Robert Skidelsky
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Doing good and being good
Robert Skidelsky
Times Literary Supplement | Friday, March 26, 1999

 
Shaw was much older than Keynes. He was born in 1856, Keynes in 1883. He was a Victorian, Keynes an Edwardian. When their lives started to criss-cross after the First World War, Keynes was in his forties, Shaw already in his seventies.
 
There is a photograph of them together on the steps of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 1935, the only one, I think. It must have been an official occasion, for Keynes is in gown and mortarboard, a middle-aged don with a grey moustache, his face that of a man of business as well as a scholar, gazing impassively into the camera. Shaw stands beside him, a little apart, looking wary - he didn't like universities - very erect, a Methuselah with a white beard seemingly eviscerated by his vegetarian diet. He was clad in his usual Fabian suit of unlined wool and outside pockets, a throwback to Edward Carpenter and the simplified life of the 1880s; a homburg perched on the Shavian head and black leather gloves clapsed in his left hand were incongruous concessions to decorum.
 
The Victorian Shaw and the Edwardian Keynes became, as young men, members of two distinctive, but overlapping circles - the Fabian Society and the Bloomsbury Group. The Fabian Society dates from the early 1880s; the Bloomsbury Group was an offshoot of Cambridge which formed in the mid-1900s. In 1934, Beatrice Webb, the bony Fabian matriarch, wrote to the Bloomsbury novelist E.
 
M. Forster in her inimitable way: "Why don't you write another great novel giving the essence of the current conflict between those who aim at exquisite relations within the closed circle of the 'elect' and those who aim at hygienic and scientific improvement of the whole race." By 1934, this was hardly any longer "the essence of the modern conflict". Public events had become too clamant, and the conceptual categories of the young had been politicized. But for the turn of the century, Beatrice Webb was right. To schematize things unpardonably, Bloomsbury and the Fabians represented two strands of the revolt against Victorianism - the one a revolt against Victorian moral hypocrisy, the other against the social and industrial arrangements which gave rise to it.
 
In the philosophical language that Keynes was wont to use, the "essence of the conflict" was between "being good" and "doing good"; and the lack, in his view, of any close connection between the two. It is prefigured in John Stuart Mill's Autobiography and would erupt again in the 1960s, when the young championed "lifestyle" issues against the administrative social democracy of their elders.
 
To the Fabians, and equally to Keynes's economics teacher Alfred Marshall, "being good" lay precisely in "doing good": it was a self-sacrificing ideal, the submerging of individual egoism in the cause of humanity, a secular version of Christianity. But there was another Christian tradition, represented by monasticism, whose ideal was holiness. And this, in secularized form, was the ethical goal of the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was published in 1903, Keynes's second year at Cambridge. "Its effect on us", Keynes said much later - in 1938 - "and the talk which preceded and followed it, dominated, and perhaps still dominates, everything else." For Moore, the Ideal consisted of "certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects". To strive towards these states was an ethical duty.
 
Here is Keynes arguing out the Beatrice Webb problem in a talk he gave to the Apostles, in 1905: Are we not, each of us, an end to ourselves? Suppose the decree has gone forth: it is good as a means that you should be bad in yourself. Am I to submit? Am I to choose to be bad in myself in order that some devils whom I neither know or care for should wallow in heaven? Am I go to to hell that some stranger should sit at the right hand of God?
 
It may be that by such action that I shall increase the general good, that I shall be doing good. But is the obligation to do good? Is it not rather to be good? Suppose they conflict . . . .
 
