It is hardly controversial to claim that John Maynard Keynes was the most influential economist of the 20th century. There are also strong grounds for seeing him as one of the century's most influential thinkers, with terms such as "Keynesianism" and "the age of Keynes" being used to denote the three most successful decades of the 20th century and the political philosophy on which they were based.
Paradoxically, however, there is little consensus either on what his main message was, or on whether he would have supported the ideas that later came to be associated with his name.
This alone would be enough to provoke a substantial literature. However, Keynes was not merely an academic economist but a philosopher, an associate of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey. He was also a journalist and pamphleteer who delighted in stirring up controversy, and a long-time government adviser moving through the corridors of power from his pre-1914 service in the India Office to his involvement in offering advice over how to combat the Great Depression.
He served in the Treasury in both world wars and represented Britain in financial negotiations with its allies. In and after the Second World War, he was Britain's leading representative in attempts to negotiate the shape of the postwar economic order.
On top of this, Keynes led a colourful private life as a member of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers. There are therefore many reasons why scholars have wanted to study Keynes, approaching his work from many angles. Moreover, he hoarded papers, creating an abundance of archival material. The result has been a mass of literature on his life, his work and the relations between them including, notably, no fewer than three outstanding biographies, by Roy Harrod, Donald Moggridge and Robert Skidelsky. It can be argued that, although all three have their limitations, most economists would be honoured to have one biography meeting these standards, let alone three, quite apart from the other secondary literature.
But many will be unwilling to read such substantial tomes and there is a market for simplified, more popular accounts, of which the book under review is the latest. This presents a dilemma. Should a popularisation focus on the relation of Keynes's economics to his life, to his philosophy or to his policy-related activities, or should it relate it to broader developments in economics? All involve technical issues that are hard to explain briefly, making selection inevitable.
Robert Cord's solution is to focus on the life, and he provides a thoroughly readable account, written in a lively style and, perhaps uniquely among accounts of Keynes, using colour, numerous photographs, a chronological table and numerous inserts to explain people and ideas without disrupting the main narrative. (The implied reader is someone who does not know about Eton College, Karl Marx or Isaac Newton.) Specialists will question some of the judgments made but that is, perhaps, to miss the point, which is to stimulate interest in a remarkable figure about whose life many people would otherwise remain ignorant.
Keynes: Life and Times
By Robert Cord
Published 19 October 2007