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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.