Keynes & the Lure of Soviet Communism

By Coleman, William | IPA Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Keynes & the Lure of Soviet Communism


Coleman, William, IPA Review


JUST as the true boundaries of the 18th century are said to extend from 1688 to 1789, and those of the 19th century from 1815 to 1914, so future historians may nominate 1914 and 1991 as the opening and close of the 20th century. That interval has a unity about it; it is dominated by the cataclysm which began in August 1914, and which only finally worked itself out 77 years later, with the final and astonishing end of one of its creations, the Soviet state.

If one accepts this delimitation of the 20th century, it is not premature to ask who were the most influential thinkers of that century. Who were our eminent Victorians? In the field of economics here seems no doubt of the answer; as Ricardo was the economist of the 19th century, so John Maynard Keynes was that of the 20th century. Not only was his economics produced by the 20th century, he also saw it as produced by that period. He saw his economics as supremely modern, as an effort in reason coping with the new chaos, hoping for the future, but ruthlessly shedding any nostalgia for an abolished past.

If this identification is correct, we might expect a waning in the influence of Keynesian economics. In fact, Keynes' influence began to ebb several decades ago in the realm of pure theory, and has receded with great rapidity in the field of economic policy since the 1970s.(1) A large number of economists remain content with Keynes' conclusions; but those who engage in any progressive research do so from premises very different from that which Keynes used. Some theorists have pursued the research program initiated by Axel Leijonhufvud in the 1960s; but, whatever its merits, Keynes would find that program quite foreign.(2) Other 'New Keynesian' economists in the 1980s (e.g. Blinder 1988) maintained 'Keynesian' conclusions about the macroeconomy, but based them on operations of labour markets; something which Keynes was uninterested in and hardly said anything about.

Curiously, this decline in Keynes' influence in policy-making and research has coincided with a swell of interest in Keynes, manifested in a never-failing flow of new books. But, in keeping with the remarks of the previous paragraph, the focus of interest has shifted away from Keynes' economics and towards his personal history, his ideas on probability, his 'philosophy' and his politics (eg. O'Donnell 1989, Mini 1991). This interest in the non-economic Keynes is correlate with his persisting prestige with politicians and social commentators, even amongst those on the 'right'.(3)

In light of this, it becomes interesting to ask what actually was Keynes' political philosophy. I will not attempt to answer such a large question here. Rather, I will restrict myself to a single topic which makes contact with this question: Keynes' views on Soviet communism. Keynes' views on this are worth seeking. Firstly, Soviet communism was the distinguishing political event of the '20th century', almost exactly spanning its boundaries as I have defined it. If we are interested in Keynes as a 'social' and 'political' philosopher we must be interested in Keynes' views on this event. Further, we will find that Keynes expressed himself at length on the Soviet Union once, and more briefly many times. And we will find in these judgments a strange tale.

Before moving directly to examine Keynes' views, it will be helpful to notice his opinions on two related, but distinct, topics.

Keynes and Marxism Keynes was pugnaciously anti-Marxist. This stance never altered, and he is at his most quotable when expressing it. "How can I accept", he wrote in 1925, "a doctrine which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete economic textbook which I know not only to be scientifically erroneous but without interest or application to the modern world?" (Collected Writings--henceforth CW--IX, p. 258). Some years later he pursued, with George Bernard Shaw, the comparison of Marxism with revealed religion: "My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feelings about the Koran. …

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