On Revolutions and Progress in Economic Knowledge

By T. W. Hutchison | Go to book overview

5
The Keynesian revolution and the history of economic thought

I

The Keynesian revolution is the episode in the history of economic thought which is most widely acclaimed as fully deserving the description `revolutionary'. Inverted commas are probably less needed in the case of the Keynesian `revolution' than in the Smithian, Ricardian and Jevonian cases, though even here a few more extreme Marxists question the truly fundamental character of the Keynesian innovations. But it seems to have been very largely through the Keynesian case that the term `revolution' has acquired such widespread currency among economists in the last few decades. Various other claimants to the title have mostly been put forward more or less as parallels to the archetypal Keynesian `revolution'. Certainly the mountainous literature on Keynes's ideas for the most part explicitly treats them in terms of the revolution in theory and policy which they are held to have brought about.

Keynes launched his General Theory with a comprehensive and challenging generalisation about the history of economic thought which is set out in the opening paragraph of the book. The way in which this generalisation is developed and deployed may have aroused (and might still arouse, latent though controversy long has been) more and sharper disagreement than the various terminological, conceptual, and other propositions and arguments in the succeeding chapters. The manner in which this sweeping, arresting challenge was thrown down in the opening single-paragraph, half-page chapter, is obviously something of a polemical ploy. If one is to establish a claim to be initiating a revolution in ideas then one must first identify a formidable, established orthodoxy to be overthrown and superseded --as had Adam Smith with `the mercantile system' and Jevons with `the Ricardo--Mill Economics'.

Such a comprehensive challenge to academic orthodoxy was for Keynes something mainly new in 1936, unprecedented in his previous economic writings, such as The Tractor or The Treatise. Previously Keynes had challenged much, including the Versailles treaty, the return to the gold standard, the doctrine of laissez-faire, and the Conservative and

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