The Antisemitism of John Maynard Keynes.
John Maynard Keynes
"The Jew [possesses] deep rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to the Europeans...."
John Maynard Keynes
A question unasked in all of the literature dealing with the ideas of Keynes, this century's most influential economist, is the extent to which antisemitism might have distorted his thinking about Karl Marx. Along with Adam Smith, Marx and Keynes stand as pillars of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century economic thought, respectively. In developing his own ideas about the functioning of capitalism, Keynes had to confront Marx as well as Smith and their disciples. And while Keynes's dismissal of Marx was as hostile as Marx's own condemnation of the "vulgar" economics of Adam Smith and his followers, there is little evidence that Keynes made any serious effort to understand Marx. If he had, his out-of-hand rejection might have been tempered somewhat. It is fair to ask how a man of Keynes's intellect could have disregarded Marx in so contemptuous a manner.
No doubt Keynes's thinking was determined more by matters of temperament and philosophy than by the rigors of academic critique. Indeed, a number of scholars have suggested as much, directly or by implication. Keynes was, after all, a man of his time. The issue of his antisemitism, while historically ignored, is, I will argue, relevant as well.
Keynes on Marx: In The General Theory, Keynes alludes to Marx in only three dismissive passages. He credits Marx with the term "classical economics"; he links him with the "underworld" of both Silvio Gesell and Major Douglas, otherwise obscure writers known mainly for ideas that border on the bizarre; and, in the ultimate insult, he suggests "the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx."(1) In an often quoted passage from a letter he wrote to George Bernard Shaw, Keynes is explicit in his assessment of Marx:
My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feeling about the Koran. I know that it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages ... it is inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date, academic controversialising seems so extraordinarily unsuited as material for that purpose.... How could either of these books carry fire and sword round half the world?(2)
Here, and elsewhere, Keynes writes with an assurance that belies his intimacy with Marx's work. There is ample evidence suggesting that he devoted little time to the study of what he considered a turgid work "without interest or application for the modern world."(3) We learn much about these attitudes from his colleague, Joan Robinson, sympathetic interpreter of both Marx and Keynes. Her sympathy towards Marx came at some cost during her time at Cambridge, where, as she wrote, her "academic colleagues thought it queer (if not something much worse) that I should be interested in Marx's logic, because they had been taught as undergraduates that he has none."(4) Robinson argues that because of the distance from the Soviet Union, English economists, unlike their Continental peers, never really had to confront Marx as an imminent political threat; "all they had to do was to forget about him. Thus, though Capital was written in London, it was very little read there, and still less in Cambridge."(5) Nor did Keynes pretend to be a Marxist scholar. Upon reading Joan Robinson's 1942 Essay on Marxian Economics he admitted to being "left with the feeling, which I had before on less evidence, that he had a penetrating and original flair but was a very poor thinker indeed."(6)
Keynes's failure to take Marx's economics seriously has been noted by others who found him "notoriously tone-deaf as far as Marx was concerned,"(7) possessing "a blind spot for Marx and his writings which dated from the 1920s."(8) While hearing and vision might have failed Keynes, his more visceral senses did not. His assessment of Marxism (as opposed to the economics of Marx) is unapologetically brutal; but here, he is dealing with the political as opposed to the intellectual. In a highly contemptuous review of Trotsky's book, Where is Britain Going?, Keynes wrote the following:
[Trotsky] is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx. And there we will leave him with an echo of his own words -- `together with theological literature, perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation.'(9)
In his own reflections after travel in Russia, Keynes wonders why the Russians chose their "religion from the turgid rubbish of the red bookshops,"(10) and characterized Marxism as a "sickness of the soul."(11) This is language not often found in academic discourse. Nor are such views the product of an intellectual process. They come more from the heart and gut, that is, from one's temperament, class attitudes, and deeply held prejudice.