It is interesting to notice the theological language which comes naturally to the atheistic young Keynes as he wrestles with his ethical dilemmas. He knows he is, as Beatrice Webb, said, one of the elect. But what exactly is the sacrifice entailed by "doing good"? It is to renounce - and I go on with my quotation - "the most splendid flights of passionate and mutual affection", the opportunity to "sup with Plato and Shakespeare in Paradise", for the sake of grubbing around in Vestry politics, electioneering, writing Fabian Tracts - in fact, exactly the things the young Shaw spent his days on, in order that - here I quote Keynes - "two negroid negroes from Central Africa" might participate in the "paradisiac supper party". The illustration is exceedingly unpleasant, but the point is general: if doing good entails a life cut off from friendship and beauty, it is unethical. And it is hard to miss the dig at the Fabians.
 
Of course, the opposition was not, and is not, as clear-cut as that. In the Fabian Society of the 1880s, as Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks have written, the "boundaries between the moral, aesthetic and political revolt were still fluid". With H. G. Wells, they always remained fluid. Shaw was an aesthetic as well as a political revolutionary championing Wagner and Ibsen. In a parody of the self-expressive ideal, he wrote: "I never deny myself a Beethoven symphony." And the younger Cambridge Bloomsberries were more political than their immediate elders, preaching, and perhaps practising, the "good life" at Fabian summer camps, to the alarm of the prim Beatrice, who deplored their "anarchic ways in sexual questions". Lytton Strachey described a remarkable scene when he and Rupert Brooke "tried to explain Moore's ideas to Mrs Webb while she tried to convince us of the efficacy of prayer".
 
Nevertheless, the dominant emphasis of the Fabian Society as set by its leaders, the Webbs and Shaw, was on the subordination of self to social reform, while that of Bloomsbury, as exemplified by Lytton Strachey and the Stephen sisters, was on the pursuit of what Clive Bell called "civilization", for those able to afford it. In his paper "My Early Beliefs", read to old Bloomsberries in 1938, Keynes recalled that "Our prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge. Of these love came a long way first." Contrast this with the words Shaw puts into the mouth of Mrs Clandon in You Never Can Tell, a play dating from 1902: "Let me tell you, Mr Valentine, that a life devoted to the Cause of Humanity has enthusiasms and passions to offer which far transcend the selfish personal infatuations and sentimentalities of romance." Both men acted on their principles. As a young man, Keynes loved the painter Duncan Grant; in early middle age, he fell for, and married, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. His love of the two artists was at the same time a homage to the arts they represented.
 
Shaw was a virgin till he was twenty-nine, which is "enough to give a man a saintly aura for the rest of his life". He enjoyed some flimsy affairs with actresses, in which the chief ejaculations seem to have been verbal. "Romantic dalliance", writes Dan Laurence, "was never permitted to interfere with Shaw's Socialist and other professional commitments." By contrast, Keynes broke a promise to go to India on a Royal Commission on Fiscal Policy, because he had fallen in love with Lydia Lopokova. Rejecting love as "impractical for himself and perhaps only possible in the world of opera", Shaw settled down to a loveless but companionable union with a lady willing to service the writing machine. "The thing being thus cleared of all such illusions as love interest, happiness interest, and all the rest of the vulgarity of marriage, I . . . hopped down to the Registrar", he told Beatrice Webb. Lydia Keynes wrote of Charlotte Shaw in 1925, "they are friends, and she does not spoil his work".
 
Keynes himself came to realize the force of the impersonal ideal as he grew older - or, as we might say, grew up - but he never repudiated the ethical standards of his youth. Bloomsbury's was more than just a young person's philosophy, which is why it retained a lifelong hold on Keynes, even as life carried him beyond its frontiers; just as Shaw's incapacity to appreciate it was more than just the effect of a deprived childhood. As he told an aspiring biographer, "you must relate me to my time". What gave the Fabian Society its raison d'etre was consciousness of social and economic crisis, precipitated by the collapse of the mid-Victorian boom in the 1870s and premonitions of Britain's decline. Beatrice Webb noted in her diary in 1884: "Social questions are the vital questions of today: they have taken the place of religion." The Bloomsbury Group, by contrast, dates from that prosperous and self-assured interlude between the recovery from the Depression in the 1890s and the First World War, when it seemed that summers were golden and that the serpents had been expelled from paradise. Or at least so it seemed to Cambridge's gilded youth, who considered that progress had been put on auto-pilot, and the time had come to enjoy beautiful states of mind.
 
