1950s and for a good portion of the 1960s, until Economics became victim of its own success and was seen, in an ironical twist of fate, as a right wing text by younger, radical economists. From now on, Samuelson will try to have his book sent as often as possible to the radicals for referring process, with mixed results. Eventually, the book became criticized from both its left and its right.

Samuelson a communist subversive?  The mind boggles! This was an unhappy period for the USA.  More of an embarassment today. 

FOOTNOTE: I have in my Samuelson library a copy of a book entitled "Anti-Samuelson" written by a Marxist who among other claims, insisted that Communist East Germany was growing faster and had higher standard of living than West Germany!  I wonder what the paranoid witch-hunters of Paul Samuelson felt about that?   
I remember too that some leftward leaning lecturers at Strathclyde considered Samuelson too "rightwing" for their liking...


Blogger Yann G. said...

Dear Gavin,
I just came across your blog post thanks to a search on Repec (apparently they are now indexing blogs, too!). Thank you very much for mentioning my working paper, which has subsequently been published in the special volume of History of Political Economy on MIT economics (december 2014). You are certainly right that PAS has never been much of a left wing subversive although the fact that some people that happened to be benefactors of MIT thought he was created some kind of fascinating culture clash. How he had to justify himself in face of such disparaging comments informs is ethos as a mainstream economist. The second part of the story, that deals with how he dealt with radical economics in the late 1960s and early 1970s is quite revealing too, but I had to cut that part in the subsequently published version although this will hopefully find its way in some future paper at some point.
Kind regards,
Yann Giraud (University of Cergy-Pontoise)

7:29 pm  

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