Writing about Keynes
Robert Skidelsky
St John's College, Oxford | Sunday, January 23, 2000

Now that I've finished the last volume of my three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, I'd like to reflect on the main problems I've encountered in writing this biography. Some of them are problems common to all biographers; some have to do with writing about this particular subject; some are peculiar to me writing about Keynes. So my remarks this evening will be to some extent autobiographical.
 
 
But I have slanted them towards an audience of historians, and I hope they will help shed light on such matters as the relationship between history and economics, the role of ideas in politics, the nature of biographical explanation, and the place of biography in history.
 
Let me start, by way of preview, with a word about the peculiar mechanics of biographical research, which differ, in important ways, from the mechanics of historical research in general. Anyone seeking to write about a modern subject soon runs up against what Virginia Woolf called the 'widow' -the guardian of the Great Person's memory, who also controls access to -and if copyright still applies use of - the private papers the biographer is itching to get his hands on. Peter Ackroyd's biography of TS Eliot was crippled by the non-cooperation of Valerie Eliot; and to this day no biographer of George Orwell has been able to make full use of the Orwell archive. In my case, there was no actual widow, Lydia Keynes having died before I got to work. But there was a brother, the eminent surgeon and bibliographer, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, then in his eighties, and fiercely protective of his elder brother's reputation.
 
I won't say anything more about the struggle it took to gain Sir Geoffrey's confidence. I merely want to point out that in most 20th century biography there is a contract, explicit or implied, between the biographer and 'the widow' which limits the historian's freedom to research and use all the available material. I am not actually against this, because many biographers are not historians, but cranks or scandal mongers. I take up this issue later when I come to the nature of biographical explanation.
 
To start,then, with the relationship between history and economics. I was -am - a historian writing about an economist. I soon discovered that a historical training does nothing to equip one to write about economic theory; conversely economists tend to be not very good biographers or historians. A rough division of labour has established itself. A historian writing about ideas should concern himself only with those aspects of thought which explicitly impinge on public affairs. Thus we read in the prefatory note to the first number of the English Historical Review (1886): 'History therefore occupes itself with theology or metaphysics not as independent branches of enquiry, but only in their bearing on the acts of men'; and gives as an example, a very Victorian example, 'An article setting forth the views of Aquinas or Occam on the relations of the civil to the ecclesiastical power might be accepted, while one dealing with the metaphysics or theology of those thinkers would be deemed unsuitable'. Now I don't think that this can be recommended as a way for the historian to handle Keynes. The bearing of his thought on the 'acts of men' lies in his argument that government action is needed to ensure a sufficient level of demand to keep an economy fully employed. But it seems impossible to make this understandable without a considerable excursion into Keynes's 'theology'.
 
So there was nothing for it but to cross the disciplinary divide and to learn economics, which I did with sufficient success, so it seems, to be allowed to profess the subject in a university department of economics. Two things drove me to this: a genuine interest in economics and its style of thinking; and a fear of making mistakes in discussing Keynes's theories. I wanted my biography, that is, to pass muster by both historians and economists.Peter Clarke is the only other historian I know who has tried to do something similar with Keynes -and very good it is.
 
In a way, this simply transfers the problem to a higher sphere, for there is undoubtedly a difference between historical explanation and economic explanation. An economist will draw on a much smaller, and therefore more general, set of variables in explaining something like the Great Depression, or even the evolution of Keynes's thought, than a historian would. This is the inescapable consequence of the logic of model-building.Contrast Keynes's own General Theory with any historical explanation of the Great Depression. A historian tries to explain why the Great Depression happened; Keynes is concerned to establish the logical possibility of a Great Depression, which his fellow economists had denied. He starts with the postulate, or axiom, that human beings maximise under conditions of uncertainty and follows through the logical consequence of this for the behaviour of economies. Outside the model is any consideration of what historical events might have led people to believe in 1930 that the future was more uncertain than, say, it had been before the first world war. In other words the statement that the future is uncertain -cannot be reduced to a probability calculus -obliterates the uniqueness of, and differences, between periods which are the special concern of historians.
 