Keynes's earliest reaction to Shaw comes from a letter he wrote to Lytton Strachey, dated October 18, 1905, when he was twenty-two: "I . . . have seen Mr. Shaw's witty filthy play. Is it monomania - this colossal moral superiority that we feel? I get the feeling that most of the rest never see anything at all - too stupid or too wicked. The contrast between you and Duncan and Mr Shaw's view of the world has been too violent." The play may well have been John Bull's Other Island, which had just started its run at the Royal Court. The language is Bloomsbury's. When Keynes writes that "most of the rest never see anything", he is using the word "see" in the same sense as G. E. Moore, who thought that we see the attribute "good" in the same way as we see "yellow": in an apple, at least if we are not afflicted by moral colour-blindness. And when he talks about the play being "filthy", he is not referring to lewdness, but to the "filthiness" of Shaw's concern with politics, to which he opposed the purity of Lytton's love affair with his nephew. He regarded Shaw's political message as "old hat" and himself and his own circle as the true moral "revolutionaries".
 
This reaction to Shaw was not shared by all Bloomberries. Leonard Woolf thought that Shaw "did have a message of tremendous importance for us", which was his merciless exposure of cant. It took the First World War, though, to awaken Keynes to the realization that the evils which Shaw attacked with his unrivalled mixture of wit and ridicule were not the "amusements of the daily newspapers" which exerted "no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life", but the dominant realities of the age. The "naughty boy" of the English Establishment and the Irish gadfly met on the terrain of a collapsing social and economic order. It is ironic that the unworldly disciple of Moore should drive himself to premature death in the service of his country, while the do-gooding old Fabian should metamorphose into a positively ethereal nonogenarian.
 
Keynes first came to Shaw's notice as the author of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, in which Keynes denounced with passion and eloquence the injustice and folly of the Treaty of Versailles. Shaw had published his less authoritative Peace Conference Hints earlier in 1919, in which he had demanded a moral peace which would "set the world an example of consideration for vanquished enemies". The Treaty of Versailles was hardly that, and soon Shaw was attacking it as the "greatest disaster" for the whole of civilization, which "left nothing to be done but face the question of the next war . . .".
 
This opinion was endorsed by Keynes's angry polemic. "A great sensation has been made here", Shaw wrote to his German translator Siegried Trebisch, "by Professor Keynes of Cambridge, who was at Versailles as an economic expert, and resigned that position and came home as a protest against the peace terms. He has now published a book in which he demonstrates that the indemnity demanded from Germany is an economic impossibility, and nobody ventures to dispute this."
 
According to Kingsley Martin, Economic Consequences of the Peace made Keynes a "hero of the Left, to which he never belonged". The last part of this is not quite right. Keynes always thought of himself as a man of the Left. But the Left to him simply meant the Liberal Party. In the 1920s, to be a "man of the Left" meant to support the Labour Party and some form of socialism. Keynes never took this step - he remained a lifelong Liberal. But the emergence of a powerful critic of Establishment policies from within the Establishment was a great boon to the Left, to which was added, as the 1920s wore on, Keynes's increasingly heterodox economic and social opinions. More important for the Left than his attack on the policy of returning the pound to the gold standard in 1925 were a number of important essays he wrote in the mid-1920s charting changes in the nature of capitalism which made laissez-faire no longer viable as a policy. In his Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, published in 1928, Shaw hailed Keynes as the "academic successor" to such nineteenth-century critics of capitalism as John Stuart Mill, Cairnes and Ruskin. Keynes reciprocated: "What a debt every intelligent being owes to Bernard Shaw", he wrote in 1927. "What a debt also to H. G. Wells, whose mind seems to have grown up alongside his readers, so that in successive phases, he has delighted us and guided our imaginations from boyhood to maturity." Wells was ten years younger than Shaw. Keynes at this point found him more interesting than Shaw, precisely because his artistic imagination was not so bounded by Fabian economics. He was attracted by Wells's idea of a Samurai order leading mankind to better things. A few years later, he complained that Shaw "never says anything new, but Charlotte does".
 
