Keynesian Historiography and the Anti-Semitism Question

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Keynesian Historiography and the Anti-Semitism Question

E. Roy Weintraub1

By ‘anti-Semitism’, I understand, first,

beliefs about Jews or Jewish projects that

are both false and hostile, and secondly,

the injurious things said to or about Jews

or their projects, or done to them, in

consequence of those beliefs.”

(Julius 2010, 65)

Historians’ treatment of John Maynard Keynes’s putative anti-Semitism raises complex historiographic issues. These differ from such questions as whether Carl Jung’s or Paul de Man’s standing as charismatic intellectual leaders of communities engaged in new ways of thinking and acting was associated in some way with their anti-Semitic writings2. In contrast, as the charismatic intellectual leader of the “Keynesians”, Keynes has never3 been characterized as having created a system of thought that was anti-Semitic. Nevertheless the publication of Melvin W. Reder’s (2000) paper, “The Anti-Semitism of some Eminent Economists” opened up a related question, namely whether the term “ambivalent anti-Semitism” could be applied variously to John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek. That is, Reder argued that those three important economists expressed themselves in ways that today would be characterized as anti-Semitic. Although in their personal dealings each of these individuals had apparent positive regard for individual Jewish colleagues, and even friends (e.g. Keynes and Kahn), their utterances are characterized by what Reder called anti-Semitic stereotyping at least, and political anti-Semitic argumentation at worst. Reder used the neologism “ambivalent anti-Semitism” to characterize Keynes’s views.

I am not concerned here to appraise Reder’s argument about whether the label “anti-Semitic”, whether “ambivalent” or not, is usefully attached to Keynes. I rather am concerned with the issue of how Keynesian historiography has dealt with the anti-Semitism question. That is, I am concerned with the role that Keynes’s attitudes and remarks about both individual Jews, and “the Jews”, has played out in Keynesian scholarship, and how the community of Keynes scholars has treated the allegation that Keynes was anti-Semitic.

Recognizing the Keynes Anti-Semitism Problem
To introduce the concerns of this paper, consider an exchange of letters between Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer then at work on Volume Two (Skidelsky 1992) of the eventual three volume work, and the economist Don Patinkin, who also had written extensively on Keynes’s General Theory. In a letter to Skidelsky dated 22 July 19874, Patinkin raised the following point:

There is an observation that came to my mind when I reread his (Keynes’) ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ . . . which reminded me of a similar—though less explicit—sentence in Volume 1 of the Treatise [on Money] (page 11) about ‘the Semitic race is etc.’ These references probably reflect the genteel anti-Semitism of the British upper middleclass. But his hitherto unpublished essay on Albert Einstein is a disgusting piece of coarse anti-Semitism of the street. (I once told Donald Moggridge that he should not have published it; but Moggridge said [that] Keynes could have destroyed it, but left it in his papers—so he meant it to be published. Maybe Moggridge was right.) . . . I think that this is a subject that you must also treat in your biography, and I hope that you will overcome any inhibitions that you might have on that score. In Volume 1 you made it very clear that in order to understand Keynes, one must also discuss his homosexualism [sic]. I think the same is true for his anti-Semitism.

Patinkin appears to have worried about this matter, and after a few years he wrote again to Skidelsky (May 4, 1992)5, pointing to Keynes’s sentence “‘Perhaps it is not an accident that the race which did most to bring the promise of immortality into the heart and essence of our religions has also done most for the principle of compound interest and particularly loves this most purposive of human institutions (JMK, IX, 330))’. That, to me, is an anti-Semitic remark.”

As noted, Patinkin was upset by Keynes’s remarks on Einstein penned for the New Statesmen and Nation, 21 October 1933, which piece referred to Einstein as a “Jew boy” and which went on to say “Yet Albert and the blond beast make up the world between them. If either cast the other out, life is diminished in its force. When the barbarians destroyed the ancient race as witches . . .”6

Skidelsky replied7 to Patinkin on 5 June 1994:

I would have thought that Keynes is simply saying that the world needs both the impersonal intellect and the community spirit, though the way he identifies these things with the Jews and the Nazis respectively, was part of the atmosphere of the early 1930s. Nowadays we would obviously see Nazism as a perversion of community feeling, not as its somewhat unbridled expression, but this was very early days.

