More Niallism: Keynes opposed Versailles because he was a screaming queen

8 May 2013

11:57 AM

8 May 2013

11:57 AM

When I heard that Niall Ferguson had said that JM Keynes advocated reckless economic policies because he was gay and childless, and hence had no concern for the future, I wrote: ‘If true, this represents Ferguson’s degeneration from historian to shock jock’.

The reports were true, but I was wrong. There has been no degeneration. Ferguson has always been this crass and crassly inaccurate.

Donald Markwell, Warden of Rhodes House until last year, pointed me to his John Maynard Keynes and International Relations for the gruesome details. Markwell had to devote time and space to the ugly task of dissecting an attack on Keynes by Ferguson in a 1995 edition of the Spectator. He damned Keynes for saying in his Economic Consequences of the Peace that the Carthaginian terms imposed by the allies on Germany at Versailles would wreck the economy and could push Germans over the edge again. (‘Who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?’)

That Keynes was right and reparations led to Germany’s great post-war inflation was not a point Ferguson could concede. Do not forget that for the Thatcherites of the 1970s’ generation, Keynes was a hate figure. Keynes thought that he had devised ways to save capitalism from communism (and from itself). But no good deed goes unpunished, and the Right of Ferguson’s day loathed him for his dislike of mass unemployment and support for deficit financing. No ground should be given to him or courtesy shown him, and Ferguson offered neither. He wrote of Keynes at Versailles.

‘There is, however, no question that a series of meetings with Carl Melchior, one of the German representatives at the armistice and peace negotiations, added a vital emotional dimension. Melchior was a partner in the Hamburg bank MM Warburg – ‘a very small man,’ as Keynes described him, ‘exquisitely clean, very well and neatly dressed with a high stiff collar…The line where his hair ended bound his face and forehead in a very sharply defined and rather noble curve. His eyes gleam..with extraordinary sorrow.’

‘It is not too much to infer from these emotive phrases some kind of sexual attraction…Those familiar with Bloomsbury will appreciate why Keynes fell so hard for the representative of an enemy power.’


So not just a puff but a treacherous puff too. Keynes argued against being beastly to the Germans because he wanted to get beastly with Carl Melchior.

Even at the time Ferguson could not carry off the ‘queers can’t be trusted’ line successfully. The casual reader of the Spectator in 1995 may have thought that it was ‘too much to infer from these emotive phrases’ that Keynes advocated a generous policy towards a defeated Germany because he was enchanted by a German diplomat. Ferguson had to admit that ‘before he arrived as a Treasury representative at Versailles, Keynes believed that any reparations imposed on Germany should be on the low side’. After discussing Keynes’s sexual encounters with men, he has to add ‘granted there is no evidence that his love [for Melchior] was in any physical sense consummated.’ Although he informs us that, ominously, Melchior was ‘unmarried’.

Then there is the question of whether Keynes was right to wonder whether Germany could cope. Ferguson brushes over the awkward facts that in 1919 Germany was close to starvation, communist revolutionaries were trying to seize power, and right-wing militias (the ancestors of the Nazis) were trying to put them down. As Markwell says, Keynes thought that ‘if starvation were to be staved off, Germany’s need for food supplies was urgent,’ and France’s revanchist willingness to let the country suffer had to be fought. (Markwell adds but Ferguson forgets to mention that many in the British and American delegations agreed with Keynes, and admired Melchior as well. Perhaps they were gay too) Then there is the question of Keynes’s patriotism. You can say that the Economic Consequences of the Peace helped prepare the ground for appeasement if you want to stretch a point.
Unlike Virginia Woolf and many others in Bloomsbury, however, Keynes was not a pacifist. He saw through Hitler the moment he came to power, and found ways to finance World War II.

I may be being a hopeless optimist but the argument about Ferguson may illustrate wider shifts in opinion. Hearteningly, the homophobia of Ferguson’s (and my) youth is over. Once a bullish and butch right-wing intellectual could raise a dirty laugh by sneering at the queers. No longer – as Ferguson has found to his cost.

