An Exception to the Rule : JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES, Volume II: The Economist as Savior, <i> By Robert Skidelsky (Viking: $34.95; 768 pp.)</i>
Students, people say, with good math skills who lack the personality to become CPAs go on to become economists. There is at least one glittering, glamorous exception to this dreary rule: John Maynard Keynes was one of the most interesting and attractive figures of the 20th Century. Robert Skidelsky is one of the most able biographers now writing in English. The combination makes Skidelsky’s projected three-part biography a major event in the intellectual life of our time.
The second volume of this monumental project, “The Economist as Savior,” has now appeared, and it confirms the expectations raised by the first. Clear, sensible, balanced and comprehensive, “The Economist as Savior” sets a high standard for intellectual biography.
Keynes could never have existed in America, and there were many people who wished he could have been equally impossible in England. An uninhibited homosexual, his best friends were pacifists and conscientious objectors during World War I--security risks of the highest magnitude. Nevertheless he rose high in the wartime British Treasury department and observed at firsthand the lamentable negotiations that led to the disastrous Treaty of Versailles.
Disillusioned with the British Prime Minister, Keynes revealed an unsuspected talent for political writing. His “Economic Consequences of the Peace” was a devastating critique of the foolish Versailles treaty--a treaty most historical travelers now blame in part for the rise of Hitler and World War II. The book made Keynes an international figure.
All this happens in “Hopes Betrayed,” Skidelsky’s first volume, now available as a paperback from Penguin. The second opens as Keynes, settling into a career in economics as a Cambridge don, horrified his Bloomsbury friends by a sudden passionate love affair with Lydia Lupokova, then the most famous ballerina in England.
The marriage dominated the tabloids; Virginia Woolf was shaken to the core. Though the marriage was childless, it was from all accounts a loving one and although Keynes never lost his eye for attractive young men, neither Skidelsky nor Keynes’ other biographers so much as hint at further indiscretions.
With all this behind him, one might think that Keynes would be content with the normal life of an economics professor: occasional lectures, lucrative consulting contracts, a spot of speculation on the commodity markets. This might have been his fate, except that the Great Depression forced him to rethink his most cherished ideas.
The result was his famous “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” a book that stands beside “The Wealth of Nations” and “Das Kapital” as among the most influential books of economic theory. Keynes would go on during World War II to mastermind the plan to rebuild an economic world order that would work.
His work is widely considered to have laid the foundation for the Western prosperity that led to lasting peace in Western Europe and that ultimately allowed the West to win the Cold War. In the United States Keynesian policies are partially credited for the success of the New Deal and for the golden prosperity that made the ‘60s in some way the zenith to date of our national history.
Keynes’ war work will be the subject of the third volume of this gripping and polished biography. Skidelsky’s second volume is the story of the transformation of the iconoclastic young daredevil of “The Economic Consequences” to the outwardly conventional but far more subversive economist of “The General Theory.” He traces the hidden connections that link the dazzling insights of the young Keynes with the considered judgments of the mature figure.
In some ways the book is a meditation on the nature of genius; Skidelsky sees Keynes as an artist working in the medium of economics and uses literary and artistic methods to approach the core of Keynes’ economic vision. This unconventional approach yields splendid results; it makes sense out of Keynes’ self-contradictions and his hesitations as well as of his bold, clear leaps of logic.
Most of this book will satisfy both general and specialized readers. General readers who don’t know much about economics will have a hard time with the chapters that focus exclusively on Keynes’ theories and the intellectual controversies they touched off. Still, Skidelsky has done a remarkable job of putting fiendishly complicated problems as clearly as the nature of the subject permits; any reader with a couple of semesters of college economics should be able to follow his trail.
Skidelsky, like Keynes, is blessed by a felicitous style. Noting that the bankers and capitalists whose economic system Keynes was trying to save were suspicious of his brilliance and his iconoclasm, Skidelsky writes, “But those in need of secular salvation rarely understand that someone clever enough to save them cannot be a true believer.” This is something that Keynes certainly thought and would have liked to have written.
The 20th Century was a sad and barbarous time. Bad as it was, though, it would have been even worse had it not been for the humane and generous spirit that animated the life and the work of John Maynard Keynes.
The glory of Skidelsky’s biography is that he helps make that spirit live again. John Maynard Keynes--economist, philosopher, mathematician, journalist of genius, art collector, humanist--was as close as our century comes to a Renaissance Man. Fortunately in Robert Skidelsky he has found a biographer with the breadth of knowledge, depth of insight and literary flair to do him something like justice.