Immoralist

Jose Harris

  • John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920 by Robert Skidelsky
    Macmillan, 447 pp, £14.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 333 11599 6

John Maynard Keynes, grandson of the minister of the Bunyan chapel at Bedford, was born into a religious tradition that for two hundred years had stopped its ears against the blandishments of Mr Worldly Wiseman and sought only the Celestial City of Eternal Life. The City was to be found, as all readers of Pilgrim’s Progress knew, not by piety or public-spiritedness or good works or moral behaviour, but by that indefinable state of inner consciousness known as Salvation by Faith. By the 1880s, however, the tree of life as revealed to generations of Englishmen by Bunyan’s Pilgrim was dwindling root and branch. At its roots, the Bunyanites and the tradition they represented had been engulfed by a spirit of bustling philanthropy, conventional morality, social ambition and utilitarian calculation. Amid its branches, Faith itself was being continually pared away by the growth of secular knowledge. Among believers and doubters alike, the latter tendency fuelled and reinforced the former: progressive social action provided a pain-killing substitute for the sublime spiritual certainties of a former age.

This decayed Puritan heritage provides an indispensable clue to the life and mind of Keynes. His mother Florence, daughter of the Bunyan minister, was a tireless worker for the advancement of her own family and the betterment of mankind. His father Neville, philosopher manqué turned university administrator, belonged to that powerful Cambridge generation which, headed by Sidgwick and Marshall, strove to fill the deontic vacuum left by the death of God. The Cambridge of Maynard’s youth positively bristled with social Christianity, economic chivalry, progressive politics, civic humanism, and all the other devices with which failed believers try to persuade themselves that there is a rational basis for the duty to love one’s fellow men. Much of Keynes’s early life was spent in furious reaction against this benign, worldly, religion-of-good-works tradition of his parents’ generation. His rebellion took the form of total de-Christianisation, gross irreverence and obscenity, scornful rejection of all modes of ‘social morality’. Yet within that rebellion there were curious echoes of an older sound – of salvation as an ‘inner light’, a ‘state of mind’, that might have been dimly recognisable to his Puritan ancestors.

Keynes was born in Cambridge in 1883, and almost from birth was being groomed for a peculiarly Cambridge form of academic stardom. (His father rejected the prospect of a chair in Oxford, on the ground that his son might ‘grow up flippantly epigrammatical’ instead of ‘becoming an accurate clear-headed Cambridge man, spending a life in valuable and unpretentious service’.) Scholarships to Eton and King’s College were followed by a first in Mathematics and a King’s Prize Fellowship – his dissertation for the latter forming the foundation for his later work on the logic of probability. Out of his interest in ‘the curious connection between the “probable” and the “ought” ’ arose his interest in economics – still at this stage not fully emancipated from its 19th-century status as a branch of moral science. Keynes was appointed lecturer in Economics in 1908, editor of the Economic Journal in 1911, a member of the Indian Currency Commission, and was taken into the Treasury as an Economic Adviser at the outbreak of war in 1914. He wrote and lectured copiously on the theory of money, and soon acquired a reputation for audaciousness and outstanding clarity. Yet there is little evidence to support the claim often made that, even before 1914, Keynes was already showing symptoms of his future economic heresies. Keynes before the First World War was a firm, indeed militant adherent of international free trade, of the quantity theory of money and of a full-employment equilibrium. He dismissed with contempt the ‘underconsumptionism’ of J.A. Hobson and the anxious perplexity of businessmen caught in the ‘trade cycle’. His main contribution to pre-war economics lay in the purely technical sphere of advancing the use of mathematics (as a tool not of statistics but of symbolic logic). Such an acquiescence in classical models is scarcely surprising since, as Robert Skidelsky clearly demonstrates, there was virtually nothing in the world before 1914 to suggest to an academic liberal of Keynes’s background that the classical economic system had failed or broken down.