The same technique is used by economists when they write about the origins of the Keynesian Revolution. Essentially their focus is on the way Keynes solved his theoretical problems -that is to say, they focus on the changes in the equations Keynes used in his successive theoretical books. Outside events which may have caused Keynes to change his mind, or model, are not part of their explanatory scheme. The partial exception to this is the 'intellectual climate', again often represented as a set of equations or diagrams which supposedly characterise the 'classical school'. The Keynesian Revolution may then be presented as the discovery by Keynes of mistakes in the classical postulates. A classic example of this approach is Don Patinkin's book,Keynes's Monetary Thought.
 
A historian who is also an economist has the tools to combine both types of explanation: he knows the history and he understands the theory. For a biographer this double expertise is particularly important, for he is telling the story not of a brain whirring away in the void, or at best interacting with other 'brains', but of a human being who responds to changes in the world, within the limits set by his upbringing and general intellectual culture.
 
If there is any general lesson I draw from my experience it is that it is increasingly important that historians should acquire the rudiments of economic theory.They should also start to do so earlier than I did.This is also an argument for making A level students carry on with mathematics. Today's world is increasingly being shaped not just by economic events -it always has been -but by economic theory. That is a new development, dating from the second world war. One really does have to try to understand the style of thinking of the technicians in national treasuries and central banks, as well as multinational organisations like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, the Central European Bank, etc, to take part in the discussion of contemporary affairs and to bring other considerations derived from history to bear on them; for most of these people know no history at all.
 
This brings me to my second point: the influence of ideas on history. Keynes belongs to that small class of thinkers which has always troubled historians. History is concerned with public events; and historical actors are those who influence, or seek to influence, public events. Historians study the lives of monarchs, ministers, politicians, generals, religious leaders (inofar as they are politicians), revolutionaries, successful or unsuccessful, and the governmental institutions in which and through which they worked. They study nations, political parties, and classes insofar as these are conceived of as historical actors. Thinkers are more difficult to accommodate. They may not be regardedwith quite the contempt which led Stalin to remark of the Pope's opposition to his plans for Poland: 'How many divisions does the Pope have?'. The fact remains that thinkers, as thinkers, have no divisions, no tangible instruments of power. Yet as Keynes himself remarked famously, but by no means uniquely, 'the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back'. In our own time economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek have had an enormous effect on the world without ever having held a public office. And this is just as true of thinkers in the past: think, for example, of the influence of a Voltaire or a Rousseau on the French Revolution. It is ideas that give men of action the confidence to act.
 
But the effects of thought are less transparent than the effects of action, which is why what is generally termed 'the intellectual climate' usually appears in history books as a generalised background to the actions of statesmen -more often than not put into the first chapter and never referred to again.
 
With Keynes the problem is a little more tractable, because he was in fact in government for three periods of his life, notably at the Treasury in the two world wars. So one can trace the direct influence of his ideas on policymaking. In the volume on the second world war, which I have just finished it is fascinating to see how his pamphlet 'How to Pay for the War' went through the policy-making sieve to give logical shape to Kingsley Wood's Budget of 1941, or how the ideas of his Clearing Union plan of 1941 wound their way into the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944. In these two ways, and also in his handling of the American Loan negotiation of 1945, Keynes was a top-ranking political actor in his own right. Today this phenomenon of economists in government, and even as leaders of governments, is relatively common: but in Keynes's day it was almost unique.
 
