Thursday, April 10, 2014

Keynes' Close Friends. A reply to AGM.

If you live in an English speaking country, you are familiar with at least some iterations of the little speech "I don't hate X; as a matter of fact, some of my best friends are X, but..." (where X is a minority group: say, blacks, Jews, Hispanics...). Whenever you hear it, you know a rant (usually ethnically-motivated) against X is not far behind.



Indeed, the speech is so common that some know it by its own name: the friend argument.

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Reader Antonio Garrido de la Morena (April 8, 2014 at 9:19 AM) took issue with my statement that
"His Lordship [i.e. John Maynard Keynes], it turns out, had a well-documented but seldom acknowledged anti-Semitic streak, which, together with his also well-documented but seldom acknowledged elitism, apparently were enough to make of Marx and his work the targets of Keynes' disparaging, but not enough to induce his lordship to read Marx."
Tellingly, Garrido does not acknowledge Lord Keynes' "well-documented but seldom acknowledged anti-Semitic streak"; the parallel charge of elitism didn't deserve a mention, so it's hard to tell his position on that. Garrido's full comment:
"Your comment on Keynes is utterly wrong.
"It is true that Keynes was 'alergic' to Marx, but not because Marx were Jewish. As a matter of fact, another Jewish in Cambridge as Sraffa and Kahn where very close friends of 'his lordship'."
Garrido's comment cuts to the chase, for which I thank him. However, to fill in the intermediate steps would have helped, for his argument is simple and to the point... but ultimately fallacious.

Perhaps the easiest way to see why is by noticing that Garrido's argument is an instance of the friend argument and only slightly less absurd than Rowan Atkinson's sketch.

Let's put another audio-visual example. Former PM Julia Gillard accuses then opposition leader (current PM) Tony Abbott of being misogynist and sexist:


Inspired by Garrido, Abbott could just have replied: "You are wrong! I'm no misogynist: my mum, sisters, wife and daughters are all women!".

Even though he sold the Christian Messiah for 30 silver coins, Judas is no traitor. "No! You are utterly wrong!", replies Judas, "We were friends! The 30 silver coins prove nothing!"

Hopefully, you are satisfied with this explanation (and I do hope you are), so you can save yourself some time and skip the rest of this comment, which I hated writing. Otherwise, by all means...

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Well, you asked for it.

Let's proceed step by step. The fact that some Jews (Piero Sraffa and Richard F. Kahn) and Lord Keynes allegedly were "close friends" (which, btw, Garrido neither defines, nor supports with any evidence), shows that Lord Keynes couldn't be an anti-Semite. After all, anti-Semites and Jews, Garrido seems to imply, can't have "friendly" relations: they can't talk to each other and work together. They probably can't share the same professional opinions.

To do so would be contradictory, and, well, people are not contradictory. (I mean, come one, people being contradictory!? Impossible!)

Therefore, his Lordship's "allergic" anti-Marxism had nothing to do with anti-Semitism (what the cause of this "allergy" was is not explained, either; it may actually be biochemical, I suppose).

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Garrido, flesh-and-blood human beings (even demi-gods like Lord Keynes) are full of contradictions.

There is something perversely surreal, absurd even revolting in having to prove this. But I suppose it is incumbent upon me to show that his Lordship was a contradictory man. As I'll have to go into other people's private affairs, I apologise in advance.

Anyway, I'll note that Lord Keynes' personal life confirms abundantly my remark about contradictions, beginning with his marriage to Lydia Lopokova, after a lifetime of homosexual relationships. And I haste to add, this was observed by Lord Keynes' Bloomsbury other "close friends", who should know him best:
"To Duncan Grant, who was formerly the love of Keynes' life, this new development was shocking. 'Until I see him carrying on with L,' he wrote to Vanessa Bell, 'I must give up trying to imagine what happens-it beggars my fancy'." (link)
The malicious humour, and possibly the jealousy, notwithstanding, Grant had a point, a point that Lord Keynes' other "close friends" didn't miss and didn't fail to remark on: even to outsiders, Lopokova seems an unlikely partner for Lord Keynes and not only because of her gender, but for other reasons, including her Russian nationality.

