Obituary - Donald Winch

Donald Winch was one of the leading historians of eighteenth and nineteenth century British economics, his last two books, Riches and Poverty (1996) and Wealth and Life (2009) telling that story from Adam Smith to the First World War. A principle to which he attached great importance was the need to understand economists’ writings in relation to the circumstances under which they were written and not to impose on them ideas that, though second nature to modern economists, their authors would not have recognised.

Born on 15 April 1935, he studied economics at LSE before taking his PhD at Princeton, supervised by the legendary Jacob Viner. As a Lecturer, first at Edinburgh and then at the recently founded University of Sussex, he produced a book on the political economists’ attitudes towards the colonies, and an edition of the writings of James Mill (a major figure in his own right and the father of John Stuart Mill) before branching out with a book on the interwar period, Economics and Policy (1969), followed by The Economic Advisory Council, 1930-1939: A Study of Economic Advice during Depression and Recovery (1976, with Susan Howson).

He began to present his work as intellectual history rather than history of economics during a sabbatical at Princeton in 1974-5, where he was guided by Quentin Skinner (a British intellectual historian also on sabbatical there) in writing Adam Smith’s Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (1978). This book did not present politics as something additional to Smith's economics but saw Smith's Wealth of Nations as part of a much larger project, rooted in trying to make sense of contemporary political developments. Donald’s persuasive treatment of this foundational work argued that Smith should not be seen as an economist, for to do this would be to impose on the work a category that he would not have known and would probably have contested.

This approach was developed further with two colleagues at Sussex, John Burrow and Stefan Collini, in That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (1978). Smith had written of ‘the science of the legislator’ and nineteenth-century writers from Malthus, Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and, later in the century, Sidgwick and Marshall, described themselves as developing a ‘science of politics’, a very broad term that embraced what we now consider economics and sociology. This perspective led Donald to disparage his earlier work, even though those works on economics and policy continued to inspire economists, and be important sources for those interested in the use of economics in the public domain.

His last two books were very different in character. Riches and Poverty was subtitled An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834. He shows how Smith’s science of the legislator was taken up by political figures as diverse as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine against the backdrop of the American and French revolutions. This, not the very different mid-eighteenth century world out of which the Wealth of Nations emerged, was the context in which Malthus, helpfully presented as a ‘political moralist’, presented a set of arguments about riches and poverty that continued until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Malthus provoked a fierce response from the Lake Poets, a confrontation between two very different approaches to, and understanding of, life that continued into the twentieth century. In contrast, Wealth and Life, is modestly presented not as an intellectual history but a set of essays. Where the first book had centred on Smith, the second focussed on John Stuart Mill, who embodied the conflict between political economy and romanticism in his own life, and ended at the time when economics (a term in use since Marshall’s Principles) was becoming established as an academic discipline

Donald's academic life was not without honours (most especially: Fellow of the British Academy 1986, and then Vice President, 1993-4; and Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economics Society, 2007). Nor was it without duties ( Dean, School of Social Sciences 1968-74, and then Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1986-9, of the University of Sussex); nor without interesting visiting positions (UC Berkeley, IAS Princeton, Kyoto and many others). In 1968 he organised the first UK history of economic thought conference, which became an annual fixture. His most significant contribution to economics as a profession lay in his service to the Royal Economic Society. In 1971 Donald became Publications Secretary, a role he held until 2016: an amazing tenure (which entailed long service on the RES Executive Committee during a period in which the Society moved beyond its Cambridge roots into a professional society for the wider discipline). This was no sinecure but a vital position for the society notably because of its commitment (with considerable financial implications) to publish not only the collected writings of Keynes, but also those of Ricardo and Jevons. He oversaw many other smaller projects including essays by Marshall, and he commissioned some of the most important editions of works by Malthus and Edgeworth. He initiated the digitization of these works, and regretted that he was unable to complete this project for the Society during his tenure. He also served for eight years as Book Review Editor of the Economic Journal, during a period when economists still read books!

Donald was the most wonderful scholar who will be heartily missed both within the circles of historians and economists who knew him. But, perhaps more important for our wider discipline, he was a wonderful ambassador for economics especially in relation to the humanities. In any interaction with Donald, he opened up horizons not just because of his own knowledge, but because he became so thoroughly engaged in questions his interlocutors were asking. Conversations with him developed into and out of so many directions, all of them rewarding, all of them worthwhile, and in all of them, Donald’s wit, irony, and tremendous intellectual energy left one with the experience of having had wonderful arguments that always made you think anew.

Roger E Backhouse, University of Birmingham
Mary S Morgan, London School of Economics

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