On June 20, 1994 Patinkin replied8

if your interpretation of Keynes’s New Statesmen article is correct, then it is really scandalous for by October 1933, the dictatorial and violently anti-Semitic nature of the Nazi regime was evident for all to see. After all, why had Einstein left Germany for England? Was that an expression of ‘community spirit’? So I think this article is even worse than Keynes’s morally insensitive preface to the German edition of the General Theory.

Skidelsky’s reply9 on 11 July, 1994 was that

I think you’ve got it out of perspective. To try to understand something is not to excuse it . . . [W]hether his understanding of the historical role of the Jews was defective is another matter. He thought about them in a stereotypical way, but it was very abstract. . . but, as I say, such theological fancies did not influence his personal conduct or reaction to the actual events in Germany. Nothing would be more sterile, in my view, than to start a “was Keynes anti-Semitic?” debate. There would probably be plenty of takers (there always are), but anything less important for the appraisal of his work can scarcely be imagined.

Patinkin insisted on having the last word. On 18 August 1994 he wrote10 to Skidelsky

I have little doubt that Keynes shared the anti-Semitic attitude of his upper middleclass English milieu as well as that turn-of-the-century (and later!) Cambridge. . . but what should we do with the kind of expressions `Jew boy . . . [who] has had his bottom many times kicked, and expects it’ and similar ones in his unpublished piece on Einstein (JMK12, pages 382-84)? That’s anti-Semitism of the gutter. On the other hand, there were his close relations with Richard Kahn and the warmth of his two concluding paragraphs in his essay on Melchior. . . . I certainly have no thought of starting a ‘was Keynes anti-Semitic’ debate.

Skidelsky (2003) readdressed these matters when he revised his three volume work to produce a one volume abridged version of the biography. In many ways a stronger narrative emerged as the later materials could be woven into the earlier chapters. In that new volume, Skidelsky addressed the anti-Semitism issue via examination of Keynes’s essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” which essay had contained Keynes’s remark about Jews and the principle of compound interest. Skidelsky wrote:

[There] are a few other references to Jews in Keynes’s writings which would now be construed as anti-semitic. In A Short View of Russia he had doubted whether communism ‘makes Jews less avaricious’. After a visit to Berlin in June 1926, he depicted Germany as under the ‘ugly thumbs’ of its ‘impure Jews’, who had ‘sublimated immortality into compound interest’. This was for a talk to The Memoir Club, published only posthumously; it was his most prejudiced utterance on the subject, but it falls a long way short of the murderously flip remakes which even someone like Dennis Robertson was capable of making.11 (373-374)

Skidelsky went on to say that

[Such] stereotyping of Jews was common in Keynes’s circle, and the stereotypes were usually unfavourable. Keynes’s letters are mercifully free from personal abuse – not so Lydia’s, or those of some Bloomsberries. Individual Jews were exempted by the devices of exceptionalism or non-recognition of their Jewishness. Thus was decency reconciled to prejudice. But the occasion for decency did not often arise. Although Virginia Woolf married a Jew12, and Sraffa and Wittgenstein were half-Jewish13, there were very few Jews in Keynes’s world in the 1920s…meanwhile, stereotyping could flourish, and there was no need to mind manners…Keynes’s own stereotyping took place on the philosophical, not vulgar, plane. (374)

