April 2018 newsletter – Anthony Alan Brewer

Anthony Brewer, born in 1942 and passed away on 20 February 2018, was an eminent historian of economic thought. Tony was Emeritus Professor of the History of Economics at the University of Bristol which he joined in 1967. He served as the Head of Department of Economics at the University of Bristol which he joined in 1967. He served as the Head of Department of Economics from 2001 until 2004 and remained active in research and teaching until he retired in 2008.

Tony took his degree at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Initially his interests were in capital theory and he published on technical change, labour-managed firms and international economics. From the 1980s onward his studies increasingly turned to the earlier epochs of economic theory. His first book, published in 1980, was Marxist Theories of Imperialism, a Critical Survey, of which the second edition appeared in Japanese translation in 1991. His A Guide to Marx’s Capital (1984) was translated into Chinese in 1992.

Subsequently Tony focused on the 18th century. During the later 1980s and throughout the 1990s he was a prolific author of articles and reviews dealing with many aspects of the emergence of political economy in Britain and France. Perhaps his most significant contribution was Richard Cantillon: Pioneer of Economic Theory, published in 1992, a book-length study of one of his favourite early economists. Tony generally attempted to understand economic writings by concentrating on the internal consistencies of the theories of early authors. Sometimes, as in his analysis of the French statesman and economist A R J Turgot (1727-1781), this approach took the shape of a formal ‘rational reconstruction intended to reveal the logical structure of [Turgot’s] system’ (Brewer 1987, 417). He felt that such systematic reconstructions led to more thorough and meaningful insights than anecdotal approaches of previous historians who were mostly interested in finding the origins of modern ideas expressed in isolated passages of old texts. Unlike other historians of his generation, for example Donald Winch, who sought to situate earlier economic thought in the wider intellectual context of the time, Tony felt that by reconstructing the logical structure of their ideas, economists like Turgot and Cantillon could be shown to stand comparison with modern economic theory. The Making of the Classical Theory of Economic Growth (2011) reprinted a number of his articles, together with an introduction that summarised his views on the formation of classical conceptions of economic growth, giving pride of place to Adam Smith and, to a lesser extent, Turgot, Hume, Ferguson and Rae.

It was for his teaching in the history of economic thought that numerous students will remember Tony. He taught an undergraduate module on the history of economic thought for four decades and kept the subject at the heart of the economics programme at Bristol even when, from the mid-1980s onwards, it was increasingly vanishing from similar programmes elsewhere in the UK. He was an active propagator of the study of the history of economic thought in other ways too. He ranDocuments for the History of Economics, one of the earliest historical repositories of economic texts on the Internet, which was mirrored and updated from earlier work undertaken by Rod Hay at McMaster University. His undergraduate course drew greatly on this resource, introducing students to the development of economic thought through an active engagement with some of the primary material available in the repository. Many students and colleagues will remember that, through his long association with the University and the city, he amassed a singularly impressive knowledge of Bristol’s local history that he wove into his teaching and conversations. It is a fitting testament to Tony’s efforts to promote the subject that the course he set up remains a popular and integral part of Bristol’s undergraduate economics programme today. As research in the history of the discipline flourished, while its teaching declined, Tony was a founding member of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought, and in the years 2006-2010 fulfilled roles as member of the Executive Committee and General Secretary. He served also as book review editor for the Bulletin of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought. Well-known and much-liked amongst historians of economic thought he held visiting positions at Duke University (North Carolina), Antwerp University (Belgium) and Chuo University (Tokyo).

Brewer A, 1987, ‘Turgot: Founder of Classical Economics’, Economica, 54, 417-428.

Richard van den Berg, Kingston Business School
Alvin Birdi, Department of Economics, University of Bristol