The Antisemitism of John Maynard Keynes

By Kaun, David E. | Midstream, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Antisemitism of John Maynard Keynes


Kaun, David E., Midstream


"[Marx's Capital was] an obsolete economic textbook ... not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world."

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. …

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