The Keyneses, the Wellses, the Shaws, and the Webbs started meeting in London and at their country houses. Beatrice Webb wrote Keynes a warm letter of appreciation on his article "Liberalism and Labour" in 1926. She particularly liked the echo of the old Fabian idea of permeation, while admitting that "the particular line of research which we in the Fabian Society started in the nineties . . . is now exhausted". After lunching with her and Shaw on March 19,
 
1926, he took her autobiography My Apprenticeship to Andalusia, where he and Lydia spent their Easter holiday. Whereas before the war he had mocked Beatrice, he was now much moved by her account of her struggle to replace her Christian faith by a "new religion of humanity". On their return, Duncan Grant reported that "Maynard almost became a Socialist owing to his reading Mrs Webb on a train in Spain". Keynes and Beatrice Webb now embarked on an improbable friendship based on mutual fascination, much incomprehension, but a shared belief in social science and public service.
 
In some ways, Keynes and the old Fabians found themselves in the same boat. The war had destroyed their faith in automatic progress - whether leading to a liberal or a socialist future. They had both become impressed by the decay of capitalist civilization. Sidney Webb wrote a book with that title in 1921; Shaw's Heartbreak House opens with a lament for pre-war Europe, quite similar to Keynes's evocation of the same world in Chapter 2 of his Economic Consequences of the Peace. As the old Fabians saw it, the class war had produced a kind of stasis; for Keynes, it was not the class war but mistaken economic policy which kept Britain in a low-employment trap in the 1920s. They both saw themselves in a blocked society, suspended, as Matthew Arnold put it, between a world which was dead and a world which was powerless to be born. This feeling was reinforced by the economic hurricane which swept the capitalist world between 1929 and 1932, replacing the Labour government with a huge Conservative majority headed by the former Labour Prime Minister. In 1932, Virginia Woolf reported Keynes saying to Mrs Shaw at a lunch in his house, "Well, we're about as bad as we can be. Never been so bad. We may go over the edge - but as it's never been like this, nobody knows."
 
The difference was that Keynes believed he had an answer, whereas the original Fabians were intellectually and spiritually exhausted - too old, and with too many hostages to past causes. Keynes's monetary tinkering, they believed, could never address the structural flaw in capitalism, which they had identified as the payment of "rent" to an unproductive class; while the failure of MacDonald's government had showed that the parliamentary road to reform remained firmly blocked. It was in this mood that Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw embarked on the last of their great impersonal love affairs, with the Soviet Union.
 
It was, I suppose, as typical of Keynes that his curiosity about the Soviet Union should have been aroused by his marriage to a Russian ballerina as it was that Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw should have become infatuated with it as a gigantic experiment in social engineering. Keynes visited the Soviet Union with Lydia in 1925. His pamphlet "A Short View of Russia" combined a devastating critique of Soviet economics with the thought that Soviet communism might just possibly "represent the first confused stirrings of a new religion", that beneath its cruelty and stupidity "some speck of the ideal may lie hid". By
 
1928, the flirtation, if it had been one, was over. After a further visit, he wrote to a friend, "I have a much less favourable impression than last time. It is impossible to remember, until one gets in the country, how mad they are and how they care more about their experiment than making things work." Much as Keynes shared the old Fabian view that modern capitalism was "absolutely irreligious, without internal union, without much public spirit", he could and would not make what Beatrice Webb called Russia's "creed autocracy" his religion. "Even if we need a religion", he wrote, "how can one find it in the turbid rubbish of Red bookshops? It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values."
 
Yet this is exactly what Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw did. While Keynes responded to the calamity of the Great Depression by writing his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, designed, as one of his students wrote, to show how prosperity could be restored and maintained, "without the support of prison camps, executions and bestial interrogations", they, in their despair, made the pilgrimage to the new shrine. Shaw went first at the end of 1931.
 
After a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Stalin, he delivered a speech in Moscow full of praise for the monster - "the world's greatest clown paying homage to the world's greatest murderer", in Churchill's devastating phrase. By contrast, in 1933, Keynes proclaimed that "Roosevelt is magnificently right".
 
After a visit to the United States in 1934, he wrote to Felix Frankfurter:
 
"Here, not in Moscow, is to be found the economic laboratory of the world."
 
In 1934, Keynes and Shaw had their one serious intellectual confrontation. Its occasion was the publication by the New Statesman of an interview H. G. Wells had had with Stalin, on which both Shaw and Keynes were asked to comment.
 
Keynes's article dealt with both Wells's interview and Shaw's critique. Wells had suggested that, in the West, the socialist economy would be brought about by engineers and technicians, not by the class struggle. Shaw accused Wells of trying to instruct Stalin, and not listening to what he had to say.
 
Keynes performed a delicate balancing act between the two socialist gurus. He tried to defend Wells's idea of an "intermediate class", though he could hardly have enjoyed his feeble performance. "Wells", he told Virginia Woolf, "is a little squit . . . . Shaw feels it. Shaw wd. never write of anyone he respected as he wrote of Wells." His main attack, always good-natured, was reserved for Shaw. Shaw was a slave to obsolete economics. "That system of thought bred two families - those who thought it was true and inevitable, and those who thought it true and intolerable . . . . Nevertheless, there is a third possibility - that it is not true." Shaw was driven by despair to support tyrants, Keynes wrote. Nevertheless, had he kept up with the newspapers since the death of Queen Victoria, he would know that capitalism had been transformed. The self-assured Titans of the nineteenth-century were gone. "Their office-boys (on salaries) rule in their mausoleums . . . . Time and the Joint Stock Company and the Civil Service have silently brought the salaried class into power." The present order suited them no more than it did the workers. When Keynes had finished working out his theory, they would both swallow it - the salatariat quicker than the proletariat.
 
Shaw revived from a mild heart attack to write Keynes a wonderfully spry Shavian letter, putting him right on Marx, the Koran, Ricardian economics, Jevonian economics, Fabian economics, Shaw's own contributions to economics, the horrors of academic life and much else. Keynes read it out delightedly to Virginia Woolf, and replied in the same high-spirited way: My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feelings about the Koran. I know it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages and containing inspiration. Yet when I look into it, it is to me inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date academic theorising seems so extraordinarily unsuitable as material for the purpose . . . . Will you promise to read it again, if I do?
 
More Shaw explosions, to which Keynes replied on January 1, 1935: I will try to take your words to heart. There must be something in what you say, because there generally is. I've made another shot at old K.M. last week, reading the Marx-Engels correspondence . . . . I prefer Engels of the two. I can see that they invented a certain method of carrying on and a vile manner of writing, both of which their successors have maintained with fidelity. But if you tell me that they discovered a clue to the economic riddle, still I am beaten . . .
 
To understand my state of mind, however, you have to know that I believe I am writing a book on economic theory, which will largely revolutionize . . . the way the world thinks about economic problems. When my new theory has been duly assimilated and mixed with politics and feelings and passions, I can't predict what the upshot will be in its effects on actions and affairs. But there will be a great change and, in particular, the Ricardian foundations of Marxism will be knocked away.
 
I can't expect you or anyone else, to believe this at the present stage. But for myself I don't merely hope what I say, - in my own mind I am quite sure.
 
This document is the single most important piece of testimony to Keynes's state of mind as he completed his General Theory. And it is fitting that GBS should have been its recipient.
 
 
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