Temperament and Class: In adopting fully the values of his scholarly and intellectual parents, Keynes never felt the need for active rebellion against much of anything.(12) From his early youth he carried a bias in favor of his class, the "educated bourgeois," and he maintained an obvious disdain for the working class. These attitudes were to change little over his lifetime. For Keynes, neither the fatuous aristocrats nor the ill-bred proletariat were worthy of excessive respect.(13)
There was an aloofness to Keynes that was repulsed by any movement for reform, whether violent or peaceful. At the age of 19 he expressed his distaste for the brutality of the French Revolution, arguing that the violence of that period was excessive, and much the same could have been accomplished "by less violent and somewhat more constitutional means."(14) As a student at Cambridge he would join the University Liberal Club, more out of respect for the party's intelligence than from any enthusiasm for reform. For Keynes, who believed that one's material condition was determined by character rather than the reverse, real reform could only occur within the individual.(15)
Nothing in his experience as a student at Cambridge would alter these class-based attitudes. From his induction into the Apostles to his ardent acceptance of the then-new philosophical views of G. E. Moore, the making of a man ill-disposed to arguments of special pleading on behalf of the lower classes was complete. When confronted with a compulsory undergraduate essay on Dickens, he protested, finding Dickens "an author whom I am physically incapable of reading"(16); in 1913, ten years later, after reviewing Gold, Prices and Wages, a work by the left-liberal John Hobson, Keynes refused to review another of the author's "wrong headed" efforts.(17)
It is hard to imagine an organization less compatible with socialist rhetoric, compassion, or action than the Apostles. This elite society was perfectly suited for the "quintessential" British gentleman, offering, according to Skidelsky, an
... exclusiveness ... rooted in the larger exclusion of English life; exclusion which ensured that their own membership was drawn from the small group which had survived an elaborate selection procedure ... [a group] able to look down on some other group as deficient in the special virtue it felt itself to possess ... based on the cult of dead languages, chivalry, moral utopias, and the rejections of commercial careers.(18)
The attitudes of the membership fit well the intellect Keynes was becoming. The Apostles gave Keynes the "opportunity, incentive, and justification for becoming the kind of person he wanted to be," a person who could see himself as "real," while the rest of the world was "phenomenal," and as a person who could judge the rest of the world from the ranks of a special few.(19)
This egocentric ethic was reinforced for Keynes in the classrooms at Cambridge, where the philosophy of G. E. Moore was gaining a significant following. Moore's philosophy was the product of what has been referred to as an "atheistic generation," replacing Christian theology with a system of ethics that was both ego-centered and rational (two attributes that dominate the thought process of classical and neo-classical economic theory). No longer did one seek personal salvation and moral validity in "doing good," what was seen as the sine qua non for all forms of social change from Christian-Judeo to: Marxist theology. Primary attention shifts to one's personal condition, particularly one's state of mind; it is here where human effort should be concentrated. Writing in 1938, many years after his student days, Keynes saw "no reason to shift from the fundamental intuitions of [Moore's] Principia Ethica.... [that] the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness ... pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects," to which Keynes added the "love of knowledge."(20) It would be unfair to conclude that Keynes accepted this ego-centered ethos in its totality. He did wrestle with questions of "universal" goodness, and the efficacy of feelings of pity and justice, which did have positive ethical value. In the end, however, Keynes held fast to the view that, since we can know little of the consciousness of others, the efficacy of social reform must remain suspect.
A second intellectual strain reinforced all that Keynes derived from Moore. This came from his reading of the political utilitarianism of Edmund Burke. We can see in Keynes's 190.4 prize-winning essay on Burke the attitudes that he would later direct towards Marx.
Our power of prediction is so slight, it is seldom wise to sacrifice a present evil for a doubtful advantage in the future. Burke here held, and held rightly, that it can seldom be right to sacrifice the well-being of a nation for a generation, to plunge whole communities in distress, or to destroy a beneficent institution for the sake of a supposed millennium in the comparatively remote future.(21)
Keynes would echo this Burkean thought in the often quoted phrase, "in the long run we are all dead," an assertion at the time used to justify interference with free-market adjustment mechanisms, which the classical economists insisted would eventually tend towards full employment. Ironically, the passage on Burke resonates more fully with Keynes's rejection of the revolutionary message drawn in the works of Marx.