Skidelsky characterized Keynes’s views as grounded in the idea that Jews embodied the spirit of capitalism, which was associated with an abstract love of money. He argued that Keynes distinguished between pure or religious or intellectual Jews and money loving Jews. In this discussion Skidelsky noted a letter of complaint to Keynes by University of California Professor Max Raden about the Economic Possibilities essay, where Raden had told Keynes that not only was immortality unimportant theologically for Jews, but that Jews were not especially concerned with the accumulation of money. In his reply to Raden “Keynes apologized for having been thinking along ‘purely conventional lines’ (ibid.). But he was reluctant to give up his fancy: ‘I still think that the race has shown itself, not merely for accidental reasons, more than normally interested in the accumulation of usury.’ This correspondence took place in the autumn of 1933.” (374) Skidelsky concluded this discussion by remarking “Keynes anti-Semitism, if such it was, was little more than a theological fancy: expression, perhaps, of some unresolved conflict about his own Non-Conformist roots. There is no evidence that it influenced his personal conduct.” (374-375)

This is somewhat misleading. One hundred and fifty pages earlier in that 2003 volume Skidelsky addressed Keynes’s dealings with Klotz, the French finance minister at the Versailles conference. Skidelsky quotes Keynes writing that Klotz was “‘A short, plump, heavy-moustached Jew, well-groomed, well kept, but with an unsteady roving eye, and his shoulders were a little bent with instinctive depreciation.’14 Klotz represented, to Keynes, the other face of France’s grasping sterility – a view not uninfluenced by the anti-semitism which was normal to his class and generation.” (222) Skidelsky then proceeded to quote from the Melchior essay15:

Never have I seen the equal of the onslaught with which the poor man [Klotz] was overwhelmed [by Lloyd George who] had always hated and despised him; and now saw in a twinkling that he could kill him. Women and children were starving, he cried, and here was M. Klotz prating of his ‘goold’. He leaned forward and with a gesture of his hands indicated the image of a hideous Jew clutching a money bag. His eyes flashed and the words came out with a contempt so violent that he seemed almost to be spitting at him…Everyone looked at Klotz… the poor man was bent over his seat, visibly cowering. (223-224)

What this passage in Skidelsky’s one volume biography leaves out, with ellipses, is more than some unnecessary words. The penultimate sentence is actually the third from the last, and what is missing is Keynes’s sentence “The anti-Semitism, not far below the surface in such an assemblage as that one, was up in the heart of everyone.” (422) And the last ellipsis of the quoted passage replaced the words “with a momentary contempt and hatred” (ibid). These edits should disturb attentive readers since the missing sentence and phrase lends credence to the idea, denied later in the one volume biography, that such anti-Semitism did influence Keynes’s personal conduct at least in this instance. The point of course is not whether Keynes was an anti-Semite, but rather how material related to such an allegation was treated by, in this case, Keynes’s primary biographer.

With respect to his earlier biographer, Roy Harrod’s (1951) authorized The Life of John Maynard Keynes set out the limits of the discussion in the early postwar period. The question of Keynes’s attitude to Jews is untouched, nor was there any mention of Keynes’s bisexuality16. Skidelsky’s Volume 1 (1986), and (especially) Moggridge’s full biography of 1992 dealt with the issue of homosexuality in more detail. The latter’s discussion of Keynes’s references to Jews is however somewhat sketchy. And other than the brief discussion of the issue by Mark Blaug (1994) in a joint review of Moggridge’s and Skidelsky’s books17, I have found nothing whatsoever about anti-Semitism in any article or book review written about Keynes by the hundreds of historians of economics engaged with Keynes and his writings.

One of the difficulties of dealing with the question of Keynes and anti-Semitism is that almost all of the discussions of which I’m aware are based on various writings that have been produced through Moggridge’s production of Keynes’s thirty volume Collected Works for the Royal Economic Society. A number of the letters in the collected works have also been used, as well as some unpublished writings, as for example the bit on Einstein. One source that has not been employed however is a collection of letters, specifically letters between Maynard and Lydia Lopakova, first as they were courting, and later following their marriage, which appeared after the publication of the various volumes of Keynes’s Collected Works. These letters, produced for a wider audience than historians of economics, were edited and published by Polly Hill and Richard Keynes, Maynard’s and Lydia’s niece and nephew respectively. They are a separate window into the kinds of questions that might emerge in a discussion of Keynes and anti-Semitism. That is, these letters were never meant for public view, and are a unique entree into the unguarded thoughts and expressions of these two individuals. There is however one matter that needs to be faced immediately.

