I should declare an interest since, in her youth, the author was my pupil. Yet if ever there was a case of the teacher being taught by the student, this is surely it.
“Mr Keynes’ Revolution” introduced me to Maynard Keynes the man, as opposed to Maynard Keynes the ground-breaking economist. In the aftermath of The First World War, the tectonic plates of economics had begun moving as surely as those of politics, but hardly anyone realised the earthquake was coming. The illusory safety of a return to the status quo antebellum appealed strongly to upper middle class financiers and public figures, who thought once they’d got over the inevitable punishment of the wicked Germans, the whole world could get back to normal and life could go on as if nothing had happened. Why was Keynes almost alone in perceiving that not only was the old way gone for ever, but that every great step aimed at reviving it, from The Treaty of Versailles to the return to The Gold Standard, was digging it an even deeper grave?
E J Barnes brings vividly to life Keynes’ transition from member of The Bloomsbury Set, a commune of artists and intellectuals, inhabiting their own world, and relying on other people to provide for their basic needs, to a campaigning newspaper owner fearlessly speaking truth to power, very much a man of the real world, and defiant of the ostracism that came his way because of his perceived treachery to his class. In particular, she focuses on the seminal importance of his remarkable love story, as the academic economic genius encounters an exiled Russian ballerina, also a star in her own firmament, but one only too well aware of the fragility of both her art and of civilisation itself.
In those social divisions of the 1920s, I see a parallel with recent years. We, too, are experiencing a ruinous European war and a near universal desire for the aggressor to be punished. We, too, have a country divided between a middle class who thought the EU offered the way of life they desired and a working class who saw their wages depressed and their livelihoods threatened. Those who escape class divisions of the past find themselves mired in the artificially-contrived strife of identity politics just when we need society to pull together. We see a world economy devastated by Covid just as the last century had its postwar influenza. We have a ruling elite with the same incomprehension of the larger picture and the same resistance to radical change, and we are again staggering from one world financial crisis to another because, as yet, we have no Keynes to show us how the institutions of our century must be reformed to cope with it all.
I recommend this book. It conveys a powerful message in wonderfully evocative and very readable prose.