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Keynes Called Himself a Socialist. He Was Right.

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Introduction

In 1997 Ralph Raico published an article titled “Keynes and the Reds.” Raico’s article highlighted John Maynard Keynes’s review of a 1936 book by the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb called Soviet Communism. In his review, Keynes discusses Joseph Stalin’s USSR and concludes: “The result is impressive.” For Raico, a historian in the classical liberal tradition, this statement contradicts the conventional idea that Keynes was a model liberal.

Unfortunately, Keynes’s defenders still portray him as a model liberal. For example, Robert Skidelsky claims, “Keynes was a lifelong liberal” and “He was not a socialist.”1 Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman insist: “He was a classical liberal in his politics, being as attached to individual freedom as the most ardent libertarian, who throughout his life repudiated socialism.”2

This article is a sequel to “Keynes and the Reds.” It presents further evidence that shows that Keynes was sympathetic to Soviet socialism and not a genuine liberal.

The Bolshevik Revolution

Keynes was highly enthusiastic about socialism in Russia from the very beginning. He celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Russian Revolution broke out on March 8, 1917, and Czar Nicholas II abdicated on March 15. The prospect of a socialist revolution in Russia elated Keynes, and he wrote to his mother:

I was immensely cheered and excited about the Russian news. It’s the sole result of the war so far worth having. An acute and even struggle is now going on between the Socialists and the Milyukov constitutionalists. I see not the remotest chance, however, of any pro-Tsar counter-revolution.3

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power on November 7, 1917. Keynes happily announced, “The only course open to me is to be buoyantly bolshevik.”4 In December, he cofounded the 1917 Club in London.5 Of course, the club was named in commemoration of the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. The membership of Keynes’s 1917 Club reads like a who’s who of twentieth-century British socialists: G.D.H. Cole, Hugh Dalton, J.A. Hobson, Ramsay MacDonald, Oswald Mosley, John Strachey, H.G. Wells, and Leonard Woolf.

Again in February 1918, Keynes admitted to “being a Bolshevik.”6 The famous journalist Clarence W. Barron, founder of Barron’s magazine, met Keynes in 1918 and recorded: “Lady Cunard says Keynes is a kind of socialist and my judgment is that he is a Socialist of the type that does not believe in the family.”7

Keynes described himself as a Bolshevik, but what was the nature of this revolution? As Sean McMeekin writes, “In their first two months in power, the Bolsheviks had not so much won over the Russian people as harassed and bludgeoned them into submission.”8 Tragically, Keynes’s Bolshevik comrades killed over one hundred thousand Russians in the months that followed their takeover.

The 1920s

From 1919 to 1923, Keynes devoted most of his energy to postwar financial problems, but he remained enthusiastic about the socialist experiment in Russia. He proclaimed on April 26, 1922: “An extraordinary experiment in socialism is in course of development. I think there may be solid foundations on which to build a bridge.”9

Keynes held Vladimir Lenin in high regard. On July 6, 1922, he declared that “[Lenin’s] political control of affairs was of a high intellectual competence. The histories of revolution contain nothing more remarkable or more coldly and splendidly glittering than the career of Lenin.”10

Certainly, no genuine liberal can agree with Keynes’s endorsement of Lenin. As Robert Service writes, “Lenin relied on dictatorship and terror.”11 Lenin’s government killed over 4 million of its own people, making him the fifth-bloodiest megamurderer of the twentieth century.12 By 1923, Lenin’s regime had opened over 350 concentration camps across the USSR. These camps were the foundation of the gulag system that eventually “chewed up almost 40 million lives.”13

Keynes’s enthusiasm for the socialist experiment in Russia united him with his future wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. As her biographer admits, Lopokova had “natural sympathies for socialism.”14 Lopokova wrote to Keynes in April 1922, “I see you have sympathy for Russia.”15

Keynes impressed Lopokova with his involvement in Russian, or “USSRian,” societies. He wrote her on February 24, 1924, “I enclose a paper for you to look through about the new USSRian Society I have agreed to join.”16 And on May 10: “I enclose a prospectus of the new society I have joined for getting into intellectual touches with Russians!”17

What was this new USSRian society? In July 1924, Keynes was a founding vice-president of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR (SCR).18 The SCR was a pro-Soviet society controlled and financed by VOX (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).19 VOX was the Soviet government’s international propaganda agency; it was essentially a front for socialist propaganda outside the Soviet Union. Keynes’s vice-presidency of the SCR means that he had been working in conjunction with the Soviet government’s propaganda machine for more than a decade before he published The General Theory.

