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The Socialism of R. H. Tawney

The Radical Tradition

by R.H. Tawney, edited by Rita Hinden
Pantheon, 214 pp., $4.95

The deaths of R. H. Tawney and Hugh Gaitskell occurred so close together that they provide an apt symbol for the end of a period in the history of the British Labour Movement. It was a period in which the Right wing of the Labour Party was hard put to it to provide a rationale for its policies, which would both justify its opposition to Marxism and yet enable it to escape from the platitudes of merely Liberal good will. The number of those who might have provided such a rationale were surprisingly few. The Webbs defected to Stalinism from the Fabian Society (consistent elitists who believed throughout their career in socialism imposed from above, they merely changed in their choice of elite); John Strachey only defected to the Fabian Society from Stalinism at the end of the Thirties; and G.D.H. Cole was always too much of a Marxist to work within the limitations that the Labour Right imposed upon itself. Tawney therefore stood almost alone.

The present collection of essays written at various dates between 1914 and 1953 reiterates themes from all Tawney’s major work. In The Acquisitive Society he criticized capitalism because it encouraged economic power without social responsibility. The right to property had become separated from any obligation to discharge a useful social function. In Equality he attacked the view that the natural inequality of man in respect of ability justified inequalities of wealth and status; rather, so he argued, it would be in an egalitarian society that diversity of abilities would flourish most for the common good. In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism he studied the origins of acquisitive individualism. The present collection of occasional pieces on social history, on education, and in defense of the programs and performances of British social democracy, accompanied by a Preface by Rita Hinden and by Gaitskell’s address at the 1962 Memorial Service for Tawney, makes an illuminating book.

The heart of the matter for Tawney is the moral deficiency of capitalism. “The revolt of ordinary men against Capitalism has had its source neither in its obvious deficiencies as an economic engine, nor in the conviction that it represents a stage in social evolution now outgrown, but in the straight-forward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.” “It is this demon—the idolatry of money and success—with whom, not in one sphere alone but in all, including our own hearts and minds, Socialists have to grapple.” Sentences like these from the present book are scattered throughout Tawney’s writings. One need not be a cynic nor an immoralist to find so much cliché-ridden high-mindedness suspect. The answer of his admirers may be to stress, as Gaitskell does in his address, Tawney’s personal goodness—“I think he was the best man I have ever known.” The difficulty is that what both the reminiscences and Tawney’s own writings communicate is a banal earnestness rather than the manifold virtues ascribed and praised. It is fairly clear what is missing. The moral denunciation of British capitalism took its content and its interest not from the morality of socialists but from the immorality and evil of capitalism. What we miss in these essays is the social context of the Twenties, of poverty, of unemployment, of suffering.

Moreover the immediacy of these evils was linked with a hard-headed, common-sense practicality about their cure. Public ownership of the coalmines or the railways in Britain was not a radical solution; that it was the only solution, was implicitly acknowledged by the lack of Conservative opposition when the measures were finally put through Parliament in the late Forties. But why did it take so long to achieve this solution? A Government commission headed by Mr. Justice Sankey and including, along with Tawney, men of widely different views had recommended the nationalization of the mines in 1919. The reason for the delay lies in the failure of nerve in Britain’s ruling class between the two wars. The politicians of the age—Macdonald, Snowden, Bonar Law, Baldwin, and Chamberlain—are in perspective tiny and impotent figures. No wonder that in comparison with them Tawney assumed the appearance of great moral stature. Yet if he appears impressive by contrast, we must also ask whether in many ways he did not share many of the attitudes and indeed illusions of his contemporaries.

Tawney equated capitalism with private capitalism, and private capitalism with the effective sovereignty of the functionless shareholder. He defined socialism on at least two levels, both of which were inadequate. At one level he meant the moral values of fraternity and equality, which are, unhappily, terms too vague and general for political guidance until they are embodied in specific social practices and institutions. At another level he defined socialism by his concept of capitalism: the replacement of private ownership by public ownership or control and the state’s acceptance of responsibility for social welfare. Thus he never took stock of the capitalism of the big corporation—the capitalism which may for its own purposes accept trade unionism, the welfare state, and even measures of state intervention and public ownership. He is in fact oblivious not merely of Keynes, but of the kind of capitalist ethos in which Keynsian politics could be made effective.

Yet is it not perhaps absurd to criticize Tawney for being limited by the horizon of his period? Not if what we are criticizing is above all lack of political intelligence and imagination. The lack of political imagination is notably present in his estimate (reprinted in the present book), of the role and achievement of the post-war Labour government. He profoundly underestimates the continuity of that government with the war-time coalition government. He writes of the Labour ministers as if they were by deliberate choice implementing socialist policies, when in fact they were providing the necessary and inevitable solutions to the problem of laying a new basis for British capitalism. He never mentions the frustration and disillusionment that that government engendered, especially among its working-class supporters. To say this is not to underrate the achievements involved in implementing the 1944 Education Act (passing it was the work of the war-time Coalition government), or of the handing over of power in India, or of the creation of the National Health Service. It is to say that any intelligent pragmatist, thoroughly but farsightedly imbued with capitalist values, could not and would not have done otherwise. And it is not only that Tawney underrated the resources of an intelligent conservative defense of capitalism. In his statement of socialist objectives he is curiously blind to how greatly his declared ends and his chosen means were at odds with one another. He cared passionately that workers should extend their control over the work process; and he wanted, probably more than anything else, to democratize the British educational system. Yet the kind of orthodox Labour Party politics in which he put his hope has always been managerial and meritocratic. The Labour Party has shown immense hostility to those rank-and-file trade unionists who have been concerned with issues of workers’ control; and it has shown a simple lack of interest in many less radical measures concerned with democracy in industry. In education the Labour Party’s support for comprehensive schools and for equality of opportunity did not, when it was in office, prevent it from helping to create through the 1944 Act a class system in education which not only favors the middle-class child, but has helped to create new class barriers. Labour is increasingly the political expression not of workers, but of managers and technocrats. It is the party of the other half of our ruling class.

Why did Tawney succeed in concealing from himself as well as from others the extent to which the British Labour Party is merely an alternative Conservative Party? One answer can be found in the present essays. Tawney did not lack that essentially English quality, insularity. It is no accident that there is little in his book about peace or international socialism. In his essay on “Social Democracy in Britain” he asserts that “it is not for a foreigner to discuss” the standing of capitalism in the United States. And he appears to restrict himself not only geographically but theoretically. We have jibes—not arguments—against Marxism, and economic expertise is treated as a topic for a joke. The limits of theoretical enquiry appear to be those which actually exist in the House of Commons, a not very theoretical body.

Tawney thus appears to define politics itself as what might go on in a British Parliament. Since the role of Parliament, and consequently of electoral politics, in the decision-making processes of British life has steadily declined, it is not surprising that already his writings have a curiously antique air. He never even asks whether Parliament may not be among the institutions which need democratizing. And however radical he may be about the economic activities of private capitalism, he is a true member of the Labour Party in being completely complacent about British political institutions.

So a book of essays designed to celebrate “the Democratic Socialist philosopher par excellence” is in fact a monument to the impotence of ideals. It is not that Tawney failed to live up to his ideals or to propagate them. He succeeded admirably. Nor is it that his ideals were insufficiently high. It is simply that the Socratic question of whether one would rather have one’s shoes mended by a good cobbler or a good man has relevance in politics too. Goodness is not enough.

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