Even so there remains a historical bias against giving such 'actors' their due. In Churchill's six-volume history of the second world war Keynes gets just one mention.Mostly his activities eluded Churchill's grand geopolitical sweep. And it has to be said that stories of battles make much more dramatic reading than stories of the financial and economic arrangements which made it possible for those battles to be fought - and won or lost. The challenge I faced in my third volume was to write an alternative history of the second world war, in which Keynes, not Churchill or Hitler or Roosevelt is the main protagonist, and to make it as dramatic as the classic historical accounts. I call it 'Fighting for Britain', and I try to recapitulate Churchill's own cycle which ends, as you may know, with the volume 'Triumph and Tragedy'. Of course, I cannot succeed, because the material is inherently less open to the general reader.
 
But to make intractable material accessible is the challenge which new generations of historians will increasingly have to face, if they are not to go on writing the same books about the same subjects for ever and ever. In this connection I would like to pay tribute to Niall Ferguson's pathbreaking History of the Rothschilds, and not just because he has invited me here this evening. In placing high finance at the centre of his account of 19th century European diplomacy he faced some of the same problems I faced in making Keynes a pivot of 20th century British history. Unfamiliar characters occupy the centre of his stage: the familiar historical actors -Metternich, Bismarck, Louis Napoleon - are pushed out to the periphery. It is a genuinely illuminating shift in the angle of vision, and one requiring a technical understanding of finance beyond the reach of any standard historical training.
 
Let me turn now to problems peculiar to biography. Two leading ones emerge, which run into each other. What explanatory value does a life have? How frank should it be?
 
The first volume of my biography of Keynes ran into a great deal of flak because I talked about his private life. Some reviewers managed to say some pretty dotty things. For example, Maurice Peston, now a colleague of mine in the Lords, wrote that 'it is obvious philosophical nonsense to suggest that there is a connection [between Keynes's sexuality and his economics]; the logical validity of a theory and its empirical relevance are independent of its progenitor. (What help is knowledgeof the lives of Newton and Einstein in predicting the movements of the planets?)' The obvious riposte is that economics is not a science like physics. There are a large number of hypotheses possible to explain a given set of facts, and empirical tests of them are difficult to undertake in theory and are nearly always inconclusive in practice. The choice of which model to use is always affected by the general outlook of the theorist, and this gives the biography of the economist at least the start of its explanatory function.
 
In a review I got in the Sydney Morning Herald of 14 January 1984, the reviewer wrote that although Bertrand Russell 'recorded the miseries he endured when he practised masturbation, no enterprising biographer has yet undertaken to explore connections between them and Russell's philosophy'. Not actually true.
 
To show the disordered state of thinking on these matters, I need to quote in the opposite sense from a review I received from William Rees-Mogg -now also Lord Rees-Mogg -who had no doubt of the connection between Keynes's private life and his economics.He emphasised Keynes's 'narrow elitism', which was reinforced by 'his membership of the Apostles, a conceited secret intellectual club at Cambridge, by his homosexuality which in those days also had to be secret, and by his friendship with the Bloomsbury Group'. This elitism led Keynes to reject 'general rules' and in particular to attack the gold standard 'which provided an automatic control of monetary inflation'. Repudiation of sexual rules leads directly to the repudiation of monetary rules. This seems to be the burden of Rees-Mogg's message. To which the only sensible reply is that a correlation is not a cause.
 
On the further shores of dottiness was a letter I get from an American correspondent: 'Did you know' he asked me 'that Keynes with his fellow leftists frequented brothels filled with boys crudely castrated...and sold into sexual slavery in Tunis, Algeria, etc...that he was a Fabian and in America closely associated with Harry Dexter White (alias Weiss) a member of the Silvermaster spy-ring and convicted arch traitor. White was chairman of the Bretton Woods Conference. Keynes was organiser of the subversive IMF created by Soviet representatives and American Soviet spies. Assocated were Felix Frankfurter and Walter Lippman'. It all makes a pattern, or does it? Is there any nugget of sense to be extracted from this misama of misinformation and conspiracy theory? I quote it only because many fervent anti-Keynesians in the United States do believe something like this: an disagreeable tribute to the power of biography to illuminate the connections between life and thought.
 