Keynes married Lopokova on August 4, 1925, and the couple honeymooned in the USSR with the SCR. Keynes spoke to the Soviet politburo on September 14, 1925. Leon Trotsky attended, as he was the chairman of the technical and scientific board of industry. Trotsky identified Keynes as a socialist: “Even the more progressive economist, Mr. Keynes told us only the other day that the salvaging of the English economy lies in Malthusianism! For England, too, the road of overcoming the contradictions between city and country leads through socialism.”20 When Keynes returned, Virginia Woolf recorded that “Maynard has a [Soviet] medal set in diamonds.”21

Keynes addressed the SCR after his trip to the Soviet Union. He declared, “During the next fifty years the U.S.S.R. would make larger contributions to the world than any other European country.”22 At the time of this statement, the Soviets had already killed 5 million of their own people.

Keynes was certainly aware of the Soviets’ brutality. In fact, he attributed the brutality to the “beastliness” in the “Russian and Jewish natures.” He wanted to “achieve its [the USSR’s] goal” but “not in that [beastly] way”:

The mood of oppression…is the fruit of Red revolution—there is much in Russia to make one pray that one’s own country may achieve its goal not in that way. 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. But in part it is one face of the superb earnestness of Red Russia, of the high seriousness, which in its other aspect appears as the spirit of elation….beneath the cruelty and stupidity of New Russia some speck of the ideal may lie hid.23

Keynes grew increasingly close to Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the mid-1920s. In 1926 Virginia Woolf recorded, “The Keynes’, Lydia and Maynard, are both completely under the sway of the Webbs….The great Keynes…is at her [Beatrice’s] feet.”24 That year he attended the Socialist Summer School, and Beatrice recorded: “I see no other man that might discover how to control the wealth [or means of production] of nations in the public interest.” 25

On the political spectrum, Keynes put himself as far to the left as one could possibly be. In fact, he viewed himself as even farther to the left than Sidney Webb: “I have played in my mind with the possibilities of greater social changes than come within the present [socialist] philosophies of, let us say, Mr Sidney Webb….The republic of my imagination lies on the extreme left of celestial space.”26 This statement led Rod O’Donnell to correctly conclude that “[Keynes’s] vision lay beyond the Fabian Socialism of Webb.”27

The Soviets reciprocated Keynes’s esteem. In 1927 the Soviet government invited him to the USSR to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. He wrote to his wife on October 16, 1927: “I was much flattered last night by getting the enclosed invitation from the Bolsheviks to go to Russia next month to celebrate the tenth year of the Republic. My first impulse was to accept (assuming that the invitation covers you too)….The idea is very attractive.”28

Keynes visited the Soviet Union in 1928. On his return he observed the Soviet Union is “much more normal than anyone here thinks.”29 The Soviet government had already killed 7 million of its own.30

1930–The General Theory

Keynes was closely connected with the British socialist movement in the early 1930s. He was an associate member of the New Fabian Research Bureau.31 This was Britain’s leading socialist think tank, run by fellow 1917 Club and SCR member G.D.H. Cole. Keynes was also involved with its sister organization, the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda. On December 13, 1931, he gave a speech to this society titled “A Survey of the Present Position of Socialism.”32

Keynes was an important economic advisor to Britain’s first socialist prime minister, his old friend Ramsey MacDonald from the 1917 Club. Indeed, Keynes viewed himself as a more radical socialist than MacDonald and Hugh Dalton, another 1917 Club member. In June 1930, at a meeting with those men, Keynes described himself as the “only socialist present.”33 Beatrice Webb agreed and said, “[Keynes is] certainly more advanced than MacDonald.”34

In 1923 Keynes bought Nation and Athenaeum, a weekly political newspaper. By early 1931, he had merged it with the New Statesman, Britain’s leading socialist newspaper. That paper was founded in 1913 by his close friends the Webbs. The combined paper was called the New Statesman and Nation, and Keynes was the new chairman of the board. From February 1931 until his death in April 1946, Keynes was chairman of Britain’s leading socialist newspaper.

