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  Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962), by John Mansbridge, 1953 Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962), by John Mansbridge, 1953
Tawney, Richard Henry (1880–1962), historian and political thinker, was born on 30 November 1880 in Calcutta, the son of Charles Henry Tawney (1837–1922) and his wife, Constance Catherine Fox (d. 1920). His father was a notable Sanskrit scholar in the Indian education service and head of Presidency College in Calcutta. The family returned to England when Tawney was a young boy, settling in Weybridge, Surrey. Tawney was educated at Rugby School (1894–9) and Balliol College, Oxford (1899–1903). Though he became a noted critic of private education in later life and referred comparatively rarely to his formal schooling, there can be little doubt that these institutions were important in his development. His mature philosophy and commitments owed much to Rugby's distinctive traditions of broad-church Anglicanism, social activism, and high-mindedness. On his first day at school, waiting on the platform at Rugby railway station, he met his lifelong friend and coadjutor, William Temple, later archbishop of Canterbury. Tawney's headmaster, the Revd. John Percival, had been involved in establishing extramural education in the University of Oxford; Michael Sadler, another product of Rugby and Oxford, had turned university extension into a national educational movement. Tawney followed this path, linking the universities with the working class as a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association a generation later. At Balliol, Tawney read Greats and graduated with a second-class degree, much to the dismay of his father who described it as a disgrace. Edward Caird, the master of the college, suggested more charitably that, though Tawney's mind was chaotic, the examiners ‘ought to have seen that it was the chaos of a great mind’ (Ashton, 461–2).

Adult education

Tawney was educated in the remarkable atmosphere that Benjamin Jowett and T. H. Green had created in Balliol and which Caird perpetuated. Philosophical idealism, the distinctive intellectual position that marked many Balliol men of this era, encouraged progressive Liberal politics and the determination to serve the community. It was said that some Balliol men ‘went out east’ in the service of the empire while others went to the East End of London. Tawney chose the latter course, leaving Oxford for Toynbee Hall, the university's settlement in Whitechapel, founded in the 1880s as a pioneering centre of civic leadership, Christian activism, and education in the slums of the capital. Tawney lived there for three years with a close friend from Balliol, William Beveridge, whose research into the London labour market during this period laid the basis for his own career in the civil service and as architect of the welfare state. Tawney took a position as secretary of the Children's Country Holiday Fund which had been established by the warden of Toynbee Hall, the Revd Samuel Barnett, to take children out of the courts and alleys of the city. He began teaching adult education classes and, in 1905, joined the executive committee of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), which had recently been established by Albert Mansbridge. Tawney discovered that education was more to his taste than good works: as he wrote to Beveridge in 1906, ‘teaching economics in an industrial town is just what I want ultimately to do’ (Tawney to Beveridge, 20 Sept 1906, BLPES, Beveridge papers).

After a two-year interlude (1906–8) as assistant lecturer in economics at Glasgow University, during which he also wrote editorials for the Glasgow Herald, Tawney was enabled to do just this when engaged jointly by the WEA and University of Oxford to teach the first adult tutorial classes. It was as a full-time tutor in university adult education between 1908 and 1914 that Tawney laid down many of the bases of his subsequent career: his focus on economic history, attachment to working people, commitment to socialism, and advocacy of universal education. Tutorial classes were designed to take working-class men and women whose income and circumstances prevented them from studying at a university through a rigorous course of study over three years. Tutors were suggested by the universities but chosen by the classes themselves, and class members also advised on the subjects to be studied. Tawney later referred to these arrangements as ‘an experiment in democratic education’ (Political Quarterly, May 1914) and he was instinctively suited to the type of collaborative learning that the WEA promoted.