The most powerful theory of the connection between life and work is Freud's, and Freud's theory of the personality has spawned masses of biographies of uneven quality. I suppose I have a temperamental antipathy to Freudian explanations of 'achievement'. It seems to me that they are incurably reductionist. They seem to give the biographer warrant not to take a person's ideas seriously or to discuss them in their own terms, but to see them as the expression of something else, like childhood trauma. In any event, I found the Freudian approach unhelpful in writing about Keynes. The specific psychological mechanism used by Freud to explain rebellion -the Oedipal Complex -seemed to be irrelevant in Keynes's case-either as an explanation of Keynes's homosexuality, or as an explanation of his revolution in economics.
 
I am more sympathetic to Freud's poetry than his psychology. He had a tragic vision of life, and saw the suppression of the instinctual desires as the price of civilisation and progress. It is, perhaps, possible to write about Keynes in this way: duty triumphed over inclination, Bloomsbury was sacrificed to Whitehall. But even this is to get things off-beam. One has no sense of a tragic life, but of a supremely happy, successful and fulfilled one. Of Keynes one can say with great confidence that he succeeded in getting the best of all his possible worlds. It is significant that Freud, with his wealth of classical stereotypes, never writes about Odysseus, the classical hero, ‘soft of speech,keen of wit, and prudent’, whom Keynes most resembled.
 
I have some sympathy for the neo-Marxist view that Keynes was a product of his class and background and therefore tended to see the economic problem from a particular point of view -that of the 'educated bourgeoisie' located at the centre of a declining empire.One can add a great deal of sophistication to this kind of approach. But it does not absolve the biographer from taking Keynes's ideas seriously, and leaves out the value added by sheer genius, that residual of universal significance.
 
But a work of genius is a complex object and we can say something about what went into the making of it. Even in the case of scientific and mathematical achievement we can say a great deal about the existing state of knowledge, the problems it failed to solve, why those problems are, or have become interesting, the particular capacities which the solver brings to the solution. At the other extreme is a work of art which seems to have much more immediate roots in the personal life of the artist or writer. In between is the area in which Keynes worked, which was partly scientific, partly artistic. This gives a wide justification for a biographical approach. As I put it in the introduction to my first volume: 'If underlying Keynesian theory was Keynes's vision of his age, knowledge of his state of mind and the circumstances which formed it is essential, not only in order to understand how he came to see the world as he did, but also in order to pass judgment on the theory itself'.
 
This being said, I don't want to argue the case for biography on utilitarian grounds. People do, of course, read biography partly to understand what formed the character and work of an outstanding person. But they also read it because it is the oldest form of story-telling, which long antecedes fiction. We want to know, and seem always to have wanted to know, how famous people lived their lives and to hear the stories of their exploits and the great events in which they were involved. There is no dimunition of this interest, which is why biography remains one of the most popular genres of reading today.
 
But what, finally, is its relation to history? Perhaps you know the famous lines from Ecclesiasticus: 'Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us' and goes on: 'Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions'. These words were read at Keynes's memorial service in Westminster Abbey and it is in these terms that I have finally come to see him. It has to be said that this is very much a Great Person view of history, and biography is its main vehicle. But this is also my belief. Individuals do make a difference.Lenin made a difference. Hitler made a difference. Margaret Thatcher made a difference. Ronald Reagan made a difference. Keynes made a difference.In short individual thought and action makes a difference. That is not to say that in the long run everything doesn't come out in the wash.
 
There's an interesting exchange between Keynes and and a French friend of his, Marcel Labordere soon after the appearance of the General Theory . Labordere had argued that in the long run the structure of production adjusts to lower prices. This produced a characteristic Keynes response: 'Certainly this seems to be the natural conclusion. But it is, I should say, a very long run...It is rather like saying, that even if the currency policy of Julius Caesar had been very different, prices to-day would be the same as they are. Every separate influence becomes absorbed in the long course of history'.
 