Robert Skidelsky admits that Keynes’s newspaper had “sympathy for Soviet communism.”35 However, to distance Keynes from the bad name of Stalinism, Skidelsky blames the paper’s pro-Soviet stance on its editor, Kingsley Martin. Like Roy Harrod, Keynes’s official biographer, Skidelsky insists that “the New Statesman was unmistakably Kingsley Martin’s.”36

First, Keynes himself demanded that the socialist Martin be the editor during the merger negotiations.37 Second, Keynes asked Martin if he would make the newspaper socialist in policy, and Martin told him he would. “As it happened this was the right answer: Keynes was a Socialist in policy.”38 Finally, Martin himself contradicted Skidelsky’s claim that Keynes was just an aloof chairman of a pro-Soviet newspaper:

Maynard was the only active director of the N.S.&N. Right up until his death in 1946 we met frequently at his Sussex home at Tilton or his house in Gordon Square.…His biographer, Sir Roy Harrod [like Skidelsky], mentions his intimate connection with the Nation and then says that as the years went by he fell out of sympathy with the N.S.&N. policy. This does not tell the story.39

Keynes's magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published on February 4, 1936. E.S. Goller wrote in the Daily Worker on April 16 of that year: “With little to gain and a lot to lose, Keynes was one of the chief organisers of the Congress of Peace and Friendship with the U.S.S.R. in Cambridge. Where Keynes’s sympathies are, it is easy to judge.”40 The Congress of Peace and Friendship with the USSR that Keynes helped organize was a “British Soviet front organisation.”41 A.L. Rowse wrote in his review of the General Theory:

At every single point, without a single exception, it is in full agreement with Labour [socialist] policy….No wonder Mr. Cole, in a vociferous welcome, has acclaimed the books as “the most important theoretical economic writing since Marx’s Capital”…Mr. Cole is justified…It may be described as, for the first time in this country, laying the foundations of a Socialist economics.42

John Buchan and Keynes were members of a dinner club called the Other Club, and they dined together regularly for over a decade. Just after The General Theory was published, Buchan described Keynes as a “gentlemanly communist.”43 Buchan recorded that “his line is that he despises capitalism.”44 Keynes affirmed, “Private capitalism is an out-of-date institution.”45

Keynes declared only 119 days after The General Theory was published: “Until recently events in [Stalinist] Russia were moving too fast and the gap between the paper professions and the actual achievements was too wide for a proper account to be possible. But the new system is now sufficiently crystallised to be reviewed. The result is impressive.”46

No genuine liberal can agree with Keynes that Stalinist Russia was “impressive.” The period of collectivization in the USSR coincided with the development and publication of The General Theory. In this period, Stalin “enslave[d]…100 million people” and 11.5 million of his own people were killed.47 Further, during this period Stalin rapidly expanded his gulag system of concentration camps. By the time he died in 1953, Stalin had killed approximately 55 million, making him the bloodiest megamurderer in human history.48 As Raico has insisted, Keynes’s 1936 claim that Stalinist Russia is “impressive” shows that he was not a true liberal.

Keynes’s Later Years

In 1939, Keynes praised the Left Book Club. He exclaimed, “How foolish, too, to decry the Left Book Club! It surely is one of the finest and most living movements of our time.”49 What was the Left Book Club? “The Communist Party and the Left Book Club” was published in May 1938, and it reads: “The Communist Party of Great Britain uses the Left Book Club as a channel for revolutionary propaganda and activity.”50

Moreover, this document shows that Keynes’s SCR was connected to the Left Book Club. As noted, Keynes was a founding vice-president of the SCR in 1924, and it was financed and controlled by the Soviet government. The flow chart in the document shows that the Left Book Club had connections to the “Propaganda Depts. of the Soviet Government and Communist International.”51 In short, Keynes’s endorsement of the Left Book Club was an endorsement of the British Communist Party and, by extension, the Soviets.

