John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920 by Robert Skidelsky

OCTOBER 30, 2006

This is Skidelsky’s first volume (1983) in his monumental trilogy charting the life and times of the economist-statesman John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). It is an excellent work, not overlong, willing to state judgements but always judicious in doing so, full of surrounding detail but never wandering far from its central theme and, perhaps most importantly, with a fine suppleness of prose that becomes, on occasion, almost aphoristic. While I, personally, would have liked greater detail on, and discussion of, the economics this is, after all, a biography for the general reader so this can hardly be a criticism.

Moore’s Principia Ethica

Skidelsky summarizes:

As we have seen the Apostles were looking for an ethic which could direct attention to ends other than the duties set before the Victorian gentleman. This Moore provided for them. He unshackled contemporary ethics from its connection with social utility and conventional morality by locating its ultimate ends in goods which stood apart from the Victorian scheme of life, and by making ‘ought’ correlative with these goods. By dropping Hedonism and by proclaiming as intrinsically valuable dispositions and states of mind which Mill and Sidgwick had been forced to treat instrumentally he had evaded the problems which wrecked their attempt at coherence. No one serious about achieving Moore’s goods could take Victorian morality entirely seriously again. What Moore had not solved was the problem of how to relate his goods to the practical business of life, most of which had no connection with them. It turned out that Sidgwick’s difficulty of effecting a harmony between the private and public sphere, between the good life and the useful life, had not been overcome by Moore: it had merely been restated in a new way. [pp. 140-141. Emphasis added]

And then returns to the theme:

Leavis’s remarks draw attention to a point already made – that Moore’s philosophy was very much a product of time and place. Two things helped to produce it. The first was the change in circumstances. By the 1890s the Victorian reform movement had run out of steam without making political reaction any more reputable. At the same time recovery from the economic depression of the 1880s and early 1890s had taken the edge of social stress without relieving the emotional stress of Victorian life. The times, as Harrod observed, seemed ripe for new experiments in living rather than new experiments in social order. The second impulse arose out of the dilemmas of moral philosophy itself; specifically from Sidgwick’s failure to reconcile public and private ends, my own good with the world’s. Moore abolished the problem by abolishing the set of ethical goods connected with public life. But anyone whose temperament and upbring was such as to make him take both Moore’s ends (good states of mind) and Sidgwick’s end (general happiness) seriously was bound, sooner or later, to discover that Mooore had not solved Sidgwick’s problem; that the problem of bring them into a logical relation was, in fact, insoluble with the intellectual tools available. Moore’s philosophy was imply a temporary halting-post on the road to the complete disintegration of a unified world view. [Emphasis added]

Keynes’ Early Beliefs

p. 157

He was as timid about his expectations of realising good states of mind on a large scale as he was bold in his expectations about the amount of happiness or utility a government could deliver. In both sides of his moral thinking he gave priority to immediate goals over future ones, reinforced in this by his theory of probability: rational actions were the best possible in the circumstances. The duty of the state was to realise happiness and not ultimate goods, though the latter might follow as an indirect consequence of the former. He was thus both an aesthete and a manager. But he rejected the role of therapist, believing that truth took priority over expediency.

Keynes on Starting Economics

Keynes to Lytton Strachey on 15 November 1905, quoted p. 165:

I find economics increasingly satisfactory, and I think I am rather good at it. I want to manage a railway or organise a Trust or at least swindle the investing public. It is so easy and fascinating to master the principle of these things.

One imagines this still provides a fairly accurate summary of the reasons for studying economics – at least for the majority of students. This quote also provides a fine example of Harrod’s bowdlerisation as, according to Skidelsky, he cut out the statement on ‘swindling the investing public’.

Marshall on mathematics

From a letter to statistician A. L. Bowley (27 Nov 1906) quoted in a fn p. 223 with source A. C. Pigou (ed.), Memorials of Alfred Marshall (1925), p.427.

I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics; and I went more and more on the rules – (1) Use mathematics to be a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of enquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I often did.


Bloomsbury was particular expression of, and gave direction to, the ‘revolt against the Victorians’. The rejection of conventional sexual morality was one facet, but only one, of the revolt against ‘false values’ in the name of which Victorians had sacrificed the possibility of leading a good life. … They [the members of the Bloomsbury group] were not sexual anarchists but rather creators of anew kind of sexual order inherent in a proper concept of the good life. That is why Bloomsbury was able to undertake the frequent rearrangement of its emotional affairs while remaining so (comparatively) free from sexual jealously.

