(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy at England’s University of Warwick, has for over two decades explored the life and career of John Maynard Keynes, the most influential and controversial economist of the twentieth century. John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed (1983) takes Keynes from his birth in 1883 through the end of World War I, which culminated in his brilliant polemic against the Treaty of Versailles,The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). The second volume, subtitled The Economist as Savior (1992) relates Keynes’s responses to the postwar economic problems which beset Great Britain and the economic crisis of the Great Depression, which led to Keynes’s critique of current economic practices in his seminal and revolutionary work,General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). Skidelsky’s final volume covers the years of World War II and its immediate aftermath, ending with Keynes’s death in 1946.

Although he taught at Cambridge University for many years, Keynes was not merely an ivory tower intellectual. The results of the lecture hall and the library were to have practical applications. He served the British government in various capacities over several decades, in war and peace, and because of those real-world experiences, his theories were never fixed and unchanging, although that was less true in the hands of his disciples and successors. Keynes also became very wealthy through his many investments in the stock market. Finally, he had many other artistic and intellectual interests and concerns, and he was a central figure in the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists that included such figures as novelist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and biographer Lytton Strachey (1880-1932).

Skidelsky’s third volume begins in 1937, with Keynes recovering from a debilitating illness, a condition which continued with greater or lesser severity until the end of his life. That Keynes accomplished so much in spite of his medical problems testifies to his indomitable will as well as the regimen given to him by his somewhat unorthodox doctor, Janos Plesch, whom Keynes nicknamed “the Ogre.” Loving care was also provided by his Russian-born wife, former ballerina Lydia Lopokova, herself a fascinating figure because of her bohemian behavior and dress and her eccentric use of the English language. In the years covered by Fighting for Freedom, Keynes and Lydia were rarely apart, whether they were at their residence in London, their country estate in Sussex, or on frequent trips to the United States.

The author calls the events of this volume “Keynes’s War” to differentiate it from “Churchill’s War.” The military events of World War II are referred to only in the context of Keynes’s endeavors to finance the British war effort against Nazi Germany, an effort devoted simply to sheer survival until the United States entered the war in December, 1941. Not the least interesting and valuable aspect of Skidelsky’s work is the often conflicting relationship between Great Britain and the United States, a conflict fought over and between opposing goals, financial responsibilities, strong personalities, and different political institutions and traditions.

Fighting for Freedom is divided into three sections. The first focuses upon how Britain financed the war. Part 2 discusses Keynes’s aims that the second world war would end differently from the first, economically and socially. The final section relates his negotiations with the United States government in obtaining assistance for Britain’s reconversion from war to peace in a way that would also preserve some freedom of action for a Britain threatened by the new ambitions of the American behemoth.

In 1937, two years before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Keynes was concerned about how to pay for the possible if not inevitable war. Fearing that military demands would lead to full employment and rising wages, which would impinge on government resources needed to pay for the war, Keynes argued for increased taxes and compulsory savings rather than the alternatives of inflation, voluntary savings, or rationing and price controls. Keynes, a liberal rather than a socialist, was always wary of excessive state power, preferring instead to manage demand by fiscal means rather than government planning, price fixing, or bureaucratic regulations. Skidelsky notes that “Keynes had found his own point of equilibrium between individualism and collectivism and he held...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)