But there is more to Marx than a call to arms. Stripped of its revolutionary rhetoric, Capital was and remains a work offering profound insights into the functioning of capitalism, the capitalism of Marx's time as well as that of Keynes's and beyond. Marx's own analysis in Capital would not have changed in any fundamental way had he, instead of predicting revolution, suggested that the capitalist class would do everything possible to maintain its position of privilege and power -- to "legitimate" the system. Furthermore, Marx's underlying theoretical structure remains as a valuable lens through which to comprehend much of 20th-century capitalism, to say nothing of its prodigious yet problematic expansion around the globe. It is Marx's unquestioned relevance to the process of globalization that leads John Cassidy to suggest that Marx may well turn out to be the greatest social scientist of the 21st century.(22)
In trying to understanding Keynes's failure to appreciate these aspects of Marx, we must go beyond the temperament and political and class prejudice that colored his thinking. These attributes contributed to his revulsion towards the violence implicit in Marxist rhetoric. They do not, however, help us to understand his ill-considered rejection of the theoretical corpus of Marxism. Inquiring into the nature of Keynes's racial and religious biases, his antisemitism, may offer further progress into this puzzle.
The Antisemitism of Keynes: In breaking with previous biographic tradition, Skidelsky devotes significant space to the question of Keynes's homosexuality -- not the fleeting experiments of an inquisitive youth, but rather behavior that constituted a central part of his life during his college days and beyond.(23) What is of interest here is the fact that such commentary cannot be found in any previous study of Keynes. In similar fashion, Skidelsky infringes on the polite silence regarding Keynes's possible antisemitism. While the first of any of Keynes's biographers to venture here, Skidelsky devotes less than two pages of his two-volume work to the subject. His conclusions are equally modest. In the first place, he notes that stereotyping of Jews was common in Keynes's circle, but that such behavior did not preclude the acceptance of individual Jews, who were "exempted by the devices of exceptionalism," Jews like Einstein and Keynes's favorite pupil, R.F. Kahn. Such "exceptionalism," which, as Skidelsky puts it, allowed bigots to live "decently ... [but] did not arise often [for] there were few Jews in Keynes's world in the 1920s."(24) And the Jews he found acceptable certainly had exceptionalist credentials. The Jew most close to Keynes, both personally and professionally, R. F. Kahn, his "little rabbi," is described by Skidelsky as a "self-effacing backroom boy rather than the star of the show; an excellent listener...."(25) And it was their self-effacing nature that Keynes first noted in his encounters with Einstein and Carl Melchior. Mary Kaldor offers an exception to this particular perspective. She writes that her father, Nicholas Kaldor, "was very Jewish-bouncy, pleased with himself, loved making money, not a bit an Anglicised Jew like Kahn," and yet it was Keynes that "got his job at Cambridge and helped him a lot."(26)
Relevant here as well is Keynes's relationship and attitude towards another Jewish economist of his day, Michael Kalecki. Religion aside, one might have anticipated a degree of enmity on Keynes's part, given Kalecki's possible, though disputed, anticipation of the theory of effective demand, building on the work of Marx, no less. However, while writing The General Theory, Keynes was certainly not aware of Kalecki's untranslated Polish writings. And later, as editor of the Economic Journal, Keynes did establish a cordial and supportive relationship with Kelecki.
These examples suggest more the complexity of the man than the absence of antisemitism. Skidelsky acknowledges as much. However, he suggests that Keynes was less than vulgar in his focus on the Jewish "abstract love of money," and in so doing Keynes was able to distinguish between the few religious or intellectual Jews and the assumed and more prevalent money-loving Jews. Nor is there any evidence, Skidelsky contendS, suggesting that such antisemitism as he might have possessed influenced his personal conduct.(28) Skidelsky is too kind, as a review of Keynes's thought suggests.
A component of Keynes's antisemitism did, like that of Marx, focus on the alleged trait of money-grubbing.(29) But Keynes is guilty of a much wider set of biases. These extend beyond the casual use of antisemitic slang, to a visceral hostility as evidenced in his assumption of deep-seated Jewish ethnic and character flaws. The thoughts of an antisemite were manifest at an early age.
At Eton, the 17-year-old Keynes wrote in a way eerily similar to a notorious antisemitic passage in T.S. Eliot's After Strange Gods, a work that Keynes would come to "greatly admire."(30) Anticipating Eliot, Keynes characterized the differences between East and West as follows:
In the West it is the individual that is all important, in the East the mass ... [the Jews, as Eastern people, possess] deep-rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to Europeans [and as such] they can no more be assimilated to European civilization than cats can be made to love dogs.(31)
The thoughts expressed some 33 years later by T.S. Eliot are little different.
