By Prabhat Patnaik
At first sight no two persons could have been more dissimilar. One was a Cambridge don, with more than one foot in the British government; a supporter of the Liberal Party, staunchly opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution; an aesthete and a member of the Bloomsbury Group; a life peer in imperial Britain, and a solid, if sensitive, member of the British establishment. The other was a Russian revolutionary, spending years in exile in acute penury, immersed in bitter conflicts among the émigrés, until suddenly confronted with a revolutionary uprising whose strivings and possibilities he comprehended with such clarity that he came to lead it, facing a civil war, a typhus epidemic, and an assassination attempt that ultimately claimed his life.
The secure tranquillity of the life of the one contrasted sharply with the tempestuous violence that continuously haunted the life of the other. What could these two have in common?
For a start each felt a deep intellectual respect for the other, despite their political differences. In his report to the second congress of the Communist International, having called John Maynard Keynes “a British bourgeois pacifist”, “a petit bourgeois philistine” and “an implacable enemy of Bolshevism”, V.I. Lenin went on to base his entire thesis about why conditions were ripe for a world revolution on Keynes’s analysis in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He even paid Keynes the compliment that “nobody had written about the condition of capitalism better than Keynes”. Keynes, on his part, not only referred in several places to Lenin’s “brilliance”, but, in this same book, said apropos of inflation: “Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency; . . . Lenin was certainly right.”
But mutual intellectual respect among bitter adversaries is neither unusual nor particularly remarkable. What is really common to both these thinkers is their belief that the hegemony of finance in the period of maturity of capitalism had brought about a denouement where it became impossible for the system to go on as before. Of course each had his own understanding of why finance had made capitalism impossible, and each had his own reading of where to go from there. But the belief that a sheer continuity of the existing order was no longer possible was common to both.
Keynes saw the hegemony of finance as saddling capitalism with such extraordinarily high levels of unemployment that people, he feared, would not for long tolerate such an inhumane system. Under this hegemony, speculation was no longer a mere bubble on a steady stream of enterprise, but became a torrent that buffeted enterprise around.(more...)