On 1 July 1916, Sergeant R.H. Tawney led his platoon over the top on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, holding a gun to one young man’s head to get him to stop crying and keep going. Almost immediately afterwards, Tawney himself was shot through the chest and abdomen and lay for 24 hours in no-man’s-land before being rescued. Although he lived with pain for the rest of his life, he was amazingly lucky to survive at all. By the end of the day, of the twenty officers in Tawney’s battalion, ten were dead and eight wounded; of 754 men, 120 were killed, 241 wounded and 111 missing. Twenty thousand British soldiers died that day on the Somme.
If one were to search for an experience likely to change a man’s life, surely this would be it. But in fact Tawney’s ideals and commitments were already set by the time he enlisted as an ordinary private soldier in the autumn of 1914 and were not much affected by his horrifying experience that day. According to Lawrence Goldman, a rather different setback shattered Tawney’s expectations, recast his future and, in a word, ‘was the making of him’. This was getting a second-class degree at Oxford in the summer of 1903 rather than the first he and others had expected.
Goldman seems to be right about this. The ‘Harry Tawney’ who arrived at Balliol from Rugby to read classics in 1899 does not seem to have been marked out for a career in socialist politics. Born in India to a father employed in the Bengal education department and a mother who brought her children back to England when Tawney was five, he had the conventional childhood and schooling of his class. Yes, he had enough of a social conscience to join the Independent Labour Party while at Oxford and together with his friend William Beveridge founded a society to study social questions (though it appears to have met only once). But Tawney, who held a classical scholarship, received glowing reports in his first year and clearly loved his time at Oxford, appears to have assumed he would get a first and slide effortlessly into the life of an Oxford don. When he didn’t, that future was suddenly closed to him.
The result meant that Tawney had to find a job and a different path to achievement. But it also inserted a kind of awkward question, a sort of foundational discomfort, into Tawney’s relationship with Oxford and all it symbolised. For, Goldman notes, he was ‘profoundly hurt’ by his results. That language is worth remarking. He didn’t, it seems, experience his second as the ‘disgrace’ his father unkindly thought it, or as a predictable consequence of his own lack of application (apparently his examiners’ view), but as an unwarranted and personal slight, and one that he repaid in kind. Henceforth, Goldman tells us, Tawney would look at friends ‘quizzically’ if they used Latin or Greek tags, would hand out firsts freely since they ‘give a good chap a running start’ and since their proliferation caused no real harm, and would spend much time trying to force Oxford to open its doors to working-class students. It would be too much to say that he opened fire on intellectual elitism because the elite wouldn’t have him. But it is the case that the self-assurance, the ‘sense of infallibility’ and moral righteousness, that even Tawney’s friends thought his greatest strength and greatest limitation, would now be exercised both within and aslant England’s governing elite. And that had consequences.
Leaving Oxford in 1903, Tawney went to Toynbee Hall, the settlement house in East London, where Beveridge had taken the job of sub-warden. Like so many other morally serious and striving young Edwardians, he threw himself into social service, working for an organisation that sent poor children on restorative country holidays, helping with the campaign to establish wage-setting ‘trade boards’ in particularly ‘sweated’ industries, and, most important, undertaking a series of adult education lectures on social questions. Tawney spent almost three years living at Toynbee Hall, but he didn’t credit the men and women he met in the East End – ‘a subservient lot’, he told David Marquand years later – with his conversion to socialism. That may have already been underway but would be shaped by his work teaching in the industrial north.
His quarrel with Oxford in a sense drove him there. In 1905, Tawney joined the newly formed Workers’ Educational Association and moved quickly onto its executive; that same year, he and like-minded friends spearheaded a campaign for an inquiry into teaching and administration at Oxford and Cambridge. None was undertaken, but criticism of Oxford’s hidebound curriculum and social exclusiveness led sympathisers there to team up with the WEA to support adult education. Thanks to funds from All Souls, in 1908 Tawney was appointed for five years to teach, mostly economic and industrial history, in Oxford during the summer term and in towns around Stoke and Manchester.