I doubt if any serious historian today would deny that great men are one of those 'separate influences'. That is also the justification for writing about them.
 
Now that I've finished the last volume of my three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, I'd like to reflect on the main problems I've encountered in writing this biography. Some of them are problems common to all biographers; some have to do with writing about this particular subject; some are peculiar to me writing about Keynes. So my remarks this evening will be to some extent autobiographical.
 
 
But I have slanted them towards an audience of historians, and I hope they will help shed light on such matters as the relationship between history and economics, the role of ideas in politics, the nature of biographical explanation, and the place of biography in history.
 
Let me start, by way of preview, with a word about the peculiar mechanics of biographical research, which differ, in important ways, from the mechanics of historical research in general. Anyone seeking to write about a modern subject soon runs up against what Virginia Woolf called the 'widow' -the guardian of the Great Person's memory, who also controls access to -and if copyright still applies use of - the private papers the biographer is itching to get his hands on. Peter Ackroyd's biography of TS Eliot was crippled by the non-cooperation of Valerie Eliot; and to this day no biographer of George Orwell has been able to make full use of the Orwell archive. In my case, there was no actual widow, Lydia Keynes having died before I got to work. But there was a brother, the eminent surgeon and bibliographer, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, then in his eighties, and fiercely protective of his elder brother's reputation.
 
I won't say anything more about the struggle it took to gain Sir Geoffrey's confidence. I merely want to point out that in most 20th century biography there is a contract, explicit or implied, between the biographer and 'the widow' which limits the historian's freedom to research and use all the available material. I am not actually against this, because many biographers are not historians, but cranks or scandal mongers. I take up this issue later when I come to the nature of biographical explanation.
 
To start,then, with the relationship between history and economics. I was -am - a historian writing about an economist. I soon discovered that a historical training does nothing to equip one to write about economic theory; conversely economists tend to be not very good biographers or historians. A rough division of labour has established itself. A historian writing about ideas should concern himself only with those aspects of thought which explicitly impinge on public affairs. Thus we read in the prefatory note to the first number of the English Historical Review (1886): 'History therefore occupes itself with theology or metaphysics not as independent branches of enquiry, but only in their bearing on the acts of men'; and gives as an example, a very Victorian example, 'An article setting forth the views of Aquinas or Occam on the relations of the civil to the ecclesiastical power might be accepted, while one dealing with the metaphysics or theology of those thinkers would be deemed unsuitable'. Now I don't think that this can be recommended as a way for the historian to handle Keynes. The bearing of his thought on the 'acts of men' lies in his argument that government action is needed to ensure a sufficient level of demand to keep an economy fully employed. But it seems impossible to make this understandable without a considerable excursion into Keynes's 'theology'.
 
So there was nothing for it but to cross the disciplinary divide and to learn economics, which I did with sufficient success, so it seems, to be allowed to profess the subject in a university department of economics. Two things drove me to this: a genuine interest in economics and its style of thinking; and a fear of making mistakes in discussing Keynes's theories. I wanted my biography, that is, to pass muster by both historians and economists.Peter Clarke is the only other historian I know who has tried to do something similar with Keynes -and very good it is.
 
In a way, this simply transfers the problem to a higher sphere, for there is undoubtedly a difference between historical explanation and economic explanation. An economist will draw on a much smaller, and therefore more general, set of variables in explaining something like the Great Depression, or even the evolution of Keynes's thought, than a historian would. This is the inescapable consequence of the logic of model-building.Contrast Keynes's own General Theory with any historical explanation of the Great Depression. A historian tries to explain why the Great Depression happened; Keynes is concerned to establish the logical possibility of a Great Depression, which his fellow economists had denied. He starts with the postulate, or axiom, that human beings maximise under conditions of uncertainty and follows through the logical consequence of this for the behaviour of economies. Outside the model is any consideration of what historical events might have led people to believe in 1930 that the future was more uncertain than, say, it had been before the first world war. In other words the statement that the future is uncertain -cannot be reduced to a probability calculus -obliterates the uniqueness of, and differences, between periods which are the special concern of historians.
 
