John Maynard Keynes, Volume II

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Maynard Keynes has been the subject of numerous biographies and economic studies. Why then another book on Keynes? Part of the answer is that most previous studies have been primarily about Keynes’s economic theories and his contributions to the making of economic policy. Robert Skidelsky has had access to a considerable body of new and unpublished material that enables him to discuss in much greater detail the other aspects of Keynes’s life and to integrate them with his activities as an economist.

Skidelsky suggests that the playing of multiple roles constituted one of the central themes of Keynes’s life. During the interwar period, Keynes taught economics at King’s College, Cambridge. Despite his other commitments, he missed teaching only one term between 1919 and 1937. He also became the bursar (chief financial officer) of his college and made investments that added considerably to its wealth. In the 1920’s, he supplemented his teaching salary by writing frequently for the press. He also served on the board of directors of influential journals such as The Nation and took an active interest in making it the mouthpiece of a revived Liberalism. Finally, in addition to authoring several important books during the 1920’s, he was already such an influential economist that he was repeatedly called to London to provide economic advice to the government.

Keynes first became widely known as a result of The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), in which he warned that insistence that Germany make huge reparations payments to the Allies would impede Britain’s economic recovery from the war. As this work was an important factor in turning public opinion against the government’s policy, it is understandable that previous historians have suggested that Keynes became persona non grata to the British government. While some did view Keynes’s book as virtually an act of treason, Skidelsky stresses that Keynes continued to be consulted by policymakers during the 1920’s.

Skidelsky claims that despite The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes had greater influence on British governments during the 1920’s than he did in the 1930’s. David Lloyd George refused to have anything to do with Keynes for several years, but when he resigned as prime minister in 1922, he was replaced by Andrew Bonar Law, with whom Keynes had been friends since both served in the Treasury Department during World War I. During the renegotiation of German reparations payments in 1922, Keynes actually provided advice to both the British and the German governments. Even Lloyd George eventually reconciled with Keynes, and Keynes had a major role in drafting the Liberal Party program that Lloyd George put before the electorate in the 1929 general election.

Was Keynes a New Liberal? Peter Clarke claimed that Keynes continued the pre-World War I left-Liberal tradition of social reform. Skidelsky disagrees, pointing out that Keynes viewed the New Liberal social theory, based on Oxford idealism, as a confused muddle. Also, Keynes was concerned with ensuring the stability of capitalism rather than with the redistribution of wealth that New Liberals urged. A full-employment economic policy might result in a degree of redistribution of wealth, but for Keynes this was a relatively insignificant consequence of a policy that he urged on other grounds. Furthermore, while New Liberals valued democracy for its own sake, he believed that the formation of wise economic policies requires a level of knowledge beyond that of the average voter; thus he preferred the state to be run by an elite of experts.

Because Keynes was homosexual, his friends were astonished at his marriage to Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina, in 1925. They were even more disturbed by the woman he chose than by his sudden display of heterosexuality. Keynes belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a small circle of artists and writers who prized conversation of a highly intellectual nature. As Lydia was not a native English speaker, she was at a considerable disadvantage in the group and was ridiculed by Virginia Woolf and other members. Although Keynes remained a member of the Bloomsbury Group, its...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)