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Keynes on Marx and Das Kapital

Books + Ideas — October 2011

Some friends have been debating what Keynes thought of Marx and wanted to get hold of a letter he wrote to Bernard Shaw about this. So I hunted down volume 28 (Social, Political and Literary Writings) of The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, with the assistance of my sister and the helpful librarians in the Christ Church library.

The letter (to George Bernard Shaw, 2 December 1934) is not yet out of copyright, so I give just the portion of it that bears on this.

As for my view of Marx, I said nothing in that article except to accuse you and Stalin of being still satisfied with his view of the capitalist world 'which had much verisimilitude in his day is unrecognisable three quarters of a century later'. Surely it is certain that the picture has changed out of recognition.

My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feelings about the Koran. I know that it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages and containing inspiration. Yet when I look into it, it is to me inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date, academic controversialising seems so extraordinarily unsuitable as material for the purpose. But then, as I have said, I feel just the same about the Koran. How could either of these books carry fire and sword round half the world? It beats me. Clearly there is some defect in my understanding. Do you believe both Das Kapital and the Koran? Or only Das Kapital? But whatever the sociological value of the latter, I am sure that its contemporary economic value (apart from occasional but inconstructive and discontinuous flashes of insight) is nil. Will you promise to read it again, if I do?

Could modern critics of Keynes level the same criticisms against The General Theory (perhaps excepting the bit about carrying fire and sword around half the world)?

Personally I think most of what passes for macroeconomics makes scholastic physics look good — that the field is clearly pre-scientific — so I'm not convinced it's that easy to dismiss Marx (or Keynes for that matter) as having been entirely superseded by newer theory.

8 Comments »

  1. very interesting. i've heard similar views expressed by keynes before. what's interesting is kenes finds the debates old and of no economic value, but seems to find value in the mercantlists (something i do as well) which are certainly considerably older. not to mention his investigations into sumer.

    Comment by nathan tankus — November 2011
  2. I have never read Das Kapital, and unlikely I ever will. But I read a bit on the debunking of this questionable ideology. Socialism / communism is fine on paper, but it fails every time when put into practice. There are still die-hards like Hugo Chaves and Evo Morales who subscribe to them, With the exception of North Korea, the other few communist powers vis China,Laos, and Vietnam are in name only. Cuba is a basket case. Now, what is Rock of Ages, is it just a figure of speech?

    I don't think John Maynard Keynes would lump Das Kapital and the Koran in the same breath if he were alive today. In a personal letter ? Yes. In an open letter or public opinion piece? No.

    Comment by DL — November 2011
  3. Danny,

    Thanks for that. I owe you one.

    But if that's the letter Joan Robinson considered the smoking gun revealing Keynes' lack of knowledge about Marx, I must say it's a rather disappointing smoking gun.

    So, just to make sure we are on the right track: are you sure that's the right letter?

    In any case, in this letter, Keynes indeed says at the end "will you promise to read it [Das Kapital] again, if I do?". I suppose this could be what Robinson had in mind.

    But I don't think it's such a clear indication Keynes never read Marx or DK: that could simply be a light-hearted comment.

    In other words, there is "reasonable doubt" about the legitimacy of that confession, so to speak.

    And, to give Keynes some credit, in reality Marx and particularly DK is not an easy read. Volumes 2 and 3, on top, are worse, because were compiled after Marx's death.

    In fact, in another letter, Keynes not only complains about Marx's writing style (which he says is vile, if memory serves), but he also prefers Engels. I can't deny that Marx was often less than clear and I myself find Engels way clearer, too.

    Well, thanks again!

    Comment by Magpie — November 2011
  4. Magpie, that's the letter you pointed me at.

    The way I read it, Keynes had read Das Kapital and was offering to read it again if GBS would - and that's consistent with complaints about Marx's writing style, as you point out. Interpreting this letter as evidence that Keynes hadn't read Marx seems entirely backwards to me.

    Comment by danny — November 2011
  5. DL: this was in a personal letter, but I'm not sure there was as much concern about criticism of the Koran in the 1930s, so Keynes might well have made comments like that in public as well.

    Interestingly, this letter was written 77 years years ago - and 77 years after the publication of Das Kapital (1867)! So we are almost exactly as far from Keynes writing it as he was from Marx.

    In the 1930s communism was much more powerful - at least as a political force - than it is now or was in 1867.

    Comment by danny — November 2011
  6. "The way I read it, Keynes had read Das Kapital and was offering to read it again if GBS would"

    Yes, I agree: that's a perfectly valid interpretation. That's why, as smoking guns go, I consider the letter a bit disappointing.

    Trying to put myself in Joan Robinson's shoes: maybe she did not recall the letter in full details? Or maybe she interpreted the last line as "I will read DK for the first time, if you promise you will read it again"? What do you think?

    At best, is a kind of admission he is not really sure he understood Marx well.

    By the way, DL, I suscribe to Roger McCain's views expressed in his tutorial on Marxist economics (you probably could find it in the net by Googling it, although it was removed from McCain's website):

    "One key point to understand is that Marxist economics is an economic theory of capitalism. Since governments based on Marxist ideology have mostly either collapsed or moved away from the distinctive 'Soviet-type' economics system toward more capitalist economic systems, it may seem that Marxist ideas are discredited. What has been discredited is the Soviet-type economic system, which has little to do with Marxist economic analysis of capitalism. Thus, Marxist economics has as strong (of weak) a case as ever where its analysis of capitalism is concerned".

    McCain, by the way, is a socialist, but not a Marxist socialist. And he is an economics professor.

    Comment by Magpie — November 2011
  7. A minor point for DL: Rock of Ages is a metaphor for the christians' Jesus. It features in a 19th century hymn of the same name. First stanza appended:
    Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    let me hide myself in thee;
    let the water and the blood,
    from thy wounded side which flowed,
    be of sin the double cure;
    save from wrath and make me pure.
    Some people, including the historian E.P. Thompson, find it a bit on the sick side.

    Comment by Peter K. — November 2011
  8. It seems all those years of attending scripture at school did not equip me for a well known hymn. Scripture was compulsory back in my school days. If you didn't know your denomination or had no idea at all, as was my case, it's C of E. I even tried Sunday school. It just didn't click with me.

    Nowadys, I am happy with traditional Chinese beliefs, It is a mish-mash of Buddhism, Daoism, ancestor worship, and perhaps a bit of Confucianism. No one is there to ram anything down my throat. There are no threats of armageddon or floods of Noah's proportion to sweep me away. No one god who or which created us with sin all. It does not claim to be all and end all.If you found Chritianity, Islam, Hinduism, or cargo cult to be superior, go for it. More importantly, it is two way traffic.

    Thanks Peter, yum cha is on me.

    Comment by DL — November 2011

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