I also hope that the taste for intellectuals who will say and do anything to get attention is declining. The claim that you are being po-faced and PC if you insist on upholding basic standards in debate no longer works the way it once did. After the initial fuss, Tom Chivers of the Telegraph, a distant relative of Keynes, wrote that everything about Ferguson’s attack on his great-great uncle was wrong.
Of course Keynes cared about about future generations. His remark ‘in the long run we are all dead’

was not a sweeping dismissal of the far future, but a very specific rebuke to economists who thought that, because “in the long run” the price of goods varied with the amount of money in the economy, they didn’t have to worry about price fluctuations now. In fact, Keynes said, there could be large price variations caused by how quickly people spent their money, and that could lead to the devastating problems of inflation and deflation that he spent his life battling: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
But whatever he wrote, the idea that because he had no children of his own he didn’t worry about what happened to other people’s is ridiculous – not only because he did marry, to the surprise of his friends; his wife, the ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, miscarried their child.

What are readers meant to say when presented with an intellectual who shouts ill-educated abuse to make himself heard? ‘It’s all a game, it’s a bit of a laugh, Ferguson’s a card, don’t take him too seriously?’ Many have had their fill of all of that and are shrugging their shoulders and walking away.

If I were a conservative, I would worry. We’ve had rampant Niallism these past few years. Britain and the Eurozone’s austerity policies sound good in a pub argument, but have not worked so well – or indeed at all – in the world beyond the saloon bar. In America, the Republicans went off with the Fergusonesque Tea Party and lost. Now British Conservatives are appeasing Ukip.

They should be careful. Many people who might have given them a hearing will walk away if they carry on like this. They will say of them, as Keynes said of the Conservatives of his day, ‘They offer me neither food nor drink — intellectual nor spiritual consolation… [Conservatism] leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard, it is not safe, or calculated to preserve from the spoilers that degree of civilisation which we have already attained.’

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Show comments
  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    The legend that Versailles was harsh, let alone “Carthaginian”, is of course a legend, and one fostered by the party who had an interest in fostering it – the Germans. To be “Carthaginian”, 70 million GErmans should have been butchered or sold into slavery, and the whole territory of Germany reduced to a desert by ploughing salt into the soil. The use of this pathetic kind of rhetoric shows that Nick Cohen knows nothing either about Roman or about modern history. Whatever his reason for taking the German side, Keynes was plainly wrong (the terms were less harsh than those the Germans had imposed on France in 1871, which Clemenceau was quite old enough to remember – he was the mayor of a Paris suburb at the time) and placing his intellectual cleverness, in a subject that most people did not understand, at the service of the defeated enemy was not an honourable act. In the long run it helped Hitler and his propagandists. Perhaps he understood that, and that is why he practically killed himself with overwork in the service of his country in World War Two.

  • jafd

    For someone born in 1883 (as Mr. Keynes was), and brought up in the British boarding-schools and universities of that era, to reach maturity without homoerotic tendencies would be suprising.

    Note, too, that in the pre-cinema age, a ‘Russian ballerina’ was the very definition of ‘HAWT’ (though the thoughts of that lady, who’d grown up thinking she’d have her pick of the Czarist nobility, and finding she’d have to make do with that grouping of Englishmen, are not recorded.)

    Mr. Ferguson mayhaps deserves a bit of pity here, as a victim of the current ‘Gay Imperialism’, which engrosses historical figures into the homosexual canon on quite minimal evidence.

  • James

    If you’re friends with Andrew Sullivan and have a black wife you can never be homophobic nor racist.

    It’s science. I learned it at Harvard.

  • Marcus

    So Ferguson suggests that homosexuals in the days before gay marriage may have had a more fatalistic/hedonistic approach to life.

    If that is homophobia, then homophobia is not a bad thing anymore than arachnophobia is.

    Get a grip Nick and get some perspective.

  • VapidVienna

    I’m familiar with the Left’s penchant for mischief making but I hadn’t realised that Nick Cohen was so keen on it. Here he has donned the Robin Hood suit to ride to the rescue of gays who don’t actually need rescuing. It is just one more caring pose that Leftists love to adopt.

    Nick, I have read much of your stuff but I won’t be doing so again. The pettiness of your article shows you in a very poor light. Douglas Murray’s article knocks yours into a cocked hat.

  • Bob Thomas

    Cohen accuses Ferguson of being a ‘shock jock’ under that headline! Ha!

    Surely someone calling for others to uphold ‘basic standards in debate’ should refrain from using such ‘crass and crassly inaccurate’ non-quotes as ‘queers can’t be trusted’ in order to denigrate his political opponents.

    Of course, it is perfectly possible to debate the merits and demerits of Keynesianism without bringing character into it.

