Public Keynes, Private Keynes


John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed (1883–1920), by Robert Skidelsky, New York: Delacorte, 295 pages, $16.95

John Maynard Keynes died in 1946, his name a household word to a generation that looked to economics to build a brave new postwar world. The official biography, written in hero-worshipping style by R.F. Harrod, appeared in 1951 and has stood for 30 years. In 1967, however, Michael Holroyd published his life of Lytton Strachey with its revelation of Keynes's early homosexuality, scandalizing earnest economists unused to such vagaries on the part of their intellectual heroes.

This released a spate of letters, diaries, and memoirs pertaining to the tangled lives and loves of the Bloomsbury group, Keynes's intimate friends—a stream that kept up through the '70s until it seemed that every tiff endured by the most minor member was chronicled. At the same time, the Royal Economic Society's vast memorial, the 30-volume edition of Keynes's Collected Writings, arrived tome by tome as the British Public Record Office released its files, university libraries got around to cataloguing their holdings, and more and more papers kept turning up—even in such unlikely containers as a laundry basket.

Never, publicly and privately, was a hero so documented! And few personages have lived such a many-faceted life. Keynes was not only the academic economist whose general theory set the framework for discussion of his subject for years to come. He was also a most persuasive publicist of his own ideas, a practical financier who made a fortune on the stock exchange, a self-sacrificing civil servant in two world wars, a charmer who hobnobbed with the great and near-great, and a generously supportive and loving friend to the artists and writers of Bloomsbury. Clearly, a most fascinating subject for biography.

Some economists, of course, have objected that all this has nothing to do with Keynes's economics and in particular have dismissed his homosexuality, as Harrod did privately, as a youthful aberration. After all, they could say, Keynes ended up idyllically married to the fascinating Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Robert Skidelsky, however, believes that all the formative elements that shaped Keynes's early life were of the greatest importance to his economics. In the first volume of his biography, Hopes Betrayed (1883–1920), published in England in 1983 and now issued in the United States, he succeeds brilliantly in establishing his thesis.

Skidelsky, a historian who is professor of international relations at the University of Warwick, admits that his task is a daunting one. In addition to the wealth of published material, there was still an unexploited store of unpublished records—the carefully kept letters and diaries and school reports and essays that the Victorians put by for posterity. From such records, Skidelsky draws a particularly sensitive portrait of the logician John Neville Keynes, a diffident, supremely cautious man who seemed to focus all his ambition upon his clever son.

Skidelsky is also especially good in depicting the Cambridge intellectual background. Questioning the existence of God (and living cheek by jowl with Darwin), the Cambridge moral philosophers were struggling to reconcile the aims of the individual with the good of society as a whole—a problem for the economists Marshall and Pigou as well as the philosophers. Their dilemma is what made the teaching of philosopher G.E. Moore so attractive to Keynes and his friends, who were members of the exclusive discussion group known as the Apostles. It seemed to them that Moore provided a rational justification for believing love and friendship and the personal loyalties they most esteemed to have more value than the duties thought useful to society.

This tension between the public and the private at this stage of Keynes's life is the hub of the book. The Apostles made love the most important object in life, linking it with the beautiful, and in the male-dominated world of the university sought the delights of what they liked to refer to as the Higher Sodomy. This was a challenge to established authority, at that time involving serious risk of blackmail or imprisonment. Yet Keynes himself flourished in orthodox circles. He maintained a close and affectionate relationship with his parents, was popular and won all the prizes at Eton, earned the unstinting approval of his superiors at every job he undertook, and was hunted down by every lionizing hostess.

Via his early philosophical study of probability, Keynes discovered an interest in statistics and his bent for the practical problems of economics. When war broke out in 1914 he did not rest—utterly confident in his own ability—until he got himself a place in the British Treasury. There, his efficiency and resourcefulness immediately made him noticed. The London hostesses picked him up as well, and in no time at all he was weekending with the prime minister.

Meantime, the war was bogging down in the trenches, and Britain's volunteer army had to be replaced with conscripted recruits. Keynes's friends—his lover Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury group—were conscientious objectors and passionate critics of the government. Keynes himself was both critical of the government's manpower policy and an objector to its preemption of his personal right to decide whether to enlist. He seriously considered resigning from the Treasury. His protest on his own behalf was swept aside by the official view of the importance of his work to the war effort and indeed got rather lost in his genuine pleasure in the virtuosity of his performance.

He stayed on, testifying to the validity of his friends' scruples and maneuvering to get them settled as farmworkers. But Skidelsky effectively makes much of the strain created for a man whose public self could manage with aplomb all of Britain's inter-allied finance (and that before he was 35) and whose private self was being needled by those he loved best as to his rightness in contributing to a cause so morally wrong.

Keynes thus went to the Paris Peace Conference not only with a "grand" scheme for the rehabilitation of Europe in his pocket but with a load of guilt as well. His grand scheme was turned down, and he was appalled to see the defeated nations saddled with debts beyond reason. Frustrated and overworked, he resigned from the Treasury to distill his anger in writing The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919. The historical sweep of the book, with its searing portraits of Lloyd George, Wilson, and Clemenceau, and its clear address to the practical problem of a devastated and starving Europe, made it a bestseller overnight. Hopes Betrayed closes with the reaction of public and critics and with Keynes launched on a career as a publicist. Economics apart, a great deal of his life was spent as teacher and preacher, urging the British to use their brains. (Keynes rhymed with brains, he was fond of reminding.)

Keynes was a man of many contradictions. Skidelsky makes them intellectually and humanly understandable and has produced an important and wonderfully readable biography. It is tempting to speculate on what his conclusions will be in volume two concerning the influence of Keynes's early beliefs on his later development away from economic orthodoxy. That they will be lucid, convincing, and enjoyable to read, we may be sure.

Elizabeth Johnson is the editor of four volumes of The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes and the author, with Harry G. Johnson, of The Shadow of Keynes.