It's an academic tradition so often observed that it's practically a rule: if you've been a star in your field, a creator of new paradigms, new fields, new genres, soon after your death (or possibly before) your reputation will fall into a precipitous decline. The nature of the Western academic method, that new intellectual stars arise by entirely revising, if not reversing, the direction of their teachers, guarantees it.
Yet few can have suffered quite such a precipitous fall from grace as Keynes, the man who after the Second World War most of the governments of the world with their economic prescriptions (maintain full employment and growth on a steady keel), and the medicine to do so (government intervention to stabilise markets).
So it was that in 1971, America's President Nixon famously said: "We are all Keynesians now." Yet, less than a decade later, Keynes was deposed by a coterie of neo-liberal economists, who restored a much older doctrine, that markets were naturally self-correcting and only the intervention of governments made them behave badly.
It was a doctrine that was to have two decades or more basking in the sunshine of political, regulatory and (to some degree at least) public approval - until the crash that has felled economies around the globe struck. Now, suddenly, Keynes, or perhaps it had be better said neo-Keynesianism, is back in fashion.
The speed of that reversal is illustrated by the frank declaration of Robert Skideslsky, author of Keynes: The Return of the Master, who explains that he sat down to write the book on January 1 this year, at the suggestion of his agent and finished it on July 15. It hit the shops on September 3, the publisher no doubt desperate to pre-empt what will surely be a flood of books on the now back in fashion economist.
Skideslsky explains in the introduction precisely where he's coming from intellectually:
...the root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics. It was the wrong ideas of economists which legitimized the deregulation of finance, and it was the deregulation of finance which led to the credit explosion which collapsed into the credit crunch. It is hard to convey the harm done by the recently dominant school of New Classical economics. Rarely in history can such powerful minds have devoted themselves to such strange ideas. The maddest of these is the proposition that market participants have correct beliefs on average about what will happen to prices over an infinite future. I am naturally much less critical of the New Keynesian school, which disputes the terrain of macroeconomics with the New Classicals, but I am still quite critical, because I believe that in accepting th theory of rational expectations, they sold the pass to the New Classicals."
He's no doubt clear in his mind about his own views, but there's somewhat less clarity about what this book is for: is it for a general readership, to reacquaint them with Keynes and explain how they're likely to find his ideas attractive, or is it meant to persuade the professionals in the field and direct the neo-Keynesians down the particular paths Skidelsky considers most likely to be fruitful?