Tawney's first classes at Rochdale in Lancashire and Longton in the Potteries of north Staffordshire, starting in early 1908, set the pattern and quickly assumed an almost legendary status. They were on the economic history of the eighteenth century and he set out to explain to his students how the industries in which they worked and the communities in which they lived had emerged. He inspired his students, keeping them up to the rigorous academic standards he expected, and his natural capacity for fellowship won him many admirers and wider recognition in the communities in which he taught. E. S. Cartwright, the class secretary at Longton, and A. P. Wadsworth, the youngest member of the class in Rochdale and later an editor of the Manchester Guardian, became Tawney's lifelong friends. He went on to teach in other locations including Chesterfield, Littleborough, and Wrexham, before scaling back his teaching commitments on his appointment in 1912 as director of the Ratan Tata Foundation, established in association with the London School of Economics (LSE) by an Indian businessman, to ‘promote the study and further the knowledge of methods of preventing and relieving poverty and destitution’. Tawney recruited other WEA tutors to help in this research; he himself published in 1914 and 1915 two important studies on the establishment of minimum rates in the chain-making and tailoring industries under the terms of the 1909 Trade Boards Act.

On 28 June 1909 Tawney married Annette Jeanie (Jeannette) Beveridge (d. 1958), William Beveridge's younger sister and the daughter of Henry Beveridge, a judge in the Indian Civil Service, and his second wife, Annette Susannah Ackroyd. Their wedding at Shottermill, near Haslemere, Surrey, was a WEA occasion. William Temple, the organization's president, and Samuel Barnett officiated; the treasurer, Tawney's friend from Toynbee Hall, T. Edmund Harvey, was best man; and Albert Mansbridge looked on.

Evolution of a socialist

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, Tawney kept an occasional diary, published posthumously as his Commonplace Book, which illuminates the development of his social thought in this formative period. Alongside details of his students' wages, piece-rates, and household budgets, Tawney focused on two issues: the nature of social equality and the means by which to achieve a socialist transformation. Though he had joined the Fabian Society in 1906, Tawney here took issue with the characteristic Fabian strategy of permeating the institutions of the state and using them as instruments in the construction of a socialist society. Though he later advocated wholesale nationalization of the most important sectors of British industry as a vital preliminary step towards socialism, at this stage Tawney placed a higher value on moral and spiritual transformation: only by recognizing ‘the industrial problem’ as a ‘moral problem’ and working to instil a ‘moral ideal’ in society by education among other means, could a better society be created (Tawney's Commonplace Book, 9, 12, 46, 66, 76). Fabianism might promote social legislation or the refinement of public administration, intending thereby to establish collectivist policies through control of the central state. But without popular understanding of and commitment to the principles of reform, legislation and bureaucracy were likely to be hollow and ineffective. Laws had to embody the moral inspiration of society. True socialism, to Tawney, depended on changing human hearts and the collective consciousness. Tawney was no sentimentalist: he never recoiled from the difficult and tedious business of institutional analysis and reform, nor preached a philosophy limited to purely personal conduct. Nevertheless, throughout his life he believed that socialism depended on ethical behaviour: he set an example of righteous conduct and strove through public actions and writing to instil the values of a just and fair society.

Equality was such a value, and in the Commonplace Book Tawney explained his commitment to it as a corollary of his Christian faith: if men and women were equal in the sight of God, so they must be treated as of equal worth in their dealings with each other. Any social system which discriminated against some of its members, or which allowed some people to be used as a means to others' ends, or which obscured common humanity by emphasizing the differences between people, was immoral (Tawney's Commonplace Book, 53–4, 67–8). Tawney found many further reasons to justify social equality, but his fundamental premise was a Christian one. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful source for his social philosophy at every stage of his life. He thought and wrote little about theology—his faith was essentially simple and profound—but he held to a social Christianity which mandated, in his view, that the churches involve themselves powerfully and constantly in economic and social affairs. He termed modern capitalism ‘anti-Christian’; to explain, as a historian, how this had come to pass and to change economic behaviour so that it might once more embody Christian teaching were dual aims of his academic and political careers. In light of his Christian inspiration, distrust of the state, and emphasis on individual morality, it is not difficult to appreciate why Tawney was untouched by Marxism or other varieties of theoretical socialism. Socialism, in his view, would be the willed creation of men and women rather than the product of historical necessity (‘British socialism today’, in R. H. Tawney, The Radical Tradition, ed. R. Hinden, 1964, 170). Marxism may have influenced a younger generation of intellectuals in the 1930s but Tawney was formed in an Edwardian labour movement with purely indigenous roots that was distant from and often suspicious of continental socialism.