These letters are a sample from a very large number of letters between Maynard and Lydia, currently deposited in the library of King’s College, Cambridge. The letters that appear in this volume have been edited as the editors say for clarity and to eliminate stylistic grotesqueries. It is not just spelling that has been changed though, and the editors are forthright in their introduction about the process they used to perform the editing task. What they do not discuss however is the presence of material in these letters that may have been expurgated. That is, if there was truly inflammatory material in the letters, the editors have not given us information about whether they suppressed such material. Thus any discussion of the letters’ employment of various anti-Semitic tropes and expressions comes up quickly against the possibility that if what appears here in the letters is representative, there is certainly more material there to examine. If what appears here is not representative, but is in fact a cleansed sampling, it would behoove scholars to examine the entire cache of letters more closely. Moreover, these letters from 1918 through 1925 were apparently to have formed but one volume of several. But that project never continued as Polly Hill’s ill health, and subsequent death in 2005, foreclosed the possibility. And of course the larger collection of Lydia Lopokova’s correspondence and papers has not been examined in print by historians of economics18.

That said, the letters provide evidence for Skidelsky’s assertion, noted above, about Lydia’s letters “[not] being mercifully free from personal abuse [of Jews].” Two examples, from the eleven that could be brought forward, will suffice (page references are to (Hill and Keynes 1989):

L to M, 25 October, 1923. “Do you like to hear quotations? ‘Jew: A man who kills two birds with one stone and then wants the stone back.’” (115); L to M, 9 February 1925. “Being a versatile business woman, I went to the Alhambra, watched Nicolaeva-Legat programme, their last dance is a Jewish one, Legat was magnificently dressed in everyday clothes with a long coat and a nose of Jewish dimension, the hooky one, almost aquiline and isn’t, I did my best with hands and voice, but it is uninspiring to be in an empty theatre.” (286)

Such remarks suggest that these stereotypes about Jews were, for Maynard and Lydia, common and acceptable in private conversation. There was no hesitancy about characterizing someone as a Jew, and thereby creating a particular set of reader responses based on shared presuppositions about Jews and Jewish characteristics. There is no evidence that the letter writers considered such reader expectations to be objectionable on any grounds. It is difficult to know how Maynard’s and Lydia’s personal behaviors might have been affected, but certainly the Jew as other, other than “us”, is readily apparent here and cannot be entirely masked in more public performances. This, of course, is not the kind of anti-Semitism which calls for Jews to be excluded from England or English institutions, sent off to Africa, placed in concentration camps, or murdered, yet it does suggest that Maynard and Lydia shared a mindset that “Jews were different from us”, even if Lydia was hardly a typical Englishwoman. Without delving into questions requiring explanation, it simply suffices for our argument to note these references and also note how they have never explicitly appeared in any of the various discussions about Keynes, nor in any reference to Keynes and anti-Semitism that have appeared previously.

Enter Reder, et al.
As noted above, despite Patinkin’s (and Skidelsky’s) wish not to start a debate about whether Keynes was an anti-Semite, Mel Reder (2000) did just that. Reder went through, in detail, a number of “Items” that served to make his points about Keynes’s anti-Semitism. He used the “Jew boy” references, as well as those to the “very gritty Jewish type”. Following Moggridge (1992), he noted Keynes’s remark to Lydia in 1933 that “[I] made my usual conversation about the Jews in the Combination Room last night” prior to signing a petition “in their favor”. In his 1926 sketch of Einstein, he wrote that “If I lived there [in Berlin], 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 a civilisation so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and the brains.” And finally Reder shows that such remarks did not end with World War II. In 1945 Keynes writes about the British left’s complaints about Bretton Woods that (Reder 2000, 838) “the doctrine of non-discrimination does not commit us to abjure Schactian methods, which their Jewish economic advisers (who, like so many Jews, are either Nazi or Communist at heart and have no notion of how the British Commonwealth was founded or is sustained) were hankering after.19