Stafford Cripps was the Webbs’ nephew, and in 1950 he became president of the Fabian Society. In the early 1930s he was assistant secretary of the New Fabian Research Bureau and a major funder of the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda. In the late 1930s Cripps attempted to unite the socialist Labour Party with the Communist Party. Keynes exclaimed in 1939, “I am all for Sir Stafford Cripps, and I would join his movement.”52 He told Cripps, “I am in full sympathy with what you are doing.”53 Keynes stated around this time, “The question is whether we are prepared to move out of the nineteenth century laissez-faire into an era of liberal socialism.”54

In 1939 Keynes praised “the splendid material of the young amateur communists.”55 Here he was praising the communists in the Cambridge Apostles, a society at Cambridge that he joined on February 28, 1903. By the 1930s, “Keynes was plainly the intellectual leader and the most active member of the Society,” and “he acted as a father figure for the Apostles.”56 Keynes controlled entry into the society, and a socialist orientation was “a prerequisite for election to the Apostles at this time.”57

The Cambridge Five was a notorious Soviet spy ring at Cambridge. All of the Cambridge Five were members of Keynes’s Apostles, and at least eight of the Apostles were confirmed Soviet spies: Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Michael Straight, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, Guy Lidell, John Cairncross, and Leo Long. Beyond these eight, there were at least forty more Soviet spies operating around Cambridge. As yet, scholars have been unable to link some forty code names (including Poet, Chaffeur, and Professor) to specific individuals.58 

Keynes ran the British treasury during the Second World War. As Skidelsky reports, “He was the treasury.”59 In July 1944 Keynes went to the Bretton Woods Conference to design the postwar world monetary system. His American counterpart was the US Treasury official Harry Dexter White. Keynes and White are the two individuals most responsible for the postwar monetary system that emerged.

Today it is well known that White was a Soviet spy.60 And while collaborating with White in 1944 at Bretton Woods, Keynes was vice-president of the SCR.61 This means that the postwar monetary system was designed by two men with connections to the socialist government of the USSR. Of course, the Keynes-White monetary system devolved into the current world monetary system.

Conclusion

Ralph Raico challenged the idea that Keynes was a genuine liberal.62 No doubt, Raico was correct. Contrary to sympathetic commentators, Keynes was not in the tradition of genuine liberalism. Rather, as O’Donnell states, “Keynes envisaged and espoused a particular form of socialism” and “it is clear, explicit and unambiguous; he used the term socialism to characterise his own views.”63