  • Benjamin O’Donnell

    As I said over on Douglas Murray’s article, the real problem with Niall Ferguson repeating this old Schumpeterian canard is not its homophobia, but its disappointing historical ignorance (or perhaps, intellectual dishonesty). It’s telling that few people bother to give the famous Keynes quote in its full context, neglecting to read even the very next sentence: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again” (“The Great Slump of 1930” (1930) in Essays in Persuasion). Keynes was *not* saying that we should ignore the long run, he was saying that it’s useless to say the economy will return to full employment in the long run, when in the short run lives are being ruined by unemployment.

    • Abhay

      I think its both – shallow history and then some amount of dishonesty, packaged in rudeness and loudness. Watch his you tube clips when he discusses contentious issues. I think he does that to appease a section of the neocon crowd.

      He has an arrogant certainty about his points regardless of how cliched they are and shows a messianic zeal – not the conservative disposition.

  • sarahsmith232

    this was non-stop frantic clutching at straws from Cohen. what clap-trap, Ferguson came out with one mildly offensive, if you can even say offensive, statement and from this you conclude that he’s a brutal, bullish, right-wing homophobe and has been for decades.
    i’m guessing this Cohen is gay himself then. ’cause this desperate, frantic stab at turning an off the cuff, nothing statement into some orchestrated, planned out, viscious attack decades in the making, could only have come from the mind of an ism. Cohen obviously loves that he gets to tick a minority tick box, will hang his whole identity on it and can only nurture and feed his victim, viciously put upon by the cruelties of the barbarians, status when turning ant hill irrelevance into enormous, deeply held prejudice.
    it will feed into his view of himself as separate and superior to the homophobic, barbarian hordes but needs constant feeding, hence above idiot article.

    • Simon Smith

      Could it be that he’s pointing out that NF is homophobic, and factually wrong, and that the one inflects the other? Which would be kinda bad for a historian?

      • Benjamin O’Donnell

        What’s odd is that the Keynes quote is so obviously taken out of context. Why would a trained historian do such a thing, unless primed by Pavlovian prejudice to bark at any isolated sentence that seems to fit the “irresponsible, childless homosexual” stereotype?

    • gingergeezer

      MIldly offensive eh? Refreshing to see the bumptious Ferguson eat a bit of humble pie but his neo-con attack dog style is stock in trade. Cohen has every right to tick minority boxes whenever the fancy takes him. Grow a pair dear.

    • bhudster10

      Gosh! What deep thinking, Cohen objects to Fergusons homophobia and notes a previous example, therefore Cohen is gay!

  • MikeF

    “The claim that you are being po-faced and PC if you insist on upholding basic standards in debate no longer works the way it once did.” But does condemning somebody who offends contemporary PC sensibilities when making assessments of historical figures uphold ‘basic standards in debate’?

    • Oarboar

      I would think upholding “basic standards in debate” means actually reading and understanding the passage involved.

      Here’s the “long run” statement in context: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run
      we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task
      if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is
      long past the ocean will be flat again.”

      That’s not a call for hedonism. That’s a call for economists to do a better job so as to benefit more people.

  • Claire Geber

    Is sexuality character? Is character destiny? Do great characters make history? Is Napoleon’s the story of a small man with an overcompensating machismo? Aside from all that, there are two historical truths for lefties that they should reexamine: the idea that government could or should manage the economy to prevent communism or to “save capitalism from itself;” and that hard terms at the end of the First World War causally led to economic distress and Hitler. If these ideas are not true, where do the welfare-statist ‘paternalistic libertarians’ – all children of Keynes – turn to for excuses to dismantle freedom and redistribute wealth? Communism (“income inequality”), of course. And that great inflation, global warming.

    • Oarboar

      That Ferguson has to take a quote out of context and use it to attack Keynes’ personal life and not his ideas is a pretty good testament to the soundness of Keynes’ theories and ideas. Conservatives know they already lost the battle.

      • Damon

        No, Oarboar. Leftists know they already lost the battle. In 1979.

  • Charles Hedges

    So much for Spectator editors in 1995. It would be nice to think that in the interim they have learned to care more about facts.

  • Hugh

    Just to be clear I follow your argument: Nial Ferguson’s remarks were homophobic and brutish; therefore austerity is wrong and the Tories will lose the election. Is that right?