In a follow-up to his 2000 paper, in a reply to Hamowy’s criticism of his argument about Hayek, Reder (2002) referred to a paper he had recently seen in a well-known Indian weekly. There World Bank economist Anand Chandavarkar (2000), who earlier wrote a well-received book on Keynes and India (1985), addressed Keynes’s possible anti-Semitism directly. This article by Chandavarkar is a detailed and historically focused piece on Keynes’s possible anti-Semitism. Besides a thorough examination of the Collected Works, he reprinted a letter sent to him by Isaiah Berlin dated 18 April 1994, which letter concluded

[S]o you are basically right. Keynes did suffer from the prejudices and tastes of his milieu. He greatly admired, e.g., Lord Samuel, who served in various liberal administrations but nevertheless [Keynes] could certainly bring himself to crack some joke about [Samuel as a Jew] in what might be thought doubtful taste – but it was no more than that. (1623)

Chandavarkar reprised all of the comments that Keynes made about Jews, but he brought forth one additional piece of material that had not previously been noted. Specifically, he discussed the fact that Keynes was “the only non-Jewish member of a high powered advisory committee under the chairmanship of Herbert Samuel (at Versailles) which prepared the preliminary draft report for presentation of the Zionist case for a Jewish national home in Palestine, for the peace conference in Paris on February 23, 1919. The other members of the committee were [Jews] Lionel Abrahams of the India office and James de Rothschild.” (1622) Chandavarkar noted that this committee prepared the ground for the Balfour Declaration, and its work was favorably discussed in Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography. Chandavarkar concluded his piece saying “in retrospect, Keynes’s anti-Semitism will be seen more as a peripheral fringe of an inherently compassionate personality, an unamiable foible rather than a fatal flaw of character, a blind-spot which never blurred the totality of his social and political vision.” (1623). Chandavarkar’s use of the word “will” is performative, not simply predictive.

Kaun and Paulovicova
I have located only two other published papers on this particular subject, each published in journals unfamiliar to historians of economics. In the July 2000 issue of Midstream, economist David E. Kaun published “The Anti-Semitism of John Maynard Keynes.” Kaun’s argument developed from his Marxian perspective, claiming that “Keynes’s failure to take Marx’ economics seriously” is possibly associated with Keynes anti-Semitism. Leaving to one side Kaun’s own objectives, his own discussion of Keynes’s “temperament and class” was based on the claim that “[Keynes’] belief [was] that one’s material condition was determined by character rather than the reverse” and that anti-Semitism was inextricably associated with Keynes’s class. Reviewing the material that Skidelsky had earlier developed, Kaun stated that “[Skidelsky’s] examples suggest more the complexity of the man than the absence of anti-Semitism.” Kaun went on to argue that:

[A] component of Keynes’s anti-Semitism did, like that of Marx, focus on the alleged trait of money grubbing. But Keynes is guilty of a much wider set of biases. These extend beyond the casual use of anti-Semitic slang, to a visceral hostility as evidenced in his assumption of deep-seated Jewish ethnic and character flaws. The thoughts of an anti-Semite were manifest at an early age. (Kaun 2000, 6)

With that opening salvo, Kaun went somewhat beyond Skidelsky noting that, as early as a seventeen-year old at Eton, Keynes had penned “in the West it is the individual that is all important, in the East the mass…[the Jews, as Eastern people, possess] deep-rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to Europeans [and as such] they can no more be assimilated to European civilization than cats can be made to love dogs.” (Skidelsky 1983, 92) Kaun commented that, some twenty-two years after Eton, “…Keynes lamented the condition of Europe, still torn between liberalism and radicalism. Bolshevik radicalism flowed, Keynes wrote, from a ‘besotted idealism and an intellectual error out of the peculiar temperaments of Slavs and Jews.’”