... where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reason of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.(32)
Only recently, with the publication of Anthony Julius's detailed brief, T.S. Eliot, Antisemitism, and Literary Form, has Eliot's antisemitism come under widespread scrutiny. Eliot's attitudes were apparent in his published writing. Keynes's views were more quietly held. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the ideas expressed early on in his Eton paper remained with him throughout his life. Some 22 years after Eton, at the Genoa conference (dealing with post-war trade and currency issues), Keynes lamented the condition of Europe, still torn between liberalism and radicalism. Bolshevik radicalism flowed, he wrote, from a "besotted idealism and intellectual error out of the peculiar temperaments of Slavs and Jews."(33) Following his visit to Russia in the mid-twenties, Keynes saw in the grimness of that society, the fruits of "some beastliness in the ... Russian and Jewish natures."(34) And in conferences he attended throughout Word War II, he continued w up to the moments near his death -- a commentary on the Jewishness of many of the participants. Critical of the economic advisors to the British Labor Party, Keynes returned to his Eton essay of many years past in likening them to "so many Jews, [who] are either Nazi or Communist at heart and have no notion how the British Commonwealth was founded or is sustained."(35)
Nor is his admiration for Einstein free of antisemitism. On first meeting (in 1926), he saw Einstein as "a naughty Jew-boy, covered with ink, pulling a long nose as the world kicks his bottom; a sweet imp, pure and giggling."(36) Later, in musing on life in Germany, Keynes is forbearing of the antisemitism present in that society, as "it is not agreeable to see a civilization so under the ugly thumbs of impure Jews who have all the money and the power and the brains."(37)
As was the case with Einstein, Keynes's admiration for Carl Melchior, negotiator for the Germans during the treaty negotiations in Versailles, was cast in relative terms. In Keynes's eye, Melchior was so much more a dignified and honorable man -- a "worshipper of the Tablets of the Law" -- compared to his counterpart, the French finance minister, Klotz, a "short, plump, heavy-moustached Jew, well groomed ... but with an unsteady, roving eye ... [with] shoulders a little bent in an instinctive deprecation."(38) Klotz's refusal to allow German gold reserves to be used for anything save collateral against the imposed war reparations was met with blatant hostility. According to Keyes, Lloyd George, the British prime minister and chief negotiator, "leant forward and with a gesture of his hands indicated to everyone the image of a hideous Jew clutching a money bag.... The antisemitism not far below the surface in such an assemblage ... was up in the heart of everyone."(39)
This focus on money-grubbing runs throughout Keynes's commentary on the Jewish character. He saw in the "Semitic races," a group "whose instincts are keenest for the essential qualifies of money,"(40) a race that "has done most for the principle of compound interest and particularly loves this most purposive of human institutions."(41) For Keynes, Einstein represented that rare Jew "who [has] not sublimated immortality into compound interest."(42) Truer to form was David Ricardo, in whose financial success Keynes saw the "best of all preparations -- the preparation of race."(43)
Indeed, his attitude toward Ricardo would seem to reinforce the contention that antisemitism was among the factors influencing Keynes's thinking about Marx. Keynes laments the dominance of a "Jewish stockbroker," whose ideas held sway for the 100 years preceding the world depression of the 1930s, ideas that fostered "a disaster to the progress of economics."(44) Ricardian economics, absent of any Marxist revolutionary fervor, provided the justification for free-market capitalism, representing the antithesis of Marxian thought. Nevertheless, as with Marx, it is clear that Ricardo's race did not escape notice.
Keynes's caustic commentary regarding Ricardo's financial success is ironic given Keynes's similar success in the world of business and finance. He served with great success as the Bursar at Kings College, and had significant financial interests, including ownership interests in The Nation (later to become The New Statesman and Nation), and served as chairman of the National Mutual Life Assurance Society. However, it is the case that, like Marx, Keynes saw in the immutable trait of "money grubbing," the essential crude spirit of capitalism.
Keynes, however, saw the very same atavistic quality inherent in the communism of Russia as well. For Keynes, communism arose from the combined Russian and Jewish natures, fathered by the ideas of a Jewish economist. Nor was Keynes unique in holding such views.(45)
A Final Irony:. In dealing with the subjective mindset of an admittedly complex human being, finn conclusions about motive are elusive. Nevertheless, a fair conjecture based on the evidence offered above suggests that antisemitism may well have influenced his thinking about Karl Marx. This was an antisemitism modulated considerably from the most virulent forms of the day, but a significant flaw nonetheless.