Wartime soldiering and post-war reconstruction

Aged thirty-four, Tawney volunteered in November 1914 for the army. He declined a commission and joined the 22nd Manchester regiment: he had lived in the city since his marriage in 1909. He believed sincerely that ‘Prussianism’ had to be fought, but he was probably also impelled to enlist from a sense of solidarity with the working-class men whom he had come to know and who formed the mass of the British army. He rose to the rank of sergeant. Though his fellow soldiers did not share the intellectual tastes and aspirations of his former students, and showed him a quite different aspect of working-class life and attitudes, he never wavered in his respect for their decency. Tawney was wounded severely in the chest and abdomen by machine-gun bullets at Fricourt on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive. He lay in no man's land for many hours until carried back to British lines. He lived with pain and discomfort for the rest of his life. Out of 820 men in Tawney's company who attacked that morning, there were 450 casualties on the first day alone, and only 54 were left unscathed several days later. While convalescing in a temporary military hospital in Oxford, and later at the home of his mentor and friend Bishop Charles Gore, Tawney published an account of these events under the title ‘The attack’ in the Westminster Gazette, all the more shocking for its understatement. Subsequent ‘Reflections of a soldier’ published a few weeks later in The Nation were more acerbic, developing two themes made famous by the poets of the First World War: that the soldiers sympathized with their German adversaries and that they resented bitterly the false images of the war fed to non-combatants at home. Yet, paradoxically, the war altered little for him: his faith in God and man remained intact.

Once recovered, Tawney threw himself into political and educational work. He argued that the war could be won only if the energies of the people were unlocked by a true democratization of British politics and society. He also worked to ensure that the sacrifices of the war might be offset by lasting social advance. He was a member of the Ministry of Reconstruction's adult education committee, and largely wrote its compendious report on the future development of adult education, known to the movement itself as the ‘1918 report’. The committee's interim report, which he also wrote, was a remarkable assault on the physical, moral, and spiritual deprivation of working people caused by the nature of the economic system. He also contributed to the Church of England's report ‘Christianity and industrial problems’ (1918). And he was active in the movement for general educational advance that encouraged passage of the Education Act of 1918. Indeed, Tawney had a role in all the great educational legislation of the subsequent period. As a member of the Board of Education consultative committee from 1912 to 1931 he contributed to its report The Education of the Adolescent (1926)—the Hadow report—which laid down the principles later embodied in the Education Act of 1944. He was consulted by the minister for education, R. A. Butler, when that measure was being framed. As a member of the Labour Party's advisory committee on education from its creation in 1918 Tawney wrote its famous pamphlet Secondary Education for All (1922). For four decades he also contributed dozens of articles and editorials on education to the Manchester Guardian and other newspapers and journals.

At the end of the First World War, Tawney was briefly employed by the WEA as a resident tutor in north Staffordshire, teaching and organizing classes there. But two events at this time—his membership of the royal (Sankey) commission of inquiry into the coalmining industry in 1919 and his appointment to the staff of the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1920 established his new position in society. His sharp questioning of witnesses before the commission, especially the mine owners, and his mastery of the details of the industry brought him to national attention and consolidated his position within the labour movement. He had already contested Rochdale for the Labour Party in the ‘coupon election’ of 1918. Unsuccessful there, he was also defeated when he stood at Tottenham South (1922) and at Swindon (1924) as a Labour candidate. His services to the party were thus of a more intellectual kind as an adviser, draftsman, and propagandist. He wrote the important 1928 policy statement Labour and the Nation, and the 1934 document For Socialism and Peace. He also published one of the most effective criticisms of the party's failings in government in his essay ‘The choice before the Labour Party’ (1934). Here, and in other statements and actions, he made his distaste for Ramsay MacDonald's leadership of the party and betrayal in 1931 abundantly clear. His curt, written response when MacDonald offered him a peerage in 1933—‘What harm have I ever done to the Labour Party?’—has passed into Labour legend. He remained a Labour loyalist throughout, as prepared to attend ward meetings of his local party as to advise on national policy.

