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The Political and Economic Thought of the Young Keynes

Author(s):Cristiano, Carlo
Reviewer(s):Shilts, Wade E.

Published by EH.Net (January 2015)

Carlo Cristiano, The Political and Economic Thought of the Young Keynes.  London: Routledge, 2014. xvi + 262 pp.  $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-65926-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Wade E. Shilts, Department of Economics and Business, Luther College.

The sixty-ninth volume in Routledge’s Explorations in Economic History series  provides a needed addition to the story of that icon of modern interventionist economics, John Maynard Keynes.  However, while scholars of Keynes will find Carlo Cristiano’s monograph especially valuable, The Political and Economic Thought of the Young Keynes is not merely a book for specialists.

Cristiano delves into the puzzle, even contradiction, about Keynes encountered whenever one tries to reconcile the young “philosopher” of Cambridge and Bloomsbury with the older  “political” man who wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace and The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Whether one starts in the first volume of Skidelsky’s magisterial biography (1983) or elsewhere in the “new Keynes scholarship,” Keynes before World War I appears as a Cambridge Apostle and an idealist, a follower of the analytic philosopher George Edward Moore and a member of the Bloomsbury Group; after the war, however, he has become a political economist and an advisor to monetary authorities, a recommender of specific policies regarding gold exchange standards and liquidity traps and a pragmatic advocate of intervention in the short run.  The dominant explanation has Keynes transformed by his service at Treasury during the war (“I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal,” went one 1917 letter to fellow Bloomsbury member, Duncan Grant), and by anger at the heavy-handedness of Versailles.

Cristiano’s close examination of Keynes’ choices between 1902 and 1914, however, shows any discontinuity between the young “philosophical” Keynes and the older “political” Keynes was more nominal than real.   The Cambridge Keynes was indeed a committed Apostle, but he was also a regular participant in the political debates of the Cambridge Union.  His philosophy was heavily influenced by Moore, but also by the example of Edmund Burke.  The India Office clerk was part of the Bloomsbury Group, but he also joined the Royal Economic Society and attended the Economic Club at University College.  Young Keynes entered Treasury already possessing deep interests in politics, in empire, and the choices of economic policymakers.

By no means was Keynes’ path to membership in the political Establishment inevitable when he matriculated at King’s College in 1902.  But neither were his interests in the choices of monetary economics merely “passions” of a youth that “were not importantly political at all” (Skidelsky, 1983, p.3).  Young Keynes was an earnest Apostle of strong convictions and great certainties.  He was a brilliant student, of course, but still a student whose convictions could and were pulling him in multiple directions.  Whether Keynes would have been typical of all brilliant sons of privilege reading for the math Tripos at Edwardian Cambridge, I do not know, but his certainties would be familiar to any today who have been fortunate enough to teach or advise honors-level twenty-year-olds.  Some of Keynes’ fellow Apostles may have settled upon a single worldview at 18.  Keynes had not.

Cristiano, an independent scholar most recently at the University of Pisa, has dug deep into both the Collected Writings and the Keynes Papers archived in the King’s College Modern Archives Centre.  Adding to these the diary of Keynes’ father, John Neville Keynes, the official papers of Alfred Marshall and other archival sources, as well as mastery of the secondary literature, he weaves a new and complex tapestry of Keynes’ early years, dividing the story into two periods, with Cambridge and India providing dual foci for both.   The first period comprises his undergraduate years (1902-1905) and his early years at the India Office (1906-1908), and the second begins with his decision to become an economics lecturer at Cambridge in 1908 and ends with the long days of August 1914.

In the opening chapter, “Portraits of Keynes as a Young Man,” Cristiano tracks the evolution of the story of the young Keynes since the first obituaries and Roy Harrod’s biography (1951).  His critical synthesis, much more than a mere “literature survey,” by itself will provide great value to any non-specialist.  Indeed, a stranger to the last three decades of the “new Keynes scholarship” need look no further than the basic references listed in Cristiano’s first two endnotes (p. 30).

Five more chapters and an epilogue then set forth how Keynes’ worldview on the eve of the War had developed along three dimensions of historical context: one provided by the ideas of imperialism and the New Liberalism; a second provided by probability theory and Alfred Marshall; and the third provided by his ever-growing network with central government and the civil service.  Each chapter solidifies one or more of the three dimensions.

“‘Liberal Imperialist,’ 1902-1905” (chapter two) shows the maths undergraduate and regular debater at the Union.  President of the Liberal Club, Keynes was neither a Gladstonian nor a New Liberal.  Rather, he was an elitist believing strongly in the civilizing effects of empire, but who also believed in an active role for the state in bringing about moderate progressive reform.

“Keynes, Marshall, and Cambridge Economics in 1905” (chapter three) and “From Apprentice to Lecturer” (chapter four) show Keynes studying index numbers under A.C. Pigou and monetary economics under Alfred Marshall.  Because Marshall would not publish his refined work on the demand and supply of money and his re-elaboration of the quantity theory until much later (1923), that part of his work was not widely known.  But Keynes was at Cambridge, with the kind of certainties that made him both receptive and willing to disagree (and thereby an ideal fit to Marshall’s pedagogic philosophy), giving him a real comparative advantage to trade with those in government who would pursue empire and reform.

“Lecturing and Electioneering” (chapter five), and “India” (chapter six) show Keynes deepening that comparative advantage as an academic, and then exercising it for the management of empire.  Two years before starting at Treasury, Keynes had already written his first major work in economics, Indian Currency and Finance, and before it was published he had joined (and authored the report of) a Royal Commission on the same subject.

Self-deprecatingly, Cristiano describes his work as if he were merely connecting the dots, merely basing it “solidly on precisely that which should surprise us least about Keynes” (p. xiv): “In fact, none of these elements — the civil servant, the liberal activist, the Marshallian monetary economist — has ever been denied.  There is not very much in this book that has not hitherto been mentioned by at least one of Keynes’ primary biographers” (p. 9).  But the author is too modest.  The detail he describes as “not very much … that has not hitherto been mentioned” is original scholarship, and it is very good.

The Political and Economic Thought of the Young Keynes is not a quick read.  As the author notes in his preface (p. xv), the book builds upon a doctoral thesis (University of Florence); and he has mastered the Monographic Voice:  staid title, long paragraphs, passive sentence constructions.  In our zeal for scholarly detachment and precision, we have unfortunately ensured few important monographs in economics or history (or I expect any other discipline) ever demonstrate the elegance and readability of Keynes’ works.  And as a result, we see the unintended and unfortunate consequence of too little diffusion of the increased knowledge that scholarship like Cristiano’s represents: for whether we are researchers in other areas, teachers of honors students or ordinary ones, or like Keynes, givers of advice to citizens and policymakers, our time becomes too scarce.

But that is a general gripe of this reviewer, not one peculiar to the book at hand.  Cristiano’s careful work here should not be ignored merely because he writes in the style that we academics demand from young scholars wishing to publish, a style that, as this review itself demonstrates, we all practice.  Cristiano’s is a book well worth the time of anyone interested in Keynes or the evolution of Keynesian ideas.

Young Keynes should be a part of any serious research collection, institutional or personal.  Though that monographic voice means non-honors undergraduate writers of term papers will try to avoid it, the book should also be in any undergraduate collection which serves courses in intellectual history or the history of economic thought. It is a book that will reward either a single sampling or multiple readings, one which will yield insight each time it is opened.


Roy F. Harrod, The Life of John Maynard Keynes.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.

John Maynard Keynes, Indian Currency and Finance.  London: Macmillan, 1913.

John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.  London: Macmillan, 1919.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1936.

John Maynard Keynes, Letter to Duncan Grant, December 15, 1917.  Quoted in Skidelsky (1983), xix.

Alfred Marshall, Money, Credit, and Commerce.  London: Macmillan, 1923.

Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: A Biography. Volume I: Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920. London, MacMillan, 1983.

Wade Shilts is Associate Professor of Economics at Luther College.  His research interests include the history of the joint stock company in Great Britain, the history of gambling in America, and the future of undergraduate economic education everywhere.  He is currently working on two books, How Big is ‘Big’?  Economic Numeracy for Citizens of an Anarchic World, which he plans to finish in 2015, and Barriers of Faith: Listening and the Future of Economic Education.  He may be reached at

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