In 1925 the year Lord Keynes married Lopokova, he also published his essay A Short View of Russia, where he explains the mood of oppression he observed in Soviet Russia: "in part, perhaps, it is the fruit of some beastliness in the Russian nature - or in the Russian and Jewish natures when, as now, they are allied together" (emphasis added).

However beneath his Lordship Lopokova was, according to observers and maybe even the groom, they actually got married and for all one knows lived happily for ever after.

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I hope to have demonstrated Lord Keynes' immense capacity for self-contradiction. It is this element in Lord Keynes' personality which helps me to reconcile the idea of a man who (1) had good relations with some Jews (and who, more controversially, endorsed Zionism, then beginning to gain popularity among the Jewish diaspora), but (2) was able to write this of Albert Einstein and of the German Jews:
"He is a naughty Jew boy covered with ink-that kind of Jew-the kind which has its head above water, the sweet, tender imps who have not sublimated immortality into compound interest. He was the nicest, and the only talented person I saw in all Berlin. … Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semite. For the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kind of Jews, the ones who are not imps but serving devils, with small horns, pitch forks, and oily tails. It is not agreeable to see civilization so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and brains." (emphasis added)
While the previous passages illustrate much of the ideology common at the time to anti-Semites of all stripes in Europe, it would be unfair to conclude here without observing that Lord Keynes and the British "educated bourgeoisie" (on whose side Lord Keynes would place himself in case of a class war) never condoned the use of violence or anti-democratic means against the British Jews.

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On a personal note: I despise racists, even those of a less malignant strain. I don't like parasitic elitist toffs, either. And I make no apologies for that.

Mind you, I know the feeling is mutual and I'm perfectly cool with that.

So, I make a point of referring to Keynes as his Lordship, Lord Keynes and Baron Keynes. As I am a believer in reciprocity, it is meant to convey my contempt for the person, even if I, unlike them, can see merit in my enemies' intellectual work. Like I am fond of saying, two can play the contempt game, so why should his Lordship and his peers have all the fun?

It also highlights the divide existing between two opposed parts of our species. I didn't establish the separation, but I will not pretend it is not there and I want my readers to see and feel it. One day, I suspect, they will have to take sides.

In this last respect, Garrido, whether you like it or not, however surprisingly, his Lordship himself and yours truly are probably in agreement, Lord Keynes being, as he was, very comfortable with it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Antonio that your argument does not hold up. In an essay on the English resumption of the gold standard in the 20s, Keynes approvingly cites Sigmund Freud as having expounded important insights on the psychological resonance of gold. Freud was Jewish. So clearly, Keynes did not discount the arguments of Jewish intellectuals as a class.

    Another possibly relevant fact is that Keynes approvingly used Marx's C-M-C/M-C-M' circuits in lectures, and in drafts of the General Theory.

    And while I agree that "I have friends who are ____" is a poor defense, in the case of Sraffa, Keynes actually intervened to get him a position at Cambridge, and thus out of fascist Italy, and later to get him tasked with the position editing the complete works of David Ricardo. So "professional ally" seems a better descriptor than "friend". Keynes also drew on Sraffa's famous 1925 paper in some of his 30s writings, further falsifying the proposition that Keynes categorically ignored Jews' intellectual contributions.

    For what it's worth, I think that Keynes's attitude toward Marx was probably a result of a) his elitism, as you say; b) his acculturation in the Marshallian tradition, which posited Marx and others as illegitimate heirs to Ricardo, and Marshall as the legitimate heir who had read the Great Man correctly; c) a generally weak familiarity with the history of economic thought.

    Also, too, if DeLong is indeed being deferential to earlier Keynesians in his assessment of Marx, it seems more likely to be Paul Samuelson he is following than Keynes himself.

    Will

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