England Hath Need of Thee!

R.H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship

by Ross Terrill
Harvard University Press, 373 pp., $15.00

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…

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