The Acquisitive Society and Equality

At the London School of Economics, where he became a reader in 1923 and professor of economic history in 1931, Tawney built a reputation as the leading economic historian of his generation. He was a founder of the Economic History Society in 1926 and of its journal the Economic History Review, which he co-edited between 1927 and 1934. His postgraduate seminar ‘Economic and social England, 1558–1640’ attracted and trained some of the best historians of the future. His collaboration with Eileen Power, another pioneering economic historian with whom he edited a volume of Tudor Economic Documents in 1924, was especially creative.

Tawney was at his most productive and effective in the 1920s. The three books he wrote in this decade, The Acquisitive Society (1921), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)—perhaps the most popular and influential history book published between the wars—and Equality (1931) are generally considered to be his most important publications, though an equal case could be made for some of his social and political essays, collected in two volumes entitled The Attack and other Papers (1953) and The Radical Tradition (1964), whose immediacy and directness have not faded over time.

Tawney's assault on the acquisitive society probably owed something to his confrontation with the coal owners, a particularly unattractive group of capitalists, on the Sankey commission. The book focused on two ideas, economic function and economic purpose. Tawney argued that any and every economic enterprise should function for the benefit of the community and fulfil a socially useful purpose. By these tests, however, contemporary capitalist society was failing: too many of its enterprises were designed for the acquisition of wealth for its own sake or for the sake of an owning class at the expense of the majority. Tawney called for a reordering of the economy to meet collective needs and for a reordering of human values that would make economic activity a means to life rather than an end in itself. He also called for a resurrection of ‘the peculiar and distinctive Christian standard of social conduct’ (The Acquisitive Society, 228). The book's conclusion, criticizing the reluctance of the church to engage in discussion of the morality of economic and social behaviour, thus pointed forward to Tawney's subsequent historical study of the church's abdication ‘of one whole department of life’ in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

Equality, published a decade later, and based on his Halley Stewart lectures of 1929, was a more contextualized study in which details of the social conditions and arrangements of inter-war Britain were deployed by Tawney in making a case for wholesale social reform. An unequal society misapplied resources to the comfort and privileges of the few when the many required better homes, schools, and hospitals. It failed to develop the talents and skills of the population: thus inequality limited the productive capacity of society. It protected powerful vested interests, whose perpetuation was an affront to a true democracy; and it encouraged social and class divisions, limiting what might be achieved in a society and economy organized on the principle of co-operative effort. Tawney was less interested in achieving an equality of income than in ending the advantages and privileges of a social élite. His aim was an equality of ‘environment, and circumstance, and opportunity’ (4th edn, 1952, 56) and his primary concern was to make a case for institutional reform. A civilized society was marked by its determination to eliminate inequalities arising from its own organization. As desirable in themselves and as the means to the elimination of privilege, Tawney called for progressive taxation to fund communal services in health, education, and welfare. Private schools should be opened up to all children; a national investment board would plan and direct the British economy; the major industries and services would be transferred to public ownership; and in the new nationalized enterprises the workers themselves would play a managerial role. Tawney even discussed the form of bureaucracy required for directing a centralized and socialized state.

As this may suggest, Equality was an important milestone in the development of socialist thinking in Britain and a prescient guide to the intentions and achievements of the Labour governments after 1945. But Tawney's focus on the particular weakened the book as a more general, philosophical discussion of equality, and as a lasting contribution in the history of political thought. There is relatively little discussion of equality itself: Tawney largely ignored the categories of civil and legal equality which had been so central to the history of the preceding liberal age. He wrote for an audience in agreement with his programme for social equality and did not attempt to present counter-arguments to this as fully and fairly as might be expected if Equality was to have been something more than the presentation of a single case related to a specific society at a particular moment. Tawney's passionate moralism and his emphasis on selfless fellowship cannot fail to move and inspire readers. But some of his prescriptions, including, for example, his opposition to the practice of inheritance, whether of small or large fortunes, betrayed a blindness to aspects of human psychology whether in the rich or the humble. The great political thinkers have generally started from a theory of human behaviour and a realistic appreciation of human motives, needs, and frailties, and have built their models on this basis. As the later critic Raymond Williams, who came from the same educational and political traditions as Tawney, pointed out, he assumed that men and women could be persuaded to see the world through his eyes and would comply with his principles for moral reformation. The assumption, as Williams noted, was an indication of Tawney's limitations as a political thinker.