    • Abhay

      Tories should lose the election. And approach UKIP for a coalition at which point UKIP should drive a super-hard bargain!

  • Abhay

    There are times when I agree with Cohen; there are times I don’t. On this one I do. Niall Ferguson’s (NF) train wreck has been on its way for awhile.

    History is not easy. You unearth the past, shine light on it to essentially understand yourself and your place in the world. You have to be at its service. No wonder, a thoughtful and keen historian like Gibbon remains supremely relevant even today.
    You can also be a philosopher of History – use the didcovered bits to identify an organic pattern such as Nietzsche or Spengler or Hegel and Marx for that matter.
    But you cannot be pointlessly crass and needlessly loud to please a section of an audience. It has taken a toll of NF’s credibility.

    What is he? An historian? An economist? An accountant? Who can tell? But he has been rude and loud, making hackneyed points louder than the others. It seems to me that he has been attempting hard to please a section of the GoP.

    And please don’t call him conservative – he is NOT. He is another metropolitan liberal who is clutching on to a few totem poles of the Republican Party.

    • Studley

      What the heck do you know about the Republican Party? I’m a Republican, and a classical liberal, and you certainly don’t know the first thing about what I believe.

      • Abhay

        You can be a classic liberal or a cheap backside-wipe liberal. That is entirely your problem. And I don’t need your stupid certificates. Now go hide in your cave.

  • judyk113

    I wouldn’t like to spoil the fun you’re having with deriding bullish and butch right-wing intellectuals, Nick, but have you forgotten that at that time, the Left regarded homosexuality as a symptom of bourgeois degeneration? And that Marxists and trade unionists of the day routinely attacked gays and especially lesbians as bourgeois deviationists and would-be corrupters of the working class? And that it was as much one of the ways in which Orwell and other heroes of the left attacked the gay lifestyles of Bloomsbury set types as it was of Evelyn Waugh and the Bullingdon boys he lampooned?

    • Abhay

      You are so right Judy. In fact, the old hard left was actually quite illiberal. Marxism in practice is not liberal at all. Only unlettered, idiots would call Lenin and Mao liberal.

      But I see such confusion in use of epithets these days in mass media that you wish to give up and retire into a quite village with no TV.

      • gladiolys

        Did Marx write about homosexuality?

        • judyk113

          His intellectual partner Engels wrote this to Marx in a letter in1869:

          “That is really a very odd ‘Urning’ you just sent me. Those are just unveilings being extremely against nature. The pederasts begin counting themselves and find that they are forming a power within the state. Only an organisation was missing, but according to this it seems to be already existing in the secret. And as they are counting so important men within all the old parties and even in the new ones, from Rösing to Schweitzer, their victory is inevitable. ‘Guerre aux cons, paix aux trous de cul’ it will go now. It is only a luck that we personally are too old to have to fear, this party gaining victory, to have to pay bodily tribute to the victors. But the young generation! By the way, only possible in Germany that a guy like that appears, translates the dirt into a theory and invites: introite, and so on. Unfortunately he was not yet as courageous as to confess openly being ‘That’, and still has to operate coram publico ‘from the front’ even though not ,from the front into as he once says by mistake. But first wait until the new North-German penal law has acknowledged the droits de cul then it will turn out quite differently. As for poor people from the front like us, with our childish favour for women, things will be going badly enough. If one could make use of that Schweitzer, it was to elicit from this strange man of honour the personal details of the high and the highest ranging pederasts, what surely would not be difficult for him as a congenial person….”

          (Marx Engels Werke vol.32 -German edition – p. 324/5. Engels to Marx, June 22, 1869)

    • gladiolys

      So because it happened by idiots on the left in the past, it’s ok for idiots on the right to do it now? Oh, I see. You’re saying where the Left leads, the Right will follow…?

      • Abhay

        In your idiotic way you have called the whole spectrum of left to right – ‘idiot’. Are you sure you are not the idiot here?

        Now gather your toys, stop fulminating and go out and play! And be home before sunset!

        • gladiolys

          Maybe you would like to re-read my post? It clearly states there are idiots on both Left and Right, not that all of those occupying Left and Right are idiots.

          See the difference? Want to share my toys? Let’s stay up all night!

          • Abhay

            No keep your toys! They will keep you distracted from books.

    • David_LloydJones


      How does that spoil anyone’s fun?

      The fact that homophobia was pretty general all around does not suddenly excuse it one particular place.