The same technique is used by economists when they write about the origins of the Keynesian Revolution. Essentially their focus is on the way Keynes solved his theoretical problems -that is to say, they focus on the changes in the equations Keynes used in his successive theoretical books. Outside events which may have caused Keynes to change his mind, or model, are not part of their explanatory scheme. The partial exception to this is the 'intellectual climate', again often represented as a set of equations or diagrams which supposedly characterise the 'classical school'. The Keynesian Revolution may then be presented as the discovery by Keynes of mistakes in the classical postulates. A classic example of this approach is Don Patinkin's book,Keynes's Monetary Thought.
 
A historian who is also an economist has the tools to combine both types of explanation: he knows the history and he understands the theory. For a biographer this double expertise is particularly important, for he is telling the story not of a brain whirring away in the void, or at best interacting with other 'brains', but of a human being who responds to changes in the world, within the limits set by his upbringing and general intellectual culture.
 
If there is any general lesson I draw from my experience it is that it is increasingly important that historians should acquire the rudiments of economic theory.They should also start to do so earlier than I did.This is also an argument for making A level students carry on with mathematics. Today's world is increasingly being shaped not just by economic events -it always has been -but by economic theory. That is a new development, dating from the second world war. One really does have to try to understand the style of thinking of the technicians in national treasuries and central banks, as well as multinational organisations like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, the Central European Bank, etc, to take part in the discussion of contemporary affairs and to bring other considerations derived from history to bear on them; for most of these people know no history at all.
 
This brings me to my second point: the influence of ideas on history. Keynes belongs to that small class of thinkers which has always troubled historians. History is concerned with public events; and historical actors are those who influence, or seek to influence, public events. Historians study the lives of monarchs, ministers, politicians, generals, religious leaders (inofar as they are politicians), revolutionaries, successful or unsuccessful, and the governmental institutions in which and through which they worked. They study nations, political parties, and classes insofar as these are conceived of as historical actors. Thinkers are more difficult to accommodate. They may not be regardedwith quite the contempt which led Stalin to remark of the Pope's opposition to his plans for Poland: 'How many divisions does the Pope have?'. The fact remains that thinkers, as thinkers, have no divisions, no tangible instruments of power. Yet as Keynes himself remarked famously, but by no means uniquely, 'the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back'. In our own time economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek have had an enormous effect on the world without ever having held a public office. And this is just as true of thinkers in the past: think, for example, of the influence of a Voltaire or a Rousseau on the French Revolution. It is ideas that give men of action the confidence to act.
 
But the effects of thought are less transparent than the effects of action, which is why what is generally termed 'the intellectual climate' usually appears in history books as a generalised background to the actions of statesmen -more often than not put into the first chapter and never referred to again.
 
With Keynes the problem is a little more tractable, because he was in fact in government for three periods of his life, notably at the Treasury in the two world wars. So one can trace the direct influence of his ideas on policymaking. In the volume on the second world war, which I have just finished it is fascinating to see how his pamphlet 'How to Pay for the War' went through the policy-making sieve to give logical shape to Kingsley Wood's Budget of 1941, or how the ideas of his Clearing Union plan of 1941 wound their way into the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944. In these two ways, and also in his handling of the American Loan negotiation of 1945, Keynes was a top-ranking political actor in his own right. Today this phenomenon of economists in government, and even as leaders of governments, is relatively common: but in Keynes's day it was almost unique.
 
Even so there remains a historical bias against giving such 'actors' their due. In Churchill's six-volume history of the second world war Keynes gets just one mention.Mostly his activities eluded Churchill's grand geopolitical sweep. And it has to be said that stories of battles make much more dramatic reading than stories of the financial and economic arrangements which made it possible for those battles to be fought - and won or lost. The challenge I faced in my third volume was to write an alternative history of the second world war, in which Keynes, not Churchill or Hitler or Roosevelt is the main protagonist, and to make it as dramatic as the classic historical accounts. I call it 'Fighting for Britain', and I try to recapitulate Churchill's own cycle which ends, as you may know, with the volume 'Triumph and Tragedy'. Of course, I cannot succeed, because the material is inherently less open to the general reader.
 