Economic history: the rise of capitalism

Tawney asked questions of history in order to understand the present. As he explained in his inaugural lecture at the LSE, he had ‘found the world surprising’ and ‘turned to history to interpret it’ (‘The study of economic history’ in History and Society: Essays by R. H. Tawney, ed. J. M. Winter, 1978, 48). In particular he turned to the so-called ‘transition from feudalism to capitalism’ in the early modern period and made the decades between the Reformation and the English civil war into ‘Tawney's century’ as he sought to explain how modern capitalism emerged in Britain. He made three signal contributions to the study of this subject: an early analysis of the commercialization of agriculture; a study of the relation between capitalism and religious thought; and a structural analysis of social change before the civil war, focusing on the rise of the gentry.

Tawney's first history book was written as a text for his WEA classes. The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912) was the first detailed discussion of changes on the land and to social relations as agriculture shifted from subsistence farming on open fields to commercial farming based on enclosures, and as rural social structure changed in turn from a society of peasants and landlords to the pattern of landholders, tenant farmers, and landless labourers which had emerged by the eighteenth century. There can be little doubt that he disapproved of these changes. He explained them by reference to the growth of a market economy impelled by urbanization; the effects of inflation, which caused landlords to alter traditional forms of landholding; and the more aggressive exploitation of estates, particularly by a new class of landowner created by the sale of church property at the Reformation. Local magnates stood to gain from these changes and encouraged them; Tudor and Stuart monarchs, seeking social stability, tried to mitigate their effects. But during the 1640s, with the monarchy gone, the peasantry were subjected to the full rigour of capitalist transformation; evictions and enclosures followed and the material basis was laid for a subsequent age dominated by great landholders. Much of this interpretation is open to question; subsequent research has pointed to factors such as population growth which Tawney largely ignored. Nevertheless, he raised a set of issues linking together economic, social, and political change which have remained current to this day.

Having described and explained what occurred, in his next great study, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which grew out of the Holland memorial lectures which he delivered in 1922, Tawney set out to explain the great shifts in attitude towards economic behaviour in this period which not only made these changes possible but also legitimated them. Tawney's book is often set beside Weber's classic essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in something known as the ‘Weber–Tawney thesis’ on the origins of capitalism. But they were investigating quite different things. Weber wished to understand the effects of reformed religion on the inner life, motives, and economic behaviour of individuals—to explain the role of religious ideas in the formation of a capitalistic personality—whereas Tawney wanted to study a broad transformation in social ethics, the slow retreat over centuries of a Christian social tradition. Medieval Christianity had never doubted its obligation to define appropriate economic morality; why, then, did modern Christianity ignore the question entirely, as Tawney saw it? According to Tawney, ‘the capitalist spirit’ was ‘as old as history’ and was not the product of the Reformation (pp. 226–7). Rather, protestantism, and Calvinism in particular, had replaced social solidarity with individualism, and encouraged the separation of economic from ethical interests. The quest for material gain thus became the central and sanctioned mission of life, rather than one aspect of wider obligations and responsibilities. However, if Christian social ethics had changed for the worse at the Reformation, they might be reinvigorated and applied effectively in the twentieth century. Tawney's historical study of attitudinal change was designed to show that things were not always thus: there was no reason why the modern church should not take a stand on economic morality and social organization.

Tawney's third contribution to early modern history was to set out a theory of social change in two essays of the early 1940s, ‘Harrington's interpretation of his age’ and ‘The rise of the gentry’, on which generations of undergraduates have since cut their teeth, for they gave rise to a spirited, indeed virulent, post-war academic controversy. These essays explained political conflict, indeed the civil war itself, in terms of the changing distribution of property and power in the preceding century. They were linked directly to Tawney's earlier work for they proposed that an emergent gentry class, who bought up church lands in the 1530s and 1540s and who took advantage of the profits of commercial agriculture, rose to challenge the social pre-eminence of a less dynamic aristocracy. Tawney offered a new interpretation of the origins of the English revolution based on this conflict of classes. But he owed little to Marxism in this. He had never subscribed to Marxist theory or politics, and if other socialist intellectuals of the age saw the Soviet Union as an example to applaud and emulate, Tawney was unimpressed. These structural theories of social change emerged naturally from his own work and thought. Some of Tawney's critics developed wholly legitimate counter-arguments based on historical evidence; but others seem to have challenged his conclusions because they appeared close in spirit to a strictly materialist theory of history. Tawney offered a brief ‘postscript’ to his views in 1954 but largely ignored the controversy. Believing that historians should stimulate debate by developing new and challenging theories, he saw little need to defend original ideas offered in the true spirit of open enquiry.

Tawney's final historical work, published close to the end of his life in 1958, was a study of the Jacobean trader, financier, and politician Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex and lord high treasurer. In so far as this monograph, entitled Business and Politics under James I, drew on many of the themes Tawney had already developed in his work and offered a detailed example of an individual career set within the new capitalist economy, it was some sort of ending to his historical interests. But it was not the great work that Tawney had hoped to produce in his retirement and his friends and colleagues had encouraged him to write: a grand synthesis of the seventeenth century, based on his lectures at the LSE, was never completed. Nevertheless, the close relation of the different parts to the whole is a very evident aspect of Tawney's historical writing. And this historical corpus was intimately related to Tawney's social and religious commitments. Few public intellectuals have produced a body of work focused so effectively on a range of interlocking issues and questions as Tawney—and few have written in a comparable style. Tawney's writing was aphoristic, pungent, and ironic, redolent with biblical quotations and classical allusions. He could sweep the reader up in his impassioned sentences, though dense and complex syntax could also obscure and confuse.

Later interests and honours

Tawney's historical interest in agrarian economic and social structure led to an interest in China in the early 1930s. He made two visits there, the second, lasting for several months, as an educational adviser to the League of Nations. The trips resulted in Tawney's neglected classic Land and Labour in China (1932), focusing on the crucial issue that the nationalist regime failed to address: land reform. After the enormous creativity of the 1920s, the 1930s were for Tawney, as for so many others, a decade of disillusion: it was impossible to ignore the failings and divisions of the Labour Party in the early years and the growing international crisis at the decade's end. But he became a mentor to the next generation of Labour leaders, among them Hugh Gaitskell and Evan Durbin, who were encouraged by Tawney to think afresh about the party's direction and policies.

When the Second World War came, Tawney made several contributions including joining the Home Guard. His famous essay ‘Why we fight’, published in the summer of 1940 in the New York Times and articulating the stoical convictions of the British people at that moment, deserves to be anthologized in every volume of war literature. As in 1917–18, Tawney was alive to the opportunity for social renewal in wartime and alongside his promotion of educational advance he articulated an agenda of social reforms for the Labour Party, captured in his essay ‘We mean freedom’ (1944). He also spent a year in the British embassy in Washington, DC, in 1941–2 as labour attaché. Britain's dependence on American war production made it advisable to send over someone who might win the trust of American workers and advise on American labour questions. Tawney had visited America already: he was invited on several occasions through his career to teach and lecture at the University of Chicago. Though he never warmed to such a material civilization, he nevertheless knew enough about the United States to be useful. Working from a hut in the embassy grounds, he wrote several briefing papers, one of which, published posthumously as The American Labour Movement (1979), was an insightful history of the institutions of the American working class. Tawney was also on hand to assist the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, in calming diplomatic waters when a fraternal visit by the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Walter Citrine, led to friction between the two American trade union conglomerations, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The irony of Tawney's collaboration with a leading Conservative politician and arch ‘appeaser’ in silencing the voice of British trade unionism was not lost on him.

Tawney retired as president of the WEA in 1943 after fifteen years in the position. There followed five years as a member of the University Grants Committee, charged with distributing public funds to British universities. He retired from the LSE in 1949 but, being Tawney, remained active in many different political and scholarly organizations, all the time compiling the material for his final book on Cranfield. He also began research for a biography of his friend Sidney Webb at the request of the Webb trustees. But he gave up the project in understandable anger and frustration in summer 1949 on learning that Margaret Cole, herself a member of the trust, was already at work on a study of the Webbs, later published as The Webbs and their Work (Terrill, 77–8). He was honoured by several universities including, in chronological order, Manchester, Chicago, Paris, Oxford, Birmingham, London, Sheffield, Melbourne, and Glasgow, and several learned societies including the British Academy. He was briefly a fellow of Balliol at the end of the First World War (1918–21) and was elected an honorary fellow of the college in 1938.

Tawney and his legacy

Tawney was known to some intimates as Harry but to the rest of the world he was just Tawney. He was of above average height. His ‘massive, magnificent head on top of a clumsy body’ gave him, in the description of the Labour minister Richard Crossman, ‘the look of a great benign sea lion’ (Crossman, ‘Passionate prophet’). He lost his hair in early middle age and is characteristically remembered leaning back in his chair with spectacles pushed up and perching precariously on his great bald skull. He wore a moustache throughout his life. He was notoriously untidy—his desk was always awash with papers, books, and the paraphernalia of a habitual pipe-smoker—and comically shabby; many a respectable interlocutor was caught out because of that shabbiness. Tawney used to pad around his home in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, London, in carpet slippers and his old khaki sergeant's tunic from the First World War. He described himself as ‘a displaced peasant’ and in middle and later life spent considerable periods at his home, Rose Cottage, in Elcombe, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, where he enjoyed fishing, walking, and drinking with the locals.

Though it is difficult to be precise, Tawney's marriage does not seem to have fulfilled him. There were no children; Jeannette was often ill; her behaviour could be eccentric; and her disorganization coupled to Tawney's untidiness rendered home life chaotic. Tawney was always generous with money, writing cheques and remitting fees to the WEA whenever he could; Jeannette, meanwhile, was profligate in her many purchases of expensive trifles. In consequence the couple were often short of money and Tawney lived in straitened circumstances at the end of his life. The one woman whom he evidently admired and possibly loved was the clever and beautiful Eileen Power—though their relationship, if very close, was never more than that between colleagues. Her early and sudden death in 1940 affected him deeply.

Tawney's wife died in 1958. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, in 1960, his many friends and admirers organized a dinner in his honour at the House of Commons and, for the occasion, produced a brief and affectionate biography, R. H. Tawney: a Portrait by Several Hands (the most active of which belonged to Richard Titmuss, his younger colleague at the LSE). In 1961 a Festschrift appeared, Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England, edited by F. J. Fisher and including pieces by former pupils and academic admirers including Christopher Hill, Joan Thirsk, Lawrence Stone, and Gerald Aylmer. Tawney was now in physical decline. Early in 1962 he was moved to a nursing home at 16 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, and he died there a few days later on 16 January 1962. He was buried beside his wife at Highgate. The address at his memorial service, in St Martin-in-the-Fields on 8 February following, was delivered by the then leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, who described Tawney as ‘the best man I have ever known’. In his will, after a few personal gifts and the bequest of his papers to the LSE, Tawney left the balance of his estate, a comparatively modest £7000 or so, to his beloved WEA, which had always had the first claim on his time and affections.

The influence of other socialist thinkers of this era like Harold Laski, G. D. H. Cole, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb has faded since their deaths. But Tawney remains a living presence. So important is he to socialist and progressive politics in Britain that the formation of the Social Democratic Party as a centrist breakaway from the Labour Party in 1981–2 led to a public debate on his political legacy when the new party chose to call its policy forum the Tawney Society. Participants included the former Labour minister Shirley Williams and the author of Labour's election manifesto of 1945, Michael Young, against the socialist historian and polemicist Raphael Samuel and the then leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot. Tawney reflexively sided with working people and the trade union movement throughout his life and the attempt to appropriate him by moderate Social Democrats was doomed to fail. Without doubt he was a socialist and Labour man to his core, though one who believed in a party and movement that encouraged democratic participation and open debate. For this reason, though references to Tawney's impact and influence are common in the contemporary Labour Party, it is not evident that the party's centralized discipline and consistent resort to legislative and bureaucratic action in the 1990s and beyond would have met with his favour.

Tawney was the most representative of Labour's twentieth-century intellectuals. His life spanned the origins, rise, and consolidation of the Labour Party almost exactly. He was educated in late Victorian idealist ethics which provided a philosophical basis for the transition from individualism to collectivism. His religious faith linked him to earlier and continuing traditions of Christian socialism in Britain. His democratic spirit evoked the nineteenth-century struggles of working people to secure the franchise. His experience in workers' education gave him intimate knowledge of the working class so that, unlike other intellectuals, he knew the people he spoke for and led. His aversion to the spiritual void in industrial capitalism echoed the formative influence of Ruskin over the British labour movement. His love of fellowship and his faith in the fundamental decency of men and women is reminiscent of William Morris. He takes his place with the many historians, from Thomas Carlyle to E. P. Thompson, who have had such influence over the imagination and political commitment of the British left, a movement whose inspiration has generally come from the past. Tawney synthesized all these elements into an ethical socialism that should be accounted the distinctive British contribution to the wider history of socialism itself.

Lawrence Goldman


R. Terrill, R. H. Tawney and his times: socialism as fellowship (Cambridge, MA, 1973) · A. Wright, R. H. Tawney (1987) · J. M. Winter, ‘R. H. Tawney as historian’, History and society: essays by R. H. Tawney, ed. J. M. Winter (1978) [ed. with an introduction by J. M. Winter] · J. M. Winter, ‘R. H. Tawney's early political thought’, Past and Present, 47 (1970), 71–96 · J. M. Winter, ‘A bibliography of the published writings of R. H. Tawney’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 25 (1972) · [J. R. Williams, R. M. Titmuss, and F. J. Fisher], R. H. Tawney: a portrait by several hands (privately printed, London, 1960) · T. S. Ashton, ‘Richard Henry Tawney, 1880–1962’, PBA, 48 (1962) · R. H. Tawney's commonplace book, ed. J. M. Winter and D. M. Joslin (1972) · M. Berg, A woman in history: Eileen Power, 1889–1940 (1996) · R. Williams, Culture and society, 1780–1950 (1961) · L. Goldman, Dons and workers: Oxford and adult education since 1850 (1995) · F. J. Fisher, ed., Essays in the economic and social history of Tudor and Stuart England: in honour of R. H. Tawney (1961) · A. H. Halsey and N. Dennis, English ethical socialism: Thomas More to R. H. Tawney (1988) · D. Ormrod, ‘R. H. Tawney and the origins of capitalism’, History Workshop Journal, 18 (autumn 1984), 138–59 · S. Williams, Politics is for people (1981) · M. Foot, ‘My kind of socialism’, The Observer (10 Jan 1982) · R. Samuel, ‘The SDP's escape from the Christian heritage of socialism’, The Guardian (29 March 1982); (5 April 1982) · M. Young, ‘Why the SDP are the true inheritors of Tawney's libertarian legacy’, The Guardian (10 May 1982) · R . Crossman, ‘An anthology of Tawney’, New Statesman (26 Nov 1960) · R. Crossman, ‘Passionate prophet’, Daily Herald (30 Nov 1960) · D. Marquand, ‘R. H. Tawney: prophet of equality’, The Guardian (26 Nov 1960) · ‘The caravan’, Highway, 1 (1909), 164


BLPES, corresp. and papers · U. Lond., Institute of Education, papers relating to educational reform, DC/TY · University of York, corresp. and papers |  BL, corresp. with Albert Mansbridge, Add. MSS 65257A, 65258 · BL OIOC, letters to Sir Richard Denman, MS Eur. C 176 · BLPES, Beveridge papers, corresp. with Beveridge family · BLPES, collections relating to the coal industry · BLPES, letters to Brian Pearce · Bodl. Oxf., letters to John Hammond · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. RH, Creech Jones collection · JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian · London Metropolitan University, TUC collections, papers relating to the Workers' Education Association · NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones · U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics, letters to John Maynard Keynes · U. Warwick Mod. RC, notes and comments relating to A new statement of socialist principles




BL NSA, ‘A portrait of R. H. Tawney’, BBC Third Programme, 1963, NP789R


J. Mansbridge, drawing, 1953, NPG [see illus.] · C. Rogers, oils (on his seventieth birthday), London School of Economics · Vicky, sketch drawing, London School of Economics; repro. in Crossman, ‘An anthology of Tawney’

Wealth at death  

£7096 19s. 10d.: probate, 6 April 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales