Jan Toporowski (1968 - 1984)

jan-toporowskiIn my present job, as Professor of Economics and Finance at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, I tend to keep quiet about my formative years at CREES. Part of this reluctance to reveal all about my past is my own desire to avoid wasting time explaining the relevance of this background to my current work. I would have to tell the puzzled interlocutor about Phil Hanson’s lectures on Soviet economics in 1969, in which he put forward the new view (at the time) that the institutions of Soviet economic management were a means for overcoming economic backwardness, rather than replacing capitalism. Some of my colleagues know about Alexander Gerschenkron’s analysis of the problem of economic backwardness in Russia, and are aware of its applications to the economies of many developing countries today, in particular his examination of the role of finance in the process of economic development, an analysis of immediate relevance today. Still more of my colleagues have been inspired by Russian discussions of land reform. But why study at CREES to access this rich literature?

My own studies in CREES arose less out of any desire to apply the results of those studies to the economics of Africa and Asia, and more out of my Polish émigré background. On arrival in Birmingham in 1968 to study for a degree in social sciences, I found my politics challenged by the political and intellectual ferment on the campus at the time. Moshe Lewin, who was at CREES at the time, was instrumental in showing me another side of Polish political culture, a revolutionary tradition that stretched back to the 1905 Revolution. Under his supervision I completed an undergraduate dissertation on Polish workers’ councils in 1917-1919. I recall scholarly political discussions at the time with Julian Cooper, who was a young lecturer at the time. Philip Hanson, lectured on Soviet economics, and I remember Bob Davies as an approachable but statesman-like figure.

I graduated in Political Science in 1972, and shortly afterwards went into the very different world of fund management, which inspired me to study economics at Birkbeck College, University of London. On completion of my M.Sc. degree there I sought to extend my research by studying for a PhD degree. I had a vague idea of the topic: shortages in Polish economic planning. There were three institutions at which I could do this. Birkbeck College itself, where Richard Portes was a respected theorist on shortages in Eastern Europe; The School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), in the next building from Birkbeck; and CREES. However, Birkbeck economics was promoting a narrow, econometrics to research that, in my view, was not generating either good economics or good policy. SSEES was weak in economics and had an anti-Communist research agenda. In the end it was no contest: CREES had the expertise and, very important at the time, the lively political and intellectual engagement with the ideas that motivated economic policy-making in the Soviet bloc. I completed my PhD (an econometric one, but with ideas behind it) under Phil Hanson’s supervision in 1982. At one stage Mario Nuti took part in my supervision, but he soon left for a more glamorous appointment.

So I recall with some nostalgia the arguments around the reform of Eastern European socialism (Alec Nove’s ‘real existing socialism’), around workers’ control and the Solidarity trades union in Poland, and around the significance of the Eastern European experience of socialism for socialism in Western Europe, and Britain in particular, where Margaret Thatcher was carefully and confrontationally unpicking the seams of the post-War welfare state. I remember sharing a taxi with Alec Nove at one of CREES’ annual conferences.

There were few career opportunities at that time in Eastern European economics and when they did come, in the 1990s, they were for a kind of work that did not arouse my enthusiasm. I returned to the City and became a financial economist. Were my studies at CREES wasted? Not at all! At CREES that I made my first serious study of the work of Michał Kalecki, Poland’s most original economist of the twentieth century. He witnessed the revolutionary turmoil in that country from 1905 onwards, but engaged too with the policy dilemmas and finances of more developed capitalist countries. My intellectual biography of Kalecki, due to come out in 2013, rests on the foundation of my formative studies at CREES. I will always be grateful to CREES for engaging me in serious, scholarly study that was of little immediate financial benefit, but of great intellectual inspiration, exactly what one should find in a good university education.