Kaun reprised Skidelsky’s observation that Keynes grew up in a household with German nannies, and as a result the household was generally pro-German. However Kaun’s stringing together various quotes scattered throughout Keynes’s Collected Works, and Skidelsky’s biography, directed attention to Keynes’s repeated comments about Jews and money grubbing. Kaun thus linked Keynes in some ways to Marx even as Kaun attempted to use Keynes’s anti-Semitic attitudes to explain Keynes’s distaste for Marx. Unless we talk about the psychological mechanism of “splitting”, and provide a way to employ it sensibly in this argument, Kaun’s discussion is incoherent since Marx was contemptuous of exactly those characteristics of Jews that Keynes wrote about.

Apparently as part of her larger study of anti-Semitism, a young historian at the University of Alberta, Nina Paulovicova (2008), wrote an article “The Immoral Moral Scientist: John Maynard Keynes” which appeared in the graduate student journal Past Imperfect. She there attempted to show that earlier discussions of this subject had been historically thin, failing to locate Keynes properly in the several worlds in which he operated, and in which anti-Semitism took on various meanings and expressions. She stressed that scholars needed to pay a “great deal of attention to the question of ‘Who was generally defined as an anti-Semite in Keynes’s own societal milieu?’ rather than ‘Which qualities of current forms of anti-Semitism can be traced in Keynes’s worldview?’” (40) Her conclusion stands in real contrast to that of Reder say:

“Keynes simply appropriated anti-Semitic clichés as one facet of a modus operandi in political circles. However, seeing himself as ‘immoral’, i.e. critical of generally accepted norms of his time, he naturally stood out as the defender of those that the society put down – hence his public philosemitism and his sympathy for the women’s movement. Offering a new lesson [with respect to anti-Semitism] based on the Keynes case seems to be pointless” (55).

There is though one suggestive story recounted by David Landes20 (1994) in his memorial notice for Abba Lerner in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences. There Landes wrote:

In a country that was not unready to appoint to a professorship in

Oxbridge on the basis of a single article, Lerner should

have been professor many times over. But his achievements

were counterbalanced in British eyes by religious origin,

dress, and manners: Abba Lerner, Jew from Eastern Europe

and then the brick and grit of the East End, bare feet in

sandals (because, he said, his feet sweat), unpressed trousers

hanging, shirt collar open, was a hippie before his time.

In some things he could be difficult; in others he was too

permissive. He had a disconcerting way of saying what he

thought. The would-be genteel folk of academe could not

see him twirling a sherry glass and making small talk in

wood-paneled common rooms. The story is told, based on

unpublished letters21, that Professor Lionel Robbins of LSE

consulted Keynes in this regard when a post opened at the

London School. Lerner was an unavoidable candidate.

Keynes Brit-wittily replied by referring to Lerner's origin as

from the Continent. Maybe, he wrote, if they found a job

for Lerner as a cobbler during the day, they might wear

him out and have him teach in the evening. Lerner did

not get the job. He probably continued to pay for his

particularities when he moved to the other side of the Atlantic.

At any rate, he did not receive a post at a major

university until very late in his career. (212-213)

This story does no credit to Keynes. Unlike Richard Kahn, or Leonard Woolf, Abba Lerner was not the kind of Oxbridge Jew likely to share Keynes’s interests. Even after Lerner came to Cambridge on a postgraduate scholarship in 1934-5, and he became a “Keynesian”, Keynes was unsupportive of his career.

Nevertheless even with their limitations, Kaun’s and Paulovicova’s papers are singular in their scholarly discussions of Keynes and anti-Semitism. In the Keynes historiography there is nothing comparable to Anthony Julius’s (1995) T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form which opened the T. S. Eliot historiographic/interpretive canon to important details of Eliot’s anti-Semitism.

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