Here he found his vocation. Eager to foster discussion and always willing to be challenged, Tawney was an inspirational teacher. He understood too that composition was difficult for some of the spinners, weavers, wool-sorters, painters and iron-workers – with the odd clerk and schoolmistress – who filled the classes, and took pains to help them. But he gained as much as he gave, finding in these radical northern towns the fellowship and moral purpose he had sought at Oxford or in the East End. Consider one student’s recollection of the atmosphere of Tawney’s classes:
The class meeting is over, and we sit at ease, taking tea and biscuits … Talk ranges free and wide – problems of philosophy, politics, literature. Then R.H.T. reads to us Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’; this moves a student to give us his favourite passage from the same source: ‘Pioneers, O, Pioneers!’ Another follows, quoting a poem from Matthew Arnold that evidently has bitten him … And for some of us as we sit listening, a new door opens.
Who could be impervious to the romance of this scene? Goldman, who spent five years teaching adult tutorial classes in ‘Tawney’s job’ at Oxford, clearly isn’t. Locating Tawney very much at one end of a tension in British socialism between those who aim at transforming values (‘making socialists’) and those who aim at equalising conditions (‘making socialism’), Goldman finds the ‘authentic’ Tawney in the Commonplace Book, a compilation of private notes and jottings written between 1912 and 1914. This Tawney is a socialist, but it is striking how very un-materialist he is. ‘Modern society is sick,’ he writes, but this was because of ‘the absence of a moral ideal’: ‘moralisation’ and not social reorganisation was the primary need. The Fabian ideal of ‘efficiency’ held no appeal: Fabians ‘tidy the room, but they open no windows on the soul’. Marxists too were ‘not revolutionary enough’: they accepted that production was the goal of life, arguing only over its organisation and distribution. Instead, true to his deeply held Christian convictions, Tawney insisted that ‘there is a higher law than the well-being of the majority, and that law is the supreme value of every human personality as such.’ The goal was not to make society richer or better run, but to make it more fully human and more just.
That commitment to human fellowship and propensity to see all issues in moral terms was deepened by Tawney’s war service. For him, the war was not an inevitable crisis of industrial civilisation but a specific calamity forced on the world by Germany’s militarism and cavalier disregard for international law – a position much scorned in the interwar years but forcefully rehabilitated in Isabel Hull’s recent work.So, at the age of nearly 34, he signed up and, very unusually given his class, didn’t take a commission, instead rising from private to sergeant over two years. He shared the boredom, endless drill and bad food; he felt the contempt of a front-line soldier for the generals behind the lines. The experience confirmed his faith in the moral compass of the working class; for years, he wore his tattered sergeant’s tunic with pride. ‘Whenever I have to make decisions,’ he said, ‘I instinctively refer to the standards of conduct of two groups of people’: the men of his wartime platoon, and the members of his first Rochdale adult education class.
After 1918, Tawney’s close involvement in Labour politics, especially as the most effective radical member of the 1919 Sankey Commission on the coal industry, would lead him to espouse policies – nationalisation, redistribution – aimed at improving workers’ material conditions as well as their minds. Yet his deepest loyalty was to the WEA and adult education, and his politics, not to mention his scholarly work, would always stress ideas and values. Goldman recovers the political work and the writings, but in order truly to ‘place’ Tawney, he has to take into account another, less remarked aspect: for Tawney, ‘socialism’ was very much a male practice and a male creed. This deserves scrutiny, both because the ‘woman question’ was hotly debated in those prewar years and for a more basic reason: Tawney was married.
