Tuesday 24 March 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)

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