A new biography of R. H. Tawney (The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History by Lawrence Goldman) might not appear to be either topical or of any major significance. He is perhaps dimly remembered as a figure on the Right of the Labour Party and as an intellectual who wrote works only relevant in the context of their times. His name also emerged when the short-lived Social Democratic Party tried to name their ‘think tank’ the Tawney Society in 1982.
However, Tawney cannot be sidelined quite as easily as he exerted an important influence upon the development of the Labour Party and had an impressive hinterland, the degree of which is explored in this biography. It is necessary also to challenge the perception of Tawney as a figure of the Right by noting that he remained in favour of both nationalisation and the retention of Clause IV. He was also very clear as to the damage that would be done to the Labour Party by figures such as Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden and, indeed, their heirs and successors. His terse rejection of the offer of a peerage by Macdonald (‘What harm have I ever done to the Labour Party?’) was complemented by his assertion that Labour politicians ‘sit up, like poodles in a drawing room, wag their tails when patted, and lick their lips at the social sugarplums tossed them by their masters.’
Yet, a figure of the Right? Tawney qualified for this categorisation in that he was a quietly committed Christian who saw being a Socialist as an essentially moral act. As such he followed on from Ruskin, William Morris and Blatchford in attempting to show the need for a Socialist Commonwealth or the creation of a just society based on personal conversion to socialism. The works Equality (1931) and The Acquisitive Society (1930) were both powerful tomes but strangely lacking in real political content. The weakness of Tawney’s position lay in the fact that Capitalism had 200 years of moral condemnation and remained largely impervious. It was not shamed by the creation of unfair societies and if wounded by the moral and Christian arguments advanced by Tawney then has found plenty of clergy who will defend it by stating that Socialists have misunderstood Biblical teachings. Tawney does not grasp the contradictions of Capitalism or the degradation of both resources and people which is integral to how it operates.
Yet, many people (and not just Roy Hattersley) credit Tawney with their conversion to Socialism. It is interesting that the political range of those on the Left influenced by Tawney is quite broad. One could cite Michael Foot’s My Kind of Socialism or Tony Benn’s Arguments for Socialism as being very much in the Tawney tradition. The attraction of an Ethical Socialism or a broadly Christian approach lies in the very lack of specific or concrete analysis. Tawney was appalled at the behaviour of the 1929 Labour Government but it is not clear whether Tawney considered that Macdonald and the others betrayed the Labour Party by not being ethical enough, or that they simply had no effective means of dealing with a Capitalist crisis.
Lawrence Goldman is a good historian to explore the life and works of R H Tawney in that he is able to give equal weight to all the aspects of his life. Tawney was severely wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, shot in the act of walking steadily towards German lines. He very largely created the tutorial structure of the WEA, having undertaken important work in Rochdale and the Potteries. This formative experience was the beginning of an association with the WEA over 50 years. He was influential in arguing for the nationalisation of the mining industry on the Stanley Commission after the First World War. He had a profound influence on the development of University education. He did much to create the discipline of Economic History. He argued (in the 1920s) for the idea of the Living Wage.
He was, above all, a reasonable man who was confident that through improved working class education and through the power of democracy British society would be transformed into a socialist one. In supporting nationalisation as a strategy he posed the question that the real issue was who controlled the State rather than who controlled the industry. Tawney knew that the transition to socialism would be difficult – he had travelled to China, the Soviet Union and the United States and had an international perspective. But, in the end the extent of his theoretical input was that reasonableness would triumph and Capitalism was amenable to effective and humane management. It is worth noting that recent commentators such as Will Hutton have expanded upon this theme by putting forward the idea of a long term and responsible stakeholder capitalism. Tellingly, this modest proposal was rejected by the last Labour Government as being too ‘anti-business.’ (1)
Therefore, this biography is timely and Tawney is a figure worth studying, as are a number of those who offered ideological input into the development of the Labour movement. The contemporaries of Tawney – the Webbs, Harold Laski and G.D.H. Cole – need to be actively studied again because it is necessary to further understand the intellectual development of the Labour Party. The recent work by Peter Hain – Back to the Future of Socialism – is a new look at Anthony Crosland’s Future of Socialism which was in turn influenced by Tawney. Clearly, this long line of argument in the Labour Party – ‘How to make Capitalism humane when it doesn’t really care?’ – is an enduring theme in Labour Party history and this well-written and well-researched biography of R H Tawney is a welcome contribution to any deeper understanding of the real meaning of the 2015 General Election campaign.
The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History by Lawrence Goldman was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.
(1) The Observer 22 February 2015. Left, right and the state we’re in. A review by John Kampfner of recent works by Will Hutton, Peter Hain and Geary & Pabst.
The Working Class Movement Library has a wide range of lectures and pamphlets written by Tawney, as well as material on the WEA and education policy generally. We also hold his major works – Equality, Religion & the Rise of Capitalism and The Acquisitive Society – and a number of earlier biographies and works which place Tawney in the context of the history of Socialist thought. Search the Library catalogue here.
D W Hargreaves, Library volunteer