In these ways, Bloomsberries were cultural and sexual revolutionaries. In other ways they remained rooted in the assumptions of their times. Indeed, the particular form of their ‘revolt against the Victorians’ depended on other aspects of Victorian life remaining in place. Culture was not regarded as a force to reshape social relations, but to reorient the elite to ‘what is good’. … Bloomsbury’s cultural artefacts were highbrow; its propaganda aimed entirely at the (highly) educated middle classes. There was a clearly tension between its cultural ideals and democratic sentiment: civilisation, as Clive Bell put it, always rested on having someone to do the dirty work. Maynard Keynes, as we shall see, attempted to go beyond this contradiction; but it cannot be claimed he got very far. And he, like the rest of the Bloomsberries, depended completely on domestic servants to sustain their own lives [cf. Peter Clarke’s comments in Liberals and Social Democrats]. Bloomsbury was rooted in the class assumptions of the Victorians. Their revision of the Victorian scheme of life tended to take them back to the eighteenth century idea of a cultured aristocracy [1] rather than towards the ideal of a civilized democracy; … [pp. 248-250]

[1] This suggests an interesting parallel with Tietjens inclinations towards a similar vision of the Eighteenth century in Ford Maddox’s Ford Parade’s End.

Reasons for the influence of Bloomsbury and Keynes’ role:

The cultural influence which Bloomsbury eventually acquired was based on the clarity of its vision of its publicists and the mutually supporting achievements of its members. But two further ingredients must be added: its relative financial independence and its power of patronage. Bloomsberries were not rich. But they were never forced into dependence on institutions alien to their spirit. There was just enough inherited wealth to go round to enable them to lead their preferred lives until their own talents could give them an earned independence. … But it [these various factors some of which I have omitted] were not enough [to make Bloomsbury have the influence it did]. Financial backing was needed. Here the role of Maynard Keynes became crucial. He came to give Bloomsbury financial muscle, not just by making money a great deal of money himself, which he spent lavishly on Bloomsbury causes, but by his ability to organise financial backing for their enterprises. [p. 250]

Keynes and Food Rationing

The proximate cause for this gloomy epistle [JMK to his mother at Christmas 1917] was the government’s announcement of food rationing. Like other less reflective members of the middle classess Keynes tended to equate social order with the continuance of his own customary standard of comfort, and take an exaggerated view of the consequences of any diminution of it. To Florence his Christmas visions suggested communal kitchens and the drying of the supply of domestic servants. Maynard’s incipient bolshevism [a reference to a joke in his letter] stopped well short of food rationing, which filled him with horror. … In fact, [contrary to Keynes prognostications] food rationing worked perfectly well in both world wars, and posed no permanent threat to the social order. [p. 346]

The Long Littleness’ of life

[following a dispute over rooms in 46 Gordon Square between Keynes and Bell] But there was still friction. Maynard had commandeered Clive’s bed, substituting one that felt ‘more like the seat of a third-class railway carriage’. As the war’s end approached, Clive wrote to Maynard, ‘I must have my bed back … Nothing could be more easy for you than to get a new one for yourself.’ [Maynard by this point was on 1000 pounds a year] Since Maynard proved in no hurry to oblige, Clive had his own bed moved upstairs. ‘Dear Maynard,’ he wrote from Garsington, ‘I had no notion of leaving you to sleep on the floor.’ He was sending down his third-class railway carriage. ‘As you appear to fuck less than I do it may serve well enough.’ [Maynard had long been without any kind of permanent lover since his separate from Duncan Grant years earlier]

Skidelsky inserts a fascinating footnote here which reads:

Maynard’s was not the only character to wilt under the strain of war. Clive Bell withheld from his parents the knowledge that he was a conscientious objector, preferring them to believe that he was medically unfit, in order, as he put it to Vanessa, ‘to preserve our lien on the Bell millions.’ Vanessa tried to hush up the fact that the daughter she had in 1919 was by Duncan and not Clive, probably for the same reason. Honesty had its limitations for everyone.