  • 1. Robert Skidelsky, Keynes: Return of the Master (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), pp. 157, 135.
  • 2. Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman, Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 148.
  • 3. John Maynard Keynes to Florence Ada Keynes, Mar. 30, 1917, PP/45/168/9/8–9, Papers of John Maynard Keynes, King’s College Archive Centre, Cambridge University.
  • 4. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, 30 vols. (London: Macmillan and Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society, 1971–89), vol. 16, p. 266.
  • 5. Hugh Thomas, John Strachey (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 68.
  • 6. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 16, p. 267.
  • 7. They Told Barron (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1930), p. 189.
  • 8. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 223.
  • 9. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 17, p. 408.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 436–37.
  • 11. Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 10, 410.
  • 12. R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers, 2009), p. 8.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 9.
  • 14. Judith Mackrell, Bloomsbury Ballerina (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008), p. 259.
  • 15. Lydia and Maynard: The Letters of Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), p. 35.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 162.
  • 17. Ibid., p. 189.
  • 18. For documentation, see Edward W. Fuller, “Was Keynes a Socialist?” Cambridge Journal of Economics 43 (2019): 1653–82, esp. 1675. Also see note 62.
  • 19. Michael David-Fox, Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to Soviet Union, 1921–1941 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 82–84.
  • 20. “Dialectical Materialism and Science,” The New International, February 1940, p. 31, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol06/no01/v06n01–feb–1940–SWP.pdf.
  • 21. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), pp. 43–45.
  • 22. SCR: 1924–1944 (London: SCR, 1944), p. 2. Also see John Maynard Keynes to Lydia Lopokova, Oct. 31, PP/45/190/3/14, Papers of John Maynard Keynes.
  • 23. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 9, pp. 270–71.
  • 24. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 289.
  • 25. The Diary of Beatrice Webb, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), pp. 93–94.
  • 26. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 9, pp. 309–10.
  • 27. Rod O'Donnell, “Keynes’s Political Philosophy,” Perspectives on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 5 (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 3–28, 1991), p. 5.
  • 28. John Maynard Keynes to Lydia Lopokova, Oct. 16, 1927, PP/45/190/3/241, Papers of John Maynard Keynes.
  • 29. “A Trip to Russia,” PS/4/81, Papers of John Maynard Keynes.
  • 30. Rummel, Death by Government, p. 83.
  • 31. Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 235.
  • 32. “A Survey of the Present Position of Socialism,” PS/5/104–22, Papers of John Maynard Keynes. A diluted version of the speech is contained in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 21, pp. 33–39. Also see Rod O’Donnell, “Keynes’s Socialism: Conception, Strategy, and Espousal,” Keynes, Post-Keynesianism and Political Economy: Essays in Honour of Geoff Harcourt, vol. 3 (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 158–60.
  • 33. Hugh Dalton, The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 115.
  • 34. The Diary of Beatrice Webb, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), p. 103.
  • 35. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour (New York: Viking, 1992), p. 389.
  • 36. Ibid.
  • 37. Edward Hyams, The New Statesman: The History of the First Fifty Years, 1913–1963 (London: Longmans, 1963), p. 120.
  • 38. Ibid., p. 125; Father Figures: The Evolution of an Editor, 1897–1931 (Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1970), p. 198. Of course, by 1927 Keynes knew that Martin was a socialist: “after dinner must go to Kingsley Martin to talk to some of his young socialists.” See John Maynard Keynes to Lydia Lopokova, Feb. 16, 1927, PP/45/190/3/173, Papers of John Maynard Keynes.
  • 39. Editor: New Statesman Years, 1931–1945 (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 1970), p. 41.
  • 40. “Vulgar Marxism? A Critic Criticised,” GTE/8/12, Papers of John Maynard Keynes.
  • 41. Giles Udy, Labour and the Gulag (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017).
  • 42. Keynes: Contemporary Responses to the General Theory (Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 1999), p. 111.
  • 43. The Island of Sheep (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936), p. 105.
  • 44. Ibid., p. 106.
  • 45. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 21, p. 491.
  • 46. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 28, p. 333.
  • 47. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler , 1929–1941 (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), p. 131; Rummel, Death by Government, p. 83.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 21, p. 496.
  • 50. “The Communist Party and the Left Book Club,” The Economic League, May 1938, p. 1, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/studying/docs/stalinism/778–2_b.pdf.
  • 51. Ibid., p. 2.
  • 52. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 21, p. 496.
  • 53. Ibid., p. 502.
  • 54. Ibid., p. 500.
  • 55. Ibid., p. 496.
  • 56. Richard Deacon, The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University’s Elite Intellectual Secret Society (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) p. 135. John Costello, Mask of Treachery (New York: W. Morrow, 1988), p. 133.
  • 57. Costello, Mask of Treachery, p. 257.
  • 58. Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2015).
  • 59. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom (New York: Viking, 2000), p. 135.
  • 60. ​In 1997, a US Senate committee concluded, “the complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled. As does that of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department.” Benjamin Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 329.
  • 61. SCR: 1924–1944, p. 1. Also see note 19; and Edward W. Fuller, “Keynes and the Ethics of Socialism,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 22, no. 2 (2019): 139–90, esp. 171, https://qjae.scholasticahq.com/article/10468–keynes–and–the–ethics–of–socialism.
  • 62. Also see Ralph Raico,” Was Keynes a Liberal?” Independent Review 13, no. 2 (2008): 165–88.
  • 63. Rod O'Donnell, “Keynes’s Socialism: Conception, Strategy, and Espousal,” Keynes, Post-Keynesianism and Political Economy: Essays in Honour of Geoff Harcourt, vol. 3 (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 149, 164.
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