Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Posts Tagged ‘Labour Party’

RH Tawney and the intellectual development of the Labour Party – book review

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 24, 2015

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.

Media of The Life of R. H. Tawney

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

Advertisements

Posted in Collections, News | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A new treasure of a donation, from someone who’s just found out about us

Posted by wcmlibrary on July 11, 2014

A lovely treasure has come our way, thanks to Sally Swift who read the recent article about us in The Observer and reckoned we sounded like we’d provide a good home for an autograph book that’s been in her family since the 1920s.   Her grandparents Melanie and William Moody were keen long-term members of the Salisbury Labour Party and Co-operative Movement, and Melanie compiled the autograph book with signatures mostly taken from letters addressed to the Moodys in relation to Labour Party matters.

The names are a veritable Who’s Who of the early 20th century Labour Party – George LansburyEllen Wilkinson, Ramsay MacDonaldMargaret Bondfield,  A.A. Purcell the subject of Kevin Morgan’s new book and recent talk at the Library, and many more.

autograph

Even Oswald Mosley makes an appearance, from the time when he was a Labour Party member and then MP.

What a wonderful addition to our collection – and what a great by-product of the Observer article (which also resulted in a highly welcome £350 in Paypal donations to the Library).

Like everything else in the Library the autograph book is now available for everyone to come and have a look at. Our opening times for drop-in visitors remain Wednesdays to Fridays 1-5pm.

autograph_book

Lynette Cawthra, Library Manager

Posted in Collections, News | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

In 1923 Dan Griffiths asked ‘What is Socialism?’ … now we have all the answers

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 6, 2014

The library has just received a very exciting donation of around 100 letters written to Dan Griffiths in 1923 in response to his question What is socialism?.

Dan, a school teacher in Llanelli, was very active in the labour movement and considered standing for parliament for the Labour Party, but stood down in favour of another candidate.  He also wrote a number of books, including What is Socialism?: a symposium – the book that the definitions of socialism were included in.

Dan’s great-niece, Rosemary, has kindly donated the folder of letters, which were received from a wide spectrum of people including politicians, trade unionists and writers, to the library along with a group photograph which includes both Dan and Ramsay MacDonald.

Dan Griffiths (third left) with Ramsay MacDonald and others

Most of the letters are very positive and give full and detailed responses to Dan’s question,  but a letter from May Starr of Plebs states:

“I am writing at Com. Horrabin’s request .. with reference to his definition of socialism he asks me to say that he really does not wish to add anything further to his definition.  In fact he feels that there is nothing to add to that particular statement – it must stand and fall as it is, and being an exceedingly hard pressed and busy chap begs to state that he can’t face the ordeal of starting all over again.  If the space really mus be filled up why not add “Buy the Plebs, 6d monthly” or similar phrases.” 

Other highlights of the collection include letters from Ramsay MacDonald, Ellen Wilkinson, Alfred and Ethel Holdsworth, Leonard Woolf, AJ Cook, GDH Cole and Tom Mann.

Letter from Ellen Wilkinson

Letter from Ellen Wilkinson

We are extremely grateful to Rosemary for giving us these letters which provide a fascinating insight into the politics of the 1920s.

Jane Taylor
Librarian

Posted in Collections | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »