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John Maynard Keynes

Author(s):Barnett, Vincent
Reviewer(s):Howson, Susan

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Vincent Barnett, John Maynard Keynes. London: Routledge, 2012. x + 301 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-56770-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Susan Howson, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Why do we need another book on John Maynard Keynes?? The answer in this case is a series of Routledge Historical Biographies, which are intended to provide ?engaging, readable and academically credible biographies written from an explicitly historical perspective.?? The author understandably devotes some space (pp. 3-4) to considering what an historical biography of an economist could involve.? He raises three issues: (1) the balance between the subject’s contribution to economic theory and the rest of his life and work; (2) the relation of the history and the economics; and (3) the qualifications of the author.? On (1) he resolves the problem by writing complementary pairs of chapters for each period of Keynes’s life, the first of each pair focusing on the life, the second the economics writing.? The latter chapters are usually much shorter than the former.? On (2) he claims that it is necessary to consider the question:? ?how far does his [Keynes’s] economic theory stand or fall on whether his historical analyses have proved correct??? As for (3), he points out that he has written biographical studies of the Russian economists N.D. Kondratiev (1998) and E.E. Slutsky (2011).? On the cover of the book he is described as having been ?a Research Fellow on numerous economics and economic history projects at various UK universities? and having published three books, one of which is the Marx volume (2009) in the Routledge Historical Biographies series.

Judging by the source notes, and as the author acknowledges at the outset, this historical biography is heavily dependent on the writings of others about Keynes, both the major biographies by Harrod (1951), Moggridge (1992) and Skidelsky (1983, 1992, 2000) and shorter pieces on specific subjects (for instance, Toye [2000] on population), especially in relation to the life of Keynes.? But he is not afraid to criticize the major biographers, especially Skidelsky.? Discussion of the economics is backed by considerable, though selective, reading of the Collected Writings of Keynes.? Perhaps contrary to intention, the economics is better than the history.

There are mistakes, especially in the life chapters.? Keynes’s teaching at Cambridge before the First World War is described by a quotation (p. 37) from ?an awe-struck student,? A.F.W. Plumptre, who arrived in Cambridge almost twenty years later.? The famous ?Cambridge circus? was not ?a convivial association of sometimes like-minded individuals [including Dennis Robertson] who … interacted with each other profoundly over a significant period of time? (p. 170) but a small group of young economists who met to analyze and criticize the Treatise on Money in the first few months of 1931.? With respect to Keynes?s work for the government?s Economic Advisory Council, Barnett seems to have relied solely on one memorandum reprinted in Volume XIII of the Collected Writings, for he appears to be unaware that Keynes did not just ?participate? in the 1930 Committee of Economists of the Economic Advisory Council (p. 208): he proposed it to the Prime Minister and chaired it himself. He is also unaware that the committee was the occasion of a notorious row between Keynes and Lionel Robbins and that Keynes’s public advocacy of a tariff came in the New Statesman & Nation in March 1931, not in a radio broadcast in November 1932.? Writing about another late 1932 article, the author claims (p. 223) that Keynes ?proposed [a] new international monetary authority the Bank for International Settlements?: the BIS had already been in existence for two years to facilitate reparations payments.? There is also the extraordinary statement that the UN conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944 created, alongside the IMF and the World Bank, ?a General Agreement for [sic] Tariffs and Trade.?? GATT was the outcome of a different conference held in Geneva in 1947.?

Returning to the economics, the account of the argument of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is quite good as it sticks to the book and does not get tangled up with different interpretations of Keynes’s message.? He has some perceptive points to make, notably about the influence of Keynes’s early interest in psychology (pp. 232-33 and 273-76).? But the author’s decision, understandable in itself, to treat the General Theory as the culmination of Keynes’s work and only to sketch Keynes’s activities after 1936 (p. 13) essentially ignores Keynes’s contribution to war finance and the creation of the postwar international economic order.? These rate one brief chapter of twelve pages compared to the two extensive chapters on the First World War and The Economic Consequences of the Peace (and the whole of one of Skidelsky’s three volumes).? It also means the book rather peters out ? as well as diminishing Keynes’s place in the history of the twentieth century.?


Barnett, Vincent (1998) Kondratiev and the Dynamics of Economic Development, London: Macmillan.

Barnett, Vincent (2009) Marx, London: Routledge.

Barnett, Vincent (2011) E.E. Slutsky as Economist and Mathematician, London: Routledge.

Harrod, Roy (1951) The Life of John Maynard Keynes, London: Macmillan.

Moggridge, D.E.? (1993) Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography, London: Routledge.

Skidelsky, Robert (1983) John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920, London: Macmillan

Skidelsky, Robert (1992) John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Savior, 1920-37, London: Macmillan.

Skidelsky, Robert (2000) John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom, 1937-46, London: Macmillan.

Toye, John (2000) Keynes on Population, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Susan Howson is a professor of economics at the University of Toronto and the author of Lionel Robbins (Cambridge University Press, 2011). She is now working on a biography of James Meade.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII