R. H. Tawney
R. H. Tawney; drawing by David Levine

Doctor Johnson once said that “if a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke under a shed, to shun a shower, he would say—’this is an extraordinary man.’ ” With Tawney, too, a chance encounter was enough to make it plain that he was a man of remarkable intelligence and intense moral passion. His writing confirms this. There are the three historical works, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and Business and Politics under James I (1958); two fine works on political ethics, The Acquisitive Society (1920) and Equality (1931); Land and Labour in China (1932); and a multitude of shorter writings on politics, education, economic history, including a number of characteristically generous prefaces to the work of other men. His 1941 article in the Economic History Review, “The Rise of the Gentry, 1558-1640,” started a controversy that continues to reverberate.

All this explains the honorary doctorates that came his way in later life—Tawney always refused to take his Master’s degree at Oxford, on the ground that it represented no more than a trifling amount of seniority and the payment of a fee, and as a BA he remained a junior member of his university and technically subject to proctorial discipline. He once remarked that he only realized he was a great man when he was away from England.

On the whole the flavor of the man comes through the writing. Here is a passage from Equality.

…who does not know that to approach the question of economic equality is to enter a region haunted, not, indeed, “by hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit,” yet by a host of hardly less formidable terrors—“doleful voices and rushings to and fro,” and the giant with a grim and surly voice, who shows pilgrims the skulls of those whom he has already despatched, and threatens to tear them also in pieces, and who, unlike Bunyan’s giant, does not even fall into fits on sunshiny days, since in his territory the sun does not shine, and, even if it did, he would be protected against the weaknesses that beset mere theological ogres by the inflexible iron of his economic principles?

The sustained note of irony is there, a somewhat Latinate style, the ability to marshal a longish sentence, the reference to a loved English classic—loved by Tawney and loved by generations of common men—all these express Tawney’s special character. He is a product of Rugby and Balliol, a gentleman, a scholar; but from very early in his career, from his first venture into working-class education in Lancashire and the Potteries, he knows himself to be committed to sustaining the causes that will (he hopes and expects) pull down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek. To use these particular words to illustrate Tawney’s view of his calling is entirely appropriate, for Tawney was a Christian who thought the virtues of early capitalism—thrift, the determined accumulation of capital—“vices more ruinous to the soul than most of the conventional forms of immorality.”

He became widely known through his membership of the Royal Commission (the Sankey Commission) set up in 1919 to examine the problems of the coal-mining industry. Mining was a dangerous, harsh, and unhealthy occupation, and Tawney argued that shareholders and royalty owners performed no social function that justified their profiting from the work of the miners. He attacked the religious awe with which men looked upon “the alchemy by which a gentleman who has never seen a coal mine distils the contents of that place of gloom into elegant chambers in London and a house in the country.”

The coal industry was a local expression of an inequality on which “is erected the whole apparatus of class institutions, which make not only the income, but the housing, education, health and manners, indeed the very physical appearance, of different classes of Englishmen almost as different from each other as though the minority were alien settlers established amid the rude civilization of a race of impoverished aborigines.” The Sankey Commission recommended the nationalization of the coal mines. To Tawney’s intense disappointment the recommendation was rejected and the industry continued to drag out its tormented existence, provoking the General Strike of 1926, until it was nationalized by the Attlee Government after World War II.

It is commonly said (quite falsely) that nationalization has not substantially benefited the workers in the industry. Discontent among the miners springs rather from the persistence of vast social inequalities, of immense and publicly visible incomes arising out of quite legal but plainly immoral juggling with the value of land and buildings—the case of the magnate who benefits substantially by leaving a great block of offices empty year after year is now well known, but there are thousands of less visible abuses. Further, wages outside the public sector tend to be fixed by market forces whereas in the public sector wages tend to be kept down in the interest of the Government’s attempt to restrict inflation. Tawney put it very well in The Acquisitive Society: “men will fight to be paid £30 a week, instead of £20, as readily as they will fight to be paid £5 instead of £4, as long as there is no reason why they should be paid £20 instead of £30, and as long as other men who do not work are paid anything at all.”


Tawney’s disappointment over the Government’s failure to accept the recommendation of the Sankey Commission didn’t come from any special attachment to the principle of nationalization. Indeed, Tawney was on the whole cool in his affection for certain types of collective enterprise. He thought it was important that responsibility should be shared out as widely as possible and that whatever institutional arrangements were made should serve this principle. He wasn’t in the least opposed to private enterprise where the entrepreneur obviously had a function to be rewarded. He thought there should be a multiplicity of types of ownership in industry and agriculture: individual, cooperative, municipal, regional, national.

He didn’t think even the best available society would achieve utopia. The hunger for power and for undeserved riches was, he thought, a constant element in men. But above all he wanted a society free of “the reverence for riches…the lues Anglicana, the hereditary disease of the English nation”; and he wanted men and women to have the chance to be independent and creative. He didn’t think this could be brought about by the prescriptions of the Webbs, whose lack of the principles Tawney thought to be important was shown by their late love affair with Stalinism. “However the socialist ideal may be expressed, few things could be more remote from it than a herd of tame animals with wise rulers in command.”

Tawney was a bit like Orwell. He believed in decency and common sense and distrusted new styles of intellectual work. He had of course a very complex and interesting mind; but he was not at ease—this became more evident in the last years of his life—in the twentieth century. He admired Ruskin and William Morris and, further back, More, Colonel Rainborough, Bunyan. When he wanted to speak in a purely theoretical way of a good society he went back to Dante, to the Paradiso.

Frate, la nostra volontà quieta
virtù di carita, che fa volerne
sol quel ch’ avemo, e d’ altro non ci asseta.

(Brother, the power of love takes the restlessness out of our wanting, makes us long only for what we have, gives us no other thirst.)

He would have been quite incapable of those curious idolatries of modern English historians, the adulation of Thomas Cromwell, the cult of William III as a type of the wise and humane ruler. Raison d’état was never for him an excusing principle for lying or murder. He admired the intermittent efforts of the Tudor and Stuart rulers and their ministers to stop enclosures and keep sheep from eating men; for “whatever the future may contain, the past has shown no more excellent social order than that in which the mass of the people were the masters of the holdings which they ploughed and of the tools with which they worked, and could boast, with the English freeholder, that ‘it is a quietness to a man’s mind to live upon his own and to know his heir certain.’ ” He was thus very far, both as a political thinker and as a historian, from the Whig interpretation of history and from the neo-Marxist historians who see early capitalism as “progressive.”

Tawney was a fine historian and an excellent teacher and director of research, as many generations of students at the London School of Economics have testified. But he was constitutionally incapable of giving all his energies to academic pursuits. His devotion to the Workers Educational Association, whose president he was for many years, consumed much of his time. He wrote to a friend at the end of his period as president: “I can’t help feeling that I should have influenced more people to think sensibly about education and social things, if I’d spent on writing the time which the WEA requires me to spend on committees, memoranda, interviews, deputations….” He had a certain nostalgia, too, for the kind of workers’ education he had pioneered before 1914; the students had rough hands and blunt fingers, but for Tawney they were the salt that kept society wholesome. The feeling was reciprocated. A general laborer wrote about his impression of Tawney at the first meeting of the Rochdale tutorial class in 1908.


My first impression was one of surprise, first at his youth, and secondly at the sweet affable charm of his presence. There was none of the academic manner about him; none of that air which is so inclined to freeze; he was one of us. We had expected the frigid zone; we were landed at the equator. Tawney is not a teacher: he is a man with a soul.

Mr. Terrill has an excellent comment on these early classes. “Loom-overlooker, spinner, velvet mender—these men had an awe of learning. They went about it, not as magpies picking up pretty bits of glass, but to raise themselves up, and to change England.” If in the changing of England many things came about for which Tawney had little relish, this was perhaps to be expected. After two wars many of the workers had become, so to speak, suburbanized and a prey, through the incitements of the great advertising industry, to the very vices of the acquisitive society for which Tawney had such contempt. Tawney’s esteem for the workers he had come to know so well when he was young was not entirely a piece of romanticism.

Mr. Terrill has given us an account of Tawney’s public career and a useful analysis of his social thinking. He has talked to a great many people who knew Tawney and has many good stories to tell. There is also a complete bibliography of the writings. From time to time he makes an excellent sharp comment. For example: “Laski…thought more of Tawney than Tawney did of Laski.” But the book is not worthy of Tawney. There is too much confused and silly writing, and there are far too many errors. Here are: the vacuous—“Tawney was influential because he made responses to challenges widely felt”; the grotesque—“Tawney’s head was a caldron of ideas and aspirations”; the absurd—“His intellect was as yet ungelled by the discipline of later immersion in economic history”; the obtuse—he thinks the phrase “not easy to put a hook into the jaw of these leviathans” is a literary image that comes from Tawney’s interest in fishing.

There are also strange verbal errors and misspellings. We have “Macauley” several times; “Oakshott”; “Jarett,” Arthur Horner, the miners’ leader, is with unconscious humor transformed into Jack Horner. Terrill tells us that during the war Tawney’s apartment was “bombed into inhabitability.” There is a comparison of the thought of Tawney with that of Mao Tse-tung which is wildly inappropriate—Mao says to young people, “It is right to rebel,” Tawney says, “The first duty of youth is…to make a tradition not to perpetuate one”!

Terrill’s book is a kind of hash. There is a lot of nutriment in it and there are recognizable fragments of meat here and there; but it is not a distinguished confection. As for the mistakes and misspellings that are so plentiful, they reflect some discredit on the Harvard Press. University presses ordinarily have ingenious and courteous editors who make it their business to see that errors don’t get into print.

This Issue

March 21, 1974