In 1909, after an earnest, heavily epistolary courtship full of misunderstandings, Tawney married Jeanette Beveridge, his friend’s sister, in a ceremony at Toynbee Hall. The Beveridges were another Anglo-Indian, reform-minded, upper-middle-class family, but Jeanette’s formidable mother Annette had opposed the match, hoping for a more brilliant alliance for her spirited daughter but possibly sensing other problems as well. If so, she was right: after the war the pair became reasonably companionate, but in the early years the marriage was far from a success. Goldman sensitively explores their incompatibility, but in the end it boiled down to one thing: Jeanette wanted to be loved, and Tawney didn’t love her – at least not in the way she wanted. Not only did he not respond to her emotionally at all (and the marriage, which was childless, may never have been sexual), but he also appeared to consider love a kind of selfish indulgence for a social reformer. ‘When we were first engaged I felt some regret lest I might let my love for you make me choose what was easy & safe,’ he wrote to Jeanette shortly before the wedding – a letter she unfortunately didn’t read as reason to bolt. Within a year she was ill with oedema, colitis and a host of other problems it’s hard not to see as partly triggered by unhappiness. She spent time in various sanatoria while her husband taught his classes; busy serving the people, he clearly didn’t think it was his job to care for her. Goldman lays out this sad story, but insists he has ‘no argument’ to make, beyond that ‘Tawney was much more suited to education and politics than to matrimony.’
I think there is more to it than that. Tawney wasn’t just a poor husband, he also, as Goldman tells us, wrote ‘his books and articles, speeches and lectures … with an audience only of men in mind’. This is a perceptive point, and it deserves to be followed up. For Tawney’s lack of attention to relations between the sexes wasn’t just an oversight (as if the man somehow failed to notice half of the human race) or even a character flaw (which is what Goldman tends to consider it), but a constitutive part of his worldview. And it was a worldview under pressure in the 1910s and 1920s, a period when many socialists sought to topple the hierarchy of sex as well as of class, and when a host of women ‘settlers’ in East London lived out a screed that was no less anti-materialist than Tawney’s, but which valorised mutual service and love rather than manly independence. Tawney’s offhand remark that the East Enders were too ‘subservient’ to be good socialists seems more revealing when we remember its context.
One of the labour movement’s most articulate voices, Tawney wrote a good deal: reports and articles on the coal industry; WEA and Labour pamphlets on educational policy; Labour’s 1929 election manifesto; League of Nations reports on education in China. As a working academic (from 1920 he was a lecturer in economic history at the LSE), he also wrote scholarly papers, helped to establish the landmark Economic History Review, and edited collections of documents in Tudor economic history. But the two works that made him a household name – The Acquisitive Society, published in 1921, and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, based on lectures given at King’s College London in 1922, but only published in 1926 – defy strict categorisation.
These two remain worth reading, although they also merit more sustained and frankly more critical appraisal than Goldman gives them. The books are closely related. The Acquisitive Society subjects a social order whose ‘whole tendency and interest and preoccupation is to promote the acquisition of wealth’ to thoroughgoing moral critique while also pinpointing the religious crises of the 17th century as the moment of the order’s emergence. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism then lays out that historical argument in detail, explaining how a society understood as ‘a spiritual organism’ was transformed by individualist religious reform into one viewed instead ‘as a joint-stock company’ in which ‘the liabilities of the shareholders are strictly limited.’ Tawney’s disdain for the new order is made clear: it might produce wealth but it is ‘the negation of any system of thought or morals which can, except by a metaphor, be described as Christian’. Yet, precisely because ideas are determinant, with social institutions nothing more than ‘the visible expression of the scale of moral values which rules the minds of individuals’, both books also insist that if ideas change institutions will change too. That was what Tawney was after: changing minds, making socialists.
The books’ moral urgency and rolling cadences resonated with readers critical of capitalism but fearful of class war in the strife-ridden 1920s. Tawney wrote history suffused with meaning and purpose: to read him was to be called to share his certainty about the spiritual emptiness of society and his commitment to social service. Goldman captures that while also cautioning readers about the teleological nature of Tawney’s historical work: as Geoffrey Elton charged, he came up ‘with the answers required by the faith that inspired the search’. I’m not sure those warnings are necessary: serious students of history no longer read Tawney as a guide to the 17th century. Nor is the binary Goldman sets up helpful (‘most historians, lacking his imagination and intellectual ambition, opt for empiricism’); historians who care about getting the facts right are not necessarily pedants or turgid writers. We don’t need a defence of Tawney’s motives or literary skills – no one doubts them – but rather a better and ‘thicker’ account of how he researched and wrote these books, and of their influence and reception.