Keynes’s economics before 1914 were therefore respectable and orthodox: his rebellion took other forms – moral, philosophic, above all sexual. From his early days at Eton Keynes became involved in a long series of more or less serious affairs with male contemporaries. At King’s, and as a member of the Cambridge Apostles, homosexuality became for Keynes not merely a private diversion or expression of emotion but a whole way of life, almost a philosophy. With friends like the Knoxes, the Stracheys, and other acolytes of Trinity and King’s, he formed an élite male coterie who prided themselves on a new style of personal relationships, the worship of objects of beauty, and contemptuous rejection of the values of the outside world. The begetting of this élite was ascribed to G.E. Moore, author of Principia Ethica, who claimed that ‘the good’ was to be found, not in virtuous or useful action, but in interpersonal relationships and ‘states of mind’. But as Skidelsky points out, there were some crucial differences between the teachings of Moore and the beliefs of the young Keynes. Moore concurred with Keynes in deriding both utility and metaphysics as guides to moral action, but concluded with the Humean stance that, since no rational basis for morals could be discovered, one might as well follow the ‘existing rules of morality’. By contrast, as he himself recalled many years later, Keynes and his circle nourished an almost Nietzschean contempt for traditional behavioural norms: ‘we repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were ... in the strict sense of that term, immoralists ... we recognised no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or obey.’

As a result – or in pursuit – of this philosophy much of his youth took the form of a double life. As a private individual he mocked all taboos on social and personal behaviour: as a member of a privileged class in a stable social system he lived off the stupidity of other people who accepted a framework of customary restraints. There is not the faintest echo here of those resonances of Edwardian ‘new Liberalism’ that some commentators have discerned in Keynes: on the contrary, it is hard to imagine a wider gulf than that which yawned between the Cambridge Apostles and the ‘organic social solidarity’ preached by J.A. Hobson, L.T. Hobhouse and the disciples of T.H. Green. Yet it would be wrong to see Keynes and his clique as mere sensualists and selfish worldlings: they genuinely believed that in the philosophy of personal relationships they had discovered a new touchstone for moral action.

There is an odd connection here with Keynes’s ancestral doctrine of salvation by faith, which suggests a secularised rendering of St Augustine’s ‘love God and do what you like.’ Readers who think that such a doctrine sounds confused will not be surprised to learn that it rarely worked in practice, and that the ‘beautiful state of mind’ engendered by most of Keynes’s youthful relationships was a prolonged and painful mess. More important, it was an incongruous basis for the major bouleversement of Keynes’s career – his emergence at the end of the First World War as a major social prophet and political critic. As a Treasury official at the Conference of Versailles Keynes was forced to take account of many things never dreamt of by the Cambridge Apostles: a crumbling social order, rampant economic irrationality, and the imminent threat of starvation facing thirty million people. The Economic Consequences of the Peace was written as a passionate indictment of public wickedness and remains the classic treatment of the subject. But it came oddly from a man who purported to believe that morality was confined to the Higher Sodomy and subjective states of mind.

Whether, and, if so, how, Keynes’s contradictions were resolved remains to be seen from Robert Skidelsky’s second volume: he leaves us at a point where all the dilemmas are apparent but none sorted out. A number of very puzzling questions are left dangling – such as how Keynes’s contempt for time-honoured convention can be reconciled with his admiration for that most ‘conventional’ of philosophers, Edmund Burke. One is left wondering at times whether Keynes’s affirmations of nihilism were not merely expressions of a delayed adolescent desire to shock: Cambridge ‘clever-clever’ rather than serious moral conviction. Nevertheless, this first volume is commandingly written and intensely readable. The social and intellectual contexts are woven together with admirable persuasiveness and clarity. The man himself remains – so far – curiously distant and opaque. As Keynes himself wrote in his essay on Isaac Newton, ‘geniuses are very peculiar,’ and it may be the case that no academic account can fully recapture Keynes’s extraordinary mixture of grossness and sensitivity, intuition and logical power. A playwright might do it, as has been done for Luther, Galileo and Danton, but not the polite and inanimate printed page. However, this is a study that can be recommended to a wide variety of readers. There are plenty of Bloomsbury titbits and bawdy stories for those who like them, while, for intellectual and social historians, Skidelsky’s Cambridge will be indispensable. For those who worry about the fate of civilisation, this is on more than one level a profoundly serious and thought-provoking book.