But to make intractable material accessible is the challenge which new generations of historians will increasingly have to face, if they are not to go on writing the same books about the same subjects for ever and ever. In this connection I would like to pay tribute to Niall Ferguson's pathbreaking History of the Rothschilds, and not just because he has invited me here this evening. In placing high finance at the centre of his account of 19th century European diplomacy he faced some of the same problems I faced in making Keynes a pivot of 20th century British history. Unfamiliar characters occupy the centre of his stage: the familiar historical actors -Metternich, Bismarck, Louis Napoleon - are pushed out to the periphery. It is a genuinely illuminating shift in the angle of vision, and one requiring a technical understanding of finance beyond the reach of any standard historical training.
 
Let me turn now to problems peculiar to biography. Two leading ones emerge, which run into each other. What explanatory value does a life have? How frank should it be?
 
The first volume of my biography of Keynes ran into a great deal of flak because I talked about his private life. Some reviewers managed to say some pretty dotty things. For example, Maurice Peston, now a colleague of mine in the Lords, wrote that 'it is obvious philosophical nonsense to suggest that there is a connection [between Keynes's sexuality and his economics]; the logical validity of a theory and its empirical relevance are independent of its progenitor. (What help is knowledgeof the lives of Newton and Einstein in predicting the movements of the planets?)' The obvious riposte is that economics is not a science like physics. There are a large number of hypotheses possible to explain a given set of facts, and empirical tests of them are difficult to undertake in theory and are nearly always inconclusive in practice. The choice of which model to use is always affected by the general outlook of the theorist, and this gives the biography of the economist at least the start of its explanatory function.
 
In a review I got in the Sydney Morning Herald of 14 January 1984, the reviewer wrote that although Bertrand Russell 'recorded the miseries he endured when he practised masturbation, no enterprising biographer has yet undertaken to explore connections between them and Russell's philosophy'. Not actually true.
 
To show the disordered state of thinking on these matters, I need to quote in the opposite sense from a review I received from William Rees-Mogg -now also Lord Rees-Mogg -who had no doubt of the connection between Keynes's private life and his economics.He emphasised Keynes's 'narrow elitism', which was reinforced by 'his membership of the Apostles, a conceited secret intellectual club at Cambridge, by his homosexuality which in those days also had to be secret, and by his friendship with the Bloomsbury Group'. This elitism led Keynes to reject 'general rules' and in particular to attack the gold standard 'which provided an automatic control of monetary inflation'. Repudiation of sexual rules leads directly to the repudiation of monetary rules. This seems to be the burden of Rees-Mogg's message. To which the only sensible reply is that a correlation is not a cause.
 
On the further shores of dottiness was a letter I get from an American correspondent: 'Did you know' he asked me 'that Keynes with his fellow leftists frequented brothels filled with boys crudely castrated...and sold into sexual slavery in Tunis, Algeria, etc...that he was a Fabian and in America closely associated with Harry Dexter White (alias Weiss) a member of the Silvermaster spy-ring and convicted arch traitor. White was chairman of the Bretton Woods Conference. Keynes was organiser of the subversive IMF created by Soviet representatives and American Soviet spies. Assocated were Felix Frankfurter and Walter Lippman'. It all makes a pattern, or does it? Is there any nugget of sense to be extracted from this misama of misinformation and conspiracy theory? I quote it only because many fervent anti-Keynesians in the United States do believe something like this: an disagreeable tribute to the power of biography to illuminate the connections between life and thought.
 