This is especially the case because Tawney was a self-proclaimed socialist, and sought to offer not only a critique of the present but also a blueprint for reform. This means that he should be examined not just within the moralising and historicising tradition (Carlyle, Ruskin) in which Goldman places him, but also within the ferment of socialist thought of the 1920s. And when one does this, it becomes clearer how very inadequate a political thinker Tawney was. The Acquisitive Society proposes that the sanctity of property be replaced as a principle by the primacy of ‘function’, so that ‘men would regard themselves not as the owners of rights, but as trustees for the discharge of functions and the instruments of a social purpose’. Private property that served no function (ground rents, coal royalties) could then be abolished; all other industries could be organised and run for the public good by their workers. Equality, published in 1931, also promoted state socialism but once again was short on detail: most of the book, Goldman admits, is ‘an angry attack on a relatively small and privileged elite’. Moral judgment, not programmatic vision, predominates.
Compare this with other economic proposals of the time: with the Liberal Industrial Inquiry of 1928 or the brilliant socialist proposal put forward by the ILP in 1926 under the title The Living Wage. There, we find a plan to use redistributive policies (specifically child benefit paid to mothers) to spark demand in sectors – agriculture, textiles – in serious crisis, a plan that creatively combined Hobsonian under-consumptionist thought with social redistribution and gender radicalism. But The Living Wage was written by socialists (all men) who understood that many ordinary people ‘consume’ not because they are ‘acquisitive’ but because they have children and would rather they had warm clothes than rags, and who recognised that transfers across gender as well as class lines might be required for economic justice.
Why was Tawney at once so morally certain and so blind to human complexities and bonds? No one could say he failed to live his principles. He cared nothing for his appearance (his shabbiness mortified Jeanette), ate whatever was put in front of him, and worked amid a ‘compost heap’ of papers and books. He was similarly indifferent to academic administration and had an ‘eirenic detachment from scholarly dispute’. The problem is that such behaviour is a mark of privilege, not necessarily of virtue: after all, someone has to wash the socks and file the papers even of those indifferent to such mundane tasks. Towards the end of his book, Goldman recounts two conflicts which (like his failure to get a first) ‘hurt’ Tawney very much: one was the savaging given him by Hugh Trevor-Roper in the scholarly debate over ‘the rise of the gentry’; the other was Margaret Cole’s publication of an ephemeral work on the Webbs when Tawney had been contracted to write Sidney’s biography. In both cases, Goldman is at pains to show that Tawney behaved well, but this again is the problem, for what was being asked of him was to behave normally: that is, to fight for his ideas as scholars do; to be one voice among many rather than an oracle; to compete intellectually rather than to lay down the moral law. He found it hard – and in the Webb case impossible – to do this, and was ‘hurt’ when not ceded the position.
Tawney, Goldman tells us, was a great man, and the aim of his book is ‘to do justice to the nature of Tawney’s greatness’. He finds biography the genre best suited to this task, since Tawney’s influence was exercised less through specific writings than through countless ephemeral works, transitory campaigns, ‘remarkable personal authority’ and ‘character’. This understanding of biography as the way to explain and evaluate a person’s ‘character’ is itself part of a long and distinctively British tradition. It is the framework Leslie Stephen adopted for the Dictionary of National Biography and thus one that Goldman – outgoing editor of the Oxford DNB – comes by honestly. The closeness of Tawney’s and Goldman’s professional paths is also a hallmark of this tradition in which the biographer often inherits the subject’s literary affiliations, position or Parliamentary seat, or treads the same college grounds.
But if this tradition is one of the strengths and pleasures of British history, its interiority and certainty about the nature of influence can also be a drawback. Tawney’s earnest and lifelong work for adult education commands respect, but the merits and indeed beneficence of the political and historical writings are more debatable, while the tendency to see moral certainty and a disregard for ordinary human affections and frailties as nobility of character is a problem and not a strength. Biography can help us to understand the psychic dramas that might produce such a ‘selfless’ (or possibly self-punishing) personality, but that isn’t the kind of biography on offer here. This is a book that Tawney could have read without feeling ‘hurt’ – which is a mark at once of Goldman’s generosity, and his book’s limitation.