Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, 1919 Part IV: "The Peace Congress, where men played shamelessly..." (Virginia Woolf) by Catherine Piner and Clare Trowell

Virginia Woolf and Keynes at Monks House

While the quantifiable and qualitative responses to this work tell a story of rising economic and social eminence for Keynes, the question of the books purpose needs to be raised. This blog post focuses on Keynes motivations and therein the purpose of The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Keynes resigned from his Government post and returned to England after his failure to drive the Treaty in the direction he thought best. Writing to Prime Minster Lloyd George on June 5th 1919, he explained:

I am slipping away from the scene of the nightmare. I can do no more good here. Ive gone on hoping even through these last dreadful weeks that youd find some way to make of the Treaty a just and expedient document. But now its apparently too late. The battle is lost. I leave the twins to gloat over the devastation of Europe, and to assess to taste what remains for the British taxpayer [] (Skidelsky, 1983, p. 375)

In his letters, Keynes makes clear that he believed the public deserved an explanation for the Treaty. In a letter to Jan Smuts on the 8th of June 1919, he wrote that he hoped immensely that you may come to the conclusion that some public explanation of what is really happening and a protest against it is now the right course (Skidelsky, 1983 p. 376). Although Smuts was initially in favor, he eventually concluded that it were better to be constructive rather than tear the Treaty to shreds (Skidelsky, 1983 p.377). Keynes obviously thought it would be better to give the public his opinion on the matter, and he went ahead with the book.

While some, like Lord Robert Cecil, hoped for an analysis from a strictly economic point on the dangers of the treaty, the book itself is not strictly economic by any means. In addition to an economic analysis, Keynes also takes time to write a few devastating descriptions of political personalities. Sue Woods third blog post in this series expands upon some of the personal attacks that his mother, Florence, tried to get Keynes to tone down. The deviation from economics is where the question of the books purpose becomes more complicated. 

In Hazens review (discussed in the second blog post), he describes how the pictures of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson are unforgettably painted; It is Mr. Keyness vivid and confident portraits of these three that are giving great pleasure to all those who dislike any one or all of the individuals concerned. In this revolting melodrama of our days Clemenceau is the heavy villain, Lloyd George the mountebank and weathercock, and Wilson the Simple Simon.

The emphasis on these personalities is perhaps best explained in light of Virginia Woolfs comments upon Keynes return. In a letter from the 8th of July 1919, Woolf explains to a friend that Keynes is:

 disillusioned he says. No more does he believe, that is, in the stability of the things he likes. Eton is doomed; the governing classes, perhaps Cambridge too. These conclusions were forced on him by the dismal & degrading spectacle of the Peace Congress, where men played shamelessly, not for Europe, or even England, but for their own return to Parliament at the next election. They were not wholly vicious; they had spasm of well meaning; but a fate seemed to possess the business from the first, driving it all in the most fatal direction & soon no one had the strength to resist. (Woolf, 1977 p.288)

Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf

It is likely that there was some tension between the Bloomsbury group and Keynes. The Bloomsbury group included conscientious objectors and was largely resident at Charleston in Sussex during World War I. Whereas Keynes was working for the Government in the Treasury during the war. This may have motivated him to express his opinions in a literary way that would appeal to his friends. He was staying at Charleston with Vanessa Bell when he started to write the book. Moggeridge states in his 1992 biography of Keynes:

'During composition and later revision, Keynes was encouraged by comments and suggestions from his friends, many of whom heard him read sections, particularly his portrait of the Conference, aloud at Charleston.' (Moggeridge, 1992, p.321)

In Moggeridges Penguin Modern Masters (1976) book on John Maynard Keynes he also asserts:

The influence of Bloomsbury, its rationalism, its general optimism, and its emphasis on the importance of individuals left other marks on Keynesand his understanding of the good society. (Moggeridge, 1976 p.13)

If the purpose of this book was purely an economic attack on the Treaty, why also attack the personalities of those involved? Evidently, Keynes didnt feel that these political personalities could or should be divorced from the decisions that they made. Woolfs comments shed some light on the impact of these individuals on Keynes. 

It seems that Keynes was just as interested in the individuals and motivations behind decisions as the decisions themselves. Hession (1984) asserts that Keynes was not reluctant to engage in psychological analysis, and he showed familiarity with Freudian terminology, as one would expect given his Bloomsbury background and his friendships with the Stracheys. (p.156) The Strachey brothers, having been analysed themselves in Vienna by Freud, became translators and editors of Freuds collected works in English. Strachey used a form of psychohistory [i]when writing his famous work Eminent Victorians, which was published in May 1918. Some critics did not like Strachey s mocking style of biography, but the pen sketches of Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd-George in Economic Consequences of the Peace also have a mocking tone and, perhaps, Keynes was influenced by Lytton Strachey in using this approach. Keynes interest in individuals and their motivations also includes those that impressed him. He wrote an emotional account of his dealings with Dr. Melchior, a member of the German delegation that left a strong, positive impression on Keynes. This memoir was first read by Bloomsburys Memoir Club in February of 1920. Virginia Woolf praised the work for its method of character drawing (Skidelsky, 1983, p.359). This emphasis on individuals is likely why Keynes Consequences of the Peace became as popular as it did. While still economic, it was also personal and political; the latter two being far more understandable for the average reader.

Hazen's review is perhaps a prime example of the focus of the average reader. He spends significant time discussing Keynes' assessment of the political personalities, but little time looking over the actual tables and estimates that surely should be the focus of an economic explanation. Unable to really assess fully Keynes' economic conclusions, or at least unable to contradict them with strong evidence, readers could get a taste of the decisions and their implications from personalities of those involved. While perhaps seen through an economic window, the scene unfolding is a political and personal one, and that is what Keynes wrote. The purpose of the book was to educate the public on the economics of the Treaty, but it was also meant to enlighten readers about the politics and political figures behind these decisions. Just as he attacked the Treaty, so too did he attack those behind it.


Hazen, C. (1920) Faults and Weaknesses of Mr. Keynes New York Times, 29th February.
Hession, C.H. (1984) John Maynard Keynes: A Personal Biography of the Man who Revolutionised Capitalism and the Way We Live. New York: Macmillan.
Moggeridge, D.E. (1976) John Maynard Keynes (Penguin Modern Masters) ed.by Frank Kermode. Middlesex: Penguin
Moggeridge, D.E. (1992) Maynard Keynes: An Economists Biography. London: Routledge
Skidelsky, R. (1983) John Maynard Keynes: Volume 1 Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920. London: Macmillan
Woolf, V. (1977) Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1 Ed. By Anne Olivier Bell. London: Hogarth

[i] Psychohistory is a term coined by Lord Edel according to Hession’s biography of Keynes.