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Richard Henry Tawney, teacher, social scientist, journalist, and political moralist, was born in Calcutta in 1880. Of upper-middle-class origin, Tawney was sent to Rugby School in England, where he developed something of the moral thoughtfulness for which Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) had made that institution famous. After Oxford University, where he attached himself to reform-minded circles, and social work at Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London, Tawney found his vocation in education. He spent most of his career at the London School of Economics and Political Science and was also pedagogically and administratively active in the adult education movement. An English patriot, Tawney served in both world wars. His childless marriage to Annette Jeanie Beveridge, sister of a prominent Liberal politician, lasted from 1909 until her death in 1958. Tawney himself died in London in 1962.
Tawney’s discipline was history, specifically economic history, a field that he helped to establish. He produced several scholarly monographs, including Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), a study of religious social thought of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its relationship with emergent economic forces. In a celebrated footnote, Tawney questioned Max Weber’s (1864-1920) thesis of a simple causal relationship between a homogeneous Protestantism and the growth of entrepreneurialism, suggesting instead that the capitalist spirit, as well as being of older vintage, had additional, nonreligious influences. While its arguments and strongly didactic style were themselves controversial, Religion and the Rise ofCapitalism became a minor classic that has been translated into at least seven languages.
However, it was in a nonprofessional capacity that Tawney made his greatest mark. He became an important theoretician of the democratic Left, guiding the philosophy and tactics of the Labour Party through books, articles, policy documents, and editorials (principally for the Manchester Guardian) as well as by an irreproachable personal example. Two works were outstanding in this regard. The Acquisitive Society (1920) challenged the individualism and greed that Tawney associated with the system of industrial capitalism, proposing in their place a society based on principles of cooperation, professionalism, and service. His most important political volume was Equality, first published in 1931 and updated in 1938 and 1952. Here Tawney indicted the maldistribution of resources in Britain and set out a strategy for equality comprising progressive taxation, extensive public ownership, and a generous welfare state.
Another key text is Tawney’s private diary of 1912 to 1914. Unencumbered by the elaborate, irony-laden erudition of his published writings, Tawney’s Commonplace Book (published posthumously in 1972) contains in brilliant aphoristic outline the germs of his mature social philosophy. In particular, it reveals that Tawney’s political idealism was securely anchored in profound Christian convictions. The final entry, for example, identifies an urgent imperative “to make society, when it is at peace, a field in which mere power, ruthlessness, [and] ambition, cannot override the merciful and gentle” (p. 83).
Elements of Tawney’s approach have been overtaken by such postindustrial trends as the decline of manufacturing (at least in the developed world) and the coming of a global information society. Nevertheless, the essence of his position—an ethically grounded, scrupulously honest argument for a free, fair, and fraternal society—has remained persuasive to many sections of the moderate Left in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. The passing of time thus confirms Tawney’s central place in the canon of democratic socialism.
- Dennis, Norman, and A. H. Halsey. 1988. English Ethical Socialism: Thomas More to R. H. Tawney. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Duff, Alistair S. 2004. The Sickness of an Information Society: R. H. Tawney and the Post-Industrial Condition. Information, Communication and Society 7 (3): 403–422.
- Ormrod, David, ed. 1990. Fellowship, Freedom and Equality: Lectures in Memory of R. H. Tawney. London: Christian Socialist Movement.
- Tawney, R. H. 1972. R. H. Tawney’s Commonplace Book, eds. J. M. Winter and D. M. Joslin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Terrill, Ross. 1973. R. H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Wright, Anthony. 1987. R. H. Tawney. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
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