Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Short View of "A Short View". (ii)

(From Part i)

Why Keynes -- reputedly one of 20th century's greatest economic minds -- did not provide any economic figure, any fact, or analysis, in support of his allegations, and, instead, was happy to pen a piece of bullying, worthy of a Jeremy Clarkson?

A careful reading of the essay suggests an answer: unlike Clarkson, Keynes had no reason to fear a backlash.

Expressing himself for public consumption, the appearances-conscious Keynes wasn’t entirely forthcoming on the causes of his evident displeasure, but there was a deep personal grievance behind Keynes’ essay, a grievance he shared with members of the Western bourgeoisie.

Understandably so: an intellectual and patron of the arts, a prominent eugenicist (Keynes would serve from 1937 to 1944 as head of the Eugenics Society), and aspiring member of the British bourgeoisie, the future 1st Baron Keynes (made hereditary peer in 1942) could not have enjoyed what he witnessed in “Russia”.

Judging by his own words, repeated 3 times for emphasis, this is what irked Lord Keynes the most:
  1. How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement?
  2. In one respect Communism but follows other famous religions. It exalts the common man and makes him everything.
  3. The exaltation of the common man is a dogma which has caught the multitude before now. Any religion and the bond which unites co-religionists have power against the egotistic atomism of the irreligious.
Speaking in the first person, Keynes declares the deepest cause of his outrage: “Leninism” exalts the “mud, the “boorish proletariat”, the “common man” (synonymous, for Keynes). Not him. Keynes -- and presumably his peers -- the “fish”, the member of the “intelligentsia” and aspiring “bourgeois” (“the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement”) is no longer the navel of the universe. The rabble daring to challenge the Olympian men (in Nietzsche's admiring description).

That was his deep, personal grievance: the loss of social standing and control.

He wasn't the first to fear the day of reckoning. Before the Russian Revolution, others felt the same; the economist Knut Wicksell (who influenced Keynes personally), among them. How could Keynes, seeing the beast up close, have felt differently? 


Over 30 years later, a member of the now extinct petty provincial aristocracy from Central Europe would write this praise:
“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”
Those words, echoing Keynes, could have been addressed to him … but they weren't.

The starry-eyed fan behind them was not one of Keynes’ devotees; in fact, he radically disagreed with him on economic doctrine (e.g. “What he really did was to write an apology for the prevailing policies of governments”).

Baron Keynes ("I do not mean that Russian Communism alters, or even seeks to alter, human nature, that it makes Jews less avaricious or Russians less extravagant") did not live to witness the unintended  (?) snub, but in those lines Ludwig Heinrich, Edler (Baronet) von Mises was complimenting  Russian-born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum -- Ayn Rand -- on the publication of “Atlas Shrugged”.

Both Mises and Rand, like Keynes himself, were unconditional in their support for "the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement"; both of them, non-religious Jews.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Short View of "A Short View". (i)

Upon returning to England from a 1925 fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union, Keynes published the scathingly critical essay "A Short View of Russia".

Included in the acclaimed 1931 anthology “Essays in Persuasion” (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd; here and here), that essay is, strangely, often forgotten by Keynes’ fans.

So, I thought I’d give it a try. I shall report my findings in this and in a few future posts.

The essay is divided in two parts. The first (entitled "What is the Communist Faith?”) opens thus:
"Leninism is a combination of two things which Europeans have kept for some centuries in different compartments of the soul -- religion and business. We are shocked because the religion is new, and contemptuous because the business, being subordinated to the religion instead of the other way round, is highly inefficient.
“Like other new religions … ".
Keynes comes out, guns blazing: without argument, he repeatedly highlights a perceived identity between religion and "Leninism" in “Russia”. Which is curious in itself: Stalin had been running the show in the Soviet Union since Lenin’s stroke in 1922. After Lenin’s death in 1924 (the year before Keynes' visit), he simply was the “boss”. Did Keynes find those details unimportant?

Perhaps. Indeed, judging by the numerous occurrences in his essay of the word “religion” and variants (40 instances of the string “relig”, plus 5 instances of the word “faith”), one must conclude that either the characterization of “Leninism” as religion was Keynes’ core message -- like Cato the Elder’s “Carthago delenda est” mantra -- or he, like Richard Dawkins, must have been morbidly obsessed with religions.

Instead of a proper argument, Keynes lists several unflattering similarities between "Leninism" and religion (e.g. “like other new religions, it is filled with missionary ardour and ecumenical ambitions”, “volatile experimentalists”, "cynicism", "hypocrisy", "intolerance", “early Christians led by Attila were using the equipment of the Holy Inquisition and the Jesuit missions to enforce the literal economics of the New Testament -- one wonders why didn't Keynes mention Vlad Tepes? -- among others).

Visiting one of the poorest, most backwards countries in early 20th century Europe, devastated by over 8 years war, Keynes, with astonishing perspicacity, even detected that “it [“Leninism”] seems to take the colour and gaiety and freedom out of everyday life”. It couldn’t have been any other thing, for Keynes, but “Leninism”!

Regardless, with the benefit of hindsight, one must acknowledge truth in Keynes’ endless list; with the same experience careful readers may have noticed that Keynes, his followers, and Keynesianism have frequently been targets of similar remarks.

Furthermore, a careful search would yield surprising unguarded admissions:

But this is an uninteresting exercise. Even if real, similarity does not prove identity: fools’ gold is no gold, whatever the swindler’s claims to the contrary. The identity between “Leninism” and religion, which Keynes is intent on selling, is far from obvious.

Instead, it would be interesting to understand why Keynes chose to express himself in that - let's say -- flamboyant manner.

(To be continued)