The most powerful theory of the connection between life and work is Freud's, and Freud's theory of the personality has spawned masses of biographies of uneven quality. I suppose I have a temperamental antipathy to Freudian explanations of 'achievement'. It seems to me that they are incurably reductionist. They seem to give the biographer warrant not to take a person's ideas seriously or to discuss them in their own terms, but to see them as the expression of something else, like childhood trauma. In any event, I found the Freudian approach unhelpful in writing about Keynes. The specific psychological mechanism used by Freud to explain rebellion -the Oedipal Complex -seemed to be irrelevant in Keynes's case-either as an explanation of Keynes's homosexuality, or as an explanation of his revolution in economics.
 
I am more sympathetic to Freud's poetry than his psychology. He had a tragic vision of life, and saw the suppression of the instinctual desires as the price of civilisation and progress. It is, perhaps, possible to write about Keynes in this way: duty triumphed over inclination, Bloomsbury was sacrificed to Whitehall. But even this is to get things off-beam. One has no sense of a tragic life, but of a supremely happy, successful and fulfilled one. Of Keynes one can say with great confidence that he succeeded in getting the best of all his possible worlds. It is significant that Freud, with his wealth of classical stereotypes, never writes about Odysseus, the classical hero, ‘soft of speech,keen of wit, and prudent’, whom Keynes most resembled.
 
I have some sympathy for the neo-Marxist view that Keynes was a product of his class and background and therefore tended to see the economic problem from a particular point of view -that of the 'educated bourgeoisie' located at the centre of a declining empire.One can add a great deal of sophistication to this kind of approach. But it does not absolve the biographer from taking Keynes's ideas seriously, and leaves out the value added by sheer genius, that residual of universal significance.
 
But a work of genius is a complex object and we can say something about what went into the making of it. Even in the case of scientific and mathematical achievement we can say a great deal about the existing state of knowledge, the problems it failed to solve, why those problems are, or have become interesting, the particular capacities which the solver brings to the solution. At the other extreme is a work of art which seems to have much more immediate roots in the personal life of the artist or writer. In between is the area in which Keynes worked, which was partly scientific, partly artistic. This gives a wide justification for a biographical approach. As I put it in the introduction to my first volume: 'If underlying Keynesian theory was Keynes's vision of his age, knowledge of his state of mind and the circumstances which formed it is essential, not only in order to understand how he came to see the world as he did, but also in order to pass judgment on the theory itself'.
 
This being said, I don't want to argue the case for biography on utilitarian grounds. People do, of course, read biography partly to understand what formed the character and work of an outstanding person. But they also read it because it is the oldest form of story-telling, which long antecedes fiction. We want to know, and seem always to have wanted to know, how famous people lived their lives and to hear the stories of their exploits and the great events in which they were involved. There is no dimunition of this interest, which is why biography remains one of the most popular genres of reading today.
 
But what, finally, is its relation to history? Perhaps you know the famous lines from Ecclesiasticus: 'Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us' and goes on: 'Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions'. These words were read at Keynes's memorial service in Westminster Abbey and it is in these terms that I have finally come to see him. It has to be said that this is very much a Great Person view of history, and biography is its main vehicle. But this is also my belief. Individuals do make a difference.Lenin made a difference. Hitler made a difference. Margaret Thatcher made a difference. Ronald Reagan made a difference. Keynes made a difference.In short individual thought and action makes a difference. That is not to say that in the long run everything doesn't come out in the wash.
 
There's an interesting exchange between Keynes and and a French friend of his, Marcel Labordere soon after the appearance of the General Theory . Labordere had argued that in the long run the structure of production adjusts to lower prices. This produced a characteristic Keynes response: 'Certainly this seems to be the natural conclusion. But it is, I should say, a very long run...It is rather like saying, that even if the currency policy of Julius Caesar had been very different, prices to-day would be the same as they are. Every separate influence becomes absorbed in the long course of history'.
 
I doubt if any serious historian today would deny that great men are one of those 'separate influences'. That is also the justification for writing about them.