Keynes: the partly-known Colossus of economics

jmk-writingsProfessor Rod O’Donnell, University of Technology Sydney, Australia

Alongside Smith and Marx, Keynes is one of the triumvirate of economists on whom more ink has been expended than on any others. And, as the most recent of the three, he speaks more directly to our times and our troubles. His multi-sidedness also makes him a fascinating figure for non-economists. But more expended ink does not more knowledge guarantee, especially if the information sources being used are seriously incomplete. It is the aim of my JMK Writings Project to remedy this situation.

A grave misapprehension pervades the discussion of Keynes’s many contributions. It is widely believed that the Royal Economic Society edition, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, in its 30 volumes, contains everything that Keynes wrote that is important in understanding his thought and activities.

This, however, is far from the truth. Although that edition was enormously valuable in promoting Keynes scholarship, it only made accessible a relatively small proportion of the total amount of his unpublished writings as a result of its narrow terms of reference, limited budget and largely single-archive focus. Only about 40% of the edition (11-12 volumes) contained new material, the rest being reproductions of already published output. The terms of reference, “Keynes as an economist and public figure”, for example, excluded vast domains in his writings, including all his unpublished philosophical output and most of his huge private correspondences. And the focus on only one primary archive, that at King’s College Cambridge (albeit supplemented by some selections from the UK National Archives) meant that vast swathes of documents held elsewhere in the UK and other countries were excluded.

Discoveries by a small band of hardy Keynes archive explorers over recent decades have revealed that huge amounts of Keynes’s academically significant writings remain unpublished. In the UK, large portions of even the Keynes Papers at King’s College Cambridge languish unpublished, not to mention the extensive holdings of other archives, both large (the National Archives and the British Library), and small (various university archives). Outside the UK, at least four countries have important holdings. The US has many medium to small collections, followed by Japan with a smaller number of key holdings resulting from its purchases of Harrod’s Papers. (Why portions of Keynes’s writings finished up in Harrod’s personal papers is a story for another day, but their existence remained entirely unknown until the latter’s international auction in the early 1990s). Australia has five archival holdings, Canada has at least one, and there may be one or two holdings in France and Germany. My current estimate is that approximately 60 archives world-wide have valuable unpublished collections.

The object of my JMK Writings Project is to make publicly accessible the treasure trove of information presently tucked away in his scattered unpublished writings. The Further Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, as the supplementary edition will be called, is estimated to run to around 20 to 25 volumes, although the number cannot be accurately predicted. No global catalogue of his writings has been compiled, so that nobody in the world knows their full extent.

Why crowdfunding? Sadly, official sources of funding for scholarly editorial research concerning the writings of a brilliant mind with non-orthodox views, a more discursive style of theorising, and much practical policy wisdom, have dried up due to the heavy influences of orthodox economic thinking, mathematical formalisation and econometric technique. To obtain the resources needed for the project, I have turned to the less conventional avenue of crowdfunding. The campaign launched on 11 October 2016 on the Indiegogo website, and may be located using the URL:–2#/

Much more information about the edition, its structure and planned expenditure may be gained via the above link. Donations of any size are welcome, but it may be of interest for readers to know that for each USD100,000 raised (in the aggregate or by single donation), it is planned, with publisher co-operation, to provide a university in a developing country with free online access to the edition.

Organised largely on chronological lines, the supplementary edition starts with Eton and early Cambridge before proceeding through the succeeding stages of Keynes’s crowded life. The volumes will be produced in batches of roughly 3 to 6, with future crowdfunding campaigns being run as required for the later batches. The present campaign is for the first batch, these covering Keynes’s Eton years (both early and late) and his initial Cambridge years. It may surprise readers to learn − as it surprised me, being the first thorough investigator of Eton’s records concerning Keynes – that his Eton years contain much unknown exciting and insightful material. The conventional view of Eton, as but a stepping stone to Cambridge where his real intellectual foundations were laid, will need to be completely revised.

Naturally, preparing the edition is a huge task. To expedite execution, I am seeking to build teams of scholars in different countries interested in taking responsibilities for particular volumes, or parts thereof, in a voluntary capacity. Please contact me via [email protected] if you have questions about participating in this way.

Keynes’s writings are also relevant to philosophers, political scientists, historians (economic and social), and everyone seeking to improve our struggling economies, politics and societies. This is the time to give the world access to the full range of wisdom in all his writings. Motivated and dedicated people are available now, but if we postpone these labours into the future, the chances are that the bounty will never arrive, and that would be a great loss to the world’s knowledge.

Useful links

On 24 October, Georgios Krimpas, Greek Ambassador to the OECD, will be giving a talk on “Keynes: The General Theory in Three Acts – Employment, Interest and Money”. You can watch the webcast here

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  1. francesco totino - 12/10/2016 Reply

    “the traditional economic theory must be deeply reviewed : it does not work anymore ”

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