It is perhaps the ultimate irony that in adopting Marxism as their gospel, the Bolshiviks and those who followed during the several decades of Russian dictatorship (and beyond) -- many of whom were (and remain today) virulent antisemites -- managed to transcend Marx's Jewish heritage; this was something Keynes could not.
(1.) John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936, pp. 3n, 32, and 355 respectively.
(2.) Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, Vol. One. New York: Viking 1983, p. 520.
(3.) John Maynard Keynes, A Short View of Russia. London: The Hogarth Press, 1925, p. 14.
(4.) Joan Robinson, On Be-reading Marx. London: Student's Bookshops Ltd., 1953, p. 5.
(5.) Ibid. (emphasis added)
(6.) D.E. Moggridge, Maynard Keynes: An Economist's Biography. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 471. (emphasis added)
(7.) Donald Winch, Economics and Policy. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1969, p. 346.
(8.) Moggridge, op. cit., p. 469.
(9.) The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes [henceforth CW], Essays in Biography. Vol. X, Macmillan, 1972, p. 67.
(10.) Keynes, op. cit., 1925, p. 14.
(11.) Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, Vol. Two. MacMillan, 1992, p. 517.
(12.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1983, p. 75.
(13.) Ibid., pp. 84-85.
(14.) Ibid., p. 102.
(15.) Keynes's pleas for moderation in the economic sanctions placed upon the defeated Germans following World War I was later used by the right-wing of the British press as evidence of his "dehumanized intellectual point of view." Ibid. p. 393.
(16.) Ibid., p. 121.
(17.) David Felix, Biography of an Idea: John Maynard Keynes and the General Theory. New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1995, p. 26.
(18.) Skidelsky, Op. Cit., 1983, p. 120.
(19.) Ibid., p. 118.
(20.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1995, p. 35.
(21.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1983, p. 155-156.
(22.) John Cassidy, "The Return of Karl Marx," The New Yorker, Vol. 73, October 1997, pp. 248-253.
(23.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1983, Chapters 2 and 3 esp.
(24.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1992, p. 239.
(25.) Ibid., p. 288.
(26.) E-mail correspondence with author.
(27.) "Possible," but apparently arguable as well. While Joan Robinson asserts that Kalecki's "claim to priority ... is indisputable," (Contributions to Modern Economics, Blackwell, 1978, p. 55), Patinkin rejects precisely such a claim. (Anticipations of the General Theory?, University of Chicago Press, 1982, Ch. 3)
(28.) Skidelsky, op. cit. 1992, p. 249.
(29.) The focus on money fetishism is obvious in Marx's assertion that it is from "out of the entrails [that] bourgeois society continually creates Jews." (David McClellen, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, Macmillan, 1973, p. 8)
(30.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1992, p. 517.
(31.) Skidelsky, op. cit., 1983, p. 92, emphasis added.
(32.) T.S. Eliot, After Strange Gods. London: Faber and Faber, 1933, pp. 19-20.
(33.) CW, Activities 1922-32, Vol. xvii, 1978, p. 373.
(34.) Keynes, op. cit., 1925, p. 27.
(35.) CW, The Transformation to Peace, Vol. xxiv, 1983, p. 626.
(36.) CW, Vol. x, op. cit., p. 383.
(37.) Ibid., p. 384. In fairness, it should be noted that Keynes, despite such sentiments and despite growing up in a pro-German household with the aid of German nannies, expressed deep outrage over the "officially sponsored outbreaks of Jew-baiting in Nazi Germany." (Skidelsky, op. cit., 1992, p. 468)
(38.) CW, Vol. x, op. cit., p. 422.
(40.) CW, A Treatise on Money, Vol. v, 1971, p. 11.
(41.) CW, Vol. x, op. cit., p. 384.
(42.) Ibid., pp. 382-383.
(43.) CW, Economic Articles and Correspondence, Vol. xi, 1972, p. 538.
(44.) Skidelsky, op. cit. 1992, pp. 419-420.
(45.) As McClellen observes, Marx's ideological and political foes made full use of antisemitism in the bitter polemics of the day. (Op. cit., 1973, p. 52)
DAVID E. KAUN (Ph.D in economics, Stanford University) taught at the University of Pittsburgh and worked at the Brookings Institution prior to joining the faculty in the department of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1966. He has published in the areas of discrimination, quality of work, economic ideology, military contractor behavior, and political economy of capitalism.
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|Author:||Kaun, David E.|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2000|
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